What is cosmic horror? As a writer whose own work is often at least adjacent to the subgenre, it’s a question I’ve been asked in columns and podcasts and panel discussions more times than I can count. Sadly the answer, all too often, ends up sounding a lot like that old chestnut about pornography, that we “know it when we see it.”
American writer H.P. Lovecraft, in one of his copious personal correspondences, summed it up as follows: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” So, basically: Universe big; humans small.
While he is often considered the godfather of cosmic horror, Lovecraft was far from the first person to practice the subgenre, a fact that he (frequently) attested to during his own lifetime. In fact, his nonfiction opus Supernatural Horror in Literature is a catalog of other writers who, in Lovecraft’s estimation, were doing fine work in the field before he came along.
Nor did the tradition end when Lovecraft died. Plenty of other talents have carried cosmic horror into ever newer horizons, even as scientific reasoning — which forms much of the backbone of Lovecraft’s cosmicism — has advanced far beyond anything he was ever exposed to.
Social justice, too, has advanced enough to cause readers to recognize Lovecraft’s own racism and xenophobia.
From the nihilistic absurdity of Thomas Ligotti to the heavily science-fictional chills of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the cosmic horror of today continues to tell tales of a vast, indifferent, and even carnivorous cosmos, through new lenses and fresh new perspectives.
Here are a few of the best cosmic horror books from exciting writers new and old — both those who were writing before Lovecraft appeared on the scene, and those who have come after.
At the Mountains of Madness
Sure, I just spent several paragraphs arguing that Lovecraft is far from the alpha and omega of cosmic horror. But this wouldn’t be much of a cosmic horror primer if we didn’t include at least one Lovecraft book.
When it comes to classics of cosmic horror, they don’t come a lot more classic, or a lot more cosmic, than this timeless tale of arctic exploration and new vistas of human experience. It's equal parts a love letter to scientific exploration, and a horrified warning of the dangers inherent therein.
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The King in Yellow
One of the things that makes Lovecraft’s work stand out in a crowded literary field is that — decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Stephen King’s fictional version of a haunted Maine — his tales all occupy a shared universe, linked together by the names of beings, books, places, and people. Lovecraft wasn’t the first to do this, however.
In fact, when Lovecraft was only five years old, Robert W. Chambers published The King in Yellow, a collection of tales linked together by the eponymous play and the similarly-named entity at its heart.
The stories not only found their way into Lovecraft’s own Mythos, but that of plenty of other writers and artists over the years, including the creators of the HBO series, True Detective.
The House on the Borderland
British author William Hope Hodgson wrote across a wide variety of genres, and many of his best stories deal with the sea. However, perhaps his best-known and most cosmic work is this 1908 novel.
It tells of two men on a fishing trip who find a journal in an old ruin which, in turn, tells the story of a recluse who lives alone with his sister and dog in the titular house, which has a sinister reputation and which seems to abut some sort of interdimensional nexus.
Often called the “Belgian Poe,” Jean Ray’s many, many, many stories and books (under an equally bewildering array of pseudonyms) were often pivotal in the European tradition of the fantastique in literature.
But his tales of gothic, supernatural, and cosmic horror have been vanishingly hard to come by in English for some time, until the recent series of books from translator Scott Nicolay and Wakefield Press, which have begun to release many of the author’s tales in translation for the first time.
Latest is the novel-length Malpertuis — which has previously been available in English, and was even adapted into a 1971 film featuring Orson Welles — a rare gem of gothic cosmicism begging to be rediscovered by a contemporary audience.
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That’s enough dusty old cosmic horror, though.
I said up above that plenty of contemporary authors have brought this tradition into the modern day, and this 2017 novel from David Nickle is an excellent example.
Subtitled “A Novel of Radiant Abomination” and set during World War II, this sequel to Nickle’s Eutopia has been called “a critical and sharp demolition of Lovecraft’s own romanticization of eugenics” as well as “spooky as hell” by author Cory Doctorow.
Originally released as She Walks in Shadows, under which title it won a World Fantasy Award, this anthology of all-new fiction by women authors tackles Lovecraft’s complicated legacy and carries Lovecraftian cosmic horror into the modern day.
It features tales by some of the leading voices in contemporary weird and cosmic horror including Molly Tanzer, Wendy N. Wagner, Selena Chambers, Nadia Bulkin, Gemma Files, Premee Mohamed, Angela Slatter, and many others!
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This modern-day epic of cosmic horror won a Bram Stoker award. The book is an absolute jaw-dropper, mashing together a wide array of literary elements and styles into a novel that feels at once timeless, classic, and modern.
The cosmic vistas are as unforgettable as anything that has delved into the borderlands (not to put too fine a point on it) of human experience since Hodgson’s House on the Borderland.
(Full disclosure, Word Horde—who published this volume—also published several of my collections, but I don’t get any kind of kickbacks or anything for recommending this. I just love John Langan’s work.)
The Secret of Ventriloquism
Up above, I mentioned Thomas Ligotti, some of whose best-known works of cosmic nihilism have recently been released under the Penguin Classics imprint. For something in the Ligottian vein from a newer but equally exciting voice, check out Jon Padgett’s debut collection.
Padgett was not only in charge of the Thomas Ligotti fan site for many years, making him something of an expert in this brand of intoxicating cosmic horror, but he’s also a lapsed ventriloquist, so you just know he’s got some creepy stuff up his sleeve.
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Look, sometimes cosmic horror can get a little … esoteric. Every now and then you just want a nice, quiet story about a bunch of ritual murders in a small Connecticut town caught in the grips of a snowstorm, as cultists attempt to call up unspeakable things beyond human understanding. It’s okay. We’ve all been there.
Fortunately, Mary SanGiovanni, whose work F. Paul Wilson has called “a feast of both visceral and existential horror,” has us all covered with this police procedural meets occult crime tale.
It takes advantage of the snowbound isolation, paranoia, and claustrophobia that was used to such beautiful effect in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
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Lots of incredible cosmic horror has been finding its way into sequential art in the last few decades, and no list of contemporary cosmic horror would be complete without the work of Japanese manga creator Junji Ito.
Possibly his magnum opus — and in many ways his most cosmic tale to date — is this bizarre and haunting tale of a small town that becomes slowly obsessed with the shape of the spiral, a shape that seems to bend not only the minds of the townspeople, but the fabric of reality itself.
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