Cosmic Horror Books: Horror Genre for Sci-Fi Writers
Part cosmic fantasy and part weird fiction, cosmic horror books are known to combine elements from several genres in a single mind-bending terror experience that one shouldn't read before going to bed.
If you're one to enjoy Stephen King's works, then you might be a cosmic horror book fan yourself without even realizing it. In this article, we'll explore the basics of the cosmic horror genre, share some horror book writing insights, and of course, suggest some amazing books to read if you wish to begin writing Lovecraftian horror.
Secrets to the Best Cosmic Horror Books
Not every horror book can be considered an example of cosmic horror. The lines between science fiction, dystopian horror, and gothic horror blur in this genre, and it's often difficult to spot the specific traits that make it unique.
The genre itself has distinct traits, one of the many tools that are used serves more to petrify the reader with the sensation of looming dread and psychic beings that can devour their brains in their sleep, rather than the gore and violence that a typical horror novel is generally known for.
With that in mind, here are some of the Lovecraftian most distinct traits.
Best Cosmic Horror Features
The genre itself uses the notion of unfathomable horrors being done to victims of alien, marine, or subterrestrial creatures more than direct violence and gore. Although the stories do feature violence, and the danger to the protagonists is very real, the “big picture” concept of the story more often than not has the reader fear fates worse than death.
In fact, a violent death of a character, in a context of a Lovecraftian story, can even be seen as a mercy. There are worse options, like having one’s sole dragged into a hellish dimension or to the very edge of the universe, far from anything human and familiar.
Fears like these are found in each one of us, albeit to a different degree. When wrapped up in stories about terrifying villains and monsters, it's the just, competent, and likeable protagonists who boldly confront them. We then allow ourselves to truly experience fear of the unknown.
The Lovecraftian horror genre combines several horror and sci-fi elements to craft mind-bending stories. First, it uses the deep roots of legends and myths that are present in almost any culture to inspire monsters and mystery (e.g. "Imago Sequence"). Then, it adds a layer of sci-fi by injecting scientific explanations behind the organic, chemical, and biological aspects of the story.
Finally, cosmic horror wouldn’t be what we know it to be hadn’t it used cosmic forces, most often beyond human’s ability of perception, to be at play. Either parallel worlds or extraterrestrial beings with the ability to cross enormous cosmic distances, the out-of-this-world elements of the plot open doors for one to truly tap into the core fears.
As opposed to the monstrous, inhumane nature of the villain is a quite regular, yet relatable protagonist. Most often, the protagonist feels small in the big picture of the plot and can only affect it to a certain degree.
This adds to the genre's mystery and has the reader always fear for the protagonist's life.
The Unbeatable Antagonist
The monsters that live in Lovecraftian worlds have, more often than not, been on earth much longer than humans. For that reason, they’re mentioned in the lore of many different cultures, and numerous rituals are used to summon or attempt to wield these forces.
The Blend of Folk Horror and Body Horror
The term 'folk horror' refers to using folk tales as an inspiration for a horror story, while 'body horror' is the type of writing that uses human-to-monster transformations. In his works, H.P. Lovecraft often makes his monsters able to affect the human brain in such ways as to induce changes both to the mind and the body.
Even better, he combines these transformations into a folk-based narrative, adding a cosmic tone to mythical stories, personalities, creatures, and events.
Reader Discomfort Throughout
Lovecraft and like-minded writers never let the reader get too comfortable. The plot is fast-paced, and if the protagonist isn’t on an adventure, then they’re reading or researching something truly dreadful that provides deeper insight into the book’s universe and the story's background.
Overall, cosmic horror demands that the reader is tense throughout reading the book, which maintains engagement from start to finish.
Lovecraft horror plays off of common anxieties. It reaches into myths, misconceptions, and legends that people believe at least in part, and then take them to another level.
Similar to how readers love Stephen King’s books, the rest of the Lovecraftian book wonders are simply a delight to read, regardless of the fact that they scare the reader to their very bones.
Cosmic Horror Stories, Genre Basics, and History
But, how did the cosmic horror book genre itself come to be?
While Howard Philips Lovecraft remains the most notable name of the genre, many writers before used out-of-this-world, pre-human tropes and characters to craft stories that ranged from gothic fiction to post-apocalyptic and dystopian sci-fi.
In that sense, we can think of cosmic horror as more of an element of existential horror reflected in the tone and choice of antagonistic concepts. As such, it can be found in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and others, who’ve influenced Lovecraft’s work.
Cosmic Horror Short Stories Characteristics
Not all Lovecraftian cosmic horror is written in long-form novels and book series, although they're plenty. Oftentimes, the stories were as effective when written in shorter formats than compiled into short story collections.
Cosmic horror short stories feature fast pace and dread from start to the end. The protagonist rarely has the time to engage in anything other than the main plot, which is why we often learn about the main characters' backgrounds through their own recollections or stories told by other characters.
The novel stories are mind-bending, macabre, and truly delve into what most people would think of as too scary to even mention.
Best Cosmic Horror Novels Inspiration to Date
One cannot even start learning about cosmic horror novels as a distinct genre without first getting acquainted with the most notable titles.
These would include: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, The Fisherman by John Langan, The Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and last but not least, At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft himself.
How to Write Modern Lovecraftian Horror Genre
Cosmic Horror Novels Writing
All horror fiction writers benefit from learning how to leverage Lovecraftian writing style motifs. The greatest benefit is in your freedom to use said motifs as you see fit, to add further appeal and timeless charm to your works.
You see, cosmic horror sports much-loved evergreen features that make horror stories last through different times, trends, and literary fashions. Audience tastes change, but appealing to core psychological fears and the reader’s curiosity is bound to make your works memorable.
Lovecraft Horror Books Basics
The benefit of learning to write cosmic horror in Lovecraft style is in the newfound ability to make your writing appealing to all generations, from more conservative boomers to the libertine Gen A.
With this in mind, here are the legacies of Lovecraftian novel writing to adopt should you want to publish cosmic horror-inspired works:
Embrace the Unknown
Many writers feel like all aspects of their universe must be covered in detail and explained to the T to make them more believable to the reader. Cosmic horror harvests relatability from a different source, and that is the acceptance of flawed truths and open-ended questions.
For example, in Lovecraft’s weird stories, the alien antagonists use surgery-like procedures to make adjustments to their own bodies and terrorize victims. Yet, there’s no need to explain what those procedures are, stripping the vale of mystery as a result.
Lovecraft skillfully allows the reader to imagine the unimaginable, even if that would mean giant monsters performing laser-like procedures using their clunky tentacles.
Larger-Than-Life Stakes and Contexts
Cosmic horror plots, in their deeper meaning and significance, more often than not predate humanity itself. The little-picture protagonist's journey merely reveals the truths that are already there, and can only affect them to a certain degree.
The protagonist’s goal is to save their and the lives of their loved ones, all while understanding that they can’t bring about essential changes to the circumstances that they’re facing. Instead, they focus more on immediate consequences to humanity and act protective within their ability.
Mental Health Deterioration and Coping
Many of Lovecraft’s protagonists are left deeply damaged as a result of their supernatural journeys. Because of that, they often turn to substance abuse as a way of coping. Lovecraft shows how deeply hurt the characters are, with substance abuse contrasting their once stable, well-educated nature.
On the other hand, substance use is often a tool to mediate supernatural experiences. Lovecraft’s tales are rich with rituals of all sorts, often blending dark aspects from different cultures into a single group or cult activity that communicates with or summons a dark force that they worship.
Flawed and Unprepared Characters
Despite notable smarts and capabilities, the protagonists are often unprepared and overwhelmed by the speed, strength, and sheer terror that monsters inflict on them. This is in part due to psychological stress that begins to weigh on them from the moment they’re made aware of unnatural occurrences, and in part, a result of the character’s impulsive and curious nature.
Oftentimes, protagonists have very little time to research and prepare, so they undermine the abilities, size, speed, and strength of the adversary. The character panic sets the right, frantic tone for adventures of all sorts, and more importantly, makes the reader feel as if the character is additionally minuscule and powerless in the face of the cosmic force that they’re facing.
This increases the stakes for the reader, who now begins to doubt the protagonist’s ability to survive, and their mind is open to any story told from there on.
Isolation and Solitude
Lovecraft’s novel protagonists are oftentimes loners or become that way as a result of their discoveries. Typically, it’s not safe for anyone to know about their revelations, so they keep them to themselves and choose to confront dark forces either alone or with a small group of trusted people.
Trauma is a common companion of Lovecraft’s protagonists, who don’t hide that their physical and mental health had been damaged as a result of facing unnatural events.
Documenting Adventures and Findings
Journal entries, letters, and recordings are tools frequently used for world and character building. Instead of directly describing dark beings and occurrences amid confrontations, Lovecraft chooses to introduce new information in his novel through displays of written communications. That way, there’s more space to create a unique narrator voice as well, without that voice being the author.
In a way, world-building through written accounts is an effective shortcut for any writer who wishes to add details and new information all while keeping the plot intact and as they intended.
Horrific Mood Throughout
There aren’t many spaces in cosmic horror novel spots for tranquil breaks or character growth. For Lovecraft, who himself had many insecurities and fears, everything about the environment instilled fear. From brick houses to marine docs, even the liveliest of places morphed into macabre in his narration.
Within these settings, a character is always on edge and never truly sheltered from the cosmic adversary, who oftentimes, gains the ability to inflict agony from the moment a person becomes aware of its existence. In part, it’s due to the psychic features that many of his gulls possess, and said traits mean that the character is never truly safe.
Abrupt endings that leave many open questions, with big-picture and often outrageous implications, are one of the cosmic horror writing staples. Without much work put into tying up the plot, it remains only as resolved as to wrap up the character journey.
Abrupt endings serve another important role, and that is to never provide the reader with true closure and emotional relief. Thus, the fear, dread, intellectual curiosity, and excitement remain strong in the reader’s mind.
With the excited mind still looking for an answer of sorts, the reader is left with very few options but to seek more of Lovecraft’s writing, which is something every writer aims to achieve.
Contemporary Cosmic Horror Writers to Look up to
Aside from H.P. Lovecraft, anyone interested in the best cosmic horror books benefits from reading like-minded authors. Notable names include Silvia Moreno Garcia, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson, Jeff Vandermeer, and Algernon Blackwood's works, among others.
Cosmic Horror Examples
While origins of the cosmic horror genre include works by Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, and other authors aside from H.P. Lovecraft himself, there is a specific list of horror books within this genre that are thought of as best examples.
Top 3 Cosmic Horror Books 2019 to 2022
White is For Witching
This exemplary piece of modern gothic horror also shares cosmic traits with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This time, the story is written by one of the many successful female authors, Helen Oyeyemi. It is an interesting addition to the genre, given that it includes female voices and protagonists that were vastly excluded by genre founders.
This chilling story follows the main character, Miranda’s, demise into madness that’s only in part due to her pica affliction. At first, Miranda struggles with the desire to eat chalk. But, as her illness worsens and she becomes more detached from reality, she’ll access a world of malicious spirits whose haunting tendencies build up the suspense throughout the read.
David Wong's, What the Hell Did I Just Read?
Cosmic horror can be funny, too. In this novel, the protagonist investigates a child’s disappearance under circumstances that can’t be explained.
As it turns out, the adversary is a shapeshifter and a supernatural entity who’ll continue to wreak havoc by using the face of no other than the protagonist himself. As if the events aren’t strange enough, the protagonist will further come across time travel, fake memories, and parallel universes.
One of the many modern cosmic horror books by Laird Barron, this story follows a devoted husband’s revelation of his wife’s secret to youth. The plot will take you from a seemingly serene yet ominous beginning to no less than a dreadful climax that unveils the secret behind the matriarch’s longevity.
As the genre entails, this story investigates a woman’s connection with dark forces that predate humanity.
Top 7 Best Cosmic Horror Short Stories
Slightly different rules apply when it comes to creating cosmic horror stories. Read these story collections if you wish to enjoy top-quality reads or learn how to write your own cosmic horror story.
Dreams From The Witch House
This Lynne Jamneck masterpiece is an anthology featuring all female authors. It takes the genre’s signature appeal and builds it up by adding more personal points of view and offering more diverse representation and female voices.
This collection explores different cosmic horror elements through the motif of "Witch House" as a common thread to stories told.
This short story collection wasn’t directly written by Lovecraft but was instead put together by editor Darrell Schweitzer. It is an innovative collection of stories from the world in which “The Old Ones” already came to rule.
Within the book, you’ll find a cosmic horror dystopian vision of how people adapted to living surrounded by hostile entities that dominate and annihilate at will. The social and political aspects of the used narrative subtly address Lovecraft’s racism that curiously shines through his many fears, hence the dread of the unknown.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
One of the most notable works by H.P. Lovecraft, this story collection is the cradle of the Cthulhu mythos. Many contemporary others will carry out the tales of a psychic sea monster told through the experience of Francis W. Thurston, the book’s main narrator.
Reading this collection will help you understand many contemporary horror tropes and devices, while also learning to use them in original ways.
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
In this title, Laird Barron's story explores a mystery behind a missing picture in a sequence, though the collection consists of further stories that follow the protagonist’s adventure through suspense.
Although The Imago Sequence is only one of the many stories in the book, it's by far the most impactful.
Readers have mixed feelings about some of the stories in the collection, but the overall consensus is that the writer does a great job at creating twists and climaxes that leave the reader perplexed.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer
This 1986 Thomas Ligotti collection of short stories tells chilling tales of three different types of dreams. The collection is divided into three parts, which match dreams for Sleepwalkers, Insomniacs, and the Dead.
This collection by Thomas Ligotti is said to do an amazing job at frightening even the most resilient horror readers. Within the book, you’ll find not only exciting, high-quality reading materials, but also great examples of how solid universe and story building are done.
Shadows of Carcosa
This iconic horror story collection consists of the works by Bram Stoker, Arthur Machen, Edgar A. Poe, Henry James, and other authors known for their cosmic horror motifs. Some of the stories include vengeful spirits, sea monsters, and other gulls from the outside of the Earth’s sphere.
If you wish to write horror stories rather than extend your works into whole novels or classic literature series, this collection is a great choice. Within it, you’ll find different writing styles, plot devices, and universe designs to look up to when creating your own works.
This collection of stories adds more feminine voices to the cosmic dread with female protagonists. Edited by Paula Stiles and Silvia Moreno Garcia, this book offers a multi-dimensional look at female protagonists and monsters alike.
Notable mentions include:
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft, Lovecraft Country drama series, and works by Elizabeth Bear;
Victor Lavalle's The Ballad of Black Tom features an adventure of an African American man;
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe written by Thomas Ligotti and his other stories;
The Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs;
and Lovecraft's very own Mountains of Madness.
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