Cosmic Horror: From H.P. Lovecraft to Thomas Ligotti

This is the text and slides from a short talk I gave last week.


Title Cards - Cosmic Horror - from HP Lovecraft to Thomas Ligotti

What do: a racist pulp writer, a reclusive horror writer, the rise of psychedelics, magic & mysticism, two different philosophical movements, the collapse of the world system and a detective tv show have in common?

The answer is: cosmic horror.

Title Cards - What is Cosmic Horror

 

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

The Doors took their name – via Aldous Huxley’s writings about his religious experiences on mescaline – from this and sang about “breaking through to the other side.”

But what if you saw things ‘as they truly are’ and were left horrified by the experience?

This is cosmic horror.

To be broken – to the point of madness – by a confrontation with the raw chaos of an uncaring universe. Or worse.

This is the great contribution of the pulp writer, H.P. Lovecraft.

As Eugene Thacker writes in his first volume on the Horror of Philosophy, In The Dust of This Planet, Lovecraft’s protagonists weren’t magical or mystical folk, but earnest explorers of the frontiers of knowledge. Scientists. Doctors and Archaeologists.

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Event Horizon

But what they were doing was akin to magic; using cutting edge technology instead of arcane rituals.

Lovecraft’s ill-fated protagonists created what Thacker calls a ‘technological magical circle’ – usually an experiment gone oh so wrong – trying to penetrate the mysteries of the universe.

Or break on through to the other side…

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Event Horizon

Only to find something like the hell dimension conjured up in Event Horizon, bleeding into our own.

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Lovecraft was unequivocal in his thoughts on the hidden world being revealed. Writing in the opening his classic The Call of Cthulu that…

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

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As we edge closer to a new Dark Age, and are increasingly seeing ‘things as they truly are’ in the political and entertainment worlds – cosmic horror seems more relevant than than ever.

So what inspired its creation?

Title Cards - HP Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft was a white guy living in America during a time of great change.

Big ideas like Quantum Mechanics and the Unconscious were challenging our previous conceptions of the universe and our place in it.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in particular freaked him out.

Urbanisation and immigration were changing the demographics of America’s cities. (Ie there were a lot more non-whites on the streets.)

Lovecraft wasn’t a fan of any of this.

He hated progress yet wrote weird fiction – a combination of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

He was a reactionary.

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OK…  he was racist as fuck.

He was also – long before DC or Marvel – creating a shared universe, the Cthulhu Mythos, with other pulp writers, such as Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan.

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Lovecraft is generally considered the kind of trashy writer best encountered in one’s teenage years… yet his legacy is unquestionable.

The term Lovecraftian alone is proof of his lasting influence.

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His monsters have become free-floating signifiers in pop culture, shedding their horrific origins to become commodities. (There are Cthulhu plushies, donchaknow…)

But it’s in his protagonists’ experience of cosmic horror that Graham Harman argues, in Weird Realism: Lovecraft & Philosophy, lifts this writer out of the ghetto of pulp and into the realm of literature.

As Harman explains:

Lovecraft’s first description of a Cthulhu idol runs as follows: “If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing… but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful…”

Lovecraft hints at an octopoidal dragon while also suspending that literal depiction…

Any practiced reader of Lovecraft knows that this sort of de-literalizing gesture is not an isolated incident in his stories, but is perhaps his major stylistic trait as a writer.

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Graham Harman and Eugene Thacker are part of the Speculative Realist philosophical movement.

Undaunted by the fate his protagonists suffer, they look to Lovecraft for inspiration in understanding the dark forces – like climate change – that are tearing the world apart.

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Meanwhile, “Lovecraftian Pastiche” has become an oft derogatory term for fiction influenced by, or set within, the Cthulhu Mythos. Charles Stross’s series, The Laundry Files – which mashes together Cthulhu with Bond – is just one example.

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If only someone would reinvent cosmic horror for the new Dark Age…

Title Cards - Thomas Ligotti

As inciting incidents go, Thomas Ligotti was destined to become a horror writer.

At 17 he took ‘a heroic dose’ of LSD… and had a panic attack.

Ligotti ‘broke on through to the other side’ and freaked out.

That bad trip led him on a quest to find others who shared a similar vision; he soon discovered the writings of Lovecraft.

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Ligotti was so reclusive that for a long time he was rumoured not to exist at all. There was a conspiracy theory among fans that “Thomas Ligotti” was another pen name for Stephen King.

Primarily a short story writer, he’s also written poems, a novella, the best episode of the X-Files never recorded and… a book of philosophy.

It’s the last book – which summarised the worldview of his fiction – that enabled him to break through into popular culture.

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In 2014 True Detective debuted. The tv show’s setting was immediately recognised as a Lovecraftian Pastiche – with its background of weird cults worshipping strange idols – and featured overt references to The Yellow King by Robert W. Chambers; an influence on Lovecraft.

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But it was the character of Rust Cohle that made the show.

His monologues weren’t Lovecraftian, they were straight from the pages of Ligotti’s book of anti-natalist philosophy, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. So much so that Nic Pizzolatto, the show’s creator, was accused of plagiarising him.

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Ligotti, now retired from writing, had his work collected by Penguin Classics in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe; instantly elevating him to the realm of literature.

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That book’s foreward is written by another weird fiction writer, Jeff VanderMeer.

VanderMeer’s own work has a Lovecraftian aspect. The force emanating out of Area X in his Southern Reach trilogy being a kind of alien, unknowable, incomprehensible… other; transforming… mutating… everything it encounters.

Ligotti’s influence can be seen in the recent adaptation of Annihilation from that series.

What the characters in the novel refer to as a burning ‘brightness’ inside them mutates in the film to become a Darkness that consumes them.

Annihilation - quote

What Ligotti explores is a change in the locus of cosmic horror; from the extraordinary to the ordinary.

That Darkness, as he often simply calls it, is everywhere. It doesn’t have to be sought out.

His protagonists are banal everymen, not heroic scientists.

The cosmic horror is everyday life seen ‘as it truly is’.

In this new Dark Age, shaped in part by another philosophical movement, the Dark Enlightment (who overlap with the NeoReactionaries Lovecraft would be among if alive today), things can’t be seen as they are without acknowledging the dark forces behind it.

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Lovecraft’s writings, his legacy and the evolution of cosmic horror have never been more important than now.


References and Sources

Bibliography

Image Sources

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