Are you ready for some “cosmic horror?” Get ready to confront the insignificance of humanity when compared to the mysteries of the infinite cosmos. Get ready to encounter horrendous creatures with great power and strength to match their unworldly ugliness. Get ready to confront any fears that you might have of things that originate from the great unknown!
H.P. Lovecraft is said to have coined the term “cosmic horror” and defined themes that were mentioned in the previous paragraph. Those aforementioned attributes describe Lovecraft’s work to the tee. However, Lovecraft originally used “cosmic horror” to describe the work of an earlier author. This author is William Hope Hodgson. The novel is House on the Borderland.
It goes without saying that Hodgson and The House on the Borderland influenced Lovecraft a great deal. In fact, Hodgson’s influence went beyond one man’s fancy to inspire a new movement in horror literature.
“The book was a milestone that signalled a radical departure from the typical Gothic fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson created a newer more realistic/scientific cosmic horror that left a marked impression on those who would become the great writers of the weird tales of the middle of the 20th century, particularly Clark Ashton Smith, and H. P. Lovecraft.”
Okay readers, remember when I wrote about the haunted houses of Lovecraft? You don’t? Well – here are the links for ya!
- H.P. Lovecraft and Haunted Houses – Various Years
- H.P. Lovecraft and Haunted Houses Part 2 – Houses as Portals to Alternate Dimensions
I am referring back to these posts because what I have written in those articles ties into this one. The key take away is that though Lovecraft wrote of haunted houses, he did not fill them with your average gothic ghosts. Likewise with Hodgson – Lovecraft’s mentor.
Yet, many tropes of the gothic tradition can be found in House on the Borderland. For instance, there is a gigantic castle-like house with multiple floors, a cellar with a mysterious trap door, a man who lives alone in the house with the exception of his elder sister and his dog; a man who is a recluse and likes to occupy his time reading in the study. However, the house is not haunted by the spirits. For the most part, there are no ghosts, with one possible exception. The narrator meets his former lover on a couple occasions. Presumably she had passed away. But yet, their meeting does not occur within the house on a dark and stormy night. Her spirit does not traipse the hallways or frighten him out of his sleep with groans and moans. Their meeting occurs when the narrator crosses over into another dimension, a dimension which he calls “The Sea of Sleep”. She hovers over the waters as the two struggle to communicate. Otherworldly dimensions are a common theme in this book. This story is as much an exploration of fantasy and science fiction as it is horror, maybe even more so. However, the fantastic and horrific events are centered inside a house.
The book begins with two men who take a trip to the countryside of Ireland for some camping and fishing. While on their leisurely expedition, they stumble onto a large house that sits on the edge of a cliff. They venture inside to find the place abandoned, save for a manuscript. The manuscript gives the account of a recluse, the aforementioned narrator. A bizarre account it is! Makes me wonder if this narrator had tabs of LSD sprinkled inside his shrooms.
The narrator writes in the first person, describing how a gigantic pit suddenly develops in front of his house. The pit produces swine-like creatures that attack the house, forcing the narrator to barricade the doors and windows. From the top of a tower, with his shotgun, he picks them off one by one. Later on, while in his study, he gazes out his window only to have a rather strange session in stargazing. The speed at which the celestial bodies traverse across the sky increases with each rotation. Day and night are soon seconds away from each. In a matter of hours he experiences eons. He witnessed the destruction of the sun. But he is introduced to a green sun; a fiery jade that perhaps is the sun of all suns; the sun at the center of all universes.
Not your average haunted house story, eh? It’s quite a read, although the overuse of commas is burdensome. Maybe it’s the times; perhaps I am just not used to so many of these phrase separators. Maybe commas are sparse in today’s literature because the limited resources of such punctuation marks were unnecessarily drained back in 1908 when the book was first published. A hypothetical example, of such overuse, just so you might understand, could be, in fact, this very sentence that you are reading, at present time. Punctuation style notwithstanding, it is a very intriguing book.
So what kind of metaphor would best describe the difference between gothic and cosmic horror? Maybe it’s like the difference between classical and jazz music, where gothic = classical and jazz = cosmic. Hmmm…..nah! Jazz is an exercise in testing the limits of a given structure and I don’t think that is what cosmic horror is attempting to do. How about prog rock vs. punk rock? (gothic = prog/cosmic = punk). Again, nah! Punk is an exercise in simplicity and getting back to the basics. The cosmic genre is not that either.
I know – how bout I stop with this literature vs. music comparison? How about I cease this fruitless delineation altogether? Even better! Goth is goth and cosmic is cosmic. And that is that.