by Grant Smuts
“The basis of all true cosmic horror is the violation of the order of nature, and the profoundest violations are always the least concrete and describable.”
The years of writing and observation of human nature had turned me into something of a misanthrope. Over two years ago, I began a final revision of my book, then titled Elegy of the Immortals. Deciding, however, that my vision had changed somewhat, I began to rework darker themes into the fabric of my stories.
The triumph of human will, the glory of human effort… all these things seemed to be the marks of hubris more than anything. It certainly wasn’t something I was feeling, or witnessing.
I began rereading the works of HP Lovecraft and Clarke Ashton Smith, and trying to find the themes they espoused in their dark histories.
While people might be content to merely look at the surface of what an author is, I prefer to find the heart of their stories. Things to live on past idle perception and fashions of thought.
Cosmic horror struck a chord in me, dark and resonant, and I knew that what I was looking for was in the unknowable, the things beyond the scope of human science and philosophy.
The deities of my novel, the once eponymous Chained Gods, were merely pawns as I began to see them. Though still important, there were things larger, things unguessed as yet, but merely dreamed of, merely hinted at in the nightmares of men.
I began to create a new mythos, with elder beasts, with creatures of time and space, and began painting a new picture for what I saw as the marriage of High Fantasy and Cosmic Horror. It was a tradition few had followed, and to date, only the famous Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock, has successfully implemented it in one of fantasy’s seminal heroic tales (though many see his works more as the protoypical Dungeon and Dragons-style fantasy).
Yet whenever I say that my upcoming book contains elements of Cosmic Horror, I’m often rewarded with blank stares. Like
And as much as I am tempted to say…
Perhaps I should explain?
The crux of Cosmic Horror is this:
The universe is an indifferent and hostile place. Too much curiosity about the true nature of the world is a precursor to madness, and humanity is the plaything for inconceivable horrors. The ideals and pride of humanity are cruel illusions. The truth of the cosmos is that it is ruled by eldritch abominations from the outer darkness of space in eons past. And they do not slumber peacefully. When the stars are right, they will rise again, and all the hubris of men will be as nothing before the vast eternal horrors of the universe. And even now, in the times of quiet waiting, the world is more dangerous than we know – away from the comforts we know, terror and madness lurk in every nook and corner of society. Dark cults, hidden monstrosities and blasphemous rituals unfolding in the dark.
This was the vision of HP Lovecraft, who, along with Clarke Ashton Smith, pioneered and codified the genre of Cosmic Horror, building on the works that would come to be called the Cthulhu mythos. Contrary to popular belief, the stories were never so much about the big, scary tentacled monsters – though they certainly had those – or the frightening cults of men driven mad by the awe of vast and terrible entities (they had those, too). Instead Cosmic Horror depresses you with the fatalistic implication of being insignificantly powerless before such vast, unknowable and fundamentally alien entities.
The genre is a misanthrope’s dream.
The strength of human will, effort and achievement means very little in these stories. Whatever victories attained are ultimately short-lived, for human lives are short-lived, and the Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods are just shy of eternal – and only that because it is implied that one of their own will unmake everything, including all of them.
The Outer Gods and the Great Old Ones
‘In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.’
Everyone knows Cthulhu, having had just enough exposure in the mainstream to be the (octopoid) face of the Cosmic Horror genre as a whole. It would be surprising to note, then, that Cthulhu was never quite as prominent in Lovecraft’s work. Nor was he the most powerful of the entities described, though he did serve a fairly important role in the mythos. The entities known as the Great Old Ones were bound in a death-like slumber until the days when the stars were right. When that day came, it would be Cthulhu, the High Priest of the Old Ones, who would raise them from their tombs. This seems to suggest that of all the Great Old Ones (and there are implied to be many), Cthulhu alone seems to be awakened fairly easily, in his underwater city of R’lyeh.
‘It was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self, not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep – the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike.’
One of the true powers among the Outer Gods was Yog Sothoth, a being coterminous with all of time and space, yet somehow locked beyond the universe we inhabit. If this is to be taken at face value, then we can assume that Yog Sothoth was an entire universe in and of itself – a sentient genius locus. Yet it could also manifest in the known universe as well, through certain rituals… its true form unable to be countenanced by the human mind, it often appeared as a conglomeration of glowing spheres, or sometimes as a mass of flesh and tentacles, with no discernible body.
Interestingly enough, while Lovecraft himself never officially named his collection of stories (hence its branding as the Cthulhu Mythos by Lovecraft’s successor, August Derleth), he would often refer to it as the Yog Sothoth Cycles… which, if you think about it, makes quite a bit of sense.
“Outside the ordered universe, that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity―the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.”
More powerful and ancient than even Yog Sothoth was the being known as Azathoth. Thought of as the great sire of all the Outer Gods (Yog Sothoth included), Azathoth was thought to represent the universe’s birth and eventual destruction. Despite his vast power, he is described as having the intellect of a feral creature, and is kept asleep by demons dancing around him and playing flutes, in the centre of the universe.
At the core of the upcoming novel, then, as of the final revision, there will be this – the element of the unknown, a hint of the limitless, and how small mankind is in the face of that which is vast, eternal and (mostly) indifferent to them. Many of the gods I have are inspired by the classic Greek and Roman gods (with a little Norse thrown in), the eventual influence of Lovecraft and Clarke Ashton Smith will be undeniable.
Details? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.