Monday 11 June 2018

On Cosmic Horror

The core of cosmic horror is this: it takes the audiences assumptions about how the world works, and subverts them by positing a world where those assumptions are tragically wrong. I'll use three examples to discuss this: Arthur Machen's The White People, HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and lastly Chaos in Warhammer 40,000. 

So, The White People.
Machen was writing for an audience who were probably good, mild-mannered Christians of the peculiar British sort that are very genteel and civil and pleasant. Tea-With-The-Vicar Christians, of a sort I get the impression was a common position at the end of the 19th century. 
Right away, Machen starts taking this apart. The story opens with a discussion on the nature of good and evil - 'Saints' and 'Sinners' as the characters discuss it - and suggests that most people are neither good nor evil, just a sort of muddy mundane neutrality. To be truly Good or Evil is a spiritual pursuit that requires great dedication and is, inevitably, supernatural in nature*.
It goes on to illustrate this point with the story of a young girl being corrupted by Evil. The story mixes in folklore, deep history, witchcraft, fairies etc etc. It paints a picture of the natural world as being innately wicked and sinful, an active spiritual force. There are sexual undertones, and hints and an established cult. 
So why did it work as a story? It subverts that Victorian understanding of the world in nice, simple, Christian terms. It presents as our great sinner not some horrible corrupt faustian figure, but an innocent child frolicking through the woods and streams of the English countryside. It portrays Evil as a spiritual abyss that one might plunge willingly into, but that you could meet a truly Evil, corrupt person and have no idea; indeed their deeds would not seem particularly unpleasant since the Evil is an inner spiritual journey. It suggests that one might have a journey of personal revelation where one comes to [pan/satan/the black man in the woods/the fey/whatever the fuck it was in this] that is every bit as deep and involved and intense as the relationship with Christ that makes up the Christian experience. 
It's a fairly simple story, but the way it presents an inversion of Christian spirituality that seems innocuous but reveals a corrupt core with just as much spiritual strength and power as anything Jesus might be capable of... I can see how it would have been unsettling.

I take The White People as my go-to example here, but this subversion of Christianity appears in other works by Machen (The Great God Pan is the most famous example), and similarly influences works by other Weird writers of the time such as Algernon Blackwood.

(*Could this be an inspiration for alignment systems in RPGs? Perhaps. Certainly, I like to tie 'chaos' in my cosmologies with the picture of nature-cults as supernatural evils depicted here. Druids should be chaotic IMHO. But I digress.)

Next up, let's look at At The Mountains Of Madness.
I'm just going to assume that if you read this blog, you've read this story. Lovecraft takes the ideas that humanity and human civilization are the pinnacle of evolution, that we matter and are important, and rips them apart. Humans are insignificant, existing only briefly compared to the might empires of aliens to which Earth is just an outpost. We are a byproduct of ancient aliens, an accident, a mere flash in the pan. Furthermore, it shows civilization as self-defeating; the Shoggoths' utter destruction of the Elder Things' culture rips down any comfort we might take by transferring our 'loyalty' to the aliens who accidentally produced us. They don't matter any more than we do. Things just happen, there is no 'point' to evolution, all this is just happenstance.
Which, again, when Lovecraft was writing, was shocking. The assumptions that humans were the pinnacle of evolution, and [western] civilization was the apex of human history were quite effectively demolished in this story. Hence, horror.
This takes things a step further. As Christian influence starts to fall away, we get more rationalist positions emerging and Lovecraft basically takes those positions and pushes them to their horrible extreme. 

Moving on, let's consider a more modern example: Chaos in the Warhammer 40,000 setting.
This seems to be written with a particular set of secular western ideals in mind: the sort more common in Europe than America, perhaps more common on the political left than the right, and disproportionately represented among nerdy types. IE: Games Workshop's writers and audience in the late 80s when 40k was being written. Here are those values, bullet-pointed:
  • Science can explain everything.
  • There is no supernatural.
  • The world does not care about you.
  • There is no God taking an interest in you.
  • Nothing you do is particularly important.
  • With no real significance to your actions, hedonism is a perfectly good goal.
  • Things are basically OK.
It's a sort of casual rationalist nihilism. Bland secularism that asserts that 'hey, it's all meaningless, so buy stuff and be happy, it's not like you're being judged'.
The role of Chaos in 40k utterly subverts this:
  • Science can't explain a world where things happen at the whims of mad Gods.
  • The supernatural is there, is uncontrollable, and is intrinsically tied to the physical world.
  • The supernatural is shaped by the souls of you and people like you.
  • There are Gods. They care deeply about you, they hunger for your soul. They are horrific.
  • Your actions lend power to these Gods, and can attract their attention.
  • Hedonism is a sure route to being subverted by these Gods; so are most other approaches to Nihilism (despair, rage and Nietzschian ambition).
  • You are totally fucked by forces beyond your control that are coming for you personally.
Worth noting, the four chaos gods (slaanesh, nurgle, khorne and tzeench) represent four responses to nihilism (hedonism, despair, rage and ambition). This is why there aren't chaos gods of (say) Death or Romance or Leadership.
Chaos in 40k posits that in fact, there are Gods, and they are watching you, and they have an interest in you. They want your soul, they want you to reach out to them. They have gifts for you, if you only let them in. 
It's like... 40k looks at the rationalist/atheist/materialist/secularist position which arises as a response to Abramic religion, that we see in the modern day. The rejection of the idea of a personal God and Savior that's waiting for you to open yourself up to them. 40k takes that position and says 'no, that's bollocks, there are Gods'. And then takes the Abrahamic position and says 'no, that's also bollocks, because the God you're worshipping is an insane monstrous thing that wants to eat your soul and turn you into a tentacle monster'.

Remember the White People? How it describes a world where, just as one can have a relationship with a benevolent God and all that Christian spirituality happens, one can also have a relationship with forces of wild, corrupting Evil that is just as deep as the Christian version.
40k says 'well, what if you only had the Evil option?' What if Machen's Pan was the only deity, and it was everywhere?

So, this is a gaming blog. How to make this gameable?
I play a lot of LotFP, and LotFP is the main influence on my other OSR writing. Weird fiction and cosmic horror influence the worlds I set up for my players. 
If your approach to cosmic horror is merely 'there are space aliens, they have tentacles, lose 1d8 San', you're failing at it. To make it work, you need to use this framework:
  1. Take some basic assumptions your players have about the real world out-of-character.
  2. Work out what the horrible inverse of those ideas would be.
  3. Slowly reveal that the world your game takes place in is one where the ideas from point 2 are correct.

So lets workshop this. Take some ideas that our players will probably hold, based on our current cultural climate.
  • Humans control the world and Nature, through science, industry ect.
  • Humans are destroying the Natural World (see: climate change, extinctions, etc etc).
  • The Natural World is a passive thing that we are wrecking.
  • Nature is a good thing that should be cherished and protected.
Now, let's invert these:
  • Nature is something humans can never truly control, no matter how advanced our science.
  • Humans don't pose an existential threat to the natural world; rather the Natural World poses an existential threat to humans.
  • The Natural World is an active force that seeks to undo humanity's works and which is stronger than us.
  • Nature is brutal, horrible, savage, untamed; it does not need protecting from us, but we need protecting from it.
What would a game set in such a world be like? A world of ruined, overgrown machinery. Parasites and sicknesses that inflict body-horror on humans. Most enemies are features of the ecosystem, not 'people' or spiritual forces. Survival in the wilderness is difficult. Plants and wild animals as dangerous threats. Humans as unwelcome parasites that the immune-system of the green world will soon purge. The wilderness as a tidal-wave of crushing savagery that will overwhelm human settlements.

Oh look, it's The Willows. Or The White People. Or Ynn. Or Wolfpacks. Or Frostbitten & Mutilated.
So, yeah. 
If you want to do cosmic horror, maybe use that stuff as inspiration. 


  1. OMG, you just explained why I don't get the excitement of Veins of the Earth and why I thought Gardens of Ynn was kinda cool but aren't you people getting a bit too excited over this? And why lots of Tolkien fans (who see LotR as a battle between peaceful nature and evil industrialization) feel the Huorns don't quite fit and I think they're awesome and true.

    One thing John Keegan mentions in his book on the wars of North America, Fields of Battle (Amazon Associate link) is how the American wilderness still isn't tame. That if you leave it alone, it will creep back in. It seems a slow process, but return even two years later and you'll find nature running riot on what had once been a park-like cemetery or historic battle ground. In Texas, the sun and weather drains the life out of everything. In Oregon, the rain bloats and rots things, and the brambles writhe up and devour, slowly digesting the works of humanity in their barbed coils.

    So yeah, I'm totally out of step with what y'all are doing, but now that I see it, I can totally get where people are coming from when they rave about these sorts of things.

    Great article! Thank you for posting it. :D

  2. This was an interesting read. Machen's The White People is one of my favourite literary works, and I like your thoughts on Chaos in 40K; gotta admit I haven't thought about it much from that perspective.

  3. If four chaos gods represent four responses to nihilism what is then Malal?

    1. I don't know enough about Malal to answer. I suspect it's an artifact from the early days of the setting, before a lot of the details of chaos got properly formalized, and so won't fit this neat catagorization.

    2. Malal could perhaps be seen as something like Absurdism or another philosophical reaction to Nihilism.

    3. Yeah, absurdism kinda works.

    4. I know this is late(like, four years late) but to answer this for eveyrone else: Malal can be see as ether revenge or rather self destruction.

  4. I think this touches on one of my personal favorite parts of the current D&D cannon. The concept of planes and a "Far Realm" that lies just beyond a narrative wall where everything sensible is topsy turvy, and it wants to breach the fortress and corrupt reality.

    In a setting like Eberron, that core concept is laid out in a few different facets that follow the same basic reflection, and it is a very deep well to mine for gameable content. Keeping the core of the 'material plane' recognizable and concurrent with the way things work in real life is much easier to run than a setting where every basic assumption is flipped.

  5. This explains why I end up finding a lot of Cosmic Horror stuff fascinating, and really cool, but not actually Horrifying. I grew up on a weird mix of fantasy, rationalism, and religiosity that's left me open to most possibilities, cosmologically speaking, and thus takes away their possibility to shake my world view. Machen's would probably hit home the best, since what really seems to Horrify me is some of the things people who are convinced that they are Right and Good tend to do.

    It also reminds me of a story Eric Burns wrote years ago. I read it as a light fantasy about faerie and magic returning to the world, and changing things in ways that meant that a lot of technology, and even science, didn't really work anymore. Burns confirmed that that was more or less his intention as well. What surprised me was how many people in the comments read it as a horror story, and some of them even found it deeply offensive and got very angry about the idea that there could ever be a situation that Science couldn't figure out and control. I never really quite figured out what was going on with that reaction until I read this post. You've got some very insightful stuff here.

  6. Just wanted to say I really like your concept of the four 40k chaos gods being four responses to nihilism. I'd always heard stuff about how they could be interpreted as the four most base human emotions ("rage, despair... the desire for change and... horny"), which never really seemed to fit? This is much better, thank you.

    The 'natural world as cosmic horror' is also very good, it's like a strain of horror/weird fiction that seems to have been sidelined for a long time after Lovecraft.