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A Cosmic Horror Reading Guide

I don't really like what I say I do.

When I say I am a fan of Lovecraftian mythos, weird fiction, cosmic horror, cosmic dread, or Dark SF, that doesn't mean I enjoy (for the most part) work derived directly from the Mythos. I think it's safe to say Lovecraft has inspired a great many notable weird fiction writers, and some of them have even included the odd tentacle beastie, or cameo from one of HP's unpronounceable Elder Gods. It's just not what I read this type of fiction for.

Midnight Shadows by Morgan Crooks 2016
What interested me about Lovecraft is the same thing that gets me revved up about Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgens, Arthur Machen, T.E.D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, and Peter Watts - the depiction of an inexplicable universe at odds, fundamentally, with human survival. I'm not sure why this body of work appeals to me, but it does. So, this summer I did a self-directed survey course of literature in this vein, to try and figure out what exactly I like about these works and what might be useful to a writer/fan to emulate.The trick here is to begin to separate out those works I feel do a particularly good job illustrating the universe of weird fiction outside of Lovecraft's influence and those, while containing some element of cosmic horror, that don't quite embody what I'm trying to describe.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article called "Dark Realism," which focused on speculative literature embracing plausible science and a pessimistic attitudes. That article is still available and sums up my opinion on many of the authors included (and excluded) above.

So that leaves a smaller slice of the pie to consider - literature that is weird and advances a pessimistic perspective on the universe and humanity's place within it. I'm also not including authors like Blackwood, Machen, or Hodgson because even though they are impressive and worth tracking down, I feel their names are better known if for no other reason than they often appear in "Cosmic Horror" articles like this. Beyond the work I've read, obviously there are several life times of novels, stories, movies, games, and comics also fitting that criteria. My attention span is short and my interests fickle. I'm comfortable describing what I've read and leaving it as a marker for others to use (or ignore).

Here are a few works I think anyone with interest beyond Lovecraft's take on cosmic horror should read:

  • Jeff VanderMeer "The Southern Cross" Trilogy" Alex Garland of "Ex Machina," fame is making the first book of VanderMeer's cosmic horror trilogy - "Annihilation," into a movie. I'd recommend all of the books in the trilogy but they are all distinctly different. "Annihilation" follows an unnamed biologist into Area X, a region somehow devastated by an environmental disaster. The expedition quickly runs afoul of menacing topographical anomalies and basic personality conflicts. The second book looks at Area X from the outside and the third book somehow manages to reveal some of the central mysteries of the series without really compromising the underlying enigma. I enjoyed the first book the most and included it in this list not only because its transition to a movie promises to attract more attention to this genre but also because it succeeds, in its own right, as an encapsulation of modern existential dread.
  • Jorge Luis Borge: "Tlon, Ugbar Orbis Tertius" Borge was an Argentine writer active throughout the 20th century, mostly known for his short story collections. His work ranged from contemporary fiction to exacting speculations on the thin line between reality and dreams. "Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis Tertius" is one of his longer works (although still pretty brief at 5600 words) and describes the search for the Central Asian country of Ugbar and the secret society created to catalogue its existence. Its use of a forbidden tome (an encyclopedia in this case) echoes, Lovecraft's penchant for Necronomicons and Pnakotic Manuscripts, but this goes well beyond simple eldritch window-dressing. Borge's tale explores the uncanny and disturbing way yesterday's dreams become tomorrow's reality.
  • Laird Barron: "Proboscis" The typical Barron story is a weird-noir story where a haunted and doomed protagonist meets the fate he was always destined for. This owes as much to Thomas Ligotti (described below) as it does to Lovecraft. What makes Barron necessary for this short list is his ability to pierce, however briefly, the central mysteries of his story without resorting to curtains of obscuring prolix. "Proboscis" is my favorite example of this. We follow a bounty hunter gaining awareness of a predatory force that stalks him and his friends. Although we the reader are never told precisely what this force or creature is, we given enough metaphors and clues to summon an appalling picture of what is happening and will happen. 
  • Thomas Ligotti: "Miss Plar" I came late to an appreciation for Ligotti's work and credit "True Detective's" first season for the introduction. Of his stories I've read, this is far and away my favorite. Ligotti's dark fiction can be challenging. For the most part (and there are exceptions) the horror described in Ligotti's work doesn't reach out with claws, or stab with knives. The best way I can describe it is to say the world of each story, the setting itself, works in silent colusion with the flaws of each story's protagonist. It is almost as though the universe contains an infinite number of doors, each one leading to a very unpleasant end. When the right key meets the right lock, an ugly fate clicks home. "Miss Plar" is a very sedate and atmospheric coming-of-age story, where a family's care-giver gradually awakens a boy to a sinister although very beautiful world. 
  • Gwendolyn Kiste "Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions" When I recommended this last year I was struck by its darker take on the rapture idea of "The Leftovers." Certain stories linger with me longer than others and I still find myself thinking about how this story paints its picture of the great, predatory unknown lurking just beyond the narrator's ken. This story also display's Kiste's motif of disappearance, how sudden absence can be a metaphor for death but also empowerment. 
  • Michael Shea: "Autopsy" Michael Shea's "Polyphemus" collection was a non-trivial challenge to track down but worth the effort. The title story describes a prospecting expedition meeting mortal danger at the hands of an alien cyclopean creature more predatory ecosystem than single organism. I enjoyed "The Autopsy" even more as it expressed a particularly visceral and gruesome strain of extraterrestrial body horror. Shea's work falls on the mind-bending side of twentieth century speculative fiction, and the lurid, earthy aspects of his writing often mask profound insights.
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky "Roadside Picnic" This novel, renamed as "The Stalker," became one of the most famous movies of the great Russian film-maker Tarkovsky. I'll confess to not having seen the movie other than a few clips but the novel I can definitely recommend. The set-up: aliens stop by earth, leaving behind all manner of trash and pollution at their 'picnic sites.' The reader never really finds what the aliens are or why they've come to earth, but many of the artifacts they leave behind prove incredibly useful to humans. The catch is that the Zone also contains strange devices and insidious residues offering any number of unpleasant ends. Stalkers are quasi-legal prospectors, venturing into the forbidden zones, looking for baubles of some interest or value. According to rumor there is one particular artifact - deep within the quarantined region - that might grant untold riches upon the Stalker who finds it.
  • Michael Swanwick: "A Passage of Earth" My favorite short story from two years ago, "A Passage of Earth," is another alien autopsy story unfolding into something more complicated and distressing than it first appears. The aliens of Swanwick's story resemble enormous annelids and have a unique method of absorbing and digesting information about the world around them. While this story certainly contain elements meant to disturb or shock, it's not true horror in the sense of many of my other recommendations. It reaches for a vantage point at some remove from human experience, using precise and beautiful language to reveal something ineffable.
At its best these stories express what I love about this genre, pointing towards the inhuman and the terrible cost of awakening to a world filled with awe.


Also, the final chapter of the first part of my web fiction serial "Agent Shield and Spaceman," is now available. This novel of weird espionage and cold-war cryptozoological conspiracies is not meant to be terribly serious but I've enjoyed getting to this place. I look forward to moving on to the second part shortly. I hope you enjoy reading!
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