Size matters, they say.
To the lowliest of ants, we are dreaded gods, looking down from our Olympian thrones. To the littlest paramecium, ants are the gods, and we are little more than horror stories for their children. This leads us to the next, horrifying question—“Who looks down on us?” Who, in this universe, looks down on our civilization, and sees our folly? This, in turn, leads to more questions, such as “Are they benevolent?” and “Can we comprehend them?” This is the plight of Lovecraftian Horror. This sub-genre of horror, as stated by Tvtropes.org, “depresses you with the fatalistic impression of being insignificantly powerless before the vast, unknowable and fundamentally alien entities.” It was named after the esteemed horror fiction writer, Howard Phillips “HP” Lovecraft, who codified the Lovecraftian Horror genre.
What, then, makes it so scary? I argue that Lovecraftian Horror is a terrifying sub-genre of Horror fiction due to the psychological horror of the unknown, the pervading sense of cosmic dread and doom, and the fate of the protagonist.
Psychological Horror, by definition, is a subgenre of horror that focuses on fears and emotional unstableness in order to build the tension. It focuses mostly on the more subtle aspects, rather than the traditional “Pop-up” horror. While it may have all the essential aspects of horror, it builds up slowly, eating away at one’s mind. Most of the terror is left to the person’s imagination.
This is the Horror of the Unknown. Lovecraft, in his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, once wrote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” It shows in his works—Lovecraft wrote of hideous, alien abominations that are “indescribable” and “incomprehensible”, leaving the viewer to imagine the finer details for themselves. Lovecraft also used a variation of the literary convention in the most conventional of ways, as shown in his story The Music of Erich Zann. It is about a musician who plays strange music at night. In the story, nothing happens—no creatures burst out of unnameable dimensions; no alien horrors emerge from the deep, dark creases of the earth. The Threat, while implied to be lurking within, is not shown within the story. The reader is left to imagine what happened, instead.
Cosmic Dread and Atmosphere
Atmosphere plays a major role in Lovecraft’s works. It is there to set the mood of the story, as with any other work. Lovecraft wrote stories full of unspeakable horrors, and the mood followed. There was a sense of cosmic dread hanging in the “air” of his stories—a sense of hopelessness in the midst of a vast, uncaring Universe. It was so prevalent in his works that it was made into a literary philosophy—Cosmicism. This is the main emphasis of most of his works; the backbone, one could say.
Lovecraft took inspiration from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Robert W. Chambers, and as such, his works gave off a gloomy, ghostly, and gothic vibe. This coincides with the psychological horror aspect of Lovecraftian Horror—his settings are unnaturally creepy. Lovecraft often used New England (which was his home) as the setting of stories.
Sanity’s fragility and the fate of the Protagonist
Lastly, there is the concern of sanity. In Lovecraft’s works, where eldritch abominations lurk within the threshold of Human reason; where the monstrous, malevolent beings are apathetic to the existence of men; where there are beings so enormous in size that it would be maddening to fathom them; there would obviously be a lot of insane people. This is interconnected with the atmosphere of doom and the psychological aspects of the subgenre.
The doomed protagonists, at the end of the story, are either rotting away in an asylum, driven into insanity, or worse, killed by the very forces they uncovered. Then, there is also the concern of the “Unreliable Narrator”—it could be possible that some of Lovecraft’s characters were merely hallucinating. While not (to this author) explicitly stated, it could be possible that some of his stories involve hallucinating characters within an asylum. What makes this aspect of the subgenre so terrifying is the broken perception of reality—you do not know what’s real anymore.
Lovecraftian Horror, while sometimes seemingly obscure, is one of the most influential subgenres of Horror fiction. It is, also, one of the most terrifying, due to the subtleties, the atmosphere of cosmic dread, and sanity’s fragility. In my opinion, this subgenre is the ultimate form of Horror fiction—a world where everything could kill you with one swipe of a tentacle hand; a world where the things we perceive as “gods” are nothing but bigger fish in a small pond, and that there are even bigger fish swimming out there, in the great ocean that is the Universe. There are things man was not meant to know, and Lovecraft—and his subgenre—is here to show it.