ICHF: Cthulhu Picture

Yesterday we left the world of written works to talk about the first monster from a film to debut in this series. Today we're departing from the Gothic Horror genre, moving on to a new mode of horror: Cosmic Horror.

Academia doesn't divide the horror genre into subgenres like we do. In fact, if you read essays, you'd think that Gothic Horror was the only horror genre. I was told as much once by a professor who actually specialized in horror literature. I don't agree with that - I think "Gothic Horror" conjurs up an image that doesn't fit with horror stories like, oh, Them! or The Blob. I think there are several different kinds of horror, enough that you can make a grand taxonomy of the genre. And I'm not alone, either! I know lots of horror fans who have coined their own names for specific horror subgenres - slasher movies, for example, or the kaiju genre for another (lots of my readers are pretty familiar with that one, I'd wager).

Of these, the only one I've ever seen approached as its own entity in academic works is Cosmic Horror. Cosmic Horror is its own specific thing, even if some writers classify it as a subset of Gothic Horror. I don't. I think it evolved from Gothic Horror, certainly, but it's become a new entity.

Gothic horror is defined as horror that demonifies the past, linking the concept of evil to primitive things and primeval behavior. It has themes of death and decay as well as regression. Gothic horror monsters tend to be taken from medieval mythology - often either undead things like vampires, ghosts, and ghouls, or ancient mythological beasts like goblins or demons. Gothic horror monsters are either incredibly old, decaying corpses, or both. It is all about demonizing the ancient world.

The Cosmic Horror genre has some similarities to that. Evil in Cosmic Horror is often very old. However, it isn't the age that matters in Cosmic Horror - it's knowledge. Evil in Cosmic Horror tends to be timeless, deathless, and eternal, without beginning or end. It existed before time began and shall continue till the world disintegrates into dust. Whereas new, modern ways of thinking were key in destroying (or at least defeating) evil in Gothic Horror, in Cosmic Horror they only make it stronger, as the more you know about the universe, the more vulnerable you are to its destructive forces. The universe itself is against us in Cosmic Horror - that's why it's called Cosmic.

It's a subtle distinction, but an important one. The monsters in Cosmic Horror tend to be patterned after new scientific discoveries - strange creatures lurking in the deep, ethereal beings drifting through the void of space, strange living plagues from other planets, etc. They may be said to be old and ancient, but they are styled in new knowledge - which makes them function very differently than the stock Gothic Horror monsters like vampires and werewolves.

I wrote the word "evil" a lot up there, but I think it's important to note that, in most Cosmic Horror, we don't actually assign the word "evil" to the Horrors that drive the stories. These Cosmic Forces of Terror tend to be beyond morality - good and evil, like all human inventions, look like tinker toys compared to the dark truths of the universe. The monsters in Cosmic Horror are so alien, so above humanity's level, that the destruction they wreak is rarely something they do consciously, but merely a side effect of their very existence.

Cthulhu, a monster so famous now that I didn't even feel the need to introduce him, is one of the most famous Cosmic Horror monsters, and I think he works best when the genre's rules on good and evil are properly applied. Many modern works portray Cthulhu as sort of an intergalactic Satan or God of Evil, but I prefer him when he's written as Lovecraft intended: an utterly alien and immeasurably powerful being who, when awoken, could destroy this world with a mere flex of his tentacle and literally without a thought. Humanity goes mad at the sight of him, but that's not his goal - it's just a thing that happens. What Cthulhu wants, what his motives are, and what his role in the universe is - these are questions we cannot, and should not be able to answer. He's not evil - he's amoral, which means without morals. That doesn't make him bad - it makes it impossible for him to be bad or good. He just is.

This design is based on one I did a while back, and I'll summarize some of my thoughts on it for any new readers here: He has three on each side of his head because that's how Mr. Lovecraft's sketches of Cthulhu (well, of a human-made statue of Cthulhu, but still) portrayed him. I rebelled against the usual idea of Cthulhu being a bloated, toad-like thing because the short story often uses the word "slender" in describing him, particularly his wings. I allowed myself to violate some rules of giant monster design with him, namely by making him very, very skinny, because Cthulhu is an otherworldly, impossible being, and if anyone gets to violate common sense, it's Cthulhu. And I tried to make him at once disturbing and beautiful because, unlike Lovecraft, I actually find alien looking things appealing.

Cthulhu: he'll drive you mad.
Continue Reading: Giants