Lovecraft, Cosmic Horror and Existential Dread


I’ve been watching a lot of horror films lately. My girlfriend and I marathoned Star Trek: Deep Space 9 recently, and she fell in love with Jeffrey Combs (and Rene Auberjonois, Nana Visitor and Terry Farrell, but they’re less relevant to the topic at hand). This has allowed me to introduce her to the joys of a couple of his horror films, most recently Re-Animator 3. This got me thinking about the loose nature of film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

Unless you’ve been living on Yuggoth your entire life, you’ve probably at least heard of H.P. Lovecraft. Born in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a writer best known for his tales of weird fiction and eldritch horror. Ancient gods, madness and fantastic dreamscapes featured heavily in his writings. Even those unfamiliar with his stories have heard of that tome of evil magicks the Necronomicon, dead dreaming Cthulhu and perhaps even the tentacled one’s resting place sunken R’lyeh beneath the sea. This is largely due to his fellow horror authors who carried on his legacy and continued to develop his Mythos after his death, but Lovecraft created it and without him we wouldn’t have the Cthulhu Mythos which has become a staple of geeky pop culture. We also wouldn’t have the Cosmic Horror sub-genre we know and love today.

Cosmic Horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It strikes us right in the ego, puncturing the bubble of self-importance that we as a species erect around ourselves and reinforce every day with our worries about jobs, relationships, bills, taxes. Cosmic Horror highlights the ultimate insignificance of all our acheivements. Ancient and immeasurably huge gods travel the cold infinite stretches between the stars, creatures so inconceivable in scale that we are less than an ant to them. They aren’t impressed by us, nor are they threatened by us. If they notice us at all, it’s in the moments before they accidentally snuff out our lives and carry on about their unknowable business.

This isn’t the danger-could-be-right-behind-you-now-in-fact-what-was-that-bump-from-upstairs Slasher Horror, nor the no-that’s-impossible-there’s-no-such-thing-as-zombies/vampires/werewolves Supernatural Horror. These focus on antagonists that can be battled and, with luck and skill, bested. The my-fingers-now-have-eyes-on-them-and-my-face-has-developed-a-vagina Body Horror comes close, but it still happens within the sphere of human influence. If your hand has become possessed, lop it off at the wrist. Problem solved (and you can replace it with a groovy chainsaw).

Cosmic Horror doesn’t strike terror into the heart of everyone, because it is easy to become bogged down in the nitty-gritty of everday life and lose track of The Big Picture. Indeed, this microfocused worldview is desirable – to get a proper glimpse of the true scope of the universe and the place of the individual in it would, in Lovecraft’s view at least, be enough to shatter the already-fragile human mind. You’re most likely to feel that if you suffer from bouts of existential dread.

Stand on a hilltop, nice and remote, in the middle of the night. Make sure it’s a clear night, with the moon shining brightly and the stars unobscured. Stare up into the sky. Keep staring. You are looking at the stars. Bright and twinkling points of light, billions of miles away. Thanks to relativity and physical laws that are certainly beyond my thickheaded understanding (Damnit, Jim, I’m a philosophy graduate not a physicist) by the time that light reaches your eyes, some of those stars have already died. Right now, though they are shining, they shine no more. Both dead and fiercely alive.

Out there right now are uncountable stars, galaxies, planets and nebulae, in a universe of infinite size. Think of your size in relation to the planet. Think of your planet’s size in relation to the galaxy. And so on. But that’s not all – now turn your gaze inward, beneath your own skin. Organs and systems, all made of cells. Cells made of proteins, mitochondria, tiny building blocks. Go down small enough and you discover the atoms, tinier than pinheads, which make up all of these. Then the electrons, protons, neutrons. Go down smaller still to the sub-atomic particles, the quarks and bosons.

Now think about their size in relation to the size of the universe. The infinitesmally small, compared to the unfathomably large. In a universe of such colossal scope, do the contents of your bank account matter? The size of your car? Even the love you have for your partner or family? The stars don’t care about your bank account. The quarks don’t care about your love. All that you accomplish will make not a bit of difference to the cosmos, even if you were to rule the world, slaughter millions or cure all known diseases. We are ultimately alone and ignored by the larger world.

This is … difficult to show on film. It’s difficult enough to write effectively, though there you at least have the advantage of a budgetless medium (page-count aside, of course). On film, it’s exceedingly difficult to portray a mammoth and uncaring universe. Perhaps that’s why Lovecraft adaptations tend to go for the more tentacular stories, with healthy doses of Body and Supernatural Horror rather than attempting its Cosmic scope. Lovecraft adaptations tend to be low-budget cult affairs – we very nearly got a film of At the Mountains of Madness helmed by Guillermo del Toro, but that disappointingly fell through. With Cthulhu’s nerd-cred seemingly at an all time high, and Hollywood currently being ruled by the likes of geek icons JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, it would seem that a successful big-budget Lovecraft film would be a no-brainer. Sadly, it looks like that is not to be.

Over the next few months, I intend to get my hands on as many Lovecraft adaptations as I can and review them for your reading pleasure. I shall be comparing/contrasting them to the source material as I go, which will allow me to reread many of Lovecraft’s classics. I may include the odd heavily-influenced-by film, such as John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, simply to show the extent of his influence and also because I love In the Mouth of Madness and I don’t care what you say. My articles, my rules.

So strap in, clutch your talismans to your chests and watch out for tentacles. We’re going on a ride that may leave you a gibbering wreck by the end, clawing at your hair and screaming ‘The films! The films!’. Just do it quietly, will you? Don’t want to disturb Cthulhu’s slumber…

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