A New Sub-Genre of Horror

I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.

It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)

The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.

This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.

My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.

Thoughts?

7 Comments

  1. I can’t really weigh in on this because I don’t read much horror beyond Stephen King. Human emotions certainly come out in his work though. I’ve never read Lovecraft, so I can’t speak to that style.

    1. I think Stephen King is less overtly hostile to his readers than Lovecraft was, to be quite frank. Lovecraft didn’t care what readers thought, and from what I can tell, refused to let anyone edit his work. As a result, many of his stories read like rough drafts or detailed outlines–some interesting ideas, but also a lot of things that probably should have been fixed or that good beta readers would have told him to change.

      King’s style is more in keeping with traditional ghost or monster storytelling, but he will put in the occasional weird touch that makes you question the whole nature of the Universe. In “It” he definitely used some Lovecraftian elements for the description of the monster.

        1. Probably so. There are maybe 3 stories of his I’d say are actually good from beginning to end: “The Hound”, “The Music of Erich Zann” and “The Haunter of the Dark”.

          The rest are a mixed bag–usually there’d be some interesting ideas right along with stuff that makes you say, “WTH were you thinking, Howard???”

          Of course, he wrote for one of those 1920s pulp magazines that inevitably featured drawings of nightgown-clad women in peril on the cover, with stories of similar quality inside. His work must have seemed amazing in that context.

          I’m sorry–you left a quick comment and here I am giving you a detailed biography of Lovecraft. I’ll stop now. 🙂

  2. Every writer takes a dash of this writer and pinch of that writer, and a little of another one. If today’s writers were copying Lovecraft or King or Bradbury or Asimov today it would be dated. Would anyone read a modern story written just like Dickens, Verne or Wells? Baking your story using the ingredients of your reading experience makes you unique.

    1. Well said. I think most writers start out by copying authors they like–at least, that’s what I did. As you go on, you gradually start to develop your own style.

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