As an avid fan of science fiction and horror, I have always been enamored with the idea of the unknown — not just that which we have yet to discover, but that which is beyond human understanding. As such, one of my favorite literary genres is that of cosmic horror. Most genres of horror tend to rely on monsters and murderers as the focal points of their story, whose corporeal horrors are well within human comprehension. On the other hand, cosmic horror stories tend to take a less conventional route, emphasizing the terror of that which is beyond human understanding — that which is so incomprehensible it drives people mad.
Cosmic horror is riddled with terrifying entities of all shapes and forms, from elder gods such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth to the shadowy forces of the Elder Things and the Deep Ones. Whatever form they may take, the beasts of these stories generally convey two overarching themes: the fragility of the human psyche and our powerlessness within an apathetic cosmic whose secrets are far beyond our ability to grasp. Such horrors, I believe, reach a far deeper part of the human mind than typical horror; they are more existential than simple ghouls and vampires, and it is because of this that I am so intrigued by the existence of cosmic horror as a genre.
We as a species are inherently predisposed to inquire — to carry the torch of our intergenerational quest to shed light unto the darkness of nescience. We are explorers by nature, forever pledged to sail beyond the reaches of the known world, committed to our age-old journey to unravel the secrets of reality. Such a quest has existed since before the existence of anatomically-modern humans; even our ancestors were as curious as we are, if not to a very similar degree. We are the progeny of adventurers, and our instinctual desire for learning drives us to move forward until our last breath.
The search for knowledge is empowering to many; it endows us with a sense of purpose and meaning in a universe where such a thing can be hard to find. Some find it in theology, connecting with the divine by studying scripture and interpreting the cosmos through a religious and philosophical lens. Others may find it in the sciences, analyzing the natural world and uncovering its secrets from a secular mindset. No matter how we choose to go about our voyage into the unknown, one thing is for certain: we have defined our existence by an objective purpose, that being the drive to accumulate to conquer ignorance.
In my mind, cosmic horror represents the antithesis to this goal: it is a deconstruction of the idea that there is an objective meaning to our existence, be it faith, research, art, or something else entirely. It is the declaration that our universe cares not whether we achieve our goals, whose eldritch forces will forever embody the meekness of human perception towards its apathetic environment.
Many cosmic horror authors convey this message through the development of a literary philosophy known as cosmicism: the belief that humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of existence, and that there may or may not be higher powers influencing reality in ways which do not prioritize our wellbeing. Whether intentional or not, I believe that cosmicism is often misunderstood as a pessimistic ideology, and as such it is often interpreted as misanthropic in nature. I can certainly understand where such an outlook might come from, seeing as cosmicism inherently challenges the idea of human empowerment and optimism. However, I believe there is a deeper ontological significance to the existence of cosmicism — one which requires us to reflect upon the key idea of this philosophy.
Some have compared cosmicism to nihilism, an existentialist school of thought which postulates that no human principle truly exists — be it morals, ethics, or even a sense of purpose. It is a philosophy which emphasizes the meaninglessness of the cosmos — and as such, it is often misinterpreted as pessimistic and misanthropic. Many believe that it is a rejection of the search for fulfillment, attributing the claim of meaninglessness to the absence of human agency. However, this is far from the case, as is true for cosmicism itself.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a major critic of prototypical nihilism, is often referenced through one of his most famous quotes: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Ironically, this does not refer to actual deicide, but rather the abandonment of predetermined fulfillment. It is the idea that an omnipresent and objective meaning to human life simply does not exist. The death of God is arguably metaphorical, representing humanity’s transition to a new way of thinking wherein we do not define ourselves by the doctrine of any deity. Similarly, cosmicism aims to detach humanity from the divine, emphasizing that the elder gods are not watching over us — at least, not to the extent of caring whether we live or die. Such is the conundrum of understanding what cosmicism and nihilism truly represent, and why I believe these concepts are often misunderstood.
People tend to be more concerned with the intimidating nature of meaninglessness rather than the liberation it provides. We have subscribed to the idea that we exist within a universe which is obligated to be understandable. In a way, our desire for knowledge has begotten a sense of entitlement to know the unknown. We have neglected that inquiry is not a preconceived attribute of life itself, and that we are merely organisms with the ability to perceive our surroundings, gifted with sapience by the circumstances of evolution alone. It is the facticity of entitlement to a sensible reality that drives the misunderstanding of cosmic horror and nihilism, and it is my firm belief that such facticity can only be overcome once we dispel the belief in a cosmos with inherent purpose.
In a meaningless universe, there can be neither concern nor apathy, for such things cannot exist when there is no objective meaning to produce such concepts. For many, the idea of an uncaring universe represents human powerlessness — but this is merely a facticity; it is a false self-interpretation of meaninglessness which stands in the way of our fulfillment. A universe without purpose cannot care about or reject humanity, for it lacks the cognition to even register humanity’s existence as a whole. Whether or not there are eldritch beings scattered across the cosmos, the fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t care, unless our goal is simply to know whether such a thing is true or false.
Just as God died when humanity rejected the idea of his existence, so too must we transcend the idea that we need to prove ourselves to the universe, or that the universe needs to prove itself to us — that we need to reclaim objective meaning as if it ever existed in the first place. Such is how we reconcile with cosmic horror: the idea that we must free ourselves from the facticity of believing in a universe with the innate capacity to accept or reject mankind.
From a nihilist perspective, cosmicism does not represent powerlessness, but rather a sense of freedom. While Cthulhu remains dormant and dreaming in R’lyeh, we must awaken to the opportunity of a meaningless reality. Without the existence of divine beings governing our nature, we are free to determine our own subjective meaning — to fulfill our quest for knowledge on our own terms, rather than to meet the expectations of external forces. We have the chance to become the trailblazers of our own lives, unconcerned by the same elder gods who care so little about human affairs.
I am of the belief that cosmicism and nihilism go hand in hand as complementary schools of thought. Just as cosmicism teaches us that the universe is uncaring, nihilism teaches us that a caring universe could never exist at all. We must come to terms with meaninglessness and become the architects of our own destiny. If purpose is to exist, it must be crafted of our own volition — not by divine force, but by human hands.