With Killer Space Clown in stores today, I wanted to write an article all about one of my favorite tropes in the genre: The Cosmic Horror Story.
What is a Trope?
Since this is my first article in what will, hopefully, be a series of articles containing my thoughts as a writer in the different speculative fiction genres, I wanted to start by clarifying what I mean by “trope”.
A trope, in this sense, is a commonly overused theme or device. Basically, a cliche.
Tropes are great because they’ve buried themselves in the narrative quilt of our collective consciousness. Imagine any slasher movie from the 1980’s all the way to the early 2000’s.
When we meet the shallow, despicable characters at the beginning of the movie, we can pick out who is going to die and who is going to live. We recognize the Unstoppable Evil and know that cops, adults, etc. won’t be able to stop it’s relentless pursuit of the protagonist and her friends. Tropes are recognizable, they’re familiar, and they can either enhance our enjoyment of art, or they rub us the wrong way if not utilized correctly, and cause us to rebel against what we’re consuming.
As a writer, I am always intrigued by the tropes that we enjoy and hold sacred, and I always want to subvert them or take them in fresh and interesting directions. They’ve become cliche for a reason. If I can bring a new way of looking at the trope, I’ll consider my work valuable and worth the time and effort it had taken me to write..
So, without further ado, let’s dive into one of my favorite tropes: The Cosmic Horror Story!
Cosmic Horror, or “We’re all doomed!”
This was the playground of legendary author H.P. Lovecraft. His stories were great because they usually were written in the first person by a Protagonist who had come face-to-face with an unknowable and incomprehensible terror, and lost their mind because of it.
Characteristics of this sub-genre are:
- A sense that we are just tiny, ineffectual insects in the grand, universal scheme of things.
- The fact that there are vast unknowable entities (Ancient Ones, Old Gods, just beyond the veil of our comprehension that want to devour our souls. These beings cannot ever be defeated, and though they can be held off, such victories will ever only be small and a brief respite.
- The terrible, horrifying truth is that nothing we do matters, and that giant planet-sized monsters will eat us one day.
- Knowing that if you ever come face-to-face with an Old One, or the truth of the universe, the best you can hope for is that your heart will stop and you’ll die. Learning of the inevitability of mankind’s destruction can also lead to stark raving madness or eternal servitude to the ancient evil beings that float in the aether.
There is not a lot to be hopeful about in a Cosmic Horror Story…which is why I love reading and writing it!
Sometimes, The Bad Guys Win
This doesn’t appeal to everyone, but as I get older, I find myself in a grumpy funk where I look at stories with happy endings where everyone gets their heart’s desire and all the story threads are neatly tied up with a little bow,…and I roll my eyes.
Life is hard. Bills suck. Fighting with your loved ones is emotionally draining and ultimately unrewarding. At some point, you look at the clock on the wall, or the calendar hanging up in your office’s breakroom, and you think, “What’s it all about?”
When I read a Cosmic Horror Story, I derive a small, selfish pleasure in knowing that no matter what the Protagonist does, even if they eke out a win at the end, there is no happily ever after. Why does this appeal to me? Probably because I’m looking for some kind of reason to go on living, myself. What’s it all about? Why bother?
Immersing myself in a universe where there are planet-sized squid god monsters that don’t care about me or my little problems is refreshing. It reignites my desire to live life to the fullest.
If nothing we do matters, and squid monsters are going to devour us, then we have a ticking clock in which we can live life to it’s fullest. How much longer can our hopeless heroes hold back the darkness? We don’t know.
All we can do with the little time we have left is live as best as we can.
And if we are approached one dark and stormy night by a man in a trenchcoat with tentacles trailing out of the bottom, or a woman whose skin seems to be stretched a little too tightly over her face, we know that we can run in the other direction and never look back.
Because once we learn what’s really out there, and once we decide to join the hopeless fight to stave off the Old Ones, that’s when we step onto that path from which there is no return.
The path that leads only to madness and damnation.
“Why nobody want to play with me?“