The best cosmic horror mixes together the mind-bending feel of sci-fi with the bone chilling terror of fear-inducing fiction. For many, the genre is synonymous with H.P Lovecraft, but if you take the time to check out this list, you’ll see there’s more to the genre that meets the eye.
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At The Mountains Of Madness
‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ is vintage Lovecraft, dealing with many of the themes, ideas, and moods which would go on to define and dominate the cosmic horror genre. This cosmic horror story was originally written in 1931 but didn’t see the light of day until five years later. The story is told from an interesting narrative perspective which acts as a warning to others not to experience the same horrors as found in this tale.
The Ballad Of Black Tom
‘The Ballad Of Black Tom’ is an interesting way of linking both the oldest and newest tales in the cosmic horror universe. How? Although the book was released a short while ago back in 2016, it is a retelling of a classic HP Lovecraft tale. This is a fine example of how even a modern author is able to draw upon and reignite attention for one of the older and more classic stories in the cosmic horror genre.
‘The Croning’ was originally released back in 2012, and has since gone on to gain a strong following in the cosmic horror world. The story deals with a group of people on the Earth who are unlike the rest of us. The plot explores the slow realization that everything is not how it initially seems, and there is in fact a darker, shadow world, where many disturbing things are at play. Although the story is more horror than science fiction, it will have much to delight anyone who is a fan of dark storytelling.
Agents of Dreamland
Caitlin R Kiernan
‘Agents of Dreamland’ is one of the most recent stories on the list, having been released only a couple of years back in 2017. The story deals with both events on Earth and in space that herald a profound change is happening. This major event draws in both regular people and shadowy government agents. There will be much to enjoy here for fans of cosmic horror, science fiction, and even sci fi tinged mystery stories.
If you’re a fan of slow and moody dark horror which takes its time to let the story and the tension develop, then you should definitely check out ‘The Fisherman’ by John Langan. It is a critically acclaimed dark horror tale which is sure to captivate the mind of anyone who reads it. The plot deals with people who hear the legend of a mysterious Creek, which is able to offer more to people than the fine fishing which is all they originally sought. However, like all things, there is a dark price to play for getting what you want in this cosmic horror tale.
The King In Yellow
Robert W Chambers EF Bleiler
If you want to check out the cosmic horror genre, but aren’t ready for a full length novel, then you would do well to check out this collection of some of the best short stories. It covers a range of different ideas and styles, The collection is considered to be perfectly composed and has had a strong influence on a whole host of authors who have since entered the genre. Modern editions have expanded upon the original edition and added some more material, including examples of some of the earliest biological focused sci fi in the genre.
Jeff Vandermeer has earned his respect as one of the most prolific producers of some of the darker material in the science fiction genre. ‘Annihilation’ is a fine example of a story which blurs the line between horror and science fiction. The story forms the first in the series known as ‘Southern Reach’ but is a gripping read in its own right. It deals with a group of people who are forced to explore an extreme area which is cut off from the rest of humanity. People who have visited that place in the past have suffered a range of negative effects. Will our group of heros undergo the same fate?
HP Lovecraft has been so influential over the cosmic horror genre, that even the stories that aren’t directly by him often play homage or tribute in one way or the other. Cthulhu's Reign is a collection of original stories about Lovecraft’s most famous creation. In the original literature by Lovecraft, there are many hunts of a future in which humanity is overrun. This curated collection of stories reimagines Lovecraftian topics and characters in a terrifying era that was only ever hinted at.
‘Chills’ is the opening book in the Kathy Ryan series, a cosmic horror favorite that deals with a detective uncovering evidence of a terrifying ritual. ‘Chills’ manages to blur together the best parts of cosmic horror, detective tales, and straight up science fiction. This first book in the series is the perfect introduction for new readers of Mary SanGiovanni, and is sure to have you coming back to check out the rest of the saga. The title is appropriate as the dark mood will be sure to give you chills.
Curtis M Lawson
Although released just a few short years ago, ‘The Devoured’ draws upon a proud literary legacy to get inspiration for its story and characters. It is a sci fi reimagining of the Old West which also manages to draw upon some truly creepy cosmic horror influences. The plot centers on a world where the Elder Gods have entered into the world of the Old West. An old man whose world has been turned upside down as a result decides he has nothing left to lose and stages a fightback against the forces. Lawson’s main character is a gripping and engaging presence that readers are sure to enjoy and relate to. If you are a fan of imaginative science fiction which manages to draw influences from different parts of the genre together, there is well worth your time and attention.
What Makes a Cosmic Horror Science Fiction Book?
A cosmic horror book can be considered a blend of science fiction and, well, horror!
There’s no single defining line which classes a book in either camp. However, it’s a safe bet to say that if a book’s primary purpose is to scare or unsettle you, and it does so by using ideas or characters outside of the planet Earth, then it can be thought of as cosmic horror.
The blend between science- fiction and horror is something of a natural one. After all, a lot of sci-fi tends to be darker or more serious in tone than other forms of popular fiction. It’s therefore a suitable partner for tropes and ideas taken from the horror genre broadly.
Is All Science Fiction Horror Classed As Cosmic Horror?
Definitely not. There are a range of types of horror found within the umbrella genre of science fiction, and cosmic horror is only one variety.
Cosmic horror tends to draw upon the Lovecraftian ideas described above. The horror stems from psychology, sanity, and man’s position in the universe.
Many other types of science fiction make use of different horrific tropes to scare readers. These include:
Zombies. Although zombies are a horror fiction staple, they have increasingly become part of the science fiction landscape, thanks to the popularity of post-apocalyptic and survival science fiction.
Bio-horror. Often, the gore and horror found in science fiction is a result of some kind of biological incident or plague. This is the case in genres explicitly about this subject matter, such as biopunk, and others where the biology is a more secondary focus.
Psychological horror. Cosmic horror definitely plays on various aspects of human psychology to achieve its effect. However, different types of psychological horror can be found elsewhere in science fiction. Survival fiction is often psychologically horrific, and even more military-focused sci fi sometimes uses horror ideas such as gore.
Which Ideas Are Commonly Found In Cosmic Horror?
If you want a blueprint for cosmic horror, H.P Lovecraft is what you’re looking for!
Lovecraft’s stories set the stage for the cosmic horror genre to emerge. In fact, his influence and legacy are so powerful that many of the non-Lovecraft cosmic horror books reference Lovecraft, either directly or subtly.
Given that Lovecraft is very much the forefather of the genre, to the extent where Lovecraftian horror is actually a commonly used synonym for cosmic horror, what are the types of ideas found in Lovecraft’s work, that have trickled down to later releases in the genre?
Man’s insignificance. This is perhaps one of the most defining themes of cosmic horror. Whereas a lot of traditional sci-fi shows man as being incredibly important, and significant, Lovecraft takes the opposite view. He paints mankind as a mere insignificance in terms of the cosmos. This is quite unsettling as it jars so strongly with our common experience of reading fiction.
Psychological horror. Whereas a lot of the darker science fiction tends to out and out show the reader what they are scared of, Lovecraft tends to make use of hints. He gives allusions and nods to what the true horror is, and then lets the reader’s mind do the rest of the work.
Sanity. One of the most common ideas found in Lovecraft is that of madness. This is a darkly ironic spin on a typical fiction trope. Usually, in conventional stories, the character’s search for meaning is seen as a positive thing which benefits them. In a Lovecraftian tale, searching for meaning will only drive one insane.
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