I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite stories from people like Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, and the anthology Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror, and I have to say I love this stuff. Eldritch horrors lurking in tombs, interdimensional beings wanting to eat us and drive us mad. Love, love, love it.
It bothers me, though, whenever I get that nice, terrified thrill of the unknown that, in the past, this thrill has been associated with HP Lovecraft’s prejudice and xenophobia. It could be said he wrote about ancient eldritch gods returning to the earth because he was actively terrified of immigrants bringing their non-American traditions to his tidy New England life.
The subtext of why I love this kind of horror is, I’d like to think, largely based on my unflappably pessimistic view of our own insignificance in the grandiosity of the cosmos and the universe’s ever-present spiral towards doom.
Regular horror, with its re-confirmation of conservative normalcy (according to Stephen King), just doesn’t do it for me. Too hopeful.
Still, it haunts me to know I’m enjoying essentially the same plot devices that were created by xenophobic jerks.
I think people who suffer from xenophobia are broken on some level. Really, despite whatever perceived differences you can find in a person, someone with even the most basic empathetic abilities should be able to see that people different from themselves are intrinsically human. I lived in Vegas for six years, and over the course of that time I couldn’t understand much of what my neighbors said (despite hundreds of dollars in college courses which, at a certain point I realized were not, in fact, designed to actually help me speak the language). I certainly didn’t understand why my neighbors bought gargantuan pinatas or stopped five times a day to pray, but I never doubted they were people. Those differences didn’t make them not people. They put their kids on the bus to school and called their parents and got pissed off at parking tickets. People stuff, just like me.
I have to remind myself that good cosmic horror is not actually xenophobic, nor does enjoying such fiction make one xenophobic. In a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading, the monsters are very, very far from human. Often, the monsters are wholly alien or unknowable beings that exist on a completely different plane. Rather than xenophobia, I think, good cosmic horror and weird fiction practice something closer to exophobia–this fear of things outside human perception or outside what it means to be intrinsically human.
But because of this confusion, I think we should altogether stop calling this genre Lovecraftian. We don’t often name buildings after the architect (or, really, the construction foreman, because one could argue that no writer builds inventive ideas in a vacuum. Great artists steal, and all that). And with the world as it is today, we really don’t need more excuses to be jerks to each other.
Ultimately, good exophobic cosmic horror works without maligning anyone’s personhood. We can all read exophobic horror with a clear conscious. Such fiction is full of reasonable monsters, monsters in the form of bizarre otherworldly intelligences hidden in the dark and performing strange machinations that will ultimately doom us all. That makes perfect sense.