A Note on Cosmic Horror

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.


Nothing Fun will Happen this Halloween

This Halloween, I’m afraid
there will be nothing fun
that will happen to us on this dark moonless night
no ghosts will pop out as we sneak through the yard
no ghouls will rise up out from under the porch
no goblins will glare out of dark cellar shadows because
we all know, for quite certain, that monsters aren’t real.

This Halloween, I’m afraid
will be boring and tame
as we invade the house under cover of night
no vampire will hiss when the door slowly creaks open
no werewolf will howl as we all creep slowly through
no zombie will groan as we slink through the halls because
we all know, for quite certain, that monsters aren’t real.

This Halloween, I’m afraid
will be just like the last one
with the usual, quite regular holiday feast
no demons will care when we tug off the covers
no angels will hark all the shrieks from the beds
no monster at all will join us for dinner because
we know, for quite certain, that monsters aren’t real.


That Thing Standing Behind You

That thing standing behind you
Just wants to say hi
It was stuffed under floorboards for so many years
It just wants a stretch, to uncurl all those legs
And visit, just briefly, with another kind soul

That thing standing behind you
Just wants a big hug
The house was so quiet and dark and alone
There’s so little to eat, the icebox is empty
Is it too much to ask to dine with a friend?

That thing standing behind you
Gets a little bit bigger
Its mandibles stretching as wide as the hall
Such an affectionate gesture, you won’t even feel it.
Won’t you turn, just a little, and give it a smile?


The Snuggly Dead

I. Evangelina thought death would be super terrible; then, she died. When they lowered the coffin into the ground, the coffin was a tidy little space, all firm cedar and clean corners, but eventually the coffin walls decayed into soft mounds of rotting mulch, and the soil leaked in and the worms crept in to nestle under her head. She began to think it wasn’t so bad at all, like a cool Sunday morning spent under the covers, dozing in and out of consciousness, particularly when her flesh slid off her bones and decomposed in pale, folded piles of decayed matter like a bundle of linen. She found herself smiling (the teeth on her skull bared clean), as she snuggled deeper into the earth with the beetles tickling her cheeks. The whole thing was made all the better for the fact that, thankfully, she couldn’t smell anything.

II. Tyrone, too, was really nervous about the whole death thing, particularly when they shuttled him into the fire and the automatic door of the crematorium slid shut. The flames weren’t as mean as he’d expected; they were more like the heat from a campfire while nestled under a wool blanket with a hot cocoa full of marshmallows and cream liqueur. He found himself sighing as the warmth tickled his toes and slid up his knee caps, and when his body dissolved into dry particulates, that felt pretty nice, too, a bundled up and folded feeling, safe and protected, like collapsing upon himself in child’s pose during yoga class.

III. Arturo’s body was never found, and that was all well and good because after getting chased around by that chainsaw-wielding maniac, he really could have used a break. After a long tumble down a ravine, his head found a spot to rest by the creek bed, the milkweed and thistles having caught him before he rolled into the water. His arms and legs were somewhere in the bushes; his torso flopped in the mud under a sapling. And, sure, after screaming his soul-guts out for a while, he was soothed by the trickling water over the rocks, the birdsong, the sunshine. It was like all the vacations he’d never gotten around to taking. So he lounged, warmed by the sun and listening to the breeze. He giggled as he felt the feet of ants and beetles tip-toeing over him, their little pincers like kisses. (They took parts of him to live in their colonies, little chunks of flesh to nibble on, which gave him a glimpse of life better than any David Attenborough documentary he’d ever seen.) Small carnivores snacked on him at night, those coyotes with their soft, wet noses and crows with their feathers brushing against his skull. Soon enough, the ivy grew over him and the soil covered the bleached surface of his bones, and he nestled in, the whisper of grubs and worms soothing him to sleep.


There’s a Big Demon Alligator Sitting on the Lawn

It’s certainly not regular-sized. It’s very big, in fact (the demon, not the lawn, because of course the lawn is tiny. In this housing development they put up last year there’s not much grass; each duplex’s swath of green is hand-tailored by the landlord, tidy squares of Kentucky bluegrass that the landlord says cannot be touched by flowers or junipers or decorative butterfly stakes that glow pink and orange. You love the decorative butterfly stakes; they remind of you of the yard of your grandmother’s trailer, cluttered with wildflowers and gnomes, but when you put the decorative stakes up the landlord said the only thing you can put in the yard is a lawn chair and grill). (You don’t own a grill.)

It slumps in the grass, it’s long snout sulking, the spiny ridges along its back a strange color between oxblood brown and peacock purple. Even just sitting there, its as tall as the whole duplex (and the neighbors glared at you, of course, because they think it’s your fault, this mutated crocodilian that looks like it borrowed a horned page from Tim Curry’s satan, and you don’t try to convince them that there’s no way you could have summoned this thing, you wouldn’t even know where to start, but the neighbors glared at you since you moved in, that day you said hello and they shuffled back into their house, leaving you wondering if you had your underwear showing or something stuck in your teeth. All the neighbors here only glare, they don’t say hello, so you’re beginning to think it’s not actually you). (It’s them).

Every now and then, it sighs, the big demon alligator, puffing out a plume of sulfuric smoke (and it seems kind of lonely, you think, and the more you stare at it from your kitchen window you wonder if it really is an alligator or just a long, scaly beast. Maybe you’ve projected onto it some vision of your childhood, those afternoons your grandmother fed the caimans that scuttled under her flowers, smallish versions of their hulking swamp cousins that grandma said loved little rare cutlets, bits chicken and pork, and everyone wondered how she hadn’t lost a hand yet, the gators would get her, but it was ultimately her neighbors who got her, hopped up on bath salts and playing with kerosene. And you wonder how flammable bluegrass can get, if it dries out for a few days while the demon sits on the sprinklers, and maybe grandma would be proud if you gave the big demon one little bite, something small and meaty and bleeding to eat). (Maybe you will.)


“Great, but Too Many Floating Eyeballs”

Review: Carpathian Dream Resort Hotel and Casino
4328 Cliffs of Despair Road
Cahul, Cahul District MD-3909, Moldova


My husband booked a room at the Carpathian Dream hotel for our anniversary, and for the most part it was a great establishment. The decor was super run down with moth-eaten curtains and faded antique rugs, candelabras everywhere full of these murky yellow candles that might have been made of real tallow. Wolves howled at all hours during the night, and there was always a full moon. The hotel would have been just what we wanted for a romantic, atmospheric honeymoon, if it hadn’t been for all the floating eyeballs.

When we checked in, the maî·tre d’ leered at us cruelly and refused to really say much beyond “We’ve been expecting you.” The bell-hop looked to have a little grave dirt left on his shoulders, his hat was a bit worm-eaten, and he dragged all of our luggage up by himself. (It must have been tough for him–he was so skinny!) Our room was bitter cold and no manner of warmth from the fireplace could chase away the chill, so snuggling deep into the pillows on the antique canopy bed was just the ticket. The moaning from the hallways really helped my husband get to sleep in the absence of his white noise generator, and breakfasts were served right on time, with plenty of black, crusty bread and what looked like cold, somewhat coppery tomato juice. Yum!

I’d have given the whole experience five stars, really, if it hadn’t been for the eyeball thing. God, they were just everywhere–and sticky, too. There’s nothing like stepping out of a hot shower to bump into a swarm of bloodshot ocular organs trailing their spindly pink nerves behind them. You wake up in the morning and find them in your hair, in your coffee, stuck to your forehead. Gross. The floor was just sopping wet with aqueous humor. And other guests maybe like the feeling of constantly being watched, but it’s not really our thing. My husband and I tried that for a bit in the 70s and it didn’t work out.

But aside from all that, the experience was great. The Carpathian Dream Hotel and Casino is now a tradition for my husband and I, so we’ll be looking forward to booking them again for our next anniversary. 9/10 would go again. (But not looking forward to the eyeballs.)


That Fish is Going to Eat You

Look at it, all way down there in the deep watery shadows
With black marble eyes that seem inhuman and strange
It looks at you coldly, without hardly a quiver
I think that fish is going to eat you.

It wasn’t the best idea to go swimming, of course
Despite how warm it is on this lovely June day
How spontaneous you seemed, jumping into the pond with a whoop
Now you shiver, very quietly, because that fish is going to eat you.

This secret forest pool seemed so placid, idyllic
You paid no heed to the arcane markings carved into the trees
I didn’t carve them myself, but I read them (before I hid the brushes)
Those markings pretty much said that fish is going to eat you.

Is it a fish? Maybe not. Who knew this pool was so deep?
How many sharkish eyes does it have? Two? Twenty-seven?
Those strange, greyish eyelids stretch wide open to see you
…Well, to do more than just see you. (Specifically, eat you.)

What can you do but scramble for shore?
Your legs kick frantically as the waves start to froth
Foul bubbles rise up–are those tentacles? Teeth? Whatever,
they wrap around your ankles, preparing to eat you.

Down you go, down to the deep, struggling as you descend
What a terrible way to go out, I must say.
I’m sorry I had to watch such a scene, but thanks to you
I’m at least happy that fish is not going to eat me.

fiction journaling

The Things in Ozymandias’ Shack

Old toasters, broken Rolex watches, reclaimed pallets, Prada bags shredded by biting winds and hail storms, cracked cell phone casings, hamster cages, Ed Hardy shirts hung up on the walls like ancient scrolls, mardi gras beads, BMW hood ornaments, caviar jars (empty), shake weights, plastic hurricane glasses from that one trip to Vegas, Turkish rugs, Burberry scarves, diamond tennis bracelets with half the diamonds lost, bottled water (empty), coffee tins, record players, the bones of past housecleaners, perfume bottles, rubber chickens, crack pipes, Cuisinarts, the deed to the timeshare, gold-plated uzis, marble countertops, one smart fridge wearing a blue screen of death, champagne (empty), tiny spoons, lace underwear, and, of course, Ozymandias himself.


To the Apocalypse, she took

To the apocalypse, she took with her an oversized beach towel, heavy and orange, bought for ten dollars at a discount bulk supplier before the starving rioters burned the building down. The towel had pineapples printed on it: stark geometric patterns of yellow triangles and vivid neon green leaves. The towel was very warm when the snowstorms hit without warning, and it dried the sweat from her head when the heat slaughtered her neighbors. She saved all the water it soaked up.

Eventually, the towel became the sigil of her gang, and her gang flourished. They waved flags filled with rows of fat fruit depicted in triangles while they ate mud and moist cardboard left over from the snows. (The cellulose kept them going, a favorite in her youth, although she didn’t realize she was getting so much in all the parmesan cheese she bought in bulk). But she remembered the pine-apples, told takes of them–pi-napples, pi-nap-els, and they sang the word like a sacred chant. They dreamed of soft,golden sugar dripping over dry tongues.


What the Garden Wants

The doctors say there’s an operation, one that can make the land give up its corn and cabbages, and he thinks about it strongly because it’s been too long since he had such things. He tries to remember what it was like when the garden was full of towering stalks and crowding leaves and shadows so deep they stayed cool even though the hardest summer. The little plot behind the homestead is now flat dry. The soil is still a rich black color, but it crumbles between his fingers. Stiff pebbles of soil. Rigor Mortis.

The doctors in town tell him that they’ll cut him open—cleanly, with the sharpest of knives, so the wounds will suture back together without there ever being a hint of a scar. They can cut him open to get to the blood. And the blood makes the garden. In their store, the doctors show him their scalpels and the long, metal table, the one they’ll lay him out on, and the clean rows of glass jars full of iodine and swabs.

He thinks hard on this while combing through the hard dirt with his hands.

His hands are good. Strong fingers and stronger callouses. The sun beats his back while he works, but it’s a good rhythm, familiar to him. Calming. It goes well with his songs. When there’s plowing and threshing to be done, he sings—he had good strong lungs in his chest, lungs that swell to the tune of his heart beating. He remembers singing when his arms were laden with squash, onions, little red potatoes like jewels. The dirt then was soft and clung to the hair on his forearms and at the back of his neck. He’d find the dirt in places he never expected, in the creases of his knees and between his toes.

He thinks about what the doctors say. On his next trip to town, their words crowd his thoughts.

But, at the last minute, he turns away from their shop. He turns away from their fine glass windows, drawn by the singing he hears down the street.

There, a woman lives in a clapboard shack. He’s never gotten so close to it before. The shack is tiny and dark, looking like it’ll topple over in the next windstorm, and when he walks up to it he can see its filled with strange things. He peers in between the shutters and sees critter skulls and old ribbon, books with broken spines and yellow beads heaped inside clay bowls. Beads, or maybe teeth. A lone crow hops on the roof, its talons scratching at the tin. The place reeks of sweat and rotting marrow, but he pays that no mind. Her singing draws him in through the door.

Her song is heavy. It has a rhythm like a heart beating or a boot landing against the earth. He feels the beat deep in his guts; it makes his limbs ache for work. But she’s not a doctor. She has no potions or knives. Or maybe she’s a different kind of doctor, the kind who gets chased out of town when the milk goes sour and the foals are born blind.

When he asks what she is, she says, I don’t know nothin’ I didn’t read in a book.

When he asks about his land, she tells him that blood is the thing it needs, just like the doctors say.

Blood is what the land needs, she says, but flesh is what it wants.

He thinks hard on this.

That afternoon, he walks home, and the woman follows one step behind. When they reach the garden, she lays him down on his barren land. The soil is cool against his back; the sun bleeds into his eyes. She opens his shirt, then she plunges her fingers into him. He can feel the dirt under her nails. His hide opens up. Old callouses part. It doesn’t hurt much, but he can feel her pushing his lungs down deep into the soil; his ribs pull apart slowly, his shoulder blades thrust out like roots. She plunges her hands down deep like a washerwoman scrubbing him against river rocks, and his stomach blooms in the dirt like a swollen sweet potato. His intestines wriggle like worms. He unwinds and expands, and it doesn’t hurt much as her hands plunge down quick to mash his muscles and bones all the way down to the bedrock. Before she pushes his brain to the earth, he sees her hand hovering over his eyes; black soils are embedded in the creases in her palms. Before his breath leaves entirely to go mingle with the dirt, he sighs.

Later that season, he feels the potatoes start to grow in his lungs. Soon after that, the onions sprout in his heart. Tiny, fibrous roots wind up around his ribcage and hold him, tightly, the way a baby’s hand might wrap around his finger. He feels tall and verdant. Stalks crawl up from between his thighs to reach the light. He smells tomatoes and grubs, and crows feeding on his overripe fruit that drops to the ground. He feels the weight of watermelons as they swell, their heads on his chest, and when the day is quiet he can hear someone singing.

Her hands are dirty, he knows. She carefully plucks his cabbages from their earthy cradle. He feels them in her arms, briefly, as the soil clings to the hair on her arms.