Lovecraftian vs Cosmic Horror
Or, what scared him doesn’t scare us
Welcome to the inaugural post for Whispers in the Dark, a newsletter / blog about horror and horror-adjacent tabletop roleplaying games. While I generally focus on Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium and Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley, other games will occasionally get some discussion as well. You may be familiar with my previous work on Skald’s Forge or on Itch.io.
If you’d like to discuss any of my posts, please feel free to comment or reply.
The Cthulhu Mythos as presented by Lovecraft and friends no longer conveys the idea of cosmic horror that well anymore to 21st-century folks. We've spent the last hundred years coming to a greater understanding of the scope of the universe and thinking about the idea of worlds and creatures that know nothing about us nor care about us. "Crunchy bugs from Pluto" is just another Wednesday night on TV. Similarly, the concept that there is no higher power in the universe that cares about us is even more widespread than it always has been, and atheists or irreligious people are a significant part of Western society.
So the Mythos as commonly conceived at this point has been reduced to a sort of sci-fi horror lore with a mild anti-canon bent. That doesn't necessarily induce the sort of existential dread as it for Lovecraft when he posited, "hey what if white men weren't the most important minds in all of creation, how horrible would that be...". There's a whole separate conversation in my mind about Lovecraft's bigotry and cosmic horror; in fact, I think it's fairly obvious at this point that his focus on people's skin colors, cultures, and languages detracts from the infinitely wider scope of the cosmos.
We can leave aside the specific representations, since our world has huggable plushie Cthulhu toys and sexual attraction to tentacles is a thing. Even so, I felt less than moved by some of the "revelations" in most of his work. There are moments of genuine horror, some of which are a bit less cosmic, but only rarely do they have to do with grandiose statements about the nature of reality.
Cosmic horror needs to keep up with our current understanding of said cosmos. Call of Cthulhu as an RPG does itself a disservice by focusing so much on historical scenarios. Lovecraft was keeping up with the scientific ideas of his time and extrapolating that to horror in a way that made sense for his readers as their concept of the universe was expanding. The discoveries that were new then are relatively well-understood now, but that there's plenty of things we've learned more recently that can spark the same sense of wonder and horror.
Cosmology has expanded so much (pun intended) that I'd love to see more focus on things like deep time, implications of entropy, etc etc. Most people don't really think about, say, the effects of relativity and what that means for our conception of space and time, or the simulation hypothesis, or just how fucking big space really is without even having to consider "alternate dimensions" or some such thing. The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, which means that far-away objects are moving so fast that, from our vantage point, they will be lost and forever unobservable in the future. The universe may be expanding, but it's also disappearing.
In another direction, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem proves that there are true (mathematical) statements that can never be proven; the universe itself puts limits on knowledge. One of the scenarios in the full “Cthulhu Dark” hardcover takes place in 2037 Mumbai and, in addition to dealing with political dimensions of classism and consumerism, also uses elements from fractal geometry and network technology, for example. These things are part of people's everyday experiences but still retain an aura of mystery when we stop and pay close attention to them.
Some folks like the “Classic” (1920s) era of CoC for its aesthetic; fair enough. But if your focus is on cosmic horror rather than adventure gaming and survival horror, consider thinking about what can really make us dizzy today.
I hope this post sparked some ideas for your own games! If you’d like to read future posts about related topics, I’d love to have you as a subscriber.