Five Fascinating Twists on Cosmic Horror

Forty years ago (on Halloween), American game company Chaosium released the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, which was inspired by and based on H. P. Lovecraft et al’s tales of Cosmic Horror.

Now in its seventh edition, Call of Cthulhu is the second most popular roleplaying game on Roll20. It reportedly dominates the roleplaying market in Japan. That’s interesting, because unlike most RPGs, Call of Cthulhu (or CoC for short) is set in a universe where humans are not top dog, where there are vast, incomprehensible entities who refrain from snuffing us out mainly because they’ve never noticed us, where First Contact is often Last Contact. Characters in CoC generally spend the adventure or campaign coming to grips with how out of their depth they are—before going mad. If they are very lucky, they’re eaten first.

Why is it so popular? Perhaps it’s because most people squander their lives catering to the whim of vast indifferent corporations operating according to an alien logic that most of us are happier not contemplating in a world where the main reason people’s pineal glands aren’t scooped out of their living brains is because no company has concluded there might be a profit in it. (Yet.)

Or perhaps it’s just the fun of trying to survive no-win scenarios. Whatever the reason, this genre and mythos has entertained a lot of role-players and inspired many writers over the years. Take these five relatively recent examples of writers drawing from the eldritch well of Cosmic Horror…

 

“Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette (2008)

Good news! Humans have populated space! Less good news: They have done so in a milieu populated by Lovecraftian horrors, one in which hard-working space pirates like Captain Song and Black Alice Bradley tend their living ship Lavinia Whateley while hunting prey that will not eat them first. Only the boldest—or most foolish—space pirates would commandeer a seemingly derelict shipment of canned brains from the easily irritated Mi-Go. The crew of the Lavinia Whateley are just that bold. Or foolish. And it’s just the sort of courageous business plan that could earn the entire crew their own place in a Mi-Go brain cannister.

(First published in the Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology.)

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Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys (2017)

Written as they were by the easily perturbed Lovecraft, the original Mythos stories tended to take a very unsympathetic view of the intelligent non-humans with whom humanity unknowingly shared the Earth—excellent fodder for authors curious about such things from a non-human perspective. In Emrys’ tale, the American authorities were disenchanted at the discovery of a Deep One community. In the same generous spirit that fueled the Indian Wars and the Repatriation of 1929–1936, the US consigned the Deep Ones to a desert concentration camp of such remarkable hospitality that by the 1940s, only Aphra and Caleb March survive.

Inadvertently lost amid survivors of WWII-era Japanese internment camps, the Marshes were freed to rebuild their shattered community. Their resources are beyond meagre, however, which makes the American offer to trade access to stolen Deep One texts in exchange for assistance with a troublesome research challenge tempting. But should the Deep Ones trust the government that did its best to exterminate the Deep Ones?

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Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw (2018)

To quote Chandler, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” Whether John Persons is a man, exactly, is open to question. He’s certainly unusual.

The thing wearing John Persons like a rumpled overcoat has a simple dream: Live undetected amidst the unwitting humans, playing the role of private detective. Despite the unpleasant mutters of certain Providence-based authors concerning the habits of the Yith, Persons isn’t a killer. Or really, all that monstrous. Nevertheless, young Abel is determined to hire Persons to knock off his step-dad McKinsey before McKinsey can kill Abel and his brother James.

Clearly something is very wrong in Abel’s household. Persons has the unique perspective needed to determine precisely what it might be.

***

 

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020)

Catalina Taboada, recently married to Virgil Doyle, contacts her uncle, patriarch of the Taboada clan. What she has to say alarms her uncle. He sends his socialite daughter Noemí Taboada to check on Catalina’s well-being. The secluded Doyle estate in seemingly bucolic El Triunfo is a far cry from Noemí’s native Mexico City, but Noemí dutifully accepts the assignment.

Thanks to the Revolution and the closing of the Silver Mine on which their fortune depended, the reclusive Doyles live in genteel poverty. A cynic might conclude that Virgil’s motive for marrying wealthy Catalina was purely financial. Such a cynic would prove woefully optimistic. The Doyles have a use for Catalina that is in no way as mundane as mere finance. Now that Noemí has barged into their closed little world, perhaps they will find one for her as well.

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These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed (2021)

When They arrived from wherever They live, humanity died by the billions. When They eventually relinquished Their hold on our world, scant millions of humans remained. Half a century after the Setback, the work to rebuild human civilization is well underway. Preventing another Setback should be priority number one…but the people who lived through Their manifestation are uniformly closed-mouthed about the experience. No one is quite sure what happened during the Setback.

In the ruins of a shattered city, academic Emerson finds a treasure: a diary. Half a century ago, Eve documented the early days of the Setback, and the resulting diary offers researcher Emerson an unparalleled glimpse into the events that shaped her world. A glimpse into horror.

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Obviously, there are lots and lots and lots of examples I could have used (starting with Charles Stross’ Laundry series). Feel free to mention them in comments below.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.

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