Happy birthday, Call of Cthulhu! Forty years ago on Halloween 1981, the roleplaying world met and grew to love the Lovecraft-inspired game in which characters boldly confront the unknown before being consumed by it! If there’s one thing humans seem to desire, it’s to have their skulls cracked open like walnuts and their minds consumed by entities whose true nature would drive the sanest person mad, were they unlucky enough to understand what had them gripped in its tentacles.
Of course, Lovecraft wasn’t the first author to dabble in cosmic horror nor has he been the last. In honor of Halloween and forty years of Call of Cthulhu, allow me to suggest the following five works of cosmic horror.
Résumé With Monsters by William Browning Spencer (1995)
As a child, Philip Kenan drifted off to sleep each night listening to the comforting tales of H. P. Lovecraft; his father, Walter Kenan, was an avid fan. Exposure to cosmic horror fiction from a young age produced an adult Philip whose unique views—in particular, his conviction that that Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, Dagon and the others, are real entities against which eternal vigilance is necessary—make Philip a memorable and somewhat trying co-worker. Philip may be more than a little unhinged. Unfortunately for Philip—and the world—he’s not wrong. Worse, while Philip sees cosmic horrors as threats against which the world needs to be protected, his corporate masters see the potential for profits beyond their wildest dreams. Or nightmares.
Accelerando by Charles Stross (2005)
Lacking mind-eating horrors to consume them, humanity of the near future turned to the singularity for solace. Manfred Macx and his descendants navigate a world that’s increasingly strange, where encounters with things from beyond the sky prove to be mere con games. But: institutions shaped by humans to enrich and protect humanity have evolved into Vile Children whose goals are obscure and whose methods are unspeakable. Accelerando offers readers a message of hope: even if the cosmos fails to provide us with intellects cold and inhumane, intellects greedy for our screaming minds, we may someday create artificial horrors to fill that ecological niche.
She Walks in Shadows edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles (2015)
In 2015, editors Moreno-Garcia and Stiles assembled an anthology of original cosmic horror stories that were entirely created by and about women. The resulting anthology is a delightful tapestry of nightmares. Whether the success of She Walks in Shadows was enough to send the any old-fashioned, presumably male cosmic horror fans still stuck in the Lovecraftian past over the brink into madness, one cannot say. However, what is clear that She Walks in Shadows is an award-worthy collection—it won the World Fantasy Award.
The Outside by Ada Hoffmann (2019)
Spread across the Milky Way by their benevolent gods, humans enjoy long lives of useful labour, secure in the knowledge that upon their appointed end, their minds will be consumed by their gods. No person could wish for more.
…Not just because wishing for more is an excellent way to be sentenced to eternal torture. There are things far worse than humanity’s gods lurking beyond reality, waiting for the opportunity to slither into our realm. Brilliant physicist Yasira Shien very nearly became a victim of one such horror. Having survived, the autistic genius is drafted by the god Nemesis to track down the heretic responsible for inviting extradimensional chaos into the Milky Way. The heretic just happens to be Yasira’s former mentor, Talirr. Survival is very much not assured. There is no sacrifice Nemesis will not request of Yasira.
A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed (2021)
Eighteen months ago, Nick Prasad and wunderkind Johnny Chambers saved the world from the Dimensional Anomaly. Hundreds of millions of people died before the hole in reality was sealed, but seven billion survived. What Nick learned about Johnny during the events of Beneath the Rising led Nick to cut off ties with his former bestie. But Nick’s determination to avoid his manipulative, conniving friend soon encounters a stumbling block. Johnny’s fix for the Anomaly should have been permanent, the Things from Beyond the Stars sealed away from our reality for millennia. New breaches suggest that somehow, the cosmic horrors have found a back door into a universe that should be barred to them. As much as Nick would like to be able to deny it, Johnny may be reality’s best hope. Thus, poor Nick must once again ally with a person he hoped never to see again.
No doubt you have your own favourite cosmic horrors not mentioned above or in my previous piece from earlier this year. Comments are 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 the Aurora finalist 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.