I don't know about you guys, but I'm secretly a bit of a fan of the whole Top 5's or Top 10's that channels like WatchMojo put out on YouTube every week. I love sitting down and blasting through several of their videos to see if I agree or disagree with what they've put down as their tops in a particular subject.
I figured, a fun thing to do on this blog would to start my own little "Top 5" series to publish intermittently between my more academic styled posts. So for the first of hopefully many, I thought I'd look at one of my favorite genres in fiction - horror. In particular, Cosmic horror.
What is Cosmic Horror?
Before we get started, let's just quickly define what I mean by cosmic horror for those who are unfamiliar with the term. Cosmic horror is a particular brand of horror that is derived from the literary philosophy of Cosmicism (not necessarily created by, but definitely made popular by the writer HP Lovecraft). Cosmic horror in general chooses not to focus on gore or monsters, although those components quite often tend to be there, instead it channels its energy towards atmosphere.
The kind of atmosphere that is created from Cosmic horror is a complex one. It is very much a fear of the unknown, a creeping sense of dread that things are either not quite right or indeed horribly wrong, its sole aim is to make us as humans feel insignificant in the face of the infinite, dark, uncaring cosmos - hence the name.
Now, there's always going to be folks who disagree with my list, and that's okay. A genre like cosmic horror is one that is often hotly contended as to what makes something part of it, I just want to make it clear, that not everything in my top 10 list would be considered Lovecraftian, this is not a list of top Lovecraftian horrors. Anything I've picked, I've picked solely because I felt the atmosphere of the story met the requirements set above.
For each pick, I'll explain a little about the plot, and then why I picked it. So without further ado, let's start with #5!
5. Providence by Allan Moore
Probably one of the more Lovecraftian stories on the list, Providence is an ongoing graphic novel series by acclaimed writer of The Watchmen - Allan Moore. The story is set in 1919 and is both prequel and sequel to his acclaimed Lovecraftian graphic novel Neonomicon. It tells the story of a young Jewish Gay man - Robert Black who upon leaving his job at the New York Herald, travels around parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire as he researches: “a buried or concealed America composed of everybody’s secret lives… …a whole hidden world of individuals trading occult or exotic science lore and information, a society of characters as striking as Alvarez that conducts itself unseen below the daily fabric of America.” for a book he is planning to write. As the story progresses, Robert finds himself traveling further and further down the rabbit-hole so to speak as the horrific Lovecraftian reality he lives in slowly begins to reveal itself.
I chose Providence as number 5 on my list because it does a great job at conveying the feeling that a whole other and quite horrific world is lying just below the surface of every day America, bubbling and bursting from time to time at the surface. It acts both as an ode to Lovecraft and a beautiful, horrifying stand alone piece in which Moore examines violence, sexuality and religious extremism.
The series would have been higher up on my list, however (and this may just because graphic novels aren't my regular) at times it felt a bit confused in the story being presented. Although pretty much everything in it is gorgeously drawn and purveys the atmosphere of cosmic horror, the writing becomes a bit too convoluted for my tastes at times. Also, each issue finishes with a prose heavy diary entry from Robert Black, which is written in scrawling verse that can be difficult to read if you aren't used to fancy handwriting.
4. The Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Functioning as PC adaptation of HP Lovecraft's classic tale: The Shadow over Innsmouth, DCotE is a visual smorgasbord for fans of Lovecraft. It tells the story of Private Investigator Jack Walters as he journeys to the mysterious sea-side village of Innsmouth in search of a missing Grocery Clerk who recently moved there to set up shop. Upon arriving, Walters discovers he is an unwelcome outsider to the town's locals - hulking ugly brutes with fish-like features. What follows from here is a nightmarish journey through the town as Walters is forced to flee from the hostile inhabitants, eventually joining forces with the F.B.I. to take on their insidious fish-worshiping cult.
DCoTE was one of those games I've been wanting to play for years, but had never been able to get my hands on a copy. Finally I succeeded a couple of years ago when it became available on Steam for purchase. The atmosphere of this game is impeccable, and is a true adaptation of Lovecraft's work - often deemed to be un-adaptable. However, the game is not without its faults, and unfortunately its faults are rather huge. In all honesty, I never finished the game. Not because I grew bored or it got too hard, but because the game is so filled with bugs, that it got to a point where even after downloading the required patches to keep it going to the end, I couldn't get it to start up after I reached one of the last levels in the game. Just a blank screen. I realize, this is more of a tech issue, but for me, someone who isn't exactly tech-savy, it's a pretty disheartening end to the game. Although, one could argue, ending the game in such a depressing way - it crashing with no hope of being fixed - could mirror the cosmic horror of the game in real life.
3. Berserk - The Golden Age Arc
For number 3, I have allocated the Berserk Franchise. Seemingly an odd choice, but let me explain. Berserk originally is a series of Manga comics written by Kentaro Miura. It tells the story of Guts, a violent Mercenary who after several disastrous events and a horrific betrayal finds himself the bearer of a "brand of sacrifice" a mark on his neck which draws demonic creatures and spirits to him, seeking his death. While fighting these creatures off, Guts journeys through a Medieval inspired fantasy world in search of his best friend turned arch nemesis Griffith, in search of revenge for what he did to both Guts, his lover and the Mercenary band they all once belonged to.
The reason why I have chosen Berserk, and also why it is so high up on my list is because it displays its world initially (at least in the Golden Age Arc - a series of prequel anime films) as being mostly non fantastic. The characters in this world don't really have a comprehension of the supernatural asides from some smaller elements that are more prevailant in the Manga series (such as Elves). But as the back story to Guts horrific life develops, it takes on an intensely cosmic horror feel.
This was most clearly displayed for me in the films as well as the anime TV show that details the same story arc. The first two films are largely free of the supernatural, there are some slight undertones but nothing too specific, we just get the feeling that something is not quite right about Gut's mentor Griffith. It's not until the last film that a horrific near Lovecraftian mythology is revealed about the world.
It seems that Griffith's whole life has been about collecting enough soldiers as a sacrifice to a demonic "God-head" so that he can evolve and join them and rule over the universe as a god-like evil. In the climax of the third film, Griffith, alongside all the heroes of the story are transported into a dimension filled with demons, and Guts alongside the rest of the mercenaries are marked with the brand of sacrifice by Griffith so that he can achieve his selfish goals.
Berserk is interesting in that it carries itself as a kind of Game of Thrones-esque Medieval fantasy before descending fast and hard into the darkest of dark fantasy. Again, it conveys that sense of growing dread as we the audience (or the readers) become more and more aware that there is another world - a dark, harsh, uncaring world stirring just below the surface of what we know to be normal.
2. The Witch
Number 2 on my list has to go to this years break out horror movie hit - The Witch, written and directed by Robert Eggers. The Witch follows the lives of a Puritan Christian family too Pious for the Puritan society they live in. Because of the father's Pious pride, they are cast from their village and forced to start a new life on the edge of a big dark forest. Shortly after moving and setting up a small farm, the family's baby goes missing, stolen by what the family believes to be a Witch that lives in the woods. As the film progresses, the family breaks down, backstabbing one another and accusations of being the Witch are thrown around.
The story climaxes with one of the daughters encountering Black Phillip - the Devil in the form of their family goat. She conspires with him before fleeing into the woods where she encounters a coven of witches and eventually joins them herself.
Asides from being an interesting interpretation of feminism and the fears of a patriarch society, The Witch is a haunting movie for many reasons. The reason that lands it so high up on my list here today is the way that the film uses the forest to bring chills to the audience. Throughout the movie we get a sense that the forest is alive. That it is this huge, malevolent presence that has no concern for humanity. This is achieved through a chilling soundtrack and the claustrophobic filming of the trees as they seem to encroach on the family's farmland. Utterly terrifying, and in my opinion truly cosmic in its over arching horror atmosphere, this is definitely a film to see.
Honorable Mention: True Detective S01
An honorable mention needs to go out to the first season of True Detective, created by Nic Pizzolatto. This series just narrowly missed a place in my list due to its entirely NOT cosmic horror based season 2. However after coming up a few times in the comments for this post on Reddit, I have decided to add it in as an honorable mention.
True Detective tells the story of Rust and Marty - two detectives working in the swampy southern state of Louisiana as the hunt for a serial killer over the course of 17 years.
This season has everything an enthusiast of cosmic horror could ask for. It's dark and moody, you get that sense of an "other world" so horrifying that it would drive our protagonists mad to know the complete truth, and lastly there are numerous references to one of Cosmic Horror's Giants - The King in Yellow from the short story collection of the same name by Robert Chambers.
Adding to this, the dialogue from Rust often times feels like a word for word quotation from Thomas Ligotti's philosophical text on Cosmicism - The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
My number one is From Software's amazing Souls-esque game - Bloodborne. The plot of Bloodborne is very hard to pin down, and there in lies its beauty, players must purposefully seek out the plot, and are rewarded for their hard work. The game tells the story of a foreigner who has arrived in the strange city of Yarnham possibly in search of some kind of healing as the city is known for a special medicine - blood originating from a race of Great Old Ones - cosmic entities that once walked their world. However, when the foreigner arrives, he arrives in the middle of "The Hunt" a seemingly endless night where those whom became addicted to the use of the Old Ones blood have transformed into horrific beasts that haunt the city streets. Alongside these creatures, are the hunters - which the foreigner is initiated into, men and women tasked with the slaying of the beasts that infect the city. As the game progresses, the player collects "Insight" which allows them to see the world as it really is - taken over and overwhelmed by the Great Old Ones.
Further than that, the plot becomes incredibly archaic and is revealed through item descriptions, environmental aspects such as architecture, creature design and the occasional abstract dialogue from survivors of the plague.
Bloodborne by far is my top cosmic horror story as it throws the player right in the thick of a dark uncaring universe with really no explanation of what is going on, it's impossibly hard (as it should be when one is facing cosmic deities), makes brilliant use of the Lovecraftian insanity plot device through "insight" (the more you learn the harder it gets due to you loosing your mind) and its in-depth mythology, soundtrack and terrifying creature design certainly inspires the sense of cosmic dread like nothing else on this list.
So there you have it, my top five cosmic horrors in media. I hope you enjoyed the list - feel free to disagree or agree in the comments. Discussion is what this blog is hopefully all about, so have at it, and stay tuned next week for another top 5.