Cosmic Horror and H. P. Lovecraft’s Influence on Sword and Sorcery
Sword and sorcery is one of my favourite genres, in part because it comes with a certain amount of nostalgia for me, but I’m also partial to a little bit of cosmic horror here and there. In fact, one of my favourite things is when I’m reading some other book, perhaps a thriller or a suspense novel, and little elements of cosmic horror start to creep in.
It happens more often than you might imagine, and there are quite a few reasons for that. One of the biggest reasons is a chap called H. P. Lovecraft, who you’ve probably heard of. His name is synonymous with both cosmic horror and weird fiction, and while he never really wrote straight up sword and sorcery, he certainly had an influence on its development.
That’s why today, we’ll be taking a closer look at H. P. Lovecraft, his unique brand of madness and the influence that it’s had on the genre of sword and sorcery.
The most obvious place to start here is by defining cosmic horror, a term that’s often used interchangeably with the term Lovecraftian horror because they’re essentially the same thing. Cosmic horror brings together elements of horror and science fiction to tell stories that exploit our fear of the unknown and the unknowable, often with the idea that there are things underpinning our reality that are so horrible that to see them would drive us mad or otherwise harm us.
Lovecraft developed an interest in the cosmos after learning about physics and astronomy as a child, something which gave him a deep-seated feeling of mankind’s insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Much cosmic horror is underpinned by the idea that humanity resides in a deep, dark cosmos in which many strange, incomprehensible things are watching us. Interestingly, despite the horror, these entities aren’t always malevolent – sometimes they’re indifferent, and that’s just as bad.
To understand cosmic horror, it helps to first understand Lovecraft. He was something of an anomaly, a man out of time who got much of his sensibilities from the literature of the 18th century. This also goes some way towards explaining why he’s been accused of racism and xenophobia, and not without some merit. But we’re not here to talk about Lovecraft’s politics. We’re here to talk about his incomparable body of work, as well as some of the ideas that Lovecraft’s work has led to.
One of Lovecraft’s most interesting concepts is the idea of deep time, which is essentially the concept that the entirety of human history is but a blink of an eye in the face of the cosmos. Comparing it to a clock, if the earth was formed at midnight and the present day is 24 hours later, humans didn’t show up until 23:58 and 43 seconds.
In the excellent 2008 documentary H. P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, author Caitlin R. Kiernan explained, “Most people tend to think of history in terms of years. Deep time is that time before the comprehension of man. Geological time. You’re working on a timescale where mountains are pushed up and eroded, continents shift, species evolve and become extinct. It’s not really something we can process.”
Lovecraft takes this idea to its logical conclusion, and many of his stories are simply about these old, old evils, the old gods and the strange creatures which predate human memory. This had been done before to an extent, and it’s a staple of much sword and sorcery, but Lovecraft was the first to take those gods and creatures and to show what would happen if they appeared in today’s modern world.
If you thought the dinosaurs of 65 million years ago were crazy enough, wait until you meet the eldritch abominations which are billions of years old – and which have been watching our planet through their dozens of eyes since it first started to form.
The thought of it alone gives me the heebie jeebies, perhaps in part because the hugeness of the universe and the incomprehensibility of deep time keep me awake at night and spark off my anxiety. Lovecraft was able to tap into this deep-seated and very human fear to exploit the emotions of his readership while simultaneously creating his very own genre of fiction from scratch.
In many ways, this reminds me of what Stephen King does with his work. Carrie taps into our fear of social humiliation to make us feel sympathy for the protagonist. The Shining taps into our fear of isolation and being cut off from society. The Stand taps into our (all too legitimate) fears of a global pandemic wiping out most of the population. And I’m still not sure whether he wrote IT because people are scared of clowns or whether people are scared of clowns because he wrote IT.
King himself is a big Lovecraft fan, and it comes across in his work. His famous recurring line of “there are other worlds than these” could well be referring to the mysterious Lovecraftian dimensions from which Cthulhu and other beasties can be summoned through the Necronomicon.
Cosmic Horror in Sword and Sorcery
So how are cosmic horror and deep time linked to sword and sorcery? Well, let’s start with deep time. One of the most obvious comparisons here is the fact that a substantial chunk of sword and sorcery – and fantasy in general – is presented as a land lost in time. In some cases, the fictional worlds are presented as taking place on our planet, but so many millennia ago that the continents and the creatures look vastly different to what we have today.
But to draw that comparison is to underscore just how deep a deep time story can go. With deep time, continents merge and break apart at the speed of a timelapse. Entire species come and go in the blink of an eye.
With that said, we can easily see the influence of deep time in many of the beasts and creatures that the heroes are sent off to fight. In Conan the Destroyer, for example, Robert E. Howard’s iconic barbarian faces off against a manifestation of Dagoth, the Dreaming God. Dagoth is summoned by the placing of a magical horn and a virgin sacrifice as opposed to through the Necronomicon, but otherwise he could easily be some many-tentacled Cthulhian monstrosity.
As for cosmic and Lovecraftian horror, there are definitely echoes of many of Lovecraft’s ideas in some of the harder sword and sorcery. But for me, some of the most interesting parallels between cosmic horror and sword and sorcery occur when we dig down and look at language and writing styles.
H.P. Lovecraft had a unique style of writing, to the point at which you could pick up one of his stories with no name attached to it and immediately know it’s a Lovecraft story from the way it’s written. Even certain words have a Lovecraftian feel. He was a big fan of describing things as Eldritch, for example, or of describing the moon as gibbous.
Lovecraft’s impact on alternative fiction, horror, science fiction and fantasy is impossible to overstate. And just like the way that generations of novelists have emulated and echoed Ernest Hemingway, often without even realising it, many SFF writers do the same thing with Lovecraft. I’ve done it myself without even noticing it. Lovecraft is just that closely associated with the genre.
And this has a delicious knock-on effect when it comes to sword and sorcery, because many sword and sorcery writers are also keen Lovecraft fans because of his depictions of vile and unspeakable creatures. Then, when they write their tales, a little bit of Lovecraft spills out in their writing style, and the results are cracking sword and sorcery novels that I can’t get enough of.
This post is just an introduction to the links between cosmic horror and sword and sorcery, and I’d encourage you to go out and do a little research of your own. What at first glance might seem like a tenuous link quickly becomes something bigger, and once you scratch the surface you realise you’re looking down at a mountain.
In fact, you could easily write a full dissertation on the topics that we’ve covered today, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found that somebody, somewhere, already has. But in the meantime, hopefully this post has helped to act as an introduction and you’ve learned something new today that you didn’t know already.
No genre lives in isolation, and sword and sorcery is no different. It’s inspired by everything from cosmic horror through to old Greek legends, but I find that Lovecraft’s influence in particular can be felt, particularly in the sword and sorcery movies of the 80s.
Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard were contemporaries, and so while it was Howard who essentially defined the genre of sword and sorcery, we shouldn’t be surprised that a certain Lovecraftian vibe has slipped in too. And perhaps now you’ll start to notice some more of the similarities. Happy reading!
Article Written by Dane Cobain for Epiphany Entertainment
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