Journey To Carcosa

Carcosa is a fascinating place, a mythical land that was first written about by iconic author Ambrose Bierce and which was later adopted by a range of other writers before becoming a part of popular consciousness.

There’s a lot for us to talk about here and a lot of different sources to draw upon, so let’s cut to the chase and start travelling. Here’s everything you need to know about Carcosa.

Out Version of Carcosa

We draw inspiration from the more ephemeral representations of Carcosa. In Beyond The Black Sea, Carcosa is a world locked in an orbit with a black hole. Its a sword and sorcery setting mostly of bronze age or more primitive technology. We have several mini sagas set in Carcosa starting with The Skull. We also have our Aldebaran source book which details much of Carcosa, however this is a whole world and our intention is to create enough content for your gaming group to add what you need for the stories you want to tell. 

The Docks

Ambrose Bierce and Carcosa

The story of Carcosa begins with writer Ambrose Bierce and his 1886 short story An Inhabitant of Carcosa. In it, “the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin” tells his tale, culminating with the iconic ending:

A level shaft of light illuminated the whole side of the tree as I sprang to my feet in terror. The sun was rising in the rosy east, I stood between the tree and his broad red disk – no shadow darkened the trunk!

A chorus of howling wolves saluted the dawn. I saw them sitting on their haunches, singly and in groups, on the summits of irregular mounds and tumuli filling a half of my desert prospect and extending to the horizon. And then I knew that these were the ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.

What’s interesting about this is that the city itself barely features in the story. It’s mentioned more in passing than anything, with very little description and the lens of time shrouding the truth about the city. By the time that the reader encounters it, the city has already been destroyed, and we hear about it from a character who used to live there.

So where does the name come from? Interestingly, it seems as though it’s just one of those names that captures people’s imagination, because it’s since been reused by more authors than you can shake a pen at. The leading theory for where Bierce got the name is that he’d heard of the French city of Carcassonne and that he simply modified the Latin name of “Carcosa”, but who knows?


Robert W. Chambers and  Carcosa

Other writers to have used the Carcosa name and concept include Robert W. Chambers, who wrote, “I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon; where the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with its beautiful stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth – a world which now trembles before the King In Yellow.”

So not somewhere you’d want to go on holiday, then.

Chambers’ use of  Carcosa was as a part of his 1895 work The King in Yellow, where the author used the  Carcosa concept along with a couple of Bierce’s other names including Hali (the lake with the twin suns) and Alar, a city that sits beside the lake. If you’re wondering about those twin suns, by the way, Carcosa isn’t a neighbouring planet to Tattooine. It’s said to be in the star cluster Hyades, the closest cluster of stars to our sun.

Other locations mentioned by Chambers include Demhe (with its “cloudy depths”), Hastur, Yhtill and Aldebaran. Not to be confused with Alderaan (what is it with these Star Wars similarities?), Aldebaran is a giant star about 65 light years from our sun. It’s the brightest star in the Taurus constellation and is nicknamed “The Eye of Taurus”, as well as the 14th brightest star in our night sky.

The King in Yellow also includes a short piece of poetry (technically it’s lyrics but without any music) called Cassilda’s Song, which you can listen to in the player below.

H. P. Lovecraft and Carcosa

Carcosa was later picked up by the legendary cosmic horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, who adopted it as part of his Cthulu mythos. This was an important boost for the Carcosa story because Lovecraft himself had a huge legion of admirers, including many writers who themselves expanded on the theme in their own work. On top of Lovecraft, these authors include Karl Edward Wagner, Lin Carter, James Blish and Charles Stross.

We should note, though, that Lovecraft never directly mentioned Carcosa in any of his short stories, or at least in the ones that were published. With that said, he did mention it in in an essay he wrote called Supernatural Horror in Literature. Sharing his experience with reading Chambers’ The Yellow Sign, he wrote, “After stumbling queerly upon the hellish and forbidden book of horrors the two learn, among other hideous things which no sane mortal should know, that this talisman is indeed the nameless Yellow Sign handed down from the accursed cult of Hastur – from primordial Carcosa.”

Lovecraft is also published alongside Chambers and other great writers like Arthur Machen and Edgar Allen Poe in a book called Shadows of Carcosa: Tales of Cosmic Horror. There’s also Lovecraft’s novella The Whisperer in Darkness, which mentions some key bits of lore including Hali and Hastur:

I found myself faced by names and terms that I’d heard elsewhere in the most hideous of [connections] – Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum—and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way. I was told of the pits of primal life, and of the streams that had trickled down therefrom; and finally, of the tiny rivulet from one of those streams which had become entangled with the destinies of our own earth.”

What Carcosa is Like

We’ve shared a few different excerpts throughout this article which should give you a good idea of what Carcosa is like, but there are a few more clues that we can take a look at. In The Repairer of Reputations, a short story in Chambers’ The King in Yellow, we get a few clues such as that there are black stars in the sky and twin suns that sink into Hali. It’s also said that “the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon”.

In a short story called Litany to Hastur, author Lin Carter said that Carcosa has black domes and huge towers. More recently, Neal Wilgus wrote a piece for a 21st century King in Yellow anthology which reimagines the legend and has Carcosa as a mysterious small town in the backwaters of America. What’s cool about this is that they bring it into a modern era by having Hastur’s Hardware store and the Yellow Sign Hotel.

There’s even a direct line of inspiration and retelling linking Carcosa to Stephen King, whose Dark Tower series is loosely inspired by Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. In the same King in Yellow anthology, editor DT Tyrer wrote a piece also based on Browning’s poem and the fairy tales that it inspired in which the Dark Tower itself may just be one of the many towers in Carcosa.

Carcosa in Our World

By this point, you might be thinking that Carcosa doesn’t exist in our own world, and that’s true to a certain extent. That mythical place described by Bierce and Chambers might not exist, but there is a real world place called Carcosa that’s worth mentioning.

Back at the end of the nineteenth century, a building called the Carcosa Mansion was built as the official governmental residence of the Resident-General of the Federal Malay States. The first holder of the office was a guy called Sir Frank Swettenham, who’d read The King in Yellow and who’d liked the name. As recently as 2015, the building was being used as a hotel called the Carcossa Seri Negara, although don’t start booking your flights just yet as it’s now abandoned.

Carcosa has also been used as the name of two different publishing houses. The first was a specialist sci-fi publisher that was formed in 1947 by Frederick B. Shrover, Russel Hodgkins and Paul Skeeters. The second was founded in 1973 by David Drake, Karl Wagner and Jim Groce and published four collections of pulp horror.

Carcosa in Pop Culture

Because of its popularity in literature and fiction, Carcosa has also taken on an important place in popular culture. That means that it’s been reused and remixed in so many different places that it’s often hard to keep track. Just a few of my favourites include:

  • True Detective: Here, Carcosa is a temple used by religious leaders and leading politicians in Louisiana, essentially depicting Carcosa as the heart of a cult which worships “The Yellow King”.
  • The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: There’s a character and a carnival named Carcosa, and it’s slowly revealed that all of the carnival workers are mythological beings and deities.
  • DigiTech: This technology company has released a guitar effects pedal called Carcosa with two modes called Hali and Demhe.
  • Mass Effect: In the third Mass Effect game, there’s a planet called Carcosa.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: In the fantasy series that inspired Game of Thrones, there’s a city of Carcosa that’s ruled by a sorcerer and which sits right at the far eastern edge of the known world on the shores of a huge lake.
  • Joseph S. Pulver: This successful author has written dozens of stories based on the work of Robert W. Chambers, including Carcosa. He’s even acted as the editor for several Carcosa-themed anthologies.

And believe it or not, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the past hundred years or so, there have been so many additions to the Carcosa canon that we’ve only been able to note a few of the most popular and most interesting examples! There’s even a Carcosa-themed board game


Now that you know just a little bit about Carcosa and its real world and fictional heritage, it’s over to you to keep the discussion going. Carcosa has become a little bit like Atlantis in that it’s entered the popular consciousness and been used all over the place as a result of it.

The location has been mentioned so often and in so many different works that it would be impossible for us to cover them all here, and so instead we took a look at just a few of the most noteworthy examples.

And so now it’s over to you so you can share your thoughts on Carcosa. Be sure to leave a comment so we can keep on chatting. I look forward to hearing what you think!t

Cosmic Horror

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.

Cosmic Horror

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.

Deep Time

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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