© Schlock! Webzine
This week I have – or more precisely, my horror-fiction-writing pseudonym Jim Mountfield has – a new short story published in Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine. Entitled The Path, it’s an attempt at a sub-genre of horror that I’m particularly fond of, the cosmic horror one. (It also uses some experiences I had while trekking around Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains for four days last year, which I’ve written about already on this blog, starting with this entry.)
Cosmic horror has been described by Vivian Ralickas in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts as “fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance.” Or to use a more straightforward definition that appeared recently on bookriot.com, “cosmic horror tales draw upon the power of the sublime to make us feel small, inconsequential, and totally helpless against something vast and natural.” And small, inconsequential and helpless is how the main protagonist of The Path feels later on in the story.
The person most closely associated with cosmic horror is the verbose American writer Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft, much of whose fiction fitted into what came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos. This was a framework built on the idea that the earth was once ruled by a cabal of vast, terrible and all-powerful alien beings called the Great Old Ones, compared with whom humanity is about as significant as a speck of bacteria. The Great Old Ones are no longer active but, alas, aren’t dead. They’re merely resting and in the modern world are capable of being summoned back to hideous and malignant life. To add to the weirdness of the mythos, Lovecraft bestowed some of the least pronounceable names in literature on his alien creations, such as Nyarlathotep and Shub-Niggurath.
The source of the cosmic horror in The Path remains anonymous and I don’t name-check any of Lovecraft’s entities. Also, I make no attempt to replicate Lovecraft’s uniquely wordy prose – some of the worst writing ever, in my opinion, has been perpetrated by up-and-coming writers trying, and failing, to imitate Lovecraft’s style. But I’d like to think that the story could fit into the above mythos.
In this respect, it’s inspired too by a short story I read as a kid, The Voice of the Beach by Ramsey Campbell, in a long-gone fiction magazine called Fantasy Tales (which, coincidentally, was also the first magazine I ever tried submitting a story to). The Voice of the Beach taught me that you could write a cosmic-horror story in the vein of Lovecraft without referring to his pantheon of tongue-twisting alien deities – who, to be honest, strike me as sounding a bit corny in 2020 – whilst writing it in your own prose-style. You can evoke those feelings of smallness, inconsequentiality and helplessness that Lovecraft evoked in his stories, and pay homage to those stories*, but also do your own thing.
*For the record, I should add that while I rate Lovecraft greatly as a writer, I don’t rate him as a human being. It’s been well-documented that even by the standards of the early 20th century world he lived in, the guy was a racist turd. In appreciating Lovecraft – as I appreciate the oeuvres of, say, Pablo Picasso, Norman Mailer and Roman Polanski – I’m separating the sublimity of the art from the severe personal failings of the artist.