Allegedly, Cosmic Horror and Urban Horror are different genres…however, as more and more authors genre-blend, genre-hop, and layer thematic motifs on top of each other, the lines have (thankfully) blurred.
They are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft is considered the godfather of Cosmic Horror the same way William Gibson is considered the godfather of Cyberpunk– they might not have invented it, but they sure as hell defined it.
Lovecraft’s main point of terror was that of smallness and unimportance. In cosmic horror, an indifferent universe manifests itself in the form of aliens, supernatural foes, or other bizarro entities. The tales recount the cruel indifference of space and time. Nihilism begets mind-breaking terror. The human brain can’t process our own unimportance, so we go mad.
Cthulhu isn’t an alien, Cthulhu is a metaphor for monstrous indifference and cosmic vastness.
Then again, monstrous indifference doesn’t need monstrous countenance. The case of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese proves that. So does ongoing indifference and complicity in a thousand areas of modern life. In fact, for many people in the world, “indifference would be such a relief.” (Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom.)
Which brings us to the topic of…
Urban Horror derives from Urban Gothic, which, of course, derives from general Gothicism/Victorian Gothic, etc. We can trace the roots of this particular devil back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and, arguably, earlier. The focus of these tales generally resides in dark flaws and sinister proclivities in human nature, usually with a supernatural bent. Because of the genre’s usual examination of the darker threads of mankind’s cloth, the stories tend to be more personal and character-driven than the machinations of cosmic horror.
Urban Horror focuses its lens on mankind, not on the indifferent universe around us…or, well, maybe that’s not quite true.
In many Urban Horror stories, monstrous indifference is merely part of modern society. A string of murders goes uninvestigated. People go missing without anyone looking for them. Often, agents of the law in such stories are either incompetent or on the take, just as likely to be working for the villain as against the villain. In Urban Horror, widescale indifference is standard…and where indifference isn’t present, maliciousness replaces it. In fact, the crushing indifference of cosmic horror is often just as present in its urban counterpart, but whereas indifference is a cause for terror in Lovecraftian cosmicism, it’s barely shrug-worthy in many Urban Horror tales. Of course the universe doesn’t care–people barely care.
But, unlike in cosmic horror, the villain is almost always human, humanoid, or taking on the glamour/semblance of humanity. The villains, you see, look just like us. In many ways, they are us.
The Monster at the End of the Story
There are many commonalities between Cosmic and Urban Horror. Crushing indifference, monstrous cruelty, and tragic disasters that go unnoticed.
Lovecraft has been dead some 80 years. Frankenstein is nearly 200.
Times have changed, man.
Let’s look at the biggest difference I considered between these genres: the monster at the end of the story. In Cosmic Horror, the monster manifests the cruel indifference of the cosmos. In Urban Horror, the monster represents mankind’s darker natures, our perpetrated evils. But perhaps even these beasts have more in common than we initially assume…
I’ve already written about the inhuman monsters grinding us away in their teeth, but I’ll go over it again briefly now. There are vast monstrosities destroying people’s lives, and both the universe and the world-at-large are mostly indifferent to their deeds. Most people could easily recall at least four of their names: War, Famine, Pestilence, Death. But what about the hungry Lovecraftian god of Nationalism? What about the festering, many-appendaged grotesquery of White Supremacy? What about the crawling, fungal consciousness of Revenge, spreading its power airborne at the site of every recrimination?
Cthulhu is a metaphor, remember. So is Dagon.
In Stephen King’s It, the monster slumbers for 27 years. How long slumbers the ravening beast of Misogyny? It doesn’t.
This is a story, in brief: a cult of killers ritualistically sacrifices victims to a squamous god of Nationalism. Our protagonists find themselves drawn into the dangerous plot, twisting through a nightmare of localized madness. The cult is routed. The cult leader is the monster at the end of the story. Our protagonists stop the cult leader. The squamous god of Nationalism slumbers, but not for very long. Our protagonists observe the night sky, understanding the smallness of their efforts against the vast shadows of mankind’s character. An epilogue: two cultists escape, driving westward, vowing revenge against a system designed to oppress their beliefs.
Cthulhu, the Darkness of Human Nature
Something roars from an unseen sky and cataclysm rends the earth. You hear screaming. Rubble smolders, guttering black ash from outside your window. An eruption deafens you, and some of the screams die in suddenly muted throats. You scramble for an exit. Desperate, staccato gunfire surrounds you. An apocalypse rages through your town. This happens, somewhere, almost every day. The stars don’t notice. Neither do most people.
Vincent: …you ever heard of Rwanda?
Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.
Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?
Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.
Max: Man, I don’t know any Rwandans.
Vincent: You don’t know the guy in the trunk, either.
He attacked her with a knife at 2:30 AM, to kill a woman. She screamed, cried out, and ran. He followed, stabbing her two more times as she shrieked, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” On the ground, then, he continued stabbing. He used both a knife and a personal appendage, his existence a force of violence against her. A man shouted, almost directionless, “Let that girl alone!” Moseley fled the scene with $49. Sophia Farrar found the raped and bloodied woman and held her until police and emergency workers arrived. The exact time of death is unclear, but the woman died either in Farrar’s arms or in the back of the ambulance, unrevivable. At least 17 people had heard the screams or seen the attack, only 4 or 5 responded.
The earth orbits the sun, waiting to be eaten. One day, the sun will glower its molten countenance, spread its hungry jaws, and devour the whole world’s history.
The sun is not the monster at the end of the stories.Share This: