cosmic horror

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This is a basic guide to cosmic horror, which is the primary genre we use to shape the lore of the Nameless City!

What is it?




genre evolution

cited sources

What is it?

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Cosmic horror focuses on the fear of the unknowable. It draws upon the power of the sublime to make us feel small, inconsequential, and totally helpless against something vast and natural.

Cosmic horror is also about finding those moments where the unknown crashes up against the known. Maybe you’ve always avoided open water because it makes you feel powerless. A good cosmic horror story would play on that fear, driving you to a startling encounter with the ocean where you are forced to confront how little you can do to change vast cosmic forces that shape humanity.

If you thought we have control over our natural world, cosmic horror will make you think twice.

In addition, cosmic horror can also be intensely psychological. This genre of horror will often ask us to doubt our default psychological experience. What is “reality” if not a construct we take for granted? Psychology still has blind spots in understanding the brain. Cosmic horror delights in exploiting that endless unknown of the mind.

To appreciate the cosmic mystery that cosmic horror artists try to convey and conjure to hideous life in stories, we are invited to consider human knowledge as a flat plane in the middle of black depths of outer space. The plane is thin, fragile, and ever-tilting, like a huge pane of glass. Everything within that plane has been explained and understood: terrestrial biology, classical physics, physiology, large swaths of human history.

But as soon as you step near the edges, you face the abysmal immensity of all that is unknown: numberless galaxies, planets, and stars that have existed for billions of years; white dwarfs-cum-black holes dense enough to bend time; an infinite kaleidoscopic expanse, potentially just one of many infinite expanses in a hydra-headed multiverse that perpetually begs the question of its own sentience.


Cosmic truth and revelation

Cosmic horror is first and foremost a genre about change and discovery. A protagonist discovers profound, often unsettling, existential truths throughout the story. The discovery process is part of what makes the genre so active and engaging.

Questions not answers

There must be a curiosity, on the part of the reader, and often also on the part of the protagonist. Both reader and character should ask questions. Second, some of these questions should be unanswered, or possibly unanswerable. Finally, because this genre is horrific, at least one of the following should be true: asking questions should be dangerous; the answers provided should be bleak, deadly, or large and uncaring; or the question should be unanswerable but still perceptible. The genre is about asking questions and receiving answers which are partial, dangerous, impossible, or create more questions or any combination of those. With these ideas in mind, let's break down some tools for writing cosmic horror.


Generally, they are helpless in the face of unfathomable and inescapable powers, which reduce humans from a privileged position to insignificance and incompetence. These characters are often loners, isolated people without close personal ties.

Cosmic indifference

Thematically, the primary attribute of the cosmic horror story is the idea that human beings are insignificant and inconsequential in the scope of cosmic reality. Humanity is at best a nominal footnote in the history of the universe, and at worst deserves no notice whatsoever.


The fear of the Other, the alien, and the unknown are central tenets that underscore the terror in the cosmic horror story. The xenophobia and racist overtones in many of Lovecraft's stories are unarguable, but the underlying fear of what one does not understand remains the pervasive note. One might argue that the enduring nature of Lovecraft's work is not in spite of his racism, but precisely because his racism allowed him to tap into every reader's deepest irrational terror of the Other.

This alienation further extends to the self. There is often an alien nature to a character's ancestry and personal relationships, with questions of alien or supernatural parentage and sinister personal acquaintances.


The characters of cosmic horror stories often skirt the line of rationality and sanity. Sanity is displayed as a fragile and tenuous thing, with the experience of the horrors of the true nature of reality being enough to drive one to madness.

The eldritch abomination

This type of antagonist, is a common trope in the cosmic horror story. Always horrific in appearance, and occasionally beyond human description or comprehension, these monsters threaten the boundaries of reality. At best their motives are inconceivable or in disregard of humanity, at worst they are a malevolent force actively seeking to subvert or corrupt human society. The various "gods" of the Mythos are counted in this category.

The cult

This other common antagonistic force frequently seek to act as agents of eldritch abominations or other malevolent/alien forces. The reach of their sinister network is unknown, but is suspected to influence many powerful men and women.

Secret knowledge

Whether it's the forbidden tome of the Necronomicon or an ancient chant that speaks of mysterious evils, secret knowledge drives many cosmic horror stories. Often this secret knowledge or the revelation thereof may drive a character to madness or send them down a path of horror and despair. Frequently, these secrets reveal the agency of a cult or an eldritch abomination or give a forbidden glimpse into their realm.

The tainted bloodline

In no small part influenced by the philosophy of eugenics, and H.P. Lovecraft's own prejudices, there is a recurring theme that one has a horrifying or monstrous ancestor. This, by virtue of the bloodline, taints the character and may influence them as if by proxy.

Power Corrupts

In the quest for power, Cosmic Horror often focuses on the consequences of seeking or attaining knowledge. This may manifest as madness, loss of reputation, distortion of the body, or the loss of self. The closer one comes to their eldritch influence, the higher the cost. This, in turn, reinforces other themes, keeping the unknown unknowable and the lonely even more isolated.

Body Horror

The loss of control of one's own body is not an uncommon theme in Cosmic Horror, scaling the massive sense of the unknown down to a personal level. The sense of one's own body being taken over by an outside entity, or betraying the individual in some way, is often found in this genre. The following examples are several methods through which Body Horror can be achieved.

Many eyes

This can be shown in different forms, whether it's human entities, or insectoid creatures. This may also harken back to biblical angels, which can embody a horrifying or awesome entity with immense power. The sense of being watched may also contribute to frayed sanity for your isolated protagonist.

Genitals and tentacles

At first pass, tentacles are an immediate sign of "not human" and "otherworldly." They are physically overwhelming and speak not only of an inhuman entity but also of the potential for an entire world or environment which could support such strangeness. Their psuedo-sexual nature can be expanded on by the presence of actual genitals, such as in the work of HR Giger, This is, in some ways, the purest form of body horror: taking the part of one's body that could be considered the most sacrosanct and making it horrifying and dangerous. Cosmic horror's genital fascination can range from a blow against puritanical ethos and an embrasure of the Other.

slick and sticky

Protean semi-gelatinous substances and slime are core to cosmic horror, as opposed to elements of other horror, such as blood, bones, or corpses. Slime is as necessary to the function of our natural world as blood is to human life, but it rests in an uncomfortable crossroads: neither solid nor liquid, with equal opportunities for sterility and disease. Slime is both birth and death in one.

The sublime

Many narratives over the course of history involve exploration, but cosmic horror's willingness to have its explorers bite off more than they can chew is crucial. This genre's relationship with the abyss, from the deepest sea to the vastness of space, embraces the insignificance of humanity in the face of the Great Beyond. In turn, the sublime abyss can then become the stage for birth, death, and transformation.


Usually viewed as symbols of safety—lighthouses are beacons guiding lost ships to the safety of human civilization and out of the treachery of nature (the dangerous waves). But in the cast of cosmic horror, they very often represent the foolishness of believing in human power over nature.





trigger warning:

uncensored fascist language

The cosmic horror genre is also known at Lovecraftian horror, which is named after American author H. P. Lovecraft. “Lovecraftian horror” and “cosmic horror” are often used interchangeably.

A prolific author, Lovecraft penned many stories and novels that are often grouped together in the Cthulhu Mythos. His mythologies seep into the works of Ridley Scott, Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and countless others, and they are rigorously dissected in academic schools ranging from speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy to posthumanism and human-animal studies.

Lovecraft’s fiction established the Cosmicism literary philosophical movement, of which cosmic horror is one example.

In 1927, Lovecraft’s oft-quoted take on cosmic horror appeared in Weird Tales: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” One must “forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, [have] any existence at all.” Crucial to all of his stories is the question of the outside, which breaks in from unknown dimensions and upsets his character’s perception of space, time, and history.

When Lovecraft died in 1937, his work had yet to see its full popularity. Yet as his reputation became more widely known and his writing found an audience, Lovecraft became scrutinized more critically. Both Lovecraft’s fiction and his personal life endorsed racist views. His own views reflect a position of white supremacy. Meanwhile, his stories often antagonize non-Anglo Saxon races and people who are not of English descent.

So long as modern stories of white genocide, superpredators, and the alleged master race find fertile ground on American soil, the contemporary relevance of Lovecraft will extend beyond what some fans care to admit. His bigotry and race-inflected narratives can’t be wished away, cherry-picked, or swept under the rug in favor of his more widely known literary techniques and accomplishments — especially as hell-bent right-wing insurgents proudly claim him as a true elaborator of reactionary horrors.

Making no efforts to conceal his bigoted theories, Lovecraft took to pen and publication with the most grotesque appraisals of those he deemed inferior. His letters overflow with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of an underground Jewry pitting the economic, social, and literary worlds of New York City against “the Aryan race.” He warned of “the Jew [who] must be muzzled” because “[he] insidiously degrades [and] Orientalizes [the] robust Aryan civilization.” His sympathies with rising fascism were equally transparent. “[Hitler’s] vision . . . is romantic and immature,” he stated after Hitler became chancellor of Germany. “I know he’s a clown but god I like the boy!”

And his contempt for black people ran even deeper. In his 1912 poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers,” the gods, having just designed Man and Beast, create blacks in semi-human form to populate the space in between. Regarding the domestic terrorism of white minorities in the predominantly black Alabama and Mississippi, he excused them for “resorting to extra-legal measures such as lynching and intimidation [because] the legal machinery does not sufficiently protect them.”

He lamented these sullen tensions as unfortunate, but nevertheless says that “anything is better than the mongrelisation which would mean the hopeless deterioration of a great nation.” Miscegenation permeates his letters and stories as his most corporeal fear; he insists that only “pain and disaster [could] come from the mingling of black and white.”

One of Lovecraft’s notable tales concerns a troubled detective who comes across a “hordes of prowlers” with “sin-spitted faces . . . [who] mix their venom and perpetrate obscene terrors.” They are of “some fiendish, cryptical, and ancient pattern” beyond human understanding, but still retain a “singular suspicion of order [that] lurks beneath their squalid disorder.” With “babels of sound and filth,” they scream into the night air to answer the nearby “lapping oily waves at its grimy piers.” They live within a “maze of hybrid squalor near an ancient waterfront,” a space “leporous and cancerous with evil dragged from elder worlds.” One could be forgiven for mistaking this space as an evil abyss populated by beasts from the mythical Necromonicon. However, this vignette is from his short story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” And the accursed space is not some maleficent mountain of the The Great Old Ones, but the Brooklyn neighborhood right off the pier. The brutish monsters, conduits for a deeper evil, are the “Syrians, Spanish, Italian and Negro[s]” of New York City.

Scholars and fans alike concern themselves with Lovecraft's legacy being tarnished, the more light that is shed upon his tasteless views. But his legacy is firmly planted. His cosmology sprawls from popular culture to niche corners of scholasticism. Complaints of a potentially tarnished reputation are more concerned with bolstering the illusion of Lovecraft as a sacrosanct figure.

Even further, to divorce his racism from his literary creations would be a pyrrhic victory; what results is a whitewashed portrait of a profound writer. And from a criticism standpoint, what’s lost is any meaningful grappling with the connection between Lovecraft’s racism and the cosmic anti-humanism that defined his horror.

If you're interested in learning more about Lovecraft's issues with white supremacy, please explore our Sources at the end of this site.

genre evolution

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Reckoning with Lovecraft’s problematic legacy is a point of dialogue for modern writers of horror and speculative fiction. One notable milestone was when Black author Nnedi Okorafor blogged about her discomfort at receiving the 2011 World Fantasy Award, which was given as a bust of Lovecraft.

"A statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home," she wrote, "a statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color)."

The incident brought awareness to the issues in continuing to glorify the author while glossing over the pain and prejudice he promoted.


Unlike the genre’s forefathers, however, today’s Eldritch writers working in the cosmic horror genre are grappling with Lovecraft’s racism head on. A new class of diverse writers engage with the issues in their work.

“A lot of Eldritch creators now are queer, BIPOC, mentally ill or disabled in some way," said St. Louis creator and illustrator Marie Enger. "We see ourselves in Eldritch horror because a lot of the characters in Eldritch horror experience a lot of the same scenarios that we do, and are told: ‘No, no, no, you don't actually experience these things.’”

While Lovecraft might have started the cosmic horror genre, today it ultimately belongs to the people who are writing and reading it, reflecting a growing diversity within the genre.


Our goal with the Nameless City is to continue the good work of this subversion: we are a community of primarily under-voiced creators. As individuals, many of us are LGBTQIA+, gender-queer, AFABs, BIPOC, neuro-divergent, anti-colonialist — a scrolling list of things Lovecraft would have hated. We work together to elevate and uplift each other, to embrace the Strange as we who have been called Strange would like to be embraced.

Whether it's reclaiming Lovecraft's landscape (our map looks like New York City, and Red Hook is nothing like what Lovecraft would enjoy) or queering his intention, our hope is to give you a foundation where you can test your own limits, and explore your relationship with the cosmic horror that is the very act of living and writing in our modern times.

media with cosmic horror themes

Pastel Halloween Moon


  • 20 Minutes Til Dawn
  • Abandon Ship
  • Agony
  • Binding of Isaac
  • Blasphemous
  • Bloodborne
  • Bug Snax
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Carrion
  • Control
  • Cultist Simulator
  • Cult of the Lamb [2022]
  • Dark Souls series
  • Darkest Dungeon series
  • Darkwood
  • Dead Cell
  • Death and Taxes
  • Dredge [2023]
  • Faith
  • F.E.A.R.
  • Fear & Hunger
  • Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure
  • Inscription
  • Last Case of Benedict Fox
  • Mortal Shell
  • Norco
  • Observation
  • Omori
  • Only Cans
  • Outerwilds
  • Pale Beyond, The [2023]
  • Prey
  • Remnant: From the Ashes
  • Room series
  • Scorn
  • Shadows Over Loathing
  • Soma
  • Signalis
  • Sinking City, The
  • Stirring Abyss
  • Strange Horticulture
  • Sucker for Love
  • Sunless Sea
  • Sunless Skies
  • Undertale
  • We Have to Go Deeper
  • World of Horror


  • Absentia [2011]
  • A Cure for Wellness [2016]
  • Alien series [1979-present]
  • AM1200 [2008]
  • Annihilation [2018]
  • Beyond the Black Rainbow [2010]
  • Bird Box [2018]
  • Burrowers, The [2008]
  • Color Out of Space [2019]
  • Cthulhu [2007]
  • Dark City [1998]
  • Empty Man, The [2020]
  • Endless, The [2017]
  • Europa Report [2013]
  • Event Horizon [1997]
  • Evil Dead [1983]
  • Hellraiser [1987]
  • Jacob’s Ladder [1990]
  • Jug Face [2013]
  • Last Wave, The [1977]
  • Lighthouse, The [2019]
  • Mandy [2018]
  • Messiah Of Evil [1973]
  • Pandorum [2009]
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock [1975]
  • Pontypool [2005]
  • Pulse [2001]
  • Re-animator [1985]
  • Ritual, The [2017]
  • Shape of Water, The [2017]
  • Starfish [2019]
  • Sunshine [2007]
  • Tetsuo The Iron Man [1989]
  • Thing, The [1982]
  • Under the Skin [2013]
  • Void, The [2016]
  • X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes [1963]
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Cited Sources

A Short History of the LGBTQ+ Mythos by Bobby Derie

Animal Symbolism in Works of H. P. Lovecraft by Augustín Sokol and Jozefa Pevčíková

Cosmic Horror: A History by Carina Bissett

Cosmic Horror: A Study of the Unknowable by B.K. Bass

Cosmic Horror: The Terrifying Sub-Genre, Explained by Emmett O'Regan

How to Use Lovecraftian Horrors in Your Stories by David Mesick

How to Write Cosmic Horror Stories: 5 Lovecraftian Examples by Masterclass

Lovecraft Fandom Wiki: Cosmic Horror

The Emotional Rise of Cosmic Horror by Mary Beth McAndrews

We Can’t Ignore H.P. Lovecraft’s White Supremacy by Wes House

What Is the Cosmic Horror Genre in Film and TV? by Jason Hellerman Woodbury

Why Cosmic Horror is Hard To Make by Screened [video]

Wikipedia: Lovecraftian Horror

Your Introduction to the Cosmic Horror Genre by Sarah S. Davis

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