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From the Cosmos to the Depths

It’s extraordinary how H.P. Lovecraft’s literary reputation has grown within my lifetime. Now that Lovecraft and his cuddliest creation, the mighty Cthulhu, are household names, it’s a little sad to think that the fragile and agoraphobic Lovecraft labored largely in obscurity and died in 1937 with no reason to think that his literary legacy would outlive him, let alone that it would inspire an entire cosmos of imitators, expanders, and appreciators of his mythos. Even when I was a young horror reader, Lovecraft was – while not exactly obscure – hardly mainstream, and certainly not the brand name he would become over the last decade or two. Lovecraft’s growing popularity has led to a much-needed examination of the man himself and his defects, in particular his virulent racism, which is utterly inexcusable, and to an appreciation of his contributions to fiction, including his more-or-less single-handed invention of the genre of cosmic horror.

Cosmic horror is based on Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmicism, which places special emphasis on the vast and alien nature of the universe, the lack of a god or cosmic plan, and mankind’s ultimate insignificance in the cosmos. To Lovecraft, this realization was the root of true horror, and his vast and shadowy menagerie of interdimensional aliens, ancient “elder gods,” and human-monster hybrids served as florid and vaguely-described stand-ins for existential alienation. It’s heady stuff, well-worth reading if you’ve never perused any of it, and Lovecraft’s influence has been felt widely and deeply within the genres of horror and science fiction (and elsewhere).

While his stories took place in ancient graveyards and rotting mansions, tiny New England towns and mysterious seaside villages, there are two environments that held special terror for Lovecraft and thus have a special place in his fiction: deep space and the deep ocean. This makes a tremendous amount of sense for a few reasons. First, in terms of scale and the immensity of the unknown, space and the ocean represent vast, dark, undiscovered depths. Compared to such a vast void, human life, human accomplishments, and – most of all – human belief are insignificant. Second, in envisioning what sort of life might lie in the stars, Lovecraft looked to the ocean’s depths and found much that he considered horrifyingly alien. (This may explain why so many of his cosmic critters have tentacles and/or fins.)

There have been a number of excellent Lovecraftian horror films lately, some based directly on Lovecraft’s work (Color out of Space) and others telling original stories either based directly on his mythos (The Void) or heavily influenced by it (Annihilation). One thing that all of these films have in common is that they explore the cosmic side of cosmic horror, addressing menaces or infiltration from beyond the stars – the vast depths of space that Lovecraft found so alien and terrifying.

A new crop of Lovecraftian or Lovecraft-adjacent horror movies are re-centering the fearsome void from the cosmos to the briny deep. Underwater, Sea Fever, and The Beach House represent three different intersections of humanity and ocean: deep under the waves, aboard a boat at sea, and on the shore, respectively, and all offer different takes on otherworldly calamity and contagion. While the three films are different in significant ways, there are thematic overlaps that can tell us interesting things about the anxieties shaping our world today and how those anxieties are uniquely suited to aquatic Lovecraftian horror.

First of all, to a greater extent than the vastness of interstellar space, the lightless depths of the ocean represent a “naturalistic” source of existential terror. While space is just as “natural” as the ocean (as are all things that exist in the universe), space is, to most of us, rather remote, cold, and clinical. We watch the stars and the occasional meteor shower or other cosmic event, but to most of us, interstellar space is a largely theoretical phenomenon. Many (if not most) of us, on the other hand, have been to the ocean and experienced it firsthand: the crash of the waves, the salt spray, the alien life forms left in tide pools for us to gawk at. The very proximity of the ocean coupled with its unknowability makes it feel like a more “natural” threat to us than space. In the Anthropocene era, when rising ocean levels will present humanity with untold challenges, it’s also a natural phenomenon that, unlike deep space, feels more topical than ever.

Life in space is also, for the moment, purely theoretical. Life at the bottom of the ocean – particularly extremophile life forms that thrive near thermal vents – is a confirmed reality, and much of it looks as alien as anything we might imagine encroaching on our fragile little dominion from the stars. In the era of COVID-19 and climate change, the idea of a menace or contagion from the ocean toppling our fragile biome is both Lovecraftian and – considering everything from algae blooms to coral bleaching – all too real.

Horror is a defense mechanism against anxiety, and there is nothing that produces more anxiety than the unknown. For his many glaring defects, H.P. Lovecraft did humanity a service by drawing our attention to the vast cosmos and our place in it – but also, our terrestrial proximity to a gulf as alien and unknowable, in its own way, as the stars.

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