The only thing spookier than the unknown is… something you don’t know about! This podcast isn’t just about horror. It’s about the creeping dread of an uncaring cosmos, and also air conditioners for some reason. That’s right, we’re talking about cosmic horror: what it is, how to use it, and whether it’s best as a spice or the full meal.


Generously transcribed by James. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren and with me today is –

Chris: Chris

Oren: And

Wes: Wes.

Oren: And today we have the unknowable horror of something you don’t know.

Chris: Duun Duuhn.

Wes: Spoooooky.

Chris: You know, a lot of things that are scary pretty much all rely on the unknown.

Oren: They do.

Chris: Once things become familiar, I mean, they still can be threatening, but it’s not the same anymore. But personally, I think one thing that distinguishes something we may or may not have mentioned yet is awe.

Oren: Yeah. Cosmic horror is the topic of today and yeah, I do think that there is a certain amount of awe that is inspired by things in cosmic horror. I would have said that all horror uses the unknown and the mysterious to a certain extent, but I think cosmic horror tends to use it a lot more and really emphasizes how this is weird and strange and even, dare I say, unknowable although that can be a real cop out.

Wes: But you’re right. It’s right there in the title. The scale of things is cosmic. So, awe is something you get when your protagonist stumbles upon cyclopean cities from an ancient age and the character is literally dwarfed in the presence of these things, which is important for the themes of cosmic horror.

Chris: Yeah. I have an article in which I talk about creating a mysterious atmosphere in which I talk about because awe requires mystery. It’s the combination of massive, impressive scale or scale at any vector with a sense of mysteriousness, and I feel like that’s what really distinguishes cosmic horror to a certain extent, although of course, it’s a sandwich. There are variations. Not all stories focus on the cosmic level elements as much.

Oren: Yeah, you’re going to get fuzzy things around the edges, like The Color Out of Space. Most people would agree that’s cosmic horror but unlike a lot of other stories in the genre, in The Color Out of Space there isn’t a giant threat to earth – it’s a single creature. Now, granted, there is a certain level of literal cosmicness to it because it comes from space. But there’s not really anything to indicate that there is a larger danger present, which is common in a lot of other cosmic horror.

Wes: Yeah, I think that’s a good one to contrast with since you mentioned that Lovecraft story, like At the Mountains of Madness that takes place in Antarctica. That is very different. Not in the threat, but just in the scale of what they’re looking at, like the ancient cities. Everything is just suddenly filled with wonder and it’s weird. I had a friend that just got back from Antarctica, and she said that it is weird, and it feels like everything wants to kill you.


Wes: I guess there’s something to these to these spaces where people dare not tread or should not.

Oren: Yeah. And if you want an example of a story that does that from someone other than Lovecraft and honestly, who could blame you, you can always check out the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, which is extremely cosmic horror and in this case it’s all about this weird Area X, which is [creepy voice] ‘pristine wilderness’, which is a term that they use a lot. And it starts to sound very creepy after a while.

And there are, of course, implications that Area X itself is expanding and devouring everything around it. But even before you know that it’s this huge place that doesn’t have any people in it and is weird and operates by strange rules that you don’t understand. So that has your classic awe-inspiring grandness to the horror that you might come to expect from a cosmic horror story.

Chris: I do like that VanderMeer’s aesthetics are very different though, because he loves weird biology and plants and animals. So Area X doesn’t have the same types of creatures in it. It’s very much like Florida wilderness that’s gone strange.

Oren: Stranger.


Chris: Other interesting themes – dangerous knowledge is one that I like and find interesting, not that we always want to stigmatize knowledge, but I think the idea isthat the universe is inherently uncaring, even antagonistic, and so when you learn about the universe you actually learn lots of bad things that are damaging to your mental well-being.

Oren: Right. And with the whole trope of dangerous knowledge, I mean, you can go at that in a couple of different ways.

You can go with knowledge that’s literally dangerous, which is why it would probably be a bad idea to flood the Internet with instructions on how to make a nuclear bomb in your kitchen. The potential for harm is extremely high.

But then you can also have knowledge that threatens your worldview in a way that is extremely unpleasant, if not outright painful or psychologically damaging. Now, unfortunately, that has been kind of magnified in a lot of cosmic horror stories to the stereotype or trope you get in Call of Cthulhu. Like, [old man voice] ‘Oh no, I read the spell of how to summon a big old glowing fist and now I have some kind of vague, unspecified mental illness.’ That’s not how that works.

Chris: Yeah. I do like the idea of magic being corrupting, and I think it’s helpful in many stories because magic is so powerful. It gives the protagonist a reason not to use it and often makes magic users into antagonists instead, which sometimes just works better.

Oren: Yeah. I have no problem with the idea of magic itself being corruptive or corrosive in some way. And you can mix those things, right? You can have the idea of the reason this person is all weird now after they read the spellbook isn’t because of the words they read. It’s because that book conveyed magical knowledge and magic is corrosive.

But that can be kind of hard to communicate. And so a lot of cosmic horror type stories are just sort of like, [old man voice] ‘Oh look, a spooky spellbook and waahh now I’m evil.’

Wes: I’m not a huge fan of the terms, but in Trail of Cthulhu by Kenneth Hite and Robin D Law they had three aspects of health, physical health, and then stability and sanity.

I always like the stability one, because I think it’s getting at what you’re talking about Oren. You can cast spells, but it kind of just messes with you. Like you’re just shaky or nauseated or just kind of generally unwell from the experience of foreign magic. But nothing about that has made you suddenly realize that I don’t know, Catholicism is a lie.


Wes: That differentiation I think is important. And it works really well in a game but in stories, I don’t know, they just want to blow everything up immediately.

Chris: So I just want to mention that we do have a Q&A on the site that talks about the concept of, quote unquote, losing sanity that isn’t a lot of cosmic horror and how to make that not ableist. So I thought I’d just go over that quick.

The Q&A is written by our disability consultant, Fay. The biggest general principle is to just get more specific because part of the problem with the idea of sanity is that it’s used as a very broad category for a lot of different things. If you have somebody lose sanity, whatever that is, and then they have various kinds of symptoms, it feels like you’re making a statement about conditions that you probably don’t want to make that statement about and lumping a lot of people together and oftentimes stigmatizing different people. So generally, instead of giving a catch-all term, you just want to get specific.

Is a character disillusioned? Did they have faith in the world and that everything happens for a reason and that goes away and now they’re all jaded, for instance? Or do they have specific symptoms like disturbing hallucinations or waking nightmares? Are they feeling angry or aggressive? Do they doubt their own memories? Do they drink a holistic cup of depression?

Wes: That helps ward off the effects.


Wes: If anything, that’s a preventative.

Chris: If you just get specific about what its effects are and show that, then you don’t have to worry so much about this broader term that has more ableist implications and could cause you to make statements that you don’t really want to make.

Oren: Yeah. And I do think that maybe one of the reasons that cosmic horror stories tend to exaggerate this process that we’re talking about, like, [old man voice] ‘Oh, I read a spell and it was real spooky and now I’m a serial killer’, is that at least in my experience, cosmic horror often tends to work better in short stories because it is harder to maintain the mystery and the unknowableness over a longer period of time. The longer you have to be in that space, the harder it is to maintain that without it just getting frustrating.

Not to say that it can’t be done. There are some longer works of cosmic horror that do it very well. But I think it’s an easier set of tropes to employ in a shorter story. The downside is that in a shorter story, you don’t have a lot of time to demonstrate that someone is having a bad day because of the weird eldritch knowledge that they’re absorbing.

Wes: Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Philosophy of Composition, and he talked about what the point of a short story was. Short forms should focus on evoking some kind of feeling. And it’s the only form that works for that. So, yeah, cosmic horror, definitely the longer you get, the less chance of like an awe or terror or whatever you’re going for can be applied.

Oren: And you also, of course, have to think about what kinds of things are your readers likely to find weird or disturbing. Because that’s part of what makes a lot of cosmic horror, especially one written by old H. P., seem just kind of silly now because the guy was terrified of air conditioners and has a story about an evil air conditioner, which is a lot funnier than his stories about evil black people and evil Italians.

So beyond the racism, there is just some bizarre humor because he was scared of some very weird things that probably most people at his time would not have been scared of. And especially to modern readers that are like, ‘What? What’s the problem? I don’t get it.’


Oren: So you keep that in mind. And in general, I would say that this is a common problem in all cosmic horror, not just Lovecraft. Writers sometimes forget that making something mysterious is an enhancement of making it threatening. It doesn’t make it threatening on its own.

This is a problem all the way back to Lovecraft’s story, Dagon, where the main protagonist is like, [funny voice] ‘Oh my God, it’s a fish man.’ And it’s like, ‘What is that fish man doing?’


He walks past and goes to an altar and performs a religious service. And unless you’re just extremely racist, that’s not scary.

That problem persists into the modern day where The City We Became uses a lot of cosmic horror tropes and the bad guys get less scary because they start off as racist cops and they’re terrifying and then they become weird tentacle monsters, and this is actually less scary than the racist cops.

Chris: Definitely with the fish people, or Deep Ones, who felt like they might be analogies to other races. Winter Tide is such a good book for then recasting that. And it’s like, ‘No, this time we’re going to show that The Deep Ones are an oppressed group, show that side of the story,’ and kind of takes that and twists it in a very interesting way.

Oren: Winter Tide is such a fun example of a tactic that I’m very fond of personally, which is to use cosmic horror as a spice rather than as the entire meal.

Because if you compare Winter Tide to something like Maplecroft, where Maplecroft is a straight up cosmic horror novel through and through. Whereas Winter Tide has cosmic horror elements (there is a deep devouring hunger that they have to deal with at some point), but a lot of the story is dealing with much more personal and much more mundane evils of racism and government targeting of minorities and stuff like that and academic bureaucracy. There is such a thing as bureaucracy horror, but I don’t think Winter Tide quite rises to that level.

So that is a tactic that I like a lot just because I found that cosmic horror is very compatible with most other genre tropes, unless you’re trying to do something that is light and fluffy, in which case probably not.

Chris: The risk is that if you have your mysterious elements for too long, they will not be mysterious anymore. Maplecroft definitely has a fair amount of buildup, and so it needs other problems that the characters are facing so that we can slowly introduce the cosmic elements and have them not front and center at first. I think that’s the issue.

If you decide to pull out your cosmic horrors in Chapter One, then you’re going to reveal them too fast, and you need room to first set the mood and then slowly build. And then you’ve got to keep your characters busy while you’re doing that.

Oren: Maplecroft, at least the way I remember it, Wes, you’ve read it more recently than me. I believe it starts with a fish person attack, a Deep One or whatever you want to call them in that story. And then the action that keeps the characters busy for the rest of the story is investigating that and dealing with the social fallout of whatever is happening. But it’s much more focused on the unknowable danger than Winter Tide is, I would say, anyway, after reading both.

Chris: There’s definitely chapters of Maplecroft where we do things like focus on a glass or stone or something that gives off weird vibes. Before the monsters come back in the house we focus on the weird stone. We have a doctor who’s reporting on a case study of a disease for a while. We still have smaller signs of horror there that then are allowed to build before the monster comes back anyway.

Wes: Unlike Winter Tide, sustained cosmic horror wants you to feel that, but there is more of a mystery involved where solving it saves and damns people. I think that’s the crux of it. And why Winter Tide doesn’t really do that. There’s less noir vibes than certainly Maplecroft.

Oren: A character does die in their attempt to fix things in Winter Tide. But it’s not a character we particularly care about as opposed to in Maplecroft, where a protagonist’s girlfriend just goes missing. And it’s like, ‘Uh, I’m sad about that.’ Then the sequel teases us about her and then doesn’t resolve the story line, and now I’m just angry.


Chris:  The other interesting thing about Maplecroft is that it sticks with the epistolary style, similar to what H. P. did, which is an interesting choice. Of all the epistolary works I’ve read, it is one of the better ones with that medium, which is really tricky. And I think that often it is hard to convey information if you’re using epistolary narration, but that is maybe to cosmic horror’s benefit. Because less is more in this case. Eventually in Maplecroft, we do get into blow-by-blow action scenes, which characters are less likely to write down, but it sticks to it decently well.

Oren: There was a weird spate of YouTube videos a few years back where people were really wringing their hands over the question of, ‘Are you allowed to shoot Cthulhu?’ And it was interesting because the whole thing was about, ‘Well, if you can defeat the Elder God with weapons or a spell or something, is it really cosmic horror?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, you just need to understand what effect that is going to have on the story going forward.’ So if you defeat Cthulhu with a magic ritual, that can work perfectly well. It’s just that you can’t really use Cthulhu as a cosmic horror threat anymore in that story.

Chris: I would almost say if you can defeat Cthulhu, it’s not really Cthulhu. You’ve created your own lesser version of Cthulhu. So I understand Cthulhu is supposed to be a cosmic scale. So that seems… I don’t know.

Oren: You probably wouldn’t put him in a headlock and take him to the showers or something.


Oren: But it would be like you perform a spell that stops the Old Ones from rising from the Deeps or what have you. That’s credible. That works fine with the established canon of Cthulhu as we have it.

Chris: If you defeat Cthulhu by shooting him with a gun, that’s inherently an action-scene oriented fight. You’re not just appeasing him with a ritual sacrifice or something.

Wes: I think one of the funniest mundane Eldritch deaths in pretty much any cosmic horror story I’ve ever read, hopping back into Lovecraft, is in The Dunwich Horror where there’s a whole other thing going on with a much bigger threat. But Wilbur Whateley is the humanoid that has Eldritch or Old One parentage and so his body is very different.

He basically goes to the library to steal something, I think, from Dr. Armitage and the guard dog just takes him out. This horrifying guy with Eldritch powers and the guard dog is just like, ‘You smell bad, Imma eat you.’ And he does. And that is the end of that guy.

Oren: Lovecraft has a thing about dogs. Dogs are very powerful. There’s a Lovecraft story where a guy is being harassed by aliens and the aliens can’t get to him until they find out a way to take out his dogs. Because sure, cross the vacuum of space in advanced technology, whatever. But here are some dogs. You’ve got to watch out.

Chris:  Did H. P. have dogs? And do I want to know what H. P. did with them?

Wes: As far as I know, he only had cats.

Oren: Yeah, less said about his cats, the better.

Chris:  Looping back on what you said about using cosmic horror as a spice. I think that’s one of the neat things about it. That you can just take a lot of other settings and just throw it in as the source of threat. And it works really well.

One of the interesting stories that I did not think about is Conan the Barbarian. I did not think about the fact that that story actually has cosmic horror elements. And still I was doing a critique of The Eye of Argon, which has a reputation for being the worst story ever written. It just has a lot of really funny word choices is what it has. Like somebody was using the thesaurus badly.

The interesting thing about it is it’s obviously derived from Conan the Barbarian. And it’s interesting to see it suddenly go into cosmic horror territory. And I was surprised by that.

But actually, after talking to Oren, he said, ‘No, actually Conan the Barbarian does that too, because you do have cults in Conan the Barbarian getting powers and doing sacrifices.’ And so it’s hard to imagine cosmic horror in sword and sorcery. But it works. It provides the source of threat.

Oren: It depends on the Conan story. But Conan often runs into things that in a Lovecraft story would be cosmic horror. In a Conan story, sometimes they are and sometimes it’s just like, And here, a cult, I’m going to chop them up with my sword. It depends on how strong Conan is that episode.

Chris:  If feel like the purpose of cultists is to give the human something to shoot instead of Cthulhu.

Wes: Yeah, I think that’s right.

Oren: I mean, there is something to that. But sometimes Conan is strong enough to fight the entire city garrison. And sometimes he’s scared of a large ape. So it depends on what Conan story we’re talking about. Partly because Howard and Lovecraft were writing at the same time, their stuff often shows up in each other’s stories. And there are some Conan stories that do have the larger themes and tropes we associate with cosmic horror of the unknowable evil and what have you. And then sometimes he just meets a weird squid god and he stabs it.

Chris:  OK, no I just want to know what Conan conventions show up in H. P. Lovecraft’s work.

Oren: It’s been a while. I can’t tell you off the top of my head.

Chris:  We’ll leave this question for another podcast. We’ll love to imagine big muscled shirtless guys bursting in.

Wes: I think cultists are probably a pretty good moniker for cosmic horror. Just the presence of them suggests that there’s something untoward happening, not sanctioned by the authorities, and there’s probably sacrifices there. If you have a cult show up, it’s immediately like, ‘OK, creepy things are going on.’

Oren: And there are plenty of cosmic horror stories that don’t have cultists. But it goes back to the awe concept we were talking about earlier. Because this thing is awe inspiring. And so it has people who worship it because it’s so big and weird and grand.

Chris:  Another thing that’s really great about cosmic horror is the fact that because it’s largely a feeling, it really allows for a lot of variety. You want things that are strange, but they can be strange in just about any way. You can have space opera with cosmic horror that has weird aliens. You can have urban fantasy with cosmic horror because there’s magical creatures coming in, and so it makes it very versatile.

Oren: Urban fantasy is an interesting one, because you have to do some work to separate your cosmic horror elements from your more traditional urban fantasy elements. Because if you have a vampire or a werewolf and they have their own powers that can make the cosmic horror not really particularly scary because like, ‘Oh, look, well we already have magic and we know all about that.’ So if you’re going to do that, you just have to be careful to make your Old Ones or your Elder gods or whatever they’re called, weird and different even compared to the magical creatures that your protagonists probably are.

Chris:  Because magical creatures are familiar in an urban fantasy setting, and so you need them to still feel strange.

Oren: Familiar and of course, more powerful. So if you don’t do that properly then it can feel like, ‘OK, well, now my supernatural creatures are just on the same level as whatever my cosmic horror elements are.’ And I’m not going to say you should never do that. There are plenty of stories that reimagine traditional cosmic horror elements as things other than cosmic horror. In fact, some Lovecraft stories even do that. But that’s probably not the mood you’re going for if you’re sitting down to write a cosmic horror story.

Wes:  So if you guys pick up a cosmic horror story, I guess what’s attractive to you about the genre? What do you want to feel? Is it that sense of awe? Is it the mystery of it? Do you just want to hear about creepily designed alien gods?

Chris:  I mean, I do like creepy things, so I’m not that hard to satisfy in this case.

Wes: I just want to be creeped out without feeling grossed out. That’s my most important feeling because that’s always a problem with horror.

When I’m reading a book, I don’t really get scared. I just get kind of annoyed, or it feels unpleasant because there aren’t jump scares in books. So it can be creepy, but once it starts like, [narrator voice] ‘…and then her face melts off’, it’s like, ‘Alright, well that’s gross’.

Or like, [narrator voice] ‘…and then the slasher murdered this character that you liked and said…’.

‘Well, I liked that character. Oh, alright.’

And then, of course, if you’re watching TV or whatever and it’s like jump scare and I mean, yeah, that did activate my fear response, but not in the way I wanted.

Chris:  I’m a similar way. I don’t really like pure horror on its own. I love horror comedies. But I just love creepy stuff, probably because it’s mysterious. It has to be mysterious to be truly creepy. Dark and mysterious, basically. And I really like the atmosphere and cosmic horror is so strong in the atmosphere that I think that’s really what it’s about.

Oren: I got into a really dragged-out argument one with someone who shall remain nameless, about an RPG campaign I was running that I described as having cosmic horror elements. And the players won. They triumphed. They got the good ending. And this person was like, ‘You can’t call that cosmic horror. They can’t win in cosmic horror.’

I was like, ‘Ok, well, how do you keep your story going if they’re never allowed to win?’

And they were like, ‘Ah, well, you see, I just fill it with really gross stuff constantly.’

Wes: Ugh.

Oren: I’m like, ‘I don’t see how that fixes the problem.’

Wes: Uh-uh.

Chris:  So I don’t know which campaign this was. I remember one campaign that was urban fantasy cosmic horror where we just shut off the gateway. We didn’t destroy the Eldritch horror. We just kept it out. And that was considered victory.

Oren: But even in that situation, there’s a reason why if I ever ran another campaign in that world, I wouldn’t be like, ‘Well, OK, guys, the Old Ones are coming back.’ Because it would be like, ‘Well, OK, we already did this.’

Even though, logically speaking, the Old Ones in that setting are still a threat, dramatically speaking, you’ve already defeated them.

Chris:  There’d have to be some kind of escalation or change in order to make it work, certainly.

Oren: This argument was way before that campaign. I think I was running some Delta Green or something at the time.

Chris:  Did your players shoot Cthulhu?

Oren: They did not, no. But they did use guns because Delta Green is a setting where you have lots of guns. So they would occasionally shoot their way out of problems.

Chris:  It is an agent game, right? It’s like X-Files, the game.

Oren: Mhm.

Wes: Yeah.

Chris:  So it’s hard to avoid guns at that point. Why would my agents not have guns in a modern-day setting.

Wes: Because only swords work against Cthulhu.


Wes: Or actually, I should say only boughs of ships work against Cthulhu.

Oren: You can only destroy Cthulhu by running a boat into him.

Chris:  Only Mr. Stabby the Stake works against Cthulhu.

Oren: Alright. Well, now that we’ve figured out what works against Cthulhu, I think we’re going to go ahead and call this episode to a close.

Chris:  If you enjoyed listening to this episode, please support us on Patreon. Just go to

Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Callie McLeod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, there’s Aymon Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at We’ll talk to you next week.

[closing theme]

This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.

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