Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
When you think of cosmic horror, you more than likely think of H.P. Lovecraft. But I am going to offer that the person captured the essence of cosmic horror the best was not ‘the Old Man from Providence’ but instead is Katherine Anne Porter. Who in 1930, wrote the classic short story The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.
I first came across this story thirty years ago for my eleventh grade high school English class. The story is a staple in high school and college literature classes. And for three decades this is the only thing that I had read by her. She is however not a one hit wonder, she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The National Book Award, and was trice nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. In 2006 her image graced a US postage stamp. Ironically Porter should be more famous than Lovecraft. It is the preservation of his writings bu Arkham House, and a rabidly fanatic fan base, that keeps the HPL brand as hot as it is.
For those of you that are not familiar with Cosmic Horror (or as Wikipedia calls it Cosmicism). Is a branch of horror created in the pulps of the 1920 & 30’s. The fundamental concept is that the universe is an uncaring place, that has no interest in individuals. Lovecraft creatures and entities, like Cthulhu, Azathoth and Yog-Sogoth, pay as much attention to us as we pay attention to insects. And like how we will swat at a bug if it bother us, so might these galactic beings strike out the human race if disturbed. This is not out anger but more an action based on annoyance.
In the tomes of cosmic horror, there is no loving deity who knows us personally and protects us. The Elder Sign may keep the Old Ones, at bay, these emblems are not divine in nature. The equally powered Elder Gods, oppose the Old Ones because of their own alien agenda, not because of any mercy for humans. The Elder Sign does not work the same way a cross does against vampires. Whatever strange mechanism constrains the Old Ones, is based on science, not faith.
Charles Stross the author of the Cthulhu inspired spy novels The Laundry, has suggested that Lovecraft was inspired by how much astronomy had evolved in his lifetime. By the time the gent was 30 scientist, had realized that the universe (of matter and energy) was much bigger and older than when HPL was born. Lovecraft, was fascinated by Astronomy and if he had been better at math probably would have become an astronomer. So this revelation probably effected his writing.
So how does Granny Weatherall fit in the mosaic of cosmic horror. For those of you who don’t remember it form school let me give you the Cliff Note’s version. All though she isn’t aware of the full extent of her illness, Granny Weathrall is dying in her bed. She is concerned that her family will find after some silly love letters, she had hidden, written to a man who left her at the altar.. She drifts in an out of consciousness, thinking her family is conspiring against her, and of a dead child she could not save. She wishes she could speak to George (the guy who dumped her0)one more time, to tell him that he didn’t destroy her life. She gets last rights and seems to sense an agent of death in her room. She wonders if she will see her dead son again, and ask god for a sign, but receives none. Her last breath she blows out the room’s candle.
As a seventeen year old this was a deeply unsettling story. Way scarier than the Mythos stories. Here in the end, there is nothing beyond mankind. Not even alien entities that don’t care about us, but nothing. WE ARE ABSOLUTELY ALONE. This is the epitome of Lovecraft’s cold unfeeling universe. In this case even the psychopomp is just mirage. There is no agent of death who would take us to the afterlife, because there is no afterlife. This is scary.
Lovecraft was of course a materialist. He has been said to be the perfect atheist. Because he felt that there is no supernatural, nothing was sacred to him, and he could write about things in a way that a believer might find taboo. Porter, converted to Catholicism before her first marriage. Unfortunately that man was abusive and she turned away from the church until the last ten years of her life. I think this shared antipathy about God and religion can be seen in both Porter’s and HPL’s writings. I am not arguing that they are right, but my point is that they both taped in to the innate terror factor of an uncaring universe. And this makes both of their works even more horrifying.