Below is an article draft I just wrote for a conference. I thought it would be interesting to put this up here on my blog, even if it has nothing to do with comics so I can share it easily and get some good feedback from friends!
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
Amid the desolate winds of the Antarctic, the ice sheets strain under the increasing pressure of warming air and water. Cracks start to form, starting off small, and spreading as they fill with water. Soon the ice itself starts to scream in existential dread, weary and assured of its impending fate. Human rarely hear the screams, and when they do, they do not comprehend the pain and meaning behind them. Instead they simply view the ice with a voyeuristic awe, as the fear of what it means to their future collides with the spectacular power of the visuals. But maybe other ears hear the cries, as the sound waves travel through the ocean, playing a symphony of dread for all who care to listen. Piece by piece starts to crumble into the churning water below. With each piece that the calves from the glacier tides rise and thousands of miles away coasts are slowly encroached upon. As the seas rise we learn that: “The Ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.”
The arctic is under siege from increasing warming air and water and every year the scientists warn of us the coming catastrophe. The arctic is a warning and with the decreasing ice our prospectus for a stable and safe future diminishes. Like many, the increasing fear of the future has brought forth a feeling of doom in me. At first the horrific news stories filled me with dread. Through the tears I would choke down I would attempt to channel that sadness into rage and that rage into action. But overtime, as the stories continued, and the prospectus for addressing them have decreased I have found it harder and harder to come to terms with the possibilities that are currently likely. As microbiologist Dr. Frank Fenner said in 2010 “Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years… I think it’s too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off” (O’Callaghan, 2015). While not all scientists agree that the end of humanity is nigh there does seem to be increasing concern from scientists about the likelihood of the world to survive as we know it, from climate change. Expressing this we see the “doom” and “death” spiral graph showing the feedback cycle around both global temperature (image 1) and of the vanishing of ice in the arctic (image 2). Unlike the era of the 1960s activism where the conversation was on utopian imaginaries, or the 1990s anti-globalization movement with their idyllic desires for “other worlds”, today the conversation has shifted towards “doom” and “dystopia.”
What do we do, as theorists and academics, in engaging with this increasingly pessimistic view of the future? Over the last few decades the language and topic of hope has been centralized in the majority of our political and intellectual discussions. The defenders of hope argue that we need hope to provide a light to guide our actions through the darkness and that pessimism is more likely to turn people toward apathy or conservative political projects. As James Davis writes, “From a rhetorical standpoint, catastrophism is a win/win for the right… fear and paranoid serve as rights political predisposition more than the left or liberal on” (Lilley, 2012: 106). Similarly, Rebecca Solnit states that “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope” (Solnit, 2016). This general logic that pessimism breeds conservatism and that liberal or left politics requires hope is at the core of the current tensions and problems we find with the current attempts to engage with the catastrophic possibility of climate change.
This paper argues that instead of turning our eyes away from the horror in front of us that we should embrace the encroaching doom and tackle it head on. This focus on horror is a continuation, and expansion of Eugene Thacker’s trilogy of books on the “horror of philosophy” (Thacker, 2011, 2015a, 2015b) In the beginning to his trilogy, Thacker writes that
The world is an increasingly unthinkable—a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always looming threat of extinction…to confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all—an idea that been a central motif of the horror genre for some time (Thacker, 2011: 1).
Thacker here is correct, the issues we are currently facing have best been engaged with in the genre of horror and, not just any form of horror but the genre of cosmic horror. In making this argument, I am using the metaphor of Cthulhu, the horrific and indifferent God found within the mythos developed by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. This figure, which represents cosmic doom, is also connected to the vile racist, xenophobic, and misogynist, and anti-Semitic politics and fears that guided the writing of Lovecraft. This figure, I feel perfectly represents the Anthropocene better then does any other figure. Cthulhu is a metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the pessimism, fear, and anxiety that currently exists around climate change, and the racial, misogynistic and xenophobic aspects of Lovecraft’s work, sadly also works as a metaphor for the unequal impact of doom that will (and currently is) assuredly coming from the climate crises. In this article, I will begin with an overview of the literature on the Anthropocene and concepts of hope, before exploring a revolutionary politics of doom by combining the theoretical work of the 18th century Russian nihilists and Adorno’s concept of the negative dialectic. I finish the chapter by engaging with the implications of looking to cosmic horror as a way to explore living and acting, as a revolutionary pessimist, in the Cthulhuscene.
Ecological Pessimism in the face of Catastrophe:
There is little debate among the scientific community about if climate change is happening and that it is primarily the cause of human actions, nor is there much debate about the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. What is still up for debate among scientists is if we have already passed a threshold point after which there is no way for human action to keep the climate warmth below the 2 degree Celsius mark (a mark that is still very dangerous for human society and that would require the relocation and potential end to many island nations and cultures). In the face of both the potential catastrophic impact of climate change, and the way that it highlights the power of humans to alter the entire planets ecosystems, the concept of the Anthropocene has emerged within the geological, political and philosophic academic fields. The Anthropocene is a new geologic era defined as the “human centered” era; it is an era in which human action, and not natural process, is the primary force shaping the planet. The concept is not with out controversy and criticism, most notably the concept of the Anthro has been critiqued for “flattening” human differences and moral culpability—allowing all of humanity to take the moral blame and not the small groups that have profited and thrived over ecocide. While the causes of the current era are important to unpack, as are critical exploration of the ways in which “terms” used shape the possibility of politics that exist, for this paper I want to highlight the way that hope is still centered in the discussions of the Anthropocene. For the rest of this section I want to focus on the debates on the concept of hope, despair, and action that exists within the literature on the Anthropocene.
The future is scary and no one knows exactly what the planet will look like by 2100. For Roy Scranton, in his controversial and provocative book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, the potential of the human species is something that we need to not only come to realize is a possibility but that we need to actively accept. Scranton, a soldier who fought for the US in Iraq, links his military experience with being a climate activist, claiming that to survive in Iraq you had to give up on accepting your life to continue; you had to learn to die. It was only by throwing off the weight of “living” that one could live in the moment and do what is needed to get the job done. Similar to Scranton, Joana Macy, the Buddhist philosopher and activist, in a recent interview argued that the current world is a “dark storm” that threatens all life on the planet. To Macy we need to be aware of the potential destruction that this storm can bring but also that…”it is this very storm that could very well bring about The Great Turning. We need an opposing wind to fly. It’s the hardship that catalyzes our awakening (Jamail, n.d.).” For both Macy and Scranton by realizing the possible horrors of the future, we can accept the “changing” nature of the world but through that we can become more active in the now, which allows us to actually change the world and make it better.
In contrast to Scranton the authors Fernando Flores and Scot Rousse provide a wonderful account of the need for hope in the Anthropocene. In this work the authors argue that climate change will lead to an “ontological death,” if not a literal death, for the modern human species. This ontological death is a result of the radical end to our current way of life—defined via our addition to fossil fuels—which will require us to create a new “ontological world.” Developing an argument that expands on Jonathan Lear’s idea of radical hope, which they define as “a stance of a commitment to possibility. But this is a particular kind of commitment: it is a commitment to something completely indeterminate and currently unimaginable. The commitment is only that to the bare possibility that, from this disaster, something good will emerge…” (Flores & Rousse, 2016: 135-136). Similarly, in an odd way, many of the more radical environmentalists and eco-anarchists who look to collapse as essential to creating the new world, share a similar belief; to them the collapse of modern society opens up space for the emergence of a new world of egalitarianism and sustainable living (Jensen, 2006a, 2006b; Zerzan, 2015).
Finally, there are thinkers who look to Anthropocene and refuse to accept that the era means the end of human life, civilization, or the species. Instead they see the fact that human action has harmed the planet as also implying that through coordinated human action and through scientific projects—like bioengineering—that we can not only solve the crises but also improve the planet. If the previous authors—around radical hope—so the end as a space in which hope emerges after the collapse, these others see their hope in technology and human ingenuity; if we can destroy the planet with our technology, we can save it as well.
What all three account share is a value to focus primarily on the possibility of hope—even Learning to Die, which focuses on a, primarily, Buddhist acceptance of letting go in order to act in the present. The focus on hope is, as I mentioned earlier, part of a century long project of the left to centralize hope in their political agenda. Hope serves as an essential philosophic principle that allows radical politics to believe in a better world, be it the communist revolution, or the progressive vision of humanity moving ever further from barbarism.
But is this idea of progressive human development a concept worth embracing, and should it be at the core of a left and radical politics? According to philosopher John Gray:
For those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact of this kind. If you accept it you have a place in the grand march of humanity. Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. …But the myth of progress is extremely potent. When it loses its power those who have lived by it are – as Conrad put it, describing Kayerts and Carlier – ‘like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their freedoms’. When faith in the future is taken from them, so is the image they have of themselves. If they then opt for death, it is because without that faith they can no longer make sense of living (Gray, 2014).
In this quote Gray, one of the most well known contemporary pessimist thinkers, argues that the vision of “human progress” is not only wrong, it has the potential of causing harm. I would argue that the left, which as embraced this progressive myth, is now facing a period of radical pessimism and darkness in which the vision of a utopian world is no longer possible. Even the attempts to think about Utopia, which is at the heart of Jameson’s politics (Jameson, 2007; Jameson & Žižek, 2016), often turn quickly to dystopian fears of a Mad Max future. With the election of Trump and far right politics more generally as well as reality that these elections means that if there was any chance to stop catastrophic climate change, it is probably no longer possible, the left is in an era of dark pessimism. Much like the “living prisoners” in Gray’s metaphor the left has lost its faith and that loss of faith has made it so that they cannot longer make sense of their actions or living.
Revolutionary Pessimism in the Face of Catastrophe
Adorno in his seminal work Negative Dialectics asserts that, “Disenchantment of the concept is the antidote of philosophy (Adorno, 2015: 13). This view of disenchantment is connected to living and theorizing in a world shaped by the horrors of the holocaust, which closed the door on much of the optimism and hope that existed in the pre-holocaust Marxist academic work Adorno asserts that “There is no getting out of this, no more than out of the electrified barbed wire around the camps. Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems (Adorno, 2015: 362). To Adorno, the horror of the holocaust both foreclosed the world of optimism, as his generally pessimistic work highlights, but it also provided a moral imperative to act, even if there was no hope. This moral imperative to Adorno was to do everything we can “…to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen (Adorno, 2015: 366). It was the end of hope and development of a revolutionary pessimism that provided both Adorno’s critique of traditional Marxist dialectic as well as the moral imperative radical and revolutionary action.
If want to think about a revolutionary pessimism for this current era, we need to start by centering Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics. Traditionally dialectics “As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of a “negation of negation” later became the succinct term (Adorno, 2015: xix). Adorno, in his work, tries to alter this historical project and separate form dialectics the “positive” trajectory, in the process critiquing both Marx and Hegel and their progressive vision of historical change. Instead of view dialectics as a “positive” process that, through negation, new and positive worlds are formed, Adorno argues that we can never fully understand the future of a dialectical struggle and that, more often then not, that which is produced is not positive but negative. Similarly to Walter Benjamin and his beautiful description of history, where he wrote that:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (Benjamin, 1986: 249)
In both Adorno and in Benjamin, the dialectical and historical process is not fully known and in a brutal pessimism undergirds both their description of “progress.” This concept of a negative dialectic helps remove, from our analysis of politics, a vision of the future—as since the angel looks back she can make no claim about what the future she is being pushed to. If we cannot envision a future all that leaves us with is an analysis of the past and a politics of action in the present.
To add more to the revolutionary politics of pessimism, I want to move directions and connect Adorno’s work on negative dialectics to the ideas and work of the Russian nihilist political movement. The focus on the nihilist political movement, and not the philosophic work of nihilism, is that the political work of Russian nihilists provide a unique lens to imagine and engage in a radical politics while rejecting any conception or value in a future—and unlike many of the philosophical nihilist, the political movement always centralized their radical and anarchistic politics. The Russian Nihilist political movements formed in the 1850s in Russia, after the freeing of the serfs and allowing them to enter the wage labor movement. The movement, which became associated with “propaganda by the deed” and acts of political terrorism, had originally started off as an early counter cultural and artistic movement with strong connections to radical urban Russian feminism. It was brought into the mainstream of Russian life by the classic work Fathers and Sons by Turgenev and also by Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done?, which influenced Lenin in the writing of his screed of the same title. The character Vera, from What is to be done? Became one of the central figures of Russian nihilism. Vera, in this book, famously declared:
You call me a dreamer and ask what I want out of life. I prefer neither to dominate nor to submit. I wish neither to deceive nor to dissemble. I don’t want to be concerned about other peoples’ opinions, or strive for what others advise…I don’t want to submit to anyone. I want to be free. I don’t want to be obligated to anyone for anything. I don’t want to every to say, “You’re obligated to do this for me!” I want to do only what I desire and I want others to do likewise (Chernyshevsky, 1989).”
This desire for freedom from oppression and opposition to Russian society served as the primary impetus of the movement.
This early Russian nihilist movement, started with the premise that the current world has no value and is an inherent enemy to freedom and happiness. By denying the value of the current world, the Russian nihilists focused, almost exclusively, on the present and attempted to undermine all aspects of their contemporary society—its politics, its economic order, and its moral codes. It was, as Peter Kropotkin wrote about the movement “the Highest Revoltees against the conventional life in all its aspects (Kinna, 2016: 83)” It was this focus on moral codes that feminist nihilist often latched onto—though the majority of nihilist terrorists where also women—as it allowed them, and their male counterparts, to radically reject Russian patriarchy and work to undermine the institutions of Russian moral order. Nihilist women wore their hair short, to confront the beauty norm that fetishized long hair on women, and they dressed in clothing that was not deemed socially fit for women. Both nihilist men and women rejected the social norms of the society and worked to create alternative, and radically free spaces, for sexual, gender, and person expression. One of the core institutions that nihilists fought against was the institution of marriage. Kropotkin, once again, expressed this hostility writing “Marriage without love and familiarity without friendship was repudiated. The nihilist girl, compelled by her parents to be a doll in a doll’s house, and to marry for property’s sake, preferred to abandon her house and her silk dresses… (Kinna, 2016: 84). This rejection of contemporary social mores was linked to an embrace of revolutionary socialism and anarchism, and not the egoistic aristocratic politics of Nietzsche, and as such might provide a more valuable lens
In addition to primary focus on the present, the Russian Nihilist movement also embraced revolutionary action in all aspects of life. This focus on deeds and not words meant that action was the primary role of nihilist politics and, as government repression of the movement grew, their actions primarily turned to violent acts to try to destroy and bring down the government. “He was not born to be a martyr- he knew it only too well and it pained him to hurt even a dumb creature. But frightful, necessity over which he had no control, compelled him to trample down his feelings (Stepniak, 1889).” It was this desire and need to act against the institutions of present oppression that led nihilism to embrace a revolutionary political project without a demand or desire for a specific future. They instead valued a pragmatic revolt against the present and it was the action of revolt, be it against moral codes, or political elites that mattered. They also rejected a sense that a single act of revolt would change the world, revolt needed to be constant and the revolutionary to be fully committed to the destruction of society. This is why, Nechayev in his infamous “Catechism of a Revolutionist” write that
The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name…The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily (Nechayev, 1869)
This revolt against the present and a radical rejection of the institutions of the modern world, mean that political action to the nihilists was not focused on a sense that they could bring about a specific world but instead on an immediate reaction to the world they experience. They felt the horror and doom of Russian life in the 1850-1890s and experienced harsh repression from Russian authorities and they reacted to that reality not by moderating their political stance, or giving up, and neither did they speak about a “better world in the future.” Instead they revolted against that system. They killed political leaders who oppressed them, they worked to undermine marriage, which forced women into sexual slavery, and they rejected the growing capitalist economic system. They acted not expecting their actions to motivate the peasants and lead to revolution—like other anarchists believed—but simply because, as Bakunin put it “The urge for destruction is also a creative urge.” It was a full negation of the present they wanted but there was no vision of the future. Theirs was a politics of negative dialectic.
How do the revolutionary manifesto of Nechayev and the politics of the Russian Nihilists change in a world in which every person in the world is doomed, as we are now due to catastrophic climate change? Much like the writing of Scranton, I think this acceptance of doom opens us to a political project of the present, but unlike him, I do not see the acceptance of the potential end of the world meaning as a relief that allows us to complete the hard work needed to save ourselves. All we can do now is act, and not act to save our future, or ourselves but, as the Russian Nihilists highlight, we act because through action we express ourselves and by destroying that which oppresses us we might still have the last laugh. Those in power, who caused this crises fear death, and the fear chaos, and there is nothing more cryptic and haunting then manic laughter in a dark graveyard. Lets make them scared, even if that fear is only for our own enjoyment.
To end this article, I wan to quickly look at the concept of cosmic horror as serving as a space to imagine and explore revolutionary pessimist politics and action.
The Fascination of Fear: Genre Horror and Cosmic Horror
Everyone knows the feeling of horror; we have experienced it at certain points throughout your life. Be it during a traumatic event that we have experienced, while covered in a blanket reading a book during a windy fall night, or in the shock of seeing a shadowy figure in a corner when you wake up in a sweat during a nightmare. Horror is an emotional experience is universal, potentially an evolutionary trait essential for survival, as it is felt by humans and by nonhuman alike. What is interesting is that horror, a feeling typically associated with a fight or flight response, is searched out by many in the public—as seen by the high sales for horror movies and books, the infatuation and love of Halloween and haunted houses, and the rise of extreme sports and other adrenaline fueling activities. While many early cultural critics, who where confused by this niche experience, saw horror lovers as emotionally stunted or harmed individuals; as people who look to horror do to some deep seated psychological problem, most would nowadays, find that to be inaccurate as many horror lovers are, otherwise, well functioning members of society. Many current theorists claim that horror connects to broader social and political fears—and they are, as such, linked into a dialectic conflict with other political meaning, in much the way that Fredric Jameson theorizes. This means that different types of horror tend to engage with different types of fears.
While there are many sub-genres of horror—from ghost stories to slasher films—this article will focus on the work of “cosmic horror.” Cosmic horror is a subset of horror, most commonly associated with the mythological stories of Lovecraft, the eerie creepiness of Stephen Kings The Mist, the cosmic otherness of Clive Barker’s films, and the pessimism of the TV series True Detective. There are three primary traits associated with cosmic horror: the non-human nature of the horror, the indifference of the power at play, and the strict limitations of human agency. First, in cosmic horror the main horror is never a human force—it is always a being or force that is unknowable and understandable from the human mind. In Lovecraft, the main horror tends to be Elder Gods, beings who came to this planet before human existence and who where trapped here by some unknown force. These beings are beyond human comprehension, having biological systems that are alien to our knowledge, and having power greatly beyond anything we can ever imagine. By making the horror something that is, inherently, unknowable, and often coming from beyond the planet, cosmic horror places the Earth, and human life, as relatively minor forces in the universe. This leads us to the second theme; cosmic horror decenters the human, highlighting the relatively minimal importance humans have in the cosmic order. These horror stories, instead of focusing on the importance of humans, focus instead on the fact that there was life before humans evolved and there will, most likely, be life on this planet well after we go extinct. Often the horror in the stories comes from characters learning how inconsequential they and humans as a whole are. By focus on cosmic powers, much greater than humankind, cosmic horror reminds the reader that we are not the apex predator or power that we claim to be; we are not made in God’s image; and are not, in any way, the most important being, even on the planet. Finally, cosmic horror draws its dread, by highlighting the limited, and often futile, power that we have in stopping the cosmic forces we are facing. In many cosmic horror stories, the catalyst for the event are literally stars aligning meaning that there was nothing at all humans could have done to stop it. While other versions of comic horror stories, like Horror at the Red Hook and Ballad of Black Tom, use doomsday cults working raise or channel a being of immense power. In the doomsday cult stories, human action was involved in starting the crises, but in these stories there is almost nothing that anyone can do to stop the horror for happening; once one starts a cataclysmic process, there is nothing to be done to stop it. Overall in cosmic horror, “what emerges is a philosophy at the end of the world, in which thinking gains its power by cultivating the ruins that outlive this end before then employing these ruins as ambassadors for a lost humanity” (Trigg, 2014: 4). It is important to note that often times the ruins that are at the core of the story are not human, but these are stories of dread, doom, and the end. Which is exactly what we need to understand right now.
Because of the dominant themes in cosmic horror, the genre has typically been criticized for being misanthropic. This misanthropic aspect is the primary reason that Donna Haraway, in her work on the Chthulucene intentionally distances herself from Lovecraft and cosmic horror, instead looking to a more optimistic metaphor in web like and binding nature of tentacle creatures and “namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, and scientific fact” (Haraway, 2016). But there might be a difference between the indifferent nature cosmic horror antagonists and misanthropy. While many of the stories in these genre revel with the potential end of the world, none of them actually make the forces anti-human, they tend to be anti-life in general and do not differentiate between human and non-human life on this planet. To a cosmic force from another galaxy (or dimension) what makes us think they feel anything but indifference towards us? While this can be unsettling and troubling, it is important to note that natural forces on this planet are also indifferent towards us. Expressing this Eric Wilson writes, “the Lovecraftian world cannot be changed or controlled. It is a no-mans-land with arid desolation, without love or warmth. It contains no human value or worth since it does not allow anyone to be represented as the immanent ‘I’” (Wilson, 2016: 16). While taken to the extreme the Lovecraft world is similar to the world we currently live in. The climate cycles, while impacted by human behavior, are indifferent to us as a species. As such, in facing the threat of climate change, what better antagonist is there to serve as a metaphor for the potential devastation ravaged on the planet then an indifferent but destructive God?
Conclusion: A Light in the Darkness and Politics as Survival
We are alone dark room, with windows sealed with dark curtains taped to the wall to keep all light out, we reach for a light switch, flicking up and down to no effect. The darkness of the room permeates all, as even shadows are hidden in the all-encompassing void. Stumbling in the dark room some objects, a table or a chair, are notable as we flail around but most of the room is empty—of light and of objects. Giving up our quest to find a way around the room, we notice a musky smell, the smell of salt water and mold reminiscent of dilapidated harbors left vacant after the fishing industry went under. In the dark a creak in the wood floor echoes, but there is no way to tell the direction, as the sound seems to come from all around. As the creaks continue, and the smell gets worse, we scramble towards the nothingness. Heart racing, breathing increasing, and hands shaking we finally find a table. Fumbling around—looking for anything that our hands can remember—our sweaty palms collide with a flashlight. The creaking grows and the air around us turns warm and humid. As the beam of the flashlight flies through the darkness, we see…. nothing. A wall in the distance, a cabinet in the corner, and a door to the far left, but nothing more. The creaking grows deafening, as the need to cover our ears to suffocate the painful sound, grows. We turn and turn with the light, looking for the source of the breath and sound but see nothing. The void gives way to the light, but provides us no more insight into what hunts us. Lost in the void, we run to the door, breathing heavily and stomping loudly as our heavy feet clomp on the hardwood, but when we get there, the door is locked shut, and even more unnerving it is covered in a viscous and sticky coating. With our back against the door, or legs give out and we crumble to the floor, dropping the flashlight to the ground. Crying just loud enough to drown out the cracking of the floor, we look up from our hands and see in the path of the light a figure that both seems human and not at the same time. The silhouette of the face and chest seem human but the lower extremities, seem…strange. There are no legs, at least not in the way that the human mind can comprehend. Instead, the creature seems to slither along the floor on what can best be described as tentacles, though that barely gets at the horror before us The figure is somehow shrouded in darkness, even while the light beams over it, the only things piercing the shadows is a bright white smile and yellow eyes. You hear a laugh and the figure disappears. The creaks grow louder, the breathing around you gets stronger, but you appear to be once again completely alone in the void. The door unlocks, but you know that the creature is still out there…
Sometimes, it is not the fear of the unknown that is most terrifying but it is a glimpse, however briefly into the unknown. Our minds are unable to comprehend the world that is to come, yet science has provided us a flashlight that flickers light against the walls. It allows us to see the dark creature in the room, at least for a brief moment, but it does not tell us what that figure means or plans to do to us. Unlike in horror, the full vision of the monster that hunts us will not be showing itself for a long time, and from now until then we have to live in the shadow of its dread. The present is terrifying, the future is horrifying, and scariest part of all of it is that we have only limited control over what is about to happen to us.
As we move forward and closer to our doom in the Anthropocene we need to look to and explore horror with much more depth, as this article argues. In cosmic horror, the stories are about survival, not about redemption, healing, or transcendence. By focusing on a politics of survival, which is all that is left of activism at this moment; we can also focus on the need to have a politics of the present. In cosmic horror, the characters are confronted with catastrophe that is beyond their own comprehension and often there is no way to save the world from doom. It is through the process of acting, only in the present, that in some stories they are able to survive and delay catastrophe. But, unlike other horror genres, they never “solve” the problem but merely delay the inevitable and one of the dominant themes within the genre is that at the end of the stories, the characters are aware that doom is still on the horizon and they try to scream and get the attention of the world so that we can all be aware of this. That is of course, unless you are reading the stories in which the protagonists intend to bring about the end of the world, to watch the world burn, and in the fires of the dying present a new world is not born but the suffering of the old world is purified.
“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming”
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