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21st Century Cosmic Horror

Today, as a white man, I'll do something my people have clearly never done before: talk with authority about something I've only tangentially studied and then make it all about me.  Enjoy!

Two of the three writing projects I've been juggling lately have some aspect of horror to them, so naturally my mind wanders to horror icons that have inspired me in the past.  And pretty much all horror writers today, consciously or unconsciously, can trace many of the tropes in their arsenal back to H.P. Lovecraft.  (Who himself directly traces his inspiration to Poe, but that's going back too far for what I'm getting at today.)

Now, the thing about Lovecraft is that he was insanely racist, and that racism is integral to virtually all of his stories.  It's one of those uncomfortable truths that you just have to get out of the way and acknowledge if you're ever going to enjoy his stuff.  And some of his writing is beyond the pale; there are stories that you may just have to skip right over.  Yet many of us still appreciate some of his ideas, including the general concepts of cosmic horror and existential dread.

The catch is, as awesome as that stuff can be, it cannot be replicated the way Lovecraft did it - at least, not without a catch.  I forget who said it and on which podcast (possibly Monster Talk or Archaeological Fantasies), but I recall listening to a Lovecraft expert say once that modern attempts to mimic Lovecraftian fiction fall flat because they're missing the secret ingredient of unfiltered, unapologetic xenophobia.  I'd have to agree.

Which leads me to wonder: is it possible for the inverse be the basis of horror as we move deeper into the 21st century?

To be clear, I'm not just talking about socially conscious horror.  That's been a thing for awhile now, though it's been getting a lot more attention this year because of the success of Get Out.  (Here's some links of people talking about this, including one of them lists people seem to like.)

I'm talking about a new conceit of horror where the underlying fear is not, "OMG, that weird other thing is trying to get me," but rather, "OMG, I can't overcome my hatred of that other thing."  There's good potential there for a horror story.  More than ever, white people are sensitive about being called out on their racism, so why not make a story that's specifically based on that fear - that you'll wake up one day and realize you're an asshole and you can't change it?

The thing is, it's not that different from what Lovecraft was driving at.  Lovecraft's horror said, "I have evil in me because my great great grandfather had sex with a b-b-b-b-b-b-black person."  The first half of that sentence is where the horror lies.  "I have evil in me."  It's the terror of discovering an awful secret about the makeup of your existence.  It's not too much of a stretch to transform that to more egalitarian ideals.

The true horror now would be a revelation that bigotry is an unconquerable and biological component of humanity.  Instead of a scholar learning that the Old Ones created humanity, you'd have a scientist discovering that the genetic makeup of human beings includes a survival mechanism that's based on killing people who look different.  That we came into being only by committing genocide against a species perceived as lesser, and that we all have the motivation to do so again.  From there, you can springboard into a thousand different plot lines.

In that vein, I had the idea once of a story where somebody is struggling with their repulsion toward an ape-like alien species that has been intermarrying with human women.  (Pretty subtle, right?)  The protagonist would be the only one who sees it as a form of bestiality, and he's deeply disturbed by the resulting half-alien, half-human babies.  Consequently, he alienates everyone around him, including his sister who is about to marry one of the aliens.  Soon he realizes he is truly alone, because his archaic attitudes render him obsolete in the city where he lives - and for that matter, obsolete to humanity.

I never went anywhere with that premise because A) it's not really a horror story, more of a character study, and B) I don't think enough people will understand what I'm getting at.  It's not that I think people are stupid.  I just think one too many people would take some of the concepts of the story out of context and transform it from "existentially uncomfortable story about processing internalized hate" to "hey, this white guy is comparing black people to apes."  It's hard to write that many layers deep into social commentary without at least some people missing the point.

Another idea, which is more promising, has to do not with racism but rather misogyny.  You could play with the idea that there is a sexual violence gene, and that anyone who is the product of rape necessarily carries that urge for violence within them.  Process that a few centuries and you wind up with a large population of men who carry these primal, disturbing urges within them.  When a recently-married woman learns her husband is a carrier, yet he hasn't conducted himself violently, she is filled with an irreparable sense of dread and paranoia.  She lives every day with the suspicion that he may snap and attack her.  I'm not sure why, but that somehow seems like a more palatable premise than something about race.

I feel like this is an untapped well, but we might not be quite ready for it just yet.  Another ten, twenty years, maybe.  The main challenge is that you can't feel this type of existential fear unless you don't want to be filled with hate, and too many white people are right at home with it.  Everybody needs to be like maybe ten degrees more woke.  I need to set a reminder to look into this again in 2040.