No matter how trashy H. P. Lovecraft was as a person, his impact on the horror genre can’t be understated. He created the concept of “cosmic horror,” which Wikipedia helpfully describes as “emphasizing the horror of the unknown and incomprehensible more than gore or other elements of shock.” The core idea is that there are truths or realities that are so vast, so bizarre to us, that they inspire madness just by beginning to comprehend them. To simplify things, Lovecraft, and the later authors that contributed to his mythos, focused on two classes of beings: higher creatures, which exist in this higher reality and interfere with ours to further their incomprehensible goals (which are, of course, perfectly natural to them), and lower beings – us – who try in vain to understand the true nature of things, descending into insanity as we try to serve or resist the higher ones.
Again, this is a vast oversimplification, but it captures the fundamentals. Cosmic horror is a fantastic concept for worldbuilding. The idea that there’s something more, something other, that is real and impactful but entirely incomprehensible and maddening, is delightful. Sometimes, it can be hard to get right, though. By its nature, the “other” of cosmic horror can be hard to define and describe, making it difficult to incorporate into your stories, worlds, and campaigns.
I have an unexpected source of inspiration to consider: geometry. In 1884, a mathematician named Edwin Abbott wrote Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions. The novel was largely meant to be a treatise on human prejudice and ignorance, but it also works as a valuable analogy to cosmic horror. Let’s take a look.
The book is divided into two sections. The first introduces us to a two-dimensional world: Flatland. Squares, triangles, lines, and other shapes wander in their 2D landscape, living their flat lives. This very, very long section is a colossal amount of worldbuilding, explaining how such a world could exist. This is mostly intended to be a parody of the class and gender prejudices of Abbott’s time. It would probably make interesting reading for the curious worldbuilder, but it’s not why we’re here.
The meat of the actual story happens in section two. Our protagonist, A. Square (I’ll just call him Square) is visited by a Sphere. This sphere, and the 3D world it describes, is absolutely incomprehensible to our poor Square, who is completely incapable of imagining an additional dimension. After trying and failing to prove the existence and nature of the third dimension to the Square, the Sphere lifts the Square out of Flatland completely and into Spaceland, the world of 3D. The Square is educated in the characteristics of the third dimension (and briefly ponders the possibility of even higher dimensions), then returned to Flatland and ordered to spread the word to the rest of the world. Our Square tries and fails to explain his experiences to others, and is eventually imprisoned for his madness. He spends the rest of his days there, ranting to his brother and anyone else who will listen about a world that is completely beyond their understanding.
We can already see the hints of cosmic horror here: a higher reality populated by higher beings, and lower beings unable to cope with the truth of the “other.” Flatland was written four years before Lovecraft was born, and Lovecraft’s hatred of everything mathematical makes me assume there wasn’t any direct influence on his writings, but the similarities are apparent.
Let’s dive deeper into a few relevant scenes. For illustration, I’ll be using clips of a 2007 comedic movie adaptation. The animation is atrocious, the acting is subpar, and the humor vanishes completely once we leave Flatland, but it’ll work well enough for now.
There’s one additional angle to consider. Flatland gives us a look at dimensionality from the perspective of someone living in 3D watching an unenlightened soul experience something familiar to us. This is not how cosmic horror is written; instead, it’s written from the perspective of the lower being. To help Flatland’s lessons sink in, we should also look at what we would experience if a four-dimensional creature visited us, which would be closer to what a cosmic horror story would be about.
For each scene we’ll do a few things: one, link to a couple relevant clips from the 2007 movie; two, break the scene down into its basics and their implications on cosmic horror; and three, describe what the scene might look like if a four-dimensional sphere (called a Hypersphere) visited us in our 3D Spaceland from its 4D Hyperland.
Let’s start with the Sphere arriving and trying to explain the third dimension to our Square.
So let’s break down what happened here:
- The Sphere appeared as a circle, appearing from and vanishing into nowhere
- It tried, through various mathematical proofs, to explain the third dimension
- These failed because of Square’s incomprehension and lack of language to describe the new dimension
- When the proofs failed, the Sphere resorted to several demonstrations:
- Appearing and disappearing
- Describing the surroundings from the perspective of Spaceland
- Moving objects through the third dimension, bypassing the second
- Finally, touching Square’s innards through the third dimension
- All of these failed, straining Square’s sanity and leading to eventual hostility
These can be easily transposed to regular cosmic horror. Our higher beings could display bizarre, eldritch powers that are natural to them – and anyone who can access their reality. Attempts by the being to describe their reality would suffer from language barriers and simple inability to understand. Lastly, it’s completely possible that the apparition of a higher being would result in some sort of breakdown – possibly even violence.
Let’s look at what this might look like from our perspective – a four-dimensional Hypersphere visiting us from Hyperland:
- The Hypersphere appears as a sphere, growing in size and vanishing into nothing
- It might try, through various proofs, to explain the nature of a four-dimensional Hypercube
- It could make the same demonstrations as the Sphere:
- Appearing and disappearing
- Describing the surroundings (and our insides) from the perspective of Hyperland
- Moving objects through the fourth dimension, bypassing the third
- Touching our insides through the fourth dimension
If the “visitee” doesn’t happen to be a mathematician, the concepts will probably be far beyond them – and either way, meeting an extra-dimensional being could easily lead to a breakdown.
Next, let’s look at the scenes where the Square experiences Spaceland. Please forgive the AWFUL animation in these clips.
Here are the basics of these scenes:
- The Square experiences new points of view
- He can see all of Flatland, including the insides of people and objects
- He sees the Sphere as a circle (with depth, a concept his senses can’t process)
- The Square experiences new directions of movement
- Movement along this new axis allows him to see more or less of Flatland
- Movement parallel to Flatland while offset along the new dimension allows him to bypass obstacles
- The Square experiences new physical phenomena
- The unfamiliar sensation of gravity pulls him down
- He is largely unable to move or sustain himself in the new dimension
- (If a real 2D creature were to experience this, I’m not sure their eyes would be equipped to see anything other than their regular line of sight with different things being seen)
- The Square experiences new states of mind
- His initial reaction is ecstasy, revelry in his new understanding
- As he considers even higher concepts, he is overwhelmed and his mind falls apart
The new states of mind are most easily translated to cosmic horror. Ecstasy and madness are both common reactions to seeing the “other.” The other two could be used as characteristics of your higher reality, but may not be used as they are.
Let’s restate these in terms of a regular 3D person being taken by a 4D Hypersphere to 4D Hyperland. Reading about these mindbending phenomena makes it clearer how these kinds of experiences could lead to insanity.
- New points of view
- You can see all of Spaceland; by looking at a human, you can simultaneously see all of them: their clothes, their skin, their intestines – not just a cross-section, but literally everything as a full 3D object; if there’s a 4D mirror, you can see all this about yourself, too
- You can see your Hypersphere as the entirety of a sphere, but only the outsides; there would probably be some sensory cue that this is a Hypersphere and not just an opaque sphere, but your senses might not be able to process it
- New directions of movement
- You have a new axis of movement, allowing you to move towards/away from Spaceland, or along it to bypass obstacles
- New physical phenomena
- You might experience 4D “gravity” or another unfamiliar force
- You might be unable to see, move, or even function properly in the new dimension
Again, it’s easy to see how this would very quickly lead to psychosis. Even a mathematician who understands all this in theory would probably be unable to process it.
Let’s look at the basic elements here, including some points from the book that didn’t make it into the movie:
- Inability to explain
- The Square can’t describe the third dimension, both due to the inadequacy of his language and his inexperience with 3D
- He can’t indicate the “up” direction now that he’s trapped in 2D
- From the book: It’s impossible for him to draw a 3D object, since he’s restricted to coloring 1D surfaces (indeed, he can only draw 2D objects by using perspective tricks, like how we use perspective to draw 3D objects on 2D surfaces)
- From the book: Eventually, he resorts to using vague metaphors to try and get people to understand him, such as “the Realm of Thought” and “Omnividence”
- His experiences
- He feels a desperate need to tell everyone about the true nature of reality, even in the face of legal repercussions
- From the book: As his memories of Spaceland fade, he uses key phrases (“upward, not Northward”) and written records to keep his memories intact
- Others’ reactions
- The typical reactions are hostility at his madness or dismissiveness at his jokes
- From the book: He is eventually condemned to lifelong imprisonment for his insanity; he dies alone, unable to convert a single person
Finally, let’s port this over to our 3D person returning from 4D Hyperland:
- Inability to use our language to describe the fourth dimension without resorting to mathematical concepts
- Inability to move anything in the fourth dimension
- Inability to draw (or project, or sculpt) a 4D object
- Possible last resort to vague metaphors
- Using mnemonics and records to retain memories
This is the birth of cosmic horror’s “mad cultist” trope – an individual aware of the higher reality and attempting to spread the word. While the Square was unable to convince anyone about the true nature of reality, many stories feature developed cults dedicated to the “other” and its residents. Some or all of these cultists will have personally been exposed to the higher reality to some degree.
Adapting more Cosmic Horror elements
While we have a lot to work with, there are even more variations we can add to bring us more fully into the genre of cosmic horror:
- Repulsive reality – The higher reality interfaces with ours through mediums we find disgusting. Common themes include the seas (tentacles, fish, the dark depths, etc.) and flesh (eyes, mouths, blood, pus, etc.).
- Moral reality – The higher reality has implications on which actions are ethical, usually turning evil deeds good. A classic example is sacrificing innocents so the victims are given a place in the afterlife (the higher world).
- Resident variants – The higher residents can exist on a spectrum of more or less connected to the other world. Some might actually be from our reality, but possess a special connection to the higher one. Some might be permanently trapped in the other realm, only able to interact with ours in roundabout ways.
- Resident agendas – The higher residents might have goals that require meddling in our world. The combination of their powers and their otherworldly perspective often makes their actions seem bizarre and unpredictable to us. If the residents are unable to completely manifest in our world, part of their plan might involve bridging that gap to live here fully.
- Cultist powers – The cultists (or other knowledgeable people) might be able to use the other reality to gain otherworldly abilities. For example, if we had the ability to access the fourth dimension, we would be able to see the interior of everything around us, appear or disappear at will, travel through obstacles, mess with people’s insides, and more.
The greatest opportunities for creativity lie in the nature of the higher reality and its residents. There are many, many ways to shape your world, story, or campaign into something that will haunt your dreams.
I’m looking forward to your horrific creations!