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The Dancing Partner

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  Jerome K. Jerome, "The Dancing Partner" in  The Fifth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories , ed. Robert Aickman (Fontana Paperbacks: 1969). One important pillar of cosmic horror is the existence of entities that are indifferent to our goals, projects, values, and lives. Even if they take notice of us, which is unlikely, whether we continue to exist or not is none of their concern. This absolute lack of interest in us makes them something to fear. It isn’t that these alien gods show malice toward us or wish us ill; we don’t even register as the least bit interesting or significant. We see something like that indifference at work in the Jerome K. Jerome, first published in 1893. Here, the detachment isn’t found in anything cosmic but rather in something mechanical. The dancing partner’s total dispassion and indifference intensify the horror much more than if the partner showed outright disdain toward Annette. Such coldness adds insult to injury, but, in addition, the fact that

Noise

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Jack Vance, "Noise" in Startling Stories , August 1952. Read the story here at Internet Archive The planet on which the narrator is stranded is quite strange to him: celestial bodies with unfamiliar orbits, long days and nights, dead suns, and alien species that barely register at the edges of perception due to their almost unfathomable otherness. The story blurs the line between the contribution of the perceiver and what is perceived, suggesting that there may not be any fact of the matter about where that line is drawn. The world offers up something raw to the marooned narrator’s senses, and his mind imposes a pattern onto it, counting some things as mere noise and some things as meaningful. This doesn’t make the world any less real; rather, it elucidates what the objective world consists of. Given the different colors of the heavenly bodies that provide illumination to the world, Vance draws our attention to the idea that color isn’t something that inheres in the objects t

Polyphemus

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  Michael Shea, "Polyphemus" in  Polyphemus  (Arkham House: 1987).   The cosmic horror of this story is a weird, unknowable, and terrifying alien creature dubbed “Polyphemus.” Of the parts that the characters can see, we are not only provided with a detailed morphological description but also a partial functional description of Polyphemus; that is, the characters, to save themselves from it, offer up theories of how some aspects of the monster biologically work together. The creature’s biological/neurological functions are distributed across what appear to be distinct species. The arrangement of sharks, delphs, squids, and grass in its environment operates as sense organs, among other things. This results in a higher-order unified biological function distributed across individuals of various species—the Polyphemus supervenes on other creatures. This is all cool enough, but within this story, Shea suggests a version of transhumanism as a potential solution to the existential t

The Night Ocean

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R.H. Barlow with H.P. Lovecraft, "The Night Ocean" in The Californian vol. 4, no. 3 (Winter 1936). Read the story here at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive This is a spectacular study of the weirdness evoked by the ocean, particularly the ocean at night. Barlow describes the effects of the sea on our conceptions of self as he recounts an extended stay at a lonely beach house just outside the town of Ellston. The language, the themes, and the way this story's elements work together make it one of the best Lovecraft collaborations ever published.   Human beings have a primal and deep psychological connection to the ocean. As a source of fear, awe, and beauty, the sea represents the unknown, the vast, and the source from which all life evolved. In this story, Barlow handles a well-worn theme of cosmic horror—that is, our insignificance—in a thought-provoking way that manages not to just repeat the same genre theme we've come to expect from cosmicism. Sure the night ocean has th

Haïta the Shepherd

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  Ambrose Bierce, "Haïta the Shepherd," in  Tales of Soldiers and Civilians  (E. L. G. Steele: 1891). Read the story here on Gutenburg In a previous murmur covering Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” I argued that Robert W. Chambers takes more from that story than just the name “Carcosa.” Likewise, it is often claimed that while Chambers takes the name “Hastur” from Bierce’s “Haïta the Shepherd,” the influence of that story on Chambers’ work ends there.  I think there is a much deeper connection, and I will argue that important themes in Bierce’s “Haïta the Shepherd” carry over to The King in Yellow .  Although a central theme in “Haïta the Shepherd” focuses on happiness being elusive and that the best way to attain happiness is by not purposely seeking it out, the story is also packed with other interesting themes relevant to certain readings of The King in Yellow . The first line of Bierce's parable like tale: “[i]n the heart of Haïta, the illusio

Into Dust

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Adam "Bucho" Rodenberger, "Into Dust" in Under a Black Rainbow  (2023). "People are still having sex."  ㅡLaTour Some of the best speculative fiction has a way of bringing to light the paradoxical features of our nature. Many of these murmurs point to the tensions at the heart of who we are, and "Into Dust" gives us a peek at the paradoxical sinew that simultaneously holds us together and tears us apart. Puritanical efforts to control sexual appetites rarely result in sex being controlled; instead, the control just becomes sexualized. Similarly, that psycho-sexual mechanism is at work in our protagonist. That which is neglected, ignored, and remains unused will gather dust, and when sex becomes dusty, the dust just becomes sexualized.   

The Falling Glass

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  Algernon Blackwood, "The Falling Glass" in Tongues of Fire: And Other Sketches  (1924). Read the story here on the Internet Archive . Cosmic horror is at its best when it is less about the immediate danger posed and more about the horror/awe evoked by the thing's very existence. This often emerges because of its unfathomable scale, total indifference to us, and/or incomprehensible otherness. While thunderstorms are often used in horror to invoke fear based upon the danger they pose to life and limb, Blackwood taps the weather for a different kind of horror. These massive natural forces, not in the least concerned about the things we value, continue to humble us and stand to remind us of our insignificance.

The Smell of Waiting

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Kaaron Warren, "The Smell of Waiting" in  Screams From the Dark , ed. Ellen Datlow (Tor Publishing Group: 2022). This story has a different take on returning the dead to life. Life isn't something to be restored, but rather, death is a thing or a presence that can be taken away. Of course, once you've taken it away, you've got to store it somewhere! What did you think about the role that Andrea played in the process as opposed to the role that the dog played in the process?

Children of the Night

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Stephen Graham Jones, "Children of the Night" in  Screams From the Dark , ed. Ellen Datlow (Tor Publishing Group: 2022). This is a story involving the literal collision of subculturesㅡbigfoot hunters, truckers, and monsters.  Tol's theories and speculations about monsters are wonderfully absurd, but the truth is stranger and even more ridiculous. When monster kinds cooperate with one another, we don't have a chance against them.

Crick Crack Rattle Tap

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A. C. Wise, "Crick Crack Rattle Tap" in  Screams From the Dark , ed. Ellen Datlow (Tor Publishing Group: 2022). Rattle Tap is a wonderfully frightening monster! And if we discover that this monster isn’t hiding behind the curtains, that might actually be scarier than the alternative, for we might be Rattle Tap. I love the thoroughgoing ambiguity of this story. It is not uncommon for horror stories to play up ambiguity, inviting the reader to provide an interpretation of the story’s events. But here, something deeper is going on. The ambiguity itself is used to reflect the protagonist's own state of mind or point of view. Kiersten is in the same epistemic state regarding what is really happening (and what happened in the past) as we, the reader.