The Best Cosmic Horror Books

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One thing that is evident when you look for and inevitably read books, is that are a lot of authors that have been influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. Some take influence by crediting his creations, some crediting his name–others his style, short story form that truly resonate within the genre. Others still have found their own path within the genre, by taking the essence of cosmic horror and making it their own. Finding something genuinely original can oft be an exercise in futility, due to the very nature of this sort of horror, but when that originality is found it is truly like discovering gold. Here are Puzzle Box Horror’s best of cosmic horror book recommendations.

The best of Old-school Cosmic Horror books

What sets old-school cosmic horror apart from the newer literature within the genre, is pretty much what sets old classic literature apart from newer literature in any genre–language, surrounding culture, and societal advantage. It goes deeper than that of course, but what is important when getting acquainted with any form of literature is understanding the time within which it was created.

The Willows (1907)

The Willows book cover (1907) by Algernon Blackwood

While not exactly a book, The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, is technically the first cosmic horror novella that began to establish the cosmic horror genre. It was originally published among a series of other stories in 1907, as a part of his collection The Listener and Other Stories. It’s a great example of early modern horror and despite not receiving the credit it was due, was very much connected within the literary tradition of “weird fiction,” a genre later realized as cosmic horror.

The Willows is a story that invites fear of the unknown, there is a sense of agitation, fear, exhaustion, and eternal trepidation that does not leave the characters or the readers, because there is never a relief from the situation at hand. Available on Amazon here.

And, apart quite from the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.

Excerpt from The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Listen to Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows below through HorrorBabble.

The Man Who Found Out (1912)

Another shorter existential horror story, Algernon Blackwood’s The Man Who Found Out really just begs the question about personal religious beliefs–what is the ultimate question and answer when it comes to a higher power, particularly that of “God?” Do we really know anything with any certainty? Or is belief and faith what matters most when seeking a higher truth? These unanswered questions are what make this one of the best cosmic horror books out there. Available on Amazon here.

LibriVox has given us Blackwood’s The Man Who Found Out through audiobook and it’s worth checking out.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (1927)

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories book cover (1927)

It seems that the most successful additions to the cosmic horror genre are generally shorter stories; short stories are benefitted in this particular genre due to the fact that they limit the amount of information that can be conveyed within the confines of the short story’s maximum of ten thousand words.

All of the stories that appear within this particular anthology are by H.P. Lovecraft and are, of course, part of the public domain, so we have included a list of the stories with external links to the stories themselves. Those interested in reading some of the most well-known cosmic horror pieces can find them below. The entire anthology is available on Amazon here.

What Stories Appear Within This Anthology?

Shadows of Carcosa (2014)

Shadows of Carcosa book cover (2014)

Yeah, we know that this book came out in 2014–but that doesn’t discount the fact that it is actually full of old-school cosmic horror, because it’s actually an anthology from some of the best horror writers that literary culture has ever had to offer. These stories span almost an entire century, which illustrates how many authors can be credited for their contributions to cosmic or existential horror.

Luckily for readers who haven’t been well-enough introduced to cosmic horror by now, all of these stories are also within the public domain; we hope that these stories from Shadows of Carcosa (2014) give readers a full picture of what cosmic horror is truly about. The collection is available on Amazon here.

What Stories Appear Within This Anthology?

The best of Modern Cosmic Horror Books

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (1985)

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe book cover (1985)

Thomas Ligotti’s debut short horror story collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe possibly made his career–he’s often spoken of in the same manner as authors such as Poe and Lovecraft, and has been referred to as “horror incarnate.” Ligotti never seems to have to try to make his stories work, they take on settings that immediately put the reader into a mood where horror is inescapable without being presumptuous or predictable.

Ligotti’s style is singular and everything he has put into this particular anthology is wholly worth the time to read. Available on Amazon here.

What Stories Appear Within This Anthology?

Songs of a Dead Dreamer
  • Dreams for Sleepwalkers
    • The Frolic
    • Les Fleurs
    • Alice’s Last Adventure
    • Dream of a Manikin
    • The Nyctalops Trilogy:
      • The Chymist
      • Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes
      • Eye of the Lynx
    • Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story
  • Dreams for Insomniacs
    • The Christmas Eves for Aunt Elise
    • The Lost Art of Twilight
    • The Troubles of Dr. Thoss
    • Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie
    • Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech
    • Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror
  • Dreams for the Dead
    • Dr. Locrian’s Asylum
    • The Sect of the Idiot
    • The Greater Festival of Masks
    • The Music of the Moon
    • The Journal of J.P. Drapeau
    • Vastarien
Grimscribe
  • The Voice of the Damned
    • The Last Feast of Harlequin
    • The Spectacles in the Drawer
    • Flowers of the Abyss
    • Nethescurial
  • The Voice of the Demon
    • The Night School
    • The Glamour
  • The Voice of the Child
    • The Library of Byzantium
    • Miss Plarr
  • The Voice of Our Name
    • The Shadow at the Bottom of the World
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories book cover(2007)

Laird Barron’s first short story collection The Imago Sequence and Other Stories set a precedent for the rest of his career; what could be expected from him in his other works really was set up with this collection. The fact that it received the Shirley Jackson Award for best collection was not even the most wondrous part of this particular body of work–Barron has an ability to create an image within the reader’s mind that is unlike any other author. He has been compared to the likes of Stephen King, but with the advantage of making his details count for more than just words towards an ultimate goal. Available on Amazon here.

What Stories Appear Within This Anthology?

  • Old Virginia (2003)
  • Shiva, Open Your Eye (2001)
  • Procession of the Black Sloth (2007)
  • Bulldozer (2004)
  • Proboscis (2005)
  • Hallucigenia (2006)
  • Parallax (2005)
  • The Royal Zoo Is Closed (2006)
  • The Imago Sequence (2005)

White is For Witching (2009)

White is For Witching book cover (2005)

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is For Witching reads almost like a journal, which has always given the reader less of a feeling that they’re getting the full picture. Why look at the forest when you can see the trees more clearly? In truth, focusing on the details from a personal perspective often leaves much more to the imagination and that is a huge part of weird fiction and cosmic horror.

When you don’t know what is going on outside of the perspective of the narrator, it leaves you with a sense of emptiness–what is happening beyond their ideal truth? Available on Amazon here.

Cthulhu’s Reign (2010)

Cthulhu's Reign book cover(2010)

Another anthology designed to pay tribute to the father of cosmic horror, this collection of short stories gives a more complete image of what would happen once the old ones have taken over the world as we know it–when humans are no longer the dominant force on the Earth and when we can no longer rely on what we have become accustomed to.

What kind of horror would we endure when the old ones take over the world? What would we be able to expect from an uncaring force of nature and could we really hate the force that overwhelms society as we know it when it is not maliciously ending our world, or would it simply be something that we fear beyond anything else? Available on Amazon here.

What Stories Appear Within This Anthology?

  • The Walker in the Cemetery (2010) by Ian Watson
  • Sanctuary (2010) by Don Webb
  • Her Acres of Pastoral Playground (2010) by Mike Allen
  • Spherical Trigonometry (2010) by Ken Asamatsu
  • What Brings the Void (2010) by Will Murray
  • The New Pauline Corpus (2010) by Matt Cardin
  • Ghost Dancing (2010) by Darrell Schweitzer
  • This is How the World Ends (2010) by John R. Fultz
  • The Shallows (2010) by John Langan
  • Such Bright and Risen Madness in Our Names (2010) by Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
  • The Seals of New R’lyeh (2010) by Gregory Frost
  • The Holocaust of Ecstasy (2010) by Brian Stableford
  • Vastation (2010) by Laird Barron
  • Nothing Personal (2010) by Richard A. Lupoff
  • Remnants (2010) by Fred Chappell

The Croning (2012)

The Croning book cover(2012)

The Croning can be considered, without a doubt, the debut cosmic horror novel by Laird Barron–unlike his collection of short stories, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, this is a full-length novel within the genre of cosmic horror.

We see cults, dark magic, and a plethora of other themes that are common fixtures of the genre and we can’t look away–we highly recommend this particular literary spectacle, it’s a novel that without which, this list would be incomplete. Available on Amazon here.

Dreams From the Witch House book cover(2016)

Dreams From the Witch House (2016)

This particular anthology, Dreams From the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror, while honoring the origins of the genre is something different and singular. This anthology of short stories contains, as can be derived from the title, stories of cosmic horror that were written by female authors in the genre. Available on Amazon here.

What Stories Appear Within This Anthology?

  • Shadows of the Evening (1998) by Joyce Carol Oates
  • The Genesis Mausoleum (2015) by Colleen Douglas
  • The Woman in the Hill (2015) by Tamsyn Muir
  • The Face of Jarry (2015) by Cat Hellisen
  • Our Lady of Arsia Mons (2012) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • The Body Electric (2015) by Lucy Brady
  • The Child and the Night Gaunts (2015) by Marly Youmans
  • All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts (2015) by Sonya Taaffe
  • Every Hole in the Earth We Will Claim As Our Own (2015) by Gemma Files
  • But Only Because I Love You (2015) by Molly Tanzer
  • Cthulhu’s Mother (2015) by Kelda Crich
  • All Gods Great and Small (2015) by Karen Heuler
  • Dearest Daddy (2015) by Lois H. Gresh
  • Eye of the Beholder (2015) by Nancy Kilpatrick
  • Down at the Bottom of Everything (2015) by E.R. Knightsbridge
  • Spore (2015) by Amanda Downum
  • Pippa’s Crayons (2015) by Christine Morgan
  • The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward (2012) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette
  • From the Cold Dark Sea (2015) by Storm Constantine
  • Mnemeros (2015) by R.A. Kaelin

The Ballad of Black Tom (2016)

The Ballad of Black Tom Book cover (2016)

Victor LaValle grew up reading the horror stories that came from the life of H.P. Lovecraft, but it wasn’t until much later in his life that LaValle realized the excessive amounts of racism and agoraphobia that was present in Lovecraft’s body of work. As an African-American man, he used this eye-opening moment in his life to respond in kind, from one writer to another, by reinventing Lovecraft’s short story The Horror at Red Hook from the perspective of a black man.

LaValle’s re-imagining of this story was invigorating, riveting, and a triumph of creative responses to unacceptable biases–he succeeded in showing that Lovecraft’s work would have been even better had it not been rife with bigotry and bias for those who were not like Lovecraft. Available on Amazon here.

It’s important to understand that while we here at Puzzle Box Horror greatly appreciate the body of work that Lovecraft added to the horror genre, we recognize his biases and do not endorse them or agree with them. We were more than ecstatic when we found that there were actually literary responses to these particular issues and hope that such responses continue to appear within the literary community. Read the original story, by Lovecraft, that this novella was based off of, The Horror of Red Hook, then read Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.

Lovecraft Country book cover(2016)

Lovecraft Country (2016)

Following The Ballad of Black Tom, the novel Lovecraft Country also addresses the topic of racism within the context of Lovecraftian horror–this particular book has been adapted to screen recently and will soon be seen on HBO as a series–we certainly hope it will be as good as it looks, because the prospect of this one making it to infamy on screen makes us incredibly excited. The novel is available on Amazon here.

From executive producer Jordan Peele, we believe that this production will be worth every minute of time it takes to watch!

The Fisherman (2016)

The Fisherman book cover (2016)

Another from our list of best cosmic horror boos is The Fisherman. Described as a captivating read from beginning to end, John Langan’s The Fisherman gives us a dark, mysterious, fictional assertion of horror and cosmic fantasy. It follows the story of two widowers through their quiet and powerful story of loss and grief, by acknowledging the melancholy situation and the fact that things are never the same after the loss of a loved one. A definite addition to any cosmic horror novel list and one of the best out there. Available on Amazon here.

It would be a lie to say the time passes quickly. It never does, when you want it to.

What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017)

What the Hell Did I Just Read? book cover (2017)

The third installment in the trilogy that started with John Dies at the End (2007), was followed with This Book is Full of Spiders (2012) and finally What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017). This book is largely hinged upon the narrative–we live in a world where we largely base our opinions on the story that the narrator presents, but what happens when the narrator isn’t exactly the most trustworthy of sources? Does it change how we view the story? Do we realize before it’s too late that our entire perception has been incorrect? Available on Amazon here.

The true weird tale has something more than a secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains. An atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; a hint of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

H. P. Lovecraft

We’re curious to know what you thought about these best of cosmic horror books, novellas, and anthologies. Have you read anything that’s not listed here that fits the cosmic horror genre? We’re interested in reading it too, so leave us a comment and let us know!

Don’t feel like reading about cosmic horror? No problem, check out our list of recommended cosmic horror movies too.

The History of Cosmic Horror

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Don’t explain, because the unexplainable is the most frightening thing there is.

H.P. Lovecraft

What Exactly is Cosmic Horror?

Cosmic Horror movies and books are on the rise in the horror community lately—a refreshing turn away from the slashers and gore of the late seventies, early eighties, most of the nineties, and the last two decades. The Cosmic Horror genre is about more than just the copious amounts of senseless violence—it’s beyond its own monsters and dangers—it’s about testing the limits of your own humanity. How connected are you to the world around you? How frightened are you about the dangers of the unknown? When your perception of reality is suddenly pulled out from under you, you begin to experience overwhelming trepidation, anxiety, and an unanticipated creeping loss of sanity.

In stories with a central theme of Cosmic Horror, more often than not, have protagonists that are forced to face things that go well beyond the normal realm of comprehension, which leads to the idea that authors of the genre try to stand behind, “don’t try and over-explain what’s happening, rather let them stew in existential dread.” While this genre of horror contains plenty of gore and violence, it angles more on the supernatural, paranormal, and psychological sides of fear—so there is no reaction of disgust, but rather pure, unadulterated terror.

So, in the simplest terms possible, cosmic horror is a sub-genre of science fiction where horror is derived from the insignificance of our own existence within an often dispassionate universe … easy peasy, right? While Lovecraft is credited as the creator of cosmic (or Lovecraftian) horror, that doesn’t mean that he was necessarily the first person to write within this genre—he was simply the first person to dedicate his fictional writing solely to the genre which now bears his name. To this day Lovecraft remains the most famous writer of the cosmic horror genre, although the genre continues to expand with the works of writers around the world.

Where Did Cosmic Horror Come From Anyway?

A View Of the Cosmos
A View of the Cosmos
Photography by NASA

Now that we know what the genre of cosmic horror is all about, where exactly did this genre come from? As far as literary history has shown, cosmic horror began with one man—Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He is officially credited with being the father of the cosmic horror genre—but was he the first author to write in the genre, or was he simply the first author to be credited for it? Truth be told, Algernon Blackwood, an author out of England was officially the first one to write within the cosmic horror genre, but this subgenre of horror had not technically been established yet. His stories The Willows and The Man Who Found Out have historically been classified as general horror, gothic fiction, and fantasy fiction.

To understand certain types of horror, one must first understand where horror and the subsequent emotion of fear comes from. As has been mentioned many-a-times before, as said by Lovecraft himself, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” This means that this particular subgenre capitalizes on this reaction to uncertainty (in its simplest form), the bread and butter of cosmic horror, and the inability to tell what is coming and when. This quote represents the spectrum of Lovecraft’s range of fiction—it’s elegant, yet somehow a pathetic representation of what can truly represent the genre as a whole. In no uncertain terms, Lovecraft and other authors of the genre make it increasingly clear that there are multiple ways in which the futility and insignificance of human beings can be frightening. If there is nothing meaningful connection to the purpose of human beings, then are we truly anything more than a plaything for celestial beings?

It’s truly an unsettling thought to acknowledge this nihilistic idea of the modern age—that we base our relevance on the time in which we live, but discount the ancient wisdom and forces that came before us. During the earliest days of cosmic horror, Lovecraft took exceptional influences from the plethora of pagan religions all throughout the world. He took particular influence from the most ancient of these pagan religions and cultures—this is in no small part, due to the fact that Lovecraft was quite reverent to paganism and quite openly rejected mainstream Christianity. Keep in mind, Lovecraft lived in a time and place where having beliefs, or favorable leanings towards paganism was highly taboo—where today it is quite a bit more commonplace. Cosmic horror, however, despite being more widespread isn’t an easy genre to write—not to mention capture on film—well at all.

When Lovecraft first began to write stories that exhibited his creations, he displayed a truth that is often disregarded in the course of our daily lives—that we don’t consider the idea that there is something unknown and completely unrelatable to anything we have ever experienced before in our years of life on this earth. We don’t consider that we might be in a world where we don’t recognize the god(s) that deserve idolization, that there may be a natural way of being that we are unaware of, that there may be some type of fate of the world that we haven’t considered as a possibility. This was something that Lovecraft and his predecessors might not have considered, but it is definitely a possibility that should be considered, even if it is completely alien to what we’re used to.

Dig into more cosmic horror by reading and watching our best of cosmic horror books, comics, and movies lists.

The History of Sci-Fi Horror from Books to Film

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Defining Sci-Fi Horror

Mankind has always looked to the stars as a source of inspiration. The desire to explore and make meaning of the unknown is woven into our DNA. The more we learn through science and technology, the more we look to advance our understanding of both the world around us and the worlds above us. But there is a dark side to all of this. What boundaries are we pushing, and can they be pushed too far? What consequences are brushed aside with each new technological advancement and innovation? What terrors lurk in the vastness of space? There’s a reason the sci-fi horror genre has been popular for decades.

Science fiction horror stories often have a lot of bright-eyed wonder and fascination, but there’s also an inherent or underlying fear. Outer space is wondrous and also terrifying. Though not technically a horror film, you can’t watch Gravity and not be petrified by the cold, cruel infinite nothingness. Science fiction and horror are inextricably linked in many ways, and coming up with an exact definition is challenging because they share many of the same genre roots. Not to mention there’s plenty of overlap in sub-genres of body horror, cosmic horror, eco-horror, as well as in stories of the apocalypse or dystopia. To gain a better understanding of what exactly sci-fi horror is, let’s take a look at its origins, development, and notable creators. 

Origins of Sci-Fi Horror

Though the blended genre has been proliferated with noteworthy entries in the past few decades, the origins of sci-fi horror actually date back to over two hundred years ago. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus shocked the literary world and continues to ignite imaginations to this day, its tale of reanimated bodies and mad scientists spawning countless spin-offs and reinterpretations. Shelley created not only an incredibly influential horror story, but also one of the first real science fiction books. Her “mad scientist” trope fascinated cosmic horror great H.P. Lovecraft, and she pioneered the way for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897), the latter of which sent America into a frenzy during a 1938 radio broadcast because everyone thought aliens were actually invading earth. This just goes to show how genuinely frightening sci-fi horror can be.

Tracing the development of sci-fi horror also means exploring the history of social commentary and political statements, as stories within the genre are often born from societal upheaval and seek to question trends, policies, and belief systems. The film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is ostensibly about aliens taking over the bodies of human hosts, but it’s also a reflection of the cold war paranoia and fear of communism prevalent in that time period. Larry Cohen’s film The Stuff (1985) is campy, gross B-movie fun, but it’s also a critique of capitalism and consumerism. Of course some sci-fi horror stories are created purely for entertainment value. But more often than not they contain social commentary, ranging from subtle to overt, that adds a layer of critical intrigue to the enjoyment. 

Notable Creators of Sci-Fi Horror

dead space sci-fi horror book cover

Sci-fi horror got its start centuries ago in literature, and many writers (such as Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick) have helped it stay a mainstream attraction along the way. Even in recent years there are numerous authors continuing to push the genre in new directions. Some of the more famous ones that come to mind are Michael Chricton, Jeff Vandermeer, Octavia Butler, and Scott Sigler. The genre also has exciting entries in comics (such as Grant Morrison’s Nameless and Rob Guillory’s Farmhand) and video games (Bioshock, Dead Space, Alien: Isolation, SOMA, etc). But the most popular medium for sci-fi horror over the last few decades is unquestionably film.

When one hears the term “sci-fi horror” it will come as no surprise when images of viscous xenomorphs spring to mind. Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise is a staple of the genre. And no article about influential sci-fi horror would be complete without mentioning John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, movies that are terrifying in concept but also in their use of practical effects. To list out all the important movie makers in the genre would be pointless as popular creators are constantly emerging, but some other ones you should be paying attention to are Brandon Cronenberg (with provocative films like Anti-viral and Possessor) and Alex Garland, who has either written or directed such masterpieces as Ex Machina, Sunshine, and Annihilation

In Conclusion

Sci-fi horror is an engaging and exhilarating genre, melding mankind’s greatest hopes and fears into tales that shock and awe. It’s also a genre that is riff for new stories, as we continue to advance modern technology and seek the outer limits of space. The question of “what if” is extremely compelling, and it’s very exciting to speculate what dark and insidious conclusions lie on the other side. From where we’ve come and where we are now, the future of the genre certainly seems to be in good hands.