The King in Purple: Cosmic Horror and the Cosmic Christ

Solving the Riddle of God Posed by H.P. Lovecraft.

Zack Verham / 3.18.21

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I’d consider myself to be a connoisseur of spooks and scares. I love watching horror movies and reading chilly ghost stories late at night. It’s usually just entertainment for me — an adrenaline rush that tickles something subconscious in my reptile brain and misuses my flight-or-fight response for that sweet, sweet dopamine hit.

But H. P. Lovecraft is different. His short story “The Dreams in the Witch-House” in particular frightened me so badly that I could only read it during the daytime.

Lovecraft’s work during the early 1900s spawned a larger literary genre known as “Lovecraftian” or “cosmic” horror, which centers around an unknowable and uncaring universe. Lovecraftian stories are often set in a common meta-setting called the “Cthulhu mythos,” so named because of Lovecraft’s (in)famous story “The Call of Cthulhu.” Stories set in the Cthulhu mythos assume the existence of timeless alien entities, like Cthulhu itself, which reside within the deepest pockets of the universe. These entities are so powerful, and so utterly beyond human comprehension, that even tangential experience of them induces insanity.

In some stories, the alien entities appear to align with demonic archetypes in Christian mythology, and Lovecraftian heroes sometimes must engage with evil cults that attempt to harness the power of these alien deities for nefarious ends. But Lovecraft’s alien pantheon often presents a more troubling paradigm than simply good vs. evil. The actions of the heroes and the villains, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows experienced by the protagonists, are all like microbes going unnoticed beneath the intelligence that truly runs the cosmos. While humans often experience incarnational spasms of Cthulhu and its ilk within the world as evil, terrible, and potentially apocalyptic events, Cthulhu itself is a black box of morality. If just its appearance induces insanity, its actual motives and ethical framework are so incomprehensible that language cannot begin to describe it.

via https://sktchd.com/

This forced silence in the face of an uncaring and dangerous cosmos which at the same time is filled to the brim with some type of sentience — this is the crux of cosmic horror. The fear doesn’t depend on an atheistic universe; instead, it relies on the cosmos being full of gods which cannot be spoken about or understood.

The Christian framework for viewing the world is “primed” to be especially terrified by cosmic horror, because it holds many of the same fundamental axioms. Christianity assumes that the cosmos is not a dead void, but rather that divine intelligence and personality undergird existence. Likewise, God’s fundamental being lies beyond human comprehension. God is in some way more than what can be ascertained:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the LORD.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isa 55:8-9)

Of course, Christianity takes a significant divergence from the annihilationist tendencies of cosmic horror, and two significant points of divergence allow me take a deep breath and sigh in relief after finishing yet another cosmic horror tale.

First, and most importantly, it is precisely within the context of God’s incomprehensibility that Jesus enters the picture. As Paul wrote, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Christianity proposes that Jesus provides us with concrete knowledge about the God who is enshrouded in clouds atop Mount Sinai. This assertion is the pivot around which faith in God’s graciousness and loving-kindness revolves. Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection are the point of divergence from a Cthulhu-saturated universe. Christ is the positive assertion that the unknowable God is fundamentally interested in humanity, and that God’s interest is benevolent and kind. God is not a total mystery, but a person.

Second, this divine affirmation allows Christians to re-interpret the incomprehensibility of God into a vista for grace to break into a world which fundamentally cannot save itself. A fully-known quantity derived from comprehensible, tangible things cannot save us. God’s incomprehensibility is intrinsic to salvation and resurrection. In his commentary on Romans, Karl Barth writes that “the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it. And, precisely because it does not touch it, it touches it as its frontier — as the new world” (p. 30).

In Christ, the veil is torn from top to bottom. The second act of The King in Yellow is finally read, and a gateway to Carcosa is opened. But Carcosa, the cursed city “where black stars rise, and strange moons circle through the skies,” is discovered to be just another scary story. Christ promises and unveils a different reality, where the light shines into the darkness, and that darkness does not overcome it.