In 1891, Ambrose Bierce published “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” a very short story about a man who wakes up one day unsure where he is. He knows that he had been sick in bed and worries that, in some state of delirium, he wandered off to this strange, ruined place that exudes absence and despair. What is this place? Soon he comes across an ancient cemetery that answers his question and gives us a glimpse at the world from the perspective of the great practitioners of cosmic horror. The ancient, unseen world — billions of unseen souls who, whether in life or death, have discovered mysteries we cannot imagine — it’s all still attached to us. Indeed, this physical absence reminds us of our own fate, making our day-to-day toils utterly meaningless.
The place, Carcosa, explored so briefly in Bierce’s original story, encapsulates a tantalizing an idea. Many authors explicitly hearken to Carcosa itself as they explore the long shadows of its sinister architecture. R.W. Chambers adopted the locale for some of his tales of terror, which in turn ushered the city into H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Carcosa has shown up in dozens of works and has crossed over to other mediums, even today, as fans of True Detective know, usually summoning some mystical and horrific place, a gray zone between life and death where we can explore of our primal fears and see just how little we and our worries are. NYRB Classics has put together a seasonal offering of tales in this vein, Shadows of Carcosa: Tales of Cosmic Horror by Lovecraft, Chambers, Machen, Poe, and Other Masters of the Weird.
The collection, which is a slightly modified edition of an older NYRB Classics collection called The Colour Out of Space, contains 12 stories that can be situated within the sphere of “cosmic horror.” If psychological horror — such as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” Hitchcock’s Psycho, or de Palma’s Dressed to Kill — taps into the frightening, uncontrollable, perhaps unknowable, vast space inside the human mind, cosmic horror is inspired by the terror of the uncontrollable, unknowable, infinite space outside of our own skin, a space, they argue, we tend to normalize (else, how could we cope?) under a comforting veil of stories and delusions, a veil these authors tear away, exposing not only the terrors beneath the veil but also our own preference for illusion (something that often results in these authors being called misanthropic). Naturally, cosmic horror often leads to psychological horror: not everyone who sees the world under those veils keeps her sanity.
This mode of exploration of humanity’s place in this universe through horror fiction didn’t start with Bierce, of course. Indeed, even this collection begins earlier with Edgar Allan Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle,” first published in 1833. This story is an early iteration of a survivor — though not, one thinks, a fortunate one — who finds himself in a world that isn’t quite the same physical world he thought he inhabited. From Poe, we move to Bram Stoker and his gory 1914 story “The Squaw,” which takes place in a medieval castle, with a torture chamber, that a young couple is visiting for their honeymoon (for me, this is the least fitting story in the collection). Bierce then takes over the collection for three stories, including “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” before we get to some of the authors most famously associated with this type of horror.
R.W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” was originally published in his 1895 collection The King in Yellow, a book that references “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in various ways. This is a phenomenal story, the best, by my estimation, up to this point in the collection. It tells the story of a young man living in New York in 1920, a quarter of a century into the future if you were to have read the story upon its original publication, though our narrator, who feels he was wrongly placed into an insane asylum before the story begins, is far from reliable. In “The Repairer of Reputations,” our narrator feels that he is the second heir in line to inherit the Imperial Dynasty of America,” the remnant of a lost kingdom from Hyades stars. His cousin, Louis, is first in line and must be forced to abdicate. Again, this is a story that shows just how closely related cosmic horror and psychological horror are.
The collection keeps getting better.
In M.P. Shiel’s 1911 masterpiece, “The House of Sounds,” the narrator visits a home situated on the outer limits (or, rather, a home on an island off of northern Norway), where the sounds of the battering waves force all communication to happen in writing. Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 story, “The Willows,” suggests dread and malevolence in otherwise seemingly innocuous surroundings, like the willows (and was apparently one of Lovecraft’s favorites). Walter de la Mare’s “Seaton’s Aunt” is the melancholy story of two boys who come together for one strange meeting that somehow keeps them acquainted over the years as they get closer to their doom.
My three favorites in the collection, though, are from acknowledged masters.
From Arthur Machen we get “The White People,” first published in 1904. This terrifying tale, a favorite as it brings out our inner antiquarian, touches on one of the most chilling elements of any kind of horror: a child’s innocence in the face of evil. Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner” is also included; while not the masterpiece that “The Turn of the Screw” is, it is still a masterpiece with riches in ambiguity, in which a man becomes haunted by his own ghost. The collection comes to an end with H.P. Loveraft’s 1927 story “The Colour Out of Space,” where we can walk with a Lovecraftian outsider again as he seeks to uncover the answer to a question he cannot even articulate within borders of a mysterious town.
This collection was released earlier this month, and I’ve been sifting through it little by little as we approach Halloween. I’d read some of the stories before, and they were a delight to revisit, and I was just as delighted by the stories I came across for the first time.