I was fortunate to meet with a prominent editor of a famous sci-fi magazine before I started The Maul to discuss basic publication practice. One of their insights was this: “People read a magazine because they share tastes with the editor.”
I have some major reservations about the Cosmic Horror subgenre. I’ve slushed over a thousand stories, and it has become apparent to me that it is the subgenre that I have been the pickiest about, because I was holding authors to an arguably unfair standard. I wanted authors to acknowledge what I feel are shortcomings of the subgenre, but I haven’t made public yet what those are.
So I decided to make our first contest fundraiser Cosmic Horror themed, to force myself to finally pick one. I’m excited about it. Below, I’m going to tell you what my reservations are. But I don’t want anyone to think they must be addressed in entries to the contest. Could it make your story stand out more? Yes. But I don’t want an author to try and jam things into a flash fiction just because the editor has some pet peeves. Just try and write the best story you can, and know I’m going to keep the following in mind when I read.
First of all, Cosmic Horror is unique in that it was basically invented by one person. Some people argue that sci-fi, for example, started with Mary Shelley, and there’s some truth to that. But Cosmic Horror is clearly owned by Lovecraft. Whereas Shelley started a movement that was inevitable, Lovecraft set a tone that cannot be ignored by its readers. And my problem with all that is that Lovecraft was a virulent racist, and a proud eugenicist.
Now, it would be unfair of me to hold that against Lovecraft fans. I ignore patently horrible things in classic writing that I myself enjoy. I’m a big fan of Michel Foucault, who believed that children could consent to sex. I think Philip K. Dick took the sci-fi world to a whole other level, despite his writing being filled with unabashed misogyny. And yes, I love Harry Potter (and HPMOR, though I’ve yet to find a scandal associated with Yudkowsky). So I grant that Lovecraft, who is a talented writer, can be enjoyed by those who choose to ignore his undignified descriptions of certain characters. Anything less would make me a hypocrite; at least more of one than I usually am, anyway.
But again, the magazine is a reflection of my taste to an extent. So I cannot ignore how I feel about it. I’d love to see a Cosmic Horror piece that addresses all this in a subtle or not-so-subtle way, a la Lovecraft Country. But that’s hard to do with 1,000 words. So I may have to just be fine with simply posting my feelings about Lovecraft on the website and having that be that. Actually, I am ok with that. If Cosmic Horror is going to be housed within this website domain that I bought from namecheap.com with my own money, then I want it public that H.P. Lovecraft the person can go fuck himself, even though H.P. Lovecraft the writer has changed and shaped many lives through his admittedly brilliant prose.
Some of this has to do with the fact that I’m not really a dyed-in-the-wool horror fanatic to begin with. As I’ve mentioned on the site, in editorials, in interviews (fine, one interview), and on social media, I publish horror because that’s what kids want to read more of. I’m not an aficionado by any means. I enjoy reading horror, and though slushing your stories has given me a deep appreciation for how elegant a good horror piece can be, it’s honestly not what I buy when I go to Barnes and Noble. I have a respect for horror, but an emotional detachment to it, which I actually think helps in my editorial decisions. And I only mention this because I think for people who read this post and want to send me nasty emails because they love Cthulu, I just want you to know that I had to force myself to read The Dunwich Horror to at least know how the subgenre operated before starting this magazine. And it was good. Lovecraft is a good writer. He’s just not for me. You know what? Send the nasty emails. You all are great writers. I will probably enjoy reading those as well.
And so that’s my second issue with the Cosmic Horror subgenre. It’s just not my thing. Occasionally we’ll get a sub that’ll really impress me but other than that I’m kind of nonplussed. Everyone has their tastes. It’s not mine. So this contest is a good way to indoctrinate me. My advice if you’re submitting – surprise us. Do something unconventional with it. Something no one’s done before. That might be the thing that we publish.
Finally, I bring up a third issue, which speaks to what we’ll be looking for. Lovecraft started the Cosmic subgenre because of a pseudo-nihilistic philosophy. It’s debated whether Lovecraft really thought something like a giant demon would come and crush the Earth someday, or whether it was symbolic of his own sense of humanity’s insignificance, but it doesn’t matter in the end. Because one of the things I’ve grown to love about the horror genre since becoming an editor is the hope it inspires. The reason horror is so horrific is the agreement that exists between author and reader that whatever is happening on the page shouldn’t be happening. A shared understanding is developed in horror that things insight fear because in a better world, in a more just world, in a kind world, they would not only be impossible, but they’d be inconceivable. Playing with whether we live in that kind of world is the difference between horror and true crime.
So keep that hope in mind when writing your Cosmic piece. And don’t misunderstand me. I’m ok with all of the Earth being consumed by a sixteen-eyed lizard/monkey in your story. I don’t need a happy ending. I just need a sense from you, the author, that it would be sad if it happened. I didn’t get that sense when I read Lovecraft. But to me, Lovecraft no longer need own the subgenre.
Show us what you got.
And if you’re one of the people who’ve been telling me how much you adore Lovecraft in your cover letters, from now on, please go ahead and add a “And fuck you, Brian Rosten” in there, for me.