H P Lovecraft, Godzilla, Sadako, and the Universe of Cosmic Horror

Excalibur Books is currently running the Zoe Drake Haunted Summer Campaign, promoting her novel “The Mists of Osorezan” with a series of giveaways and discounts. “The Mists of Osorezan” has been described as “a story of Cosmic Horror … that combines Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos with the J-Horror vibe inspired by Koji Suzuki’s “Ring”, with a dash of Indiana Jones thrown in.”

But who is H. P. Lovecraft and why is he famous? Is there really a connection between his writings and Japanese Horror?? And what does “Cosmic Horror” mean, anyway??? For the answers, read on, O fearless one … 

H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1880-1937) is a famous American author of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Horror author Stephen King has called Lovecraft “The Twentieth Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale,” but this is misleading, because H. P. Lovecraft’s tales were anything but classic. He is the originator of the concept of “Cosmic Horror” — the idea that the universe is incomprehensible to human minds and is fundamentally alien. Dig into the mystery deep enough, and you’re likely to go insane, like many of the protagonists in his stories. H. P. Lovecraft’s deeply pessimistic and cynical worldview comes out in most of his writings.

In the decades after his death, his work became incredibly popular, and today he is considered one of, if not the most influential horror writer of the 20th century. His works, including over a hundred short stories, have influenced countless books, movies, novels, music, comic books, and cartoons. He is most known for his Cthulhu Mythos, a series of loosely connected stories with commonalities in mythology — ancient evil gods and beings that threatened human beings in certain circumstances. Another common feature in many of his stories are references to the Necronomicon, an ancient book filled with rites and incantations for opening portals into the unknown.

There are several common themes throughout H. P. Lovecraft’s work that made it unique and memorable. Many of these features were later frequently copied in horror stories of every stripe, often by authors who are not even aware of their originator. These concepts are forbidden knowledge, non-human influences on humanity, inherited guilt, civilization under threat, and the risks of a scientific era. Lovecraft lived at a time when scientific and technological knowledge was expanding rapidly, and it was palpable how little humans knew. He used this to his advantage in his stories, where scientific investigations sometimes unveiled much more than his protagonists ever could have imagined.

Some of Lovecraft’s most well-known stories are Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, Dagon, The Color Out of Space, The Shadow Out of Time, and At the Mountains of Madness (with thanks to the scribes at Wisegeek for additional information.)

The Japanese Horror Boom

“J-Horror” or “Japanese Horror” is a sub-genre of horror that first attracted notice in the mid-Nineties, with the “Ring” series of novels written by Koji Suzuki, and then their movie adaptations directed by  Hideo Nakata, and the “Ju-On”(Grudge) film series created by Takashi Shimizu. These won international acclaim, and Western audiences were fascinated and perplexed by how their atmosphere and plot motivation seemed so different from what Europe and America called “Horror Movies”.

So what exactly made them so different, and so eerily resonant?

We now hand over to our fellow blogger Chris Pruett at “Horror Dreamdawn: Chris’ Guide to Understanding Japanese Horror”, for his description of how J-Horror works.

  • The universe is governed by rules. This is a central theme in Japanese horror; we can almost always see some sort of logical progression based on some implied set of rules that govern the way all things work. This often manifests as a sequence of events that must occur before terror can be revealed, such as the Hanako-in-the-Toilet summoning procedure in the Hanako urban legend.
  • The rules of the universe are beyond human understanding. An equally central theme is that the rules and the reasoning behind them may not be something that people can grasp, and thus one must accept that which he cannot explain. Why does Hanako require a certain stall of a certain bathroom at a certain school to be knocked upon a certain number of times? The answer can never be clear, but that does not stop the audience from believing the story. Another example is the Yuki-Onna story, which suggests that the snow woman has no choice but to reveal herself after her husband betrays his secret; it is as if the promise between them is all that binds her to the mortal plane.

  • Modern society offers no protection from spirits and ghosts. Contemporary Japanese horror very often involves ghosts hijacking modern technology, such as the phantoms possessing the internet in “Kairo”, even though the motives of most malicious spirits are not significantly different than they were a few hundred years ago. Perhaps this reflects some anxiety about the amazing speed with which Japan reinvented itself and rose to economic power after World War II. We can see this influence clearly in The Ring (the video tape as a curse), Juon (the characters are constantly confronted by appliances that are no longer trustworthy), and films like Tetsuo The Iron Man, where metal itself plagues the protagonist like a disease.
  • Perseverance in the face of utter destruction. It is impossible to talk about modern Japanese culture without acknowledging the impact that the atomic bombs had on the Japanese psyche. A world that has been utterly destroyed and yet must still sustain life is a constantly recurring theme in modern Japanese media: it is a direct theme in works like Godzilla, Akira, and Dragon Head, and it manifests on a much more subtle level in all sorts of other aspects of the culture (consider, for example, Princess Mononoke’s finale).
  • Damp Settings. While Western tales of the macabre tend to take place in dry, musty locations such as mansions, basements, or cemeteries, the Japanese tend to associate spirits with water and humidity. Perhaps this is because the Japanese summer months are characterized by intense humidity that persists even after nightfall. The art and culture magazine Kateigaho pointed this characteristic out in an interview with Koji Suzuki, the author of The Ring novel series. Dank, confined spaces, [Suzuki] believes, are the most conducive to the appearance of ghostly spirits. … It is damp settings rather than dry ones that the Japanese associate with spirits. In Western horror movies, the bathroom is a frequent backdrop to terror. J-horror too makes audiences recoil by suggesting that a disembodied spirit is about to creep into a damp space, a space so damp it’s hard to breathe. 

  If these are the main features of J-Horror, then there is a very close link to Lovecraft’s vision of the universe that has defined the Cosmic Horror sub-genre. We see the same concepts of the unknown existing alongside the world of humanity (and has done so ever since the beginning of time) but slightly removed from it; points and events where this unknown can break into our world, sometimes catastrophically; and a universe with rules, but rules that are alien and frequently incomprehensible to human beings. We now quote from Excalibur author John Paul Catton, and “The Unofficial Guide to Japanese Mythology”: 

“Japanese creation myths tell us of the formless chaos at the beginning of time that gives rise to intelligent life, beings of such transcendent power we call them Gods, or in Japanese language, “Kami”. In Japanese mythology, as opposed to Judeo-Christian theology, these Kami are not anthropomorphic representations of good and evil. Their actions have an effect on human life, but human life is basically irrelevant and insignificant to them. The Shinto religion has no devils or demons, no eternal struggle of light and darkness or good and evil, no concept of the apocalypse. Shinto deals with the shifting, complex problems of human nature.

There is a word in Japanese language, a word not used in common parlance because it has a meaning specific to Shinto belief. The word is Osoroshimono. It comes from the word osore, meaning terror, and mono, meaning thing. It is used to describe things that cannot be called Kami, but are far removed from any from of plant, animal or human life – creatures of divine origin that inspire fear more than respect, and should be avoided by mere mortals. The creature Orochi, from the first myths of Susanoo, is one such Osoroshimono. 

A more familiar word is Kaiju – the two Kanji characters mean ‘mysterious’ and ‘beast’. Nowadays, we associate Kaiju with the movie character Godzilla, and the franchise spawned from Toho and the imitations from Toei Studios ever since 1954. This is a sub-genre of the Tokusatsu (live-action SFX) genre previously mentioned, affectionately known as the ‘men-in-rubber-suits’ genre, because of how the monsters are realized on-screen – not by stop-motion model work, but by actors. Haruo Nakajima was the actor most widely known as playing Godzilla (wearing the rubber monster suit in over 25 Tokusatsu films); Eiji Tsubaraya was the man who painstakingly created the model buildings that the monster would destroy.

It’s important to note that Kaiju are not the same as dinosaurs. They often have supernatural powers such as flight, fiery breath, shape-shifting, and telepathy. They’re often created or mutated by atomic radiation or environmental pollution. In the first Godzilla movie, his backstory is that he is a creature from the Jurassic to Cretaceous period, revived and mutated by multiple exposures to radiation from nuclear tests. The name – “Gojira” in Japanese – is taken from the combination of the words gorilla and kujira (whale).

The Kaiju movies became immensely popular at the time of Japan’s post-war economic recovery. It’s an interesting thought that as fast as Japan could erect impressive feats of architecture such as the Tokyo Tower, Godzilla and the other Kaiju were knocking them down and using them as chew toys.

In Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, an alien race known as the Old Ones lived on Earth in the Earth’s prehistoric past, and as their civilization died they entered an æons-long sleep. In their sleep, they dream, and these dreams seep into human nightmares, compelling those of a sensitive nature to form cults, write grimoires filled with their fevered visions, and work half-remembered rituals, so that the Old Ones may awaken and return to our reality – the realm that they used to rule.

Lovecraft created the literary genre of Cosmic Horror – the concept that there is no God and no Devil, no anthropomorphic representation of good or evil. The parahuman forces that he wrote of simply cannot be comprehended by the minds of human beings, and any attempt to communicate or understand would drive the attempter insane. Conversely, human life is regarded as a minor irritation, basically irrelevant to these creatures.

Lovecraft’s monsters are threats, yes, but in the same way that an earthquake or a tsunami is a threat. This concept of Cosmic Horror sounds uncannily similar to the Way of Shinto, the Kami, the demon Orochi and the monstrous worms and spiders that surface in other legends.

Notice that in all the monster movies made by Toho and their imitators, the action consists of wars between giant creatures who destroy cities sometimes by accident. When we consider that human beings are helpless against this incomprehensible conflict committed by creatures totally alien to human ways of thinking, we might wonder, is there a connection between great Cthulhu sleeping in his lost undersea city, and Godzilla, awoken from his undersea home by reckless nuclear experiments? Was Lovecraft consciously or unconsciously influenced by Japanese mythology?”

Experience Zoe Drake’s fusion of J-Horror and Cosmic Horror, filled with bizarre creatures from Japanese mythology, legend, folklore, and modern urban legends, in “The Mists of Osorezan”!



About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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2 Responses to H P Lovecraft, Godzilla, Sadako, and the Universe of Cosmic Horror

  1. Neva Conroy says:

    Good post and straight to the point. I am not sure if this is really the best place to ask but do you folks have any ideea where to hire some professional writers? Thank you

  2. Pingback: Japanese-Western crosscurrents in “Other World” concepts – Marcus's A-POP Blog

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