Real life is full of existential dread right now, so what better way to deal with that stressor than indulging in the catharsis of some good modern cosmic horror books? Sure the world is on fire. Literally, in some instances. But cosmic horror is there to remind us that it could definitely get worse. (I will not make a tentacle joke, I will not make a tentacle joke, I will not—) Most folks know how cosmic horror got started, and that when it comes to the sub-genre Lovecraft still tends to loom large, so I won’t go into the history here. I definitely recommend you check out Sarah S. Davis’s Introduction to Cosmic Horror post, because she does a great job of breaking down the whys and wherefores of the cosmic horror sub-genre.
Instead, we’re going to talk about some of the amazing modern cosmic horror books that have been published in the last five years and were therefore definitely not written by Lovecraft. Like I said, Lovecraft looms large and it’s hard to escape him in the realm of cosmic horror, so some of these titles do engage directly with Lovecraft’s universe. Others, though, choose to abandon his opus entirely and strike out in new directions, exploring and interrogating the themes and concepts of the sub-genre.
Modern Cosmic Horror Books
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
For a novella, Kiernan’s cosmic horror Agents of Dreamland, the first in her Tinfoil Dossier series, packs in a lot of narrative. A cult leader surrounds himself with followers drawn by the promise of transcendence. A government special agent known only as the Signalman tries to track down information about an inexplicable event that haunts him. An interplanetary probe goes dark, and something far beyond our galaxy has made contact. Somewhere, outside of time, an unknown woman studies the past and the future for the means to save humanity. If you end up enjoying Agents of Dreamland, rejoice! The sequel, Black Helicopters, is already out and the third book in the series, The Tindalos Asset, will be out October 13!
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Most horror and fantasy readers are familiar with Victor LaValle’s work, and that includes his brilliant reimagining of one of Lovecraft’s most bigoted works, “The Horror at Red Hook.” LaValle’s novella shines a bright light not just on the racism of Lovecraft’s original work but also on the terrible truth that all the cosmic horrors of the world are distant nightmares compared to the violence humans visit on each other. In short, The Ballad of Black Tom probably has ol’ H.P. spinning in his grave, and isn’t that what we all want? Charles Tester is a hustler, doing what ever he has to to keep his father housed and fed, and he makes his money peddling dangerous magics to desperate or eager people. But when his most recent delivery opens a door to more power than he’s ever encountered, Tester finds himself under the eye of something old and dangerous.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy has always leaned on the dark side of the genre, so I am absolutely ecstatic that with her most recent novel she’s made the leap in to full-fledged cosmic horror. In a version of our world where cities have souls called avatars, the avatar of New York City has vanished. Now five new avatars must rise to take its place: the city’s iconic five boroughs personified. Beneath the city, something old and powerful is waking up, and if the city’s five protectors cannot find a way to work together, the ancient evil beneath its streets will destroy New York entirely.
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
Like a lot of the modern cosmic horror books on this list, Emrys’s Winter Tide engages directly with Lovecraft’s original opus, drawing on one of his iconic settings: Innsmouth. In 1928 the government relocated the people of Innsmouth, taking them as far as possible from their home ocean and their sleeping gods. They deposited them in dusty camps in the desert and left them to die. Aphra and Caleb Marsh were the only ones to survive their camp. Now, the same government that destroyed her people needs Aphra’s help recovering dangerous secrets they that they believe the Communists have stolen from Miskatonic University. In Emry’s continuation of the story of Innsmouth, she makes a point of subverting Lovecraft’s frequent racism and xenophobia by drawing inspiration from America’s violent history of relocating and imprisoning those it fears. Humans are the real monsters here.
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
If cosmic horror noir is your jam, you need to add Khaw’s Persons Non Grata novellas to your reading list. Hammers on Bone and its sequel A Song for Quiet are an excellent mix of arcane horrors and hardboiled detective work. John Persons is a P.I. with a talent for handling the ancient and abominable, being ancient and somewhat abominable himself. Which makes him the perfect person to hunt down the stepfather of his newest client, a man infected with a monstrous alien presence.
Everything That’s Underneath by Kristi DeMeester
DeMeester’s work is an example of my favorite form of cosmic horror, steeped in powerful, unsettling nature imagery, with the horrors coming from deep below rather than behind the stars. It’s the gritty, earthy feel of folk horror meets the vast, unknowableness of cosmic horror, and I could eat it with a spoon. In her debut short story collection Everything That’s Underneath DeMeester pens 18 stories of terrifying cosmic folk horror that drag her readers into the dark corners of the world and the human soul.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
Another Lovecraft tie-in, Kij Johnson’s book is about the titular Professor Vellitt Boe, who teaches at Ulthar Women’s College (a reference to Lovecraft’s short story “The Cats of Ulthar”). Ulthar is one of the villages in the Dreamlands of Earth, and when one of Professor Boe’s most talented students runs away to the waking world with a dreamer she’s fallen in love with, it’s up to Boe to bring her back. But the journey to retrieve her missing student takes Boe far across the Dreamlands and deep into the secrets of her own past.
The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper
Hello to my most anticipated read of November, and the book I’m most looking forward to as 2020 (finally) draws to a close. Not only does Hailey Piper’s forthcoming release with new indie publisher Off Limits Press have an absolutely GORGEOUS cover, it also promises to be cosmic horror dream of a novella. Set in the New York City of the ‘90s, where it’s easy for people to just disappear and never to be seen again, Worm’s protagonist Monique is on a quest to find her missing girlfriend Donna. But it’s not just Donna who has vanished, and as other impoverished women start to disappear from the city streets, Monique begins to hear rumors of monsters stalking the city’s underbelly. In order to save Donna, Monique must follow the rumors deep into the world below New York, a subterranean kingdom of creatures, cultists, and an even more terrible, ancient evil lurking there in the dark.
Happy reading folks! Try not to gaze too long at the places between the stars, or the corners of this world that seem too dark. You never know what you might awaken.