|Lovecraft attempting to smile.|
Cosmic Horror is a genre based around the concept that reality as we know it is only a small, insignificant part of a larger, more malevolent universe controlled by beings that are either outright malevolent or could wipe out humanity without a thought because we don’t even register on their radar. It’s effectively the same framework as a most religion, only framed around an incredibly nihilistic narrative.
The idea of the protagonist being alone in a cold, hostile universe is central to a Cosmic Horror Story, as is the idea that the motivations, and even appearance, of the antagonist are to oblique that they can only be described in the vaguest of terms. This can either make the bad guy mysterious and scary, or come off as the writer being incredibly lazy.
With Lovecraft, Cosmic Horror wasn’t the sole sum of his work, despite what you may believe, with parodies of Frankenstein and the like also knocking about in his bibliography (in addition to an essay as to why cats are better than dogs). But as the guy who made the genre famous, a lot of his story ideas have transferred over into most, but not all, of the genre.
As such Lovecraft branch of Cosmic Horror would include the protagonist going insane from the realisation that the universe is much larger than he thought, half-monster hybrids, lost civilisations, cults, ancient magic that fringes with super advanced science, knowledge beyond the ken of the mankind, god-like entities beyond the comprehension of the narrator, squashy but huge ocean-based monsters and the like.
A prevailing sense of nihilism is often found in works of Cosmic Horror, but more so in the more directly inspired by Lovecraft, wherein the protagonists often go insane and kill themselves after the experiences of what they’ve encountered. However, there are also a significant amount of works these days that use Lovecraftian and Cosmic Horror tropes and play them from a more idealistic standpoint. Examples of this can be seen in the heavily HP-influenced BPRD comicbook series and in the Grant Morrison interpretations of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, especially in the Final Crisis event comic, both where the threat of the entities is great but the heroes at least have the possibility of winning through shear willpower.
The revelation that the protagonist may himself be a half-human hybrid is an idea he used at least twice, in addition to a reoccurring motif of “degenerate” people with the unspeakable horrors to produce things that are neither one way nor the other. This could be inferred to be a subconscious reference to Lovecraft’s overt racism and horrified reaction to mixed marriages*. The fixation on fish and octopus-related creatures could be put down to Lovecraft’s phobia of seafood.
*He got over this later in life, though his wife, who was Jewish, did have to occasionally point out to him in his rants about Jews were more than a touch moronic considering who he was sleeping with.
Due to Lovecraft’s style of writing, a lot of the adaptations of his work often make changes to the story in order to make the shift from page to screen. They can be relatively minor things such as inserting female characters, such as in the Night Gallery adaptations of Cold Air and Pickman’s Model, to giving the mythos an entire overhaul to make it fit in a more traditional case of good guys versus bad guys. The latter often includes the option of humanity begin able to actually win against whatever is tormenting them, which I guess is more palatable to modern audiences than the standard Lovecraft ending, where the protagonist ends up insane and/or kills themselves.
The main issue with works that are either attempts to directly translate the work is that a lot either like the aesthetics of the octopus-faced monsters but don’t want to include the nihilism that is common to the genre in order to tell a story with a happy ending, OR they take the overall concept and give it a spin in a new way that abandons the standard aesthetics for something a touch more ambiguous.
An example of the first would be the likes of the Hellboy spin-off BPRD, which is in the midst of an apocalypse within numerous Lovecraftian beasties are finally rising to either wipe out humanity or change it into some new, horrifying form. It does have the internal mythology that runs alongside a lot of the Lovecraft Mythos, but is restructured in such a way that makes humanity more important in the grand scheme of things, have numerous equally powerful good-aligned supernatural forces and is more about humanity fighting tooth and nail to stay alive and fight off the dark than just caving to pressure like a lot of HP’s protagonists. Humanity might be slowly dying out in BPRD, but at least there’s escape routes if necessary.
An example of the second type would be the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya franchise. It’s the story of a Japanese schoolgirl who begins a club to investigate the supernatural and to make friends with psychics, aliens and time travellers due to her finding regular people boring. However, it turns out that some years ago the entire universe was destroyed and reconstructed in the form it is now, and Haruhi is the cause. It seems that she is effectively God, and subconsciously manipulates the universe to conform to her expectations as to how life would be like, meaning tropes from numerous anime genres end up occurring in reality because that’s how she wants life to be like. Because she has the potential to erase and reconstruct reality in a new form again if bored, the other members of her club, which secretly include the very people she’s looking for, they have to keep her entertained to keep that from happening. The side-effect of having a consistent group of people with seemingly similar interests hanging around Haruhi is that she begins to grow as a person, and start seeing people more as actual people as opposed to them just being there to “populate the set”. Because friendship is magic, yo.
The set-up of someone being able to manipulate the universe at a whim and having to be entertained lest they destroy the world is something that actually happens within the Lovecraft Mythos. There is the alien god Azathoth who lives in the centre of the universe constantly dreaming and destroying new realities into being, where he is constantly entertained by equally alien musicians with the hope he doesn't create a form of reality that is completely hostile to them. As I stated before, that’s essentially what the other protagonists in Haruhi are trying to do. And within the series’ universe Haruhi isn’t the old god-like being, she is merely the most powerful and human of them. There is also the Data Entity, a being of pure information that has sent avatars to study Haruhi, who is so powerful that its avatars effectively can “manipulate reality’s computer code” in small ways, effectively creating magic from absurdly advanced science.
Admittedly when it comes the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the tone probably isn’t intended to be one of horror. The titular Haruhi is pretty good natured, in the sense she often doesn’t wish people specific harm, and genuinely comes to care for her friends. The thing is the implied things that happen due to what her powers are doing on a subconscious level. She manifests a serial killer on the island she and her friends were on vacation on because she thought that there was one there, even though the “murder” they were investigating turned out to be a hoax, for example. Or there’s the time she traps her friends in a never ending time loop, which they aren’t aware of for the most part, but the Data Entity’s avatar, Yuki Nagato, ends up spending, to her, hundreds of years living and doing the same things over and over and over again.
The idea that what you know to be real isn't, is more fluid that you originally thought or may in fact be completely different form than what you expected is a concept central to Cosmic Horror but can be played in a number of different ways. The John Carpenter Lovecraft-homage film In the Mouth of Madness takes the idea that reality is being manipulated on a very base level by a writer and plays it very much for horror, for example, while the Will Ferrel film Stranger than Fiction instead plays it more as a romantic comedy... which happens to have some horrible, horrible implications that even the author in the latter work realises.
Cosmic Horror as a genre is one that can be open to big ideas, even though it could be said that some of the trappings introduced by HP Lovecraft have become somewhat dated and cliche, there are ways that it can be used in effective ways. People crave control over their lives, and the idea of someone taking that control away is a fundamental fear that people have, making it an important concept in the darker side of fiction, for example in dystopian works where the state does. Cosmic Horror takes that concept and blows it up to the largest possible degree, which, when done right, can make it one of the more terrifying forms of the horror genre out there.
After all, people can wrap their heads around the idea of a homicidal lunatic trying to murder you with an axe. Heck, people are even capable of planning on surviving zombie outbreaks if given preparation time. But the idea of someone playing with your life, editting your life in ways outside of your control, could be seen to be a whole lot scarier.