Cosmic Horror in Campbell’s and Machen’s Works

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Cosmic horror is the fear and terror we experience when exposed to things beyond our knowledge, whose reach stretches beyond the limited context of human affairs and exhibits cosmic significance. Fundamentally, cosmic horror is a hybrid of horror and terror, defined by a great fear of external forces and a breakdown of the principles humans believe control nature. Generally, the characters in literary cosmic horrors find themselves up against forces so vast, powerful, and alien that they are forced to face the fact that they and the human race are utterly insignificant.

Both The Voice of the Beach by Campbell and Machen’s The Great God Pan belong to this sub-genre of horror literature because the characters face unnatural forces that imply cosmic significance and extend beyond the narrow field of human affairs. In both books, unexplainable phenomena and a collapse of the laws that humans perceive as natural characterize the setting of the stories. Because both works of fiction belong to the same sub-genre of horror fiction, they both have similarities in cosmic horror tropes which we shall discuss below.

The Unknown

The fear of the unknown is the most crucial signal of cosmic terror. Generally, characters will find themselves confronted by beings or forces that defy human understanding and often seem alien if it is not outright alien. The enigmatic persona of Helen Vaughan and her evil obsession with the young, affluent men of London are central to The Great God Pan (Machen 43-88). Machen’s book combines great sexual enticement with a hidden horror lurking beyond the sparkling sheen of physical beauty. Helen Vaughan’s beauty is not described in depth; instead, it is the impression of her attractiveness, her soul-corrupting voluptuousness, on others that is of significance.

In The Voice of the Beach (Campbell 130-161), an unnamed narrator and a visiting friend encounter the beach that is not all that pleasant, and no one seems to go there except for Neal and him. Eventually, as the story progresses, Neal becomes obsessed with the beach, which seems more dangerous by the hour. The beach, in this case, is the unknown factor that creates a cosmic horror in the characters. The mysteries of the beach are a constant factor in the story, and the characters constantly question what reality is and what is happening.

Forbidden Knowledge

In the quest for knowledge, one has to pay dearly. In cosmic horrors, the unknown forces are passive; however, once a character ventures for knowledge, that is when bad things happen. Clarke agrees, rather reluctantly, to bear witness to a peculiar experiment undertaken by his friend, Dr Raymond. The doctor’s overarching goal is to open Mary’s consciousness so that she may encounter the spiritual realm, an event he notes the ancients referred to as “seeing the great god Pan.” The novella concludes with a letter fragment from Dr Raymond to Clarke, which explains that Helen, the mystery woman in the narrative who has unholy fascinations toward the protagonists, was the child of Mary, on whom the doctor experimented. Raymond tells Clarke in the letter that Mary fell pregnant after his experiment allowed her to view the deity Pan, meaning that Pan fathered Helen. In pursuit of knowledge by pushing the limits, bad things happen.

Similarly, in The Voice of the Beach (Campbell 137), the narrator and Neal venture out to discver the mysteries of the abandoned villages and the beach. Neal discovers an old, fungus-infested notebook with incomprehensible writing about the beach, flashing lights, shifting sands, and the beach making you go places or dragging you into it. Fascinated by the discoveries, Neal continues to study it, and is gripped; since the beach is some sort of another world that was momentarily displaced by our reality, but is now re-establishing itself and dominating. Neal flees into the darkness, leaving the narrator to wander through rubble and fragments of Neal’s clothing; he notices that the beach appears to be moving beneath him, and the sand creates shapes. By going after the knowledge about the abandoned villages and the beach, the characters pay heavily by experiencing bad things.


In cosmic horrors, when all the parts of the story connect, most characters go insane when confronted with the truth. Going insane is the mind’s way of shielding itself from horror. The Great God Pan (Machen 83) ends with a manuscript from Dr Robert who witnessed the death of Helen. In the text, the physician describes how Helen’s skin and flesh began to melt and disintegrate, shifting from sex to sex, splitting and then reconnecting. He says that as he watched the events unfold, he felt great terror and loathing in his soul. Moreover, the characters in the story are reported to have experienced corruption of body and soul when they encountered the mysterious Helen Vaughan; and they eventually died.

In The Voice of the Beach, the story ends with the narrator talking about his bad dreams. He says that Neal, who had disappeared, came into the bungalow, and he could not sleep; he saw Neal’s huge face squirming and transforming as it crawled out of the wall and could hear his voice making the weird sounds. As he goes down the beach one day, he notices the sands forming themselves into what appears to be Neal’s face, and he, too, begins to consider “the pattern.” At the end of the story, the narrator discovers that the beach, or the entity he believes to be the beach, is spreading and will one day consume the world. As the story concludes, the narrator experiences somewhat a form of insanity due to experiencing the horrors of the beach.

Human Insignificance

Ramsey Campbell, in The Voice of the Beach, reinvents the trope of human significance in the cosmic realm. At the cosmic level, some beings and entities are so powerful that humanity is very insignificant that our existence is not even an afterthought. In The Voice of the Beach, the beach is a cosmic entity that was momentarily dispossessed by our own, however, it is re-establishing itself and taking over. In essence, the beach, as a cosmic entity, considers humanity insignificant and is taking up space to encompass the world; that is why Lewis and Strand, the abandoned villages, had no occupants, and neither were people visiting the beach. The beach, as a cosmic entity, takes precedence and considers humans insignificant in asserting its dominance in the story.

The Great God Pan, on the other hand, uses a mysterious being, Helen Vaughan, to express the cosmic powers that she has and does not regard humans on the same level; that is why humans die of terror and fright after an encounter with her. Though the trope is similar to both novels, the unnatural factors are different in that while one is an inanimate entity, the other is purely in human form. In both instances, however, humanity is insignificant to the cosmic powers.

Works Cited

Campbell, Ramsey. “The Voice of the Beach.” Poe’s Children: The New Horror, edited by Straub Peter, Reprint, Anchor. 2009. pp. 130-161.

Machen, Arthur. “The Great God Pan.” Decadent and Occult Works by Arthur Machen (4) (Mhra Jewelled Tortoise), edited by Dennis Denisoff, Modern Humanities Research Association. 2018. pp. 43-88.