Like most people with an interest in creating cosmic horror, I have a complex relationship with the author generally seen as its founder (H. P. Lovecraft), trying to find a way to balance the innovation of his creations (the universe is vast and does not care about us) with how entangled his work is with his views (Anglo- or German- Americans are the superior race; others are inferior - beliefs that even his contemporaries disapproved of).
Other approaches have been tried - critical engagement with Lovecraft (Lovecraft Country, The City We Became), driving in a different direction to Lovecraft (whether by turning the fight against tentacled monsters into pulp action, or emphasising the futility and de-emphasising the protagonists), or striving to find a route via other authors of speculative fiction such as Borges (or others).
I had not expected Chekov to be one of those authors.
Yet while reading an article about Chekov, I stumbled across an article about his relationship to the Russian landscape as inherently hostile to life. How life in Russia was a struggle with both the arbitrary state and the gulfs between settlements.
In particular, this quote on “the fundamental hostility to man of Russia’s vast expanse”:
“On the one hand, there is physical weakness, nervousness, early sexual maturity, passionate desire to live and find the truth, dreams of work which, like the Steppe, have no boundaries; edgy analysis and lack of knowledge combined with the irrepressible flight of thought; and on the other hand - endlessly flat land, severe climate, a grey and severe nation with its hard and cold history, the Tatar yoke, bureaucracy, poverty, ignorance, rainy capitals, Slavic apathy, and so forth… Russian life beats the soul out of the Russian… In Western Europe people die because their space is cramped and suffocating. In Russia they die because the space is an endless expanse.”*
Lovecraft was 14 when Chekov died in 1904. I am unaware of any links between him and Chekov or his work.
And thus we have a potentially untainted source for how cosmic horror could have evolved without Lovecraft.
Imagine, if you will, a cosmic horror that is rooted in people stranded in little islands of civilisation, concerned with their own affairs, but aware that constantly they must deal with the reality outside of bitter winter and incomprehensible judgements and interventions; a reality that defines their society.
Where travel past the uncaring universe is possible, but not entirely safe.
Where no matter what you do, ultimately change will come, and humans are all humans together.
It has echoes of Doskvol in Blades in the Dark, or Cordwainer Smith’s universe for The Rediscovery of Man sequence. It shares the former’s interest in how a society might be shaped by uncaring horrors out of reach, and the latter’s optimism about what humanity might become.
Instead of Lovecraft’s knowledge trapped in exotic cults and bourgeois academies, the landscape-knowledge of the wilderness is something many ignore to focus on human concerns, and is equally held between the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and serfs in various ways.
Rather than Lovecraft’s sprawling canon of beings, it is simply the hostile universe, looming above the arbitrary realms of mankind’s governments, themselves far beyond the comprehension of those insulated and insular islands of hospitality in the wilderness.
I’m sure there are many other ways that one can wind these themes and others out of Chekov’s cosmicism: the reality of life in a universe that doesn’t care, when someone might still strive for society.
It’s not quite what Chekov did, and I’m not quite finished digesting this thought. But imagining Chekov’s work as a new root-stock for cosmic horror can be at least diverting, and I suspect quite fruitful.
* (Letters, vol. II, p. 190, quoted in E. Polotskaya, ‘Chekov and his Russia’, in The Cambridge Companion to Chekov, ed. Gottlieb & Allain, CUP 2000, 17-28, p.18)