The Secret Genre that Hooks Readers Like Cocaine, Part 2

Jul 3, 2023 | Authors, Books, Philosophy, Writing

[Read part 1 here.]

You came back!

That means you’re greedy, selfish, and conniving enough to want a method by which to hook readers as if they’re addicts to the world’s cruelest drug. Congratulations! Your parents must be so proud.

In which case, allow me to stop teasing you. Let me just come out and say the name of the secret genre that hooks readers like cocaine. Without making you wait. Without dragging this out any longer. Getting right to the meat of this amazing and revolutionary idea. Immediately satisfying the curiosity gnawing on your skull. Telling you, without any more preamble, in the simplest possible terms, the exact name and nature of this magic genre that automatically enhances a story. Pronto! Stat! Immediately! No more waiting. No more excuses. No more delays. Without further ado, here is what you’ve been waiting for.

Are you ready?

The Name of the Game is Cosmic Fantasy

That’s it. You now know what the secret genre is that hooks readers like cocaine, creates rabid fandoms, and establishes intellectual properties that remain viable for decades after publication. How all the writers of the world must envy you, now that you know the secret genre is Cosmic Fantasy.

Well, my job is done here. Glad I could be of service. No need to thank me. Have fun composing stories and connected universes that will be read and loved a hundred years after you die. I’ll just see myself out so you can proceed with the writing and let the adulation roll in.

So long.

Farewell.

Adios.

I’m sorry…is there something wrong? I told you what you wanted to know. Do I have to say it again?

Cosmic Fantasy.

Do you…need me to validate your parking, or something?

What Do You Mean You Don’t Know What Cosmic Fantasy Is?

I guarantee you’ve read it before. Or at least know a few of the more prominent titles. Honestly, it isn’t even that well concealed (though I’m apparently the first person to point it out). Even if you’ve never heard the term “Cosmic Fantasy” before, you at least have the faculties to puzzle it out and connect the dots, right?

Right?

Okay, looks like I’ve got more work to do here.

One Step Further

The simplest way to explain Cosmic Fantasy is to start with the genre that’s right next to it, and which you’ve definitely heard of: Cosmic Horror.

Popularized by writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, the invention of Cosmic Horror was a catalyst that lifted the horror genre to new heights. Nearly all modern horror writing at least touches Cosmic Horror, and the most popular horror writers have found ways to make it their own.

Yet even here, there is room for misunderstanding. The term “cosmic” does not refer to “featuring aliens” or “a story that is set in outer space”. Space Horror is its own distinct subgenre. Cosmic Horror is a different beast.

In this context, “cosmic” is vernacular for “metaphysical”. Cosmic Horror concerns itself with shadowy forces that exist outside reality itself, or that are enthroned in a kind of hyperreality hidden behind the curtains of the mundane world we live in.

A typical cosmic horror story begins with a ordinary person investigating some kind of mystery that can—at first—be explained with a realistic and mundane possibility. Was someone ritualistically murdered? Oh, they were just the victim of a crazy cult. Is there some strange disease going around that causes people to see monstrous visions and break out in unusual sores that defy all medical logic? Well, obviously we’re dealing with some kind of mutated virus.

But as the story proceeds, the doors leading to ordinary explanations start to close, one by one. All of a sudden, the events take a turn for the sinister. And as logic and reason begin to break down, it becomes apparent that the answer to this mystery is not merely supernatural, but metaphysical—it defies the foundational rationale for the universe itself. This murder, this plague, is the work of something beyond the boundaries of time and space.

Those still trying to fit these dark forces into a box will call them gods—an old standby term, reached for like a crutch but all too insufficient to describe these ineffable wraiths. Does the protagonist not realize how much power these creatures would have to give up to qualify as mere gods? No, these are beings for which there are no words, and never will be. They are reality itself, and the rational world which the protagonist calls home is simply a farce dreamed up by these sadistic powers—an aberration that was never meant to exist, and will be as easily washed away as a thought when one cosmic moment passes into another.

This is what puts the cosmic in Cosmic Horror. Even if the events of the story are entirely terrestrial, taking place only in familiar locations in a world much like our own, it becomes obvious that the characters are merely pawns skirting the edges of a much greater conflict, carried out by entities more eternal that the universe itself.

So, when figuring out what Cosmic Fantasy is, you simply have to start at Cosmic Horror, before going one step further.

Hallmarks of Cosmic Fantasy

Like I said, it’s just Cosmic Horror if you crop out “Horror” and replace it with “Fantasy”. Many of the tropes and patterns used by each are hardly distinguishable. To illustrate this, let’s use the same example as before.

A Cosmic Horror story often starts with a mundane horror element—a crazy cult or terrifying new illness or any number of other plotlines found in run-of-the-mill horror. Yet as the story progresses, we find out the real cause of all these woes are metaphysical forces that transcend space and time.

If we transpose all that to fantasy, we get the following: a Cosmic Fantasy story often starts with a mundane fantasy element—wizards or fairies or any number of other plotlines found in run-of-the-mill fantasy. Yet as the story progresses, we find out the real cause of all these wonders are metaphysical forces that transcend space and time.

Much like with Cosmic Horror, Cosmic Fantasy’s central element is a peeling back of the veil that separates the physical from the metaphysical. The only substantial difference is that in Cosmic Horror, what we find behind the veil is monstrous, alien, uncaring, and amoral, whereas in Cosmic Fantasy we find something wise, fundamental, awe-inspiring, and terribly, terribly important to the happiness and wellbeing of all people, even if most people will never know it’s there.

That’s not to say that all the metaphysical forces in Cosmic Fantasy are benevolent. More frequently, the hands behind the curtain are divided into friendly and unfriendly camps, with some cosmic entities working in the heroes’ favor, even as other cosmic entities seek their downfall.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look at the great examples of Cosmic Fantasy, and see for yourself how it has become such a beloved and addicting genre.

Example #1: The Silmarillion

Chances are, if you read fantasy at all, you’ve read The Lord of the Rings.

And you know what happens to every modern reader who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings? You know which book immediately gets recommended to them by other Tolkien fans, who insist they have to read this other book because it changes the experience of The Lord of the Rings, and just makes it so. much. BETTER!

That’s right. It’s The Silmarillion, the legendary prequel/companion book to LotR, based off extensive notes written by JRR and edited by his son Christopher (and with some extensive additions by Guy Gavriel Kay, but we’re not supposed to mention that).

And the verdict is in: reading The Silmarillion recontextualizes The Lord of the Rings in a way that improves the reader’s experience with the latter book. Though, interestingly enough, most readers can’t explain why.

“It just…fills in the blanks, you know?”

Lord of the Rings just makes more sense now.”

“I can’t quite describe why, but I enjoyed my second reading of Lord of the Rings better than my first one. And I think it’s because I read The Silmarillion inbetween.”

But though readers of the book can’t define why it changes their experience, you and I already know the answer: The Silmarillion changes Tolkien’s legendarium from an Epic Fantasy to a Cosmic Fantasy. In The Silmarillion, we get introduced to the Valar and Maiar—primal entities that predate the creation of Middle Earth by countless eons. We’re also introduced to the proto-universe before the creation of time and space, where hosts of beings are ruled over by the enigmatic and metaphysical Eru Iluvatar.

The book does eventually take us into the world of Middle Earth, with various stories of the men and elves who live there. But, unlike the narrative found in LotR, the stories of these mortals openly reveal the influence of the Valar on human events as they unfold, whereas in the later book, any cosmic intervention is cleverly concealed.

But surely, this is just a fluke. Tolkien’s one-off success with Cosmic Fantasy was surely due to the fact that Tolkien himself was such a great writer. It does not prove that Cosmic Fantasy is a superior genre.

Alright then, how about we explore more examples.

Example #2: The Chronicles of Narnia

Why on Earth are people still reading The Chronicles of Narnia?

Don’t they realize that portal fantasies have literally been done to death? It’s one of the most popular genres, even to this day. And more get made every year.

Surely, in all that time, and after so many attempts, someone has managed to come up with a better portal fantasy than Narnia. So why does Narnia perennially outsell all these other, more modern portal fantasies—ones written by authors who have the benefit of hindsight and an understanding of modern tastes?

What is it about The Chronicles of Narnia that makes the series more than a portal fantasy?

You guessed it. It’s because Narnia is a Cosmic Fantasy. And, unlike The Lord of the Rings, Narnia wears the cosmic part on its sleeve from the very first installment. The moment Aslan utters the words “deep magic”, the entire narrative is recontextualized. This lion is more than just some magic four-star general who comes to wage war against the oppressor and liberate the enslaved. He is not merely a “fantasy” lion, any more than he is a tame lion.

He is a cosmic lion—a being that transcends the fantasy world in which a group of children happen to meet him for the first time.

And yes, he is emblematic of a real-world religious tradition. But that tradition is also rooted in metaphysics. This is not to say that every Cosmic Fantasy needs to be a Jesus allegory (though it worked for both C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, so there must be something there), but the addition of “Cosmic” to what would otherwise be a mere Portal Fantasy changed Narnia from a dime-a-dozen fantastical adventure into a childhood-defining, multigenerational narrative juggernaut.

Example #3: The Cosmere

What is it that makes Brandon Sanderson so popular?

Granted, you already read the previous two examples I gave, so you already know the answer. But let’s feign ignorance for a moment. Let’s pretend we don’t see the obvious.

I mean, there are so many fantasy authors out there doing basically the same thing Brandon is doing. Intricate and engineered world building? Other writers do that! Creative yet grounded magic systems? We’ve seen those before! Dynamic characters from many walks of life who go through tragic-yet-inspiring arcs to become fully realized people that the reader can admire more for their willingness to try than through any kind of superior force, skill, or intelligence? Pixar already mastered that formula!

So what is Brandon Sanderson’s secret sauce? What makes his works so compelling.

Let me tell you a story: I followed Brandon’s career almost from the beginning. When I started reading him, he was nobody. And his books—while having sparks of greatness—were frequently overlooked. The same early efforts which people now laud as brilliant, breathtaking, and obviously the beginning of the greatest fantasy saga of our time, were met with a shrug, back when I was hanging around outside the lecture hall where he was teaching, all the way back in 2006.

Yet a surprising thing happened to little ol’ Brandon. His popularity rose quite precipitously. And while most people credit this change to the publicity he gained when finishing a more popular author’s long-running series, I noticed a different trend.

You see, Brandon writes Cosmic Fantasy. He has always written Cosmic Fantasy…but he kept it a secret at first. His first few books are disguised as Epic Fantasy—a bunch of heroes with magic fight a bunch of villains with magic. Much action and drama ensues. But, unbeknownst to most of his readers, each of these novels, with their veneer of Epic Fantasy, concealed a deeper magic, hiding behind the curtains of space and time.

As each of Brandon’s fantasy series continued, it became more and more apparent that what at first appeared to be separate and unconnected fantasy worlds were actually taking place in the same universe. Characters from one series mysteriously pop their heads into the others, dangling hints like fish hooks in their enigmatic smiles.

And as these cameos kept creeping into each series, the audience got more and more of the bigger picture—that each of these fantasy worlds was actually connected to all the others. And the source of that connection? The reason that characters from one world could move to another? Why, it’s all the result of an ancient war between an omnipotent being and the metaphysical forces who opposed him! Travel between worlds is facilitated by a plane of hyperreality that connects planets in the physical world! All the different magic systems actually operate on a single base set of principles governed by spiritual powers from an incomprehensible higher plane!

I ask you, friend—no, I beg you: is it honestly a coincidence that Brandon Sanderson’s popularity has proportionally increased each time he wades deeper into Cosmic Fantasy? Looking back, can you not see how each time he has pushed his books, little by little, into the direction of the cosmic, he has been rewarded with that much more acclaim, that much more fandom, that much more obsession.

Why, it’s almost as if he writes in a genre that addicts his readers like cocaine. But I’m sure no one is crass enough to phrase it that way.

Other Examples

I already brought up Madeleine L’Engle, who is also a bit more self-evident than the other examples, so I won’t elaborate her books.

I will, however, point to a number of others. Did it ever strike you that the original Star Wars trilogy has a certain je ne sais quoi that all subsequent Star Wars movies have, for whatever reason, not been able to recapture?

What was it about old-school Star Wars that captured—or even addicted—so many fans for so long. The answer can be found in the most power moment from any Star Wars movie.

Allow me to posit to you the idea that this scene alone is responsible for the unprecedented popularity of the original Star Wars franchise. It’s not the light sabers, not the space battles, not Darth Vader’s famous plot twist that made Star Wars great. No, it was an old man, talking about things that cannot truly be described, and as he does it, he looks around, as if he’s actually seeing something that we can’t see. He reaches out his hands as if he can touch it. And for that one moment, we the audience, who are looking at a freaking puppet, believe that he is speaking a truth greater than the one we see with our own eyes and feel with our own hands.

That is what makes Star WarsStar Wars. And that is Cosmic Fantasy, in what may be its purest form.

How easily that was all undone, with the coining of a single word: “Midi-chlorians”. In that moment, Star Wars was downgraded from Cosmic Fantasy to mere Science Fantasy and Space Fantasy. What a tremendous waste.

Other Other Examples

I could point to many stories from many different mediums. Cosmic Fantasy is, for example, what made the early Final Fantasy games so great (and as recent entries walk more and more away from it, the series loses ever more of its luster).

In fact, the company that made Final Fantasy has included the Cosmic Fantasy genre in so many of its other titles that I’m convinced they are already aware of the unique properties of the genre. Look at Kingdom Hearts, look at The World Ends with You, look at Xenogears.

You want an example from America? You need search no further than Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Early on, the show introduces the concept of a “Spirit World”, which changes what was otherwise a martial arts Epic Fantasy into a martial arts Cosmic Fantasy.

Marvel Comics, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, and about ten trillion different anime and manga attest to the power of Cosmic Fantasy. You’ll find bits and pieces all over popular media. In doing so, you’ll also notice that the more a story mixes Cosmic Fantasy into its recipe, the more popular and influential it tends to become.

And the reason is simple: Cosmic Fantasy is an addiction.

“I’m also a client.”

You may have guessed by now, but my admiration of Cosmic Fantasy goes beyond mere evangelism. If this is a drug, then I’m a dealer.

That may come as a surprise to people who have read my first book, Advent 9, which features no overt Cosmic Fantasy tropes or ingredients. That was by design, though you may find the trend won’t continue in that book’s sequels, or in any of the other books I write.

Truly, not every Cosmic Fantasy story can introduce the cosmic parts all at once. But make no mistake: when you don’t see Cosmic Fantasy in my stories, it is only because I have intentionally hidden it, to keep it from being too obvious too quickly.

Rest assured I will do all in my power to ensure my books captures an audience.

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Did you enjoy this look behind the curtain at forces that control the space and time…of storytelling. As a Keeper of Secrets, it is my privilege to deal in esoteric knowledge, and some secrets are too good to keep.

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