The Lovecraft series continues.
Raw Feed (2005, 2013): “The Shadow Out of Time“, H. P. Lovecraft, 1935.
This story has an even purer science fiction feeling than Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness“. Indeed, Weird Tales, the place Lovecraft usually sent his fiction, wouldn’t take this story, but it was the cover story for the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories.
Like “The Thing on the Doorstep” from 1933, this 1934-1935 story features bodyswitching. That bodyswitching is effected by the Great Race which predates man on Earth by a billion years.
Lovecraft not only does his usual connecting his aliens to occult tomes, but he describes the Great Ones in detail — not only their anatomy, but their history and their society and art as well.
The Great Ones have figured out how to transport consciousness through time. They project their consciousness to other eras and other races, switching consciousnesses with other sentient races, including man, while they go about their scholarly duties.
In this story, you can start to see Lovecraft start to pull his mythos (more other peoples’ conception than his) into something less than a series but more than a thematically linked set of stories.
For instance, we get references to the aliens found in the Antarctic in Lovecraft’s earlier “At the Mountains of Madness” and the narrator of that tale, Professor Dyer, accompanies this narrator to the ancient ruins he explores in Australia. (He seems unaccountably shocked by them given the horrors he’s seen in that earlier story.)
There is a description of the history of the Great Race, how they eventually move into the bodies of the sentient beetle race that follows extinct man on the Earth, how they project their minds to Mercury — where they slowly die out (because of their time traveling they know their fate ahead of time), that reminded me of the history of man in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. That was a 1930 story and, featured a similar projection of consciousness. So I wonder if Lovecraft read any Stapledon and if this story was conceived before he did. [S. T. Joshi’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Life says Lovecraft didn’t read Stapledon’s novel until August 1935 and had already finished his story.] The distant doom of the race and the eventual death of man also reminded of the tragic vistas in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
If one of the great themes of sf is the conceptual breakthrough, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories are about the negative, hideous, literally maddening version of that. Curiosity is never its own reward in Lovecraft. Rather, it is a doom.
This story is also the best example I’ve come across yet, in this bout of reading these Lovecraft stories for the second or third time (some more), supporting my contention that Lovecraft doesn’t intend the final revelation of his narrator heroes to be the central horror of his stories. (And this story has more of the feel of sf unlike the superb “The Colour Out of Space” which, though nominally sf, has the effect of horror.
Here Professor Peaslee’s final revelation is that his dreams and memories of how he spent his five amnesiac years are not fantasies and psychotic projection and but real memories of the time he spent in the body of a member of the Great Race millions of years ago; specifically, he finds, in an ancient city millions of years old, notes in his own hand.
But, in the second to last paragraph, he also says, before this revelation: “though no reader can have failed to guess it.” The horror is seeing a rational, learned man — a stand in for all of us rationalists in the audience — having their paradigm of the universe so horrifyingly overthrown. This story seemed more impressive upon this, my second or third reading and more than twenty years since my last reading.
In 2006, I read The Shadow Out of Time: The Corrected Text and wrote up a proper review of it.
In 2013, I read the story again, in the corrected text.
On the third or, maybe, fourth I read the story, it seemed even better.
time. I always forget this is the most cornucopian of his works in terms of giving other writers of Yog-Sothothery stuff to work with.
A couple of observations.
The beginning of the story is an inversion of the countless stories where the narrator tries to convince us he’s not crazy (think Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”). Indeed, Peaslee hopes he has been dreaming and hallucinating, that his conclusions are wrong. Then the scientist in him (ok, he’s only an economist but they pretend to be scientists) has to lay out, for thousands of words, the documentation why his unpleasant suspicion is correct and that there’s no taint in his “ancestry and background”, no reason to suspect hereditary madness.
In it’s own way, this kind of is a story of character, a study of the scientific personality under stress. This is one man coming to grips with a five year hole in his life. Sure, he emphasizes the scientific puzzle — but the puzzle is the working of his mind, the reliability of his memories, the validity of his dreams, his seemingly paranormal deja vu and vaguely clairvoyant spasms of knowledge about the future.
It’s like an early version of “missing time”. Here that time was spent hanging out with dodgy cultists and mysterious journeys. He loses the relationship with most of his children and wife, and Lovecraft characters almost never have wives and kids. (I think “The Strange High House in the Mist” is the only exception.)
In Peaslee’s case, his personal problem, his seeking and finding of a troubling past, parallels the disturbing history of Earth’s past, is symbolic of humanity’s problem, the result of what happens when, to paraphrase “The Call of Cthulhu“, someone correlates the contents of Earth’s and humanity’s past.
If you want to think Grandpa is engaging in symbolism, the descent into the Great Race’s city knowledge is like burrowing into the unconscious (and the unconscious is a big feature of this story), and Peaslee being buffeted about by the winds at the end could be seen as symbolic of humanity being at the mercy of invisible forces and processes.
Finally, I thought the bit with the possessed Peaslee writing annotations to correct errors in Miskatonic’s occult tomes was a wry bit of humor. You can see it as scholarly courtesy extending across species (thus reinforcing the identification we partly have for the Great Race).
More Lovecraft related reviews are indexed on the Lovecraft page.