What's interesting is that "The Shadow Out of Time" is probably one of the Old Gent's least horrific tales. Indeed, I'm not sure it can really be classified as a horror story at all, since its subject matter is much more explicitly science fictional in conception than almost anything else Lovecraft ever wrote. Or perhaps it's truer to say that "The Shadow Out of Time" suggests that, far from writing horror stories, HPL had in fact been writing science fiction stories in the garb of horror stories for much of his career and, had he lived longer, he might well be remembered today as a pioneer of science fictional literature rather than as a master of the weird.
The story is narrated by Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, an economics professor at Miskatonic University, who, while giving a lecture to his class in 1908, is struck by a "strange amnesia" that robs him not only of his memory but also his ability to speak and "the use of [his] hands, legs, and bodily apparatus in general." When he seemingly returns to normalcy, Peaslee undertakes "long visits to remote and desolate places" -- the Himalayas, Arabia, the arctic, etc. He also sought out the "leaders of occultist groups, and scholars suspected of connexion with nameless bands of elder-world hierophants." These journeys and studies occupy five years of his life until, one night in late 1913, Peaslee
muttered some very curious syllables -- syllables which seemed unrelated to any human speech. I appeared, too, to struggle against something. Then, just after noon -- the housekeeper and the maid having meanwhile returned -- I began to mutter in English:Peaslee behaves as if he does not remember the things he has done over the previous five years. Furthermore,
"-- of the orthodox economists of that period, Jevons typifies the prevailing trend toward scientific correlation. His attempt to link the commercial cycle of prosperity and depression with the physical cycle of the solar spots forms perhaps the apex of --"
Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee had come back -- a spirit in whose time scale it was still that Thursday morning in 1908, with the economics class gazing up at the battered desk on the platform.
his conception of time -- [his] ability to distinguish between consecutiveness and simultaneousness -- seemed subtly disordered; so that [he] formed chimerical notions about living in one age and casting one's mind all over eternity for knowledge of past and future ages.Beyond that, he experiences strange dreams and odd feelings, which gave him
the persistent notion that [his] amnesia had formed some unholy sort of exchange; that the secondary personality had indeed been an intruding force from unknown regions, and that [his] own personality had suffered displacement.This being a Lovecraft story, Peaselee's fears are well founded and the bulk of "The Shadow Out of Time" is occupied with the professor's investigations into his increasingly bizarre dreams, in which he -- or, rather, his mind -- was transported elsewhere and experienced a world quite unlike early 20th century America. In this other world, time traveling scholars of the Great Race (so-called because of their mastery of time) exchange bodies with beings from other ages and worlds in order to learn more about the universe. Peaslee is but one of the beings with whom a member of the Great Race has switched places and, through his dreams, he remembers more and more about his time among them, a recollection that changes his life forever.
"The Shadow Out of Time" is often regarded as one of Lovecraft's greatest works, evidence that he was maturing as a writer in his last days, branching out from the pseudo-Gothic stories and settings of his earlier fiction. I don't think there's any question that this story, like "At the Mountains of Madness," represents a shift in the presentation of HPL's cosmic themes, but there's nevertheless a great deal of continuity between his earlier stories and later ones such as this. If there's a difference, I think it's in the degree to which the later Lovecraft seemed to present his alien entities, such as the Great Race, as sympathetic and perhaps even superior to his human protagonists. Reading "The Shadow Out of Time," I can't shake the sense that Lovecraft admired the Great Race and wished that, like Peaslee, he might find his mind transported to another time and place in order to learn the secrets of the universe.
Like my early experience of that cover image, I find "The Shadow Out of Time" slightly unnerving. Lovecraft's almost-heroic portrayal of the Great Race rankles me. I am quite used to his belittling of humanity's place in the cosmos, his continual denial of mankind's self-importance; they are, after all, what makes Lovecraft's fiction so horrific. But that belittling and denial was typically balanced out by the sense of utter "otherness" in his alien beings, an incompatibility with human beings and their world. In works like "The Shadow Out of Time," though, I get a very different sense, one in which HPL presents the Great Race as, in some ways, more human than the human beings and the true protagonists of his tale. Whether that's a credit to Lovecraft or not, I don't know. I can only say that it's not wholly to my liking, which is why, for all its creativity and artistry, I don't like "The Shadow Out of Time" as much as others do, but I cannot deny that it is one of the author's most impressive stories.