Monday, November 8, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow Out of Time

When I was a child, I regularly checked out these big "History of Science Fiction" style books from the library. They were filled with stills from old SF movies and photos of the covers of old sci-fi magazines and novels. One of these books included the cover on the left, the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories. This was back before I'd ever heard the name H.P. Lovecraft, let alone read any of his stories. For some reason, this cover image, with its somewhat cartoonish depiction of the Great Race from HPL's "The Shadow Out of Time," really unnerved me. I have no idea why it evoked such feelings in me, but it did and, even now, I can dimly recall my youthful unease at this rare example of a cover image associated with one of Lovecraft's tales.

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:

"-- 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.
Peaslee behaves as if he does not remember the things he has done over the previous five years. Furthermore,
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.


  1. Never having seen it before, that is a great, striking cover image.

    Similarly, I can "dimly recall my youthful unease" at Erol Otus' art for the DDG Lovecraft section (also my first introduction to him) to the extent that I tried to avoid touching those pages of the book.

    Totally agree that "HPL had in fact been writing science fiction stories in the garb of horror stories for much of his career..."

  2. I think the term that best suits what Lovecraft wrote is his own, "weird fiction". Avoids the whole issue of sci-fi/horror. Shadow Out of Time is definitely one of my favorites, but I have no issue with the inferiority of (present-day) humanity as a notion, being a bit of a transhumanist, myself.

  3. Does anyone know where I could find out if any of these covers are in the public domain?

  4. PS I used to read those books too (and the equivalent ones about comics).

    James, did you read the books that were collections of science-fiction paintings, but with a nominal story that 'explained' the paintings? They don't seem to make those any more.

  5. This is my least favorite Lovecraft story, and it deserve that goofy story. Nevermind that the Great Race was ridiculous in physical conception, the whole thing tried to tie every "mythos" creature he ever made into a coherent whole, and in the end, I think it all fit together very very badly. He started heading down that path in Mountains of Madness, but he really goes over the edge with this one. Boo hiss to the Great Race.

  6. Whoops, meant "deserves that goofy picture."

  7. "The Shadow out of Time", along with "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Mound", are my three favorite of Lovecraft's tales.

    "The Shadow out of Time", however, is flawed by the Great Race being New Dealers. They aren't alien enough. They instead became a sort of mouthpiece for Lovecraft's political beliefs. (The same can be said, to a somewhat less extent, for the Old Ones in "At the Mountains of Madnesss".)

  8. Having just read the Vance story of rhialto the marvelous traveling in another mathemagicians peregrine fire-powered flying manse off to save Morreion whose distant planet is about to be swallowed by the 'Nothing' (a black hole it obviously is though disguised by the protagonists ignorance of the readers present nomenclature). And further just having finished watching some YouTube lectures by the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman where he says mathematics is the language we use when we describe the things that have no metaphors--that yes! It's science fiction.

    It's not that significantly advanced technology will appear as magic, it's that--like the real world around us, with anything the human mind doesn't understand we default to a magic system. Such was the case with lightning and thunder and such would be the case with extra-dimension beings.

    By the way, the last 3 episodes of southpark have been about the BP oil spill unleashing Cuthulhu,

  9. The mythology of the necronomicon was probably the result of some illiterate monk discovering a book of pythagorus written in Arabic. Which Umberto Eco I his book, 'the name of the rose' (movie version with Sean connory and Christian slater) touches on ancillary.

    During the dark ages such a book would literally have been thought of as occult.

  10. "The mythology of the necronomicon was probably the result of some illiterate monk discovering a book of pythagorus written in Arabic."

    There is no "mythology of the necronomicon" before Lovecraft. He made it up. It's an invention, a fictional tool used to tie stories together and as a means of introducing Certain Facts to the victims in his stories.

    (And that monk was much, much more likely to have first encountered Pythagoras in Greek, via Constantinople, than in Arabic.)

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  12. Oh I'm sorry, apparently lovecraft was the first guy to invent the idea of a satanic book whole cloth ignoring the historical fact that arabic math books in Europe did get people burned at the stake and all monks were learned scholars when the illiteracy rate for low level un ordained priests rivaled that of the peasantry!

    But what do I know? I'm just some dude on the Internet!

  13. You are being a pendant focusing on the word, "necronomicon" and not the mythology of books lovecraft used to invent his own.

  14. James, did you read the books that were collections of science-fiction paintings, but with a nominal story that 'explained' the paintings?

    I did! Those were some of my favorites as a kid. I wish I could remember some of the titles.

  15. Here's one I read at the time: