Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Outsider

"The Outsider", first published in Weird Tales, April 1926.

This is the the fourteenth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

This one's brilliant! I really enjoyed the timorously self-aggrandising narrator, totally self-obsessed and with a naïve self-doubt that appealed directly to my sentimental nature. It's the voice of the well-spoken lunatic you might suddenly find yourself talking to at a bus stop, the kind of conversation that starts of sensibly enough but gradually slides off into slightly disturbing derangement. Crafty old HPL's playing a trick on us, building up our sympathy until we discover the truth.

I loved the eerie description of the narrator's nightmarish “castle”, “infinitely old and infinitely horrible, full of dark passages and having high ceilings where the eye could find only cobwebs and shadows,” a place permanently dark “so that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief”. It's surrounded by “terrible trees” that grow high above the highest ruined tower, and when he tries to wander away from his home, to see what lies beyond, he finds that “as I went farther from the castle, the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear, so that I ran frantically back.”

The climax is like a classic ghost visitation seen from the point of the view of the spectre rather than the spectators. An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia notes an anecdote from R H Barlow, that this one originally finished at the reveal of the graveyard, then HPL wondered what would happen if people saw the ghoul and then what would happen when it saw itself. This is a classic rule-of-three structure, each episode satisfying in its own right, but topping the last perfectly.

Also wrote a story called The Outsider
As with The Unnameable, The Outsider is the English title for a famous work of the existential absurd, written originally in French. Maybe this is where the continentals get their ideas about H P Lovecraft the mad tortured artist? Joshi analyses this point of view in A Life, concluding the story's “large number of apparent literary influences seem to make it more an experiment in pastiche than some deeply felt expression of psychological wounds.”

Well, I don't know. We've already seen that HPL has a tendency towards self-pity in the awful Cats of Ulthar. I think he also has a weakness for this kind of doomed aristocrat stuff (as in The Rats in the Walls, for example) because that was how he saw himself, to a degree. I think he was attracted to all those dusty family homes and restless ancestors because they appealed to something in him for reasons of his character and background.

It's a bit gauche, I know, to psychoanalyse a writer in this way, and Joshi certainly presents a a selection of clear antecedents in Oscar Wilde, Nathanial Hawthorne, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and, especially, Poe. But Lovecraft was enormously serious about his writing. He derided hack work and analysed his own output relentlessly, honing and perfecting it, never satisfied. If HPL was the type of guy with a lot of inner turmoil and trouble expressing it (and let's not forget he never graduated high school because he took a fit) then these kinds of highly generic approaches, these pastiches of other persons' emotional expression, were the best ways for Lovecraft to piece together the mysteries that lay in his heart.


  1. I have to say, "The Outsider" is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories (and for me, he's either really, really on or he's really, really annoying). "The Outsider" just worked so immensely well for me, mostly because a certain dichotomy between the interior and the exterior of a person (or a place, or a thing) is interesting to me, and is a theme I like seeing in literature and exploring in my own work. I also tend to prefer Lovecraft in "crumbling family pile" mode (possibly because I live in a crumbling family pile -- though fortunately, it's not my family's).

  2. My reading so far inclines me to agree that he's either really on or really annoying, and also I agree that The Outsider is him almost incandescently ON.

    I do also like his "crumbling family pile" stories, as you memorably put it, but we'll see how this plays out as time goes on. I think in the later stories he becomes less introspective, and starts addressing the world a little more, but we'll see...


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