Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Shadow Out of Time

"The Shadow Out of Time" first published in Astounding Stories, June 1936.
This is the the twenty-ninth entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

In an An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia, S T Joshi notes that the period of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee's mental possession in The Shadow Out of Time – 1908 to 1913 – matches up pretty closely to the time that HPL's neurotic state led him to withdraw from high school, and from the world with increasingly hermit-like behaviour. He also mentions how the creatures inability to control the face of their human host could be linked to the facial tics that HPL suffered from in this period. I hadn't made this connection when I was reading the story, but I very quickly sensed that this was one of HPL's mental health issue stories.

Unfortunately, despite the possibility of this one being another febrile gem like The Outsider or The Dreams in the Witch House, HPL instead gets interested in his Great Race. The creatures who possessed Peaslee's body and imprison his mind for years in a hideous alien form turn out not to be invasive demonic figures like the Deep Ones or Brown Jenkin, but another dreary race of cosmic utopians.

Peaslee's belief that he was, for a period, possessed by an ancient alien entity sounds a lot like some kind of weird neurological disorder of the type that Oliver Sacks writes about. It's hard to read a passage like this and not think of some kind of dissociative affliction:
“My eyes gazed strangely at the persons around me, and the flexions of my facial muscles were altogether unfamiliar. Even my speech seemed awkward and foreign. I used my vocal organs clumsily and gropingly, and my diction had a curiously stilted quality, as if I had laboriously learned the English language from books.”
After his “recovery” Peaslee starts to experience fits of neurotic body horror – “There was, too, a feeling of profound and inexplicable horror concerning myself. I developed a queer fear of seeing my own form, as if my eyes would find it something utterly alien and inconceivably abhorrent.” Soon his dreams are haunted by hallucinatory episodes that reminded me of a fever dream or the accounts of shamanic flight under the influence of datura and amanita muscaria mushrooms. Peaslee builds up an impressive pseudo scientific framework that rationalises his hallucinations as some kind ancestral memory: it's another false mask for the real world, and I like the way that “most doctors deemed my course, on the whole, an advisable one.” Boy are they wrong!

If you take the doctors' view of things, Peaslee's visions sound a lot like theories from the more eccentric end of the occult spectrum, David Icke, say, or in Lovecraft's day Manley P Hall and Edgar Cayce. I think this is the only one of the stories in this collection to mention “theosophy” by name, although I'm certain the Book of Dyzan gets a mention some where. He was clearly acquainted with popular New Age beliefs of his time, although he no doubt looked down on them with great disdain.

He is happy, however, to import some of their pseudo scientific ideas into his stories, not least the concept of degeneration. Madam Blavatsky describes great cycles of history, over which time the earth has been populated by a series of different dominant species which each falls finally into decline, triggering an apocalyptic shift after which a new race comes in to the ascendant. Each race, however, is a degenerate form of the last, ending finally with humanity (or, in some cases Aryan humanity, and I think you can see where this is going).

HPL's secret history of the world, is very similar to the kind of New Age utopian thinking that was circulating around the right wing during the 1920s and 1930s. These are the same types of big dreams, driven by too much trust in enlightenment values and overly literal applications of romantic philosophy. Given the history of the twentieth century following his death in 1937, there's something chilling about the way he passes this stuff on. 

The Great Race themselves are, therefore, not a great source of horror, despite HPL's efforts to freight them with dread in the beginning of the story through his usual gothic hyperbole - “Their actions, though harmless, horrified me even more than their appearance—for it is not wholesome to watch monstrous objects doing what one has known only human beings to do.” Or perhaps it's not the creatures themselves, just the sensation of remembering things you now are not true? “I cannot hope to give any true idea of the horror and dread contained in such echoes, for it was upon a wholly intangible quality—the sharp sense of pseudo-memory—that such feelings mainly depended.”

Despite the horror supposedly inherent in his experiences, Peaslee seems to enjoy hob-nobbing with a rather magnificent list of characters from the past, the future and the far reaches of the cosmos. (Another long quote, sorry!)
“There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardy coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer its keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.

“I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in A.D. 5000; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in B.C. 50,000; with that of a twelfth-century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi; with that of a king of Lomar who had ruled that terrible polar land 100,000 years before the squat, yellow Inutos came from the west to engulf it; with that of Nug-Soth, a magician of the dark conquerors of A.D. 16,000; with that of a Roman named Titus Sempronius Blaesus, who had been a quaestor in Sulla’s time; with that of Khephnes, an Egyptian of the 14th Dynasty who told me the hideous secret of Nyarlathotep; with that of a priest of Atlantis’ middle kingdom; with that of a Suffolk gentleman of Cromwell’s day, James Woodville; with that of a court astronomer of pre-Inca Peru; with that of the Australian physicist Nevil Kingston-Brown, who will die in A.D. 2518; with that of an archimage of vanished Yhe in the Pacific; with that of Theodotides, a Graeco-Bactrian official of B.C. 200; with that of an aged Frenchman of Louis XIII’s time named Pierre-Louis Montmagny; with that of Crom-Ya, a Cimmerian chieftain of B.C. 15,000; and with so many others that my brain cannot hold the shocking secrets and dizzying marvels I learned from them.”
All these jolly times with the lads (the Great Race don't seem too interested in ladies) rather undercut the supposed horror of finding out it's all true. It sounds pretty cool, actually. It's kind of disorienting, sure, and maybe the Great Race could do with some lessons in informed consent, but on the whole it doesn't seem that bad at all.

Perhaps in an effort to counteract this, HPL provides the great Race with a nemesis, the loathsome Elder Things. The Elder Things are the “predatory entities” who dwelt on the Earth before the arrival of the minds of the great ones. They are promising enemies, and HPL rises nicely to the occasion: “half-polypous, utterly alien entities”, “only partly material, as we understand matter” and with “minds of such texture that no exchange with them could be effected by the Great Race.”

The Great Race are obviously similar to the Old Ones in At the Mountains of Madness. Somewhat like the Old Ones, the Great Race inhabit a world of scholarly enquiry and benign communistic equality. Like the Old Ones they don't bother with the messy business of sexual relations, “but reproduced through seeds or spores which clustered on their bases and could be developed only under water.” They exercise a humane eugenics where “markedly defective individuals [are] quietly disposed of.” Like the old ones, they are haunted by a race of blasphemous horrors, but the Elder Things fail to be a worthy foe in the same way as the shoggoths as they just don't have the vital connection with their enemies.

The shoggoths were created by the Old Ones, and there is a history of rebellion and subsequent suppression in the story of their relationship, an interesting mix of rebellious slaves and technology out of control. This gives us real reason to fear how things might have ended up for the Old Ones; on the other hand, there never seemed to much more than rumours about the defeated Elder Things, and we know that when the end does come, the Great Race simply flee again to the future and endure. The shoggoths not only destroy the Old Ones, but they then act out a grotesque parody of their master's formerly highly refined culture. It's that hint of degradation and degeneration that makes the shoggoths so nasty. Without that, they're just empty monsters like the Elder Things in this story.

The Elder Things are further handicapped as a subject of fear by their secret weapon, wind. Aside from the fact that HPL lays on the creepy winds thing with particular lack of subtlety while Peaslee explores the ruins, I couldn't help smirking at the occasional accidental lavatory humour: “Though in my rear, that wind had the odd effect of hindering instead of aiding my progress.”

When the climax comes, HPL can't decide what the source of horror is in this story, the apparent return of the dreaded Elder Things or the realisation that what he thought was hallucination is all true. The ending involves a flight from both his own realisations and the Elder Things. The latter is quite effective, in that febrile way HPL has with unremitting terror, but it's poorly supported by the preceding material. The revelation about what Peaslee saw in the book comes so late that I had almost forgotten to be bored by the constant teasing.

Part of the problem is HPL's devotion to the traditional format of the shaggy dog horror yarn with the sting-in-the-tail ending; the sting here has been thoroughly blunted with constant unsubtle hints long before we reach the tail. The final line is so laboured and predictable it brings the rest of the story down. At the Mountains of Madness has similar problems, with the tacked on ending about the city in the clouds and the mountain of Kadath, and perhaps this is an attempt to to re-do that story. It falls well short, though; it's riven with repetition and HPL never gets inside the Australian desert with the same intensity he did the Antarctic.

So, despite some good moments, this one was finally a disappointment, doubly a shame when you think that this was his last major work. After this comes The Haunter in the Dark – a kind of gag story written for his friend Robert Bloch – and that's it for HPL. We've got a few more to get through, though, including the novels The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Dream-Quest of Unkown Kadath, as the Necronomicon collection follows publishing order rather than the order they were written. In fact, I'm only about three quarters of the way through this massive thing!

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