The Shadow Out of Time
Published June 1936
I was thinking I’d avoid reviewing books that were purely horror or fantasy with no elements of science fiction. I might lesson that stance in the future, but for now I don’t have to. I came into this story expecting standard Lovecraft cosmic horror, and whilst the ancient evil and insignificance of humans was there, it read more like an old science fiction story than anything else. Therefore, I am eager to review it.
Shadow Out of Time was Lovecraft’s last major story. It was published in Astounding Stories (Now Analog) in the June 1936 issue. It tells the story of a Nathanial Wingate Peaslee, a professor trying to discover what happened during a block in his memory that lasts five years. Through a combination of retracing his steps during the memory block, researching similar cases and persistent dreams that feel more like memories, Peaslee begins to piece together the secret of the Great Race of Yith.
Prepare to see some really strange aliens, who are actually from Earth but that resemble terrestrial life so little that I cannot help but think of them as aliens. Also prepare to enter the ancient city of The Great Race, with their massive ziggurat-like towers. A large portion of the novella is devoted to describing the city, and it is here that Lovecraft excels. You really get a feeling of the timelessness and grandeur of this ancient city. As Peaslee’s dreams become more detailed, we gradually learn more about The Great Race’s history, and that is where the story becomes less Lovecraftian horror, and more pulp-era science fiction.
You see, The Great Race have this pretty amazing power. They can swap consciousness with other beings; and this projection works across time and space. They use this projection to swap bodies with people throughout the history of the universe (or maybe just the solar system) in order to compile all knowledge into one giant library. How cool is that? Just imagine, they made the ultimate library. I just found this idea so amazing. Though I will say, there is a darkside to this power.
The ideas and description of this story are in my view enough to make it great, but I should also talk about the actual story telling itself. Like most of Lovecraft’s stories, Shadow Out of Time is told in a confessional format; to be more precise, Peaslee is writing this down for his son, and asking his son to determine whether or not he is crazy. I’d say Peaslee’s characterization comes through a bit better than some of Lovecraft’s other narrators, with the uneasiness he feels about his dreams and the deja vu he experiences coming through well. However, I’d advise against reading against a bunch of Lovecraft stories at once, otherwise they do tend to feel a bit samey.
This story is very much a Lovecraft story; it ties in with his other stories, there is a big scary incomprehensible monster, and humans are insignificant. However, as I said before, this story is very much science fiction instead of horror. Which is good, except Lovecraft insists on framing it as a standard cosmic horror tale, labelling things that I considered cool and exciting (such as The Great Race and their city) as monstrous and horrible. I suppose it could be a difference between the times; I hope that today’s society is less inclined to view ourselves as the masters of creation, and therefore better able to accept our place as just mere mortals. Or maybe it is just a difference between how Lovecraft and I view other people. He saw people from different races and cultures as dangerous and monstrous, but inferior. I suppose to him, an alien race that is different but superior to us would be scary.
Whether the constant attempt to frame the existence of The Great Race of Yith as a scary and monstrous thing is an example of different views over the eras, Lovecraft’s own warped views, or just Lovecraft trying to fit it into the same mould as his other stories, it didn’t work for me. I found it distracting, and quite out of place. The Great Race and their massive super library are cool damnit, not scary. Fortunately for the horror lovers, there is something quite disturbing in this story. Something so terrible, that even The Great Race was afraid of it.
One more critique before I sign off; the surprise ending, was not much a surprise. It was quite obvious really. I’m not too sure it’s supposed to be a surprise, but since the narration took pains to avoid mentioning it before the last sentence, I’m going to treat it as though it is supposed to be a shock.
So all in all, I enjoyed Shadow Out of Time. It does have its flaws, but it is an original, cool idea that Lovecraft describes with amazing detail. And, being an older story, it not only has that 1930’s super science feel to it, but is also in the public domain. You can read Shadow Out of Time for free here: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/sot.aspx