[Tour de Lovecraft] The Shadow Out of Time
-- S.T. Joshi, introduction to The Shadow Out of Time: The Corrected Text
"[Lovecraft's] single greatest achievement in fiction. The form and substance of this extraordinary novella, its amazing scope and sense of cosmic immensitude, the gulfs of time it opens, the titanic sweep of the narrative ... one of the most tremendously exciting imaginative experiences I have yet found in fantastic fiction ..."
-- Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos
"By the way -- I finished 'Shadow Out of Time' last week, but doubt whether it is good enough to type. Somehow or other, it does not seem to embody quite what I want to embody -- and I may tear it up and start all over again."
-- H.P. Lovecraft, letter to E. Hoffman Price, March 14, 1935
Of the three of them, I tend more toward Lovecraft's opinion of "Shadow Out of Time," although it's far and away good enough to type. It's merely great, though, not transcendent. I think I lowball it for some ill-defined reason, one that Lovecraft put best -- for me, too, it does not seem to embody quite what it could. It's more than a little over-long, and I find very little suspense to the final denouement. Well, technically, none whatsoever. It's a surgically neat climax, but that's the best I can say of it. Maybe if we really got into Peaslee's head, we could feel his shock more fully, but overtypically, Peaslee is a boring stick who spends more time than Lovecraft can believably convey in agonies of Poe-narrative indecision about his experience. Even Australia (with its huge potential for the outre) isn't really milked and brought to unlife the way Lovecraft does Antarctica in "Mountains of Madness." My "adventurous expectancy" is sated early, when Peaslee susses out the core myth of Pnakotic possession, and I never really get it back.
I also wonder how you keep your identical handwriting if your mind is immured in a seven-foot-tall cone-being. This isn't just nitpicking. I am somewhat surprised that Joshi doesn't see (and on past form, stridently object to) the hugely obvious negation of "mechanist materialism" in the assumption that mentation and personality (even memory, in Peaslee's case) -- the soul, in other words -- is independent of the physical brain, or even of humanoid brain structure. (In Lovecraft's original version, the mind-transfers were from ancient -- but human -- Lomar.)
I do love the cosmicism; the stark vastness of time, the great allusion to Buddai ("the gigantic old man who lies asleep for ages underground with his head on his arm, and who will some day awake and eat up the world"), the increasingly deft retournement of the Necronomicon (this time as 'dream diary'), and what we see of Peaslee's attempt to discover his bizarre activities while "amnesiac." I especially love the horrible, horrible Yithians with their "fascistic socialism," their callous voyeurism, and their utter amorality bred of utter invulnerability. ("Flying polyps going to escape, eh?" "Not our problem. It's off to beetle-time we go." BAMF.) Lovecraft never blended the alien and the villainous as convincingly.
But I just don't love this story as I probably should.
NEXT: Nothing is next, to paraphrase John Tynes, but death and coleopterans.
But we've finished the Tour de Lovecraft, hopefully in better shape than we started it. As a final thought, I'd say this. Lovecraft combined an epochal imagination with a nearly nihilist philosophy -- the two ingredients that together make "cosmic horror." But more importantly, Lovecraft was a great writer. Of his solo adult works, 17 of 50 are great by almost any standard. (That's a career .340 average -- home run average, that is. And six of those were knocked clean out of the park.) By the time his style fully matured in the mid-1920s, he was almost incapable of turning out a bad story. He was a complex writer, who believed (correctly) that both verisimilitude and gothicism depended on intricate structures of both plot and language. A true Anglophone craftsman, HPL is not for the lazy, any more than Faulkner or Borges is -- or Hawthorne, his great unsung model. In his mature phase, he almost never wastes a word: if you can't figure out why it's there, that's your problem, not his. Not all of the mature stories work for all readers -- "The Thing on the Doorstep" is probably the weakest of them, and as I've intimated before, "The Silver Key" is perhaps best seen as mental attic-cleaning rather than as fiction in the technical sense. But even those two (clearly his weakest post-1925 tales) are structurally sound as drums, and make interesting reading to boot, two desiderata that far too many short stories fail at.
For all those who say that Lovecraft is all style (and bad style at that) and no substance, why is it that there are no successful pastiches of Lovecraft in his own style? Why aren't we drowning in stories at least as good as "The Shadow Out of Time" or "The Haunter of the Dark"? Why, if it's just a matter of piling up "eldritch unnameables," can't any journeyman hack with Robert M. Price's email address manage it? Why can't even very good craftsmen indeed do it? (August Derleth is no slouch on his own turf, and Robert Bloch and Ramsey Campbell, well, the defense rests.) Why, for that matter, are some of Lovecraft's stories better than others if all it takes to write like Lovecraft is a thesaurus and a lobster-shack menu? No, in the great works there's definitely something there, some "adventurous expectancy," some outside shape scratching "at the known universe's utmost rim."
For all his undoubted skill, knowledge, and perception, I disagree with S.T. Joshi, who sees Lovecraft's art (and by extension all art?) as ancillary to, or derivative upon, the author's philosophy. I disagree with Colin Wilson, who sees Lovecraft's art (and by extension all art?) as ancillary to, or derivative upon, the author's personality, his "madness," if you will. I disagree with attempts to understand Lovecraft's art as murkily sublimated autobiography. Obviously Lovecraft's beliefs, his mind, and his unhappy life played their role, just like any artist's do. But 1920s New England was full of autodidactic Nietzsche wannabes, many of them also neurasthenic, over-coddled, and bankrupt. It only produced one H.P. Lovecraft.
So I hold that Lovecraft's art -- like all great art -- is fundamentally of its own origin. It comes from where it comes, be it genius, or the Muses, or the Gates of Deeper Slumber. Lovecraft, like all artists, learned to transmit it, to shape it and tame it for our view, as best he could. The proof is in the pudding: Cthulhu (and all that he stands for) has become as Superman, or Sherlock Holmes, or Robinson Crusoe, or Hamlet, or Lancelot, or Jason and the Argonauts -- a timeless icon, a myth. Like all myths it can be endlessly interpreted, set on new pedestals or loudly flung away. Without HPL's craft -- and yes, without his "mechanist materialism" and his psychosomatic fish allergies -- he could not have revealed Cthulhu to us in just that form. And without his blindness and his lyre Homer couldn't have sung the words he did, either. But now, Troy burns eternally. And Cthulhu fhtagn.