[Tour de Lovecraft] From Beyond
"From Beyond" is evidence that I will overlook the worst excesses (and this story, in Darrell Schweitzer's apt description, gibbers from start to finish) of Lovecraft's early Poe-influenced style if he's using it in the service of an actual Lovecraftian concept.
Here, Lovecraft revisits "Fall of the House of Usher," (as he will again, far more ably, in "Rats in the Walls") with a hyper-sensitive madman and his mostly anonymous guest, who exists almost solely to hear the exposition unfold and to plausibly describe the madman's destruction. But where we see further (and more horribly) into Usher in Poe's tale, in this one we see further (and more horribly) into the truth of the Universe.
I consider "From Beyond" to be an almost critical story for understanding the Cthulhu Mythos, despite its narrative flatness and the absence of any of the great names. However, its very simplicity of construction and paucity of specific myth-cycle linkage allows it to serve as a skeleton key to the more sophisticated later stories. This story is entirely a disquisition on the nature of the Outside.
We learn that the Outside is:
* Much vaster than the perceptible cosmos, and that our dimensionality (including time) is purely local.
* Entirely interpenetrative of our universe; as Uncle Chu would say, "The Outside is here, Mister Burton."
* Largely (even entirely) independent of our concerns.
* Horribly dangerous, both physically and mentally, to those who encounter it, even fleetingly.
* Inhabited by entities, both sentient and non-, as well as by intelligences that transcend sapience.
* Possessed of its own hierarchies, ecologies, and struggles.
* Accessible by human (and logically by inhuman or prehuman) technology.
* When so accessed, capable of being harnessed or of expanding human abilities in ways strongly resembling legendary magic.
This metaphysics becomes common to the rest of Lovecraft's oeuvre. With this metaphysics established, Lovecraft spends the rest of his career learning the exact ratio of Outsideness to put in a story, and the need for rigorous verisimilitude, even calm, in the "material components" of a tale. His best stories, in my opinion, are those that skirt the line between reality and Outsideness; what the radical critic Paul Buhle has so interestingly phrased thusly:
Lovecraft's true strength, then, lay in his ability to give the modern sense of indeterminacy a weird and poetic interpretation. What man feared was not correctly speaking the 'Unknown' ... [but] ... being on the verge of rediscovering something terrible and arcane ... the more threatening because in another sense it was known already....
I like Buhle's nod to Heisenberg in this quote, and the way it grounds Lovecraftian cosmicism not just in quantum physics (which, like the Tillinghast resonator, demonstrates just how meager our world of Newtonian experience and inference really is) but also Theosophy; the sense of knowledge that predates, but somehow informs, humanity. The Theosophical component is mostly absent from "From Beyond," but the Heisenbergian component of the Mythos is never clearer.
NEXT: "The Nameless City"