Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Shadow out of Time, Pt. 1
“The essence was always the same – a person of keen thoughtfulness seized with a strange secondary life and leading for a greater or lesser period an utterly alien existence typified at first by vocal and bodily awkwardness, and later by a wholesale acquisition of scientific, historic, artistic, and anthropological knowledge; an acquisition carried on with feverish zest and with a wholly abnormal absorptive power.“
Welcome back to another blind read! This week we trek down a mind bogglingly complex philosophical maze of “nightmare and terror,” in addition to connecting a large collection of Lovecraft’s tales as we try to peel back the layers of the first half of the journey of “The Shadow out of Time.”
This novelette is absolutely the most dense of anything I’ve read by Lovecraft and believe me, breaking it all down is a little daunting, but as the text says at the beginning of the story, “If the thing did happen, then man must be prepared to accept notions of the cosmos, and of his own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralysing.”
The plot of the story surrounds our narrator (Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee) who is a professor at Miskatonic University and by his own proclamations, insists that he has always been sound of mind. That is until he gained a “queer amnesia” which lasted for five years. During that timeframe he became obsessed with “occultism and abnormal psychology,” of which he had never had an inkling towards. During this “lost time” he traveled to the Himalayas, to the Arctic, to the Arabian deserts, to Australia, and even the “vast limestone cavern systems of western Virginia.“
Nathaniel asserts that right before his “lost time” happened he felt “...that someone else was trying to get possession of my thoughts.” which brings into play so many of the previous stories in Lovecraft’s collection. Most recently this makes me think of Asenath from “The Thing on the Doorstep” where she would project her mind into other’s bodies. As we get further into the story, we find there is an Alien species which Lovecraft refers to as the “Great Race” which “With suitable mechanical aid a mind would project itself forward in time, feeling its dim, extrasensory way till it approached the desired period. Then, after preliminary trials, it would seize on the best discoverable representative of the highest of that period’s life-forms; entering the organism’s brain and setting up therein its own vibrations while the displaced mind would strike back to the period of the displacer, remaining in the latter’s body till a reverse process was set up.”
This passage echoes the concepts in the story “The Whisperer in Darkness” as maybe a beginning of the transposition process. Remember in that story that they would extract the brain from the body so that the brain could travel to all reaches of the galaxy to gain new knowledge? Their bodies would be cast aside and their brains would be entered into metal tubes which would be sent with the alien race to space to gather knowledge (if you can believe them).
We get even deeper into the mythos as we understand that, “If the mind came from a body whose language the Great Race could not physically reproduce, clever machines would be made, on which the alien speech could be played as on a musical instrument.” Which stands to reason that “The Music Erich Zann” was playing was actually communication to this Great Race and the horror which came from the sight of them: “The Great Race’s members were immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes.”
So it’s natural to draw the conclusion that it’s this Great Race which has been searching out the history of the universe and transpose themselves into various cultures on planets. They were the influence for Asenath gaining her access to these powers, which also ties them to Dagon and the “Shadow over Innsmouth,” they are an influence on Kingsport with the “Terrible Old Man” and his metal tubes, they influence Arkham as they collect people mechanically and put their brains in tubes. While they enter their subjects bodies they search out as much cosmic knowledge as they can gather from that world, and when they’re done they put the consciousness back into their host’s body. To the host it feels like they are dreaming. We have absolutely heard that before. This story seems to be confirming my suspicion as to what the dreamlands actually are, because right at the beginning of the fourth section Nathaniel tells us, “I continued…to keep a careful record of the outré dreams which crowded upon me so thickly and vividly. Such a record, I argued, was of genuine value as a psychological document. The glimpses still seemed damnably like memories…”
In the Randolph Carter tales (The Silver Key, Through the Gates of the Silver Key, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Unnamable), our protagonist is called a dreamer. With the help of the Necronomicon, he “dreams” and travels around the universe, interacting with various species. He then uses the Silver Key to go beyond consciousness. In fact in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” he even becomes one of these creatures.
The layer that’s added with this story is that even though these travels are thought of as dreaming, the real nature of what’s going on here is that these people are traversing time not consciousness. To solidify this concept there’s even a paragraph right in the middle of the fourth chapter:
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 the 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 hardly coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer it’s keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.
He goes on to talk of the various historical figures of both Lovecraftian mythos and human history, inexorably trying them together. It is here (it’s discussed in The Dream Quest-of Unknown Kadath as well) in which Lovecraft tells us in no uncertain terms that Time is not a concept of motion or reality, but that Time itself is an alternative universe, which is why people can actually traverse to and from. It is, in and of itself, a dimension, so to understand time travel we have to understand that it’s a linear thing. You go through a gate into another dimension. A dimension of time. This bypasses the problem of physics because it’s a separate dimension of which the Great Race have perfected (alongside some of the Elder Gods) how to traverse it. The same way that Carter was able to get there through the gate using the silver key, and Wilmarth viewed (albeit in a much more crude fashion) in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
This story is about discovering something from a different dimension, not a different time period, so when we look at the title, we should see it as “A Shadow from Another Dimension,” though, of course, that isn’t nearly as catchy.
SO we know that the knowledge and witchcraft of transposition came from this Great Race and much of what’s happening in Lovecraft’s devised world centers around these beings. In fact when this story opens we are immediately greeted with the knowledge of Prof. Peaslee finding “fragments of unknown, primordial masonry” in “Western Australia.” Similarly, just off the Western Coast of Australia, in the story “The Call of Cthulhu” we find a “cyclopean city” made with strange, impossible angles with unknown materials (primordial masonry?). We know of this city as R’lyeh, the lost city of the god Cthulhu. Could Peaslee have also found evidence of this lost city?
Find out next week as we conclude “The Shadow out of Time!”