Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Shadow Out Of Time, Conclusion
“If that abyss and what it held were real, there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time. But mercifully, there is no proof that these things are other than fresh phases of my myth-born dreams. I did not bring back the metal case that would have been proof, and so far those subterrene corridors have not been found. If the laws of the universe are kind, they will never be found.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week is all about catharsis as we conclude the final story Howard Phillips wrote by himself, before diving into the handful of stories August Derleth co-wrote (or maybe ghost wrote) with Lovecraft. This was the perfect story to leave for last, as the quote above indicates and sums up the multi-year long project I’ve undertaken. Lovecraft himself was a Shadow out of Time, darkening our doorsteps with new horrors which cannot quite be seen but can be sensed and felt with the weight of eternity, the weight of history, and the weight of mythology.
Lovecraft moved his story beyond pointed philosophical treatises to an all out adventure with a narrative hurtling forward like an out of control semi flying downhill without brakes…and yet there is no grand reveal. Lovecraft does what he always does and lets the atmosphere play the role of terrorizer and he lets you know this right up front: “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.“
The story begins with a letter to our protagonist Professor Peaslee about an archaeological find of some strange stone and architecture in Australia. “They are mostly sandstone and granite, though one is almost certainly made of a queer sort of cement or concrete. They bear evidence of water action, as if this part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages – all since these blocks were made and used.”
Immediately we’re drawn back to “The Call of Cthulhu” and the great lost city of the Elder Gods, but more specifically the titular Cthulhu…R’lyeh. In that other story we are presented with a lost city found off the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean. The city had architecture that was queer and somehow both convex and concave at the same time. The city which was lost to time under the sea. Now, here, in Australia we find evidence that “part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages.” We know that this is on landlocked Australia, so it more than likely is not part of R’lyeh, however it is undoubtedly part of that same civilization.
So what does Professor Peaslee do? He gathers a group of scientists, including Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University. Does that name sound familiar to you? Well that’s because this is the Professor who went on the Antarctic Expedition in “At the Mountains of Madness,” where I personally was introduced to the Shoggoth.
Again, it seems like Lovecraftian synergy that all of these stories come to bear in this last novelette. This series is truly Blind, meaning that I always loved the concepts of Lovecraft, but had never actually read him. I was always daunted by the language, so I’ve started many times, but never followed through. I decided that the only way to keep me honest and finish these stories was to do an academic exercise and deconstruct the stories and look for the narratives. I knew there was a Dream Cycle, I knew there were gothic horror stories, I knew there was the Mythos, but I didn’t know which story was which, so I randomly picked a jumping off point and went into them. Similarly, as I traversed through his oeuvre I didn’t know which story to read, so I chose them based upon length and how much time I had in that given week to be able to honestly read, digest, and compose an essay. The fact that all of these stories are converging (and believe me the denouement of this story feels just like “The Beast in the Cave“) into this single story, my last story, just solidifies my adoration of the process and of the author.
Some of Lovecraft’s best writing comes in the last chapter of this story, and though it doesn’t have the shocking ending that he was truly going for, it brings the feeling of the two different halves of the story together, much like it brings together the true forms of Lovecraft’s writing.
The crew goes on expedition and begins their dig in the Australian Desert. Our narrator felt a “Strange sense of compulsion” and goes off to find a “Cyclopean tunnel” which leads down into the earth. The description is reminiscent of the tunnels in “At the Mountains of Madness” and is in fact the only real depredation I have for this story. We never get to see Dyer do anything, but we know he has first hand knowledge of this architectural structure.
Beyond this there are some excellently written horror scenes, where Peaslee traverses down into the depths of this ancient alien sub-world and has vague memories of seeing the glyphs on the stones. In addition he seems to have knowledge of which way to go to find the evidence he’s looking for. Throughout the whole descent there is a terribly oppressive feeling of anxiety. Peaslee somehow knows that he must remain quiet, he knows that there’re sleeping giants down in the depths and he knows that he must be quick and silent – or he will never return from this venture. Some great creature which, “I thought of that which the Great Race had feared, and of what might still be lurking – be it ever so weak and dying – down there.”
Strange feelings of knowledge and memory keep assaulting Peaslee until he finally finds what he’s looking for. It’s a tome of ancient knowledge:
“At length I tremblingly pulled the book from it’s container and stared fascinatedly at the well-known hieroglyphs on the cover. It seemed to be in prime condition, and the curvilinear letters of the title held me in almost as hypnotized a state as if I could read them. Indeed, I cannot swear that I did not actually read them in some transient and terrible access of abnormal memory.”
He then takes the book and flees, but makes a critical mistake, “Just as I blindly crossed the summit, unprepared for the sudden dip ahead, my feet slipped utterly and I found myself involved in a mangling avalanche of sliding masonry whose cannon-loud uproar split the black cavern air in a deafening series of earth shaking reverberations.”
He had woken the beast, or beasts. “I have a dim picture of myself as flying through the hellish basalt vault of the Elder Things, and hearing that damnable alien sound piping up from the open, unguarded door of limitless nether blacknesses.”
He then comes to a rift which he must traverse, but to jump up is far worse that jumping down. He doesn’t think he can make it, but at the same time he can almost feel the Elder Thing at his heels. The howling and whistling of the demonic metropolis seem to come from all directions, so he decides that there’s no way out. He must jump…but he doesn’t make it:
The I saw the chasm’s edge, leaped frenziedly with every ounce of strength I possessed, and was instantly engulfed in a pandaemoniac vortex of loathsome sound and utter, materially tangible blackness.
While in this state of utter blackness he seems to fall into a dream, “Afterward there were visions of the Cyclopean city of my dreams – not in ruins, but just as I had dreamed of it. I was in my conical, non-human body again, and mingled with crowds of the Great Race and the captive minds who carried books up and down the lofty corridors and vast inclines.“
Sounds familiar? We even get the last line of the story to solidify what’s really happening here: “And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful megalithic abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphics of earth’s youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.“
This dream, this time-lapse, this dimension, is all interconnected. Peaslee spent his five lost years travelling around in the body of one of the Great Race of Yith, and he transposed horrific texts, of which he found in an aeon lost structure of the Elder Ones, buried somewhere underneath the sands of Australia. This proves the interconnectedness of Lovecraft’s universe in such a wonderful way, and is such a spectacular endpoint to his actual writing.
Lovecraft has four different styles. His satirical humor, which are one off stories. His Gothic horror, which are what they sound like, however they do interconnect with his Cosmic horror stories, they just have a more visceral, a more, well, horrific bent. The Mythos stories, or the Cosmic stories, tend to have a much more psychological horror element to them. Finally the Dream Cycle tends to be more adventurous. Those are the styles, but that’s what makes it so good, because with this story it’s readily apparent that all of his tales have some interconnectedness. Everything here happens in Lovecraft Country and Lovecraft Country is his own alternate world where this can all happen!
The Dreamers (like Randolph Carter) are actually dimensional hoppers and there’s a multiverse here in which they traverse time by sidestepping physics and jumping to whatever reality is needed. Whether that’s sailing through the galaxy with Azathoth, or grave robbing with buddies, the dreamers have this special ability to let the horror of the scope of the cosmos wash over them and allow them to experience this amount of cosmic horror thus making those stories more like adventures. Individuals exploring the great wide open. The characters who don’t have the mental capacity to deal with these realities enter the cosmic horror tales, which focus on madness, but in reality we get very few tentacles.
So this makes me wonder where the cultural consciousness came to the idea that Lovecraft had to have some kind of creature with tentacles, since while reading, you can probably count on two hands how many stories actually mention a character viewing a monster, and on one hand where you actually are given a description of what they see.
August Derleth was one of Lovecraft’s friends (and publishers) and he was the one to coin the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” where Lovecraft preferred to call it Yog-Sothothery. So one has to wonder…was it Derleth that created this monstrous concept of what it was like to be “Lovecraftian?” I’ve never read him, so I’m not sure.
Why don’t we find out?
Join me next week as we read our first August Derleth writing as H.P. Lovecraft, “The Survivor!”