Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/ August Derleth; The Shadow Out of Space
“If it is true that man lives forever on the edge of an abyss, the certainly most men must experience moments of awareness – of a kind of precognition, as it were – when the vast, unplumbed depths which exist forever on the rim of man’s little world become for one cataclysmic moment tangible, when the terrible, boundless well of knowledge of which even the most brilliant man has only tasted, assumes a shadowy being capable of striking the most primal terror into even the stoutest heart.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we trudge through the terribly derivative and bastardizing story, while reconciling memory and looking to the future of Lovecraft Country.
Right from the beginning of this story, I could tell that it was going to be a weak retelling of “The Shadow Out of Time” and unfortunately it was nearly a word for word reconditioning of that odd novella with Derleth putting his own, less sophisticated stamp on it. Derleth tries to clarify what was going on in the original story, but unfortunately the whole thing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, as he strives to tie some of the mythos together, which don’t seem as though they fit.
It’s ultimately a lazy effort and pretty obviously a money grab. Even the title, replacing Space or Time, is a lazy effort to reimagine. Reading this story almost feels like I’m reading “Lovecraft for Dummies”, which is a massive let down.
There are some interesting connectors though, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on as I give you a Cliffs Notes version of the story.
If you’ve read “The Shadow out of Time” you know what’s going to happen. This story follows Nathaniel Corey who’s our narrator. Corey has a patient, Amos Piper, who had the same kind of strange circumstances of his alliterative counter part Peaslee from “The Shadow out of Time.” They black out for years, loosing that time. They suddenly developed an interest in the occult while they concurrently lose control of their bodily faculties for a period of time. It turns out in both stories that the characters were invaded by one of the Great Race of Yith, a race looking to gather information about every other species in existence. The Yith have the ability to travel through time and space (hence both titles) to do so. Eventually the Yith retract, and the more the narrator digs, they eventually find themselves being invaded.
What Derleth’s version is missing is the philosophical element of Lovecraft’s novelette. In fact it seems like that’s what he’s missing with all of his stories. Lovecraft has popularity because he created incredible atmosphere, but at the same time, his stories were philosophical treatises. Derleth, I’m coming to understand, is basically writing dime store books. He’s actively removing the philosophy from Lovecraft’s ethos and dumbing the stories down to make them more accessible to a wider audience. The jury is still out about how I feel about this, especially because he seems to change small things about the stories which I think curve away from the original intent (more specifically creating a more Christian outlook instead of an apathetic one). The only real philosophizing in this story is the opening quote of this essay, which incidentally is the opening paragraph (or at least most of the opening paragraph) of the story.
That being said Derleth does add a few details to make this world more his own. Some of these add a layer of sub-context which both inform us of Derleth’s process and add a bit to the story. The first of these comes fairly early in the story and had me excited for the prospects:
“The moment I close my eyes, there appear on the retina strange geometrical figures and designs, together with vague lights and even more sinister shapes beyond, as of great creatures past the conception of mankind...”
If we remember from stories such as “Dreams in the Witch House” and even such favorites as “The Call of Cthulhu,” strange geometrical figures and angles play a huge role. In Lovecraft they’re used as a sort of talisman to help magnify the magic being used. Strange angles, conversely, seem to create a fold in space and time where dimension and time hopping becomes possible. Derleth seems to be layering this concept onto people. If we can actually put these designs onto our own figure, can we call forth elder entities into our own bodies? Would they come through us in some kind of body horror, or would they merely take over our minds which seems to be indicated here in this story? It’s a very exciting prospect for what could possibly be coming in later stories.
Derleth also makes use of popular culture as well, grounding the story into a specific timeline. Piper’s episode of transmogrification takes place during a performance of Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter.” Because this reference was so specifically called out it makes me wonder if there’s a specific meaning behind it’s inclusion. “The Letter” is about a woman named Leslie, who is on trial for killing Geoff Hammond, a friend of her husbands. Throughout the play it’s found out that Hammond was in fact Leslie’s lover, who scorned her for another woman. The eponymous letter comes to light and Leslie is eventually acquitted, but she’s not completely innocent. She is guilty of adultery and sees her punishment as the knowledge that she killed the man she truly loved.
On surface level this seems like it doesn’t connect. What could this possibly mean? I contemplated for a few pages until I came across a long quote which begins to reveal a potential deeper meaning:
“The rugose cones which made their present form had been occupied for only a few centuries, and were far from their true form, which was more kin to a shaft of light, for they were a race of free minds, capable of invading any body and displacing the mind which inhabited it. They had occupied Earth until they had become involved in the titanic struggle between the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones for the dominion of the cosmos, a struggle which, he told me, accounted for the Christian Mythos among mankind, for the simple minds of early men had conceived of their ancestral memories of this struggle as one between elemental Good and elemental Evil.”
There’s a decent amount to unravel here, but I want to add one more quote before we take the deep dive into Derleth’s mind.
“Indeed, if anything, his memory during his illness – once indoctrination had been completed – was infinitely superior to the functioning of that part of his mind before.”
So how does this correlate to “The Letter?” Follow with me here, because we’re getting deep!
Lovecraft made sure to keep religion out of his stories (although I do find an interesting correlation to heaven or hell in “The White Ship“), but it seems as though Derleth is working to incorporate and explain why it’s necessary. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery was mostly apathetic; they were ancient and powerful gods who saw humans as insignificant. They weren’t “evil,” their goal was not to overthrow our society or make us slaves. We are as pointless as little black ants to them. If we annoy them they step on us. If we don’t bother them they generally let us be.
Derleth flat out states that it was a “struggle between elemental Good and elemental Evil.” He’s working to quintessentially change what Lovecraft was striving to do. He’s working to make it his own instead of honoring Howard. He gets away with it, making these tales more popular posthumously than during Lovecraft’s life, but he steals some of the heart of the tale. Derleth is Leslie. He’s ostensibly killed the memory of what Lovecraft was striving for, but he gets away with it, tarnishing the one he admired and loved.
That’s what this story feels like. It’s told well and it’s a interesting story, but only if you haven’t read Lovecraft first. If you had it feels like a tarnishing of the legacy. In Derleth’s effort to make it easier and more accessible, to put meaning behind why the Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods did what they did, makes the story somehow not really worth it. It’s the theory behind “the reveal.” If you have a monster so horrible that a mere glance at it could drive you insane, then you let the imagination come up with it’s image. Derleth, puts a rugose cone head and some tentacles and claws and calls it scary, when in reality, he’s just making it basic.
Let’s see how Derleth moves beyond this next week as we cover one of his most popular stories “The Shuttered Room”