Thursday, October 3, 2013

Help, I’m a Centipede!

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Challenge From Beyond (1935) is a short story published several years after The Whisperer in Darkness, and just one year before The Shadow Out of Time.  It shares several similarities with the other two stories, not the least of which is its notion of interstellar travel by way of alien mind exchange with unfortunate humans.

This is what happens to George Campbell, an adventurous geologist who stumbles upon a strange
“fluorescent cube”.  It glows with a pale, attractive, hypnotic light.  The fluorescent cube is probably much more energy efficient than the hotter, incandescent glowing orbs of 1950s and 1960s space alien equipment.  This one has been on the earth for a hundred and fifty million years, and still works fine.  It is actually one of the mental transfer devices that the evil aliens have disseminated throughout the galaxies, lying in wait to hypnotize and suck the minds out of unwary native species, in this case, humans.

This is already in progress as George Campbell finds himself conscious of hurtling at great speed into the atmosphere of a weird planet light years away from our own.  He blacks out momentarily, but as he gradually regains consciousness, he remembers an incredible amount of detailed back story leading up to his own desperate situation.  About a hundred and fifty million years worth.  In space, no one can hear you yawn. 

With typical Lovecraftian thoroughness, we hear about the Eltdown Shards, whose strange unearthly markings are later translated by an occult scholar.  The fragments tell the story of an alien race that conquers entire galaxies by exchanging minds with the local inhabitants.  These invaders even tangle with the previous inhabitants of earth.  The original earthlings were an even more advanced race of beings, capable of sending their minds out into both space and time.  Thus they were able to detect the invasion plan well before it could succeed and so safeguarded the earth, at least for a time.

George Campbell is not so lucky.  As he comes to, he is clearly not on earth any more, but in a large room, with panels depicting the same markings that were on the Eltdown Shards.  One of the aliens approaches him, carrying a metallic box.  It is a giant hideous worm-like creature with many legs and a head topped with cilia.  Given Lovecraft’s aversion to sea life, the alien almost certainly evolved from some sort of marine organism.  Campbell sees his reflection in the metallic box—it is no longer human.  He is “one of the great centipedes”, or at least inside one.

A strength of the story is Lovecraft’s imaginative treatment of what it might be like to wake up inside the body of a completely different organism.  The story ends with his character in this predicament, but much could have been made of the experience if he had begun with it.  This would have provided a novel opportunity for characterization, pathos, even humor—if such a thing were possible in a Lovecraft story. 

Interestingly, in Lovecraft’s story The Evil Clergyman, (1939, published posthumously just a few years later), a character finds himself inside the body of another, this time an Anglican priest.  For Lovecraft at least, this was probably almost as horrifying an experience.

It should be noted that Lovecraft’s story The Challenge From Beyond—though it can stand aloneis actually only his section of a much larger group effort involving several other authors.  L. Sprague De Camp in his 1975 biography describes a ‘round robin’ project for a 1935 issue of The Fantasy Magazine that incorporated contributions from Catherine L. Moore, Frank Belknap Long, Abraham Merritt, and Robert E. Howard.  Lovecraft wrote the third or middle portion of the piece.  Predictably, there was considerable disagreement among some members of the group, and the collective effort was of uneven quality.

Last weekend I learned that The Shadow Out of Time has a graphic version from SelfMadeHero coming out this November.  SelfMadeHero has produced several quality versions of Lovecraft’s work in graphic format.  Collectively they offer a wonderful introduction for readers new to Lovecraft’s fiction, and enhance the enjoyment of it for those already familiar with his better known stories.

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