In the last couple of posts there was discussion of two traditional methods of escaping ‘time the avenger’: either inventing a device that allows travel forward and backward along this fourth dimension, or extending an individual life—at least its outward appearance of youth and vigor—with various potions and arduous surgeries. The latter option is the most popular today, since a reliable and safe time machine—unless it arrives from the future—is probably centuries away.
But what if others were able to interfere with our experience of time, take us from our present moment and insert us somewhere else in the temporal stream? Three decades before Billy Pilgrim became “unstuck in time” in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Lovecraft’s character of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee suffered a bizarre form of amnesia lasting from 1908 until 1913—he seemed to friends and family to have become someone, or something else. Both characters endure a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, Pilgrim as a result of his experiences in World War II, Peaslee because of his benevolent incarceration among the highly advanced Great Old Ones, “…the greatest race of all; because it alone had conquered the secret of time.” Which “secret of time” consists of the ability to exchange minds with others, a device Lovecraft used in many of his stories.
Lovecraft skillfully describes the psychological symptoms Peaslee experiences soon after returning to his body, which is the focus of his memorable The Shadow Out of Time (1936). This is one of Lovecraft’s most important stories, originally published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories. Despite its flaws—there is no dialogue, characterization, or much action—the eight-part novella consolidates and elaborates ideas that Lovecraft introduced elsewhere in his fiction.
Its broad panorama of Earth’s existence in time and space, combined with its well-wrought depiction of the Great Old Ones and their interaction with human destiny form the basis for all kinds of interesting narrative possibilities. Had the author survived the late 1930s, The Shadow Out of Time would have made an excellent starting place from which Lovecraft might have launched additional novel-length projects.
Where are the Great Old Ones when you need them? What if instead of sending one of their own colossal minds into the future, they had nabbed Lovecraft’s 1936 brain and exchanged it with that of a current day undergrad at Brown University? Lovecraft could continue his career, perhaps updating and correcting all that has been done since to his unique mythology, and maybe getting involved with historical preservation efforts in Providence.
As for the transplanted college student, he or she could have a remarkable multi-cultural experience some 50 million years ago, existing inside the body of creatures composed of “enormous iridescent cones, about ten feet high and ten feet wide at the base, and made up of some ridgy, scaly, semi-elastic matter.” This may be preferable to amassing thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
Travel through time and space by way of a mental transference of some kind appears in many of Lovecraft’s stories, among them Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919), Hypnos (1923), The Whisperer in Darkness (1931), The Challenge from Beyond (1935) The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), and The Evil Clergyman (1939). Lovecraft’s conceptualization of mental transference appears to overlap the categories of psychic possession and reincarnation in some of his work, but even here time travel of a kind is implied. (See also Clinical Lovecraft, Help, I’m a Centipede! ‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best, A Lovecraftian Gender-Bender, and Lovecraft an Anglican Priest?.)
It is striking that this motif—leaving one’s own body and inhabiting another—occurs so often in Lovecraft’s fiction. The author was a materialist and an atheist and unlikely to believe in the existence of mind or soul outside the physical body. While it is tempting to think Lovecraft may have waffled on this issue, it may be that his preoccupation with this theme merely reflects personal discomfort with his own physical being; he famously perceived himself as ugly, awkward and unattractive and his life as frustrating, unsuccessful and pointless. Surely he wanted to leave at times and exist as someone else, somewhere else, if only in his imagination.
In The Shadow Out of Time, Lovecraft uses mental transference and time travel as a vehicle to showcase many of his more provocative ideas: that an ideal, advanced society would be governed by some form of “fascistic socialism”, that, in terms of evolution, humans are not the last or even the best species to develop on earth, that significant human achievements may be traceable to outside influences, that ancient knowledge of mankind’s predecessors is preserved and handed down through the activities of secretive cults. Here is just one example:
It [the Great Race] had learned all things that ever were known or ever would be known on the earth, through the power of its keener minds to project themselves into the past and future, even through gulfs of millions of years, and study the lore of every age. From the accomplishments of this race arose all legends of prophets, including those in human mythology.
With the exception of parts V-VIII, which describe Peaslee’s terrifying discovery of tangible proof of the Great Race in Australia, most of The Shadow Out of Time takes place in a library—either Peaslee’s own or that of the Great Race eons ago in Earth time. But what a library! There is a lot to study here, which makes The Shadow Out of Time a critical read for those interested in a deeper understanding of all things Lovecraftian.
As in so much of Lovecraft’s fiction, the principle activity of the main character—nearly always a stand-in for Lovecraft himself—is research to find out the real truth about himself and his world. And as in many of Lovecraft’s adventures of self-discovery, the awful truth is somehow “connected with the ceaseless fear of the dark, windowless elder ruins and of the great sealed trapdoors in the lowest subterrene levels.”
H.P. Lovecraft often acknowledged his weaknesses as a story teller, but most would agree that he excelled at creating memorable settings and more importantly, disturbing conceptualizations of the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Given his other equally ambitious work from this time—longer, more involved stories like At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941), and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath—it is clear that Lovecraft’s skill as a writer was continuing to develop and that his favorite concepts were being refined and extended in interesting ways.
In particular, The Shadow Out of Time lays out Lovecraft’s more sophisticated, cosmic “mythos”. Not the hokey “Cthulhu Mythos” Derleth and others assembled from parts of Lovecraft’s work, but a more disturbing pantheon indifferent to humanity, all the more frightening because unfamiliar and incomprehensible.
Lovecraft enthusiasts will be interested in a new book due out this September from occult scholar, John L. Steadman, H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition. Steadman’s intent is not to assert that Lovecraft was in any way a “practicing occultist” but to demonstrate his considerable influence on Western occultism and aspects of the New Age movement, a phenomenon S.T. Joshi touched lightly on in his two volume biography of the author. This is a fascinating topic and worth more attention than it has received to date. The publisher is Red Wheel/Weiser.