Sunday, November 28, 2010

Shadow out of Time (1935)

Author:  H.P. Lovecraft
Year:  1935
Pages:  135

I associate the Shadow Out of Time novella with Lovecraft's personality more than any of his other works I've read.  Lovecraft said in interviews that he felt disconnected from his time period, that he longed to wake suddenly in the sanity of ages past.  To think of his notion that ages before his own were more sane than his is a strange paradox considering that in his stories, to know a distant age brings insanity.  Lovecraft was also reportedly so lacking confidence that he refused to type up a manuscript of the story.  The young fan of Lovecraft's who typed his manuscript for him made mistakes because of Lovecraft's illegible handwriting.  When the original manuscript was found in 1995, a corrected version of the story was published.  However, from what I understand, the corrected version has an introduction that contains slight spoilers to the ending, and ending which, without a doubt, is one of Lovecraft's best.

In the Shadow Out of Time, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee (early 1900s), a professor of political economics at Miskatonic U., is stricken unconscious for sixteen hours.  Upon awakening, Peaslee's friends and loved ones fail to recognize anything of the famililar in the man.  His habits, mannerisms, and patterns of speech have changed.  For years he continues in a strange life change before suddenly coming back into himself, whereupon he begins to explore what could have happened to cause the changes that lost him his family.

What he discovers begins to send him into madness.  Traveling the world with his son and collegues, Peaslee discovers the Great Race, the Yithians, who can project their minds across space and time, holding the minds of the bodies they temporarily inhabit hostage. 

To call Shadow  a novella diminshes its impact as a valid and necessary work of horror/science fiction.  While short in pages, Shadow fills each line with more substance than most longer novels.  Shadow also holds many parallels to Lovecraft's life including a five year period when his own father exhibited a sort of madness and personality change.  Detailed and hideous descriptions of creatures and beings from our world and others fill the pages as Peaslee begins to make contact with his past.  Lovecraft also gives a nod to his long-time friend, Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, in the character encountered by Peaslee called Crom-Ya.  Many Lovecraftean creatures and characters are mentioned in passing through Peaslee's exploration inside his own primordial memories.

Shadow Out of Time is not a good starting place for Lovecraft beginners.  There is no direct dialogue in the text.  The discriptions may seem archaic or weighty for novices in Lovecraftean lore.  This is also one of Lovecraft's longer works and a beginner might do better to start out slower.  Otherwise, the story is brilliant and engaging.  The story's high point, for me, was the vivid description of the ancient ruins of the Yith, given in graphic detail as Peaslee rediscovers them in his own time.  This is definitely in my top 10 of science fiction stories!


  1. Interesting that you recommend this as an embarkation point for an exploration of Lovecraft. I find it rather daunting, myself. I think I'd recommend "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward."

  2. Actually, I said it was NOT a good starting place :P