I am providence the life.., p.135

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 135


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  From this point on Peaslee is plagued with dreams of increasing bizarrerie. He thinks that his mind has been placed in the body of an alien entity shaped like a ten-foot-high rugose cone, while this entity’s mind occupies his own body. These creatures are called the Great Race “because it alone had conquered the secret of time”: they have perfected a technique of mind-exchange with almost any other life-form throughout the universe and at any point in time—past, present, or future. The Great Race had established a colony on this planet in Australia 150,000,000 years ago; their minds had previously occupied the bodies of another race, but had left them because of some impending cataclysm; later they would migrate to other bodies after the cone-shaped beings were destroyed. They had compiled a voluminous library consisting of the accounts of all the other captive minds throughout the universe, and Peaslee himself writes an account of his own time for the Great Race’s archives.

  Peaslee believes that his dreams of the Great Race are merely the product of his esoteric study during his amnesia; but then an Australian explorer, having read some of Peaslee’s articles on his dreams in psychological journals, writes to him to let him know that some archaeological remains very similar to the ones he has described as the city of the Great Race appear to have been recently discovered. Peaslee accompanies this explorer, Robert B. F. Mackenzie, on an expedition to the Great Sandy Desert, and is horrified to find that what he took to be dreams may have a real source. One night he leaves the camp to conduct a solitary exploration. He winds his way through the now underground corridors of the Great Race’s city, increasingly unnerved at the familiarity of all the sites he has traversing. He knows that the only way to confirm whether his dreams are only dreams or some monstrous reality is to find that account he had written for the Great Race’s archives. After a laborious descent he comes to the place, finds his own record, and opens it:

  No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet. 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 hieroglyphs 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.

  But because he loses this record on his maniacal ascent to the surface, he can still maintain, with harried rationalisation: “There is reason to hope that my experience was wholly or partly an hallucination.”

  The cosmic scope of this work—second only to At the Mountains of Madness in this regard—allows “The Shadow out of Time” to attain a very high place in Lovecraft’s fictional work; and the wealth of circumstantial detail in the history, biology, and civilisation of the Great Race is as convincing as in At the Mountains of Madness and perhaps still better integrated into the story. Once again, it is cosmicism of both space and time that is at work here; this is made especially clear in a piquant passage in which Peaslee meets other captive minds of the Great Race:

  There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come; and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardy coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer its keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.

  That mention of the “hardy coleopterous species” (i.e., beetles) again points to an undercurrent that we have already seen in other tales—the denigration of human self-importance. Lovecraft is, of course, on solid ground scientifically in believing that insects will in all likelihood survive humanity on this planet (he had appended a note to this effect to Barlow’s “‘Till A’ the Seas,’” since Barlow had postulated that mankind would be the last species on the earth); but he adds a further dryly cynical twist by maintaining that beetles will not only outlast us but also become the dominant intellectual species on the planet, so much that the Great Race will deign to occupy their bodies when the cone-shaped bodies face peril. Shortly afterwards Peaslee adds a harrowing note: “I shivered at the mysteries the past may conceal, and trembled at the menaces the future may bring forth. What was hinted in the speech of the post-human entities of the fate of mankind produced such an effect on me that I will not set it down here.”

  Of course, it is the Great Race that become the centrepiece of the story, in such a way that they—like the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness—come to seem like the “heroes” of the tale. Much is told of their history and civilisation; but, unlike the Old Ones, they have suffered scarcely any decline from the prodigious intellectual and aesthetic heights they have achieved, perhaps because their goal is not so much the acquisition of territory and the establishment of colonies as the pure exercise of thought. I shall study the political and utopian speculations in this story a little later.

  One of the few flaws in the tale, perhaps, is Lovecraft’s imprecision—indeed, his complete silence—on the matter of exactly how the Great Race effect their mind-exchanges, especially across gulfs of time. When the mind of one of the Great Race is about to vacate Peaslee’s body, it sets up a device made up of “a queer mixture of rods, wheels, and mirrors, though only about two feet tall, one foot wide, and one foot thick”; in some fashion this device effects the exchange, although there is absolutely no indication of how it does so. There is a later reference to “suitable mechanical aid” that somehow permits a mind to go forward in time and displace the mind of some entity, but this is again the only clue we ever receive of this procedure; and the mention of “mind-casting outside the recognised senses” and “extra-sensory” methods used by the Great Race stretches Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism to the very limit.

  But this is a small blemish in a tale that opens up tremendous cosmic vistas and, as with At the Mountains of Madness, succeeds triumphantly in displacing humanity from centre stage and enthroning fabulously alien entities there instead. The spectacular concluding tableau—a man finding a document he must have written 150,000,000 years ago—must be one of the most outré moments in all literature. As Peaslee himself reflects, “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.”

  The basic mind-exchange scenario of the tale has been taken from at least three sources. First, of course, is H. B. Drake’s The Shadowy Thing, which we have already seen as an influence on “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Second, there is Henri Béraud’s obscure novel Lazarus (1925), which Lovecraft had in his library and which he read in 1928.[102] This novel presents a man, Jean Mourin, who remains in a hospital for sixteen years (for the period 1906–22) while suffering a long amnesia; during this time he develops a personality (named Gervais by the hospital staff) very different from that of his usual self. Every now and then this alternate personality returns; once Jean thinks he sees Gervais when he looks in the mirror, and later he thinks Gervais is stalking him. Jean even undertakes a study of split personalities, as Peaslee does, in an attempt to come to grips with the situation. (Parenthetically, the amnesia motif in “The Shadow out of Time” makes for a very provocative autobiographical connexion. Peaslee’s amnesia dates from 1908 to 1913, the exact time when Lovecraft himself, having had to withdraw from high school, descended into hermitry. Perhaps he had himself come to believe that another personality had taken over during this time.)

  A third dominant influence is not a literary work but a film: Berkeley Square (1933), which enraptured Lovecraft by its portrayal of a man whose mind somehow drifts back into the body of his ancestor in the eighteenth century. This source in particular m
ay have been critical, for it seems to have supplied Lovecraft with suggestions on how he might embody his long-held belief (expressed in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”) that “Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.”

  Lovecraft first saw Berkeley Square in November 1933, on the recommendation of J. Vernon Shea, who even then was an ardent film enthusiast and would remain one for the rest of his life. Lovecraft was initially much taken with the fidelity with which the eighteenth-century atmosphere was captured;[103] but later, having seen the film again (he saw it a total of four times[104]), he began to detect some flaws in conception. Berkeley Square is based on a play of that title by John L. Balderston (1929), and is a very faithful adaptation of the play, since Balderston himself cowrote the screenplay. It tells the story of Peter Standish, a man in the early twentieth century who is so fascinated with the eighteenth century—and in particular his own ancestor and namesake—that he somehow transports himself literally into the past and into the body of his ancestor. Lovecraft detected two problems with the execution of the idea: 1) Where was the mind or personality of the eighteenth-century Peter Standish when the twentieth-century Peter was occupying his body? 2) How could the eighteenth-century Peter’s diary, written in part while the twentieth-century Peter was occupying his body, not take cognisance of the fact?[105] These sorts of difficulties seem to adhere in any sort of time-travel story, but “The Shadow out of Time” seems to have obviated them as well as could be imagined.

  Berkeley Square is a striking production, with Leslie Howard superbly playing the role of Peter Standish. In some ways it is more similar to Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which is perhaps why Lovecraft was so initially struck with it. I cannot tell whether Lovecraft ever read the play; certainly he had not before he saw the film. At one point in the play (but not in the film), Peter even compares himself to a shadow.[106] But both the play and the film are worth studying for their possible influence on this last of Lovecraft’s major tales.

  Other, smaller features in “The Shadow out of Time” may also have literary sources. Peaslee’s alienation from his family may echo Walter de la Mare’s novel The Return (1910), in which again an eighteenth-century personality seems to fasten itself upon the body of a twentieth-century individual, causing his wife to cease all relations with him. And Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber (1927), in which a man attempts to recapture his entire past, is perhaps the source for the vast archives of the Great Race: Cline’s protagonist, Richard Pride, keeps an immense warehouse full of documents about his own life, and toward the end of the novel the narrator frantically traverses this warehouse before finding Pride killed by his own dog.

  Two other literary influences can be noted if only to be dismissed. It has frequently been assumed that “The Shadow out of Time” is simply an extrapolation upon Wells’s The Time Machine; but there is really very little resemblance between the two works. Lovecraft did, as noted earlier, read Wells’s novel in 1925, but there is little in it that might be thought to have a direct bearing on his story. Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) has been suggested as an influence on the enormous stretches of time reflected in the story, but Lovecraft did not read this work until August 1935, months after the tale’s completion.[107]

  It is, indeed, highly misleading to imagine that “The Shadow out of Time” is merely a stitching-together of previous works of literature and film. Lovecraft would not have been struck by these works if he had not for many years had ideas running roughly parallel with them. At best, these various works gave suggestions as to how Lovecraft could execute his conception; and in the end he executed it in a manner far more intellectually compelling and imaginatively stimulating than any of his predecessors.

  Lovecraft had, to be sure, suggested the vast gulfs of time in At the Mountains of Madness, but he does so here in a particularly intimate way that effects a powerful fusion between internal and external horror. Although Peaslee is emphatic (and correct) in believing that “What came, came from somewhere else,” the moment when, in his dream, he sees himself to be in the body of one of the alien entities is as chilling an instance of existential horror as one is likely to find. Peaslee comments poignantly, “it is not wholesome to watch monstrous objects doing what one had known only human beings to do.” In a sense, it could be thought that this notion of “possession” by an extraterrestrial being harks back all the way to “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919); but the monumentally expanded and subtilised expression of the idea in “The Shadow out of Time” makes one realise the enormous strides Lovecraft had made as a writer in a mere fifteen years.

  It is now time to return to the difficulties Lovecraft experienced in capturing the essence of this story on paper. The core of the plot had already been conceived as early as 1930, emerging out of a discussion between Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith regarding the plausibility of stories involving time-travel. Lovecraft properly noted: “The weakness of most tales with this theme is that they do not provide for the recording, in history, of those inexplicable events in the past which were caused by the backward time-voyagings of persons of the present & future.”[108] He had already mapped out the cataclysmic ending at this time: “One baffling thing that could be introduced is to have a modern man discover, among documents exhumed from some prehistoric buried city, a mouldering papyrus or parchment written in English, & in his own handwriting.”

  By March 1932 Lovecraft had already devised the basic idea of mind-exchange over time, as outlined in another letter to Smith:

  I have a sort of time idea of very simple nature floating around in the back of my head, but don’t know when I shall ever get around to using it. The notion is that of a race in primal Lomar perhaps even before the founding of Olathoë & in the heyday of Hyperborean Commoriom—who gained a knowledge of all arts & sciences by sending thought-streams ahead to drain the minds of men in future ages—angling in time, as it were. Now & then they get hold of a really competent man of learning, & annex all his thoughts. Usually they only keep their victims tranced for a short time, but once in a while, when they need some special piece of continuous information, one of their number sacrifices himself for the race & actually changes bodies with the first thoroughly satisfactory victim he finds. The victim’s brain then goes back to 100,000 B.C.—into the hypnotist’s body to live in Lomar for the rest of his life, while the hypnotist from dead aeons animates the modern clay of his victims.[109]

  It is important to quote this passage at length to see both the significant alterations made in the finished story—where the mind of the Great Race rarely remains in a captive body for the rest of its life, but only for a period of years, after which a return switch is effected—and to show that the conception of mind-exchange over time had been devised before Lovecraft saw Berkeley Square, the only other work that may conceivably have influenced this point.

  Lovecraft began the actual writing of “The Shadow out of Time” in late 1934. He announced in November: “I developed that story mistily and allusively in 16 pages, but it was no go. Thin and unconvincing, with the climactic revelation wholly unjustified by the hash of visions preceding it.”[110] What this sixteen-page version could possibly have been like is almost beyond conjecture. The disquisition about the Great Race must have been radically compressed (Lovecraft suggested as much when he noted “an occasional plethora of visibly explanatory matter” in his tales and the possibility of replacing it with “brief implication or suggestion”[111]), and this is what clearly dissatisfied Lovecraft about this version; for he came to realise that this passage, far from being an irrelevant digression, was actually the heart of the story. What then occurred is a little unclear: Is the second draft the version we now have? In late December he spoke of a “second version” that “fails to satisfy me”[112] and was uncertain whether to finish it as it was or to destroy it and start afresh. He may have done the latter, for long after finishing the story he declared that the f
inal version was “itself the 3d complete version of the same story.”[113] Whether there were two or three entire versions must remain uncertain; but clearly this tale, scribbled harriedly in pencil in a small notebook later given to R. H. Barlow, was one of the most difficult in genesis of any of Lovecraft’s tales. And yet, in many ways it is the culmination of his fictional career and by no means an unfitting capstone to a twenty-year attempt to capture the sense of wonder and awe he felt at the boundless reaches of space and time. Although Lovecraft would write one more original tale and work on several additional revisions and collaborations with colleagues, his life as a fiction writer ends, and ends fittingly, with “The Shadow out of Time.”[114]

  23. Caring about the Civilisation


  In the summer of 1936 Lovecraft made an interesting admission:

  I used to be a hide-bound Tory simply for traditional and antiquarian reasons—and because I had never done any real thinking on civics and industry and the future. The depression—and its concomitant publicisation of industrial, financial, and governmental problems—jolted me out of my lethargy and led me to reëxamine the facts of history in the light of unsentimental scientific analysis; and it was not long before I realised what an ass I had been. The liberals at whom I used to laugh were the ones who were right—for they were living in the present while I had been living in the past. They had been using science while I had been using romantic antiquarianism. At last I began to recognise something of the way in which capitalism works—always piling up concentrated wealth and impoverishing the bulk of the population until the strain becomes so intolerable as to force artificial reform.[1]


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