Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Shadow Out of Time,” first published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories. You can read the story here. Spoilers (and concomitant risk of temporal paradox) ahead.
Summary: Nathaniel Peaslee is normal. Though he teaches at Miskatonic University in whisper-haunted Arkham, he comes from “wholesome old Haverhill stock.” He’s married, with three kids, and has no interest in the occult. But during a lecture, after “chaotic visions,” he collapses. He won’t return to our normal world for five years, though his body soon regains consciousness.
See, the mind now inhabiting Peaslee is not Peaslee’s. Awkward in movement and speech, he appears victim of a rare global amnesia. Eventually his movements and speech normalize. His intellect grows sharper than ever. His affect, however, remains so profoundly altered that his wife and two of his children break off all contact.
New Peaslee doesn’t mourn their defection. Instead he devotes himself to two studies: the present age and the occult. He’s rumored to associate with cultists and to have an uncanny ability to influence others. His travels are wide and weird.
Five years post-collapse, Peaslee installs a queer mechanism in his home. A dark foreigner visits. Next morning the foreigner and mechanism are gone, and Peaslee again lies unconscious. He awakens as good old normal Nathaniel.
Or maybe not so normal anymore. Along with the expected travails of an interrupted life, Peaslee contends with strange sequelae. His conception of time is disordered—he has notions of “living in one age and casting one’s mind all over eternity.” And he has nightly dreams that grow in detail until he virtually lives (or relives) another existence in his sleep.
Peaslee studies every known case of similar amnesia. Common to them is the victim’s impression of suffering an “unholy sort of exchange” with some alien personality. His case parallels others down to details of the post-recovery dreams. Alienists attribute this to the mythological studies pursued by all secondary personalities under the sway of this condition.
These myths posit that man is only the latest dominant race on Earth. Some races filtered down from the stars; others evolved here. One ruled more than a million years spanning the Paleozoic and Mesozoic ages: the Great Race of Yith, which can project its minds through time and space. The process, part psychic and part mechanical, causes an exchange of personae, with the Yithian taking over the target’s body, while the target’s mind ends up in the Yithian’s body. Using this technique, the Yithians explored past and future, becoming effectively omniscient, and repeatedly escaping extinction through mass exchange with younger species.
Legend accords with Peaslee’s dreams of titanic alien architecture amidst prehistoric jungle, peopled by ten-foot cone-shaped beings. In his dreams, he too wears this form. He gradually advances from captive to visiting scholar, given freedom to explore while he writes a history of his own time for the Yithians’ transgalactic archives.
It appalls Peaslee how well mythology explains the sequelae of his amnesia: his phobia of looking down and finding his body inhuman; notes made by his secondary personality in “Yithian” script; his sense of an externally imposed mental barrier. Supposedly before a reverse exchange, the Yithians purge displaced minds of their “Yithian vacation” memories. However, he still believes these memories to be hallucinatory.
Slowly Peaslee’s life returns to normality. He even publishes articles about his amnesia. Instead of bringing him closure, the articles draw the attention of a mining engineer who’s discovered ruins in Australia’s Great Sandy Desert—ruins that resemble his dream architecture. Peaslee organizes a Miskatonic expedition and embarks for Australia.
The excavation stirs up Peaslee’s anxieties, especially when they uncover another style of architecture: basalt blocks that figure in his quasi-memories as remnants of a pre-Yithian race. The Elder Things came from “immeasurably distant universes” and are only partly material. These “space polyps” have psychologies and senses wildly different from terrestrial organisms, are intermittently invisible, can stalk on five-toed feet or hover through the air, and summon powerful winds as weapons. The Yithians drove them into underground abysses, sealing them behind guarded trapdoors.
But the Yithians have foreseen an irruption of Elder Things that will destroy the cone-shaped race. Another mass migration will save the Yithians’ minds. They’ll project themselves into Earth’s future and the sentient beetles that rule after humankind when the Elder Things will be extinct.
During man’s time, the Elder Things have become inactive. The aboriginal Australians whisper, however, of subterranean huts, of unnatural winds out of the desert, and of a gigantic old man who sleeps underground, one day to devour the world.
Peaslee reminds himself that if the Yithians are creatures of myth, so are the Elder Things. Even so, he wanders at night, always toward an area that draws him with mixed sensations of familiarity and dread.
One night Peaslee discovers cohesive ruins and an opening into relatively intact underground levels. A sane man wouldn’t venture below alone, armed only with a flashlight. But he knows the place as well as he knows his Arkham home and scrambles over debris in search of…what? Not even the sight of open trapdoors deters him.
He can no longer deny some great civilization existed eons before man. Can he find proof that he was once its “guest”?
Peaslee arrives at his dream archives. Built to last as long as Earth itself, the library is whole, and he hurries toward a section he “knows” to house human memoirs. En route he passes toppled shelves. Five-toed footprints lead to an open trapdoor. Peaslee proceeds cautiously.
He reaches a certain shelf and, using a quasi-remembered code, he extracts a metal-cased tome. After trembling hesitation, he shines his flashlight on its pages. He collapses, biting back screams. If he’s not dreaming, time and space are fluid mockery. He’ll bring the book to camp and let others verify what he’s seen.
Retracing his steps, Peaslee unluckily starts a debris avalanche. Its din is answered by the shrill whistles of the Elder Things. To escape, Peaslee must skirt trapdoors now belching whistles and blasts of wind. Worse, he must vault a crevasse from which issues “a pandaemonic vortex of loathsome sound and utter, materially tangible blackness.” Falling through “sentient darkness,” he undergoes another possession, this time by horrors accustomed to “sunless crags and oceans and teeming cities of windowless basalt towers.”
This blows his shaken mind, but semi-conscious he labors to the surface and crawls toward camp, battered and minus his book.
During his absence, hurricane-force winds have damaged the camp. Without explanation, Peaslee urges the others to call off the expedition. Though they refuse, airplane surveys don’t find his ruins. The windstorm must have buried them.
If the ruins ever existed. Peaslee’s lost the relic that would have proved his dreams to be memories. Sailing home, he writes his story. He’ll let others gauge the reality of this experience, whether there indeed lies over mankind a “mocking and incredible shadow out of time.”
Oh, and that book? It wasn’t written in alien characters, just in the normal words of the English language, in Peaslee’s normal handwriting.
What’s Cyclopean: Yithian hallways—twice! Masonry fragments in modern Australia—also twice! And a “sinister, Cyclopean incline” in the ruins! This is a great story for adjectives in general: fungoid plants! A gibbous moon! An eldritch rendezvous! Shambling horrors! The Yith are “immense rugose cones.” A great opportunity is lost, alas, when he calls them as “scaly” rather than “squamous.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Aside from a reference to “squat, yellow Inutos,” and an engineer who calls the Australian aborigines “blackfellows,” this story doesn’t have much blatantly racist description. It has a lot of “everyone but white people has true legends about this,” but that seems pedestrian and modern compared to his usual rhetoric. Really, you might as well read Twilight.
Mythos Making: The Yith—historians of the solar system and maybe the universe—tie the Mythos together more effectively than Ephraim Waite. Here we get the full horror and glory of deep time, and the sheer abundance of intelligences populating earth and the universe. Then there are the Elder Things—the Yith’s mortal enemies, who once ruled half the solar system.
There’s a through-line of fear that the people you displaced will return to take their vengeance. The Yith drive the Elder Things into subterranean prisons, and the Elder Things eventually drive the Yith forward into post-human beetle bodies. The story of the forcibly switched beetle people fighting the Elder Things must be an interesting one. And of course, it’s one of the few stories lost to the Archives, unless they decided to add it on their own.
Libronomicon: In addition to the Archives themselves, we get Cultes des Goules by Comte d’Erlette, De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludvig Prinn, Unaussprechlichen Kulten by von Junzt, “the surviving fragments of the puzzling Book of Eibon”, “the disturbing and debatable Eltdown Shards,” and “the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” “The frightful Pnakotic Manuscripts” are one of the few things to survive a Yith-caused temporal paradox. Journal of the American Psychological Societyappears to be fictional, although an organization of that name existed briefly in the late 80s before becoming the Association for Psychological Science.
Also, the Yith really are evil: they write in the margins of rare library books.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Peaslee obsesses over whether his experiences are real or hallucination—he hopes desperately for the latter, in spite of his insistence that he’s not mad. He insists that what he has isn’t “true insanity” but a “nervous disorder.” I must have missed that distinction in the DSM.
The Yith! The Yith! This is limbs-down my favorite Lovecraft story: an exhilarating piece of nearly plot-free master worldbuilding, in which the problematic bits don’t so much scream in your face as lurk formlessly and horribly beneath unspeakable, half-rotted trap doors.
The Yith may be the most interesting—and horrifying—thing Lovecraft ever created. An exchange with the Yith has the same appeal as jumping into the TARDIS: it may destroy your life and your sanity, but… five years in the world’s best library. Five years in the world’s best conversation. Five years traveling alien cities and exploring a prehistoric world. This is the really appealing thing about the best Lovecraft—the idea that learning is that powerful, that dangerous, that risky… and that worth the cost.
The Yith, however, offer one more thing that the Doctor does not: a legacy. Lovecraft was nearing the end of his short life when he wrote this. Given his profession and predilections he must have thought about how long writing can last. Five thousand years is the oldest we have, and most from that period is lost or untranslated. The idea that whole species can rise and fall, culture and art and invention all swallowed by entropy, is terrifying. How much of one short mortal life would you give up, to guarantee that your story would last as long as the Earth—or longer?
Of course, exchange with the Yith is deeply nonconsensual—not a minor difference, and a very personal violation that goes pretty much unexplored here. This thing comes in and casually takes your body and your life, without regard for the fact that you have to live in them afterwards. And yet, Lovecraft seems to see greater horror in the mere existence of the “great race’s” greatness, the fact that they surpass humanity’s own achievements—the “mocking and incredible shadow” of the title.
On another level, Peaslee talks constantly about how terrible it would be if his dreams were true—and yet he grows accustomed to his alien body, treats the other captive minds of China and South Africa and Hyperborea and Egypt as a community of equal scholars. Maybe this is Lovecraft finally trying to come to terms with living in a multicultural society—and kind of succeeding?
But it’s more complicated than that. The Yith could be Lovecraft’s argument with himself about what makes a race “great.” Is it perfect cultural continuity, the ability to preserve history and art for aeons unchanged? Or is it—against all of his bigoted instincts and fears—the ability to be endlessly flexible in form and appearance, to take on whatever aspects of one’s neighboring races seem interesting and desirable? The Yith survive and prosper because they work with and learn from all other races and times. And yet, they are also the ultimate colonists, literally destroying entire species by appropriating their cultures, their cities, their bodies and minds. Maybe even at his best, Lovecraft thought that was the only way to survive contact.
In the core Mythos stories, Lovecraft placed humanity on a micrograin of sand in a dauntingly vast cosmos. In “The Shadow Out of Time,” he concentrates on Professor Einstein’s “new” dimension. Time’s no cozier than space, especially as explicated by the Great Race of Yith. Masters of temporal projection, they’re historians unsurpassed in literature. What’s more, mess too much with these guys and they’ll simply cash in their frequent time travel millennia and mass-mental-migrate out of there.
Hate it when that happens.
Still, asked to trade places with a Yithian scholar, I’d be all: Snatch my brain? Yes please! Even anxious Peaslee acknowledges that for a keen mind, this opportunity is “the supreme experience of life.” Sure, you might discover horrors like the Elder Things and the ultimate fate of your race, but you’d also hang out with minds from all over the time-space continuum, in the most fabulous library ever conceived. And how bad could living in a rugose cone be? At least you’d be free from the problems that beset us sexual reproducers, like getting a date for Saturday night.
Speaking of family matters, there’s this one big drawback. Tough on relationships when you suddenly become a stranger to your loved ones—Peaslee loses all but one son to his “amnesia.” If only the Yithians would let you phone home to say you’d be back in a bit. Evidently the long distance fees from the Paleozoic are prohibitive.
Which leads me to new-to-this-reread ruminations on Yithian ethics. They treat displaced minds kindly and give the cooperative fantastic perks. But then they brainwash away memory of the experience and drop the displaced back on doorsteps where they may no longer be welcome. And that’s if the bank hasn’t already foreclosed on the doorsteps. The Yithians also punish any member who tries to escape impending death by stealing a body in the future. But doesn’t the Great Race repeatedly commit genocide with its mass migrations, condemning the transferred minds of whole species to extinction?
Don’t care who you are, that’s not playing nice. Although if humans could avoid extinction, how many would pass? As far as we know, the only Yithians left behind are those unfit for time travel, not conscientious objectors. And leaving people behind opens another can of shoggoths, ethics-wise. Finally, what if there are more members of the target species than there are Yithian minds to inhabit them? Do the freshly re-embodied Yithians then eliminate the non-Yithian remnants?
Good stories and world building let us ponder these kinds of issues, even if not directly referenced by the author.
World building, though. Also new to this re-read is my plunge into a possible hole in it. What the Yithians’ original bodies were like, we don’t know, but they abandoned them, packing only their minds for the migration forward. What underwent temporal projection? Certainly not the physical brain but patterns of thought and perception, memory, will, temperament, all the things that make up individuals and their culture.
Not genes, though, the biochemical blueprints of individuals and race. Assuming it’s a sort of psychic plasma Yithians project, it wouldn’t contain DNA, a material molecule. Knowledge of genetics they must carry along, part of their “omniscience.” They don’t seem to use this knowledge to alter host bodies. Maybe wholesale genetic modification is beyond their technology. Maybe they choose not to alter hosts—after all, the hosts are finely adapted to environments alien to the original Yithians.
Bottom line: Cone-form Yithians have cone-form genes, right? Once projected from their ur-forms, wouldn’t Yithians be unable to spawn NEW Yithians? The cone spores they culture in their tanks would produce cone bodies with cone minds, not Yithian ones. Further: the entire Great Race population must consist of the minds that escaped extinction on dying Yith, minus any who’ve since died.
So the Great Race shouldn’t treat the death of any individual Yithian lightly. With the Race’s numbers finite, every Yithian mind should be precious, and escaping personal death shouldn’t be a crime.
Not that dying Yithians would need to project into the future. New hosts could be reared to receive endangered Yithian minds, thus keeping the Yithian population in stasis. Sudden accident or illness or violence would be the only ways Yithians died; the rest would be essentially immortal.
The hole, if it’s that, isn’t surprising. Mendel had set down the principles of inheritance before Lovecraft’s birth, but it would be decades after his death before Watson and Crick modeled the tricksy-twisty structure of DNA. Lovecraft seems to have assumed that once a creature had a Yithian mind, it became Yithian right down to producing true Yithian babies. Interesting! As if mindset rather than genetics makes a race. But can mindset remain unaltered in a new body and environment? Are Yithians Yithian whether in ur-forms or cones, men or beetles? Can Peaslee remain same old Peaslee when he glides on a slug foot and communicates via clicking claws?
Hey, this identity question came up in our re-read of “The Thing on the Doorstep!” Huh.
Yeah, many “cyclopeans” here, though Lovecraft throws in some “titans” for variety. Still, the repetition that struck me was “normal.” Peaslee insists his “ancestry and background are altogether normal.” It’s the “normal world” from which the Yithians snatch him. After post-amnesia troubles, he returns to “a very normal life.” Entering the Australian ruins, he’s again sundered from “the normal world.”
Yet in the buried city, normality becomes relative. Traversing his dream-corridors in the flesh, Peaslee knows them “as intimately as [he] knew [his] own house in Crane Street, Arkham.” The normal and its converse switch places. He feels “oppressed by a sense of unwonted smallness, as if the sight of these towering walls from a mere human body was something wholly new and abnormal.” He’s disturbed by the sight of his human body and human footprints. While underground, he never glances at his watch—normal time means nothing in the seat of its conquerors. And what could be more normal than one’s handwriting? Unless, of course, it’s where it shouldn’t be; and yet, logically, inevitably, normally, how could it not be there?
Actually, the cone form is normal neither to Peaslee nor the Yithians, which makes them fellows in adaptation.
I can’t close without mention of this story’s entry into Lovecraft’s Irremediably Weird Bestiary. The Elder Things are like shoggoths in “At the Mountains of Madness”: No amount of exposure will reconcile Peaslee to these critters. The Yithians are cuddly in comparison.
God, I love Elder Things.
Oh, and speaking of “Mountains,” it’s ironic fun to see William Dyer join the Miskatonic expedition to Australia, considering what happened on his Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica. This dude’s a glutton for worldview-annihilating exploration!
Join us next week for the short but sweet “Terrible Old Man.”
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available June 24, 2014 from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.
Ruthanna Emrys’s novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com. Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. Having studied way too much psychology, she doesn’t buy that whole thing about the Yith not having a sense of touch—she doesn’t care how alien you are, if you don’t pick up on tissue damage, you aren’t living any 5000 years.