Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Now, indeed, the essence of pure nightmare was upon me."

H.P. Lovecraft once wrote: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

Lovecraft played on that idea in his wonderful horror stories. He didn't depend on splashing blood and disembowelment and gore--he built a sense of fear on the idea that there are unknown things in the world that we are better off not knowing about. Because when someone finds out about them, death or insanity (or something even worse) is that person's likely fate. Someone (and I can't find the quote to credit it) once remarked that the central theme of the Lovecraftian universe is that we only remain sane because we don't fully understand its real nature.

And he backed up his themes and ideas with a fantastic prose style that (like Poe) begs to be read aloud--full of perfect word choices and sentence structures that keep you riveted to the story until your done reading it. Don't start one of Lovecraft's longer stories if it's close to your bedtime. You aren't going to be setting it aside until you finish it.

In Lovecraft's version of the universe, human beings aren't the only intelligent beings on the planet. There are other--well, things. Impossibly old things that came here in the distant past from other parts of the universe. Our physical laws and our understanding of logic and reason don't apply to them. They're still out there, you know. Sometimes, they interact with us. When that happens...

His 1936 novella "The Shadow Out of Time" is one of Lovecraft's finest tales. (Author Ramsey Campbell considers it "awe-inspiring.") First published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories, it's narrated by an economics professor named Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee.

Peaslee was teaching at Miskatonic University (located in Arkham, MA) in 1908.

 By the way, if you ever get a chance to teach or attend Miskatonic University--FOR THE LOVE OF HEAVEN, DON'T! It won't end well for you.

In the middle of a lecture, Peaslee is struck with a strange sort of amnesia in which a secondary personality seems to take over. This by itself is strange, but by itself would be easily explained by assuming that Peaslee has simply taken a trip to Crazy Town. But that doesn't explain the strange knowledge of many languages and obscure facts this other personality seems to have.

In 1913, Peaslee's original personality returns and he manages to pick up the pieces of his life. But he's troubled by vivid dreams and fragmentary memories of living in an ancient city (about 150,000,000 years ancient) inhabited by strange creatures.

He discovers that there are rare other cases of this sort of temporary amnesia, where the victims afterwards have eerily similar dreams. Could there be some sort of strange reality behind the dreams?

Well, this is a Lovecraft story, so of course there can be. It all involves the Great Race--originally from the planet Yith--that has the ability to swap bodies with other intelligent beings. What makes this ability really scary is that they can traverse space AND time to do this. They swap with someone like Peaslee in the distant future and gather information. They have thus compiled a very extensive library of all history and all things that will happen--both on Earth and elsewhere in the universe.

This ability gives them a sort of immortality. They came to Earth originally when their home planet was about to die, swapping enmass into a strange pre-human race that lived eons ago. When that race eventually dies out (as the Great Race already knows it will), they'll be swapping into an intelligent race that will exist on Earth after mankind dies out.

It's a handy ability--though it's a bit hard on the creatures they permanently swapped into, since those poor slobs are transferred without warning into the bodies of a completely alien species that's about to go extinct.

Poor Peaslee has a hard time dealing with this, but eventually convinces himself that his dreams and visions can't possibly be real. But an archaeological dig in Australia might convince him otherwise. And what about the Elder Things--the subterranean creatures that eventually destroyed the bodies the Great Race were using millions of years ago? It's not possible that they're still around, is it?

Gee whiz, this is a creepy story. I love the little details Lovecraft puts in to the story--the descriptions and hints of other humans and various alien beings Peaslee meets while he's trapped in the distant past are particularly effective in establishing atmosphere. (By the way, one of these characters is a shout-out to Conan the Barbarian, created by Lovecraft's friend Robert E. Howard.) All the elements of the story, in fact, work together to gradually build up a palpable feeling of increasing dread.

Whether the strongest emotion known to man is fear is probably open to debate in calmer moments. But after you've read "The Shadow Out of Time," you'll be convinced of it.

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