Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Shadow Out of Time"

Spooky Synopsis: It is possible that Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee didn't go crazy when he disappeared for a night during an archaeological expedition in the Australian outback. True, Peaslee's particular history makes that possibility unlikely. As a young married father who taught economics at Miskatonic University, he suffered a mental snap during the middle of class and didn't fully recover for five years. Not to say he became catatonic or anything, oh no. Peaslee functioned well enough in normal society, but his personality became subsumed by ... something else. Someone else. Experts aren't really sure what happened. During that time, it was as though a different personality inhabited Peaslee's body, and when he mysteriously returned to himself one day, he could remember things that neither fit his time, nor culture -- nor planet. That's what brought him to the Land Down Under: An Australian explorer stumbled upon ruins that bore a striking correspondence to a strange structure in Peaslee's remembrances. However, even Peaslee himself hopes he went mad during that time. Because if he found what he imagined, all hope for humanity has forever vanished.

Lovecraftian Language: "In certain places I beheld enormous dark cylindrical towers which climbed far above any of the other structures. These appeared to be of a totally unique nature, and shewed signs on prodigious age and dilapidation. They were built of a bizarre type of square-cut basalt masonry, and tapered slightly toward their rounded tops. Nowhere in any of them could the least traces of windows or other apertures save huge doors be found. I noticed also some lower buildings -- all crumbling with the weathering of aeons -- which resembled these dark cylindrical towers in basic architecture. Around all these aberrant piles of square-cut masonry there hovered an inexplicable aura of menace and concentrated fear, like that bred by the sealed trap-doors."

Eerie Evaluation: Given enough time and output, all writers inevitably repeat themselves in some way, so perhaps it shouldn't surprise that "The Shadow Out of Time" reads like an updated version of "At the Mountains of Madness." It possesses the same great length, the same epoch-spanning timeline, the same sense of humanity's smallness in a universe populated by ancient alien civilizations -- and the same overreliance on dull description and stultifying scientific explanations. It's a pity, really. During its first part, "Shadow" reads like Lovecraft's magnum opus, an amalgamation of his best emphases and themes. The permeability of space and time. Brooding insanity. Forbidden knowledge. Possession by unknown entities. Terrifying creatures whose very sight could slay any mortal man. All these and more make appearances. But then Lovecraft relapses into his old habit of overexplaining every particularity, and the pace becomes as uneven as a drive down a washboard road. (A lengthy description of a Triassic-era panorama proves particularly painful.) Large expository dumps don't help either. A lamentably average ending to Howard's oeuvre.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for “An Eldritch Education” (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft’s work), please click here.