#1936Club – The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft in The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales

The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft is creepy tale about a man who believes his mind has been borrowed to enable another race to research human knowledge. But is he right or delusional?

“After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935.”

This is a story/novella about a library, but not like any library I have ever visited. The story was originally published in the comic Astounding Stories in June 1936. In the Lovecraft collection I read it in, however, The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales, there were no pictures, so I was able to work out the appearance of the creatures myself; the author describes them well and it’s good to see an artist taking the time to follow that description.

The cover of Astounding Stories, June 1936.
Cover art by Howard V. Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A brief synopsis (no spoilers)

After suddenly lapsing into a five-year coma, in the middle of giving a lecture, our narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, regains consciousness with a changed personality. He seems to have to relearn how to speak fluently and to use his arms and legs properly. He becomes a cause célèbre for the psychologists who come to the conclusion that he has a second personality, but that personality is very strange.

He starts to go on long visits to remote and desolate places, but does not recall what he did there. He seems to know more than he should about historical periods in the distant past and future and tries to influence the thoughts of others.

“My sojourns at universities were marked by abnormally rapid assimilation, as if the secondary personality has an intelligence enormously superior to my own. I have found, also, that my rate of reading and solitary study was phenomenal. I could master every detail of a book merely by glancing over it as fast as I could turn the leaves; while my skill at interpreting complex figures in an instant was veritably awesome.” (p.559)

This sounds like a wonderful anomaly to me! He also reads occult books, including “the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”. This amused me as the story is included in a huge collection of Lovecraft’s stories called, you’ve guessed it, The Necronomicon. Undoubtedly there is a reason for this, but I haven’t investigated beyond the Wikipedia entry. Apparently this ‘Book of the Dead’ is referred to occasionally throughout Lovecraft’s work as if it were a real occult book.

After he has returned to ‘normal’, Peaslee is haunted by unusually clear dreams of moving around in a stone building, built in curves and arches on an inhuman scale, as if for giants, sometimes feeling that he is floating or suspended. Often he sees an unknown curvilinear script; he uses the word curvilinear regularly. In the building, he sees enormous books on the shelves and giant stone pillar-like desks with jars of rods that appear to be used as writing implements.
As time goes on, he sees more detail, going outside, where he sees colossal buildings surrounded by lush wild gardens. The buildings have rooftop gardens with topiary, fernlike plants and giant varied fungi. There are also tall dark square-built basalt towers with a door but no windows and domed roofs, as well as other smaller squarish houses that have fallen into ruin. These black buildings somehow fill him with fear, as do sealed trapdoors in the basement of the original.

When he wakes from these dreams, he has a strange feeling of dread and disgust at his own body which he can’t place. Trying to make sense of all this, he researches other cases of people who seem to have had similar experiences. He comes up with a theory about a Great Race that learned to control time and were able to swap individual minds with peoples from other races and other times. In turn, they are scared of the malignant force hidden beneath the trapdoors. Yet he also theorises that all these dreams could come from his subconscious memories of myths he absorbed whilst studying under the influence of one of this Great Race. He is desperate to prove that he has really experienced what he dreams about, yet he is afraid to find out it is true. At least, I think that’s what happened. I became really confused about the timeframe and what he believed when.

Mixed feelings

This story is a strange mix of both extended vague psychologising/ theorising about what might have been going on on the one hand and oddly specific detailed listing on the other. Supposedly he gains more insight over time, but it could of course just be our protagonist Nathanial building up his psychotic dream into a more solid theory. This means that after pages of hallucinogenic theories about the Great Race exchanging minds in order to learn more about the universe, Lovecraft then launched into lists of races they have found out about:

“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 paleogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry prehuman Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the Arachnid denizens of Earth’s last age… […] I talked with…”

No! It can type this no longer! A picture is worth a thousand words.

This story is supposedly Nathaniel Peaslee’s full account to his son as he flees Australia by ship, fearing for his sanity. This after exploring a buried city covered by sand in the Australian desert that bears a remarkable resemblance to the city of his nightmares. As he visits alone, at night, with an inadequate torch, instead of waiting for morning and taking his team with him, his state of mind is hardly surprising. Of course, that makes it all the more creepy and racks up the tension.

Lovecraft’s writing style

This is the first Lovecraft I have read but I do know him by reputation. One of the issues mentioned by critics is his racism, but his attitudes were normal in his time, sadly. In Australia, he refers to blackfellows and natives and one of the characters who invites Nathanial to Australa dismisses their stories as nonsense. That is as far as it goes in this story. The other thing I had expected was purple prose. His style reminds me of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, from the excerpts I have read, but there are certain phrases that I feel are particularly Lovecraftian: leprous moonlight; the bloated, fungoid moon; malignant myth; eldritch; cyclopean. This story seems less leaden than the first one of his stories published in 1936 in this volume, The Mountains of Madness, which also mentions Abdul Alhazred. In fact, the writing style was so archaic that I had to keep reminding myself that it was written in 1936 and not by someone in the 19th century or earlier. That, I must say, is quite a feat, though it doesn’t make for easy reading.

Creepy not gory

As for the subject matter, horror is not a genre I usually read, but I would say this is more suspense than horror. I’m sure it could be extremely creepy if you read it on your own in a tent at night, by candlelight. There is nothing gory or gruesome about the story. The horror effect comes more from the way that he builds up the tension with his word choice, the repetition of detail and the fear of the unknown in the storyline, gradually unfolding.

Lovecraft’s legacy

I’m not sure why Lovecraft has such a following, given that the style is so Victorian. I suspect it’s partly that some people are attracted to his mythos-making powers; the sort of people who are attracted to the occult. But he also has a legacy in the authors who cite him as an influence (including Stephen King) and books and bands who use his characters as inspiration. My son was recently listening to a band called Leprous, for instance, one of his favourite words judging by this story. I have a sneaking suspicion the name may have been inspired by Lovecraft, back when the musicians were teenagers aspiring to be a ‘black metal’ band, whatever that means. They have evolved into more melodious prog rock, if you’re interested.

If I’m in the right mood for something weird, I might return to this Lovecraft collection in the future, but only because my son owns it. I was going to say that I only read it because I stubbornly finish what I’ve started reading, but that isn’t entirely true. I read it because I wanted to know what happened, so I was pulled in to the story. And although this is a standalone story, it was open-ended enough for me to suspect he continued to build on it in later stories, but I shan’t necessarily be following up that hunch.

Further reading

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. In fact, I’m more inclined to follow this by reading something more derivative. While I was writing this review, I checked Goodreads and up popped the suggestion of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, that I had already added to my wishlist after a friend’s enthusiastic review. Ruff’s book has also been made into a television series. Rather than simply rehashing Lovecraftian characters or themes, it combines them in the story of a Black family travelling in the USA during the Jim Crow era. It sounds fascinating.  As I haven’t read it, I’ll link to a community review by Bill Kerwin. Incidentally, I’ve now realised this is where I had heard about the Safe Negro Travel Guide I wrote about in my 1936 Club overview post. That’s one more thing my brain doesn’t have to puzzle over!

Kraken by China Mieville and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. Another book that references Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is China Mieville’s Kraken, described by reviewer Lyn as a tribute to Lovecraft  in the style of Monty Python. I already have it on my shelf after trawling the fantasy shelves of Waterstones looking for a Christmas present for my son in less Covid-ridden times. When I get round to reading it, I will definitely be pairing it with John Wyndham’s classic, The Kraken Wakes. And that may be just the moment to read Lovecraft’s 1936 short novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, also included in the Necronomicon.

Song Quest by Katherine Roberts (1999): book review

A beautiful and imaginative fantasy for older children/teenagers. The blue-haired Singers have special powers for negotiating. Young Rialle needs all her powers to deal with the magical creatures and evil people she meets. Who can she trust?

By no means a perfect fantasy, but worth reading if you don’t expect it to be Lord of the Rings or The Earthsea Trilogy, or even Harry Potter. First in the Echorium Sequence, but the ending is satisfying, leaving you wanting more tales from this universe.

On a remote island, a mysterious order of Singers is trained to become negotiators and peacemakers. They are uniquely suited to this role due to the skills they have honed as Singers, whose five magical Songs can control emotions, punish wrongdoers and even have the seldom-used power of ‘death’. This is a world of Half Creatures, part human, part animal, like the beautiful merlees with their silver hair and the quetzals, birds with flat faces, beaks and beautiful and possibly magical feathers. The names are initially confusing, but there are not too many, so you soon start remembering them.

Inviting comparison with Harry Potter

To start with, I was afraid this was going to be just one more thinly disguised Harry Potter copycat, set as it is in a magical school, though the magic is not in spells and potions. I was worried it was going to degenerate into a school romance with its irritating description of Frenn’s lopsided grin and his possible rival for Rialle’s affections, the hostile and rebellious Kherron.

I needn’t have worried. Soon our heroine Rialle has other things on her mind as she is taken to the mainland as part of a delegation to reprimand the Karchlord whose men have been illegally capturing merlees, breaking a treaty by which they had agreed never to kill Half Creatures. Again, echoes of Harry Potter with the Mud-bloods, but these not part of the human kingdom of wizards. In fact, they are more like the magical creatures that work together on the side of good such as the unicorns and centaurs in the HP Forbidden Forest or even the basilisk. There is a sense that they can communicate with certain exceptional Singers. Of course, Rialle is one of these people. Even though she is still a novice nearing the end of her training, like Harry Potter, she has an innate skill that she needs to learn to tame.

The comparisons with Harry Potter are soon forgotten, however. Katherine Roberts has imagined an unusual superpower for her elite Singers. Who is the Karchlord and why is he so cruel? There are surprises in store! All is not what it seems. What makes it more intriguing is that the trainee Singers are not yet aware of all their powers and the rebel Kherron is separated from Rialle, Frenn and the delegation. This adds an extra tension as we do not know what to expect from him, especially as there is no time to get to know him at the start of the story, except to set him up as a bully and hothead. Likewise, as the story progresses, the two parties find out different information about society in the Karch (the mainland). This means they are not able to trust each other. Are they allies or enemies? Of course, the reader has an overview of everything, but that still leaves room for surprises.

This isn’t a hardcore fantasy novel, so don’t expect Lord of the Rings. However, even though it the book is suitable for older children/teenagers, it does have enough unpleasantness in it to make it unsuitable for sensitive souls, including some rather terrible cruelty to Half Creatures. I would have liked to know more about the merlees and quetzals. They are well described but they can’t communicate clearly, so we don’t really find out what they’re thinking, though they obviously have deep feelings and loyalties. There are also too many places where one of the main characters is drugged or otherwise unable to report on what is happening, keeping them and us in the dark; very convenient! And there were one or two times where Rialle could have saved herself by using her powers and didn’t, hence getting herself into more difficulties.

A beautiful book

The cover of this book is really beautifully illustrated. The Singers dye their hair blue, so the cover shows our heroine’s face with her blue hair curling like a wave with a ship tossed by a giant wave. What at first appears to be a blue tear is a stone held by a half woman half fish merlee (though she should have silver hair, not blue). The black and white illustrations throughout the book are also beautiful, with a different sketch at the start of each chapter, each with a chapter-related medallion in a Celtic knot-style frame. As a bonus there is a map at the front, a medallion naming the five Song types and another page introducing the names and concepts. What I didn’t realise until I’d nearly finished, is that there is also a glossary at the end, but it wasn’t really necessary. Also unnecessary: the sample pages of the following book in the Echorium Sequence.

The Echorium Sequence

There are two more books in this series:

  • The Crystal Mask (2001)
  • Dark Quetzal (2003)

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman: democracy and civil liberties at stake

Darker themes of losses of democracy and civil liberties underpin this YA fantasy adventure in a world that isn’t quite our own.

Philip Pullman’s long-awaited addition to the His Dark Materials trilogy finally arrived at the beginning of 2018 in the form of a prequel, the first of a trilogy centred on The Book of Dust. This is more than just a fantasy: democracy is breaking down, civil liberties are being lost. This would make a great book to read and discuss with teenagers.

Young adult themes and a darker note

La Belle Sauvage is more of a rip-roaring Tale than Northern Lights. In Northern Lights, death takes place at a distance or off stage. In La Belle Sauvage, the violence is full frontal, with descriptions of how Malcolm has to attack Bonneville to protect Lyra & Pan, Alice & Ben. If it was filmed, we would have to witness it. But this is righteous anger in self defence against evil, similar to Lord Asriel’s killing of Coulter and Iorek Byrnison’s killing of the other bear in Northern Lights.

This is altogether much darker than Northern Lights, with more adult themes. Bonneville was imprisoned and had his laboratory taken away from him because of sexual crimes. Now released, even those who know nothing of him find him inexplicably repulsive, though on the surface he is charming; outwardly his evil characteristics are focused in his hyaena daemon. Uniquely, he is cruel to his own daemon, causing it deliberate pain.

Children save the day

This goes back to the adventure tales I read when I was a child, with the added spice of late 20th century children using bad language. It’s the sort of language children use when their parents and teachers are out of earshot. The BBC might not use it before the watershed, but the age group that should be reading this will undoubtedly have heard worse on Eastenders.

In the ‘good old days’, the children in adventure stories came from well-to-do homes and often had their adventures in the school holidays, more or less unsupervised by adults. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, in Swallows and Amazons, in The Psammead or The Secret Garden, children have no responsibilities except to play and leave the adults in peace.

Malcolm and Alice

Malcolm and Alice, however, have an altogether more working class background. Both work in Malcolm’s parents’ pub, but they are different. Malcolm is happy and secure, curious, intelligent and helpful. He’s the sort of boy who would be wasted leaving school early to follow in his father’s footsteps. To start with, he and Alice are hostile to each other. I got the feeling that Alice had a background of neglect or possibly even abuse. She is sullen, but that seems to arise from insecurity, the sort of girl who would fall prey to a charming man. Later she reveals herself to have hidden depths, but in her favour from the start, she is working hard, washing all those dishes by hand. I’d be sullen if that’s what everyone thought that was all I was capable of.

Malcolm, on the other hand, is everyone’s favourite helper. Apart from helping out in the pub, he helps the carpenter and is never too busy to help Sister Fenella peel potatoes or apples. He’s observant, tactful and interested in everything. Just the sort of child to be invited to borrow books from an academic’s personal library or to get caught up in passing messages and observing the goings on of the adults around him. It’s just his misfortune that things are about to take a turn for the worse. “Becoming rich was never an aim of his; he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm in later life.”

Humour, grammar and language

One of the things that surprised and delighted me about this book was the humour; a sort of twinkly-eyed grandfatherly, favourite teacher-like humour that sometimes takes a moment to sink in.

“ ‘I thought neat was all right,’ he said.
‘It depends on whether you want the idea of neatness to modify the act of tying the parcel, or to refer to the parcel itself once tied.’ “

I highlighted this in the book and was rather perplexed to understand what it meant until I realised it was a grammar joke. Just prior to this, Sister Benedicta has corrected Malcolm’s question ‘How d’you make them [sic] parcels so neat?’ to ‘neatly’.

Or: “as far as Malcolm knew there were no openings in scholarship for a bright boy with a canoe.”

I love the way Pullman continues to talk about grammar and language:

“ ‘Sanctuary?’ Malcolm liked the sound of the word, and he could see how to spell it already, in his imagination.” This is how I remember words. If I hear a word and can’t imagine how to spell it because I’m confused about which language is in (English or Dutch), I really can’t place it. Occasionally I have to ask someone to spell a word for me before I can understand what they are saying.

This book is full of wonderful comments about reading and imagination, too:

“ ‘These meanings – the relation between them – if they work by kinds of similarity,’said Coram, ‘they could go on a lot past a hundred. There’s no end to finding similarities once you start looking for ‘em.’

‘But what matters is not the similarities your imagination finds, but the similarities that are implicit in the image, and they are not necessarily the same. I have noticed that the more imaginative readers are often the least successful. Their minds leap to what they think is there rather than waiting with patience.’”

Oddly enough, on the day I was writing this review (or collection of quotes I love), my family had been having a discussion about whether it is better to know ‘spoilers’ before you read a book, watch a film or, in this case, play a new video game. Apparently ‘research has shown’ that spoilers enhance your enjoyment, and there are always those people who can’t resist reading the end of a book first. For me, half the enjoyment of a book is the guessing at what might happen, but it has to be said that a few choice snippets to whet the appetite in the form of blurbs or trailers can spur you on, even if they are often misleading. In that case, you still come across unexpected situations or things don’t pan out as you had been led to believe.

Threats to democracy

In this book, an evil, all-powerful organisation, the Holy Church, is recruiting young people to join an organisation, the League of St Alexander, reminiscent of the Nazis and the Hitler Youth or any number of similar organisations in totalitarian states. Miss Carmichael visits the school and tells them that “ ‘God will be very happy to know that so many boys and girls are eager to do the right thing. To be the eyes and ears of the Authority! In the streets and the fields, in the houses and the playgrounds and the classrooms of the world, a league of little Alexanders watching and listening for a holy purpose.’ “ Of course, this should throw a chill over anyone who has read anything about this tactic in pre-WWII Germany, Russia, later the DDR, China, etc., etc. It’s a common tactic to brainwash children, indoctrinating them and trying to get them to the point where they will incriminate their parents.

Conversely, Malcolm is able to use his knowledge of human nature to find out what the League is up to by asking his friend leading questions. This tactic works because “the pleasure of knowing secrets was doubled by telling them to people.”

The erosion of civil liberties and democracy

We also see how insidious the gradual wearing away of civil liberties can be. Sister Fenella is out of touch, so she doesn’t realise the story of a boy denouncing his parents, resulting in their execution is a current story. For her, that is something that happened in the distant past, and she believes bad things can sometimes lead to good: “These things are too deep for us to understand.” She is misinformed: things are gradually reverting to unusual and ancient ways of surveillance and punishment.

Hannah Relf is more aware:

“She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except that like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeas corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumours wer true.” The disquieting thing is, that all these things seem to be happening in our own world, particularly in the USA where President Trump seems to think nothing of stripping away hard-fought liberties with nary a thought.

This may be a YA book, but Philip Pullman doesn’t shy away from political and philosophical discussions that relate to democracy and liberty. Lord Nugent explains to Hannah that “This is a deep and uncomfortable paradox, which will not have escaped you: we can only defend democracy by being undemocratic”, i.e. keeping the mysterious Oakley Street secret. Hannah is recruited. If she joined, “You would know […] that you were making a great contribution to the progress of this war, this secret war. You know who the enemy is, so you know what we’re fighting. Think what is at stake. The right we have to speak and think freely, to pursue research into any subject under the sun, all that would be destroyed. That is worth fighting for, don’t you agree?”

A minor mystery

One rather strange thing struck me, having read Northern Lights/The Golden Compass back to back, and that is that Mrs Coulter’s hair has changed colour. In La Belle Sauvage, when Malcolm meets Mrs Coulter, “The woman’s name hit Malcolm like a bullet. This was Lyra’s mother. She was the most beautiful lady he had ever seen: young and golden-haired and sweet-faced, dressed in grey silk, and wearing a scent, just the very faintest hint of a fragrance, that spoke of warmth and sunlight and the south.” This is contrast to the Northern Lights, where she is described with black hair (p.66). I suspect this is through inattention rather than hair dye, but it could also have been to fit in with the filmed version of The Golden Compass. In any case, a strange thing to get wrong in the sort of book in a series that is liable to be pored over by adoring fans.

That, however, is one tiny quibble in a book full of delight and things to ponder upon. The darker themes make it altogether a more interesting book than I had expected, rather than just an escape into fantasyland. This would make a fabulous book to read and discuss with teenagers.

Verdict: Highly recommended!