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An Analysis of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time"

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" uses the time-honored vehicle of a respected professional -- in this case, an economics professor -- writing a chronicle of an extremely bizarre personal experience, thus supposedly lending credibility to something that otherwise would seem quite unbelievable. Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee reports that he was in the middle of teaching a class one day in 1908 when he suddenly seemed to lose consciousness. The next time he was conscious of "being himself" was five years later. In the interim, however, he was scarcely comatose; there was simply somebody else inhabiting his body. The change was quite apparent to all; his wife left him, being among the first to categorically insist that the man in that body was not her husband, and two of his three children were permanently alienated from him. 

At first, the new Professor Peaslee seemed to have difficulty communicating, and even difficulty with the mechanics of using his voice as a communicative tool; but he soon got over this, and aside from an inability to express emotion, he managed to blend into the world reasonably well. Instead of continuing to teach at the university, the new Professor Peaslee traveled widely all over the world, apparently insatiably learning all it could; the intelligence inside his skull was much keener than Professor Peaslee himself had been, and had a seemingly photographic memory and a boundless lust for experience. Eventually, however, the new Professor Peaslee seemed to tire, and one morning he reawakened to his old self; his first words were a continuation of the very lecture he'd been giving when he passed out five years before. 

From then on, he was determined to figure out what had happened to him. His only clue took the form of recurrent dreams, which always had to do with an ancient city in which he lived. In these dreams he was some sort of alien life-form, a giant cone with four arms, who traveled in a slug-like fashion via "a viscous layer attached to [his] vast, ten-foot base." There were many others like him in this ancient city, and in fact they formed a Great Race, a species with the ability to travel forward and backward in time, temporarily exchanging bodies with intelligent, well-informed specimens of each era they visited. This, the dreams implied, was precisely what had happened to Peaslee. While the member of the Great Race inhabited Peaslee's body for five years, Peaslee's mind inhabited a conical form in their world, which existed millions of years ago. It was his responsibility there to record everything he knew about his civilization, and these notes would be carefully archived for the enlightenment of posterity. He did not find this task arduous, because he was a scholar by nature. The dreams also told him, however, that the Great Race had not existed forever. It had been destroyed by an evil race of Old Ones who apparently wanted civilization returned to a state of barbarity; consequently, the magnificent city and libraries were destroyed as well. 

Peaslee found collaborating evidence of this story in myth and folklore, and the more he delved into these mysteries, the more fascinated he became. He began to write articles about this mythical ancient civilization, describing in great detail their architecture and hieroglyphic writing. He was astonished to one day receive a letter from a mining engineer in Australia who claimed to have found some ruins in the outback that closely resembled Peaslee's description. 

Peaslee and his son Wingate immediately set off for the land down under. There, indeed, he found the ruins, just as the mining engineer described. They were little more than piles of tumbled stones, however, at the mercy of supernaturally whirling sands that re-bury the stones almost as soon as they are unearthed. However, in one location he noticed a cool breeze rising up from the ground, indicating a void beneath it. He dug into the earth and found himself in a familiar passageway; it was the very concourse leading to the library of his dreams! Armed only with a flashlight, he went down into the underground city in search of the one thing that could prove he had been there before -- the notebook in which he had recorded the events of early twentieth-century America. Unfortunately, however, fate intervened -- in a particularly spectacular and terrifying way.

"The Shadow Out of Time" is said to be H.P. Lovecraft's favorite of all his stories. Read it on a dark and stormy night... if you dare.

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