I recently re-read HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time for an SFF Audio Podcast episode. It’s one of my favorite Lovecraft stories because it’s got all that obligatory cosmic horror, primordial masonry, and “unguessable horrors” (as Lovecraft calls it in the opening paragraphs) mixed with surreal-comical creatures and visions.
The story is set up as something of a mystery, with the ‘detective’ being a professor in Arkham who is investigating his own recent past and dreams. It all begins with a mysterious event that leads him to lose not only his wife and two of his three children but also his professorship and his memories of the past five years. He’d fallen unconscious during a lecture, and after waking horrifies his wife and family by behaving super creepily — flexing his facial muscles in unfamiliar ways, seeming to know things he shouldn’t while trying to conceal his unfamiliarity with things and people he should know well. His poor horrified wife sees him as “some utter alien usurping the body of her husband,” and flees. Around this time, he also discovers some new hobbies, such as meetups with occultist groups, reading rare books, and making “long visits to remote and desolate places.”
Five years later, he returns to his old self, remembering only the feeling of being occupied — almost as if the person he was those same years was someone else entirely. Naturally, he begins to retrace his own steps to investigate what the hell just happened.
The curious knowledge and strange conduct of my body’s late tenant troubled me more and more as I learned further details from persons, papers, and magazines. Queernesses that had baffled others seemed to harmonise terribly with some background of black knowledge which festered in the chasms of my subconscious. I began to search feverishly for every scrap of information bearing on the studies and travels of that other one during the dark years.
Meanwhile, his dreams are plagued by strange vistas. He recalls places tremendous rains and “omnipresent gardens almost terrifying in their strangeness” filled with “fungi of inconceivable size, outlines, and colours” and “vivid blossoms of almost offensive contours.”
The professor realizes there have been others like him, and starts seeking out case studies and reading his own unremembered scribblings of the past five years, which are mostly scrawled in the margins of extremely rare books in historic libraries. Gah!
Gradually, he pieces together what happened to him. As you may have guessed already (right?), what happened is that huge cone-shaped aliens called the Yithians (also known as the Great Race) have mastered “mind-casting” into different times and species and had sent him back in time with them while they tried out his life for a while. It’s like Wife-Swap but with flying polyps and vast Cyclopian chambers of black basalt. What’s even cooler is that these mind-travelers are not a hostile race who want to enslave humanity; they’re just curious alien nerds who want to learn. They’re even spotted clutching pens and notebooks — oversized and slime-proof, I’m guessing — in their crab-claws to jot things down.
There is horror to this, of course. Just like we humans don’t care whether wild animals much like being trapped, tranquilized and tagged for our research, the Yithians don’t really care whether human beings mind having their personalities swapped into distant epochs while their human sleeves are puppeteered awkwardly and repulsively through their old lives, terrifying their families.
The Yithians do look after the “visiting” minds though, treating them as a treasured guests — as long as the human mind stays chill and doesn’t get resentful. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems… like any society, even the Great Race has extremely selfish dickheads, and now and then one will run away with its human skin never to return, leaving the previous occupant stuck in exile forever. Damn.
This is all revealed in the first third of the story, and there’s a lot more to learn about these cultures and worlds and what happens after the initial discoveries of Professor Nathaniel Wingate. If you want to know more about what it’s like to be transplanted into a Yithian body (and I know you do), a text version of The Shadow Out of Time is available at at HP Lovecraft.com, and SFF Audio released both a PDF version created from the original Astounding Stories in June 1936, complete with illustrations AND a free audiobook version (3h 52 min) read by Julie Hoverson of 19 Nocturnal Boulevard. The audiobook includes the bonus poem “Dreams Of Yith” by H.P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel, read by Mr Jim Moon of Hypnogoria.
After you’ve read this funny/horrific mystery/adventure, check out our discussion on SFF Audio’s Episode #473, (with Jesse, Paul Weimer, Mr Jim Moon, Bryan Alexander, Julie Hoverson and me) available on your favorite podcast catcher or stream the MP3 and find the shownotes here.
There’s are several great adaptations to check out too. I loved the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version, written and produced by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman. It has some pretty entertaining new interactions not found in the original. Probably my favorite adaptation though is the surreal stop-motion film by puppet-builder/animator Richard Svensson and Daniel Lenneér (linked below). Enjoy!