Spoilers ahoy. Go read the short story, and then come back here. Trust me, just do it.
I have always felt a little embarrassed by my lack of Lovecraft exposure. Until recently, I had never read any of his writing and so knew his work entirely through roleplaying games and conversations derived largely from the same. To start me off in the right way, I contacted two friends who are both bona fide Lovecraft scholars, in much the same way as I could claim that title for Hammett. They pointed me to “The Colour Out of Space” and the “Call of Cthulhu” as starting points, and I enjoyed those so continued to read on. The best of the stories I’ve read so far is “The Shadow Out of Time”. At the risk of saying more than I know, let me tell you what I liked about it.
Like the two stories that were recommended to me, the tale is not so much one of direct action, as relating the mysterious surrounding events to a brief experience. Quite unlike the bulk of Cthulhu-derived roleplaying experiences I’ve had, there isn’t really a monster to fight as such. In fact, the whole setup is basically inert, inasmuch as there’s no real threat, just someone trying to understand a troubling experience they had. The story derives its power from a deeply existential threat: mankind recognising how small and insignificant it is, and how gigantic and inhuman are the other forces in the world. In “The Colour Out of Space”, the mysterious substance drives those around it mad, and mankind’s encounter with that makes the colour fear-inducing. It is existential, but one-dimensional, “The Shadow Out Of Time” is dynamic and multi-faceted.
“The Shadow Out of Time” plays a similar trick as its opening ploy to the recollections from “The Color out of Space” – an unwitting professor is dragged into events beyond their ken. This one is apparently possessed by an alien mind while his own consciousness is enslaved to transcribe his knowledge of the world in an ancient library. This is a terrifying idea because an immortal, endless, empire of time-spanning beings brings into question a lot of fundamental human interests and concerns. For one, our notion of longevity as a species is rendered meaningless. The fact that these beings know the doom of humanity places us, as a species, in the column of mortals. The knowledge that even this time-spanning empire suffers massive cataclysmic falls tells us that there is no hope, in the large-scale sense. Mind-blowing. The narrator explains all this, while quietly trying to reassure us and himself that everything he relates to us could be a delusional fantasy – he hopes he is crazy! That makes the horror all the more personal.
This is all quite pleasantly dreadful. If this were all, it would be in the same kind of ballpark territory as the lesser stories I’ve recently read by Lovecraft. This story has one more trick to play though, a brilliant coup de grace: these alien minds, masters of time, effective immortals, have a bogey man. Their civilisation is built alongside the ruins of an even more epic and ancient culture, whose residue they fear and avoid. The knowledge that these beings, whose mere existence tears at the fabric of our mental landscape, have this same dread of another race forces the reader to re-adjust their sense of dread a second time. It is an astonishing, marvellous, conceit, that I enjoyed very much. This is the apex of horror.