“Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken. And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to these sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.”
Eesh! A nice and cheery opening paragraph to get us started.
Not many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories give the reader a sense of empathy towards the strange, horrific creatures that are so relentlessly terrorising the living. The Outsider, written in 1921, is an exception. The title itself refers to the narrator of the story; he has lived a lonely, dark existence in a castle surrounded by thick, impenetrable forest. He knows he must have been raised by someone but he has no recollection of every interacting with another being, and passes the time by studying books in the castle library (where he gets an idea and subsequently a longing for the outside world) and lying outside on the castle grounds, dreaming of what he has read. Attempts to leave the castle through the forest had been in vain, and the further he wandered the darker and more frightful his surroundings became, forcing him to turn back for fear of getting lost. The canopy of the forest, so high and dense, allows no sunlight to pass through, and so candlelight is the only means of extinguishing the darkness.
“It was never light, so that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief; nor was there any sun outdoors, since the terrible trees grew high above the topmost accessible tower. There was one black tower which reached above the trees into the unknown outer sky, but that was partially ruined and could not be ascended save by a well-nigh impossible climb up the sheer wall, stone by stone.”
His desperation for natural light above the trees forces him to scale this dilapidated tower. Heavily damaged, the narrator slowly ascends the outside of the tower, clinging to rock and terrified of looking down. After a long tiring climb, he reaches “the roof, or at least some kind of floor”. He locates a slab-like trap-door which he pushes upwards and gains access to what he believes must be an observation chamber. He collapses in exhaustion on the stone floor, the heavy slab heavily falling back into place.
Believing he must be “at a prodigious height, far above the accursed branches of the wood”, he fumbles in the dark for a window in order to view natural light, or the sky, or the forest below, for the first time. Instead he can only grope large, marble, oblong boxes in the pitch black. He finally finds a doorway; bursting through this he is stunned to finally set eyes on the full moon in the sky. Through the steps beyond the door he climbs, and is shocked to discover that he is seemingly not on top of a tower, with the view of treetops below; he is level with solid ground, in the surroundings of a church. Understandably in a state of shock, the narrator stumbles out of the churchyard and travels across open fields and country roads, eventually coming across an impressive castle with large, lit-up windows and joyous sounds coming from within.
Looking in, he sees some sort of dance taking place, with many people speaking, laughing, dancing with one another. He enters the hall through a low window, and immediately the atmosphere changes; an ultimate terror descended upon the party, with looks of horror and screams and everyone fleeing from the castle in a frenzied panic.
The narrator scans the room, horrified at what might be nearby that could have caused this rapid change of mood. Movement catches his eye under one of the alcoves, and he gasps at what he sees – the first and last sound he ever utters.
“I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world—or no longer of this world—yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.”
Paralysed by fear, he loses balance and stumbles forward and accidentally touches the outstretched arm of the beastly creature. This leads the narrator to have a startling revelation, as he explains in the last paragraph.
“For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”
That’s right – the narrator was looking into a mirror, and the horrific creature he saw was his reflection. He is The Outsider. He first attempts to return to his subterranean home beneath that church, but the slab is immovable. He is not bothered by this, as he hated the place. Instead he seems to accept his fate, and his form, and travels the world with other ghouls and undead creatures, knowing he will always be an outsider.
Firstly, a few criticisms. The ‘twist’ (in the original text, the final phrase is italicised for added effect) that the narrator was looking into a mirror, and throughout the story was a monstrous creature, was not exactly unexpected – nor is it especially original. I, and I’m sure many others, saw the twist coming early on. And the writing throughout this short story is dense and verbose. Considering the story has a relatively short narrative, the reader finds themselves tangled in heavy descriptive prose. It is not Lovecraft’s best piece of writing, something the author himself admits to. Lovecraft was certainly an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe’s works, and Poe’s writing style has undoubtedly influenced Lovecraft’s in The Outsider. In a letter written in 1931, he says
“To my mind this tale…is too glibly mechanical in its climatic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language. As I re-read it, I can hardly understand how I could have let myself be tangled up in such baroque & windy rhetoric as recently as ten years ago. It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.”
That is not to say that The Outsider is not a good story. Quite the opposite, in my opinion. I loved The Outsider. Whereas a story like Dagon was fairly cut-and-dry, this tale is much more open to interpretation.
An interesting theory among Lovecraft fans is that the creature, the Outsider, is supposed to represent Lovecraft himself. I am by no means an expert on the life of H.P. Lovecraft, but I do know that much of his life was filled with troubles and hardship: he had a lonely upbringing, and spent much of his time in the library present in the family home he was brought up in (similar to the Outsider’s vast resources of books in the decrepit castle), he was told by his own mother that he was ugly (that one has to hurt), he suffered numerous illnesses, many psychological (reportedly he contemplated suicide at several points in his life). In some ways it could be viewed as a twisted autobiography. And it is a viewpoint that many of us can empathise with. Who hasn’t felt at times emotions of self-loathing and being different?
Another aspect of The Outsider I enjoyed was trying to make logical sense (as much as it is possible to do so in a Lovecraft story featuring ghouls and the undead) of the narrator’s predicament.
“I knew not who I was or what I was, or what my surroundings might be; though as I continued to stumble along I became conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory that made my progress not wholly fortuitous.”
“Over two hours must have passed before I reached what seemed to be my goal, a venerable ivied castle in a thickly wooded park; maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me.”
“I saw that the moat was filled in, and that some of the well-known towers were demolished…”
The three above quotes tell us subtly that perhaps the narrator is recalling distant memories of his previous life – when he was a living human. The monster he sees in the mirror does have the unmistakeable form that was previously human. Having broken free of his castle/prison, he begins making his way, almost subconsciously, to this castle that is infuriatingly familiar to him. It must be a place he has seen in the past, as he observes that there is no longer a moat; yet he has the knowledge that at some point in time, there was a moat. Is this castle the narrator’s previous home? Certainly it would appear that the narrator is a dead ancestor that used to live in this castle, which is why he has latent memories of this place and how he is able to return subconsciously, and why he was buried in the church, perhaps along with other generations of his family.
“Some of the faces seemed to hold expressions that brought up incredibly remote recollections; others were utterly alien.”
The guests dancing at the ball fled in horror as the outsider entered the hall. 1. because of this utterly horrific creation entering through the window, but also 2. could it not be that this walking corpse has not decomposed enough significantly for him to be unrecognisable? Perhaps some of the guests recognise him as an ancestor or older generation of the family who used to live here, or who still reside in the castle. Of course, if the narrator is really as decayed as he describes upon seeing himself in the mirror, then surely any facial features or similarities would have disappeared and besides, the guests at the party could be generations apart and perhaps would only recognise the narrator from a large portrait somewhere in the house. However in my mind I have an almost comical image of a large painting of the narrator on a wall when he was alive: smart, handsome, well dressed. Then the undead version of himself, perhaps over a hundred years later, comes crawling through a nearby window and they stand side by side; a grotesque then-and-now. A little far-fetched sure, but fun to think about it a little differently.
This leads me to the architecture or design of this world that Lovecraft has constructed. Trying to piece it together makes little sense, and the reader is left as confused as the narrator is when he finally climbs to the top of that weathered tower only to find himself on solid ground. It makes sense that this wealthy house would have a family mausoleum that perhaps a long time ago was where the narrator was laid to rest, but what of this incredible underground castle, complete with forest that stretches on for miles and miles? This could be a subconscious thought or dream that haunts the narrator, and could give hints to his views and fears of the afterlife (perhaps mirroring the writers own beliefs too?), or the desire to carry on living beyond death.
“Believing I was now at a prodigious height, far above the accursed branches of the wood, I dragged myself up from the floor and fumbled at the windows, that I might look for the first time upon the sky, and the moon and stars of which I had read. But on every hand I was disappointed; since all that I found were vast shelves of marble, bearing odious oblong boxes of disturbing size.”
Those boxes sound a lot like coffins don’t they? The room that the narrator currently finds himself could be a mausoleum, or family crypt from which he had awakened many years before having been placed here after death. From the finality of death, some unknown and terrible process has awoken him, and he has continued to exist as an undead ghoul.
There are so many differing opinions on the message of The Outsider. From the point of existence to the loathing of the self, for a short story there is a lot to take away. Everyone will have their own interpretation on the events, and even if you don’t, it is still one of Lovecraft’s most loved and praised short stories. All I would say is that if you are expecting typical Lovecraftian horror, you may be disappointed. This is a tale of grief and sadness.