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Literature / The Shadow Out of Time

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The Shadow Out of Time is a 1936 novella by H. P. Lovecraft serialized in Astounding Stories magazine. It centers around a university professor who has been having very vivid and unusual nightmares and has become alienated from his family and peers because of his strange behavior between 1908 and 1913, of which he has little memories. Searching for an answer, he finds that cases identical to his have occurred throughout human history. As his dreams become longer and more detailed, he witnesses an ancient civilization millions of years old, and discovers that his mind was transferred into that of an alien for five years and that for five years an alien creature lived within his body, but he must set out to discover proof for anyone to believe him.

It has been adapted into a radio drama for the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre series and twice as a Comic-Book Adaptation, once by I.N.J. Culbard and again by Matt Howarth in Graphic Classics: H.P. Lovecraft. Elements of the story were also present in the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

This novella provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: The Yith are by no means good people; they forcibly mind-swap people without their consent, and intend to swap with an entire species eventually, effectively committing genocide to perpetuate their own minds. That said, they are surprisingly polite on an individual level; the "guests" they swap with are given a degree of freedom within their society and allowed to study at their libraries. In the rare case where their original body dies while they're swapped, the human (now trapped in a Yith body) is granted great honor and high status in Yithian society to compensate them. Yith are likely the most benign and comprehensible species in the mythos, which isn't saying much.
  • Aliens Are Bastards: Relatively subverted. The Yith who took the narrator's body was indifferent to the life it was ruining, showed hints of contempt towards some of the people who helped it, and everywhere it went cult activity increased, but for a Lovecraft creature that's small change. The Great Race in general, while they continuously swap minds with other beings from across space and time without their consent, mainly do so as a way to learn from them and gather knowledge. When their five-year exploration periods are up, they return their guests to their bodies with no hassle. In the rare cases when the switch is not temporary for some reason their "guests" are afforded a position of great honor. All of these guests are given access to the libraries, technology, and gardens of The Great Race as well as conversation with individuals from all the eras that have been explored. The narrator is even able to learn the darkest secrets of his hosts.
  • Aliens Never Invented Democracy: The Great Race of Yith is described as having "a sort of fascistic socialism". Though, voting is involved.
  • All Just a Dream: The narrator desperately wants this to be the case, as he cannot handle the idea that the half-formed memories and mad ideas he suffers from are actually true. He has zero physical evidence that any of what he remembers ever happened at all, but cannot shake the experiences.
  • Ancient Astronauts: Sort of; the Yith didn't physically travel here, but transported their minds across space into an alien species living on Earth, leaving the original beings to die along with the Yith's bodies in some unknown cataclysm. Once on Earth, the Yith built a new civilization until another approaching disaster forced them to flee into the future.
  • Apocalypse How: Little is known about the Yith's original homeworld, but it's implied to be a five or six. A three at the very least awaits in mankind's future.
  • Artistic License – Paleontology: Zig-Zagged. At first, the protagonist accounts his strange dreams to his "common text book knowledge of the plants and other conditions of the primitive world of a hundred and fifty million years ago - the world of the Permian or Triassic age." We now know that the dates of the Permian through the Triassic were 299-209 million years ago, but the precise dating of the geologic column was achieved by Clair Cameron Patterson 20 years after Lovecraft wrote in 1936. This doesn't mean that the story was realistic in terms of the geology and paleontology of the day, but the apparent gaffe on the dates of the Permian and Triassic is only retrospective.
  • As You Know: The narrator doesn't cover much of what "he" did during the years of the timeskip, because apparently it was something of a news event and was heavily covered by the papers, so he assumes the reader is familiar with the story already, or can find out. Additionally he doesn't know much himself, what with having no memory of it.
  • Beneath the Earth: The remains of the Yith civilization lie hidden deep beneath Earth's substrata, with only a scant few cracks allowing entry.
  • Brick Joke: The narrator loses consciousness while giving a lecture at the beginning of the first chapter. At the end of the chapter and several years later he wakes up muttering about economics.
  • China Takes Over the World: By the year 5000, the “Empire of Tsan-Chan” will be the world's one super-power.
  • Cockroaches Will Rule the Earth: H. P. Lovecraft mentions a race of giant beetles that will rule the Earth millions of years in the future once humans are extinguished. What makes this especially interesting is that flour beetles have since been proven to have a higher tolerance for radiation than even cockroaches, although Lovecraft himself would have no way of knowing this.
    After man there would be the mighty beetle civilization, the bodies of whose members the cream of the Great Race would seize when the monstrous doom overtook the elder world. Perhaps these entities had come to prefer earth's inner abysses to the variable, storm-ravaged surface, since light meant nothing to them. Perhaps, too, they were slowly weakening with the aeons. Indeed, it was known that they would be quite dead in the time of the post-human beetle race which the fleeing minds would tenant.
  • The Collector: The Yith are alien librarians, who telepathically collect knowledge on every civilization that was, is, and will be, storing the knowledge in their endless city-sized libraries.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Played straight with the flying polyps, which are said to be only partly material and temporarily visible, but averted with the Yithians which are organic beings that evolved on Earth — or at least their bodies are. Alien looking though the Yith are, their goals, actions, histories, and societies are largely comprehensible to humans. They are more intelligent than humans but cannot understand the polyps, or swap bodies with them, and so find them terrifying.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The Yithians have strict rules when it comes to their mindswap abilities. Temporary mindswaps in the search of knowledge are common, and any "visitors" are treated like honored guests, but permanent mindswaps are only allowed in extreme emergencies (like a planetary cataclysm) and any Yithian that tries to permanently hide in another body (such as the occasional, though rare, criminal) is mercilessly hunted down and punished. In rare cases where a non-Yithian ends up permanently mindswapped by accident (because their original body died), they are treated as honored and respected guests by the Yithians for the rest of their lives to make up for it. The word "kindness" is actually used regarding how they treat the "dying exiles", who were put into the body of a dying Yithian by a criminal.
  • "Freaky Friday" Flip: The Yithians' entire shtick. They like to swap with people of "keen thoughtfulness" for a period of several years and then build devices with which they swap back, but will much more often and temporarily swap into others as well. When faced with a danger they as a species cannot overcome, they will, as a group swap bodies with another race of beings at some other place and/or time to escape, leaving the minds of those they switch with to perish in their previous bodies.
  • Frozen Face: Yith in human bodies don't really bother to learn a lot of facial expressions. A doctor overseeing the narrator when he's switched back notes that his previously "mask-like" face has become more expressive.
  • Grand Theft Me: Yithians can do this temporarily to gain knowledge or permanently to try to escape their own deaths. On a personal level, one Yith taking another being's body and leaving its inhabitant to die in its place, that's very frowned on by the others, but it's their plan for survival as a species.
  • Gray-and-Grey Morality: Humans and Yithians both have morality of a sort, but it tends to be overruled by concerns of survival, as one species will inevitably try to survive at the expense of another, by any means necessary.
  • Humanoid Abomination: After his three-year memory lapse, the narrator is told that almost everyone he meets instinctively rejects him as "wrong", like there was something about his behavior and speech that was just inherently revolting. For his loved ones, it was even worse, as his wife refused to accept that he was himself, and divorced him. His oldest and youngest child also rejected him, with only his second-oldest child remaining faithful to the idea that his real self would one day return (which it did). Even after the narrator becomes himself again, only his middle child has any relationship with him.
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: Loosely speaking, if you switch the Earth-based, Mesozoic Yith civilisation for "the West", this could apply to all the human and other sapient minds, in the (current) Great Race bodies, studying anything and everything in the Yith's current homeworld and time period. There's even a hint of the "colonised mind learning from the coloniser" dynamic that this trope implies, since most of the non-Yith minds were forced to inhabit the current Yith bodiesnote  without their prior consent. Since Lovecraft was a hardcore white supremacist (he had moderated his views slightly by this time, but only just) this is rather ironic.
  • Mental Space Travel: the Great Race of Yith escaped their original homeworld's destruction by using their technology to swap bodies with a species that inhabited Earth millions of years ago.
  • Mental Time Travel: The Great Race of Yith have the ability to project their minds across time, swapping minds with a being of another era.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: A relatively mild example. The Yith's political structure is described as "fascistic socialism" and they're known to euthanize those with severe birth defects. On the other tentacle, they're far more accepting of outsiders than actual Nazis are known for and it's mentioned they have at least four different political parties rather than a totalitarian state. This story would have been written around the time Lovecraft began re-thinking his right wing views in response to seeing the good FDR's "New Deal" policies were doing for America.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: When the narrator is exploring the ruins of the Yith city beneath Australia, he encounters what is implied to be the polyps, but the reader never gets to see them as the narrator flees blindly through the darkness back to the surface.
  • Pet the Dog: The Yithians may be body-snatching Starfish Aliens, but that doesn't stop them giving their victims balloon rides. In fact they go to some lengths to make their un-consenting guests' stay comfortable and interesting, granting increasing privilege to those who help them in their quest for knowledge.
  • Proud Scholar Race: Yithian civilization is predicated entirely on knowledge and study, leading later readers to surmised theirs was Lovecraft's idea of a perfect society.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: Yithians, of the mental variety. They are capable of mentally travelling through time and space and possessing host bodies, displacing the original mind into their own body during the take-over of the host.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Ruins of the Yithian civilization — even still-legible books — are found remarkably intact, sealed away deep beneath the Earth where they cannot be worn away by weather or nature.
  • Real After All: All evidence disappears by the end, but it's heavily implied that yes, the protagonist's experiences and half-forgotten dreams are true.
  • Recycled Script: The story is very similar to At the Mountains of Madness, with some elements of The Whisperer in Darkness. When reading through the protagonist’s travels through the ruined Precursors city and how they lived, it feels like Lovecraft wrote the same story twice.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Earth was originally inhabited by half-corporeal beings resembling polyps that the Yith sealed away inside the Earth under great stone seals, which they eventually broke free from, leading to the destruction of the Yith's original civilization. They're still down there now, waiting... Though the Yith know that in some far future they'll all be dead.
  • Shout-Out: Among the beings the main character encounters while trapped within the body of a Yithian is a Cimmeran chief named Crom-Ya.
  • Starfish Aliens:
    • The Yithians, their true form is unknown however and the physical form described in the story are native inhabitants of Earth. They have a slug-like cone-shaped body, with four tentacles emerging from the top, two of which end in pincers, one which ends in four, red trumpet-shaped tubes, and one that ends in a spherical head with three eyes, ears mounted on stalks and small tendrils hanging from the underside.
    • The "polyps", Eldritch Abominations that don't fully exist in the corporeal world. Notably, while the Yith themselves are relatively comprehensible with plans, their own form of ethics, and a system of government that can be understood by humans, the "texture" of the polyp's minds is unknowable by the Yithians.
  • Starfish Language: The Yith communicated by clicking their pincers.
  • Stumbling in the New Form: Yith have to take a substantial period of time to learn how to move in human bodies. Likewise, humans struggle at first in the Yith's (stolen) bodies, and have a shorter adjustment period when switched back.
  • Time Abyss: The Great Race minds have lasted collectively as a civilisation for hundreds of millions of years, and might well live into the billions. Individually, at least in their present, Mesozoic Earth cone-forms, individuals can live for up to a few millennia.
  • Time Travel: The Great Race have a form of it; they aren't able to physically travel through time, but can psychically switch their minds with beings from any age.
  • Time Skip: In-story, the narrator recalls feeling ill one day, then awakening in a sanitarium five years later with no memory of the years that have past. It's only through the retellings of others that he pieces together what "he" was up to in all that time.
  • To the Future, and Beyond: When the Yith are inevitably defeated and their civilization destroyed by the flying polyps, they transport their minds into the bodies of arachnids at Earth's final era to escape them.
  • Wham Line: At the end, when the narrator describes he saw in that tome he pulled from the ruins in the desert (although he acknowledges that the reader will have probably seen it coming).
    "No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet. And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful megalithic abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphs of earth's youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting."