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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.

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Can be read here or here.


This novella provides examples of:

  • Aliens Never Invented Democracy: The Great Race of Yith is described as having "a sort of fascistic socialism".
  • 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.
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  • 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/Artistic License – Geology: 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." Only the Triassic age ended 201 million years ago, 150 million years ago was the Jurassic age.
  • 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.
  • 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/Unpaused: 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.
    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.
    • 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. We think...
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The Yithians aren't evil exactly, but are definitely somewhat amoral by human standards. That said, they 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.
  • "Freaky Friday" Flip/Grand Theft Me: The Yithians' entire shtick. When faced with a danger they 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.
  • 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, the rest of his family refuses to ever see him again.
  • 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.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: Yithians.
  • 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.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • Starfish Language: The Yith communicated by clicking their pincers.
  • 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.
    " 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."
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