Tuesday, May 15, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #26: A review of "The Outsider" by H.P. Lovecraft
Ladies and gentlemen, let us welcome the most influential voice in 20th Century horror fiction. Thankfully, Pelan has chosen a Lovecraft story with very little connection to his Cthulhu Mythos, yet still retaining that special tone that makes this irrevocably Lovecraftian.
And make no mistake about it, it’s the story’s tone that pieces together “The Outsider,” which is perhaps the finest example of a tale fitting its title. The unnamed narrator (possibly unnamed because he doesn’t remember it himself) lives in a dark castle full of cobwebs and books and very little else. He remembers no human contact, and as far as he knows, he is the only person to ever exist. At times, he wants to venture out of his castle, but it is surrounded by a thick, dark forest, where only one inaccessible shaft of the building rises above the highest of trees. He has never seen the sun, and everything he knows about the world he has read in books. He doesn’t even have a mirror, so he doesn’t even know what he looks like.
Can you get more isolated than that? Can this narrator be more of an outsider?
Lovecraft’s stories are seldom personal, but this one seems to hit a chord deep within him, as he spent a lot of his time in seclusion, learning most of what he knew from books and not people or experience. But this watershed horror story goes one step further, and it is this that helps it achieve its greatness.
The narrator, tired of living like this, yearning to see more of the world, takes on the highest tower of his castle, even though he has to climb the very walls sticking his fingers between bricks until he finally reaches a trap door. SPOILER ALERT: He finds himself in a room full of oblong boxes. (Got that sussed out, now, have you?) He breaks out into the outside world, where he finds a party taking place at a very familiar castle. It looks exactly like the one he’d been living in, so he invites himself in only to drive everyone away. Now that he's scared, too, he starts glancing around until he sees the decaying thing that used to be a human being. Thinking that must have been what frightened everyone else, he tries to avoid it, only he accidentally brushes up against it, feeling nothing but polished glass. Yep, he’s looking into his reflection. This place seems familiar to him because he remembers it from when he was alive. All that climbing? He was really pulling himself out of his own grave.
We’ve had our share of monsters so far in this volume, but this is the first time that an author has put us inside the monster’s head. We are the outsider, experiencing death and life beyond as a rotting corpse. In 1926, that would have been unthinkable to anyone except a young genius by the name of H.P. Lovecraft, who was right there on the brink of changing the genre forever. END OF SPOILERS.
There is simply no way you are unaware of this story. If you are, this is required reading for anyone interested in horror, be it fiction or movies or comics or whatever. Put simply, the genre would probably be in a much different place without this story in its history.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES, and it can be read here.]