Sunday, August 25, 2013

Lovecraft 101 - The Outsider

The Outsider
"I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men." These are the words spoken in the story The Outsider and perhaps speak about Lovecraft's feelings of loneliness, self-image, or even his feelings of appearance. He had heard his own mother (who died right before the writing of this story) once tell someone that he had a "hideous face". The power of appearance can be strong, and the theme of this story can be seen in other works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fragments from the Journal of a Solitary Man (which coincidently inspired the title of my own novel) as well as Frankenstein and other stories. HPL even admitted that this story in particular was perhaps the height of his imitation of Poe (and he didn't mean that as a positive), and a definite connection can be made between this tale and the climax of The Masque of the Red Death.
But this story is more than about the physical appearance of a man. As the protagonist and narrator, suffers from the malady of loneliness. He seeks contact with other people and to get out of the castle he has found himself trapped in all his life. This reminded me so much of the disturbing cloistered family members in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels.
We are stepping away from the mythos stuff again, to look at the most Gothic, and strangely, the most successful Lovecraft story. Though this story really owes a huge debt to Poe and his style, this is still Lovecraft using his chosen style of writing to its fullest. In this tale, HPL's love for dense atmospheric language actually adds to the story and helps it rather than hindering it.
As a gothic story, the plot is fairly straight forward and a modern reader will easily guess the "twist" at the end. Though I am sure the readers of the time were a bit less overwhelmed with countless uses of this same plot device. The question comes in the interpretation of the story. Who is this man that is telling the story? Is he just some frightening monster too hideous to look at? Or are there hints that lead us to believe he may actually be the long dead ancestor of the party-goers finally seeking freedom from the loneliness of the grave. Or is it all perhaps symbolism of the struggle to climb out of the pits of despair and loneliness that come with being the downcast outsider.
Illustration copyright Jeff Powers © 2013

Though this is not a mythos story and really stands alone from HPL's other works, there are some interesting connections to some future stories here. So, what may have been intended as a solitary story, may have provided some future inspiration and locales for other stories. Namely among these are the connections with Lovecraft's Egypt where the narrator flees to at the end of the story, which connects to two stories we will discuss down the road, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs and The Haunter of the Dark.

If you want to read what horror fiction historian, Les Daniels called Lovecraft's "finest work", you can check out the full text here: HPL's The Outsider

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