First published in 1936, The Shadow out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft is a classic science fictional horror novella that tells the story of an economics professor, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, whose body was possessed by an alien being from Earth’s distant past. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi believes that Lovecraft was inspired to write the story after he saw Berkeley Square, a 1933 fantasy film.
The first-person narrative presents Peaslee’s attempts to figure out what happened to him during a five-year period that he can no longer remember. He discovers that from 1908-1913, a member of the Great Race of Yith used his body as a vessel for that species’ form of time travel. The Yithian took over his body, and Peaslee’s own consciousness was sent back in time to inhabit the alien’s body. Once the alien was finished with his explorations, the aliens wiped Peaslee’s memories of Yith and his consciousness was returned to his body. Afterward, Wingate becomes obsessed with archaeology and with finding proof of the Great Race's existence, and he goes nearly mad when he finally finds their ancient ruins in the Australian desert.
While the world building in the novella is compelling and the descriptions of the Cretaceous era Yith are vivid, I was struck by the inclusion of a few biological details that undermined the suspension of disbelief necessary to read and enjoy any work of weird fiction.
We’ve certainly made many advances in scientific knowledge since 1936. So on the one hand, most science fiction from that era will seem inaccurate or dated in some fashion. But on the other hand, the occasional problems I had with The Shadow out of Time could have been remedied if Lovecraft had simply thought things through a bit more.
For instance, this bit of description left me with questions:
Of the animals I saw, I could write volumes. All were wild; for the Great Race’s mechanised culture had long since done away with domestic beasts, while food was wholly vegetable or synthetic.
That passage puts forth the idea that, if animals are not for food or transportation, there is no conceivable reason to domesticate them. What about pets kept for companionship or entertainment? What about animals used as research models? Lab scientists have used white mice since the 16th Century, after all. What about zoos for recreation or biological study? The novella goes into many, many details about the Great Race’s culture and intellectual pursuits in comparison with those of humanity. So that bit of hand waving about animals seemed out of place.
I had more biological questions after reading this passage:
Markedly defective individuals were quietly disposed of as soon as their defects were noticed. Disease and the approach of death were, in the absence of a sense of touch or of physical pain, recognised by purely visual symptoms.
The members of the Great Race don’t have a sense of touch or pain? Pain and touch are critical senses, more basic and necessary than vision, smell or taste. An organism that can’t immediately react to being burned or damaged or attacked simply can’t survive. And realizing the necessity of touch and pain requires almost no practical scientific knowledge at all.
All that aside, The Shadow Out of Time (which was first published in Astounding Stories) is seen by many as one of Lovecraft's most important works. Lin Carter called it Lovecraft's "single greatest achievement in fiction" and horror author Ramsey Campbell described it as "awe-inspiring".