CD Review: The Shadow out of Time

Original Astounding Stories cover of 'The Shadow out of Time' In 1908, a Miskatonic University political economics professor named Nathaniel Peaslee collapsed while giving a lecture to his class. When he regained consciousness, he had no memory of who he was, was badly coordinated, wore an odd expression, and spoke in a stilted, archaic style as if English were an unfamiliar language. His wife and children, convinced that this wasn’t Nathaniel at all, were horrified and had nothing further to do with him.

In his new personality, Peaslee pursued a very different sort of life, absorbing knowledge on a variety of subjects from the abstruse to the childishly simple. He made mysterious trips all over the world–Arabian deserts, the Himalayas, the Arctic–and contacted several occult leaders during his travels.

Then, in 1913, he built a small, strange machine in his Arkham home. An anonymous phone call requested that a doctor come to tend to him; when the doctor arrived, Peaslee was unconscious and woke slowly, speaking words from the lecture he’d been giving in 1908. The original personality had returned, with no memory of what he’d been doing for the last 5 years.

For more than 20 years after his strange bout of amnesia, Peaslee suffered from terrifying nightmares. He dreamt of a cyclopean city in a prehistoric landscape, huge buildings made of stone blocks with curvilinear markings on them. Here, he was kept prisoner and made to write down everything he knew about Earth’s history in his own time to be stored in a sort of library/archive. Eventually, he saw the creatures who built the city and brought him there–ten-foot-tall rugose cones with crab-like pincers, and eyes and other sensory organs on the ends of tentacle-like stalks–and perceived that he was one of them.

Peaslee not only tried to retrace his activities during the 1908-13 period, but researched medical and historical accounts to discover that 1 or 2 cases disturbingly similar to his own occurred in every century for as long as humans have kept records. He also uncovered legends about the creatures in his dreams–called the Great Race, since they of all races had conquered the secret of time. They did this by switching bodies with beings living in other times.

Nathaniel Peaslee and the one son whom he had reconciled with pursued psychological studies based on his experience; the son Wingate, now grown, became a professor of psychology. Peaslee’s amnesia was considered a weird, rare, but not unique mental disorder–until incredibly old and weathered, enormous stone blocks with the same carvings on them were found in Australia. Peaslee and his son joined the archaeological team in Australia to see the blocks for themselves.

On one windy night, Peaslee went wandering in the desert on his own and found a series of blocks in their original positions, still forming the opening to a tunnel. He ventured inside to find himself in familiar surroundings, in a corridor not far from that library where he was kept prisoner. The Great Race was long gone, but somewhere down in there might be concrete proof that Peaslee’s dreams were entirely real.

Along the way, he discovered a trapdoor that the Great Race once kept locked and guarded now standing open to who-knows-what sunless gulfs deep within the Earth. There were also signs that the dust on the ancient floor was disturbed very recently.

The Shadow out of Time was one of the first H.P. Lovecraft stories I ever read, when I was 17. I remember staying up until 3 am to finish it, knowing what Peaslee was after in those unimaginably old corridors and what he would find. I didn’t turn the lights off even when I’d finished.

You can read it yourself at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/sot.aspx.

In this Dark Adventure Radio Theatre episode, the audio play begins with a framing device. Aboard an Australian ship on its way to Liverpool, Nathaniel Peaslee (Andrew Leman) receives a telegram from his son Wingate informing him that new discoveries have been made and the team’s research will continue. This sends him into a fit of terror; he locks himself in his state room and is heard crying out from his terrible nightmares, until the ship’s doctor, Dr. Chambers (Mark Colson), intervenes. It is to Dr. Chambers that Peaslee tells the above story.

To prevent this from becoming a long, one-man narrative, Peaslee’s story is not only broken up by questions and remarks from the doctor, but by flashback scenes. Since I’m already very familiar with the story itself, these additions are some of my favorite parts of the audio play.

We have two short scenes in which the new Peaslee tries to interact with his family. He haltingly pronounces his wife’s name as “a lice,” and tries to help his 8-year-old son with his math homework. You don’t see much in the way of domestic comedy in Lovecraft, but this was funny.

Also amusing is Peaslee’s second visit to a Swedish library and his conversation with a terse librarian who remembers his first visit all too well. In his altered state, Peaslee wrote corrections in certain arcane books–in German, a language he doesn’t normally know, as well as in that curvilinear text the normal Peaslee only recognizes from his dreams.

I really like that the human minds that were abducted from their own time periods by the Great Race have formed their own little social group. In Lovecraft’s story, there is simply a list of names of the other people–human and otherwise–who are working in the library at the same time as Peaslee:

I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in A.D. 5000; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in B.C. 50,000; with that of a twelfth-century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi; with that of a king of Lomar who had ruled that terrible polar land 100,000 years before the squat, yellow Inutos came from the west to engulf it; with that of Nug-Soth, a magician of the dark conquerors of A.D. 16,000; with that of a Roman named Titus Sempronius Blaesus, who had been a quaestor in Sulla’s time; with that of Khephnes, an Egyptian of the 14th Dynasty who told me the hideous secret of Nyarlathotep; with that of a priest of Atlantis’ middle kingdom; with that of a Suffolk gentleman of Cromwell’s day, James Woodville; with that of a court astronomer of pre-Inca Peru; with that of the Australian physicist Nevil Kingston-Brown, who will die in A.D. 2518; with that of an archimage of vanished Yhe in the Pacific; with that of Theodotides, a Graeco-Bactrian official of B.C. 200; with that of an aged Frenchman of Louis XIII’s time named Pierre-Louis Montmagny; with that of Crom-Ya, a Cimmerian chieftain of B.C. 15,000…

Out of that list, I’ve always thought that the Cromwellian gentleman was the person with whom Peaslee would have most in common and would make friends; in the Dark Adventure version, Woodville approaches Peaslee to introduce himself and some of the others. I’ve also thought that Woodville’s case must be among the ones Peaslee would read about later, along with the Florentine monk and the French guy, but they don’t go into that.

When the Peaslees meet the archaeological team in Australia, it includes Dr. Dyer from At the Mountains of Madness (voiced again by Sean Branney). He doesn’t discuss his own encounter with the Elder Beings, but they are mentioned among those that the Great Race mind-napped.

Near the end of Peaslee’s story, his voice becomes louder. As he recalls his panicked flight out of the underground ruins, past that open trapdoor, and his delirious combination of “Dream, madness, and memory merged wildly together in a series of fantastic, fragmentary delusions” regarding what became of the Great Race and what might still be down in the depths beneath the ruins, he ends up nearly shouting.

The CD box also includes:

  • An article from the British Medical Journal describing Peaslee’s unusual amnesia and subsequent dreams as a case study.
  • A page from von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten with Peaslee’s notes in German and in curvilinear hieroglyphs; I think that the illustration is supposed to be the machine that the alien Peaslee used to return to his own time when he was done with his work in the early 20th century.
  • The Marconigram that Peaslee received aboard ship from his son (I am delighted that they use the word “Marconigram”–the only other time I’ve heard it was on Upstairs, Downstairs, when Richard Bellamy sent one to his wife aboard the Titanic).

This is the last of the boxed set of CDs I purchased from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, but I’ve just bought several newer episodes. More Dark Adventure Radio Theatre to come!

Prop items for Shadow out of Time

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.