The Outsider and the Onlooker (on esoteric meaning in fiction)

Un­happy is he to whom the mem­o­ries of child­hood bring only fear and sad­ness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dis­mal cham­bers with brown hang­ings and mad­den­ing rows of an­tique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gi­gan­tic, and vine-en­cum­bered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me, the dazed, the dis­ap­pointed; the bar­ren, the bro­ken. And yet I am strangely con­tent, and cling des­per­ately to those sere mem­o­ries, when my mind mo­men­tar­ily threat­ens to reach be­yond to the other. ” H.P. Love­craft, The Outsider

The Out­sider is, in many ways, the most re­mark­able short story that H.P. Love­craft wrote. Cer­tainly he has pro­duced quite a few other in­ter­est­ing and el­e­gant very short sto­ries (Dagon, The State­ment of Ran­dolph Carter and The Tran­si­tion of Juan Romero come to mind), yet the Out­sider fol­lows a differ­ent, pos­si­bly unique struc­ture.

Many read­ers fo­cus on the end­ing, where the na­ture of the pro­tag­o­nist is re­vealed. To be sure it is mem­o­rable, al­though per­haps not en­tirely un­ex­pected. What I always found far more strik­ing, and what made me love this piece im­me­di­ately, was what had been clar­ified half-way through the story: the where­abouts of the pro­tag­o­nist.

The Out­sider had spent in­nu­mer­able years in a des­o­late and mor­bid cas­tle. He fi­nally de­cides to risk climb­ing on the cir­cu­lar wall of the tallest tower, hop­ing that he may get to rise above the om­i­nous for­est he so de­spises, and for once in his life see the light of day… Love­craft care­fully pre­vents the reader from won­der­ing whether this con­tin­u­ous rise to dizzy­ing heights is some­how not what it was made out to be, so we in­deed share the sense of won­der and sur­prise the Out­sider has when we get to un­der­stand just what was above the ter­rible for­est and the eter­nal night of the area with the cas­tle. The afore­men­tioned en­vi­ron­ment, with its im­pos­ingly tall and dense for­est, the an­cient fort and moat and the silent labyrinth of shad­ows be­yond, was left be­hind by the hap­less nar­ra­tor – yet what he wished for came at the price of a hor­rible re­al­iza­tion: His en­tire per­sonal realm was not part of the ac­tual world, but a sub­ter­ranean, chthonic re­gion.

At first I was im­pressed by the rev­e­la­tion it­self. Later on, though, I did fo­cus on what it con­noted. It is known that Love­craft wished to weave a nar­ra­tion of cos­mic hor­ror, that is hor­ror sto­ries where the cause of alarm isn’t tied to psy­cholog­i­cal rea­sons or men­tal ill­ness. Of course he was en­tirely aware of the fact that the very sense of hor­ror rests on the depths of our men­tal world and the un­ex­am­ined, deep emo­tions and other men­tal phe­nom­ena which are seated there and which rarely are to rise above the sur­face and be­come to some de­gree con­scious. In let­ters to his fel­low writ­ers, as well as in his trea­tise on Weird Liter­a­ture, he refers to the in­her­ent de­pen­dence of the “cos­mic hor­ror” nar­ra­tive in re­gards to the dark ocean of un­knowns we in­evitably host in sub­ter­ranean cav­erns of our psy­che. There is, there­fore, good rea­son to sus­pect that in essence the rev­e­la­tion about the world the Out­sider comes from is tied to the deep de­pres­sion and decade-long iso­la­tion of Love­craft him­self from so­ciety.

There is an al­lur­ing image in a prose-poem by the cel­e­brated Con­stan­tine Cavafy (1863-1933), ti­tled “The ships”, where an ob­server in a dock hap­pens to see a num­ber of splen­did ships filled with trea­sures. The poet ex­plains that those ships sym­bol­ize the goods brought from the realm of imag­i­na­tion; and in most docks one gets to see only a few well-built ves­sels car­ry­ing no­table mer­chan­dise. In­deed, most ships that get to ar­rive at our docks won’t be very ex­cep­tional; per­haps one or two might bring a trea­sure which is worth com­mem­o­rat­ing in a story. And his poem ends with the state­ment that there ex­ist, more­over, other types of ships, ships which are so rare and carry com­modi­ties of such myth­i­cal value that we can never hope to see one even near our dock and may only as­pire to listen to the en­chant­ing songs of the sailors on those rarest of ships com­ing from the deep­est realms of our men­tal world.

Much like the per­son stand­ing in that dock, Love­craft too man­aged to com­mem­o­rate the ar­rival of at least a num­ber of rare and beau­tiful ships from the un­charted ter­ri­to­ries of panan­thopic imag­i­na­tion. And he also spoke and wrote at great length about the quest a writer should have, which is to re­main vigilant and pre­pare for the trea­sures of the mind; those trea­sures which – with a lit­tle bit of luck! – may at some time re­veal them­selves to the per­sis­tent on­looker.

By Kyr­i­akos Chalkopoulos—https://​​­​​Kyriakos

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