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://www.patreon.com/Kyriakos