- “Outsider, The“
- Short story (2,620 words); probably written in spring or summer 1921. First published in WT(April 1926); rpt. WT(June–July 1931); first collected in O;corrected text in DH;annotated version in CC A mysterious individual has spent his entire life virtually alone except for some aged person who seems to take care of him. He resides in an ancient castle that has no mirrors. At length he decides to forsake the castle and seek the light by climbing the tallest tower of the edifice. With great effort he manages to ascend the tower and experiences “the purest ecstasy I have ever known: for shining tranquilly through an ornate grating of iron…was the radiant full moon, which I had never before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared not call memories.” But horror follows this spectacle, for he now observes that he is not at some lofty height but has merely reached “the solid ground.”Stunned by this revelation, he walks dazedly through a wooded park where a “venerable ivied castle” stands. This castle is “maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me”; but he detects the sights and sounds of joyous revelry within. He steps through a window of the castle to join the merry band, but at that instant “there occurred one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived”: the partygoers flee madly from some hideous sight, and the protagonist appears to be alone with the monster who has seemingly driven the crowd away in frenzy. He thinks he sees this creature “beyond the golden-arched doorway leading to another and somewhat similar room” and finally does catch a clear glimpse of it. It proves to be a loathsome monstrosity—“a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.” He seeks to escape the monster, but inadvertently falls forward instead of retreating; at that instant he touches “the rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch.”It is only then that he realizes that that arch contains “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”On the level of plot, “The Outsider” makes little sense and in fact reads as if a transcription of a dream. It appears, from the Outsider’s various remarks regarding his puzzlement at the present shape of the ivied castle he enters, that he is some long-dead ancestor of the current occupants of the castle. His emergence in the topmost tower of his underground castle places him in a room containing “vast shelves of marble, bearing odious oblong boxes of disturbing size”—clearly the mausoleum of the castle on the surface. Even if the Outsider is some centuried ancestor, there is no explanation for how he has managed to survive—or rise from the dead—after all this time. Whether that castle exists in reality (in which case it is difficult to imagine how it could have an “endless forest” surrounding it) or is merely a product of the Outsider’s imagination is left unclear. Many commentators have attempted to speculate on a literary influence for the concluding image of the Outsider’s touching the mirror and seeing himself. Colin Wilson ( The Strength to Dream,1961) has suggested both Poe’s classic story of a double, “William Wilson,” and also Wilde’s fairy tale “The Birthday of the Infanta,” in which a twelve-year-old princess is initially described as “the most graceful of all and the most tastefully attired” but proves to be “a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld. Not properly shaped as all other people were, but hunchbacked, and crooked-limbed, with huge lolling head and a mane of black hair.” George T.Wetzel (“The Cthulhu Mythos: A Study,” in FDOC) has put forth Hawthorne’s curious sketch, “Fragments from the Journal of a Solitary Man,” in which a man dreams that he is walking down Broadway in a shroud, only discovering the fact by seeing himself in a shop window. There is also a celebrated passage in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein(1818) in which the monster sees his own reflection for the first time in a pool of water. This influence seems more likely in view of the fact that the earlier scene, where the Outsider disturbs the party by stepping through the window, may also have been derived from Frankenstein:“‘One of the best of [the cottages] I entered, but I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted.’”Preeminently, however, the story is a homage to Poe. August Derleth maintained that “The Outsider” could pass as a lost tale of Poe’s; but HPL’s own later judgment, expressed in a 1931 letter to J.Vernon Shea, seems more accurate: “Others…agree with you in liking ‘The Outsider’, but I can’t say that I share this opinion. To my mind this tale—written a decade ago—is too glibly mechanicalin its climactic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language. As I re-read it, I can hardly understand how I could have let myself be tangled up in such baroque & windy rhetoric as recently as ten years ago. It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height” ( SL3.379). Specifically, the tale’s opening paragraphs closely echo the opening of “Berenice,” while the scene in the brilliantly lit castle brings to mind the lavish party scene in “The Masque of the Red Death.”In 1934 HPL provided an interesting sidelight into the composition of the story. As recollected by R.H.Barlow, HPL stated: “‘The Outsider’ [is] a series of climaxes—originally intended to cease with the graveyard episode; then he wondered what would happen if people would see the ghoul; and so included the second climax; finally he decided to have the Thing see itself!”The autobiographical implications of the story have perhaps been overstressed by critics. The Outsider’s concluding remark—“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men”—has been thought to be prototypical of HPL’s entire life, but this is clearly a considerable exaggeration. The Outsider’s early reflections on his childhood—“Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness”—manifestly contradict HPL’s own accounts of his generally happy and carefree childhood. In a very general way “The Outsider” may possibly be indicative of HPL’s own self-image, particularly the image of one who always thought himself ugly and whose mother told at least one individual about her son’s “hideous” face.See David J.Brown, “The Search for Lovecraft’s ‘Outsider,’” Nyctalops 2, No. 1 (April 1973): 46–47; Dirk W.Mosig, “The Four Faces of ‘The Outsider,’” Nyctalops 2, No. 2 (July 1974): 3–10 (rpt. with revisions in Mosig’s Mosig at Last [West Warwick, R.I.: Necronomicon Press, 1997]); William Fulwiler, “Reflections on ‘The Outsider,’” LS No. 2 (Spring 1980): 3–4; Robert M.Price, “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider,’” Crypt No. 8 (Michaelmas 1982): 11–13; Mollie L.Burleson, “The Outsider: A Woman? ” LS Nos. 22/23 (Fall 1990): 22–23; Donald R.Burleson, “On Lovecraft’s Themes: Touching the Glass” (in ET); Mollie L. Burleson, “Mirror, Mirror: Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ and Lovecraft’s ‘The Outsider,’” LS No. 31 (Fall 1994): 10–12; Carl Buchanan, ‘“The Outsider’ as an Homage to Poe,” LS No. 31 (Fall 1994): 12–17; Robert H.Waugh, ‘“The Outsider,’ the Terminal Climax, and Other Conclusions,” LSNo. 34 (Spring 1996): 13–24; Paul Montelone, “The Inner Significance of ‘The Outsider,’” LSNo. 35 (Fall 1996): 9–21; Robert H.Waugh, “Lovecraft and Keats Confront the ‘Awful Rainbow,’” LS No. 35 (Fall 1996): 24–36; No. 36 (Spring 1997): 26–39; Robert H.Waugh, “The Outsider, the Autodidact, and Other Professions,” LSNo. 37 (Fall 1997): 4–15; No. 38 (Spring 1998): 18–33.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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