Existential Sadness
in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”

by Louise Norlie

Later in his life, Lovecraft’s opinion of one of his most beloved stories, “The Outsider,” was not a positive one. He wrote that it was “too glibly mechanical in its climactic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language... It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.”1 Later, he went even further, calling it a “rotten piece of rhetorical hash with Poesque imitativeness plastered all over it.”2

Lovecraft’s self-depreciation is understandable on the basis of its style. Besides Poe (in particular, his “Berenice” and “The Masque of the Red Death”), elements of this story have been traced to Wilde, Hawthorne, and Mary Shelley. Perhaps Lovecraft also feared that the conclusion was too easily predicted in advance of the final sentence. In spite of this, the story is not a shallow one. “The Outsider” contains themes that Lovecraft was to treat to grander effect in the future. That aspect alone, however, is not the reason for its appeal.

“The Outsider” has obvious autobiographical connections.. The theories of various psychologists, from Jung to Freud, have been summoned for the obvious applications of their symbolic formulae. The narrator is connected to various other Lovecraft tales. The story is interpreted as a ridicule of the belief in an afterlife, showing that consciousness remains after death only to experience the decay of the body. It represents the insignificance of man in the uncaring universe. It is the tragedy of those who long for the past but are forced to live in a maddening present and future.3 Though each interpretation has validity and merit, these analyses do not accept the story on its own terms.

The story is accused of being incoherent, having atmosphere but no logic. Clearly, realism, a quality that Lovecraft never desired in his writing, is disregarded. There are aspects of the narrator’s situation that are never accounted for. Most crucially, how could the outsider have avoided noticing his own appearance in his many years of isolation? The text makes note that there were no mirrors or sun and that the narrator longed for light. Yet he does have a candle, sufficient illumination to peruse his antique books. There is also enough light to identify the “twisted branches far aloft” against the background of the perpetually crepuscular sky. The outsider could surely glimpse his arms and hands. Why is his appearance so stunning later?

This apparent discrepancy can be explained. The “longing for light” is later clarified later as “brilliance and gaiety” — perhaps his desire is to “shed light” upon himself in the context of others in order to escape his solipsism. Interestingly, his first shock is not his own reflection in the mirror, but the terrorizing rejection of the revelers. This is what turns his hopefulness into the “blackest convulsion of despair.” He is not, and will never be, inherently acceptable to others. Alone, the outsider did not have any cause to consider how he looks. Nevertheless, he may have literally “seen” himself without realizing the implications of his appearance. For him, there was “nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons” of the crypt which are “more natural” than “pictures of living beings.” He does not regard himself with revulsion until he enters the (currently) living world.

Another contradiction occurs after the outsider recalls “all that had been” and further identifies the “unholy abomination” of his own body. This moment is followed by alleged oblivion as “nepenthe” washes the memories away.. Yet the very fact of the outsider’s narration proves that he did not forget. Although we are never told precisely what his memories are, an awareness of his history remains, enough to tell his tale. After a failed attempt to reenter the crypt, paralleling his inability to reproduce his former ignorance, his emotions are calmed as he cavorts with “friendly ghouls on the night-wind.” Ultimately he has learned to accept his fate. Likewise, it was Lovecraft’s stoic aim “to remain abstract, detached, neutral, indifferent, objective, impersonal, universal, & non-chronological.”4 Lovecraft’s ideal existence took the form of passive witnessing. He favored being “a sort of floating, disembodied eye which sees all manner of marvelous phenomena without being greatly affected by them.”5

The inconsistencies in this story are often attributed to the fact that the story is like a dream. Just as in dreams, the narrator is subjected to a litany of images and morphing tableaux that are entirely convincing of a certain truth while they appear. Upon waking, however, dreams often seem irrational and absurd. They can be denied. The experience of the outsider can thus be easily invalidated. The presence of unanswered questions does not by necessity make this story “just a dream.” In “The Outsider,” nothing is tucked into place to create a self-contained vision of existence. The narrator’s vision is restricted. Not all his questions can be answered and an unexplainable infinity lurks beyond every horizon. This concept is not presented with the purpose of presenting any particular opinion. It just is and thus undermines rather than assures a sense of the outsider’s identity.

In his best stories, Lovecraft’s characters are supplied with very little personal or psychological background.6 They have few definable characteristics. Nonetheless, they are not specimens of “everyman,” for they are always “outsiders.” In “The Outsider,” this trend is taken to the extreme. The nameless narrator is mere consciousness. He is seemingly the only one of his kind. As Michel Houellebecq wrote, this is in accordance with Lovecraft’s “heroic and paradoxical desire to go beyond humanity.”7

The story is also beyond the limits of time. When the outsider travels from the crypt to the castle, the narrator becomes “conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory” and senses that some changes have taken place. Most changes take the form of decay rather than growth or transformation. Many other authors would have indicated the passage of time by noting the existence or nonexistence of certain concrete objects associated with various ages. An outsider from the 18th century resurfacing in the 20th might notice cars or paved highways on his way to the castle. This would also indicate how long the narrator had been below ground. In the castle, personal details might be added. Perhaps the outsider would notice an ancestral portrait in the castle or other memento of specific people and events. To Lovecraft, such appurtenances are irrelevant. He prefers to transcend such restraints. In fact, Lovecraft’s favorite conflict was that of “the principle of freedom or irregularity or adventurous opportunity against the eternal & maddening rigidity of cosmic law... especially the laws of time.”8

Beyond time and generally beyond individuality, Lovecraft’s characters have few distractions. There have no specifics, no goals, no purpose, no friends, no diversions, nothing to measure themselves against. In such an uncluttered life as that of the outsider, boredom can become terrifying as hours, days, and months stretch before and behind in a barren vista of unchanging sameness. As a result, Lovecraft’s characters are paradoxically drawn outside of themselves. Lovecraft shows us where this takes them. He famously wrote in “The Call of Cthulhu” that “the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Due to their seclusion, this state is exactly what many Lovecraftian characters approach. Uncomforted by any form of escape, they are exposed to staggering revelations.

Horror itself, while experienced by the narrator, is not the primary characteristic of this particular story. From the first sentence, this is a tale of grief. Lovecraft noted that he had a “cynicism tempered with immeasurable pity for man’s eternal tragedy of man’s aspirations beyond the possibility of fulfillment.”9 Combining this with his detachment, he wrote that “what sadness I have, is not so much personal, as a vast and terrible melancholy at the pain and futility of all existence.”10 Of this sorrow, “The Outsider” is a strong and coherent representation.

1 De Camp, L Sprague. Lovecraft: a Biography. (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), 150.
2 De Camp, 347.
3 Mosig, Dirk. “The Four Faces of the Outsider,” Discovering H.P. Lovecraft. Darrell Schweitzer, ed. (Rockville, Maryland: Wildside Press, 2001), 18
4 De Camp, 325.
5 De Camp, 348.
6 Houellebecq, Michel. H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Trans. Dorna Khazeni (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2005), 68.
7 Houellebecq, 77.
8 De Camp, 388.
9 De Camp, 165.
10 De Camp, 75.

Copyright © 2006 by Louise Norlie

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