My close friend Byron recently posted that this is her favorite story by Lovecraft. Since she is someone whose literary opinions I highly respect, I decided to read it. Surprisingly, it was not in my hardcover collection of Lovecraft’s works, but I was able to find it online (click here to access the online version). If you are not familiar with this story, you should read it first, because there are spoilers in this post. It would be impossible to write about this story without giving away the ending.
This story sucked me in from the very first paragraph, which expressed a feeling of alienation which often plagued me when I was younger.
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.
Like my younger self, the protagonist spent his days living vicariously through books, seeking to escape the lonely crypt of isolation.
I would often lie and dream for hours about what I read in the books; and would longingly picture myself amidst gay crowds in the sunny world beyond the endless forests.
The outsider then decides to ascend the tower of the castle where he dwells. The description of the climb up the tower caused my heart to race, sensing that some terrible secret lay at the top, or that some dire event would occur upon reaching the summit. I kept getting images of The Tower card from the tarot deck and the impending doom associated with the card.
Ghastly and terrible was that dead, stairless cylinder of rock; black, ruined, and deserted, and sinister with startled bats whose wings made no noise. But more ghastly and terrible still was the slowness of my progress; for climb as I might, the darkness overhead grew no thinner, and a new chill as of haunted and venerable mould assailed me.
Upon reaching the top of the tower, the outsider is thrilled by the light of a full moon. I got the sense that the person was experiencing a symbolic birth, emerging from the birth canal symbolized by the tower, to come forth into a new realm of light and mystery.
As I did so there came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known; for shining tranquilly through an ornate grating of iron, and down a short stone passageway of steps that ascended from the newly found doorway, was the radiant full moon, which I had never before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared not call memories.
The person discovers that the tower actually led up from an underground vault. He then wanders forth until he comes upon a group of people, who flee from him in horror. The outsider does not understand why until he comes upon a mirror and sees his reflection, discovering that he is but the decayed remains of a long-dead person.
I did not shriek, but all the fiendish ghouls that ride the nightwind shrieked for me as in that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory. I knew in that second all that had been; I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own.
The tale concludes with references to ancient Egypt, leading one to conclude that the outsider is a mummified being who after countless centuries has finally been resurrected. Unfortunately, though, the world has changed, and there is no longer a place where he belongs. He is left to haunt this realm, riding the winds of night along with the other ghouls and creatures of darkness.
All of us emerge from our dark wombs bringing with us vague fragments of memories. We are then cast into a world in which we are alone, outsiders, until we connect with creatures like ourselves. Then, after we die, we again traverse the dark corridor as we move toward the light of the next realm of our existence. This cycle of birth-death-rebirth is what Lovecraft captures in a frightening and fascinating way with this story, a story I suspect I will read again.