Impossible Spaces, Impossible Authors

Posted by jessicageorge on October 30, 2013 in Guest Blog, Jessica George tagged with ,

For my last Impossible Spaces blog tour post this month, I’m going to go back to something Tracy Fahey touched on in one of her Gothic Intersections posts: the idea of dissolving boundaries between selves, and particularly authorial selves. Tracy discussed the intersections that can occur for those of us who write both as critics and as authors of fiction, for whom two slightly different (though often overlapping) writers may co-exist within one person. This resonated with me for two reasons. First of all, the idea of multiple selves within urban space has been at the forefront of my mind while I’ve been writing my previous post in this series, as well as another guest post on identity and loss for Kate Ash. Secondly, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which derivative fiction troubles the category of ‘author’ while working on an essay for a forthcoming anthology, The Age of Lovecraft. It’s occurred to me that the destabilizing of the authorial self is something that appears in a lot of Gothic and horror fiction—which, after all, so often relies upon found manuscripts, letters, documentary footage, or other, similar framing devices.

As Tracy mentioned, a number of Impossible Spaces authors are also academics, and many of the stories in the anthology touch on, or take as a central theme, the blurring of the boundaries of the self. But since it would be churlish to spoil any of them for you, I’m going to discuss another short story in which identity and authority are considered—and destabilised—together: H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Out of Time’.

A concern with hybrid selves pervades Lovecraft’s work, with stories such as ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family’ and ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ culminating with the protagonists’ discoveries of their inhuman ancestry. It’s a thread which runs continuously between the Victorian Gothic, the weird tale, and modern horror more generally. (It’s also interesting that Lovecraft himself did ghostwriting work, as well as adopting the pen-name ‘Abdul Alhazred’—later to become a character in his stories, and the author of his most famous fictional tome, the Necronomicon—as a young child.1) These fears of hybridity can be related to contemporary political concerns, as I mentioned in my earlier post on Innsmouth, and to fears surrounding the emergence of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century. The usurpation of human authority, knowledge, and language by monstrous Others recurs—most notably in ‘The Dunwich Horror’—and reflects the waning of anthropocentrism. Facility with language, writing, and narrative, though, also becomes a marker of the relative humanity of monstrous beings, such as the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness.

'Astounding Stories' cover, June 1936. Cover artist: Howard V. Brown.

Writing and language are certainly central to ‘The Shadow Out of Time’, written in 1935. The first-person narrator, Professor Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, comes round after five years of apparent amnesia, with improperly repressed memories of time spent in a vast city inhabited by a species of huge, cone-like beings known as the Great Race of Yith. Eventually, he learns that his recollections are not dreams; the Great Race, capable of affecting transfer between minds of different species, even across vast periods of time, occasionally kidnap minds of other species and time periods in order to gain information, replacing the transferred mind with one of their own, who in turn conducts research about the era in question. This is what has happened to Peaslee, and what first gives away to observers the fact that the mind in his body is not him is its ‘barbarously alien’ pronunciation; it appears to have ‘laboriously learned the English language from books’.2 Peaslee, for his part, is disturbed by the writing of the Great Race—both the act of writing, ‘for it is not wholesome to watch monstrous objects doing what one has known only human beings to do’3—and their writing system, ‘mocking curvilinear hieroglyphs’ which threaten to ‘blast [his] soul with their message’.4 Difference evidences in writing is initially a mark of Otherness in the story, but the distinction between Peaslee and the alien mind that inhabits his body is not quite so clear cut as we might at first assume. He refers to the period in which his body was inhabited by the Great Race mind, and the actions he undertook during it, in the first person, although he has no memory of it;5 he is haunted by the suspicion that he is about to understand the hieroglyphic writing that so troubles him. And it is the evidence of his own humanity, not of the Great Race’s alienness, that provides the climactic horrific confirmation that his “dreams” about them are memories. Visiting the ruin of their city in Australia, he is struck by the notion that ‘the sight of these towering walls from a mere human body was something wholly new and abnormal’,6 and the manuscript that destroys his peace of mind forevermore is not some revelation of arcane alien knowledge, but one made up of ‘the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in [his] own handwriting’.7 It is the presence of the human within the alien here—the dual nature of the authorial self—that unsettles. This conjunction of selves provides the evidence that Peaslee has been here before, and that he has been simultaneously himself and an alien Other. In a manner that echoes the Great Race’s own practice of inhabiting other selves for information, it is only by acknowledging this fact that Peaslee can gain access to knowledge; can become an authority on what he has hitherto been able only to speculate about.

For the Great Race, the inhabiting of what Donna Haraway has called ‘permanently partial identities’8—fractured, without a fixed point of origin or a unifying myth of wholeness—is ultimately a means to survival. It is a means, too, of ensuring the survival of their magnum opus: the collection of all the solar system’s knowledge. The library in which they store it may ultimately be lost to them, but in adopting these multiple, fissured identities, they are able to carry it with them—to become, in effect, their own texts. The act of writing, in ‘The Shadow Out of Time’, calls into question the notion of a whole, inviolable self; the Great Race are intersecting authorial selves par excellence.

Impossible Spaces is published by Hic Dragones.

To be unsettled by some Tracy’s and my fellow overlapping authors, take a look at the Impossible Spaces anthology, published by Hic Dragones. You can find some more information—and buy the book!—here.

1 S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1996), p. 19.

2H. P. Lovecraft, ‘The Shadow Out of Time’, in The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, ed. by S. T Joshi (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 337.

3Ibid., p. 357.

4Ibid., p. 346.

5Ibid., pp. 337-341.

6Ibid., p. 382.

7Ibid., p. 395.

8Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’, in The Haraway Reader (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 7-45 (p. 13).

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