The Shadow Out of Time

The Shadow Out of Time is a novella by American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Written between November 1934 and February 1935, it was first published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories.

The Shadow Out of Time
First Publication in Astounding Stories
AuthorH. P. Lovecraft
Cover artistHoward V. Brown
CountryUnited States
GenreHorror, science fiction
Publication date
June 1936
Media typePrint (Magazine)
TextThe Shadow Out of Time at Wikisource
Published in Astounding Stories


The Shadow Out of Time indirectly tells of the Great Race of Yith, an extraterrestrial species with the ability to travel through space and time. The Yithians accomplish this by switching bodies with hosts from the intended spatial or temporal destination. The story implies that the effect, when seen from the outside, is similar to spiritual possession. The Yithians' original purpose was to study the history of various times and places, and they have amassed a "library city" that is filled with the past and future history of multiple races, including humans. Ultimately the Yithians use their ability to escape the destruction of their planet in another galaxy by switching bodies with a race of cone-shaped plant beings who lived 250 million years ago on Earth. The cone-shaped entities (subsequently also known as the Great Race of Yith) lived in their vast library city in what would later become Australia's Great Sandy Desert (22°3′14″S 125°0′39″E).

The story is told through the eyes of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, an American living in the first decade of the 20th century, who is "possessed" by a Yithian. He fears he is losing his mind when he unaccountably sees strange vistas of other worlds and of the Yithian library city. He also feels himself being led about by these creatures and experiences how they live. When he is returned to his own body, he finds that those around him have judged him insane due to the actions of the Yithian that possessed his body. While he was experiencing a Yithian existence in Earth's ancient past, the Yithian occupying his body was experiencing a human one in the present day.

The narrator at first believes his episode and subsequent dreams to be the product of some kind of mental illness. His initial relief at discovering other cases like his throughout history is withered when he discovers that the other cases are too similar to his own to be without a connection. The narrator's dreams become more vivid, and he becomes obsessed with archaeology and ancient manuscripts (as was the Yithian) - but lacks any sort of proof that would demonstrate whether he was (or is) simply mad.

He discovers that the Yithians on Earth died out eons ago (their civilization destroyed by a rival, utterly alien pre-human race described as "half-polypous" creatures) but the Yithian minds will inhabit new bodies on Earth after humanity is long gone. His tenuously held sanity is challenged when he discovers the proof he seeks—and that not only do remains of the Yithians' past civilization still exist on Earth; but also still remaining are those who destroyed them. It is also mentioned that the current appearance of the Yithians is not the original; but one acquired during a previous mass-projection of the minds of their race when disaster beckoned, leaving the original inhabitants to die in the bodies of the Yithians.


There are autobiographical aspects to the character. The years of Peaslee's amnesia correspond to the timespan of Lovecraft's adolescent nervous breakdown, which forced him to drop out of high school and withdraw from society. During this period, Lovecraft suffered from facial tics, which may be reflected in the Yithian-possessed Peaslee's inability to control his facial muscles.[1] The feeling Lovecraft described, upon returning to Providence after living in New York City for two years, that he was "awakening from the queer dream about being away from home" has been called "the cornerstone upon which Lovecraft built his masterpiece, 'The Shadow out of Time'."[2] But An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, which calls Peaslee perhaps "the most thoroughly developed of HPL's characters", notes that there are parallels as well to Lovecraft's father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, who also displayed eccentric behavior during a five-year period of madness.[3]
  • Wingate Peaslee: Son of Nathaniel Peaslee, also a Miskatonic professor. He is described by his father as "the only member of my family who stuck to me after my queer amnesia of long ago, and the man best informed on the inner facts of my case."

The story mentions a number of victims of the Yithians' mind-swapping whom Nathaniel Peaslee recalls talking with, including:

  • Titus Sempronius Blaesus: A Roman "who had been a quaestor in Sulla's time". Sulla first became Consul in 88 B.C. and was dictator of Rome 82-80 B.C. A quaestor was a Roman financial official; Sulla reformed the office and raised their number from ten to twenty.
  • Bartolomeo Corsi: A "12th century Florentine monk". This character also appears in Phillip O. Marsh's 1994 novel The Worm Shall Ye Fight!
  • Crom-Ya: A Cimmerian chief who lived c. 15,000 B.C. This is a homage to Lovecraft's friend Robert E. Howard, whose best-known creation, Conan the Barbarian, hailed from Cimmeria and worshipped Crom. In Fred L. Pelton's 1989 short story "The Sussex Manuscript", Crom-Ya is said to be a worshipper of Tsathoggua.
  • Khephnes: "An Egyptian of the 14th Dynasty, who told me the hideous secret of Nyarlathotep". The 14th dynasty was about 1700 B.C.
  • Nevil Kingston-Brown: An "Australian physicist...who will die in 2518 A.D."
  • Pierre-Louis Montagny: "An aged Frenchman of Louis XIII's time". Louis XIII was king of France from 1610-1643.
  • Nug-Soth: "A magician of the dark conquerors of 16,000 A.D."
  • S'gg'ha: A being from "the Star-headed vegetable carnivores of Antarctica."[4]
  • Theodotides: A Greco-Bactrian official of 200 B.C.
  • James Woodville: "A Suffolk gentleman of Cromwell's day". Cromwell lived from 1599–1658, and was the English head of state from 1653 until his death.
  • Yiang-Li: "A philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in 5,000 A.D." Tsan-Chan is first mentioned by Lovecraft in the story "Beyond the Wall of Sleep".


S. T. Joshi points to Berkeley Square, a 1933 fantasy film, as an inspiration for The Shadow Out of Time: "Lovecraft saw this film four times in late 1933; its portrayal of a man of the 20th century who somehow merges his personality with that of his 18th-century ancestor was clearly something that fired Lovecraft's imagination, since he had written a story on this very theme himself--the then unpublished The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927)." Lovecraft called the film "the most weirdly perfect embodiment of my own moods and pseudo-memories that I have ever seen--for all my life I have felt as if I might wake up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian age and insane jazz age into the sane reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780." Lovecraft noted some conceptual problems in Berkeley Square's depiction of time travel, and felt that he had resolved these flaws in his novella.[5]

Other literary models for The Shadow Out of Time include H. B. Drake's The Shadowy Thing (originally published as The Remedy in 1925), about a person who has the ability to transfer his personality to another body; Henri Beraud's Lazarus (1925), in which the protagonist develops an alter ego during a lengthy period of amnesia; and Walter de la Mare's The Return (1910), featuring a character who seems to be possessed by a mind from the 18th century.[6]

A similar plot was used in the story Les Posthumes (1802) by Nicolas-Edme Rétif, where the character the Duke of Multipliandre has the power to project his soul into other humans and through time and space across the universe. It is not known whether Lovecraft was aware of this.


Lovecraft critic Lin Carter calls The Shadow Out of Time Lovecraft's "single greatest achievement in fiction", citing "its amazing scope and sense of cosmic immensitude, the gulfs of time it opens, [and] the titanic sweep of the narrative",[7] while horror author and critic Ramsey Campbell describes it as "awe-inspiring".[8] Swedish Lovecraft expert Martin Andersson named the story as one of his four favorites and called it Lovecraft's "magnum opus".[9] Lovecraft himself was dissatisfied with the effort, so much so that he mailed the original manuscript to August Derleth without taking a copy for himself.[8]



  1. Joshi and Schultz, p. 235.
  2. David E. Schultz, "Lovecraft's New York Exile", Black Forbidden Things, p. 56.
  3. Joshi and Schultz, p. 201.
  4. Bloch, Introduction (1982). The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling tales of Horror and the Macabre. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 363. ISBN 0-345-29468-8.
  5. S. T. Joshi, "The Horror on the Wall", The Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft.
  6. Joshi and Schultz, pp. 234-235.
  7. Carter, p. 106.
  8. "HP Lovecraft: The man who haunted horror fans". BBC News. 22 March 2012.
  9. "Cthulhu är cool – Intervju med Lovecraftexperten Martin Andersson". Skymningssång (in Swedish). January 18, 2014.
  10. Dr. Hermes. "The Shadow From the Abyss Out of Time," Archived 2015-11-05 at the Wayback Machine Dr. Hermes LiveJournal (05 February 2012).
  11. "INJ Culbard on 'The Shadow Out of Time' and the joy of Lovecraft". Digital Spy. Retrieved 1 October 2016.


  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (July 2003) [1936]. S.T. Joshi; David E. Schultz (eds.). The Shadow Out of Time: The Corrected Text (softcover)|format= requires |url= (help) (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Hippocampus Press. ISBN 0-9673215-3-0. Definitive version.
  • Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia.
  • David E. Schultz, "Lovecraft's New York Exile", Black Forbidden Things, Robert M. Price, ed.
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