On the Trail of Grotesque Gods from Space

It's another installment of Entropist, a scifi culture column by futurist design maven Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDG BLOG. In his 1936 short story "The Shadow Out of Time," classic weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft describes a man who takes "long visits to remote and desolate places." These places include the "vast limestone cavern systems of western Virginia - black labyrinths so complex that no retracing of my steps could even be considered," and the "unknown deserts of Arabia," wherever those may be. But he visits them looking for evidence of a long-lost religious cult - a cult which, like "the horror" it once worshiped, had something to do with grotesque gods from "out of time," ancient germ lines that preceded the origins of human biology, astrophysical space, and the subterranean Earth. And, should all of that raise your eyebrows, let me add that it's actually a good story.

At one point, thinking that he might be going insane, our narrator - a kind of rogue anthropologist, uniquely attuned to the grotesque details of human existence - begins to hallucinate. On the trail of this conspiratorially strange and well-disguised cult, the man dreams of vast structures made from "exposed stonework," inside of which "great globes of luminous crystal serv[ed] as lamps." He sees "inexplicable machines formed of vitreous tubes and metal rods" standing around in the shadows.

Later, I had visions of sweeping through cyclopean corridors of stone, and up and down gigantic inclined planes of the same monstrous masonry. There were no stairs anywhere, nor was any passageway less than thirty feet wide. Some of the structures through which I floated must have towered in the sky for thousands of feet.

There were multiple levels of black vaults below, and never-opened trap-doors, sealed down with metal bands and holding dim suggestions of some special peril.

He doesn't understand what it all means - and what's beneath those trap-doors...?

Everything he sees is so architectural, clouded with the air of eras long gone.

On the Trail of Grotesque Gods from Space

In another hallucination, for instance, the man stands on the "titanic flat roof" of a massive dream-structure, from which he sees "almost endless leagues of giant buildings, each in its garden, and ranged along paved roads fully two hundred feet wide... Many seemed so limitless that they must have had a frontage of several thousand feet, while some shot up to mountainous altitudes in the gray, steamy heavens."

He even stumbles across "aberrant piles of square-cut masonry" and "dark cylindrical towers," where "fungi of inconceivable size" grow amidst "great jungles of unknown tree ferns."

It's as if the surrealist montages of Max Ernst have been combined with Le Corbusier's Ideal City.

I floated through many strange buildings of stone, going from one to the other along mammoth underground passages which seemed to form the common avenues of transit. Sometimes I encountered those gigantic sealed trapdoors in the lowest level, around which such an aura of fear and forbiddenness clung.

This is "housing," he says, "albeit of a peculiar kind."

After all, he lets himself speculate, what is housed here, in these dream palaces where stone buildings look more like extraterrestrial coral reefs, might be the very gods this ancient religious cult once worshipped.

On the Trail of Grotesque Gods from Space

And then things get really weird - or, as Lovecraft's narrator explains, "the real horror began." Still caught up in his dreams-cum-hallucinations, our amateur anthropologist has visions of "South Africa in 50,000 B.C.," and he sees the "ruins of incredible sunken cities" covered in coral. Amidst all of this, there are creatures with "semifluid" anatomies who have "no sex, but reproduced through seeds or spores." They are almost indistinguishable from the architecture they inhabit, being "supremely natural parts of their environment."

Bizarrely, the man then predicts that an "Australian physicist... will die in 2,518 A.D," and he mentions something about the "military use of great winds."

There is even a cryptic, and absurd, reference to "a half-plastic denizen of the hollow interior of an unknown trans-Plutonian planet eighteen million years in the future."

With all of these things in mind, our rogue investigator, on the trail of his ancient cult, sets off for the deserts of Australia - where the "monstrous waste" of a city made from basalt blocks "half shrouded by sand" greets him.

To make quite a long story short, he almost immediately realizes that this is the very city, here beneath the desert sands of Australia, that he's been seeing in hallucinations all these years. "What had happened to this monstrous megalopolis of old," he asks himself, "in the millions of years since the time of my dreams?"

But he's scared even to think of the answer. "Of what limitless caverns of eternal night might brood below, I would not permit myself to think," he mutters - because beneath this ruined city in the remote Australian interior are the "secrets of the primal planet," where weird, shambling, underground forms meander through vast concentrations of architecture that aren't quite cities, they're more like hives: they are alien habitats for a form of life that humans might not ever come to grips with or understand.

In any case, he sets about exploring the place, too fascinated to resist. "Madness drove me on," he says - "sheer madness that impelled and guided me," as if archaeologists might become intoxicated with the thrill of excavation, unable to stop themselves from going further.

On the Trail of Grotesque Gods from Space

Driven by a "hellish delusion," our narrator thus enters the underground ruins through a doorway, which he describes as a "downward aperture" into the Earth.

Onward through the blackness of the abyss I leaped, plunged and staggered - often falling and bruising myself, and once nearly shattering my torch. Every stone and corner of that demoniac gulf was known to me, and at many points I stopped to cast beams of light through choked and crumbling, yet familiar, archways.

And then the secrets of the mystery cult are revealed... and they have something to do with wildly prehistoric contaminations of the planet, which was long ago infected with non-terrestrial biology.

But it is this very weirdness that our rogue anthropologist, with his fevered dreams and inexplicable compulsions, soon realizes might lie at the distant origins of human life, something altogether alien - something forever preserved in the "vague old myths" of the religious cult that Lovecraft's narrator has been attempting to research.

On the Trail of Grotesque Gods from Space

But I could go on and on. Lovecraft's characters are always taking misguided and badly outfitted tours through remote landscapes, hoping to find something, whether it's in Greenland or Iceland or Australia or Antarctica. They explore old Native American burial mounds in the American Midwest and they travel through untrafficked fishing villages in New England. Distant Pacific archipelagos are mentioned, as is Einsteinian relativity. Plus, there's a lot of vague and poetically misunderstood science, of which I've always been a fan. "The Shadow Out of Time" is only one such example.

Earlier on io9: Guillermo del Toro, Report To Cthulhu

(Note: The second-to-last image is from the always stimulating k-punk, and the last image is by no one less than John Coulthart, master of the extradimensionally weird. The other two are by Max Ernst.)