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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
Read this story in the library
"The Outsider" is a short story by American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Written between March and August 1921, it was first published in Weird Tales, April 1926. In this work, a mysterious man who has been living alone in a castle for as long as he can remember decides to break free in search of human contact and light. "The Outsider" is one of Lovecraft's most commonly reprinted works and is also one of the most popular stories ever to be published in Weird Tales.
In a letter, Lovecraft himself said that, of all his tales, this story most closely resembles the style of his idol Edgar Allan Poe, writing that it "represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height." The opening paragraphs echo those of Poe's "Berenice", while the horror at the party recalls the unmasking scene in "The Masque of the Red Death".
The story may also have been inspired in part by Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Fragments from the Journal of a Solitary Man", in which a man dreams that he is walking down Broadway in a burial shroud, only understanding the shocked reaction of passersby when he sees his reflection in a shop window.
Another suggested literary model is Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818), in which the creature causes a shock when he enters a cottage: "I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted." The monster later looks in a pool of water and sees his reflection for the first time.
Colin Wilson, in The Strength to Dream (1961), points to Oscar Wilde's short story "The Birthday of the Infanta", in which a misshapen dwarf is horrified to see his reflection for the first time.
Some critics have suggested that "The Outsider" is autobiographical, and that Lovecraft was talking about his own life when he wrote, "I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men." An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia finds this analysis to be exaggerated, but suggests that the story "may possibly be indicative of HPL's own self-image, particularly the image of one who always thought himself ugly and whose mother told at least one individual about her son's 'hideous' face."
"The Outsider" is written in the first-person narrative style and details the miserable and apparently lonely life of an individual who appears to have never had contact with another individual. The story begins with this narrator explaining his origins. His memory of others is vague, and he cannot seem to recall any details of his personal history, including who he is or where he is from. The narrator tells of his environment: a dark, decaying castle amid an "endless forest" of high, lightless trees. He has never seen natural light, nor another human being, and he has never ventured from the prison-like home he inhabits. The only knowledge the narrator has of the outside world is from his reading of the "antique books" that line the walls of his castle.
The narrator tells of his eventual determination to free himself from what he sees as an existence within a prison. He decides to climb the ruined staircase of the high castle tower that seems to be his only hope for an escape. At the place where the stairs terminate into crumbled ruin, the narrator begins a long, slow climb up the tower wall, until he eventually finds a trapdoor in the ceiling, which he pushes up and climbs through. Amazingly, he finds himself not at the great height he anticipated, but at ground level in another world. With the sight of the full moon before him, he proclaims, "There came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known." Overcome with the emotion he feels in beholding what—until now—he had only read about, the narrator takes in his new surroundings. He realizes that he is in an old churchyard, and he wanders out into the countryside before eventually coming upon another castle.
Upon coming to the castle that he finds "maddeningly familiar," the narrator sees a gathering of people at a party within. Longing for some type of human contact, he climbs through a window into the room. Upon his entering, the people inside become terrified. They scream and collectively flee from the room, many stumbling blindly with their hands held over their eyes toward the walls in search of an exit. As the narrator stands alone in the room with the screams of the party vanishing into far away echoes, he becomes frightened at what must be lurking near him. He walks around the room searching for what might be hidden in the shadows but finds nothing. As he moves towards one of the rooms alcoves, he detects a presence and approaches it slowly.
In his shock and surprise, he loses his balance and touches the creature. Horrified, he runs from the building back to his castle, where he tries unsuccessfully to crawl back through the grate into his old world. Cast out of his old existence, the narrator now rides with the "mocking and friendly ghouls on the night wind," forever and officially an outsider since the moment he stretched his fingers towards the creature in the darkness and felt nothing but the "cold and unyielding surface of polished glass," signifying he had touched a mirror.
Prior to telling of how he discovered that the monster was, in fact, himself, the narrator explains that he fled to a valley of the Nile in Egypt, where he exists alongside other outsiders - presumably undead, like himself - and even enjoys something of a social life (for example, a feast beneath one of the Pyramids), although he describes how "nepenthe has calmed me", hinting that he is still trying to forget his haunted past.
Horror historian Les Daniels described "The Outsider" as "arguably the author's finest work". Though some may contend that Lovecraft's "The Outsider" is purely a horror story, there are predominantly Gothic themes that play significant roles in this short story including loneliness, the abhuman, and the afterlife that take it to a more psychological level.
Ghouls make frequent appearances in Lovecraft's work, most notably in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926), although they are generally very different from the undead creatures described here. This story also mentions Nitocris and Nephren-Ka briefly. Nitocris a legendary queen of Egypt, who makes an appearance in the 1924 Lovecraft and Harry Houdini collaboration "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs". Nephren-Ka is mentioned in "The Haunter of the Dark" as the pharaoh who built "a temple with a windowless crypt" to the Shining Trapezohedron, and "did that which caused his name to be stricken from all monuments and records".