An Analysis of the American Gothic Aspects in the Short Story The Outsider by H.P. Lovecraft
American Gothic is a mysterious genre, with a myriad shimmering facets that keep you constantly enthralled. I, personally, always enjoy finding myself in the midst of one of these stories: so full of dark and nightmarish visions. They keep you guessing while simultaneously keeping you terrified. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” accomplishes exactly this. In this short story, a very lonely being is seemingly stuck in what is described as a castle. It’s desperate to see light, as it is constantly dark and dismal. Trees cover everything in darkness and the only tower that climbs above the trees is worn down, crumbling, and inaccessible. Unable to stand it anymore, the being finds its way inside the tower and makes its way to the top by climbing the unstable walls. Instead of finding itself above the trees, there is solid ground and a path. The path leads to a castle that looks mysteriously like the one it had just come from, but beautiful where the other was terrifying, with a great hall full of guests. Upon seeing this being clambering into the open window, the guests scattered in terrible fear, much to its dismay. It sees itself in a mirror and is horrified by its appearance, running from the castle to return to its own, only to find the door locked. Knowing now that it’s not meant to be in this world, it roams the night with other beings of its kind and settles down with its loneliness as its only real companion. From the decrepit landscape of the ruined castle, the haunting darkness that covers everything in the story, to the ominous being that is the protagonist, The Outsider is a near perfect example of American gothic fiction. The most obvious aspect of American gothic this short story displays is that of its undoubtedly untamed setting. It seems as though every other line is used to describe the deeply unsettling, uncivilized landscape.
A castle, the being says it is stuck in, is “infinitely old and infinitely horrible”, full of darkness even though the ceilings are quite high. There are cobwebs, bats, and spiders in nearly every room. Loose bones and skeletons even lay out in the open in the crypts close to the foundation. The interior of the castle paints a very dark, cringe-worthy image that is a staple of the gothic genre. The words used to describe the setting are flawless in this way, evoking feelings of unease and disgust, and there are many of them, leaving no doubt in your mind that this is not a place you’d want to find yourself in the real world. Of the inside of the castle, the narrator describes there are “vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books”. The use of these adjectives: vast, dismal, and maddening all in one sentence, cause the dismay this being feels for such chambers to become almost palpable. Even the books it reads itself to pass the time are still not seen in a good light. When describing the interior further, the story states, “there was an accursed smell everywhere, as of the piled-up corpses of dead generations”. This is an interesting line. Not only does it continue to set the scene in a disgusting fashion, it also serves as a bit of foreshadowing. It’s hinted at the end of the story that this being is dead itself, so perhaps there are other such beings in this same castle, or perhaps it is simply smelling itself, which would be awful and disgusting if true. The landscape outside of the castle is just as intense and depressing as the inside. An endless forest, full of “twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches”. A forest is not generally a horrifying vision.
Perhaps getting lost in one can be quite fearful, but simply gazing at one can be glorious and beautiful. Yet here, it is painted as terrifying, dark, and full of horror. The time the narrator tries to escape by walking as far as it can, it describes having to turn back because “the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear”. This is a new type of forest from one I have ever encountered in the real world. Maybe the forest in this story is full of things to be afraid of, or perhaps the absence of any sun or moon or light at all is what causes it to be full of this fear; we do not know and that makes it all the more frightful. Just as it is overcome with too much fear in the forest to continue on, the emotions shown by the being in the story are deeply intense and overwhelming. Which, in turn, causes the reader to feel such emotions; another qualifier of the gothic genre. It has lived in this dark, dank castle for as long as it can remember; knowing no sunlight or company and not recalling a single instance in which it saw a person or even heard a voice spoken. “I would longingly picture myself amidst gay crowds in the sunny world beyond the endless forests”, it states. Even though it does not remember human contact, it still longs for it. Reading books of the outside world and walking the isolated grounds is not enough to satiate the loneliness it feels. Living life in darkness, it took comfort in what it could. It tells of how “I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief” because the darkness became too much, the need for light so overpowering. It tries to compensate with the flame, as real as any light, but satisfying only for a small amount of time, as candles only light such a miniscule space compared to the light of the world, and for such a short time. Finally, “in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more”. Hoping to quell the unbearable need it feels, it forsakes its own safety, literally crawling up the walls on barely-there stones towards the hope of some unknown light.
It hopes to extinguish the darkness once and for all and glance even momentarily at the glory of the moonlight. It was not for nothing, either. Finding the other castle with its guests, seeing moonlight as though in the happiest of dreams, it thinks that it’s finally on the brink of everything it’s been hoping for: light and companionship. Only to have all hope and pretense shattered when the guests flee the scene, screaming in terror, some even fainting on the spot, too terrified to move or utter a step. The world shatters around it when “stepping as I did so from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realization”. The momentary instance of hope made returning to that deep loneliness so much more unbearable. Though it had found its way into all the things it longed for, that still did not gain it access to be a part of those things. The moonlight, perhaps, but it was drastically and with finality cast out of the company of humans as soon as it entered. We never learn for sure what this being is, why it was stuck in the ruined castle, for how long, or where exactly it is. So many things are unknown, and draped in this supernatural, horrific quality. This is another aspect of the American gothic genre that this story illustrates so well. At first, this appears to come to a climax when the narrator climbs the tower and finds itself not in an elevated alcove, but on solid ground with a path laid out in front of it, leading away. The castle it finds there looks just like the castle it has been stuck in, but beautiful instead of morose, built-up where the other was decayed. This is a shocking revelation and holds many implications as to where it came from and where it is now, but no sure answers. The real climax, however, is when the being finds itself in front of what is, undoubtedly, a mirror and beholds its appearance for the first time.
It says, “I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity.” The creature was “not of this world anymore”, consisting of ghoulish features, such as bones showing through skin that was barely there and a misshapen, discolored body. A monster. Upon seeing its reflection, memories rush back and it realizes that it is the monster it sees. “I am an outsider”, it says, “a stranger…among those who are still men”, implying that it was once a man, but is no longer. It realizes it is not meant to be a part of that world anymore. This indicates a supernatural being, though it is unclear what kind. Again, we can only guess. H.P. Lovecraft inserts you into this dark, horror-filled supernatural world that uses disquieting, shudder-inducing descriptions to envelope you with an overall sense of unease. It works magnificently and you leave full of questions and a little more afraid of the things you do not know. Is the narrator a zombie, or simply a ghastly ghost? Was it in hell and somehow climbed its way out into the real world? We shall never know, but always wonder. I know that I will think twice now before taking a long stroll through the woods, for the extreme sense of impending doom the narrator felt upon his own walk resounded so thoroughly through my own emotions that I will not be able to look upon a forest without thinking about it. The little things that are left unknown to the reader, along with the unfamiliar, terrifying setting and the intense emotional shock that the story leaves you with are the main reasons this story fits perfectly into the American gothic genre.