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dulcinea3
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Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

Last night I had time to read a couple of shorter stories by Lovecraft from the collection that I have (the short story that was already posted is not in it).  I really liked this story.

 

Text: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Outsider

 

I really felt for the narrator.  His loneliness and longing were so clear and pathetic that you can't help feeling sorry for him.  He reads books about other people, sees color pictures of them, and assumes that he is like them.  He wants to be part of their society, and above all, to see the light of either the sun or the moon.  He has tried to escape his castle imprisonment before, but failed.

 

Once he finally makes the climb up the tower and sees the moonlight, he is so ecstatic that the puzzling fact that he has ended up at ground level doesn't even matter to him.  He wanders the countryside, exploring here and there as his fancy takes him.  Then he comes to a castle with a lively party going on inside and sees light and a happy society.  He is so happy and enters to join them; his dream is coming true at last.  But immediately everyone is horrified and runs out of the room screaming.  The narrator is so naive that he gets nervous that whatever scared the others is still there, and near him.  When he discovers the truth, it is devastating.

 

This was really a heart-breaking story.  Even though the narrator is physically horrifying, he does not seem to have any evil in him and just wants company and acceptance.  But he finds that this is not possible for him.

 

When I finished the story I thought that it reminded me of Poe, and apparently Lovecraft himself was in agreement:

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."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Outsider_(short_story)

 

I suppose it's fruitless to really try to analyse a Lovecraft story, but I wonder where exactly the narrator has been living.  And has he been dead all along?  Does the earliest he can remember correspond to when he died and was placed in a tomb?  He definitely seems to comes up out of his 'castle' into a graveyard (the markers being the 'marble slabs and columns').

decked and diversified by marble slabs and columns, and overshadowed by an ancient stone church, whose ruined spire gleamed spectrally in the moonlight.

And he also mentions that there are many skeletons in the castle.  But, if this is a tomb or crypt of some kind, why would he have have a seemingly large collection of illustrated books?  And how could there be a forest there?  He finds the castle with the party to be "maddeningly familiar", and I assume that this is where he had lived during life.  They have made a number of alterations to it since he has been gone.  In the split second in which he recognizes himself in the mirror, he also remembers the castle.

 

What do you think of this story?

 

 

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carusmm
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

[ Edited ]

It reminds me of Frankenstein.

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dalnewt
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

[ Edited ]

I didn't really sympathize with the narrator, but I was horrified along with him by the ancient and crumbling edifice he lived in and the miserably dark world he inhabited. I did sympathize with his loneliness, but not with him exactly. I guess I suspected the narrator from the beginning. Something in me always knew that he wasn't human or was no longer human. Anyone who can't remember who raised them and has no idea how they came to live in the ancient castle, well, that sort of individual is suspicious to say the least. 

 

I suppose I knew from the outset what he would eventually discover for himself. I knew immediately that he was looking in a mirror, and that the people he finally encountered were horrified by him.

 

Yet, I'm glad he escaped to haunt this world rather than continuing to abide in his dismal underworld.

 

The Wikipedia analysis of the story (The Outsider (short story) ) indicates that it, "combines HorrorFantasy, and Gothic Fiction to create a truly nightmarish story, containing themes of loneliness, the abhuman, and the afterlife." Here's that analysis:

Analysis

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.


Loneliness

The narrator in "The Outsider" exists in a perpetual state of loneliness. At the onset of the story, it is revealed that he has lived for years in the castle but cannot recall any person ever being there except for himself. Neither can he recall the presence of anything alive but the "noiseless rats and bats and spiders" that surround him. He has never heard the voice of another human being, nor has he ever spoken aloud. His only encounters with the outside world are those he attains from reading the old books that have been left within the castle.

 

Upon encountering humanity later in the story, the narrator is left even more lonely than before. He has come to witness human life and has been immediately shunned from it due to his appearance. Being outcast from the society he longed to know forced the narrator to continue living life as a recluse. However, this time it has been made worse because what he has lost was no longer a vague idea from a book but a tangible thing held out of his grasp.


The Abhuman

In Gothic Fiction, abhuman refers to a "Gothic body" or something that is only vestigially human and possibly in the process of becoming something monstrous,[7] such as a vampire[8], werewolf, or in this case a walking corpse.[9] Kelly Hurley writes that the "abhuman subject is a not-quite-human subject, characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other."[10]

The idea of "becoming other" parallels what is happening in this story. Further, the intensity of the process is heightened because the reader is learning of this transition from human to the abhuman right along with the narrator who is learning it himself.

 

Note, I disagree that the narrator is worse off for knowing the truth and inhabiting this world rather than his loathsome underworld. Sure he's become a recluse, but he has the moon and the stars and the night.

 

P.S. Lovecraft was something of an outsider himself. The last lineal descendant of his New England family, he was something of a recluse after a short two year marriage. He lived with two elder aunts. His stories apparently earned him a small circle of literary admirers.   

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dalnewt
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

 


dulcinea3 wrote:

 

I suppose it's fruitless to really try to analyse a Lovecraft story, but I wonder where exactly the narrator has been living.  And has he been dead all along?  Does the earliest he can remember correspond to when he died and was placed in a tomb?  He definitely seems to comes up out of his 'castle' into a graveyard (the markers being the 'marble slabs and columns').

decked and diversified by marble slabs and columns, and overshadowed by an ancient stone church, whose ruined spire gleamed spectrally in the moonlight.

And he also mentions that there are many skeletons in the castle.  But, if this is a tomb or crypt of some kind, why would he have have a seemingly large collection of illustrated books?  And how could there be a forest there?  He finds the castle with the party to be "maddeningly familiar", and I assume that this is where he had lived during life.  They have made a number of alterations to it since he has been gone.  In the split second in which he recognizes himself in the mirror, he also remembers the castle.

 

What do you think of this story?

 

 


 

I also wondered exactly where the narrator lived. The story begins with a description that defies reason given the later ascention of the narrator to the surface world. What kind of place is underground but has vine encrusted trees? At the outset of the story I assumed the narrator was on the surface due to the description of the trees that surrounded the crumbling castle as follows:

 

Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. (Emphasis added.)

 

It's as if the narrator's decayed domicile and his surrounding grounds have sunken into the earth to be buried by slow and inevitable passage of time. This conclusion is further supported by the following passage:

 

Outside, across the putrid moat and under the dark mute trees, I would often lie and dream for hours about what I read in the books; and would longingly picture myself amidst gay crowds in the sunny world beyond the endless forests. Once I tried to escape from the forest, but as I went farther from the castle the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear; so that I ran frantically back lest I lose my way in a labyrinth of nighted silence. 

 

The narrator's slow climb up the inner wall of the ruined tower is a tangible manifestation of his longing for companionship. From the following description, I think he first reaches an underground stone mausoleum/crypt with coffins arranged on shelves:

 

All at once, after an infinity of awesome, sightless, crawling up that concave and desperate precipice, I felt my head touch a solid thing, and I knew I must have gained the roof, or at least some kind of floor. In the darkness I raised my free hand and tested the barrier, finding it stone and immovable. Then came a deadly circuit of the tower, clinging to whatever holds the slimy wall could give; till finally my testing hand found the barrier yielding, and I turned upward again, pushing the slab or door with my head as I used both hands in my fearful ascent. There was no light revealed above, and as my hands went higher I knew that my climb was for the nonce ended; since the slab was the trapdoor of an aperture leading to a level stone surface of greater circumference than the lower tower, no doubt the floor of some lofty and capacious observation chamber. I crawled through carefully, and tried to prevent the heavy slab from falling back into place, but failed in the latter attempt. As I lay exhausted on the stone floor I heard the eerie echoes of its fall, hoped when necessary to pry it up again.

 

Believing I was now at prodigious height, far above the accursed branches of the wood, I dragged myself up from the floor and fumbled about for windows, that I might look for the first time upon the sky, and the moon and stars of which I had read. But on every hand I was disappointed; since all that I found were vast shelves of marble, bearing odious oblong boxes of disturbing size. More and more I reflected, and wondered what hoary secrets might abide in this high apartment so many aeons cut off from the castle below. Then unexpectedly trying it, I found it locked; but with a supreme burst of strength I overcame all obstacles and dragged it open inward. As I did so there came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known; for shining tranquilly through an ornate grating of iron, and down a short stone passageway of steps that ascended from the newly found doorway, was the radiant full moon, which I had never before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared not call memories. (Emphasis added.)

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carusmm
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

Lovecraft's derivative, methinks his racism is not terribly original either.

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dalnewt
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

I found the following analysis of the story at Existential Sadness in Lovecraft's 'The Outsider'.  Here's that analysis:


Existential Sadness in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” by Louise Norlie

Later in his life, Lovecraft’s opinion of one of his most beloved stories, “The Outsider,” was not a positive one. He wrote that it was “too glibly mechanicalin its climactic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language... It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.”1 Later, he went even further, calling it a “rotten piece of rhetorical hash with Poesque imitativeness plastered all over it.”2

Lovecraft’s self-depreciation is understandable on the basis of its style. Besides Poe (in particular, his “Berenice” and “The Masque of the Red Death”), elements of this story have been traced to Wilde, Hawthorne, and Mary Shelley. Perhaps Lovecraft also feared that the conclusion was too easily predicted in advance of the final sentence. In spite of this, the story is not a shallow one. “The Outsider” contains themes that Lovecraft was to treat to grander effect in the future. That aspect alone, however, is not the reason for its appeal.

“The Outsider” has obvious autobiographical connections.. The theories of various psychologists, from Jung to Freud, have been summoned for the obvious applications of their symbolic formulae. The narrator is connected to various other Lovecraft tales. The story is interpreted as a ridicule of the belief in an afterlife, showing that consciousness remains after death only to experience the decay of the body. It represents the insignificance of man in the uncaring universe. It is the tragedy of those who long for the past but are forced to live in a maddening present and future.3 Though each interpretation has validity and merit, these analyses do not accept the story on its own terms.

The story is accused of being incoherent, having atmosphere but no logic. Clearly, realism, a quality that Lovecraft never desired in his writing, is disregarded. There are aspects of the narrator’s situation that are never accounted for. Most crucially, how could the outsider have avoided noticing his own appearance in his many years of isolation? The text makes note that there were no mirrors or sun and that the narrator longed for light. Yet he does have a candle, sufficient illumination to peruse his antique books. There is also enough light to identify the “twisted branches far aloft” against the background of the perpetually crepuscular sky. The outsider could surely glimpse his arms and hands. Why is his appearance so stunning later?

This apparent discrepancy can be explained. The “longing for light” is later clarified later as “brilliance and gaiety” — perhaps his desire is to “shed light” upon himself in the context of others in order to escape his solipsism. Interestingly, his first shock is not his own reflection in the mirror, but the terrorizing rejection of the revelers. This is what turns his hopefulness into the “blackest convulsion of despair.” He is not, and will never be, inherently acceptable to others. Alone, the outsider did not have any cause to consider how he looks. Nevertheless, he may have literally “seen” himself without realizing the implications of his appearance. For him, there was “nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons” of the crypt which are “more natural” than “pictures of living beings.” He does not regard himself with revulsion until he enters the (currently) living world.

Another contradiction occurs after the outsider recalls “all that had been” and further identifies the “unholy abomination” of his own body. This moment is followed by alleged oblivion as “nepenthe” washes the memories away.. Yet the very fact of the outsider’s narration proves that he did not forget. Although we are never told precisely what his memories are, an awareness of his history remains, enough to tell his tale. After a failed attempt to reenter the crypt, paralleling his inability to reproduce his former ignorance, his emotions are calmed as he cavorts with “friendly ghouls on the night-wind.” Ultimately he has learned to accept his fate. Likewise, it was Lovecraft’s stoic aim “to remain abstract, detached, neutral, indifferent, objective, impersonal, universal, & non-chronological.”4 Lovecraft’s ideal existence took the form of passive witnessing. He favored being “a sort of floating, disembodied eye which sees all manner of marvelous phenomena without being greatly affected by them.”5

The inconsistencies in this story are often attributed to the fact that the story is like a dream. Just as in dreams, the narrator is subjected to a litany of images and morphing tableaux that are entirely convincing of a certain truth while they appear. Upon waking, however, dreams often seem irrational and absurd. They can be denied. The experience of the outsider can thus be easily invalidated. The presence of unanswered questions does not by necessity make this story “just a dream.” In “The Outsider,” nothing is tucked into place to create a self-contained vision of existence. The narrator’s vision is restricted. Not all his questions can be answered and an unexplainable infinity lurks beyond every horizon. This concept is not presented with the purpose of presenting any particular opinion. It just is and thus undermines rather than assures a sense of the outsider’s identity.

In his best stories, Lovecraft’s characters are supplied with very little personal or psychological background.6 They have few definable characteristics. Nonetheless, they are not specimens of “everyman,” for they are always “outsiders.” In “The Outsider,” this trend is taken to the extreme. The nameless narrator is mere consciousness. He is seemingly the only one of his kind. As Michel Houellebecq wrote, this is in accordance with Lovecraft’s “heroic and paradoxical desire to go beyond humanity.”7

The story is also beyond the limits of time. When the outsider travels from the crypt to the castle, the narrator becomes “conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory” and senses that some changes have taken place. Most changes take the form of decay rather than growth or transformation. Many other authors would have indicated the passage of time by noting the existence or nonexistence of certain concrete objects associated with various ages. An outsider from the 18th century resurfacing in the 20th might notice cars or paved highways on his way to the castle. This would also indicate how long the narrator had been below ground. In the castle, personal details might be added. Perhaps the outsider would notice an ancestral portrait in the castle or other memento of specific people and events. To Lovecraft, such appurtenances are irrelevant. He prefers to transcend such restraints. In fact, Lovecraft’s favorite conflict was that of “the principle of freedom or irregularity or adventurous opportunity against the eternal & maddening rigidity of cosmic law... especially the laws of time.”8

Beyond time and generally beyond individuality, Lovecraft’s characters have few distractions. There have no specifics, no goals, no purpose, no friends, no diversions, nothing to measure themselves against. In such an uncluttered life as that of the outsider, boredom can become terrifying as hours, days, and months stretch before and behind in a barren vista of unchanging sameness. As a result, Lovecraft’s characters are paradoxically drawn outside of themselves. Lovecraft shows us where this takes them. He famously wrote in “The Call of Cthulhu” that “the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Due to their seclusion, this state is exactly what many Lovecraftian characters approach. Uncomforted by any form of escape, they are exposed to staggering revelations.

Horror itself, while experienced by the narrator, is not the primary characteristic of this particular story. From the first sentence, this is a tale of grief. Lovecraft noted that he had a “cynicism tempered with immeasurable pity for man’s eternal tragedy of man’s aspirations beyond the possibility of fulfillment.”9 Combining this with his detachment, he wrote that “what sadness I have, is not so much personal, as a vast and terrible melancholy at the pain and futility of all existence.”10 Of this sorrow, “The Outsider” is a strong and coherent representation.

1 De Camp, L Sprague. Lovecraft: a Biography. (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), 150.

2 De Camp, 347.

3 Mosig, Dirk. “The Four Faces of the Outsider,” Discovering H.P. Lovecraft. Darrell Schweitzer, ed. (Rockville, Maryland: Wildside Press, 2001), 18

4 De Camp, 325.

5 De Camp, 348.

6 Houellebecq, Michel. H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Trans. Dorna Khazeni (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2005), 68.

7 Houellebecq, 77.

8 De Camp, 388.

9 De Camp, 165.

10 De Camp, 75.


Apparently this story is one of grief over unalterable isolation caused by the narrator's grotesque and decaying form. But, the story doesn't end with sadness. Instead it ends with wildness, freedom and the narrator's acceptance of being forever alienated from the living.  

When I returned to the churchyard place of marble and went down the steps I found the stone trap-door immovable; but I was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle and the trees. Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage. 

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carusmm
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

Without ice cream Lovecraft would've been even more sad and isolated.  No-one can blame a bloke for loving ice cream.

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dulcinea3
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

Dalnewt, that was an excellent analysis that you found and posted!  It was very interesting.

 

I only take some exception to the following:

The story is also beyond the limits of time. When the outsider travels from the crypt to the castle, the narrator becomes “conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory” and senses that some changes have taken place. Most changes take the form of decay rather than growth or transformation. Many other authors would have indicated the passage of time by noting the existence or nonexistence of certain concrete objects associated with various ages. An outsider from the 18th century resurfacing in the 20th might notice cars or paved highways on his way to the castle. This would also indicate how long the narrator had been below ground. In the castle, personal details might be added. Perhaps the outsider would notice an ancestral portrait in the castle or other memento of specific people and events. To Lovecraft, such appurtenances are irrelevant. He prefers to transcend such restraints. In fact, Lovecraft’s favorite conflict was that of “the principle of freedom or irregularity or adventurous opportunity against the eternal & maddening rigidity of cosmic law... especially the laws of time.”

Lovecraft does use exactly the kind of indications of the passage of time that the analyst claims he does not.

 

The following speaks of ruins of things long gone, although they seemingly don't bear relation to the narrator, and don't indicate how long he has been in the crypt.  However, they are marks of the passage of time:

I passed under an arch out of that region of slabs and columns, and wandered through the open country; sometimes following the visible road, but sometimes leaving it curiously to tread across meadows where only occasional ruins bespoke the ancient presence of a forgotten road. Once I swam across a swift river where crumbling, mossy masonry told of a bridge long vanished.

But the following clearly shows that there have been alterations to the castle since the narrator saw it last, and indicates that some time must have passed:

Over two hours must have passed before I reached what seemed to be my goal, a venerable ivied castle in a thickly wooded park, maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me. I saw that the moat was filled in, and that some of the well-known towers were demolished, whilst new wings existed to confuse the beholder.

I think that the filling in of the moat is perhaps particularly significant in this context.  When the narrator last lived in the castle, moats were still being used for protection and defense, but with the passage of time it became an anachronism and no longer needed nor useful.  Towers were also used for defense, so perhaps their disappearance also hints at the transition from a feudal warlike period to a more modern, inclusive society.

 

He later remembers more clearly:

I knew in that second all that had been; I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood...

 

In the last passages of the story, I first read them one way and then came to an alternate reading; I'm not sure which I lean towards more.  At first I thought that because he realized and accepted that he was dead, he was free to exist outside of his physical remains and so was able to join the other spirits and go anywhere in the world.  However, the references to nepenthe intrigued me.  Nepenthe, as I understand it, is a drug, possibly an opiate.  He also states that it has calmed him.  Perhaps the visions that he describes are merely hallucinations caused by the drug, and he now 'lives' in a constant state of hallucination, obliterating reality altogether.

 

Of course, if he is actually dead, how can he be taking a drug at all?  And where would he get it?  But nothing in a Lovecraft story needs to make sense, I guess.

 

That also reminds me that before the narrator left his home, one of the things that made me think he was dead was that there did not seem to be any way for him to get food, and he never spoke of it.

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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

"Mere physical gruesomeness or conventional ghosts cannot make true weird art."  H. P. Lovecraft

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dalnewt
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Re: Lovecraft: The Outsider (short story)

[ Edited ]

The story isn't literally 'beyond the limits of time' as time has obviously passed; but, the story isn't set in a specific period of time. Conceivably the narrator could have emerged in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th century. Moats became archaic in the 15th (or perhaps 14th or 13th) century with the use of cannon/gun-powder; and, the buttresses of collapsed Roman bridges existed in all those centuries. When the narrator beholds the brilliantly lit castle, no mention is made as to the source of that lighting. Furthermore, the narrator doesn't seem familiar with framed/arched mirrors as he mistakes one for an arched doorway into another room. There's nothing to pinpoint the specific century much less decade in which the story is set, and, in that way, the story exists in an amorphous time. I think that's what the analysis is trying to say.

 

I was also confused as to what kind of entity the narrator is. He obviously has a corporeal body because he can touch things and moves by running/walking, climbing or swimming. But, his visage terrifies the merry company in the castle. Here's the description of the 'monster' beheld by the narrator beyond the golden arch:

I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and dissolution; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation, the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world - or no longer of this world - yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.

 

I was almost paralysed, but not too much so to make a feeble effort towards flight; a backward stumble which failed to break the spell in which the nameless, voiceless monster held me. My eyes bewitched by the glassy orbs which stared loathsomely into them, refused to close; though they were mercifully blurred, and showed the terrible object but indistinctly after the first shock. I tried to raise my hand to shut out the sight, yet so stunned were my nerves that my arm could not fully obey my will. The attempt, however, was enough to disturb my balance; so that I had to stagger forward several steps to avoid falling. As I did so I became suddenly and agonizingly aware of the nearness of the carrion thing, whose hideous hollow breathing I half fancied I could hear. Nearly mad, I found myself yet able to throw out a hand to ward of the foetid apparition which pressed so close; when in one cataclysmic second of cosmic nightmarishness and hellish accident my fingers touched the rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch. (Emphasis added.)

I envision the narrator to be a thinking but biologically dead man who is of ancient origin--a consciousness that hasn't died with the body and has kept the body animate although biologically dead--not a zombie but a revenant.

 

The reference to nepenthe bothered me also at first. How could a revenant, with no biological processes, drink? But, I came to the conclusion that it's a metaphor for the consciousness automatically protecting itself against the horror of its existence. In this regard, the nepenthe is said to be delivered by the cosmos. Relevant portions of the text are quoted below:

I did not shriek, but all the fiendish ghouls that ride the nightwind shrieked for me as in that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory. I knew in that second all that had been; I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own.


But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe. In the supreme horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images. (Emphasis added.)

It's somewhat maddening that the narrator never explains the horror of how he came to be, but that would destroy the mystique of the story. Similarly, we don't really know if the narrator finally shucked off his moldering body after he was unable to move the stone trap-door in the churchyard crypt. I suppose both interpretations are valid. Note, despite the balm of nepenthe, the narrator apparently retained knowledge that he can never associate with the living because he resides among spirits and the dead.