H. P. Lovecraft: “The Colour Out of Space” (1922) This was Lovecraft’s own favorite short story, out of hundreds he wrote. He penned it the same year he wrote an essay on horror fiction, and it embodies his theories about the genre, among whose godfathers he singles out Hawthorne and Poe. “Colour” was written just before Lovecraft's other most-famous story, “The Dunwich Horror,” which narrowly came in second for my choice of which Lovecraft story to include in the Short Story Playlist project.
Both stories involve similar settings—backwoods nineteenth-century New England—full of dark, twisted forests, backwards beliefs, superstitious locals far from the light of Reason, and creepy goings-on. Lovecraft writes—often over-writes—in a Victorian style that was old-fashioned in the 1920s but somehow maintains a certain appeal in our terse, economical times. His long, adjective-laden description of landscape lulls you into a mood receptive to his desolate realm of inbred Puritans who live among shadow-casting trees “which no axe has felled.” The fun o f a Lovecraft story is about mood, the slow build, a creepy canvas in which his limited action takes place. His stories aim to give you the willies rather than make you jump out of your seat. But such tales linger and wind around the imagination in a pleasantly dreadful way.
The concept of a color from outer space may not strike terror into your hearts, but it should. In the skillful hands of a master wordsmith like H. P. Lovecraft, the concept matters less than the execution. “The Colour Out of Space” is one of my favorite stories, and among the scariest I’ve ever read.
The action takes place in the oft-visited Lovecraftian land of Arkham, somewhere in rural Massachusetts. The story is told through layers, which was a popular tactic in late Victorian and Edwardian supernatural fiction—as if a tale told by a skeptical narrator makes a paranormal story more acceptable, with the re-teller/narrator standing in for the reader’s natural inclination to disbelief. We learn the story of the “colour” from an unnamed surveyor, our narrator, who has been hired to prepare the ground around Arkham to be flooded for a man-made reservoir. The area to be flooded—which belonged to the Gardner family—is referred to as the “blasted heath,” a phrase that Lovecraft recognizes as both wonderful and over-the-top, so he has his narrator comment on the poetic term—cribbed from Macbeth—used to describe an ash-gray area that was once the Gardner’s land, but now looks like a post-atomic bomb-zone.
The narrator learns of the “strange days” from locals in passing, but cannot get more out of them, except to be told not to speak with Ammi Pierce, the nearest neighbor to the blasted heath. So of course he inquires of Ammi, and learns that the “strange days” were only a few decades prior. Ammi, as the friend (as his name suggests) and neighbor of the Gardners, checked on them and learned, piece by piece, of the abnormal goings-on, and was witness to the family’s disintegration into madness, disappearance, and death.
A meteorite landed in the garden of the Gardner family and was visited by professors from the nearest university, who were baffled by its qualities. It seemed to be shrinking, though made of metal, and at its center was a sort of colored globule, though of no identifiable hue known to man. When the samples disintegrated along with the meteor, the scientists soon gave up. But the Gardner farm suffered some odd changes . . .
After a brief flush of over-sized harvests, the produce proved inedible, and the wildlife around the farm was fleetingly seen to have grown to bizarre, unnatural dimensions. The mother of the family went mad and was confined to an attic room, then the three sons in the family disappeared, two of them after having been sent to draw water from the nearby well. There seemed to be something lurking within the well, sapping the energy of all living things around it.
Ammi was there to witness the final disintegration (literally) of the last of the Gardners. In a scene that is as good and gripping as writing gets—and may be only paralleled by a similar scene of revelation in “The Dunwich Horror”—Ammi forces himself to mount the creaky wooden box stairs at the Gardner home to look inside the locked attic door at whatever is left of mad, incarcerated Mrs. Gardner, who could only crawl on all fours and scream and scream. (I get goose bumps just writing about it, and I re-read the story with glee.) After showing us Ammi witnessing the death of the last of the Gardners, Lovecraft finishes off his story with another good horror-story trope: the helplessness of “the authorities.” Ammi goes to town for help and, against his will, returns with the coroner and the police. There the team of authorities is trapped in the house, their horses having bolted for fear of whatever is down the well. Having sucked the last of the life out of the area, the “colour” launches itself from the well back into space, and yet … Some part of “it” remains at the bottom of that well, where the skeletal remains of two of the Gardner boys, and of a deer and a dog are found. The “something that remains” is a good feature—horror stories and films often have a false ending, like a Beethoven symphony, with one more little terror at the very end to suggest that, even when we think it’s over, it ain’t yet over.
It is with relief that Ammi, decades later, learns of the reservoir that will cover the blasted heath—all that remains of the Gardner farm and the well—forever. But our narrator has heard enough, having turned from a skeptic to a firm believer. He resigns his position as surveyor so that he will not have to return to Arkham, ever. But we readers gladly return to the world of Lovecraft, his occult or alien horrors in dark, Puritanical New England forests is a world adored by lovers of the creepy.
Lovecraft is a master of the slow build, the ominous occurrence, the signs that forces beyond our comprehension are at play. He invented some now-popular cult figures who have entered, if not the general vocabulary, then certainly the imagination of all writers of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi who follow after him. Such items as the Necronomicon, the Cult of Cthulu, the concept of squid-like aliens, the very idea that an ancient race of aliens inhabited the Earth long before human beings evolved come from Lovecraft’s fertile and fervid imagination. He easily combines genres that never needed to be distinct, but tend to be today. Science fiction and horror did not mingle prior to Lovecraft, and for some reason those who are into sci-fi tend not to care for fantasy, and vice versa, and horror is also usually seen as a distinct field. In reality, all these genres should, and can, intermingle. The occult and the extraterrestrial should not be mutually exclusive.
“The Colour Out of Space” shows how the genres of fantasy can coexist in a world where something “satanic” easily tips into something literally out of this world. Lovecraft’s stated goal with this story was to create wholesale a new sort of monster, and the fact he turns a floating, nondescript color into an object of terror is an impressive indication of his “unholy” powers.