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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Retro Review: Howard Phillips Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space

H.P. Lovecraft is a minor passion of mine. While others may have finished reading his complete works, or know his various stories and lore more completely, I have a deep and abiding appreciation for his writing. His style, his influence, his prolixity are unmatched in horror fiction.

It appears to me our modern society does not appreciated him nearly enough, yet each time I think so I run into websites set up by such outfits like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Such electronic encounters give me ease when it comes to Lovecraft's legacy.

My very first foray into Lovecraftian horror was fortunately also one of his best pieces, The Colour Out of Space. This science fiction-horror short story, written in 1927, was far ahead of its time, and after one reads it it is easy to see the tremendous influence it had. It is also, in my humble opinion, one of the few Lovecraft stories which would translate rather easily to film, if anyone had the intestinal fortitude to try it. Simply, it is the story of what happens to a quiet New England farm after a meteor falls on it.

Set in the dark, ancient, and inevitably creepy woods surrounding Lovecraft's fictional Arkham, Massachusetts, the story unfolds through the voice of a big-city surveyor recounting his adventure of seeking out the lay of the land for a future reservoir project, curious about what the few locals left in the tenebrous region name as the "blasted heath."

"Blasted heath" you say?
"There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim. As I walked hurriedly by I saw the tumbled bricks and stones of an old chimney and cellar on my right, and the yawning black maw of an abandoned well whose stagnant vapours played strange tricks with the hues of the sunlight."
Our narrator is unable to get to the bottom of the cause of the blasted heath, beyond what appeared to have been some mysterious sequence of events some fifty years earlier. But alas, there was an old, some say crazy, man by the name of Ammi Pierce who could recount the tale in its entirety. And as a result of hearing old Ammi Pierce's tale, our narrator returned forthwith to Boston, resigned his position, and swore never to drink the water in Arkham under any circumstances. And that's just the first three pages.

What Ammi related to the unnamed narrator is that in June of 1882 a meteorite fell on his friend and neighbor's farm, a man by the name of Nahum Gardner. Up until that time the Gardner farm had been a series of fertile gardens and orchards. The object was studied by professors of the nearby Miskatonic University in Arkham, and found to be plastic in nature, and of a nearly indescribable colour to the eye. Tests revealed the meteor acted very strangely, never cooling, and displaying unknown colours when placed in a spectroscope.

While Lovecraft, as was ofttimes his wont, never revealed the precise nature of the meteor, suffice it to say that there was some sort of beforehand unknown alien life, the nature of which could not be understood by humans. Lovecraft had, for a layman, a rather good grasp of science, and understood that alien life would be so different as to likely be unrecognized by even the best scientific minds. This is what he gives us a taste of in "Colour."

Lovecraft writes at some length about the various tests performed on the mysterious object, including various acids and bases, and that the reactions are peculiar.

Lovecraft also understood, perhaps better than others at the time, the concepts of pollution and leeching, which are important to the story, as the residue of the meteor plays havoc with the Gardners' harvest in 1882. The leeching and poisoning of the earth and the water also has a far more insidious effect on the family themselves, in addition to the flora and fauna. Lovecraft had the inkling that objects from outer space might be unhealthful to the Earth.

The story progresses steadily with ominous overtones, from the high of Nahum's near celebrity for the rock to have fallen on his farm, to the failed harvest, to finding queer tracks in the snow that winter, to a neighbor shooting a woodchuck that was apparently terribly and indescribably deformed, to plants growing in monstrous shape and colour. This ever present, furtive, baleful atmosphere of dread is Lovecraft at his best, and builds to a terrifying crescendo. And the next spring and the following summer would be for the worst, at least for Nahum and the rest of the Gardners. Madness, decay, blasphemy and much worse lurked just behind the period at the end of each sentence.

Just about every insidious alien invasion movie, [as opposed to overt invasions, like Independence Day or V, which owe their inspiration H.G. Wells], from The Blob to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from It Came From Outer Space to The Thing From Another World, from Lifeforce to The Thing, all owe their existence to The Colour Out of Space. Which says a lot, as it is a mere 15 or so pages, depending on the printing.

I strongly suggest to any lover of horror and science fiction to read and reread Lovecraft. And if you have never read any of his stories, I suggest that you make The Colour Out of Space your first. After that you will be inextricably hooked.


Unknown said...

HPL's creations actually had a major influence on my own writing. Nyarlathotep plays a huge role in my forthcoming book. While my writing style is closer to Stephen King than to Lovecraft, and while I try not to be a copycat, I enjoy paying homage to those who influenced me. I'm currently re-reading Lovecraft because to be honest, I haven't read most of his works in 20-25 years.
Another great writer that most people don't think about is Ambrose Bierce. Everyone knows about "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" but he wrote many stories at least that good and some even better that no-one knows about.
You might enjoy http://bitterbierce.blogspot.com

Unknown said...

It's true, this is a great H.P. Lovecraft story. There's always a great number of quotable sentences in his work.

My favorite, I think, is "The Rats in the Walls." I'm not sure why though.

Marty Thornley said...

Nice review. Lovecraft has always been a favorite of mine and this is definitely one of his best. 'The Outsider' is my personal favorite.

As much as I love Re-animator, no one's done Lovecraft's ancient gods and monsters justice yet. Let's hope Guillermo del Toro can finally give us a quality Lovecraft film in 'At the Mountains of Madness', if he can ever fit it into his crazy schedule.

Anonymous said...

There was an attempt to put this story to film. It was called the curse came out in the mid 80's. and next to gordon's demented takes on lovecraft, was one of the better adaptions to film. It has been years since I saw this film but I recall it was very close to the original story. You should look it up.e

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AndyDecker said...

Great review. Fortunatly Lovecraft seems to be successful enough today to warrant a lot of new editions like the compete Lovecraft by Gollancz for instance.

"Colour" is one of his best. It is quite eerie how many topics this tale has which only became relevant in the last decades.

Anonymous said...

Say kiddo..."Colour..." was done in mthe late '50's with Boris Karloff. It was called "Die Monster Die". Not such a good adaptation, but interesting.

B-Sol said...

Strange how no one has ever attempted to film any of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, at least since the silent era.

Luffy said...

Indeed. I agree, this tale is among Lovecraft's best...something incredibly horrible - something that you never see. This tale returns to the principle that it is your imagination that must do the weight lifting. Do a Poe story next.

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