Monday, January 31, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Colour Out of Space

West of Arkham, the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.
So begins H.P. Lovecraft's favorite of his own stories, "The Colour Out of Space," first published in the September 1927 issue of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories. Amazing Stories has the distinction of being the first pulp magazine devoted solely to science fiction, though, at this early date, "science fiction" is a broad category and includes many stories, such as Lovecraft's own, that, by today's more rigid definitions, would not be considered part of the genre. Nevertheless, "The Colour Out of Space" is not a tale of the supernatural and, even moreso than most of HPL's works, it's quite clear that the events it describes occur because of purely physical causes, albeit alien and inexplicable ones. This probably explains why Lovecraft was so fond of the story: it was an unambiguous exemplar of his philosophy of cosmicism.

"The Colour Out of Space" is a typically Lovecraftian first-person account by a man of learning, in this case a surveyor sent out by the city of Arkham to look for a suitable location for a new reservoir. In doing so, the narrator discovers that the area seemingly most suitable for this project is deemed "evil" by the local inhabitants and rightly so:
It was morning when I saw it, but shadows lurked always there. The trees grew too thickly, and their trunks were too big for any healthy New England wood. There was too much silence in the dim valleys between them, and the floor was too soft with dank moss and matting of infinite years of decay.

In the open spaces, mostly along the line of the old road, there were little hillside farms; sometimes with all the buildings standing, sometimes with only one or two, and sometimes with only a lone chimney or fast-filling cellar. Weeds and briers reigned, and furtive wild things rustled in the undergrowth. Upon everything was a haze of restlessness and oppression; a touch of the unreal and the grotesque, as if some vital element of perspective or chiaroscuro were awry.
Moving on, the narrator finally gazes upon the blasted heath itself.
I knew it the moment I came upon it at the bottom of a spacious valley; for no other name could fit such a thing, or any other thing fit such a name. It was as if a poet had coined the phrase from having seen this one particular region. It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the wood and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. 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 rooting at the rim.
I quote these passages to give some sense of the tenor of "The Colour Out of Space," which is more an evocation of mood than a conventional narrative. Here, Lovecraft's ability not merely to describe but to conjure up feelings of tension and unease is in full force -- little wonder, then, he regarded the piece so highly.

Like so many of Lovecraft's protagonists, the surveyor is something of a skeptic, believing that "the evil must be something which grandams had whispered to children through centuries" rather than something more real. Still, he is curious about the blasted heath and his curiosity eventually leads him to octogenarian Ammi Pierce, whose "eyes drooped in a curious way" and whose "unkempt clothing and white beard made him seem very worn and dismal." Pierce explains the true origins of the blasted heath, recounting what he remembers from his younger days.
It all began, old Ammi said, with the meteorite. Before that time there had been no wild legends at all since the witch trials, and even then these western woods were not feared half so much as the small island in the Miskatonic where the devil held court beside a curious stone altar older than the Indians. These were not haunted woods, and their fantastic dusk was never terrible till the strange days. Then there had come that white noontide cloud, that string of explosions in the air, and that pillar of smoke from the valley far in the wood. And by night all Arkham heard of the great rock that fell out of the sky and bedded itself in the ground beside the well at the Nahum Gardner place. That was the house which had stood where the blasted heath was to come -- the trime white Nahum Gardner house amidst its fertile gardens and orchards.
To my mind, Lovecraft better marshals his talents to set a mood in "The Colour Out of Space" than he does in many of his more famous tales. His vocabulary is much more restrained and the sentence structure not quite so baroque. Likewise, he leaves much unexplained and suggestive, allowing the reader to attempt to piece together the truth of just what happened to Nahum Gardner and his family as a result of the meteor strike. Likewise, the conclusion of the entire story, as the narrator himself reflects on the implications of Ammi Pierce's tale, is similarly suggestive, leaving it to the reader to grapple with its meaning -- if any -- for himself.

Consequently, "The Colour Out of Space" is a very good story and by any measure one of Lovecraft's most effective. Granted, not a lot happens in the story, especially to the story's contemporary narrator, but that's not really the point of it. In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith shortly after completing it, HPL called "The Colour Out of Space" an "atmospheric study" and so it is. It's a well-done evocation of not so much fear or horror as dread, because the reader already knows from the first what will happen to the Gardner farm but he does not know how. Lovecraft deftly makes use of this fact to create one of his best stories and one of the most potent examples of his worldview given literary form.


  1. I did a write-up of this on my own blog about three weeks ago. It's a great story. One of Lovecraft's best in my opinion.

  2. This is one of my favorites as well.

  3. This is the best story Lovecraft wrote, in my opinion.

  4. In terms of style and sheer creepiness, definitely one of his most effective pieces.

  5. One of my favorite tales for just the reason you mention: the evocation of dread, rather than the shock or splatter horror common today.

  6. For some reason this story left me unimpressed. I found "Call of Cthulhu" to be a much clearer explanation of his nihilism. Then again, perhaps "Color out of Space" is more subtle and therefore more artistically important. I don't know. CoC really opened my eyes to how well Lovecraft could tell a story that chillingly presented his view of the world. To me, it is the epitome of everything Lovecraft. Maybe I should read "Colour" again.

  7. Nice post James. I've, on and off, tried to force myself to finish a Lovecraft book that I bought a while back. He comes so highly recommended that I figured I should finally read some of his work. Oh. My. God. Dull, plodding... his work really does nothing for me at all.

    That said, "Colour Out of Space" was one of the few that I did enjoy. That story in particular was well-written and kept my interest.

  8. ...though, at this early date, "science fiction" is a broad category and includes many stories, such as Lovecraft's own, that, by today's more rigid definitions, would not be considered part of the genre.

    On the contrary. I think most SF aficionados, including myself, would still classify "The Colour out of Space" under the heading of science fiction, at least broadly defined. Those who might not are the few "hard scifi" holdouts who don't consider anything that doesn't "rigorously extrapolate" from known scientific fact science fiction. That is to say, those who are so deluded they won't or can't admit that all SF is a subgenre of fantasy (e.g., if FTL travel isn't a fantasy, I don't know what is :).

  9. Something must be in the air -- I just posted a review of an HPL collection including this story, which I too singled out as a particular favorite.

  10. This is also one of my favorites. A great blend of horror and science fiction (before there was a clear line to both).

  11. "In the open spaces, mostly along the line of the old road, there were little hillside farms; sometimes with all the buildings standing, sometimes with only one or two, and sometimes with only a lone chimney or fast-filling cellar."

    I took the following photo a week ago or so.

    It comes from the Quabbin Reservoir reservation land. The Quabbin is the reservoir that was the inspiration for the setting in the story. This is about a mile from my house. I took a snow shoe hike one afternoon and took some photos. "Gardner" is a town about 20 miles northeast of my house.

  12. A truly grim and gristly story, this one stayed with me more than most.