Short Story Saturdays: "The Color Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft
"The Color Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft
“It was a color out of space–a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”
Written at the beginning and published towards the end of 1927, The Color Out of Space is a short story by American weird/science/horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft. It stands as one of his best and most popular of his innumerable short stories, having been adapted to film four times and influenced countless others.
An unnamed investigator travels to the town of Arkham, Massachusetts looking for information on the mysterious borough referred to by locals as “the blasted heath.” He comes across an odd man named Ammi who begins telling the true tale of the place’s dark and alien history.
The story begins when a tiny meteorite falls out of the sky and into the farm of a man named Nahum Gardner who, with his wife and three sons, own and operate the property. Ammi was a friend of Nahums. At first, Nahum is intrigued by the odd, fallen rock, and he calls the local scientists and grad students to take a look at it. They observe that the rock emits a cloud of a strange color, a color that cannot be defined by any other color, a new color. Scientists take pieces of the meteorite to test in a lab, the other shards taken into Nahum’s household; however, all pieces of the meteorite disappear after a thunderstorm each leaving behind a dark, burnt stain.
A year later, some odd things begin happening. Nahum’s crops grow extremely fast, but they are gray and inedible. In the night though, Nahum’s sons state that the plants and grass outside shine with a mysterious glow. Then, his animals begin acting strangely as well, his horses whining and growing anxious which spreads to his other animals. His livestock becomes inedible. Nahum is convinced that the meteorite has had something to do with it. Then his wife starts acting strangely too.
Mrs. Gardner begins acting erratically and, fearing for her life, Nahum locks her in the attic of his house. Then his oldest son, Thaddeus, begins acting erratically too, and Nahum locks him in the attic as well. His second oldest son, Merwin disappears after retrieving water from the well, and an investigation is launched but proves unsuccessful. Nahum’s third son, Zenas, then disappears too. And throughout of this mayhem, the mysterious, undefinable color has pervaded the property.
Ammi arrives at the house and goes searching for the Gardener family. He finds the dead body of Thaddeus in the attic. He finds Mrs. Gardner, who, in her mutilated and grotesque transformation, attacks Ammi, but he kills her, or rather, puts her out of her misery. He then finds Nahum who is in the throes of the alien sickness inspired and finally succumbs to the color.
The next day, Ammi with a team of men, investigate the property and the remains of the found bodies. They also find the skeletal remains of Merwin and Zenas which were at the bottom of the well along with remains of several creatures. Then, suddenly, a great light of the mysterious color shoots from the well and shines straight upward into the sky like it was connecting to a faraway point in outer space. The men flee the vicinity, horrified by the odd occurrence, but Ammi watches from a distance. He sees the light ripple and move, appearing to travel up into the sky, and just as the end of the light ascends from out of the well and up into the air, Ammi notices that a small part of it falls back into the well.
This is classic Lovecraftian horror, the subgenre and niche literary community inspired by the talent of the man himself. Lovecraft’s prosaic signature lies in the cosmic vastness of horror elements of the story as well as a lack of gore or violence and the emphasis on a gradual suspense and growing suspicion. “The Color Out of Space” exemplifies these elements beautifully, all the while pulling the reader along through the murky waters of high strangeness. And it is in Lovecraft’s indisputable, uncontested, and truly incredible literary talent that he able to accomplish such an amazing feat.
How does one write about a new color, something that is truly unimaginable, as to imagine a color that is independent and uninfluenced by other colors is seemingly impossible? This is where Lovecraft unexceptional gift and unparalleled creativity merge into a beautiful array of description and prose. The color, throughout the short story, is described through analogies, most of which are long-winded, grandiloquent phrases which often rely on an understanding of scientific lexicon. However, such descriptions are interspersed against a backdrop of Victorian era prose complete with old-fashioned quirks such as “shewed” and “skyey.” Lovecraft evidently had a satirical side to him.
It is no wonder such a piece maintains its rank in the literary canon of horror and science fiction, as the effect that this one story has had on the greatest subsequent stories is undeniable and uncanny. Lovecraft walked so that Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and thousands of authors more could run, and the impact of this one story, “The Color Out of Space,” endures through the ages, hidden in the subtleties of the greats.
GO READ IT.
PS – I am fully aware of the political and social ideologies of Lovecraft, and while they sometimes seep into his work, thankfully this classic short story is safe from that side of him.