6. The Colour Out of Space

by Red Emma

This week, the penultimate post in Red Emma’s Lovecraft Halloween Blog won’t veer into gender politics or scathing indictments of eugenicist bigots, nor will it confront the ingrained attitudes of classism, but will focus on story. “The Colour Out of Space” is one of Lovecraft’s best-written tales of horror and suspense.

Even Lovecraft thought so. According to biographer S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft considered it his best work until his death in 1937.

The story begins with a surveyor who travels west of Arkham to an area which will soon be flooded to make a reservoir. This was happening all across America in Lovecraft’s time as the country moved toward a national power grid. Reservoirs with their huge turbines were an efficient way of creating enough electricity to power whole communities. In a letter to Richard Ely Morse Lovecraft talked of his own experiences with flooded New England, particularly of the Quabbin Reservoir in the Swift River Valley in central Massachusetts. “I went through [the Swift River Valley] 8 years ago, not long after its doom was first pronounced, and well-nigh groaned at the future destruction of exquisite old villages like Dana & its neighbors.. We have had a similar experience in Rhode Island, where a vast amount of rural territory was flooded in 1926 for a reservoir. If was that flooding which caused me to use the reservoir element in ‘The Colour Out of Space.’” 

The surveyor travels through quaint countryside, and the locals warn him of a “blasted heath” that is considered to be evil, but compelled as he is he continues. The surveyor’s first distant sighting of the area is described beautifully: “Then I saw that dark westward tangle of glens and slopes for myself, and ceased to wonder at anything besides its own elder mystery. It was morning when I saw it, but shadow lurked always there. The trees grew too thickly, and their trunks were too big for any healthy New England wood.. But even all this was not so bad as the blasted heath. I knew it the moment I came upon it at the bottom of a spacious valley.” Lovecraft refers to a poet, here, who must have coined the term ‘blasted heath’ after looking at this place, but it’s not clear whether he is referring to Milton’s Paradise Lost or the blasted heath in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I had an English teacher in junior high who told me that the more allusions I made in my own juvenile attempts at writing, the more respectable and literary my work would become. I don’t know if this is true. My school teachers also told me, variously, that Christopher Columbus was a hero who ‘discovered’ the new world, and that women didn’t make as many discoveries or contributions to the knowledge of the world as men had, and that’s why we weren’t learning about famous ladies. I am a bit disillusioned about my early education. But I can’t let it distract me from noticing the allusions made in “The Colour Out of Space,” not only to the blasted heath, but to the strong Biblical references threaded throughout. It’s possible that this tale is more eerie because of them. The names of the characters are mostly Biblical in reference; Ammi, one of the last to remain living near the blasted heath, shares a name with Ben-Ammi, a child Lot begat with one of his daughters. (This is a comment typical of Lovecraft, alluding to the ‘decadence’ and ‘decayed nature’ of the hillbilly locals in his tales; that he is inferring Ammi was born of incest falls right in line with Lovecraft’s worldview, as I understand it.)

Ammi, bedraggled, grizzled, and grey, with a long, matted beard, is the only remaining witness to what happened, and relays the story to the unnamed surveyor – who after resigning his job with the electric company, lest he be sent out in the country with its lurking horrors again, records Ammi’s tale for us. Aren’t we fortunate?

A meteorite of sorts hurtles from the sky and crashes on the farm of Nahum Gardner. Nahum in the Bible prophesied God’s destruction of the city of Nineveh for bringing forth evil into the world. In Lovecraft’s story, the poor, witless farmer Nahum is at first proud to have a real meteorite on his land. Experts come from the college in Arkham to gather a sample and study it, and when Nahum claims that the meteorite is shrinking, they dismiss it as country folk babble. However, at the lab, it does shrink; it eats through glass, it disappears leaving only a faint, resonant glow.

The doom that comes to Nahum’s farm at first seems a boon as crops are larger, trees heavier with fruit, but when eaten, the food is discovered to be rancid. The animals slowly die off. The Gardners seem lost and vacant within themselves. Their son, Thaddeus, dies. Thaddeus in the Bible is the second name of Saint Jude, as distinguished from Judas Iscariot the betrayer. Jude Thaddeus is in some religions considered the patron saint of lost causes.

Nahum Gardner’s wife seems the first to succumb fully to madness. Gardner considers it his only option to LOCK HER IN THE ATTIC. Please pardon my all-caps shouting, but I’m still subject to my intense rage over the way women have traditionally been dealt with in society. Not long after writing “Colour,” Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Bernard Austin Dwyer that “Living things – usually insane or idiotic members of the family – concealed in garrets or secret rooms of old houses are or at least have been literal realities in New England.” Perhaps because I re-read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the same week, which Lovecraft references in “Colour,” my read on the situation as a crime against female “hysterics” is doubly fueled. But I promised not to digress; for now, we will let Mrs. Gardner rot in the attic. There are bigger fish to fall in a well.

Or, smaller ones. Nahum’s youngest son, Merwin, is terrified of what is happening at the farm, and of the horrible shrieks his mother makes in the attic. One night, he steps outside to fetch a pail of water and is never seen or heard from again. Merwin, though not a Biblical name, has roots in the ancient Britonic lore that Lovecraft was interested in, as Merwin is just another spelling of the name Merlin. In another reference to Britonic lore, a crushed iron ring and twisted iron hoops from his lantern are all that remain of the missing child. Iron in the lore of the proto-Brits is the only element evil can not abide.

Nahum soon loses another son, Zenas. Distraught and nearly out of his mind, Nahum wanders into town in search of help but is only met with derisive laughter. What is going on in this New England village? I imagine if caring people had stepped in, Mrs. Gardner and all the children would have been spared their grisly fates – yet Nahum and his lot are doomed in an uncaring universe.

Only Ammi cares enough to check on them. He stops by what remains of the Gardner farm for the last time to find Nahum gone mad, the children all gone, and he grabs the key to the attic to check on Mrs. Gardner. He opens the door. This is the moment we horror readers live for. What is beyond it? What’s going to happen? I think you ought to read to find out.

So, what is the Colour out of space? It is described in the story as a colour unseen on Earth. This may be difficult to accept according to our current understanding of how the eye sees the color spectrum. Raise your hand if you found it difficult to suspend your disbelief upon first reading. (My hand is up.) However, recent research has found that when exposed to broader ranges of color, the eye adjusts in order to be able to see it. An artist who works with color all the time is more likely to see a subtle thread of orange in a piece of blue cloth than an average person because of an increased familiarity with color. Scientists are now experimenting with flashing short bursts of ultraviolet and infrared light at the retina to encourage the eye's ability to see in these ranges. 

Something terrible happens to the Gardner farm. It is what the locals later refer to as the "blasted heath", the frightening place our narrator is afraid to tread upon. As a horror tale, "The Colour Out of Space" does not disappoint. There is a moment when Ammi is fleeing the Gardner farm, and though he knows he shouldn’t, he looks back. Again, this is an illusion to the story of Lot in the Bible. God tells Lot and his family not to look back at the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, but Lot’s wife can’t help her curiosity. She looks back, and is turned to a pillar of salt. Ammi looks back – he isn’t turned to salt, but he is irreversibly changed henceforth. When our unnamed surveyor meets him, he is surprised to learn Ammi is a relatively young man.

Curiously, Danforth and Dyer look back in the tale covered last week, At the Mountains of Madness, and they are changed for it. One always pays a price for looking back, it seems. Whether this is advice as parable or simply a deeply held superstition, I don’t know.

Why did Lovecraft use references to the Bible? Certainly not because he had a religious point to make. I wonder sometimes if there is something in the water of New England that instills some of the old Puritan mindset, a harsh reality built on self-deprivation, fear of evil, and ultimate distrust of one another? I see threads of this in all of Lovecraft’s writing. I don’t know what modern New England is like, having never been there, but I can attest to a certain primeval creepiness that lingers in the north country woods of New York. There are places one doesn’t want to go at night. Those places might be ‘civilized’ villages along a dark roadway; they may be the dark woods, themselves. At any rate, more than one New England horror writer has set their chilling tales among the descendants of the Puritans, and with seemingly good reason.

"The colour out of space" by LudvikSKP, courtesy of Wiki Commons

"The colour out of space" by LudvikSKP

I referenced annotations made by S.T. Joshi in The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, which gives new insight into some of Lovecraft’s greatest stories. It has also been recommended to me that I read “A Biblical Antecedent for The Colour Out of Space” by Robert M. Price, though I’m not certain where to find it. (Check out his site though – Robert M. Price has been a guest on the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast many times and is always a hoot.)

Next week, for my final post, I’ll discuss Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” which can be found online at H.P. Lovecraft.com, and is also handily available in print: on its own in this edition from Dover, and in this Modern Library edition of At the Mountains of Madness. I also had the chance to talk with Shaun Lawton, editor of the Freezine of Science Fiction & Fantasy about HPL’s continued influence in the weird fiction of today. Stay tuned for Shaun’s interview.

In the meantime, as we approach Halloween, I’d like to ask: what’s the scariest story you’ve ever read? I am always looking for new spooky reads, so please: email me: emma AT wellerbookworks DOT com. (Replace the AT and DOT with appropriate characters and take out the spaces to prove you’re not a robot.)

Happy reading!