Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Color Out of Space,” written in March 1927 and first published in the September 1927 issue of Amazing Stories. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Summary: A surveyor for the new reservoir tours the area to be inundated. He’s heard the shunned countryside west of Arkham is “not good for the imagination.” Even he is spooked by the “blasted heath:” five acres of gray dust like a “great spot eaten by acid into the woods and fields” where a well releases vapors that stain the sunlight with strange hues.
Arkhamites tell him to ignore Ammi Pierce’s stories about the heath, so (of course) he seeks Ammi out. The old farmer’s surprisingly reconciled to a reservoir sinking the familiar landscape—it’s better underwater since the “strange days” of 1882-1883.
It began with the meteorite that fell on Nahum Gardner’s prosperous farm. Miskatonic professors troop out to see the space rock. They find it weirdly plastic and uncooling; also, it’s shrinking. A brittle globule within bursts under their hammer with a “nervous little pop.” A gouged sample exhibits invulnerability to reagents, and a spectroscope shows unknown bands. The puzzled scientists collect one more specimen before lightning destroys the meteorite. This sample, too, dwindles to nothing in their lab.
The meteorite at first seems a propitious omen. Gardner’s pears and apples ripen to unprecedented size and beauty. Yet they prove too bitter to eat. Nahum figures the meteorite poisoned the orchard soil.
Winter comes early. The Gardners grow reserved and melancholy. Nahum hints at odd behavior in the local wildlife, and his sons shoot a woodchuck subtly monstrous in form and expression. In the spring plants sprout into abnormal shapes and colors—colors reminiscent of the meteorite’s unknown spectrum. Trees appear to sway without wind. A faint luminosity inheres to the vegetation. But scientists merely ridicule “the dark fears of rustics.”
By summer the vegetation goes gray and brittle. The horses bolt from their stable, mad, and must be destroyed. The Gardners’ mental health declines apace. Nabby goes mad, screaming that something’s fastened itself on her. Nahum locks her in an attic room, where she grows luminous. Son Thaddeus goes mad next, after a visit to the well, and gets an attic room of his own. The livestock begin, like the plants, to die gray and brittle deaths, shriveling and falling to bits before the end. Thaddeus succumbs to the gray death. Nahum buries him and tells Ammi and his wife the sad tale.
His next visit to the Pierces is no happier. Youngest son Merwin’s vanished, leaving a melted lantern and pail near the well. Remaining son Zenas is an obedient automaton, no more. Something creeps on the edge of sight and hearing. Nahum supposes it’s a judgment, though his family have always walked uprightly in the Lord’s ways.
After two weeks with no word, Ammi visits the farm. Nahum tells him that Zenas now lives in the well. Ammi goes to Nabby’s attic room. Something clammy brushes him. Strange color dances before his eyes. Then he sees the thing on the floor that moves slowly as it continues to crumble.
Ammi mercifully stills it. Downstairs, he hears dragging and a sticky sucking noise. Outside Ammi’s horse bolts. Something drops into the well.
What’s left of Nahum meets Ammi below. In half an hour, the gray death has devoured him. Before he dies, Nahum mutters of color that sucks the life from everything, grown from a seed-globule in the meteorite, come from a place where things aren’t as they are on earth.
Ammi reports to the Arkham authorities, who return to the farm with him. They empty the well and find Merwin and Zenas’s remains, along with animal bones. Probing the bubbling ooze in its depths, they find no bottom.
The party convenes indoors at twilight. Before long they notice weird color shooting from the well like a spotlight. Ammi warns the others not to go out. Soon the trees claw the darkening sky, every bough tipped with radiance. The authorities’ horses flee. Ammi’s horse falls dead as the column of unearthly color flares stronger. When the wood inside the house starts to glow, the party decides it’s time for all healthy living things to get the hell out of there.
From a hilltop, they see the valley alight with “unrecognizable chromaticism.” Suddenly the column from the well leaps skyward and vanishes through a hole in the clouds. Moments later, smaller fires and sparks hurtle after it. A fierce wind sweeps in. The men stagger homewards, only Ammi looking back. He’ll regret it forever, because he sees a faint remnant of color sink back into the well.
Fifty years later, bad dreams still drive settlers from the area. The blight spreads slowly from the heath, maybe an inch a year, and certain fat oaks shine and move in the night.
Ammi has never moved from the periphery of the cursed land. The narrator will ask the reservoir gang to watch him. He hates to think of the good old man ending up a gray monstrosity like the one that now troubles his dreams.
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing—this is an old New England houses story, not a scary alien architecture story. [Anne: Yeah, too bad Lovecraft didn’t write about the Newport mansions, which are at least titanic.] However, in addition to two separate uses of “eldritch,” we do get: “that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well—seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognizable chromaticism.”
The Degenerate Dutch: We get some confusion over whether foreigners refuse to live near the blasted heath, or whether only foreigners try to live there. But for the most part, “rustics” is our word of the day, along with any number of patronizing dismissals of same. And seriously, HP should have been prevented, by force if necessary, from attempting to write dialect.
Mythos Making: Alien colors are not only alarming to look at and capable of consuming your life force, but can change the capabilities of pedestrian scientific instruments.
Libronomicon: No books out in the “rustic” countryside, apparently, and all we see of Miskatonic is the chemistry lab.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Nabby is the first unfortunate member of her family to go mad from the color-tainted water. Nahum locks her in the attic rather than send her to the asylum, which says something about either him or the asylum. Eventually she crawls on all fours and… glows in the dark. (Bioluminescence: not a symptom listed in the DSM.) Their oldest son goes mad likewise… and gets locked in a different part of the attic. Nahum goes last, so he gets to stay in the main house. Lucky him, or not.
Today’s story had me at the title—the color out of space? What’s that about in 1927, way before the days of LSD and black-light posters? Speaking of black-light posters, their eye-searing hues might approximate the Color, but no more than approximate it; in this tale we’re looking at top contender for most difficult illustration assignment in history. Only a painter with ground-up meteorite globule could hope to give us the chromatic freak itself.
I’ve always admired “Color’s” evocative and precise description. It’s not the wildlife in general that starts acting funky around Gardner’s farm—it’s the squirrels and rabbits and foxes and that awful woodchuck. It’s not flowers in general with a funky color—it’s skunk cabbages, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroots, asters, goldenrod, zinnias, hollyhocks. Nahum doesn’t find a ruined bucket by the well—he finds a bent bail and twisted iron hoops, half-fused. The sense of place—near-coastal rural Massachusetts—foreshadows the masterly merging of the observed real and the invented fantastic that will reach its Lovecraftian zenith in “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” The narrative foci are effective, both in the surveyor frame and in Ammi’s account of the strange days. Then there’s the Color, weirdest of the weird, most alien of the alien, least nameable of the unnamable, cosmic contagion personified, er, embodied, um, well, visible and clammily tangible anyhow.
But on this reread, family and social dynamics interested me the most, the human side of the story. Also, as a writer, how optimal family and social dynamics would have torpedoed the story from the start. By which I mean, if all the characters acted with optimal intelligence and compassion and efficiency, we wouldn’t have the kind of personal train wreck that makes fiction so much fun for us (safely far from the disintegrating track) spectators. Do we want the Color to kind of inconvenience some people? No! We want it to wreak utter havoc, like cosmic contagion should! Which means that the chosen victims can’t simply walk away from the contagion zone, or be hustled away by officious authorities.
So Lovecraft has the Color fall not in Arkham itself but on one of the more remote farms, where the family treats it as a novelty rather than a calamity. Then he gives the Color’s influence a convenient mental component: It renders its victims weary, melancholy, withdrawn. They don’t have the energy or emotional/intellectual bandwidth to assess their plight and escape. And friends have less chance to assess their plight for them. Lovecraft also sets the story in the 1880s, before cars and phones eased movement and communication. Modern writers might likewise set a story before those insidious destroyers of befuddlement and suspense, the Internet and cell phone.
So Lovecraft deliberately isolates the Gardners, and I don’t know enough about safety nets of 1880s New England to say whether he makes effort enough. As a latter-day Yankee myself, I have a sense that the legendary Yankee self-reliance would make the Gardners’ reluctant to complain or ask for extraordinary assistance. Nahum does recruit help haying after his horses run mad, and confide his troubles to Ammi. He approaches scientists and an Arkham editor about the initial weird developments. That’s about it, though. Yankee pride and stoicism discourage more, and the authorities pooh-pooh Nahum’s concerns as rustic superstition. Police and coroner and medical examiner don’t visit the farm until everyone’s dead. A veterinarian makes one visit when livestock starts dying, and a second with the other investigators. He’s baffled, but hey, at least he tried.
Incidentally, there’s no more likable and normal and undeserving-of-their-fate family in Lovecraft than the Gardners. They even have good old Yankee names: Nahum and Nabby, the boys Zenas and Thaddeus and Merwin. Nahum is actually described as “genial,” and his farm is trim and pleasant and fertile. Even more than Nathaniel Peaslee, they don’t read forbidden tomes or poke around in primordial ruins. So what’s up when Nabby and Thaddeus end up mad in the attic, like not only Mrs. Rochester but poor Asenath in Ephraim’s dying body?
Nahum, mentally compromised, may have some excuse for not seeking help for his wife and son. But what about Ammi? Should he intervene on their behalf—for that matter, on behalf of the other children and Nahum? Or is nineteenth century (and not yet extinct) hesitation to interfere with family autonomy his reason for inaction, as it was presumably reason for the narrator of “Thing on the Doorstep” not to inquire into “Asenath” locked sobbing in the Derby library?
Anyhow, if you set “Color” in today’s Massachusetts, think about the obstacles to your plot! It likely wouldn’t just be local professors in the farmyard, and camera vans would block the road, along with meteorite hunters alerted by son Zenas’s Tweets. Police and fire departments, water and agricultural authorities, child welfare and mental health professionals and animal advocates, would screw up that necessary isolation of the victims. Once the gray death started, the CDC would descend in Level Four contamination suits. Or at least we can hope all that would happen, and fast, right?
For sure, the color of the Color would be all over the Webz, and doubtless Nike would run a contest to capture it in mundane dyes for its next line of high-end sneakers.
The thing that most creeps me out about this story isn’t the deadly alien color, but the degree to which I appear to have made unwarranted inferences from my first reading. I recall the story very explicitly taking place around the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir—in fact, I’ve spent a fair amount of time joking about the supposed wrongness of the water I drank throughout college.
The story was written in 1927, and construction on the Quabbin started in 1930, so the timing is right and plans for the new infrastructure were almost certainly an inspiration. However, the Quabbin is over 60 miles from Arkham’s coastal county—rather more than a couple of hours walk if your horses bolt. This is a different town-flooding reservoir.
If we could correlate all the contents of our memories, we’d probably go mad. But sometimes it would be awfully useful.
The infectious, life-sucking color is meant to be a truly alien alien, incomprehensible to earthly minds, born of a different physics. It is, in fact, so alien that at least for me, its differences cease to have power. We don’t know anything of its motivations, but they seem to be pretty monster-of-the-week: it pollutes the land and eats everything it can get its not-hands on, then returns home. Leaving behind only the chromatic runt that’s too weak to go along. Aw, poor thing.
In spite of my failure to be overwhelmed with xenophobia, I do find some of the surrounding effects pretty effective. Although as usual, there’s a little squid in mouth about what HP finds disturbing. Meteorite-tainted fruit: creepy. Whole family gradually going mad and getting eaten: creepy. Fact that their house was built in the 1600s: not creepy.
“A scene out of Fuseli”: also creepy, and evocative. Seriously, take a look.
We get some nifty religious imagery here—interesting as HP didn’t usually go for that sort of thing. When three “wise men” examined the meteorite, I thought it might be coincidence, but then we get repeated descriptions of the color as unholy and “tipping each bough like the fire of St. Elmo or the flames that came down on the apostles’ heads at Pentecost.”
Religion and science are equally adamant that the color falls outside their respective domains. It confounds instruments and mocks known natural law. It comes from some other universe, not from the comfortable suns that shine in earth’s sky. In this, the superstitious “rustics” and the stolid, rational city folk are in one accord.
(Though actually, the most impressive thing the color does in the whole story is show up on the spectroscope. HP, honey, I don’t think you understand how the electromagnetic spectrum—if scientists can’t explain it in pretty standard terms, it ain’t showing up on a spectroscope, and ain’t a color by any definition. Although the effects are… a lot like radiation poisoning, actually. Huh.)
Join us next week for more small-town horror in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. Her alma mater’s water comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, and she now needs a new excuse for being so weird.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.