Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Nadia Bulkin’s “Violet is the Color of Your Energy,” first published in the Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles’s She Walks in Shadows anthology in 2015. Spoilers ahead.
“Abigail Gardner nee Cuzak was sitting on the bathroom floor, thinking about the relationship that mice in mazes have with death, when a many-splendored light shot down from the stars like a touch of divine Providence.”
Three years ago Nate and Abigail Gardner moved from the Lincoln suburbs to a farm near Cripple Creek—Nate, formerly a pharmaceutical sales supervisor, is determined to make a go of what their “Big Ag” neighbor Ambrose Pierce characterizes as “hippy organic tofu living.” So far, not so great. Pierce wants to add the Gardner place to all the other acres he’s scooped up, and there’s fracking out by the aquifer. Stress has worn Nate and Abby to “a shadow of the team they had once been.” Kids Zeke, Teddy and Merrill have play-space and fresh air, but Abby worries they’re too isolated.
One night Abby’s sitting on the bathroom floor, pondering “the relationship that mice in mazes have with death.” Her reverie’s interrupted when a “many-splendored light” flares outside, followed by a loud noise like “a diver’s plunge.” She gets to a window in time to see a “faintest tint of red-blue-purple” melting from the sky. Gun in hand, Nate rushes into the corn fields, sure Pierce is behind the disturbance. Abby follows dutifully. The cats skulk, howling low. The air smells of “curdled sweetness.” She’s sure Nate will find no intruders, but no use telling him that.
She’s right. Back at the house, Teddy asks if a comet’s crashed, but Nate tells him not to get too excited, and that’s that.
That summer their corn cobs grow lush and green, but Abby thinks it tastes sour, the way the air in the fields has smelled since the “crash.” Nate scoffs. The couple meet Pierce in town, and he asks Nate about his Frankenstein crops. When Nate stalks off, Pierce catches Abby by the wrist and warns her something’s off about the corn. Nate doesn’t miss the interaction. On the way home, though the boys are in the truck, he accuses Abby of sleeping with Pierce so he’ll “cut [her] poor idiot husband a break.” Abby denies it and hisses they should talk later. Later, however, Nate goes alone into the fields. Abby supervises the boys’ homework, and Teddy asks about the lost colony at Roanoke. Zeke supposes a tribe ate them. Abby counters that maybe they just ran away.
The cats disappear. Abby looks everywhere, finally peering into the well. No sign of cats, but her flashlight reveals a dog collar, tag and long snout. The day before the dogs were pacing and whimpering. Nate supposedly tied them up. How will she tell the boys?
While she’s waiting for everyone to come home, Pierce drives up. He’s worried that he hasn’t seen Abby and the boys in town. He hasn’t heard from Abby lately, either. She concedes Nate’s acted “different” since the “light came down.” Different like standing in the corn and humming at the sky, but she doesn’t give Pierce those details. When he asks if she needs help, she angrily asks what kind of help he could give her. He’d better go before Nate returns from the mill—she doesn’t want to witness a murder.
Nate returns with bad news—the mill owner doesn’t want their corn. He tells the boys the dogs ran away. Later Abby asks what really happened to the dogs, telling Nate she found their bodies in the well. Nate looks genuinely horrified. He rushes Abby up to the attic, supposedly to explain. Instead he locks her in the “spider-webbed lair of things unwanted.”
She’s still there the next evening, in spite of her pleas to Nate and the boys. Teddy tries to rescue her, but Nate forces her back. Teddy he locks in the spare room downstairs. Abby tries to comfort him by singing through the floorboards. That night she uses a flashlight to signal Pierce’s passing truck. It slows but doesn’t stop.
Abby implores Nate to let the boys go while they figure things out. His face “a dark blank,” he insists she prove her loyalty by eating the corn, it’s kernels alternately swollen and shriveled to “baby teeth.” Her first bite tastes like “bloody soap.” Nate insists she eat more.
She does. Imprisoned Teddy must have refused, because his voice dwindles to a whisper. Merrill peeks into the attic. Probably poisoned by the corn, unable to feel her legs anymore, she crawls toward him, urging him to run to Pierce’s place. As Merrill blinks, she sees him “smiling, crying, sleeping, dead. A great many colors [pass] so quickly they [are] all bleeding together into one monstrous, endless whole.”
Abby wakes to sunlight, herself wearing “a cloak of shadow.” Pierce clambers into the attic. Nate’s downstairs, he says, but “messed up bad.” He can’t find the boys. Abby takes off her “shadow-cloak,” exposing unfeeling leather skin and standing on stumps once attached to feet. “All her cells” wait for Pierce’s embrace. Instead, eyes full of horror and hate, he shoots her.
She feels not pain but liberation. She blossoms like a flower to fill every nook of the house. She sees Nate dead on the couch, but with pieces still struggling along on the floor. Outside the well beats “like a brilliant magenta heart, a small nuclear star.” Inside are the boys and dogs, waving, and the “many-splendored light…curling and coiling as it prepared to spring-board off this world.” It promises her “oceans” and “color.” But it’s the boys (when not broken into “simpler matter”) who call her “Mama,” and Abby floats down for them. Floats down, into “crimson and indigo and violet, for violence.”
What’s Cyclopean: Minimal discussion of the color’s unearthliness in this version, made up for by the corn: its “tiny shriveled kernels bounded their grotesquely swollen cousins like rings of baby teeth.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Nate wonders if Pierce, whom he despises, is gay—then later accuses Abby of making a “whore’s bargain” with him. Meanwhile Zeke, discussing the fate of Roanoke Colony, suggests that “they probably got eaten by an Indian tribe.”
Mythos Making: Whenever a color comes out of space, it’s going to be bad news…
Libronomicon: No books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Teddy out and out calls his father “crazy” after he starts locking his family away. Abby is more cautious: he’s merely been “different” since the color came down.
Consider Lovecraft’s families. Many, like the Delapores and Jermyns and Martenses, suffer under the curse of corrupted bloodlines. Even the exemplary Wards of Providence harbor a taint that surfaces in son Charles when he succumbs to Joseph Curwen’s ancestral influence. The whole town of Innsmouth is given over to corrupted families, chief among them the Marshes and Waites. Dunwich presents a casebook study of rural degeneration, headed by the wizardly Whateley clan. Marriage is a hazardous venture—look what it does for Cornelia Gerritsen when she weds Robert Suydam, or for Edward Derby when he takes to wife Asenath Waite.
Nathaniel Peaslee’s marriage isn’t strong enough to weather his switch-off with a Yith scholar. Our hearts can warm themselves in son Wingate’s loyalty, but my impression is that Wingate’s the exception to the rule of post-Yith family alienation.
Tolstoy implies that the happy families who are all alike don’t make for arresting fiction. It’s a truism mostly true. However, little’s more arresting than to unravel a happy family before the reader’s eyes. Subtype One: The happy family is innocent victim to circumstances. The Gardners, Lovecraft’s one impeccably “normal” family, exemplify this subtype. They’re salt of the Yankee earth: neat, industrious, sociable, walking always in the ways of the Lord. So, does a cruel bank foreclose on the farm? Do locusts descend? Does typhoid ravage Mom and kiddies? No, for the Gardners is reserved an accident on the cosmic scale of meteorite strike, nor any ordinary meteorite, but the nursery-casing of the Color! To up the angst, the Pierces are also a normal family. Ammi Pierce rises to neighborly heroism visiting the pariah Gardners, for which good deed the “shadow” of the Color hangs over him for life.
Does the cosmos care? Nope. Skyey voids, people, that’s our heaven above.
Bulkin’s “Violet is the Color of Your Energy” exemplifies Subtype Two: The “normal” family is more like Tolstoy’s interesting alternative—the unhappy family unhappy in its own way. Her Gardners were solid once, a “team” forging a life together. Fault-lines long present, such as Nate Gardner’s “need to maintain a sense of moral superiority” and Abby Gardner’s sense of confinement, are grinding together well before the cosmic catastrophe. To make the fictive ground more unstable, Pierce is a third fault-line impinging on Nate and Abby’s opposing “plates”; his vulture wings hover over both the Gardner acres and Abby’s fidelity. For Nate, he’s a double rival. For Abby, he’s possible escape.
When the Color seeps into the Gardner cornfields, it’s bound to push these human fault-lines into active quaking. Nate’s sense of persecution explodes into paranoia. Abby’s silent chafing explodes into recrimination. Pierce, scenting weakness, circles the moribund relationship.
In Lovecraft’s story, the Color and its native void are the terrifying things. Color’s the random Outsider that would have destroyed any humans within its radius of effect. The Gardners aren’t to blame even for the slump into apathy that condemns them—the fault lies not in their wills but in the incomprehensible potencies of star-born life. Nahum Gardner cares for his family to the full extent of his crippled energies. Their deaths are monstrous, but none of them is a monster.
In Bulkin’s story, the Color itself barely appears, whereas in Lovecraft it’s pervasive and pervasively unsettling. Abby sees fading red-blue-purple after the meteorite crash. In the attic, watching Merrill go, she experiences a flood of many colors “bleeding together in a monstrous, endless whole.” Released from her crumbling body, she sees the Color as a “magenta heart” in the well, unfurling “electric seaweed tendrils.” It holds no terror now, instead promising new life and stimulation. No, the terrible force in “Violet” is Nate’s escalating tyranny and violence. I was on edge whenever he was on the page—it’s a dynamic strikingly like that in Stanley’s film, where Nicholas Cage’s Gardner kept me jumpy almost from the opening credits. Abby’s more sympathetic but no innocent. If she isn’t having an affair with Pierce, she’s seriously contemplating one as a way out of that mouse-maze she ponders at story start.
Cosmic shit happens to both sets of Gardners, but while I have no problem seeing Lovecraft’s family as random victims, I feel Bulkin’s family might have escaped if the lines of communication between Abby and Nate weren’t so frayed. Stanley’s Gardners fall between Lovecraft’s and Bulkin’s on the scale of Color co-culpability. They have pre-existing vulnerabilities like Mom’s cancer and Dad’s over-idealized notions about farming, but are basically okay.
Speaking of Stanley, Bulkin’s color is also fuchsia—that’s what happens when red-blue-purple collide, and magenta’s just fuchsia gone darker. As for early-warning systems, Bulkin and Lovecraft agree. Dogs are sensitive to Outside forces, but they’ll cling to their humans, hoping both for protection and to protect. Cats know humans are useless when the eldritch intrudes, so they quickly hit the road. The “Rats in the Walls” cat is the exception, having a yen for rodentia, fleshly or spectral. [RE: Bet Ulthurian cats would make good anti-color allies, too.]
Most times you should follow the cats.
A strange color comes out of the sky and lands near the well of an isolated farm. The farm family—isolated by their rural location, the color, and their own stubbornness—gradually grow less human in their behavior and, eventually, their cellular structure. Does it happen once in the late nineteenth century, west of Arkham where the hills rise wild? Or does it repeat in endless iterations, a doom-filled fairy tale trope even more nightmarish than the standard set of Stith Thompson motifs?
This iteration, the color itself is very nearly subtle. Instead, the horror comes from Nate’s increasingly abusive behavior, clearly growing even before the color came (if the color can be blamed at all). Only at the end do we get mutated crops eaten at gunpoint, and the inevitable cellular transformations. Until then, cosmic horror rotates into other dimensions of genre. It’s almost litfic, or maybe magical realism: the absurd incomprehensibility of the color might cause, or might just reflect, the absurd incomprehensibility of the abuse. After all, 90% of the time when something makes humans question their sense of reality and wonder if they’re going mad… it’s other humans.
Maybe the best comparison here isn’t the original “Color,” but “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The supernatural might make an opening for families to grow terrible, but it’s equally likely that family terrors crack reality, allowing the supernatural to seep through. Bulkin’s stories are full of this kind of blurring and blending. “Red Goat, Black Goat” has the Goat With A Thousand Young as literal dark mother, family secrets mixing seamlessly with apocalyptic threats. “Pro Patria” does the same on a national scale, with The King in Yellow as the most visible face of imperial original sin.
The most mundane aspect of Nate’s behavior is his all-too-standard tactic of isolation. He pulls the kids from activities, tells friends that Abby’s unavailable, makes wild accusations when she leaves his sight. Ambrose Pierce, the sort of character who’s often a bad guy in tales of back-to-the-land heroism (a la the land-jealous mayor in last week’s movie version), becomes an insufficient lifeline. Lovecraft’s original hinges on isolation as well, though born of Puritan stubbornness rather than hyperindividualist, hyper-patriarchal abuse. (“Do I trust this man to lead this family?” invokes some very specific maladaptive cultural tendencies.) Nahum Gardner wouldn’t dream of asking Ammi Pierce for help because of Yankee self-reliance, while Nate has darker reasons, but neither one is getting out alive. Humans are social monkeys; colors out of space are predators that feed first on those social bonds, and then rot them from the inside out.
Though that, too, grows complicated in Bulkin’s version. It’s not by accident that Roanoke is invoked, or that Zeke brings up a particularly lurid version of the preferred colonial narrative: that the colony disappeared because “eaten” by native neighbors. Abby (and a fair amount of evidence) suggests that instead they ran away, joining something more welcoming than their own rigid society. So is Abby eaten by the color? Or does she run away?
The ending of the original story is unreservedly dark. This ending is, unexpectedly, more reminiscent of “Shadow Over Innsmouth.” The light’s been “many-splendored” from the start, but now it promises the color that’s disappeared from her husband’s face. And, when she wants to protect her children, it becomes a tool for something she hasn’t previously been able to wield in anyone’s defense: violence.
Next week, we couldn’t resist another modern adaptation of a classic Lovecraft story: Alex Bletchman’s short and simple Rats in the Walls video game. In which you play the rats.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.