The 2016 H. P. Lovecraft Re-read: The Colour Out of Space

Sunday , 18, September 2016 9 Comments

“The Colour Out of Space” preceded “The Call of Cthulhu” in print by six months. “Colour” appeared in the September 1927 issue of Amazing Stories. S. T. Joshi states that Lovecraft wrote “The Colour Out of Space” in March 1927.

Amazing Stories was a relatively new magazine as its first issue was in April 1926. Hugo Gernsback was editor and publisher. The contents were mostly reprint including lots of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Poe. By the time of Lovecraft’s storamazing_stories_192709y, the magazine was transitioning to new fiction.

Other fiction in the issue included Otis Adelbert Kline’s “The Radio Ghost,” “The Stone Cat” by Mile J. Breuer, M.D., and part two of a reprint of H. G. Well’s “War of the Worlds.”

“The Colour Out of Space” was the very first Lovecraft story I ever read 34 years ago. I have not read it since.

The story itself starts out with:

“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 with out 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 less of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath the low gambrel roofs.”

The opening is more Nathaniel Hawthorne than H. G. Wells. For all of Lovecraft’s lecturing on the “cosmic,” he was addicted to New England Gothic for setting and mood. For whatever reason, Lovecraft liked gambrel roofs.

The narrator describes an abandoned, desolate region known as the “blasted heath.” The blasted heath is comprised of five acres of “grey” wasteland.

“There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed to ever blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim.”

The narrator asking about the blasted heath was directed to an old man, Ammi Pierce who describes what happened. A meteorite fell in 1882 on the farm of Nahum Gardner.

The meteorite itself is described as:

“The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and upon tapping it appeared to promise both brittleness and hollowness.”

A short time later, a thunderstorm had “drawn the lightning” and the meteorite was gone.

Things begin to happen, the apples harvested are inedible. All the harvest is lost in turn. There are psychological effects and poor health with the Gardner family. Local fauna coloursuch as woodchucks and rabbits are altered. The following spring, skunk cabbage grows to a size never seen with strange colors. At night, the trees are swaying with no wind.

Mrs. Gardner loses her mind and in time glows in the dark. The plants turn gray and then crumble into powder. One of the boys goes insane raving about moving colors down in the well. Family members distort and die, same with the livestock.

Ammi Pierce travels to the Gardner farm to find a disintegrating Nahum give one last statement on the vampiric entity in the well.

A party consisting of police, coroner, and others travel by wagon to the Gardner farm. In the well, they find the bones of two of the Gardner boys, deer, and a dog along with bones of smaller animals.

A light emits from the well where Lovecraft engages in some overwriting:

“And yet amid that tense, godless calm the high bare boughs of all the trees in the yard were moving. They were twitching morbidly and spasmodically, clawing in convulsive and epileptic madness at the moonlit clouds; scratching impotently in the noxious air as if jerked by some alien and bodiless line of linkage with subterrene horrors writhing and struggling below the black roots.”

Don’t try this at home. The “hideous thing” shoots from the well though the clouds and is gone.

“The Colour Out of Space” is an effective tale of the insertion of the otherworldly with isolation, paranoia, and decay. Nathaniel Hawthorne with astronomy and radiation.  Joshi states Hugo Gernsback paid Lovecraft only $25.00 for the story ($345.59 in today’s money). I thought Gernsback paid Lovecraft nothing if I remember correctly from de Camp’s Lovecraft biography. Lovecraft never wrote for Hugo Gernsback again.

This story was made into a so-so movie “Die, Monster, Die” with Boris Karloff in the 1960s.

lovecraft-the-colour-out-of-space

There was a story collection called The Colour Out of Space and Others. It was a Lancer paperback. You never hear about the Lovecraft Lancer paperbacks. It must have sold well as there were five printings from 1964-1972. Then there was a Zebra paperback edition in 1975 (with a generic cover) and a Jove paperback edition in 1978 with a great Rowena cover.

Is this story “Mythos?” I will leave that for others to argue.

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9 Comments
  • Mike says:

    This was my first introduction to Lovecraft as well. You are quite correct in your comments about the story’s weak points, but, as you conclude, the story still works.

    But now you’re got me thinking about it. Looks like I’ll have to re-read it, too.

  • Jeffro says:

    “Mythos” is a reframing of Lovecraft’s stories into a single universe for the purposes of assisting in the creation of fan fiction. It will not exist in a story that was written early. And while Lovecraft would do occasional crossover stories with his or other writer’s characters, the idea that ALL OF THE MONSTERS exist in the same setting is crazy pants.

  • Martin A says:

    de Camp: “Getting paid for it, however, presented a problem. After Lovecraft wrote many dunning letters, the magazine sent him a check for $25 the following May. This was fifth of a cent a word — a ridiculous price.”

  • I like this one a lot and I want more sci-fi Gothic. There’s also a movie, The Curse (1987) with Claude Akins and Whil Wheaton. Not good, but closer to the story than Die, Monster, Die!

    Michael Shea wrote a sequel, The Color Out of Time. Not great, but readable.

  • Dan H. says:

    “Colour” is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories.

    The HPLHS does many Lovecraft stories as 1930’s styled “Radio Plays”. They are all very good and their version of “The Colour Out Of Space” is very well done.

  • LCB says:

    If you want to see a fascinating take on this story…check out the movie version on Amamzon that came out in 2012. The way they choose to portray the idea of a new color that cannot be described is absolutely brilliant.

    The movie is pretty faithful to the story…outside of transplanting it to Germany in the 1920s/30s with a dual frame set in the 40s after the war and the 60/70s respectively.

    It’s mostly in german…you can watch it for free on Youtube…but it has no subtitles. Some of the actors are sub par but the movie on a whole is damn fine.

  • LCB says:

    oops…perhaps an URL would help.

  • This story terrified me when I first read it as a teenager. As an adult I can see the flaws–there is a lot of extraneous purple prose and could have been a far more effective story at about half of the length. Even so, the basic concept of a completely alien threat still works to give me a chill.

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