The Colour Out of Space
|"The Colour Out of Space"|
|Author||H. P. Lovecraft|
|Genre(s)||Science fiction, horror short story|
|Published in||Amazing Stories|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
|Publication date||September 1927|
"The Colour Out of Space" is a short story written by American horror author H. P. Lovecraft in March 1927. In the tale, an unnamed narrator pieces together the story of an area known by the locals as the "blasted heath" in the wild hills west of Arkham, Massachusetts. The narrator discovers that many years ago a meteorite crashed there, poisoning every living being nearby; vegetation grows large, but tasteless, animals are driven mad and deformed into grotesque shapes, and the people go insane or die one by one.
Lovecraft began writing The Colour Out of Space immediately after finishing his previous short novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and in the midst of final revision on his horror fiction essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. Seeking to create a truly alien life form, he drew inspiration from numerous fiction and nonfiction sources. First appearing in the September 1927 edition of Hugo Gernsback's science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, The Colour Out of Space became one of Lovecraft's most popular works, and remained his personal favorite short story. It was adapted into feature film versions in 1965 and 1987.
An unnamed surveyor from Boston telling the story in the first-person perspective attempts to uncover the secrets behind a shunned place referred to by the locals of Arkham as the "blasted heath." Unable to garner any information from the townspeople, the protagonist seeks out an old and allegedly crazy man by the name of Ammi Pierce who relates his personal experiences with a farmer who used to live on the cursed property, Nahum Gardner. Pierce claims that the troubles began when a meteorite crashed into Gardner's lands in June 1882.
The meteorite never cools, but begins shrinking, and local scientists cannot discern its origins. As the stone shrinks, it leaves behind globules of colour that are referred to as such only by analogy, as they fall outside the range of anything known in the visible spectrum. These remains eventually disappear but, the following season, Gardner's crops come in unnaturally large and abundantly. When he discovers that, despite their appearance, they are inedible, he accuses the meteorite of poisoning the soil. Over the following year, the problem spreads to surrounding vegetation and local animals, altering them in unusual ways. Plant life around the farmhouse becomes "slightly luminous in the dark," and Gardner's wife eventually goes mad, forcing him to lock her in the attic. During this time, Gardner begins to isolate his family from the rest of the town and Pierce slowly becomes his only contact with the outside world.
Soon after Gardner's wife becomes mad, the vegetation begins eroding into a grey powder and the water from the well becomes tainted. One of Gardner's sons, Thaddeus, goes insane like his mother and is similarly locked in a different room in the attic. The livestock begins turning grey and dying and, like the crops, their meat is tasteless and inedible. Thaddeus eventually dies and Merwin, another of Gardner's sons, goes missing during an excursion to retrieve water from the well. After two weeks of silence from Gardner, Pierce visits the farmstead and witnesses the tale's eponymous horror for the first time in the attic. Gardner's final son, Zenas, has disappeared and the "colour" has infected Nahum's wife, whom Pierce puts out of her misery. He then flees the decaying house as the horror destroys the last surviving resident, Nahum.
Pierce returns to the farmstead shortly after with six other men, including a doctor, who begin examining Nahum's remains. They discover Merwin and Zenas' eroding skeletons at the bottom of the well, as well as remnants of several other creatures. As they reflect upon their discoveries in the house, a light begins to emit from the well that eventually transforms into the "colour" and begins pouring out, spreading over everything nearby. The men flee the house just as the horror blights the land and then shoots toward the sky. Pierce alone turns back after the "colour" has gone and witnesses a small part of it try to follow the rest, only to fail and return to the well. The knowledge that part of the alien still resides on earth is sufficient to alter his mental state. When some of the men return the following day, there is nothing remaining but a dead horse and acres of grey dust, and the surrounding area is quickly abandoned by all of its remaining residents.
Lovecraft began writing "The Colour Out of Space" in March 1927, immediately after completing The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. As he wrote the tale, however, he was also typing the final draft of his horror fiction essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. Although the author himself claimed that his inspiration was the newly constructed Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island, Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi believes that the planned Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts must have influenced him as well. American writer and pulp fiction enthusiast Will Murray cites paranormal investigator Charles Fort, and the "thunderstones" (lightning-drawing rocks that may have fallen from the sky) he describes in The Book of the Damned, as possible inspirations for the behavior of the meteorite.
Lovecraft was dismayed at the all-too human depiction of aliens in other works of fiction, and his goal for "Colour" was to create an entity that was truly alien. In doing so, he drew inspiration from a number of sources describing colors outside of the visible spectrum. Most notably, Joshi points to Hugh Elliott's Modern Science and Materialism, a 1919 nonfiction book that mentions the "extremely limited" senses of humans, such that of the many "aethereal waves" striking the eyes, The majority cannot be perceived by the retina at all." Lovecraft had used this concept previously, in his 1920 short story, From Beyond. Completed by the end of March, The Colour Out of Space first appeared in Hugo Gernsback's science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories in September 1927.
Reception and legacy
The Colour Out of Space became the only work from Amazing Stories to make Edward O'Brien's anthology of The Best American Short Stories, appearing in the 1928 Roll of Honor. Gernsback paid Lovecraft only $25 (approximately $341 in present day terms) and was late in doing so, leading Lovecraft to refer to the publisher as "Hugo the Rat." He never again submitted anything to the publication. Lovecraft did not write another major short story until the following year, when he crafted The Dunwich Horror, although he did pen History of the Necronomicon and Ibid as minor works in-between, as well as an account of a Halloween night's dream that he called The Very Old Folk.
In addition to being Lovecraft's personal favourite of his short stories, critics generally consider "The Colour Out of Space" one of his best works, and the first with his trademark blending of science fiction and horror. Lovecraft scholar Donald R. Burleson referred to the tale as "one of his stylistically and conceptually finest short stories." Joshi praises the work as one of Lovecraft's best and most frightening, particularly for the vagueness of the description of the story's eponymous horror. He also lauded the work as Lovecraft's most successful attempt to create something entirely outside of the human experience, as the creature's motive (if any) is unknown and it is impossible to discern whether or not the "colour" is emotional, moral, or even conscious. His only criticism is that it is "just a little too long." The text of The Colour Out of Space, like many of Lovecraft's works, has fallen into public domain and can be accessed in several compilations of the author's work, as well as on the Internet. It also had a strong influence on Brian Aldiss's The Saliva Tree, which has been seen as a rewriting of Lovecraft's tale. In 1984, the novel The Color Out of Time by Michael Shea was published as a sequel to the original novelette.
The 1965 film Die, Monster, Die!, directed by Daniel Haller, is based on The Colour Out of Space. Nick Adams plays a scientist named Stephen Reinhart who travels to England to visit his fiancee (played by Suzan Farmer) at the home of her parents Nahum (Boris Karloff) and Letitia (Freda Jackson). There he discovers that Nahum is keeping a space rock in his basement and using it to grow giant vegetation and mutated animals. The rock has driven Nahum and Letitia insane and, in the film's climax, it transforms Nahum into a glowing monster. Lovecraft scholar Don G. Smith claims that, of the scenes that are derived from Lovecraft's work, the "blasted heath doesn't live up to Lovecraft's description" and asserts that, overall, the film does not capture Lovecraft's intent to "...play...with the idea of an alien life form completely different from anything humans can imagine." Smith considers Haller's work an imitation of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, rather than a serious attempt to adapt Lovecraft's tale.
Another adaptation, 1987's The Curse, was directed by David Keith and more closely follows the plot of Lovecraft's work. A meteorite lands on the property of Nathan Hayes (Claude Akins) and local physician Alan Forbes (Cooper Huckabee) is unable to explain why the rock keeps shrinking. He is dissuaded from contacting the authorities by Charlie Davidson (Steve Carlisle), a realtor who does not want the new arrival to discourage the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) from establishing a new reservoir in the area. As the rock disappears, a glowing colour seeps out and into the ground. Within a few weeks, the farm's crops bloom but soon turn out to be inedible. Shortly after, local animals, as well as Nathan's wife, begin to go mad, and a previously unknown element is discovered in the property's well. Soon Nathan and his son Cyrus (Malcolm Danare) also go insane, and begin terrorizing those who come to the farm, including the other children Zack (Wil Wheaton) and Alice (Amy Wheaton). In the film's conclusion, they are saved by TVA representative Carl Willis (John Schneider) and the house collapses. Lovecraft scholar Charles P. Mitchell referred to the film as faithful to the author's original work, but claimed that "[t]he last twenty minutes of the film are so disjointed that they virtually ruin the entire film".
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- Mitchell, p. 115