Monday, November 12, 2012

H.P Lovecraft Part 3: The Colour Out of Space

We're going through a sampling of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whose blending of science fiction and horror and a tremendous influence on both genres, selected by S.T. Joshi from his collection The Annotated H.P Lovecraft. Last week we descended into the depths of Exham Priory to discover the ghastly secret of the de la Poer family in "The Rats in the Walls". This week we investigate a horror of a different... (heh heh) ... colour.

"The Colour Out of Space" was one of Lovecraft's favorite stories, and not just because it gave him the opportunity to use the British spelling of "colour" in the title. Lovecraft felt that too many aliens in science fiction stories were simply humans in funny suits, like the "rubber forehead aliens" in some Star Trek episodes. Lovecraft saw no reason why aliens should have either human shapes or human motivations, and he strove to make his Entities From Beyond wholly incomprehensible. In "Colour" he succeeded, probably better than any of his other stories.

I read "The Colour Out of Space" in high school, and it was my first exposure to Lovecraft. I didn't care for it. The story didn't seem to have a plot. A lot of things happened, but the characters mostly observed them. Or were consumed by them. And I found the ending disturbing and unsatisfying, (which is probably the reaction in his readers Lovecraft was going for). Upon re-reading it now, I can appreciate it a little better.

The unnamed Narrator of the story is a surveyor, who has been sent up to the wild hills west of Arkham to survey a new dam. The fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts is perhaps the center of the Lovecraft Universe. It often turns up in Lovecraft's stories, usually in connection with Miskatonic University, located in that town; and Lovecraft sometimes referred to those particular tales as his "Arkham Cycle". Lovecraft loved the weird, wild corners of New England and placed Arkham and the Miskatonic River right in the middle of it.

While surveying the area the new dam will flood, the Narrator finds a strange, grey patch of land; five acres of desolation upon which nothing grows and which the locals call "The blasted heath."
It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire, but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little to the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it seemed sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim. As I walked hurriedly by I saw the tumbled bricks and stones of an old chimney and cellar on my right, and the yawning black maw of an abandoned well whose stagnant vapours played strange tricks with the hues of the sunlight.
The locals don't talk much about the blasted heath, other than to mutter vaguely about "the strange days". At first the Narrator assumes that this is some old legend of the region, but he learns that the "strange days" occurred within living memory. Old Ammi Pierce knows most about it, but people warn him not to pay attention to Ammi's crazy tales.

So naturally, the Narrator goes to visit Ammi; and after hearing the old man's story, the Narrator decides to return to Boston and resign from the job. He does not wonder that Ammi might be a little cracked or that the local dislike talking about the blasted heath; he doesn't want anything more to do with it either and will be happy when the new reservoir obliterated the cursed spot. He hurries back to town before nightfall; he feels uncomfortable with the thought of being out under the stars of the open sky.

Another writer might have given us Ammi Pierce's story in the man's own words, using the surveyor character only as a framing device. Lovecraft does not. He allows the main narrator to paraphrase Ammi's tale of the strange days. Perhaps Lovecraft just didn't want to write the whole story in dialect, which was a good call on his part; it would have been annoying. Telling the story this way lets the narrator control the foreshadowing and the pacing of how events are revealed. It also allows the narrator to fill in certain technical and scientific details which Ammi would not be able to clearly understand.

The strange days began about fifty years previous, when a meteor landed in the field of Ammi's neighbor, Nahum Gardener. The meteorite caused quite a sensation, and some Professors from Miskatonic University in Arkham came to study it.

The meteorite is quite puzzling; it shrinks in size overnight; it shows no sign of cooling; it's substance is soft and yielding rather than hard and brittle. Most noteworthy, the scientists find a globule inside it of a peculiar color, (sorry, colour), which when struck with a hammer bursts like a bubble, leaving a spherical cavity. The samples taken back to the University for study do not react with any known acids, but do react with the glass containers they are placed in, gradually disintegrating both the beaker and the sample. Most noteworthy, spectroscopic analysis of the samples reveal unknown bands of color, similar to the color of the mysterious globule. Lovecraft describes the analysis in great detail. He had an interest in chemistry in his youth and in spectroscopy in particular, and his description builds the mystery.

A couple days after the meteor lands, a freak thunderstorm comes and the meteorite site is struck repeatedly by lightning. The next day the meteorite is gone. The scientists are disappointed, but they shrug and go back to Arkham.

That autumn, the trees in Nahum's orchard grows a bumper crop of large fruit; but the harvest is disappointing. All the fruit is bitter and uneatable. The same proves to be true of the melons and tomatoes growing near the meteorite site. Nahum guesses that the meteorite has poisoned the soil somehow. His crops upland from the meteorite seem unaffected though. More strange signs appear. During the winter, Nahum notices that the animal tracks he finds in the snow seem peculiar. In the spring, skunk cabbages growing up through the mud have a peculiar colour -- much like the globule -- and emit an odor foul even for skunk cabbage.

Neighbors begin avoiding Nahum's farm, and the Gardeners stop going into town. Soon Ammi is the only neighbor to still visit the Gardener farm. He notices that their water has a bad taste to it and tells Nahum to dig a new well, but Nahum ignores the advice.

Things go from bad to worse. Nahum's wife slowly goes mad and he locks her up in her room. We think of insane family members locked in attics as something out of Jane Eyre, but as late as the 19th Century the state of mental health care was such that there were few better options for treatment, especially for poor rural families. Nahum and his sons go about their routines listlessly, like automatons, and they continue to drink the water. The animals all come sick with a strange malady, their flesh becoming grey and brittle; and all the vegetation on the farm emits a faint glow at night of a peculiar... colour.

One of Nahum's sons falls victim to the same disease as the farm animals. Another goes mad and disappears. What of the third? When Ammi asks of him, Nahum distractedly says that he "lives in the well." Ammi goes upstairs in the farmhouse to try and talk to Nahum's wife. What he finds is horrifying. She too has met the same fate as young Thaddeus and the livestock. She's just not dead yet. Her body still moves as it slowly crumbles. Ammi also encounters something like a cloud, or some hateful current of vapour and for a moment strange colours dance before his eyes.
When he returns downstairs, Nahum has also turned grey and crumbly.
"Nothin' ... nothin' ... the colour ... it burns ... cold an; wet ... but it burns ... it lived in the well ... I seen it ... a kind o' smoke ... jest like the flowers last spring ... the well shone at night ... Than an' Mernie an' Zenas ... everything alive ... suckin' the life out of everything ..."
Ammi flees the farm and goes to the police. Three policemen, along with the coroner  the medical examiner and the local veterinarian accompany him back to the Gardener farm to investigate. They find the grey remains of Nahum and his wife. Examining the well, they find the skeletons of the two missing boys.
Their investigation takes longer than Ammi would like and night falls. Light begins pouring out of the well and the trees outside the farmhouse begin to writhe on their own accord with no wind to stir them, the tips of their branches glowing like St. Elmo's fire. The very planks and beams of the old farmhouse begin to glow eerily.

A column of the unknown colour shoots out of the well, straight up into the sky, taking with it all the trees, all the wood, everything organic in the farm. The men only barely escape.

Something had come with the meteor, that was clear; something from another world, something the sucked the life out of every living thing it touched; something which had now returned to the stars which spawned it, leaving nothing but grey desolation behind it.

Or has it completely gone? Ammi has his doubts. As they fled the farmhouse, Ammi looked back and thought he saw something feebly rise after the cataclysm, only to sink back down into the well. And the toxic grey blight of the blasted heath continues to spread about an inch more every year.

Once the dam is built, the waters of the reservoir will cover the site and put an end to the last vestiges of the strange days. Perhaps. But the Narrator thinks he will not want to drink any of the water in the Town of Arkham when it does.
Meanwhile I hope nothing will happen to Ammi. He saw so much of the thing -- and its influence was so insidious. ...I would hate to think of him as the grey, twisted, brittle monstrosity which persists more and more in troubling my sleep.
NEXT:  What's with weird Wilbur Whateley? And what does it have to do with the Necronomicon? The hills are alive with the sound of "The Dunwich Horror"! Tell 'em Yog-Sothoth sent you!

No comments: