“Colour out of Space, The“
- Short story (12,300 words); written in March 1927. First published in Amazing Stories(September 1927); first collected in O;corrected text in DH;annotated version in An1and CC A surveyor for the new reservoir to be built “west of Arkham” encounters a bleak terrain where nothing will grow; the locals call it the “blasted heath.” The surveyor, seeking an explanation for the term and for the cause of the devastation, finally finds an old man, Ammi Pierce, living near the area, who tells him an incredible tale of events that occurred in 1882. A meteorite had landed on the property of Nahum Gardner and his family. Scientists from Miskatonic University who examine the object find that its properties are very bizarre: the substance refuses to cool, displays shining spectroscopic bands never seen before, and fails to react to conventional solvents. Within the meteorite is a “large coloured globule”: “The colour…was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” When tapped with a hammer, it bursts. The meteorite itself, continuing anomalously to shrink, finally disappears.Henceforth increasingly odd things occur. Nahum’s harvest yields apples and pears unprecedentedly huge in size, but they prove unfit to eat; plants and animals undergo peculiar mutations; Nahum’s cows start to give bad milk. Then Nahum’s wife Nabby goes mad, “screaming about things in the air which she could not describe”; she is locked in an upstairs room. Soon all the vegetation starts to crumble to a grayish powder. Nahum’s son Thaddeus goes mad after a visit to the well, and his sons Merwin and Zenas also break down. Then there is a period of days when Nahum is not seen or heard from. Ammi finally summons the courage to visit his farm and finds that the worst has happened: Nahum himself has gone insane, babbling only in fragments; but that is not all: “That which spoke could speak no more because it had completely caved in.” Ammi brings policemen, a coroner, and other officials to the place, and after a series of bizarre events they see a column of the unknown color shoot into the sky from the well; but Ammi sees a small fragment of it return to earth. The gray expanse of the “blasted heath” grows by an inch per year, and no one can say when it will end. The reservoir in the tale is the Quabbin Reservoir, plans for which were announced in 1926, although it was not completed until 1939. And yet, HPL declares in a late letter that it was the Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island (built in 1926) that caused him to use the reservoir element in the story (HPL to Richard Ely Morse, October 13, 1935; ms., JHL). He saw the reservoir when he passed through the west-central part of the state on the way to Foster in late October 1926. But HPL surely was also thinking of the Quabbin, which is located exactly in the area of central Massachusetts where the tale takes place, and which involved the abandonment and submersion of entire towns in the region. Also, Clara Hess’s statement that HPL’s mother once told her about “weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark” reminds one of Nabby Gardner’s madness.HPL felt the story was more an “atmospheric study” ( SL2.114) than an orthodox narrative. The lack of clear answers to many of the central issues in the tale—specifically, the nature of the meteorite (is it—or the colored globule inside it—animate in any sense that we can recognize? Does it house a single entity or many entities? What are their physical properties? What are their aims, goals, and motives?)—is not a failing but a virtue. As HPL said of Machen’s “The White People,” “the lack of anything concreteis the great assetof the story” ( SL3.429). It is precisely because we cannot define the nature—either physical or psychological—of the entities in “The Colour out of Space” (or even know whether they are entities or living creatures as we understand them) that produces a sense of horror. In this story HPL most closely achieves his goal of avoiding the depiction of “the human form —and the local human passions and conditions and standards—…as native to other worlds or other universes” ( SL2.150).The story is the first of HPL’s major tales to effect the union of horror and science fiction that became the hallmark of his later work. It is therefore not surprising that Amazing Stories(the first science fiction pulp magazine) readily accepted it upon submittal, early in the summer of 1927. But Amazing Storiesbecame a closed market to HPL when editor Hugo Gernsback paid him only $25 for the story—a mere? per word—and then only after three dunning letters. Although in later yearsHPL briefly considered requests from Gernsback or from his associate editor, C.A.Brandt, for further submissions, he never again sent a tale to Amazing Stories. He always remembered Gernsback as “Hugo the Rat.”Sam Moskowitz’s assertion that HPL submitted the story first to WT,and then to Argosy,is unwarranted; see HPL to Clark Ashton Smith, July 15, 1927 (ms., JHL): “As for ‘The Colour Out of Space’—Wandrei tells me that Amazing Storiesdoesn’t pay well, so that I’m sorry I didn’t try WT first.”See Will Murray, “Sources for ‘The Colour out of Space,’” Crypt No. 28 (Yuletide 1984): 3–5; Steven J.Mariconda, “The Subversion of Sense in ‘The Colour out of Space,’” LS Nos. 19/20 (Fall 1989): 20– 22; Donald R.Burleson, “Prismatic Heroes: The Colour out of Dunwich,” LSNo. 25 (Fall 1991): 13– 18; Robert M.Price, “A Biblical Antecedent for ‘The Colour out of Space,’” LS No. 25 (Fall 1991): 23– 25; Donald R.Burleson, “Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space,’” CryptNo. 93 (Lammas 1996): 19–20.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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