Comparative Lovecraft and “The Colour Out of Space”

Lately, I’ve been trying to clear out my backlog of purchased audiobooks while I get other things done… and one of the things I bought was a Groupees bundle of HorrorBabble H.P. Lovecraft readings.

So far, The Colour Out of Space has been my favourite Lovecraft short story… a fact that I apparently share with Mr. Lovecraft himself.

You can legally enjoy it for free in both textual and audio form… though I prefer the audio version I’ve linked, as read by Ian Gordon for HorrorBabble. It really helps to keep you immersed when you can focus on visualizing the events being described without also having to dedicate effort to reconstructing the intonation and cadence of the narrator’s voice from the text.

Given that it’s a horror story, where presentation is key, I don’t want to say too much about the plot, so I’ll just borrow the beginning of Wikipedia‘s synopsis:

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.”

Instead, I’d like to talk about why I enjoy it so thoroughly. (Though, given how much I say, I’d appreciate it if you read/listen to the story first, then come back to finish this. I worry that analyzing the story in such depth will have an “explaining the joke ruins it” effect.)

First, many of Lovecraft’s stories, such as The Call of Cthulhu, have an element of xenophobia to them which hasn’t aged well. (The Rats in the Walls is uniquely egregious among the stories I’ve read so far. Not willing to settle for Lovecraft’s usual stuff, like implying that swarthiness is a sign of disreputability, it’s an otherwise excellent story where one of the central characters is the main character’s cat… named “N***er-Man” and, yes, that is the word you think it is.)

(Speaking of which, I suggest searching YouTube for a documentary named “H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown” for a good introduction to who he was and why he’s so significant to the history of horror and science fiction. To oversimplify it, he changed the cultural zeitgeist, like all classic authors.)

The Colour Out of Space avoids this tendency toward xenophobia by taking place in the backwoods of New England with no human antagonists or henchmen. A minor thing compared to some of the other points I raise, but it definitely helps.

(At The Mountains of Madness also does well on this front, which makes sense as it was one of the last things he wrote before his untimely death from cancer, but it deserves its own blog post, if I find time.)

Second, Lovecraft’s fondness for uncertainty doesn’t throw the reality of the threat into question. For all its beautiful world-building, I wasn’t a fan of The Shadow Out of Time because, in the end, the main character is left unsure whether the experiences were real or a sign they’re relapsing into insanity. I found that a very unsatisfying anti-climactic experience. The Colour out of Space is, without a doubt, a real thing within in its setting.

(Not that I need a story to go that far. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward worked despite access to the horrifying setting being lost and all it took was having a second person to verify that the main character hadn’t imagined the whole thing.)

Third, and most distinctively, it truly feels like a cosmic horror story to me. While I tend to find Lovecraft’s writings fascinating, it’s rare for them to actually evoke a stirring of cosmic horror.

The problem is that, so often, his stories achieve the horror in a way which offers some kind of escape hatch.

For example, in The Dunwich Horror, the monster “is a Cosmic Horror”, but, in the end, it’s defeated using magic. While the twist is great, it still defuses the sense of horror for me for two reasons:

  1. If they can defeat the threat once, then they should be able to defeat it again.
  2. “Magic” is sort of a “get out of needing to understand free” card. By definition, magic is something you feel you can use without understanding it because, if you understood it, you’d just call it another branch of science.

(That said, Dunwich is an example of something The Colour Out of Space does not do. H.P. Lovecraft has a recurring fondness for ending the last paragraph of his stories on a strong, punchy revelation that drives home the horror of the story’s central concept. The Mound does it, as do Out of the Aeons, The Shadow Out of Time, Polaris and others. It’s something to look forward to, but The Colour Out of Space’s last sentence isn’t punchy in that way.)

The Shadow over Innsmouth is another example of that “defusing the horror” problem. While I enjoyed the certainty of having the story told in flashback after the government proved that the hero wasn’t crazy by coming in to address the problem, it also means that the problem has a sufficient solution to avoid having to deal with the lurking sense of horror. Sure, there’s a lurking threat to an individual, and there are horrifying elements, but it doesn’t have that inexorability that I admire The Colour Out of Space for.

Out of the Aeons is good, but, like The Call of Cthulhu, the threat is too distant. All physical evidence of the problem lurked under the ocean for eons before surfacing, and then returned to the ocean. It’s too easy to feel that it’ll probably stay under the ocean for eons more before coming up for another ultimately ineffective burp of momentary crisis.

Rather than in the middle of the sea, The Colour Out of Space takes place in in a relatively settled part of rural America, and the ending does a powerful job of driving home that the threat is still lurking.

The Call of Cthulhu also shares a similar problem to At The Mountains of Madness if you’re going for horror… the threats are too comprehensible. Yes, they’re powerful, but, despite R’lyeh’s non-euclidean geometry, it’s still just aliens and it feels like, with the march of science, we’re likely to have a way to effectively fight back by the time they surface. (That said, At The Mountains of Madness makes for a wonderful adventure story akin to something like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth [1] [2] [3] [4].)

The Colour Out of Space works so beautifully because it drives home that this is the realm of science, not magic, but, despite that, it utterly baffles the scientists called in to comprehend it. At the same time, the description presented to the reader is very convincing as something that is genuinely incomprehensible in its nature, yet comprehensible in its effects.

(As opposed to the sense of the author saying “take my word for it” that you feel with some supposedly genius characters, where willing suspension of disbelief is pressed into service beyond its ideal scope. It’s self-evident that characters like Sherlock Holmes, or L and Light Yagami from Death Note are geniuses and you feel that. Characters like Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, on the other hand, feel like the author is cheer-leading their intelligence, but it feels like they’re only intelligent when the author specifically tries to evidence it, rather than it being a property of their being which affects their thoughts and behaviour more subtly at all times.)

The other big reason The Colour Out Of Space works so well is that there’s no “defeat the threat” moment. It’s more like the Portal games in that the protagonists survive without triumphing. Thus, avoiding the need to demonstrate that humans can win.

All in all, I highly recommend that you find 80 minutes when you can listen to an audiobook and give it a listen. Of Lovecraft’s works that I’d read as horror, it’s certainly the best… and if you enjoyed it, try some of the others I named. Lovecraft’s writing style takes a bit of getting used to, being strongly based on the archaic writing styles used in the antique books he grew up reading, but hearing it in audiobook form helps a lot, and his stories have a very distinctive atmosphere to them once you get into them.

P.S. It also was the inspiration for the most memorable part of a piece of Ranma 1/2 fanfiction from the rec.arts.anime.creative era named Bliss by Mike Loader and Lara Bartram. Given that it is still a memorable story to me, and that it won second place in the April 1999 TASS awards and 10th place in the 1999 annual TASS awards, I may re-read and review that too.

UPDATE: You may also want to watch Fredrik Knudsen’s Down the Rabbit Hole livestream special, Lovecraft & Junji Ito.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Comparative Lovecraft and “The Colour Out of Space” by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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2 Responses to Comparative Lovecraft and “The Colour Out of Space”

  1. Jeram says:

    TASS awards man, that really takes me back…

    Anyway, did you see the Color Out of Space movie? I wasn’t such a fan, but I’d be curious as to your thoughts.

    • Sorry, I haven’t seen it.

      Aside from not being into horror in film (I need the emotional distance of print prose or an audiobook), I’ve been boycotting the MPAA since around 2005, so I’ve seen less than a dozen new movies since then, all of them things other family members brought home.

      (The idea being that it’s an extension of “they have no grounds to whine about me not paying for something if I don’t pirate it either”. They’d be laughed at if they tried to argue that their profits should vary depending on how many members of the same family choose to sit down at the same TV.)

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