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The Colour Out of Space

"The Colour Out of Space" is a short story by American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Written in March 1927 and initially published in Amazing Stories in September 1927, it became one of his most anthologized works.

Plot summary

"The Colour Out of Space" is a first-person narrative written from the perspective of an unnamed surveyor from Boston. In order to prepare for the construction of a new reservoir in Massachusetts, he surveys a rural area that is to be flooded near Lovecraft's fictional town of Arkham. He comes across a mysterious patch of land, an abandoned five-acre farmstead, which is completely devoid of all life. At the centre of the farmstead is an old well. The site fills him with an unnatural sense of dread, and he hurries past it.

When he returns to Arkham, the surveyor asks around for information regarding the waste. He learns of an elderly hermit, Ammi Pierce, and asks him about the "blasted heath". The hermit tells him a horrific tale.

In the early 1880s, the farm had been productive, run by a Nahum Gardner and his family. Then, one afternoon in June 1882, a large meteorite crashed into the farm, beside the well. It was metallic and contained a substance of an indescribable color that proved toxic. While scientists were never able to tell what (or who) the meteor contained, its effects were undeniable—the entire Gardner family was struck by insanity, illness, and worse, whilst the land around them was slowly drained of life.

Characters

Nahum Gardner

Nahum is one of the minor prophets in the Old Testament; S. T. Joshi suggests Lovecraft chose the name to evoke "backwoods rusticity". There is a town named Gardner in north-central Massachusetts near Athol, one of the models for Lovecraft's Dunwich.

Ammi Pierce

A close friend and neighbor of the Gardners, he is the narrator's main informant on what happened to the family. In his 80s as the story begins, he is described by the narrator as "not so feeble as I had expected, but his eyes drooped in a curious way, and his unkempt clothing and white beard made him seem very worn and dismal. ... He was far brighter and better educated than I had been led to think.

The narrator later notes:

It was really lucky for Ammi that he was not more imaginative. Even as things were, his mind was bent ever so slightly, but had he been able to connect and reflect upon all the portents around him he must inevitably have turned a total maniac.

This recalls the famous beginning of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu": "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

In the Bible, Ben-Ammi is one of the offspring of Lot's incestuous pairings with his daughters. Robert M. Price points out parallels between the story of Lot and "The Colour Out of Space", including the fact that Pierce "has never been quite right since" he looked back while fleeing from the Gardner farmstead.

Literary significance & criticism

Lovecraft considered this to be the best of all his stories. One possible explanation is that some personal viewpoints are summed up in it. As detailed by biographer L. Sprague de Camp, Lovecraft was disgusted by the popular portrayal of aliens by science fiction writers of his time, primarily because they seemed so human. It should be noted, however, that he found Stanley G. Weinbaum to be the only writer of his time that actually wrote of truly Alien aliens.

In "Colour", the alien presence is unknowable, not just to the characters, but to the reader as well. If this lifeform has any motives, goals, background, etc., they are never revealed. In fact, it is never definitively established that the alien lifeform even possesses intelligence.

In On Writing, Stephen King said that his novel, The Tommyknockers, was influenced by "Colour".

Connection to other Lovecraft stories

  • The story is set near the fictional town of Arkham, whose water needs the planned reservoir is intended to meet. The scientists who investigate the meteorite come from Miskatonic University.
  • The phosphorescence of the Gardner farm's vegetation is first noticed by "a timid woodmill salesman from Bolton"--the place where Herbert West did some of his earliest experiments, and the hometown of the narrator of "The Rats in the Walls".
  • At the end of At the Mountains of Madness one of the characters, Danforth, links "the colour out of space" as well as the name "Yog-Sothoth" to a horror he glimpsed in a distant Arctic mountain range and drove him mad.

Inspiration

American writer and pulp fiction enthusiast Will Murray says that Lovecraft was actually inspired by the Scituate Reservoir in western Massachusetts. Murray cites an unpublished letter in which Lovecraft mentions a trip he took "through the doomed Swift River Valley" shortly before the Quabbin Reservoir was built. The journey reminded Lovecraft of the sadness he felt over the Scituate Reservoir project, "where a vast amount of territory was flooded in 1926 [and] which caused me to use the reservoir element in 'The Colour Out of Space'. The Quabbin Reservoir was planned as early as 1895, although not actually implemented until the late 1930s, after the story was published.

Murray also cites paranormal investigator Charles Fort, and the "thunderstones" he describes in The Book of the Damned--lightning-drawing rocks that may have fallen from the sky--as possible inspirations for the behaviour of the meteorite.

The idea of a colour from outside the normal spectrum has been traced to various sources. In 1801, the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter made the hallmark observation of invisible rays just beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum. S. T. Joshi notes that Lovecraft read Hugh Elliott's Modern Science and Materialism (1919), a nonfiction book that talks of our "extremely limited" senses, such that of the many "aethereal waves" striking our eyes, "the majority cannot be perceived by the retina at all.... If they are more rapid than the higher limit (as in the case of ultra-violet rays) they are not discernible by any sense at all. Joshi also points to a passage from Ambrose Bierce's short story "The Damned Thing" (1893):

At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as "actinic" rays. They represent colors--integral colors in the composition of light--which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real "chromatic scale." I am not mad; there are colors that we cannot see.

And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!

Wherever Lovecraft came up with the idea, he had used it before in his fiction, notably in "From Beyond" (1920), where the narrator mentions a "pale, outre colour or blend of colours which I could neither place nor describe" --which turns out to be ultraviolet. Robert M. Price has pointed to a passage in Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Gods of Mars describing the gems of Barsoom: "[W]here are the words to describe the glorious colours that are unknown to earthly eyes? where the mind or imagination that can grasp the gorgeous scintillations of unheard-of rays as they emanate from the thousand nameless jewels of Barsoom?

The description of the crumbling fate of the Gardner family may owe a debt to Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the White Powder" (1895), which depicts the hallucinations of a victim of an unusual drug:

There upon the floor was a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous bubbles like boiling pitch. And out of the midst of it shone two burning points like eyes, and I saw a writhing and stirring as of limbs, and something moved and lifted up what might have been an arm.

An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia suggests a possible inspiration closer to home for Lovecraft: His mother, in her mental illness, reportedly claimed to see "weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

  • The 1965 film Die, Monster, Die!, with Boris Karloff, was based on the story. The film was produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures (AIP). In 1970, after the success of the company's film adaptation of Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, AIP announced that they would film a further version of The Colour Out of Space, which would include elements of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This production did not happen.
  • Another film adaptation - The Curse, starring Wil Wheaton - was made in 1987.
  • The film Creepshow uses the basic story in one of its episodes ("The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill"), which also starred Lovecraft fan and author Stephen King.
  • In 2007 Italian horror director Ivan Zuccon filmed Colour from the Dark, based on the Lovecraft story. It was Zuccon's third HP Lovecraft adaptation, and featured Canadian horror actress Debbie Rochon and Scottish horror actress Marysia Kay.
  • Die Farbe, a German film adaption made in 2008 .
  • The movies "The Blob" (original and remake) were very loosely based on Lovecraft's "Color Out of Space"
  • Mortuary , Denise Crosby, Dan Byrd and Tarah Paige star in this horror flick directed by Tobe Hooper about a family that takes over a decrepit funeral home.

References

Bibliography

  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (1984). The Dunwich Horror and Others. 9th corrected printing, Sauk City, WI: Arkham House. ISBN 0-87054-037-8. Definitive version.
  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (1997). The Annotated Lovecraft. New York: Dell. ISBN 0-440-50660-3. Annotated edition.
  • Murray, Will (1999). The Fantastic Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft. 1st ed., Yucca Valley, CA: James Van Hise.

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