[Tour de Lovecraft] The Colour Out of Space
Lovecraft considered "The Colour Out of Space" to be his best story. I agree. I would rank it up there with "The Willows" and "The White People" and a handful of M.R. James ghost-stories as a perfect weird tale.
I believe I was reading a long, stodgy book review of a biography of Melville when I ran across the following Melville quote, which has ever since been a major touch-stone of mine for the cosmic:
No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine, particularly Jerusalem. To some, the disappointment is heart-sickening. Is the desolation of the land the result of the fatal embrace of the Deity? Hapless are the favorites of heaven.
Now, while I obviously don't actually believe this to be the case, my Calvinist depths vibrate strongly to this particular chord. This, for me, is the purest form of cosmic horror, what Lovecraft summed up as the "idiot god Azathoth," or what Tim Powers evokes with the djinn in Declare
-- an intelligence so foreign, so inaccessible, that it can only appear mad or idiotic to us despite its immensity. (Like the "colour," its method cannot be perceived by human experience.) While researching my "Herne the Hunter" Suppressed Transmission, I ran across Henry James, Sr., and his "vastation" at Windsor:
[S]uddenly in a lightning-flash as it were "fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake." To all appearance it was a perfectly insane and abject terror, without ostensible cause, and only to be accounted for, to my perplexed imagination, by some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room, and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life. The thing had not lasted ten seconds before I felt myself a wreck, that is, reduced from a state of firm, vigorous, joyful manhood to ... an ever-growing tempest of doubt, anxiety, and despair...
This "vastation," I maintain (contra Swedenborg), is the Sublime spoor of Azathoth. Echoes of it occur in that great scene in Gojira,
when the scientists discover a trilobite smashed into Gojira's footprint; you also get a diminuendo of the Sublime in the 1951 version of The Thing,
when the scientists back up and the camera pulls back to reveal the outline of an enormous crashed saucer under the ice.
Which brings up a point that occurred to me while I was listening to a reading from this story at the H.P. Lovecraft Ice Cream Social that 57th Street Books held two Saturdays ago to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Lovecraft's death (which was on Thursday -- and Lovecraft is now fully in the public domain, btw). Namely, that this story, published in 1927, can be seen as a kind of tipping-point in cultural signifiers. If you'll forgive me getting all Northrop Frye on you, in the old medieval Christian tradition (and even the late Classical era) of stories, a visitor from Heaven was predominantly a good thing -- a god or angel or saint. The figure I'll call "the brightly-colored stranger" was predominantly a bad thing -- a lamia or devil or Pied Piper or Heathcliff. At some point, those signifiers switched.
Yes, H.G. Wells' alien invader predates HPL's. But it seems to me that Wells was doing something revolutionary, but that after 1930 or so -- after 1927 -- any alien on earth was more likely to be an invader than not. Right now, if you go to a movie, knowing nothing about it, if it begins with a meteorite falling to Earth, it's 90% likely to be a horror movie. (Likewise, our modern myth of visitors from the sky, the Roswell Mythos, is a maltheist one straight outta Lovecraft.) If it begins with a brightly-colored stranger coming to town, it's almost as likely to be a romantic comedy. The brightly colored stranger is now the redeemer. (Which is why Roma Downey or Michael Landon's angel figures always walked into town, and didn't fall from the sky.) Sometimes, it "redeems" a whole family, or a whole town -- whether they like it or not.
Hence, you can watch Pleasantville
as a photographic negative of "The Colour Out of Space." As the color which nobody in the world has ever seen before spreads, their society is destroyed. We have met the Colour, and it is us.
NEXT: "The Whisperer in Darkness"