The Colour out of Space is closer to science fiction than horror than most of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, although it certainly has its horrifying aspects. This 1927 short story considers what lies out there in the vastness of space, unknown and incomprehensible to humanity; like the narrator, one may feel “an odd timidity about the deep skyey voids above” by the end of it.
The story begins with a meteorite that crashes on the Massachusetts farm of Nahum Gardner in 1882.
Scientists from nearby Miskatonic University come out to examine it, and discover an object too soft to be metal but possessed of peculiar properties. Not that they have much time for testing. The meteorite shrinks rapidly and, after several lightning strikes during a storm, disappears completely.
Yet something remains behind. That autumn’s crops grow extravagantly large and glossy, tinted with an indefinable color that reminds everyone of the fragile globule found inside the meteorite–but all the fruit is inedible. The next year, the plants grow stunted and brittle. Tree branches seem to move even when there’s no wind. Wild animals near the farm behave strangely and appear to be subtly deformed. The livestock that isn’t able to flee becomes ill and starts to shrivel, turning grey and brittle like the plants. The whole farmyard glows faintly at night. And although the water from the well is obviously contaminated, the Gardner family continues to drink it.
At first glance, this could be an early story about the effects of exposure to radiation; this being Lovecraft, however, there’s more going on than a mere environmental hazard. An active and conscious entity has taken up residence in the farm well and is draining the life out of everything organic in the vicinity.
The text is online at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecolouroutofspace.htm.
The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Dark Adventure Radio Theatre introduces this story with a double frame: one is taken from Lovecraft’s text, and another is added to give the drama an extra kick.
The audio play begins with two workers in a government office in Arkham, Massachusetts, in the 1930s, going through some old files; they discover a floridly written report from 1926 regarding a survey of a country valley about to be flooded to create a reservoir.
As the office workers read the report aloud, their voices give way to that of the surveyor, Abel Cooke (Sean Branney). The surveyor/narrator isn’t named in Lovecraft’s story.
After seeing the “blasted heath”–the utterly blighted patch of land which used to be the Gardner farm–Cooke interviews an elderly neighbor, Ammi Pierce (Barry Lynch, who’s done voice work on several of these audio plays, but was also the creepy Henry Akeley in The Whisperer in Darkness). Ammi tells Cooke all about those “strange days” after the meteorite fell; it’s now his turn to narrate, interspersed with conversations and flashback scenes to the terrible events of the 1880s as he witnessed the disintegration of the Gardner family–some of them, quite literally.
The destruction of the Gardners is made much more poignant by hearing their voices, especially Mr. Gardner’s (Mark Colson), which grows painfully distraught as he loses his wife and children for reasons beyond his understanding, then becomes slow and distracted as his own mind slips away. He seems to believe that this is some kind of punishment even though he’s always tried to live a Godly life–but what happens to the Gardner family is particularly awful because they did nothing to bring it on themselves. Unlike many characters in Lovecraft stories, they didn’t go poking around in ancient graveyards, studying forbidden lore, or reading aloud from the The Necronomicon; they were minding their own business when doom fell upon them from out of the sky.
Mrs. Gardner goes mad, shrieking about an unseen creature that’s fastened on to her and is draining her. She gets shut up in an attic room, and one of her sons is soon locked in the other; the two shout at each other in a strange language of their own, until the boy dies just the way the animals did. The other two boys disappear. Mrs. Gardner hangs on, deteriorating up in her room, and it’s debatable whether her ultimate fate or her husband’s is worse.
After Nahum and his wife are dead, Ammi brings the police, the coroner, and other officials to the site. They empty the well and find the missing boys’ bodies among the nasty gunk at the bottom. And when the whole place starts to glow, they escape just in time to be able to witness the farm’s final destruction:
When they looked back toward the valley and the distant Gardner place at the bottom they saw a fearsome sight. The farm was shining with the hideous unknown blend of colour; trees, buildings, and even such grass and herbage as had not been wholly changed to lethal grey brittleness. The boughs were all straining skyward, tipped with tongues of foul flame, and lambent tricklings of the same monstrous fire were creeping about the ridgepoles of the house, barn and sheds… over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well–seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognizable chromaticism. Then without warning the hideous thing shot vertically up toward the sky like a rocket or meteor, leaving behind no trail and disappearing through a round and curiously regular hole in the clouds before any man could gasp or cry out.
The entity has gained the strength to return home, but is all of it gone? Ammi thought he saw something fall back to the earth at the last. Cooke’s report notes that the local people say the blighted area is still growing about an inch each year, and he has seen for himself the “colour” in the late afternoon sunlight over the well.
There are several interesting documents included with the CD:
- A newspaper clipping from 1882 with a photograph of the Gardner farm and meteorite crater.
- A letter from one of the scientists who examined fragments of the meteorite, describing the tests they performed and their findings, and an indignant denial that they “lost” the specimens.
- A letter from the Arkham City Water Supply Commission about their plans to go ahead with the reservoir in spite of Cooke’s report.
- Poor Nahum Gardner’s last will, assuming that someone in his family will survive him.
The audio drama concludes with a little twist, not part of the original story. We return to the two office workers, who only now that they’ve finished reading the report learn the fate of Mr. Cooke, and where that water they’ve been drinking has come from.