The H.P Lovecraft Omnibus (part 3)

Two more Lovecraft tales!

The Colour Out of Space continues the themes and style of The Whisperer in Darkness, and takes them to a purer extreme – which is odd, because chronologically it sits a year after The Call of Cthulhu and a year before The Dunwich Horror. However, Lovecraft himself considered this story to be his best; perhaps, after a time of attempting to continue in the old way, he intentionally re-oriented himself along the lines of his most successful story. Certainly, it has more in common with later pieces like Whisperer and At the Mountains of Madness than it does with The Dunwich Horror, for all that they are given similar settings.

As usual, Colour takes place in the wild places of New England, at a site where a new reservoir is to be built. An engineer with the water company visits the area and discovers a strange, desolate patch of land; later, he inquires as to its origin. The bulk of the tale is therefore taken from the account of an old local man, Ammi Pierce, although it is mostly told through the voice of the anonymous traveller, who remains refreshingly sober about things, all things considered. The story that is told is that of the arrival of a strange meteorite on the farm of Ammi’s neighbour and friend, Nahum Gardner; it takes its name from strange bubble-like formations in the rock that display an impossible and incomparable colour.

In some ways, Colour is both the antithesis of the Cthulhu Mythos and its apotheosis.  Throughout the Mythos, Lovecraft attempts to summon up the unfathomable, the indescribable, the incomprehensible, the truly alien – but again and again, he lets slip enough hooks that we are able to get a grip on the stories. Far from being unknowable, the actors of the Cthulhu mythos are well-known. Entire books can be written on their origins, purposes and interrelations. They are shrouded in rumour and folklore in the stories, and out of the stories they have developed a life of their own. The Colour out of Space seems both a rejection of that baroque superstructure of the myth, and a fulfilment of its basic premise: the threat of the truly alien.

There’s no doubt that this is a science fiction story, plain and simple. Myth and folklore and magic play peripheral roles if they occur at all – though it is science fiction dressed up as something else. Lovecraft plays with the expectations of a Dunwich-like story – some reawakened horror from before the dawn of time as spoken horribly of in generations of dark legend and rural superstition – but what actually plays out is pure SF. Ridiculous SF, it is true, which doesn’t stand up to modern scrutiny, but it has that core of plain, straightforward scientific thinking, a certain coldness and matter-of-factness that most of his stories lack. That coldness actually accentuates the horror of the story, rather than detracting from it. In that respect, I think it is probably the most successful of his stories, thematically. Indeed, it’s one of the most successful SF stories of all time, in one respect: the sheer, limitless, inscrutable alienness of it all. Lovecraft disliked pure SF on the grounds that the aliens were always humans with masks – he tries his best in many of his tales, but this is the only one where he truly succeeds in avoiding that, and as such it has been an inspiration for many writers since – most directly, Stephen King, never embarrassed about his deep debt to Lovecraft throughout his career, has admitted that Tommyknockers was based on this story (though it seems that narcotics may have played quite a role in the interpretation process…). More generally, Lovecraft combines the alien with themes of disease, madness, brainwashing, mutation, and the fear of contagion into an extremely heady mix which has helped inspire much later horror and SF (The Thing, for instance, while ostensibly based upon At the Mountains of Madness, seems to me to get a lot of its animating force from Colour).

All that said, it’s not a perfect story. It’s not frightening – the ‘horror’ of the genre name is not a relic in this case, as it horrifies rather than terrifies. It’s a little detached – which is essential to the tone, but which stops it from hitting home as hard as it might. It’s also, frankly, not as well written as The Whisperer in Darkness, in terms of prose style.

——-

The Haunter of the Dark, alas, is a step back to something more stereotypically ‘Lovecraftian’. In fact, much of it feels nine-tenths of the way to parody. There are, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, by this stage of his career, Lovecraft was moving beyond the basic premises of his mythos, and trying to use them as the basis for more conventionally horrifying stories; this has the upside that his stories were now being given genuine pay-offs instead of ‘ah! the horror!’ moments… but it also has the downside that the mythic basis has to be dumped on us very quickly, in case we’re not au fait with it. And by now, Lovecraft feels almost bored with these infodumps. In consequence, the “horrible forbidden manuscripts telling of horrific ancient rites” section of the story is physically painful.

Secondly, this story WASN’T entirely serious. It was written in response to a story by a young fan, Robert Bloch, in which a character based on Lovecraft met a horrible fate, and in turn sets out to give a nasty ending to the admirer, in the form of a “Robert Blake”. Blake is also clearly a vehicle for Lovecraft’s own gentle self-mockery, and there are subtle references not only to Bloch’s works but also to Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.

However: it isn’t just a parody, and it isn’t entirely familiar, either. The conceit of the story is ingenious, and the ending is both exciting and unnerving. It is also, alas, rather confusing, since Lovecraft is experimenting here with leaving conclusions unsaid – what happens can be worked out if you’ve been reading carefully, but the practised Lovecraft reader used to hysterical revelations may not have been paying enough attention up to that point. Lovecraft is also taking the opportunity to experiment with narrative structure, interweaving the reports of Blake’s diaries with second-hand anecdote and reconstructed narration told as though by an omniscient narrator. At times, the junctions are too visible, but in other places, the mix works well to build up tension.

Overall, as the last story written under Lovecraft’s own name, there is a fitting note of retrospective about this tale; yet Lovecraft was not yet expecting to die, and there are signs of further experimentation and possible new directions [the danger of the Haunter, for instance, is far more sophisticated and promising than the danger of being eaten, from stories like ‘Pickman’.

Adrenaline: 3-3. ‘Colour’ never hits a peak of being truly exciting – but it builds the tension up pretty steadily throughout, and kept me reading easily. ‘Haunter’ doesn’t built up tension well, but the ending really picks it up.

Emotion: 3-2. There’s not enough engagement with the characters to be exceptional here, but there IS horror and revulsion. However, in ‘Haunter’ that revulsion is a bit too familiar, and the characters are TOO forgettable, to the point of nonexistence.

Thought: 2-2. The antagonist of ‘Colour’ is so alien that we can’t think too much about it. The images and ideas are compelling, but they are intentionally uncognitive. That of ‘Haunter’ is perhaps too unalien, and although it has some interesting possibilities, they are only hinted at.

Beauty: 3-2. Some imagery in ‘Colour’ is beautiful, but it lacks any expanse of beautiful prose. The prose overall doesn’t hit the heights of Whisperer, but it’s also more reliable, more sensible. In ‘Haunter’, it is all entirely forgettable, and parts are irritating.

Craft: 4-3. The combination of lower-risk prose style, more sober narrator, and the very simple plot outline make ‘Colour’ perhaps the most respectable, unobjectionable Lovecraft story I’ve read so far. It isn’t perfect, at it feels a bit archaic at times, but overall it’s very well done. ‘Haunter’ is lazy and slipshod, only elevated by its ending.

Endearingness: 4-2. Not sure why, but I really liked ‘Colour’. It’s memorable and effective, and not hard work. There’s not enough to it to really demand repeat readings, and nothing to love about it either, but it’s a story I know I’ll want to re-read in the future. I can’t think why I would re-read ‘Haunter’ – the ending is memorable, but not worth waiting for unless you’re a Lovecraft, Bloch or Cosmic Horror aficionado.

Originality: 3. ‘Colour’ is historically inventive, but too simple and straightforward to be too unique by today’s standards. ‘Haunter’ is far too predictable, with but has a bit of ingenuity in the final nature of the beast, and in the narrative structure.

Overall: Good; Bad, but with redeeming features.

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