Lovecraft and Colour
So I was recently reminded of a story I liked back in high school, and I wanted to revisit it now that I am older and with a bit more experience under my belt, because when you read something for pleasure in high school, I’m willing to bet 99% of us don’t do a close reading and analysis of its themes. The story is “The Colour out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft and it goes something like this:
The story is that tried and true old model of ghost stories: a story within a story, in which the narrator, a census taker, asks Ammi, an kooky old local farmer, the story behind a certain “blasted heath” located in the primeval forests of Appalachian New England.
In Ammi’s story, a meteor falls in another farmer’s yard and sort of evaporates and releases some indescribable color, something of an unknown spectrum. Scientists do some studies but in the end sort of shrug and admit they have no idea what is happening. The Colour proceeds to infect the whole landscape; first the fruit tastes bitter and odd, then the wild plants and the wild animals around the area begin to look strange, in a way that the inhabitants can’t quite place, in true Lovecraft fashion. Even the trees sway without any wind (and not just sway, they twitch, claw, jerk, writhe). The whole farm begins to glow in the dark. Eventually it gets into the well and the family, who begin to go insane and start making faces and crawling around on all fours (I don’t know why that little detail is so creepy to me; the faces aren’t described, and it’s such a simple childish peculiarity).
The plants all begin to die off, as do the livestock (who turn grey and begin to bloat and fall apart before they die), and then the family members, drawn toward the well or just crumbling where they lie. When Ammi finds them dead he also sees a sort of vapor moving with a seemingly intelligent purpose. He brings a party the next day to investigate, and as night falls they find themselves trapped by the weird glowing light. They run away, and as they do a beacon shoots out of the well and there is the hope that it’s all over, but Ammi sees a bit of the color still left, and it becomes clear that the corruption has spread slowly over the last 50 or so years since then. The impetus of this examination is that the valley is going to be flooded to create a reservoir and the narrator concludes that he is glad that the evil will be buried under the water, but he won’t be drinking this town’s tap water.
I was pretty big into the campy pulpy old-school horror back then and this was one of my favorites. If you’ve ever read Lovecraft you know that the writing is indulgent and he is prone to windbaggery; for a guy describing in words what can’t be described in words, he sure does use a lot of words. And he consistently describes things as “impossible to describe,” a truly laughable thing for a writer to say. Not only that, but instead of actually describing things, he says “oh it looked like a Fuseli or a Salvatore Rosa painting.” It’s nice to reference things, and I enjoyed the nod to Macbeth by calling the landscape a “blasted heath” in particular, but it comes off as rather lazy most of the time.
But there is still some great imagery and the story itself is trying to do some really cool things. For instance, Lovecraft wrote it because he wanted to create a truly alien presence, something we could not understand on the basic physical level, not just a person in a lizard costume, which is a pretty great goal. And the product, a sentient color, is pretty novel even if the delivery (ghost story + meteorite) isn’t. He also uses the word “skyey.” I’m not sure how I feel about that.
What made me think about this piece after so many years was actually Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Interestingly, I read both of these in high school, probably both junior year, and didn’t put this together then at all. Or maybe that isn’t really interesting at all, considering how little I wanted to have anything to do with that book. Anyway, examining “Scarlet Letter” in the context of the American Gothic genre actually lumps these two stories in the same pool, albeit at different ends.
Both are obviously concerned with color; Scarlet Letter uses red to impart a humorist sanguinity, but also to impose alienness onto Hester, just as the Colour alienates (literally) the world it touches. They also both share an interest in meaning, or more specifically, in semiotics. The titular “A” upon Hester Prynne’s breast is defined over the course of the novel by its instability. What begins as “adultery” becomes “able” and even “angel.” The letter also represents Pearl, the elfin creature of primeval chaos, which acts as its agent. The point is that the meaning is fluid, that at a certain point, our signifiers fail to capture the signified.
As the Colour takes over the landscape, previous definitions of things begin to falter. The trees behave untreelike, the wood unwoodlike, etc.. In this sense, therefore, when Ammi says that “only by analogy that they called it color at all,” if we can only define this thing by its relation to other things, and these supposedly static analogous objects are in fact amorphous, he is denying that it can be described in any reasonable way. The Colour, something traditionally used only as a descriptor, perhaps a feature or reflection of something but never its own entity, has a power over the described. The Colour is described as “draining” its victims, much like the “A” drains Hester of her femininity.
Narham’s (the farmer’s) wife can describe it “not a specific noun, only verbs and pronouns.” There are also moments where the storytelling itself falters and deeds are “nameless”, or “words could not convey.” This is that old Romanticist horror fallback, that language falls short, but this failure of language and perception seems more central to Lovecraft’s story; it isn’t a climactic copout, the climax has been building toward that precise unnamability. The crumbling corpses aren’t the terrible force, the unnamability itself is. Both stories consider semiotic failure, the “A” failing over time and the Colour failing instantaneously to impart any true notion of meaning.
And if all that wasn’t enough, they both even have meteors! So obviously very similar. (Hawthorne + Lovecraft headcanon: The “A” is an alien. Must research later.)
This was going to be the end here but, and sorry for going on another tangent, but it probably needs to be said. In case you didn’t know, H.P. Lovecraft was, and probably still is in whatever indescribable nightmare universe he now resides, a blatant anti-Semitic, homophobic racist. And this isn’t just something inferred from metaphors in his writing or some mildly distasteful joke he told, or some sort of in-retrospect-exploitative primitivism, a la Picasso. Here is one of his published poems:
On the Creation of Niggers
by H. P. Lovecraft (1912)
When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.
It’s really hard to swallow. If that wasn’t enough, here’s a quote of his about homosexuality: “So far as the case of homosexuality goes, the primary and vital objection against it is that it is naturally…repugnant.” He married a Jewish woman, but only because he described her as "well assimilated,” and, not entirely surprisingly, their marriage was a failure.
And since we're talking about it, it is a very interesting story to analyze racially. It doesn’t take a genius to see the racial allegory present in this story; a mysterious, evil, alien Colour invades and destroys a good hardworking (white) farm. The placement of things is interesting in reading it as a racially charged story too; the meteorite, the source of evil and the infectious agent comes from an alien, outside place (i.e. Africa, magnified to as outside as possible) but at the same time encroached from beneath - an alien infiltration from within, from beneath, from an interior source, in an atavistic sense. The Colour is also associated with ungodliness, not too mention that skin color is usually paired with a lack, nonwhites seen as lacking, and Lovecraft’s Colour sucks something out of the farmers.
So. He was a bit of a POS. But is this so surprising? He had periods of reclusion and suffered from anxiety; his work is defined by fear, so should we be surprised that he would be a frightened little man, easily swayed by any fearful propaganda he should come across? This isn’t to humanize him or to excuse him in any way. But how can we enjoy his work knowing this?
I hate to just fall back on Barthes’s “Death of the Author” as an end-all, be-all to the argument, because that's highly problematic too, but I like reading this story. And maybe this is just me trying to rationalize my guilt away, by separating the story from Lovecraft. but let’s use this work as palimpsest, let’s scrub it clean and use it for what we want. The author doesn’t get to dictate what we read, the reader does.
(And just to make me feel better, go read some Octavia Butler or Nnedi Okorafor now.)