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An Analysis of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space"

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

H.P. Lovecraft, who never graduated from college, frequently used a professional -- a doctor, professor, or scientist -- as his protagonist. In "The Colour Out of Space," the narrator is a surveyor by trade but a folklorist by avocation. When he comes to a peculiarly desolate region near Arkham, Massachusetts called "the blasted heath," he inquires about the name. He's referred to old Ammi Pierce, who is thought to be half mad but is the only one left who lived the story first hand. "It all began, old Ammi said, with the meteorite."

To make a long story short, something fell out of the sky onto Nahum Gardner's land. Professors from Miskatonic University called it a meteorite. But there was something strange about it -- many things, in fact. For one, the longer it was exposed to the air, the smaller it got. It glowed in the dark, and it was too soft to be a rock -- it was so soft, in fact, that one could reach in and pull off a hunk of it as if it were a blob of dough. As the mass shrunk, the professors inevitably reached further toward the center to excise samples, and in so doing they discovered that the inside of the meteorite was different than the material covering it. The inside, actually, was glossy, brittle, hollow, and colored, although the color was impossible to describe; it was almost as if that color was not even in our spectrum. One of the professors struck the thing, and it popped like a bubble, leaving an empty crevice in the inside of the "meteorite." With that, the professors went home. A lightning storm that evening took care of the rest of the object, and in the morning nothing remained of it at all. Life in Arkham returned to normal.

Or almost normal. That fall, Nahum Gardner's harvest was huge -- abnormally huge -- but his fruit tasted "sickish" and no one wanted to buy it. Wild animals who lived off Gardners' land mutated subtly "in a queer way impossible to describe," and people were genuinely frightened. The snow melted faster on Nahum's land than anywhere else, the trees budded earlier, and the skunk cabbages that grew in the spring took on a strange color very uncharacteristic of skunk cabbages - but exactly like the center of the meteorite. The milk went bad. And not surprisingly, the entire Gardner family took on this attitude of watching and listening, as if they were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When school was out, the townspeople saw less of the Gardners, but about that time rumors began to circulate that Mrs. Gardner was mad. She couldn't describe what agitated her so: "Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds. Something was taken away -- she was being drained of something -- something was fastening itself on her that ought not to be -- someone must make it keep off -- nothing was ever still in the night -- the walls and windows shifted." Eventually Nahum shut her in the attic. She was shortly followed by her son Thaddeus, and the family could hear them screaming at each other in the attic in a language that wasn't earthly. Eventually Thaddeus died "in a way which could not be told."

By fall the horses had gone mad, too, and the vegetation had turned grey. The other farm animals' flesh was greyish when they were slaughtered, and obviously inedible. The youngest Gardner boy disappeared, followed by his only remaining brother, and at this Nahum went completely mad. Finally Ammi Pierce, heretofore Nahum's closest friend, went to the house to find out what was going on. He found Nahum hollering at his missing son to bring more wood for the fire, and Ammi decided he'd better go upstairs and have a look around. 

When he got to the locked attic room, Ammi opened it with a key he'd found on a nail. The stench was "beyond enduring." As he stood in the open doorway, a clammy vapor brushed by him. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he saw something horrifying in the corner, something that had mutated into the colors of the globule in the meteorite. We are left to assume, although Lovecraft never says so, that that horrifying thing, which crumbled even as he looked at it, was Mrs. Gardner. 

Outside, he came upon what remained of Nahum -- for although "everything had happened in the last half-hour. . . collapse, greying, and disintegration were already far advanced. There was a horrible brittleness, and dry fragments were scaling off." In his last burst of breath, Nahum confirmed that it was the color that "burns. . . cold an' wet, but it burns. . . it lived in the well." After Nahum crumbled away, Ammi covered him with a tablecloth and called the "authorities," who of course could not imagine what had happened here. But as they conducted their investigations, the trees began to tremble (although there is no wind) and tiny beads of colored light danced at the tip of each branch. As they watch, a cloud of fluorescence, which at first hovers over the well, suddenly streams upward toward the sky. At that, everything began to glow with that unholy color -- the barn, the sheds, the grass. The authorities quickly ran to the top of a "safe" hill, where they could look down on the luminous scene; and from that point they saw what seemed to be an explosion of colored light, and then peace.

Nothing remained except "five acres of dusty grey desert" -- the very land that our narrator has come to Arkham to survey as the site of a future reservoir. Our narrator, the surveyor, concluded his chronicle by saying he doesn't plan to come back to Arkham, Massachusetts; but in any case, he wouldn't recommend drinking the water there. Which sounds, overall, like a very good idea. 

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