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Book vs film: The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft

The Book Corner season 5: Book vs film. Episode 7: The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft.

An indescribable alien insectoid on the cover of HP Lovecraft's The Colour Out Of Space

Hold on to your sanity for 1927’s The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft, and its 2019 adaptation starring Nicolas Cage.

The Book Corner

The Book Corner is a regular break from critiquing for the writing group of my former MA colleagues. We work out a theme and everyone chooses a book that we’ll read and discuss. Previous themes have included literary genre award winners and books that shaped our writing journeys. So far this year, I’m just about keeping up with the schedule as we read them.

As usual, it’s an odd mix with a skew towards SF and fantasy. Catch up with Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger by Stephen King and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin vs Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Coming up: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones.

The Colour Out Of Space: the story

Our unnamed narrator is a surveyor for a reservoir in land west of Arkham, Massachusetts, in the mid-1920s. He discovers a land known to locals as the “blasted heath”, poisoned fifty years earlier by a strange meteor. The narrator hints that after what he’s learned, he wouldn’t drink the local water.

The locals won’t talk about what happened there, but he learns of an allegedly crazy old loner, Ammi Pierce. Pierce tells him the story of Nahum Gardner, a farmer who lived on the heath with his family.

The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.

HP Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space

The meteor defies analysis by scientists from Arkham’s Miskatonic University, but they uncover a ‘globule’ that emits a mysterious colour. One of them hits the globule and it disintegrates. Overnight, bolts of lightning strike the meteor and it disappears.

Nahum enjoys a bumper harvest in the next following season but the unnaturally large crops are inedible. Over a year, the problem spreads, mutating both plants and animals. His crops turn grey and brittle, and the livestock’s meat is also unfit to eat.

The thing from another world

Ammi Pierce becomes the increasingly-isolated the family’s only contact with the world. He learns that Nahum’s wife went mad, so she was locked in the attic. The same fate soon follows for Nahum’s son, Thaddeus. Ammi advises Nahum to dig a new well because his water is poisoned, but the advice is refused. Thaddeus dies in the attic and Merwin, another of Nahum’s sons, disappears while drawing water from the well.

After weeks with no contact, Ammi visits, and Nahum claims that Zenas, his third son, is living in the well. Mrs Gardner is still in the attic but she is horribly changed, and Ammi hints that he killed her in an act of mercy. When he returned downstairs, Nahum was also deformed and dying. Before his death, Nahum tells Ammi that the colour from the meteorite is pulling the life out of the land.

Ammi returns with six men, and they find Merwin’s and Zenas’s skeletons in the well. The colour begins to pour from the well and take over the farmstead, convulsing the trees. They flee to the house but the colour consumes it too, and they escape out of the back. The colour runs into the sky, but only Ammi sees some of it fall back before there’s a blinding explosion. When they return the next day, the farmstead has become the desolate, blasted heath.

Most of the neighbours move away but Ammi stays, though his sanity never recovers. It’s clear that the colour didn’t come from outer space, but from somewhere beyond reality. It no more understood what it was doing to the Gardners than they were capable of understanding what it was, and it didn’t care.

The Colour Out Of Space: a writer’s review

Nahum Gardner and son watch something strange emerge from their well in the original 1927 art from Amazing stories, for The Colour Out Of Space.
Original 1927 art from Amazing Stories magazine for The Colour Out Of Space.

It’s an understatement to say that HP Lovecraft is a controversial figure. In spite of this, he’s also enormously influential in horror and science fiction, almost single-handedly creating the genre known today as “cosmic horror”.

Before I knew anything about Lovecraft himself, I was a 1980s teenager fascinated by the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Unlike most RPGs, in CoC your heroes faced mind-boggling creatures that were as likely to drive them mad as dismember them. Gaming magazines like White Dwarf often contained discussions of the literature, and I dove into the mythos with youthful verve.

Along the way, I learned about Lovecraft’s use of literary structure and linguistic techniques to disassociate readers from reality. His tales tried to communicate the horror of humans confronted with ancient, unimaginable and implacably hostile creatures of godlike power. It’s a nihilistic universe in which the light of humanity is desperately feeble — as Generation X as you can get!

One thing I enjoy about the mythos is that many contemporary writers suvert Lovercraft’s nihilism. They use his universe to lean into the importance of defending human warmth, liberty, democracy and diversity against a universe which sees us as little more than a psychic snack. The author is dead, as Barthes said, and his vile opinions with him.

Thirty years later, I was curious to find out what middle-aged me thought of Lovecraft’s prose.

Worlds beyond words

The Colour Out Of Space is experimental fiction: an attempt to create a truly alien entity. Most contemporary SF featured aliens that looked very human (no change there) and he wanted to challenge the status quo.

Lovecraft was also an early proponent of stories set in a shared universe. Here, we find the fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham and its Miskatonic University. The learned narrator who finds something that’s beyond his comprehension is also a familiar figure.

The Massachusetts countryside, another common setting, becomes otherworldly and forbidding. The narrotor not only hints that it’s an empty and remote, but that “the immigrants” — meaning recent arrivals in America — don’t want to settle there.

Fundamentally, it’s a shaggy dog story that you might hear from a well-oiled regular in the local pub. The colour and many of the changes it brings are beyond description, so they remain beyond comprehension. This has nothing to do with class or education, as the learned men of Arkham and the simple country folk are equally confounded.

There ares only so many times you can substitute “indescribable” for a genuine adjective, but the trick survives the length of a short story. As someone who’s read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction, I know that it slips easily into a cliché through overuse.

You could almost call it a pastoral horror. The alien force creeps gently over the Gardners, in time with the seasons of farming life. They succumb gradually, driven mad, mutated or drawn into the well. It’s only at the climax that the pace accelerates in a day of mounting terror.

The Color Out Of Space: the film

Bizarro purple poster art for The Color Out Of Space.

The Colour Out Of Space has been adapted numerous times since Boris Karloff starred in 1965’s Die, Monster, Die! For me, the lure of Nicolas Cage’s 2019 leading role had an unearthly power that was impossible to resist.

In many ways it’s a faithful adaptation, with Cage’s character escaping the city to realise his dream of farming alpacas. His family are given personalities and Nahum’s teenage daughter is often the narrative focus. Ammi becomes a conspiracy theory loner and the narrator is still a surveyor, albeit one who becomes entwined in the Gardner family’s descent.

The fundamental question has to be: how does a film depict things that are intentionally beyond description? Writer/director Richard Stanley tackles this challenge by using that most unnatural colour: purple.

He also draws on a sense that film can’t capture — smell. Cage repeatedly notes a smell that he can’t describe, until it’s revealed to be the smell of his wife’s cancer. The analogy of cancer to a relentless alien invader should bring a terrifying human dimension to the story. Somehow it misses the mark, either through the script or Cage’s erratic delivery.

Nicolas Cage in lurid tentacular poster art for the film The Color Out Of Space.
The poster art tells you everything you need to know about The Color Out Of Space.

For most of the film, Cage’s gonzo style is at odds with the naturalism of the rest of the cast. It’s only when the world becomes truly insane in the final act that he’s the perfect choice. Joely Richardson’s prosthetics are undeniably influenced by John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it’s impossible not to compare the two films. Unfortunately, where Carpenter’s animatronics are terrifying and dynamic, Stanley’s feel like passive exhibits in a horrific theme park.

Stanely isn’t happy to analogise the strangeness of the colour. We briefly witness a dimension of crawling tentacles and horned creatures which has become almost visual shorthand for Cthulhoid terror.

While it doesn’t have a long running time, The Color Out Of Space drags through the first act. It doesn’t find a consistent tone or pace until the latter stages. All the same, it’s won a generous 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and 70% from Metacritic.

What’s better, book or film? Lovecraft’s short story broke new ground and doesn’t out-stay its welcome. It’s hard to say the same for the film.

The Book Corner season 5, episode 8: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones

The Book vs Film season closes with a children’s favourite of page and screen. Howl’s Moving Castle has won classic status since it was first published in 1986, no doubt assisted by an animated adaptation in 2004 by Hayao Miyazaki.

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