Posted: 12 February 2023
Read the story here
The story is recounted by a Boston surveyor who has gone out to the rural hills of Arkham to inspect the site of a new water reservoir being built.
He finds that a large swatch of land there is a desolate waste the locals refer to as the “blasted heath” where no life will grow and layers of grey ash still cover everything after 30 years. All the locals refuse to talk about the “strange days” that created the heath, all except for Ammi Pierce, a reclusive old man who witnessed the events first hand…
In June of 1882 a meteor lands on the Gardner family farm near the property’s well. The next day the owner, Nahum sends for professors from the local university to examine it. Immediately the meteor displays odd properties - soft like plastic, generating heat, slowly shrinking, and glowing in colours never before seen on Earth.
Contained inside the meteor is a small bubble that is popped open by the inspectors that appears to be empty (~foreshadowing~), but no more bubbles can be found before the meteor is destroyed when a lightning storm on the farm strikes it repeatedly. All previously collected samples eventually shrink out of existence, and the Gardner family enjoys the press coverage of the event until the public moves on and forgets the strange incident.
That harvest season, the Gardner’s crops thrive and grow wildly around the area of the meteor strike but turn out to be inedible, all tasting foul. As time goes on more incidents start happening around the farm; wild animals in the area start to mutate, the trees seem to move even on nights with no wind, and all the lush, colourful vegetation eventually turns grey and dies. One passerby from Arkham notes that the area seems to glow at night. The whole Gardner family becomes sickly and withdrawn, even from their old friend Ammi.
Things turn disatrous when a year after the meteor’s fall Naham’s wife, Nabby seems to go insane, inconsolable over an invisible presence attacking her and draining her life. Naham refuses to send her to an asylum and instead locks her in the attic when she becomes threatening to their three sons, Zenas, Thaddeus and Merwin. Within a month she has lost all reason, crawling around like an animal and -Nahum insists- glowing faintly in the dark.
Thaddeus is the next to go mad after visiting the well one day and seeing “the moving colours down there”. Naham locks him in the attic across from his mother. Eventually, all the farm’s livestock die off. Though they hadn’t been fed any of the tainted vegetation, they all turn grey and -literally- wither away just like the plants.
In October, Nahum reaches out to Ammi with terrible news that Thaddeus has died. Nahum can’t tell Ammi what happened, only that he buried what he found up there in the family plot behind the farm.
Only three days later Nahum returns to Ammi with news that now Merwin is gone. He left one evening to get water from the well and disappeared. Nahum searched the woods all night but when he returned to the well in the morning he found only the melted remains of the lantern and pail the boy was carrying. Nahum is certain he will also die soon, and begs Ammi to look after his wife and surviving son should they outlive him.
Two weeks go by with no news from Nahum so Ammi visits the Gardner farm to check on them. Naham is alive but weak and -Ammi soon realises- mad.
Nahum is now alone, hallucinating the presence of his family, talking to his wife and son as if they were in the room with them. Ammi can get no information out of Nahum so goes up to the attic to search for them himself.
In the locked attic he finds the remains of Nabby Gardner. Withered and mutated like all the other animals of the farm, but horrifyingly still alive. Ammi puts her out of her misery but by opening the attic door had released a force that pushes past him and into the main house.
By the time he returns downstairs, Nahum has also been attacked and the force has retreated into the well outside. Nahum’s disintegrating body is just alive enough to describe the thing that got all of them;
The cloud of ‘colour’ has been living in the well and draining all the life from the surrounding land. Nahum reckons the empty ‘bubbles’ inside the meteorite carried the entity to earth like a seed pod.
All the Gardners are now dead and Ammi goes to alert the authorities. They insist on seeing the farm and Ammi is dragged along with them. There is nothing more to find in the house, but the police insist on emptying the well to look for the two missing boys - despite Ammi’s protests. The remains of Merwin and Zenas are found at the bottom along with those of several animals, stripped to the bone.
Come nightfall all the men return to the house and try to make sense of the situation. That’s when one of them notices a glow coming from inside the well. The men all watch in horror as the Colour pours out of the well and up into the night sky. They are forced to flee through the back of the house as the entity drains the last of the life from the area as it leaves Earth.
Crushed by the devastation they have witnessed, the men all head back to Arkham. As they leave, Ammi looks back and sees a speck of that alien colour fail to rise into the sky with the larger mass and sink back down into the well.
The blasted heath has never recovered and locals say it’s radius seems to be slowly growing each year. The surveyor believes the remaining Colour is still in the old well, leeching the land. Tethered there, for now.
The surveyor is so disturbed by Ammi’s story that he returns immediately to Boston to resign his position, unwilling to return to the blasted heath.
The reservoir will be built nonetheless and the (former) surveyor takes comfort in the idea of the whole valley and it’s terrible history being buried underwater forever.
Although he would never drink the reservoir’s water.
I really like this one.
It’s SO sad and pointless, the Gardners did nothing to deserve their fate nor could they have avoided it. The description of Nabby’s death in particular is chilling. I’d say that passage alone is worth giving the story a read, but that kinda defeats the purpose of this blog so here:
The ‘Colour’ is an interesting creature. Its form is described mostly as a cloud of gas, it can slip through cracks into locked rooms and be physically felt by people. Its also sometimes compared to a plant; the bubbles in the meteor were its “seeds”, the entity has a specific connection to the trees - being able to move their branches and has tied itself into the root network beneath the farm. It spreads slowly, leeching life from the land.
It can’t just kill its victims outright, it needs to weaken them first over a period of prolonged exposure. An important theme of Colour is that the characters are unable to leave the horrible circumstances they find themselves in. The Gardner family can’t just leave the farm when shit gets bad, the entity has them mentally bound to it. The family know they’re dying but are almost fatalistically resigned to their fate.
The surveyor also laments Ammi’s fate in the end. 30 years later he still can’t leave the scene of the tragedy, even when everyone else has long since abandoned the surrounding countryside.
The Colour isn’t just a vampire though, the obvious comparison to its effects is radiation poisoning. At first all the life on the farm grows huge and discoloured, even the wild animals in the area develop strange mutations…
Until eventually, the poisoning part kicks in and everything in the area slowly wastes away to grey, brittle husks.
I’ve seen people dismiss the radiation elements of this story since it was written pre-WWII, and what we know today of radiation and its consequences were not yet widely known.
Radiation was one of those things that the public loved for years, even when scientists knew it was bad. Marie Skłodowska-Curie pioneered the study of radioactivity in the late 1890s and by Lovecraft’s time it was an exciting new field entering the public conscious. They were adding it to water, chocolate, enemas, etc. as a miracle curative.
Now, how many of you are familiar with the Radium Girls?
From 1924-26, the story came out that many young women who worked as dial painters were suffering horrible illnesses. It was a fad at the time to paint clocks and watches with radium paint so they glowed in the dark. The women were told the radioactive paint was safe and were encouraged to point their brushes with their lips to do the fine detailing work.
By June 1925, the papers were publishing all the gruesome details of their illness and its gruesome effects on their bodies. Colour was written in 1927, people were familiar with the symptoms of radiation sickness even if it wasn’t widely understood.
The lack of care from the city folk towards the rural family and the total inability to escape the ravages of The Colour is also similar to how the real life story played out.
And hey, radiation is a wave. That makes it basically a COLOUR. Coincidence??
Of course, the idea of an unidentifiable colour is silly on its face. Human eyes can only interpret so many colours, you can’t see ‘new’ ones without somehow glimpsing outside the visible light spectrum (à la From Beyond. You’d literally need to open up a new sense organ. How did Howard get this right seven years before Colour Out of Space?). Although in the 2019 The Colour Out of Space adaptation (the Nick Cage one) The Colour is pink, which is fun.
There’s a theory that the colour pink doesn’t exist. The visible light spectrum ranges from red to violet, theres no pink in there, it doesn’t have its own wavelength.
Since pink would fall between the two ends of the spectrum, the human brain tries to fill in the gap by “inventing” pink.
Brown would also technically fall into this category of ‘non-colour’, but that would make for a pretty shitty movie (hah.)
Of course, ALL colour is bound by human perception so it’s not like any colour of the rainbow can be said to objectively exist outside of the millions of cones firing off in our eyeballs…
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, if you want to watch a good Colour out of Space adaptation, watch Annihilation (2018). It nails the utterly alien, existential horror bent and The Shimmer looks really cool.
Fantastic story, and besides a bit of weird mysticism about the foreigners who don’t want to settle on the alien blast-zone (smart), no racism!
· Written and published in 1927, in the September issue of Amazing Stories. It would also be the last Lovecraft work for Amazing Stories as the owner, Hugo Gernsback was notably bad at paying his writers. This lead to Lovecraft dubbing him “Hugo the Rat”, although you probably know him best for the Hugo Awards.
· H.P. Lovecraft considered The Colour Out of Space his favourite of his own stories.
· The surveyor compares the area around the blasted heath to a Salvator Rosa painting.
Ammi describes The Colour leaving the well like “a scene from a vision of Fuseli”.
· Further Reading:
"The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women" - by Kate Moore
“A Stalking Monster”: The Influence of Radiation Poisoning on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” - by Andy Troy
((Unfortunately I cannot find a free version online unless you sign up for a Kindle trial or something, but it’s found in a collection of essays titled Lovecraftian Proceedings No. 1 and the whole book is pretty interesting. The article basically does the research of proving that HPL was familiar with the Radium Girls story and the effects of radiation poisoning prior to writing Colour))
Annihilation - 2018 (just go watch it, it’s great)