H.P Lovecraft’s story The Colour Out of Space is, for me, the tale that best exemplifies his obsessive dread and horror at the uncaring, indifferent cosmos. For anyone not familiar with the tale, it is about a meteorite that falls onto a farm in rural Massachusetts. Something arrived inside the space stone, a bodiless presence detectable at first only as a strange color that does not fit into the normal visible spectrum that human eyes are used to. As the story progresses, the Colour slowly corrupts the unfortunate farmer and his family and lands, withering the crops, mutating the animals and eventually causing everything to grow sick and die. Throughout the tale, the Colour is unknowable, unidentifiable. It never manifests in a physical body. It’s not even clear if it’s even a living being at all. Maybe it’s a kind of radiation or an unknown element. Or something else entirely. It resembles a natural disaster more than a cohesive entity. More a flood or plague than an outsider entity like Cthulhu or the mi-go.
Michael Shea’s sequel is set fifty years after the events of Lovecraft’s story when the farm where the Colour fell to Earth has been drowned at the bottom of a man-made reservoir. The thing has been dormant for decades under the dark water, but now it is beginning to manifest once more.
Shea’s book initially exhibits that same dread of uncaring cosmic catastrophe of the original story as the mutagenic taint of the Colour slowly and subtly seeps into the environment surrounding its watery prison. His tale also shows how such a cosmic incursion continues to affect victims long after the first encounter is over, much as a natural catastrophe forever leaves a scar in the survivors’ psyches.
Eventually, however, Shea’s version of the Colour becomes increasingly more anthropomorphic. It is described as evil and hungry, scheming to terrorize and devour human life-force. At times it even seems to sadistically taunt the protagonists. A choice that, I feel, somewhat dilutes the horror of the thing.
In tone, Shea’s story actually feels closer to Algernon Blackwood than H.P. Lovecraft, primarily in the characters of its protagonists, Gerald Sternbruck and Ernst Carlsberg, who are two elderly but spry and outdoorsy travelers as opposed to the bookish homebody heroes of the Old Man of Providence. I am especially reminded of Blackwood’s river explorers in “The Willows”, who also stumble into a realm of otherworldly beings whose very nature is hostile to human life.
Gerald and Ernst are deeply familiar with each other’s thoughts to the point that each can readily guess what the other is thinking, much like amateur detectives Monsieur Dupin and his companion from Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. I feel this comparison is apropos since Gerald and Ernst are themselves amateur investigators, setting themselves the task of discovering the nature of the miasma that is infesting the lake, if initially for no other reason than that they believe it is their duty to uncover the truth behind the mystery. Though once they see what happens to victims of the thing in the lake, they turn their quest towards stopping it before it can spread.
In an interesting twist, Lovecraft himself and his stories actually existed in the world of Shea’s novel. Here the being Gerald and Ernst are fighting actually served as the inspiration for “The Colour Out of Space”. Lovecraft learned of it from Sharon Harms, a young protégé of his who witnessed its arrival on Earth and the subsequent destruction of her childhood friend and his family.
Miss Harms is the most intriguing character in the story. She has been waiting for fifty years, keeping a vigilant watch for the Colour to re-emerge so she can finally have her revenge. Her methodical planning proves critical in the final confrontation.
Thematically Shea’s book isn’t the best sequel to “The Colour Out of Space”. The being is far too anthropomorphic and malevolent. Nevertheless, it definitely stands on its own as an enjoyable story inspired by the mythos.
You can get a copy of The Colour Out of Time here.
You can also read Lovecraft's original story, The Colour Out of Space here.