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Filming the Unfilmable: The Fiction and Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft (Part Two)

“Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.” - H.P. Lovecraft, from “Herbert West: Reanimator”

“The Colour Out of Space” is regarded as one of the classic stories of science fiction. Referred to by the author with typical self-deprecation as the only one of his works that he really liked, this story is laden with Lovecraft’s trademark atmosphere. From the first paragraph’s description of the fictional Massachusetts setting, a heavy sense of gloom and decay pervades the account of the horrible transformation of the Gardner family of Arkham. The story is told to us through a narrator and a sub-narrator giving the tale the feel of an oft-told, passed down legend. The narrative deals with several themes that run throughout Lovecraft’s fiction: isolation, fear of the unknown / other, and evil beyond human comprehension.

The setting which lies just outside of Arkham is a classic Lovecraft description of backwoods New England. The imposing forests are “brooding over New England secrets” which are “not good for imagination”. Immediately Lovecraft plants the idea that the evil we are dealing with in “The Colour Out of Space” is more than human and more than the here and now; it is ingrained in the landscape and has a deleterious effect on the human psyche. The decay described in the brittle forest and the “blasted heath” foreshadows the mental and physical decay of Nahum Gardner and his family.

The fear of other is implicit in this story. The strange meteor that drives the main action of the narrative is from outer space, described by Lovecraft as the “great outside”. The meteor alters all it comes in contact with through the contaminated soil and water: vegetation changes color becoming grey and brittle, horses go insane, animals leave abnormal tracks. Nahum’s wife Nabby is the first to be affected by the otherworldly visitor. Her mind goes first and she “screams of things in the air that she could not describe”, and her language becomes an incomprehensible pattern of verbs and pronouns (Burleson 109). As Nahum’s son Thaddeus goes insane, he takes to rambling in a “language not of earth”. The Gardner’s deterioration entails them becoming something other than human, and this is the crux of the horror of the story. When the sub-narrator, a neighbor of the Gardners discovers what was once Nabby, it is never referred to as a human being or form. It is described as a horror and a “blasphemous monstrosity ... which all too clearly had shared the nameless fate of young Thaddeus and the live-stock”. Human has become equal to beast.

The fear of other is also apparent in the agent of change. The meteor possesses a glow that displays a strange spectrum, hence the title. The “colour” (Lovecraft, a life-long Anglophile, insisted on the spelling) is repeatedly described as other. It is color “only by analogy”, and all attempts at scientific identification are futile. Even something as familiar as color becomes dangerous and exotic, representing the “fear of the unknown” that is so vital to Lovecraft’s best work. Finally the people of Arkham shun the Gardners as they become less and less human, their otherness breeding isolation.

“The Dunwich Horror” may be the prime example of Lovecraft utilizing his theory of a “dream New England”. His descriptions of Dunwich merge New England atmosphere with cosmic horror and uneasiness. Of the landscape he writes: “one feels somehow confronted by forbidden things”, and when one sees the strange mountains near Dunwich “the uneasiness is increased”. While the landscape is unsettling for reasons that cannot be pinned down, there is nothing uncertain about the feelings generated by the people of Dunwich. Lovecraft makes them repulsive, writing that “the natives are now repellently decadent, having gone far along that path of retrogression so common in many New England backwaters”.

Furthering this motif, Lovecraft perverts the land itself. The “orgiastic prayers” in the strange rituals were “answered by loud crackings and rumblings from the ground below”. The people of Dunwich are also troubled by noises in the hills, foul odors, and “rushing airy presences”. The Devil’s Hop Yard, described as a “bleak, blasted hillside where no tree, shrub, or grass blade will grow” is a parallel of the blasted heath from “Colour”. The animals are unnatural as well, best exemplified by the very active whippoorwills, “lying in wait for the souls of the dying ... eery (sic) cries in unison with the sufferer’s struggling breath”.

The perversion and unnaturalness of Dunwich reaches it’s full expression in the depictions of the Whateley family. Lavinia is a “somewhat deformed albino”, and the development of the child Wilbur is completely unnatural. At ten years of age, his “mind, voice, stature, and bearded face gave all the impressions of maturity”. The exceedingly deformed dialect of Old Whateley works toward this end, for example his discourse with the people of Dunwich in the town store: “I dun’t keer what folks think ... I calc’late her man is as good a husban’ as ye kin find ... an’ if ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn’t ast no better church weddin’ nor her’n”.

“Herbert West: Reanimator” exhibits none of the qualities and themes evident in the rest of Lovecraft’s fiction and therefore doesn’t fit into discussions of Lovecraft’s work as a whole. The author’s attitude towards it helps to explain: “ ... (‘Reanimator’ is) my poorest work - stuff done to order for a vulgar magazine, and written down to the herd’s level” (Cannon 39). It was written in six serial installments for the magazine “Home Brew”, termed a “vile rag” by Lovecraft. He was paid five dollars for each installment. The story is universally acknowledged as his poorest work, usually only receiving a line or two in scholarly work indicating such (Joshi 18). It features no creeping cosmic horror, no terrifying “other”, just a demented scientist on a Frankenstein-esque quest to bring back the dead. The bloody experiments and astronomical body count give the story a much more visceral feel, further separating it from the subtlety of stories like “The Colour Out of Space”.

The tale does, however, align itself with the larger theme of the outsider and isolation, albeit in a different way. Its main character Herbert West is part of another practice Lovecraft used to establish isolation, the exaggeration of a character trait to grotesque extremes (Dziemianowicz 162, 163). Here, West’s exaggeration is his obsession with bringing back the dead, a trait that certainly alienates him from “normal human society”. Throughout the six installments, Lovecraft orchestrates West’s descent into madness. What seems at first to be an overeager student becomes a man whose “interest became a hellish and perverse addiction to the repellently and unflinchingly abnormal”. By the fifth installment, wherein West experiments on the battlefields of Flanders, he works “like a butcher in the midst of his gory wares”.

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