The Naturalism Out of Space

This is it! In a few bare days the bones of the dead will shift from their earthen beds to crawl into our homes and tell us how boring it is to be buried in the ground all the time. Maybe we could put them somewhere interesting, like a Native American sky burial or the goddamn ocean or space or something. While you wait for this, turkey in the oven, you should read some spooky stories! Here’s a good one: “The Colour Out of Space!”

Of course we’re doing Lovecraft again for Halloween. We’ll do Lovecraft for Halloween every year until there’s no more Lovecraft to craft loving blog posts about – or until I decide to do something else. This one, though, is widely considered his best story – and by “widely” I mean Lovecraft said it and a lot of his fans are also fans of the biographical fallacy.

Wait, where am I? The internet? Shit, sorry about that. Right! It’s the best story because Lovecraft said so!

Seriously though, it’s really damn good. It may be his best, though “Call of Cthulhu” and At the Mountains of Madness are also contenders, obviously. In this story a reporter from the big city comes to the countryside to cover the argument over the destruction of a portion of the countryside, including some farmland; they’re putting in a reservoir. He interviews the natives and gets the story of a guy named Ammi Pierce (I know, that’s a hell of a name). The very basic version of the story that Pierce gives the narrator is that a meteor landed on a neighbor’s farm (Gardner), it had weird shit in it, scientists came it was so weird, and everyone moved on. Then stuff on the property got weird; things changed colors; cows started to act strangely and then die, their flesh tasting terrible upon cooking; the trees began to move with no wind to stir them; and then members of Gardner’s family began to turn and finally disappear. Something infected the water of their well and got into the water table, infecting plants and the animals that ate them. It turns out it’s an alien being, something so alien and strange it’s essentially a color and not a tangible being as we know it. Its refuse or body or something infects anything that it comes in contact with. The most horrifying moment is when Ammi tells what he saw in Gardner’s house for the last time – Mrs. Gardner had been locked in the attic, and crawled toward Ammi across the floor while her body turned to dust. He bashed her head in and ran out the door. The children have gone mad, one fell into the well, and Gardner also collapses shortly after.

When a group goes back to see what the hell is happening, the light shoots out into space, but a little bit falls back into the well.

The final “punch line” (it’s not a joke, but Lovecraft stories are structured like jokes, with a final concussive moment at the end that brings home the whole point of everything) is that the reservoir will be over the well, one will go into the other – and presumably an entire portion of the New England countryside will be drinking the water with the “colour” in it.

That’s the story! But of course we’re not leaving it at that. Why is this one so damn popular? It doesn’t have any cool monsters or unpronounceable names in it.

Well, Lovecraft said at one point he wanted to write stories that would scare atheists. In context that means mostly that he didn’t want to write about werewolves or vampires or anything, since they were based out of worldviews that weren’t really applicable in the 20th century – at least, not according to Lovecraft. Obviously they represent other things anyway (because very few people are going to think a color will poison their well in real life, either), but they represented things that weren’t scary anymore. Predators, mostly – there’s a lot of class-issue stuff mixed in there with both vampires and werewolves (my for instance example has grown legs: the vampires are the upper class and the werewolves are the lower class, c.f. Stephenie Meyer).

So how is a cloud scary to someone inured to vampires? The vampire represents something coming to get you, something that wants you dead, or wants to eat you, or something. And there’s not all that much in the world like that. Instead there are mechanisms that don’t care – the bank that doesn’t care why you’re late on your mortgage, the ocean that doesn’t care that the drowning sailor is a good person, the void of space that doesn’t care how deadly it happens to be, and even the social forces not run by any single person that ostracizes or destroys the inner selves of people. The world doesn’t care about us, only we do (and maybe some of our pets). The cloud is frightening because it embodies everything we just don’t know about the world and the risks we run simply by living. Get hungry in the woods, eat a berry, get sick and die – the berry didn’t want you dead, you did the wrong thing. You didn’t know enough about plant life in your area. So now you’re dead. The berry isn’t a vampire, coming to get you in the darkness of the forest, it’s a cloud of indeterminate color, functioning for its own ends. It just so happens, as a survival mechanism, to have chemicals in its “body” that are poisonous to certain kinds of animals. The cloud in the short story poisons people basically the way a berry does in the woods, because it has an evolutionary history that made leeching or poisoning or whatever necessary to its own existence. It spares no thought for the humans that die – it might not be able to think.

And that’s the frightening thing. The world doesn’t spare thoughts for the humans in it, because it can’t. It isn’t a being. Our personification of the world adds meaning to it, but is materially false, and therefore anything we cannot personify becomes the most terrifying thing, because it opens the door that lets us see the truth about the world around us.

This was one of Lovecraft’s favorite themes. It shows up in nearly every major work he wrote, from “The Dunwich Horror” (farm family “summons devil” who actually just wants to exist again, doesn’t care about contracts) to “Cool Air” (death isn’t hunting us, it’s just the cessation of vital activity).

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