Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
H. P. Lovecraft‘s tales cover a wide array of subjects and ideas, and many of them can be grouped in a thematic fashion. Take for instance three of his better-known stories: The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Whisperer in Darkness. Each of those stories, in its own fashion, deals with the idea of alien visitors from the beyond coming down to Earth from space or emerging from the depths of the sea in order to influence humanity for their own ends. While their intentions may be debatable, the unmitigated suffering they inflict upon their subjects is not.
Table of contents
The Colour Out of Space (1927)
A simple surveyor from Boston is drawn by a mystery, that of a place shunned by the locals of Arkham, only referred to as the “blasted heath”. Unable to find any actual information on why the place is feared so much, our unnamed protagonist seeks out an alleged crazy man, Ammi Pierce, who begins telling a most incredible story about the farmer who used to own the now-cursed property.
The tale reeks of ridiculousness as it begins with a meteorite crashing down into the land, with a strange colour seeping out of it and into the air. The stone was eventually destroyed by a bolt of lightning, and forgotten about until next season when the crops were unnaturally large and bountiful, and yet inedible. Things only spiralled from there on out as the colour spread madness into the air.
As far as intentions go, what Lovecraft sought to do here was to create a being that was truly alien in every sense of the word, something with intentions we cannot decipher despite seeings its actions. It has no name nor face and feels more like a force of nature than anything else.
It is known that this particular short story was amongst the works Lovecraft was most proud of, and I can certainly see why. At the length of a regular novella, things move along fairly quickly in this story, but not so much that we don’t get treated to Lovecraft‘s powerful trademark descriptions. He does a phenomenal job at developing the plot, characters and the colour itself gradually so that we slowly sink into the horror that surrounds the little farmstead, just like the owner did.
The antagonist in this story is quite different from what we’re used to in horror, having no real physical presence or identifying characteristics other than the colour. This approach works fantastically well at creating a true feeling of hopelessness and despair, and while it may not scare you in the traditional sense of the word, it will definitely sow deep feelings of unease within you.
The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936)
Merely because something is alien to our world doesn’t mean it needs to come out there from the stars. On the contrary, the strangers may already be here, deep down in the abyss that is the sea. The Shadow over Innsmouth is arguably one of Lovecraft‘s most-adapted tales, having made it’s way into movies and even video games. In it, we follow a young narrator who is keen on piercing the town’s secrets after he comes across a curious piece of jewelry in a museum that he was told came from there.
All signs and warnings can’t serve to dissuade the young man from visiting the nearly-abandoned town, and once there he meets a local drunk amidst the unfriendly locals. Plied with a drink, the old and probably insane man starts telling a story of cults, sacrifices, tremendous bounties, and a race of fish-like humanoids that are slowly turning the town’s people into their own kind. Needless to say, the narrator discovers all too soon that the old man’s ramblings may have some sort of truth to them.
Where does madness leave off and reality begin?― H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Over Innsmouth
As we’ve seen through some of Lovecraft‘s other stories, the man certainly seemed to have a fascination with the deep sea and all the potentially-terrifying unknown that may yet come from it. Speaking in terms of pure action, I’d have to say that this is one of the author’s more agitated stories as the narrator finds himself in dangerous situations that require quick thinking on more than one occasion. It feels like it moves along at a relatively faster pace than most of the his other tales, and it actually helps to heighten the narrator’s sense of panic.
The horror in the story comes under numerous guises. First of all, we have the main character who is hunted by monstrous beings, probably to be sacrificed or tortured. Then, we have some traditional body horror as the residents of the town are morphing into those fish-like beings, many of them still in mid-transition, being a grotesque amalgamation of both species.
And finally, there is also the idea that these people are actually doing it all willingly for these fish-people have promised them immortality while living amongst them… can such people be reasoned with in any way? All in all it’s a solid novella that will always have its place in the pantheon of horror classics.
The Whisperer in Darkness (1931)
For this third tale, The Whisperer in Darkness, we’re returning once more to the genre of science-fiction horror. The story, for once, features a named protagonist, Albert N. Wilmarth, an instructor of literature at the Miskatonic University in Arkham.
After reports come out of strange sightings during a historic Vermont flood, Albert dives deep into the controversy where many people are making their suppositions as to what they could be. Quite soon however, he receives a letter from a certain Henry Akeley who lives on an isolated farm near the town where the apparitions took place.
He tells him a wild tale of extra-terrestrial beings and cult-like human agents they act through. Once they finally meet, Akeley tells him that they are peaceful in their nature, are capable of teaching marvels beyond all human imagination, and can perform an operation to remove the human brain and keep it alive to withstand the rigours of space travel to take them back to their home planet. While it all seems true based on what Albert is witnessing, something doesn’t sit right with him after all…
While the trope is quite tired and cliched at this point, this story was actually one of the very first appearances of the isolated brain concept, that is the removal of the brain from the body while keeping it alive. Like many of the author’s stories, I’d argue that this one feels a bit tame today and isn’t so much horrifying as it is intriguing.
The story is developed in such a way that the mystery is always at the forefront of everything that is happening, the obsession that consumes the protagonist’s thoughts entirely. We are never quite sure who to believe or what exactly is happening, whether these are indeed alien beings or simply the work of crazed human cultists or something of the sort. In other words, there’s a never any time for us to feel bored with what’s happening as we’re being bombarded with questions and potential answers.
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All in all, I feel this story is one of Lovecraft‘s finer efforts and stands as a great example of what the author could routinely achieve with concepts that feel simple in modern times. Even though things are more obvious to the modern reader, it remains an enthralling tale that is weaved together with smooth pacing and masterful wordsmithing that has a way of slowly sucking you in without you even noticing it.
Howard Philips “H. P.” Lovecraft
(August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937)
Howard Philips “H. P.” Lovecraft was an American author who, sadly, only truly achieved fame posthumously, becoming recognized as one of the greatest pioneers of the horror genre. He is mostly known for writing the fabled Necronomicon as well as numerous short stories such as the timeless Call of Cthulhu.