"Colour Out of Space" -- finest American weird tale of 20th century?

  1. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I speak as a longtime (40 years) fan, but not idolater, of Lovecraft. Is there a finer weird tale published by an American author in the 20th century? If I were compiling a short list, this one would head it. Fritz Leiber's "A Bit of the Dark World" would be on my list, probably also his "A Pail of Air," except that I'd have to think through whether a story so strongly marked with "science fiction" belonged. That's a matter of definition that I might want to defer.

    I would ask that anyone interested in discussing this topic try to read his/her nominations without reference to who the author is. Just take the story as it is, as much as possible.
     
    Nov 29, 2010
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  2. Richard--W

    Richard--W writer-director-editor

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    I might be interested in knowing your ten best weird tales, ever.

    Certainly The Colour Out of Space would be in my list, if I had one.

    Richard
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  3. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I wouldn't be prepared to answer, Richard, with a list of my ten best weird tales by American authors (not that you specified Americans -- but just for the record), since I've focused so much on British authors. I know the "M. R. James Tradition" a lot better than the "Poe Tradition" or "Lovecraft Tradition." Furthermore, I'd have to think about how to define "weird tale." And I don't want to wrestle with that one now!

    Here are some stories that, by some broad definition of "weird tale," would be ones that I think are pretty impressive.

    Non-science fiction-y weird tales: Robert Aickman's "Into the Wood," "The Houses of the Russians"; de la Mare's "Crewe"; Kipling's "The Wish House"; Blackwood's "The Wendigo" and "The Willows"; Charles Williams's "Et in Sempiternum Pereant" and All Hallows' Eve; Phyllis Paul's Twice Lost; Machen's "N"; Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"; Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel; Rider Haggard's She

    Science fiction-y weird tales: Leiber's "A Pail of Air" (see comment below), "A Bit of the Dark World"; Damon Knight's "Stranger Station"; Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days"; Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon; H. G. Wells's "The Crystal Egg"; William Hope Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night"; Poe's "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"

    But I hope people will tackle my original idea: Is "The Colour Out of Space" the finest 20th-century weird tale by an American author?

    Comment on "Pail of Air" -- spoilers below



    I like Leiber's ending. I'm not opposed to happy endings where appropriate for weird tales. But I wonder if this story should not end with the "Nest" family very reluctant or even psychologically unable to leave.
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  4. Richard--W

    Richard--W writer-director-editor

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    I don't know if The Colour Out of Space is the finest, but it is certainly one of the finest by any definition.

    Richard
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  5. Richard--W

    Richard--W writer-director-editor

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    PS:
    I didn't know there was an "M. R. James Tradition" although I really cherish M.R. James. Who else in that tradition?

    Richard
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  6. clovis-man

    clovis-man Prehistoric Irish Cynic

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    Read this as a boy. I also enjoy the radio dramatization of it that was aired on X Minus One in the 1950s. It can be found here a little way down the list:

    X Minus 1 : X Minus 1 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive

    No acting credits given, but I'd swear the father's voice is Jeff Morrow.
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  7. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Here are a few:

    Other Writers in the M.R.James Tradition

    Some might put Percival Landon in this category, though the only tale by him I have read is the much-anthologized "Thurnley Abbey"... which I would agree comes close to the James tradition. (His collection of ghost stories is extremely scarce and horrendously expensive. Time someone reissued the bloody thing....)

    Some recent writers who have been described as "in the James tradition" would include Russell Kirk and A. F. Kidd:

    Russell Kirk - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    1

    1

    You may find the following of interest:

    M.R. James Frequently Asked Questions

    You can find Malden's Nine Ghosts at Gutenberg Australia:

    Nine Ghosts

    and Swain's Stoneground Ghost Tales at Horrormasters.com:

    http://www.horrormasters.com/Collections/SS_Col_Swain.htm

    while L. T. C. Rolt's Sleep No More has seen a recent reprinting which apparently has the approval of those "in the know":

    Amazon.com: Sleep No More: Railway, Canal and Other Stories of the Supernatural (9780752455778): L.T.C. Rolt: Books
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  8. Richard--W

    Richard--W writer-director-editor

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    Thanks. As always, you are a fountain of knowledge and generous with it, Scholar Worthington. May I ask, where do you place of The Colour Out of Space in the realm of weird tales from the 20th?

    Richard
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  9. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I didn't list any M. R. James stories above, but certainly "Count Magnus," "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad,'" "The Ash-Tree," etc. are outstanding weird tales. These are good ones to start with, for any Lovecraft fans who haven't read James before. James united gifts of storytelling, weird imagination, and genuine scholarship. Incidentally he shows how true it is that one need not wallow in gory descriptions to evoke horror. I think James again and again achieves just what he set out to achieve.

    Looking at the list of weird tales that I like, dashed off in response to Richard's request, I see that all of the non-SF-y ones except the Hawthorne are by British authors, and all of the SF-y ones except the Wells, Hodgson, and Shaw are by Americans. I suppose one would have to place "The Colour Out of Space" in the SF-y category, along with some of HPL's other notable stories (e.g. "The Whisperer in Darkness," At the Mountains of Madness) -- but I think "Colour" is the best of his stories.
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  10. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Richard: You're welcome. As to where I would put this particular story... I would tend to rate it quite highly, but it would be very difficult for me to say what I think is the "finest" American weird tale of the 20th century, as we've had a tremendous amount in that branch of literature, and a substantial amount of it has been quite good; a fair percentage even exceptional. However, I do think that, in the main, the British have surpassed us in this in many ways; certainly as regards subtlety. This is a general statement rather than comprehensive, as there are decided exceptions.

    On the subject of James and gore... "Count Magnus" and "View from a Hill", to name only two, may not go into great graphic detail, but the sheer nastiness on a physical level there is quite strong enough. Then there's always "Lost Hearts".... In each of these cases (as well as "The Mezzotint" and several others), I would say James walked a fine line between "horror" and "terror", with more than a little of both present....

    I've a question, though, Dale: Why would you put "Voice in the Night" as "science-fiction-y"? I must admit that, to me at least, it would only fit that description in the broadest terms....

    One tale I think I would rate rather highly, which is distinctly of the twentieth century, would be Harlan Ellison's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams". The horror there is unusually subtle for Ellison, and all the more powerful for it. I think I would also be very tempted to put Leiber's "A Bit of the Dark World" on that list, incidentally. A fine tale. T. E. D. Klein's "Black Man with a Horn" and "Children of the Kingdom" are also tempting, as is Richard Matheson's tour-de-force "Born of Man and Woman". True, that last is anything but subtle (at least, on the surface), but it is most certainly tremendously powerful, and the technique used there is handled in a particularly masterly way. Ray Bradbury's "The Last Night of the World" is, for me, one to consider for "quiet terror", while Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" ranks highly in that category as well. Then, for a different type of horror/terror, there's Stephen Crane's "The Monster".

    But, to put together a list of those I think might actually fit such a title, in cool critical judgment... that's likely to take some little time.....
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  11. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Jerry, I placed Hodgson's "Voice in the Night" in the science fiction-y category because I take its horror to depend on an entirely naturalistic though unknown phenomenon and because the horror it evokes is fundamentally a naturalistic one -- the story is essentially playing on the fears of contagion, disfigurement, and (just below the surface) of cancer, not fears of the supernatural.
     
    Nov 30, 2010
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  12. Richard--W

    Richard--W writer-director-editor

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    More cello here, less flute there.

    I think you are making distinctions between horror and sci-fi that are not so finely drawn in the short stories themselves. A weird tale implements different elements and approaches simultaneously, and works on many different levels simultaneously. It is not necessary to separate the horror from the sci-fi or to categorize a weird tale as one or the other.

    Further, different readers will interpret the same tale in different ways. One reader's sci-fi is another reader's fantasy, and one reader's horror is another reader's suspense. There's just no point in breaking a weird tale down into its components because then the magic of the writing gets lost.


    Richard
     
    Dec 1, 2010
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  13. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I have to write this off-the-cuff, shouldn’t really take time to think this through in depth; but I thought it would be worthwhile to consider approaching the question about “The Colour Out of Space” in this way. What are the indispensable Lovecraft stories, the stories that seem to do something special in a pretty definitive way?



    Naturally, I think “The Colour Out of Space” is indispensable. The genre of the weird tale couldn’t do without it.



    In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” Lovecraft presents a pretty definitive expression of his miscegenation theme (“Arthur Jermyn,” etc.). Not merely the Innsmouth residents but the culture of their carefully-rendered town are weird hybrids of backwater New England and the nonhuman.



    “Nyarlathotep” (the poem): in a few lines, a weird, secular apocalypse.


    At the Mountains of Madness is arguably the definitive Lovecraftian take on the “lost civilization” theme that became popular with the romances of Rider Haggard.



    I would suggest that, if these were the only writings by Lovecraft we had, we would find in them effective expressions of most, at least, of the distinctives that Lovecraft had to offer.



    There are, of course, passages in various other stories and poems that we may be very fond of. But is there much that we like, in other work by Lovecraft, that is not found in these four works?



    And is not his treatment of most of his characteristic themes about as good in these four items as it is anywhere else?
     
    Dec 1, 2010
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  14. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Whew... Let me see if I can post some thought here that actually make sense....

    First: I can see the value in drawing the distinction Dale does; and I can understand his classification of Hodgson's tale using that yardstick. I would myself argue that it falls outside the category of science-fiction by dint of the hints that this is not necessarily a natural growth (such hints are quite ambiguous, and can be read either way, if I'm recalling the story correctly, but I do believe they are there); and the fact that there seems to be, at least at one point, an intimation of a moral dimension to what happens to them, placing it outside a strictly secular framework.

    (Incidentally, on a strictly unrelated level... Since my first reading of the Lovecraft/Jackson collaboration, "The Green Meadow", it has struck me that there are some surprising parallels or near-parallels between the two; and using the Hodgson as an intertextual reference may help clarify one reading of what, exactly, was happening in that mysterious green meadow. The odd thing is, of course, that Lovecraft wouldn't even hear of Hodgson until nearly 15 years after he and Jackson produced their little piece.)

    Now, as to the "indispensable" Lovecraft tales... that one is a hard one to answer, frankly, as, though I do see common themes, motifs, etc., and am fully aware of how he reiterated some of these by expanding and subtilizing them in later tales (e.g.,"Dagon" revisited in "The Call of Cthulhu", or "The Nameless City" revisited in At the Mountains fo Madness), I find that there are elements in the majority of his tales which makes each somewhat unique. For example: "The Tomb" and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward share similarities in theme, and even a handful in plot or motif; yet when it comes to the differences between the two, it is much more than a matter of Ward being more fully developed and layered; there are also elements which "The Tomb" has which Ward does not, and (obviously, given the latter is a novel) vice versa. One of these is Lovecraft's adaptation of the genius loci, combined with his use of the sentience in inanimate nature (something he picked up from Poe's "Usher", though he developed it in his own fashion). We can, of course, read Dudley's statements as metaphor; but there is more than a hint that they are quite literal; that he actually does have such "super-sight" which allows him to see beyond the veil of "obvious empiricism" into a mystical realm resembling certain aspects of pantheism, or even panentheism. This is only one of the differences which makes "The Tomb" unlike its closest relative in Lovecraft's oeuvre.

    By the same token, this idea of the sentience in the inanimate recurs in many of Lovecraft's tales, but generally altered or expanded in some way which gives it a quite different feel. One can see this in "The Street" (certainly one of HPL's poorest tales, yet with some points of interest), which introduces the theme of what I have called "the oneirodynia of the inanimate"... something adapted and metamorphosed in quite a different fashion in "The Picture in the House"; and an element which casts quite a different reading on that latter tale than is usually perceived. (The closest he would come to using this same variation on this idea again, in my view, is in the "revision", "Medusa's Coil".)

    Add to this the fact that he was constantly experimenting with his various materials, concepts, etc., so that everything we see is, in a sense, part of a larger whole, a work in progress; and it becomes increasingly difficult for me to say that this story is essential, while that one is not; the tales interact with each other, often explaining or clarifying points which otherwise would remain obscure. (The seemingly nonsensical intrusion of references to Kadath in At the Mountains of Madness make perfect sense when one adds in that oneirodynia I mentioned with the idea of an objectively-existing dreamworld which itself seems to be connected to the earth's prehistoric past -- as well as other elements -- and all of this culminates in the idea that what lies behind those other mountains is a primal essence or entity which may define the very nature of reality and its origins... another take on Azathoth, perhaps? Yet such a reading also allows a reflection backward, onto earlier writings, giving them also a quite different reading -- and therefore feeling or impact.)

    Lovecraft isn't entirely unique in this (Moorcock has a fair degree of it, too, for instance, as did Cabell), but he may be the most acutely developed instance of it I have so far encountered.

    What this boils down to, to me, is that there is no single set of things which are "Lovecraftian" which run throughout even his greatest works, which would make other, admittedly lesser (in the strictly artistic sense) pieces "inessential". They all (or nearly all) work together to produce that unique structure; and removal of any of those supporting members leaves one with a distorted view of what makes Lovecraft's work "Lovecraftian".
     
    Dec 1, 2010
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  15. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    On "indispensable."

    I read practically everything by Lovecraft that I could get my hands on, back in the day, and reread not only his most impressive writings but lesser ones. (Does anyone else feel that "Pickman's Model" was corny the day it was written?)

    So I understand how, in a sense, one might hesitate to refer to any story (or any but a small handful) by Lovecraft as dispensable.

    Without defining things, though, I'm driving at this: Which HPL writings are indispensable for the whole genre of the weird tale?

    To help make clearer what I'm getting at: I would say Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is "indispensable." Many people who like weird tales do not like this story. I believe M. R. James, one of the great writers in the genre, did not. But nowhere else will we find a weird tale so much of whose power depends on what James does so well here, the creation of a world of inner torment, of pervasive evil, of uncertainty, etc. We would not know something about the potential of "the weird tale" if James had not written this story, in which one feels he did well what he meant to do.

    I would contend that something of the sort is true of "The Colour Out of Space." It's not just a good story in its own right. It is a touchstone for the potential of the weird tale. With considerable, and commendable, restraint, Lovecraft evokes a whole sense of our world as vulnerable, not to malicious alien invaders, but to an insentient universe that may imperil it.* He evokes the pathos of ordinary people affected, for no reason, by a slow calamity that isolates them from others and from one another. In a way, one may be reminded of Ariel's lines -- "nothing of him but doth change / Into something rich and strange" -- but here the transformation passes from ordinary health to incipient madness to collapse and living decay, in humans, or, in plants at least, from "ordinary" health into a transient, disturbing beauty, into collapse and decay. It is a real work of the imagination. I have read gobs of fantasy and science fiction over the years, and much of it I could hardly stand to reread, but this story, though not utterly flawless, has the rereadable quality of a poem.

    So I'm asking, Is "The Colour Out of Space" the finest 20th-century weird tale by an American author? And one way of working on that question is to consider which other items by HPL might be considered "indispensable." I offered a few nominations. Impressive as they are, I think I could even do without them sooner than I could do without "The Colour Out of Space."

    *I'm suddenly reminded of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids.
     
    Dec 1, 2010
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  16. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    In that connection, yes, I could draw up a list of "indispensable" stories by Lovecraft. I don't think, oddly, that I'd include "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" on that list, though (as important -- and worthy --a tale as I think it is). At the Mountains of Madness I would, for various reasons; I don't know as there is anything else quite like it, nor even really particularly close; and it is a really quite complex set of things he deals with there. For me, "The Shunned House", despite its flaws, would make that list; as would "The Music of Erich Zann". "The Outsider", fascinating as it is on a number of levels, is also quite seriously flawed, and I don't think I would, in this connection. (Though I do think it is an indispensable tale in regard to Lovecraft.) I would include "The Shadow Out of Time", but not "The Dunwich Horror" or "The Whisperer in Darkness", as what they accomplish in connection to the field of weird literature has been done better, I think. Others... I would have to think about a bit, but I do think there are at least one or two more.

    By the way, as regards "Pickman's Model"... I felt that way about it the second (not the first) time around, but my opinion of this one has risen over the years quite a bit. It isn't the actual story or plot to which I refer (though his use of the ghoul-changeling theme was innovative), but rather much of the thesis of the piece, and certain points concerning the writing. And certainly I feel he evoked a now-vanished aspect of Boston exceptionally well, as well as certain aspects of the seventeenth century....
     
    Dec 1, 2010
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  17. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Just reviving this thread. Is "Colour" the indispensable Lovecraft story?

    I discussed it at length in one of my postings on the Groff Conklin Anthologies thread, by the way.
     
    Jul 30, 2015
    #17
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