I’m really not sure what to make of this story. Oh, right, spoiler alert, although there’s not that much to spoil.
Surgeon General’s Warning: Certain Colours can drive you MAD. Most colors, however, are safe. Except Agent Orange, which can cause cancer.
Okay. So the story is framed by some guy from the hydroelectric company who’s talking to people around Arkham (a small town/municipality) about the troubles that happened several decades ago. The townspeople say not to go talk to Ammi, one of the old men still alive from that time, so of course he does, but only after seeing for himself the wasteland that people call the Blasted Heath. The new dam will drown that location, which is a good thing according to the narrator because the Heath is creepy and Ammi’s story makes it creepier.
The story inside the frame is more interesting, but unfortunately has the indefinite, rambling weakness that defines second-hand fictional accounts. A comet fell to earth near a farmer’s house. Its colour creeped people out.
So of course scientists from the nearby university come out to examine it, except the material is fading away even as they run tests, including the strange globules inside of it, which we find out later are seeds. Seeds of EVIL. The horror. After a year or two of unnatural events like crops being lush but inedible, vegetation blooming in eerie unnatural colors, trees that move without wind, livestock dying in grisly ways, the farmer’s family starts going nutcase too.
Ammi, the old man telling the story to the narrator, is the farmer’s friend and soon becomes that farm’s only visitor. He watches his friend and the family go slowly nuts and then die, and decides to gather a group to investigate. Bad idea. The thing that was driving the farmers nuts, poisoning the vegetation and sickening the livestock stalks them for a while before shooting off into space while they watch, helpless maddened by the very colour of the thing.
To top it off, we find out that the thing that left the planet was only one of multiple, and another yet slumbers in the abandoned heath, the taint it causes growing slowly every year.
Don’t misread my snark as disdain, this story is good, but the tension is utterly purged by having Ammi, a live person, tell the narrator about what happened. Reading a dead man’s journal is far more tense, or even a live man’s so long as we don’t see Ammi until after the story’s done. In that way, Ammi’s fate is up in the air throughout the climax. This is a similar, but even more glaring mistake to the Call of Cthulhu’s climactic chase, when we know beforehand that the sailor survived the chase. How am I supposed to be immersed when the text tells me what happened before I read what happened?
Gripes aside, the visuals are strong, gruesome, eerie and powerful. While not as sound from a narrative standpoint as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, this story is still enjoyable for those who like vivid description. The pseudo-folksiness of Ammi’s stories really pull on my rural-born-and-raised heartstrings too. While reading this, it’s probably best to focus on the pretty pictures and the mystery, rather than on tension and climax, both of which are comparatively weak.
This still gets a “Recommended Read” for me.
You can read it as part of the collection below if you like the smell of paper, or google it since it’s public domain:
The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (Knickerbocker Classics)