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The Colour Out Of Time
out of print [July 2005]
review by Patrick Hudson
Michael Shea is one of those writers that you encounter when digging through libraries or secondhand bookshops looking for that elusive 'book a little bit like X'. Shea appears to specialise in being a little bit like X. Shea's pastiche is always at least as good as, and often superior to, the work he is imitating, and he has an unerring eye for the most satisfying genre conventions and a deep understanding of the symbolic function of fantasy.
In a world of tedious, carbohydrate-heavy fantasy chaff, Shea's touchstones are the peerless masters of swords and sorcery, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, and Jack Vance. The latter is clearly a huge influence, as Shea's A Quest For Simblis is an authorised sequel to The Eyes Of The Overworld that came out before Vance got around to writing Cugel The Clever. In Yarna, The Touch Of Undying is a rumination on the quest for immortality explicitly in the style of Clark Ashton Smith, but it touches philosophical areas where Smith never ventured. His 'Nifft the Lean' tales are clearly influenced by Fritz Leiber's 'Fafrhd and Gray Mouser', but they have a gothic sensibility and dramatic edge that is absent from Leiber's tales. Shea is brilliant at finding the essence of his inspirations, taking the vital elements, examining them for the sensitive spots and then diving right in. While his work might be considered pastiche, he has a real gift for taking familiar genre subjects and injecting his own shrewd wit and precise vocabulary.
While Shea has worked largely within the swords and sorcery genre, he also tried his hand at Lovecraftian horror in the shape of The Colour Out Of Time, a sequel to H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 tale The Colour Out Of Space. This is one of Lovecraft's finest stories, with his characteristic sense of dark and drear foreboding. It begins with memorable lines:
West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentle slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.
The plot is simple: a mysterious meteor lands in a well on an isolated valley farm causing the people and land around it to gradually sicken and die. The narrator is a surveyor who is plotting the course of a dam that is to flood an isolated New England valley, who comes across the mysteriously withered ground around the old Nahum Gardner place decades after the events. He is directed to Ammie Pierce, an aging derelict who relates what he remembers of the story from 40 years before.
Lovecraft combines a convincing scientific vocabulary with his typical gothic prose to build an atmosphere of malign ambiguity, beyond considerations of good and evil. The morbid fertility and subsequent destruction of the land around the meteor strike is somehow ineffable to our own science, affecting the physical and the spiritual, a poison of the soul as much as a poison of the body. The gradual decline of Nahum Gardner and his family is depicted with grim inevitability, part physical poisoning and part moral decline. At the end of the story, the narrator recommends that the whole area be drowned under a reservoir, ending, he hopes, the infection forever.
Shea's tale picks up the story in the 1980s, with a couple of elderly academics - Gerald Sternbruck and his friend Ernst Carlsberg - enjoying a break at a holiday camp on an unnamed artificial lake in a remote New England valley. In the evenings they notice an odd glow from an isolated corner of the lake - not a colour, but more the impression of a colour. On investigating they discover an odd taint to the water and the mystery deepens when they visit the park ranger who is strangely afflicted. It soon becomes clear that this is the reservoir created at the end of Lovecraft's story and some spawn of the horror that destroyed Nahum Gardner and his family is lying in wait just below the surface.
On top of Lovecraft's sinister suggestiveness he adds a subtle rumination on the darker aspects of humanity. The poisonous entity that flows from the depths of the artificial lake seduces its victims through subtle manipulation of feelings of hopelessness and ennui as well as drawing out their life force. The self-conscious vitality of the elderly academics is contrasted with the enervated campers. The arrival of the affable bully Jeffry Hargis shows the moral corruption of the disease at work. Like Lovecraft's, Shea's vision is a bleak one of humanity blithely unconscious of the malign forces at work in the darker corners, forces which Shea sees in the workings of the human mind as well as the strange aeons of interstellar space.
Shea's ending is more like the ending of The Dunwich Horror than The Colour Out Of Space. Sternbruck and Carlsberg join up with the spinster Sharon Marms, friend of H.P. Lovecraft and confidant about the real secrets of the lake that Lovecraft hid in his story, to destroy the extraterrestrial force. This is a crucial difference in the two stories: Ammi Pierce and the scientists are powerless against the alien, while Shea's elderly heroes take the fight to the evil.
Shea understands the nature of Lovecraftian horror and builds dread in a way that Lovecraft would surely have admired. There is no lack of writers keen to take up Lovecraft's ideas and style, but few have done so with the relish of this little book. It's sadly out of print right now (I got mine for �1.50 off of ebay) but it is well worth tracking down for the dedicated Lovecraft fan.
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