Paperback Punk

One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.

The Color Out of Time

By Michael Shea

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Howard Philips Lovecraft may be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He directly interacted with a generation of authors, the “Lovecraft Circle” that included Robert Block, Fritz Lieber, August Derleth, and others, and Lovecraft’s stories themselves have impacted people as diverse as Stephen King, Joan Didion, and Stuart Gordon. Lovecraft was not only generous with his skill as an editor, helping young writers like Bloch and Lieber develop, but he was also generous with his ideas. He shared his “Cthulhu Mythos” material with all his writer friends, a tactic which allowed the Mythos to grow and mutate somewhat like a real mythology.

By the end of the 20th century, August Derleth’s spurious claims to own the copyrights to Lovecraft’s stories aside, playing in Lovecraft’s sandbox became widespread and common amongst those who wrote horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Michael Shea, an accomplished fantasy writer and creator of the Nifft the Lean series, tried his hand at Lovecraft The Color Out of Time. Shea’s novel is a sequel to “The Colour Out of Space,” widely regarded as Lovecraft’s best story. This was a bold move. How does one improve on something as good as “The Colour Out of Space”? The answer is that one cannot, but The Color Out of Time is a game effort regardless.

I first encountered Michael Shea via the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, which covered a few of Shea’s Mythos tales with the help of TV’s Patton Oswalt. I went looking for Shea’s novels in used bookstores, and eventually I found this one.

The Color Out of Time is told in first person, an account of an encounter with the weird by two academics of retirement age who are vacationing on lake somewhere in New England. The first notice a strange taste to the water, then to the flora and fauna, and an odd glow about the place when the sun is down. They try to alert the rangers, but the rangers have been compromised already, and the academics realize that something has been feeding on them. Disappearances and deaths follow, until they find an ally in the sister of one of the now dead rangers, and she explains what is going on and how she knows the truth. The events of “The Colour Out of Space” are related, with several details changed to fit the narrative of Shea’s novel, and the three of them come up with a plan to deal with the otherworldly menace. However, the alien color has used its abilities to influence the rest of the people vacationing on the lake, and the trio’s efforts become substantially more complicated and less straight-forward because of that.

The novel is well-written and Shea has certainly absorbed and identified many of Lovecrafts tics and tricks. Lovecraft was fond of older protagonists, of desperate first person accounts, and of layering his stories to make them seem as plausible as possible. Lovecraft likened weird fiction to concocting a hoax; he wanted to create a feeling of verisimilitude that would make the reader believe, if only for a moment, that they were reading a true story. Shea does what he can to foster that same kind of atmosphere. The location of the story is deliberately vague, to confound anyone who tries to locate the real place, there are references early on to police reports and the like, and eventually Lovecraft himself appears in the narrative.

This is one of those things that is all too-common in post-Lovecraft Lovecraftiana. It started as a kind of joke, as Robert Bloch included Lovecraft in his story “The Shambler From the Stars,” while Lovecraft himself retaliated by putting Bloch’s protagonist into “The Haunter From the Dark.” After that, it became something of a tradition to include Lovecraft as a character somewhere in these kinds of stories, and Shea follows through with that tradition wholeheartedly. I think for Shea, however, it’s less of an homage and more of an attempt to hew to that verisimilitude. If one is writing a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos with the intent to present it as a true story, one can hardly avoid mentioning the author who most famously wrote Cthulhu Mythos tales. But for me, at least, this is usually when the bubble of disbelief suspension pops. Rather than trying to make it appear real, this tactic just emphasizes that I am reading fiction. I suppose it is something of a Catch-22, but I can’t help my reaction to it.

That was the one misstep that marred my enjoyment of the book. Shea has a lot of fun with the lush, purpleish prose of Lovecraftian fiction. His heroes are well-drawn and sympathetic, the action is horrifying, and there is enough gore in the book to make Robert E. Howard proud and H. P. Lovecraft tut-tut in disapproval. Shea’s other Mythos fiction has been collected recently in a volume called Demiurge, and I think that’s worth tracking down.