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20:20

Scary stories for Halloween: The Colour Out of Space by HP Lovecraft | Books | guardian.co.uk

The horror of this story has as much to do with its setting as its characters

Chris Power
Thursday 25 October 2012

In my favourite works of horror and supernatural fiction, the landscape itself is at least as important as whatever beasts or phantoms may roam across it. From the deserted strands of MR James to the Danube of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”, there seems to be a deeper resonance to those stories in which location is a junction between the mundane and the weird. HP Lovecraft, the American writer who, in a flurry of activity in the mid-1920s, defined the “Cthulhu Mythos” – a series of interconnected stories that Luc Sante has called “a sort of unified field theory of horror” – is particularly good at this. In his best stories, his descriptions of landscape are so meticulous that their woods and valleys are loaded with menace long before anything shambles or crawls through them.

The vast wastes and visibly ancient geology of Antarctica are fundamental to Lovecraft’s long story “At the Mountains of Madness”. In “The Whisperer in Darkness”, the evocation of rural Vermont’s “unfrequented hills” and lonely farmhouses are the story’s highlight. But supreme within Lovecraft’s work is his own invented corner of New England, Arkham (based on Salem and “full of witch legends”) and the surrounding Miskatonic Valley. It’s here, and to the economically but indelibly drawn landscape of “The Colour Out of Space”, that I most often return, especially at this time of year. Just consider the story’s opening sentences:

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 glimpse of sunlight.

At Halloween, what reader could resist turning the page? …

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