Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear.
WONDER: Few of Lovecraft’s stories focus solely on horror. Instead, they explore the sublime, a sensation composed of equal parts terror and awe. As a result, most of Lovecraft’s characters experience a sense of internal conflict as they grapple with their ambivalence towards the mysteries they have uncovered. When the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), for instance, first learns of the existence of the Old Ones in the hills of Vermont, he feels, mixed with his horror, exhilaration: “My brain whirled; and where before I had attempted to explain things away, I now began to believe in the most abnormal and incredible wonders.” In a sense, Lovecraft’s characters experience a sort of religious revelation, and while most flee from what they have learned, a few embrace it. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931), for example, the narrator revels in the hideous transformation he, like his cousin before him, is experiencing:
I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
DECAYING FISH: Lovecraft despised seafood, particularly the smell. This aversion, radically transformed, appears again and again in Lovecraft’s fiction, specifically in the way he depicts monsters and aliens. Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Great Cthulhu, resembles a giant squid, the Old Ones in “The Whisperer in Darkness” crabs, and the Deep Ones in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” frogs.
UNENDING PLAIN: The landscape Lovecraft describes here closely resembles the “blasted heath” found in his later tale “The Colour out of Space” (1927):
I knew it the moment I came upon it at the bottom of a spacious valley; for no other name could fit such a thing, or any other thing fit such a name. It was as if the poet had coined the phrase from having seen this one particular region. It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim.
Of course, the blasted heath, which lies somewhere “west of Arkham,” was never underwater, but even so, the descriptions of the two locales share a great deal. Devoid of vegetation, both landscapes evoke a sense of “absolute silence and barren immensity,” which oppresses the spirit and fills observers with horror. Both narrators, curiously, refer to rot in their descriptions though, as a general rule, the narrator of “The Colour out of Space” incorporates far more details into his account, an indication, perhaps, of Lovecraft’s growth as a writer.
UNUTTERABLE: One of Lovecraft’s favorite words, an “unutterable” sight appears in almost every Lovecraft story. “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932) refers to an “unutterable and unendurable climax” while the narrator of “The Haunter in the Dark” (1935) describes his situation as one of “unutterable horror.” The narrator of “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922) describes a scream as no less “unutterable” than the “chaos of hellish sound” resulting from “the agony of the damned.” More than just a favorite expression, the concept of being “unutterable” is central to Lovecraft’s philosophy. The phenomenon that his characters witness cannot be described because it is so far removed from humanity’s collective experience that no words exist to label or explain it. In a sense, there can be no words to describe it: the violations of natural law that Lovecraft depicts are beyond humanity’s comprehension.