The Colour Out of Darkness by John Pelan is the latest novella in the Cemetery Dance series, # 17 I believe. Cemetery Dance is a well respected small press that regularly publishes a horror magazine that frequently features (but is not dedicated to) Lovecraftian fiction. I have never read any of the other novellas in the series as I don't think any of them have been related to the Cthulhu mythos, however the high qualities of this volume make me think general horror fiction fans would do well to seek them out. The complete list of titles can be seen at their website. I don't know what the industry technical definition of a novella is; I usually go with a short novel. Maybe a long short story? After a little reflection this book worked best for me when I thought of it just like that, a longish mythos short story. John Pelan is well known to the mythos community. The back cover leaf of the slip cover has a small biography of Mr. Pelan. Alas there are no author's notes on the text so all my inferences are just that.
Some housekeeping: Production qualities are high. This book is a very attractive hardcover with a slipcover. Mine was #468 of 750 (The total number of books in the (hopefully) first print run?), and signed by the author. Total page count was 153. But closer inspection shows it to be actually less. Dimensions are 6 X 8.8 inches, so the pages are not so large. Line spacing seems about 1.5. The first printed page of story was 9, the previous 8 being publishing information and dedication, etc. The back page of each picture was blank. Irregularly after a chapter or interlude would be another blank page, although this was not systematic in any way I could discern. I counted about 13 such blank pages throughout the book, so the real page count was 6 for art and 125 for text. What with the line spacing and all, the book was actually a very quick read. List price is $30, a bit steep for a book so small! Fortunately it is heavily discounted by Amazon to a more realistic $18.90, and you can get "free" shipping if you order more than $25 worth of stuff. The cover and interior artwork were by Allen Kozowski. I was not previously acquainted with Mr. Kozowski's work but the cover was very attractive and spot on for the story's theme: A Cthulhu-like head appears to spring from a nude human body's shoulders. The human form is probably female but there is a bit of deliberate androgynousness (is that a word? If not, it should be.). But actually the Great Old One is engulfing the human, probing it with tentacles. I found the image creepy and effective. I also enjoyed the interior art and wished there was more.
My take on this story is that it took some inspiration from HPL's classic "The Colour Out of Space" but was by no means a sequel to it. I know of two efforts at a true sequel. "A Little Color in Your Cheeks" is a very agreeable short story by Mike Minnis in the anthology Horrors Beyond. The Colour Out of Time by Michael Shea is a novella length sequel dating to the early 1980s. It was a bit more schlocky than HPL and, while it's worth seeking out, it dragged on a tad too long for me and had very derivative prose (it was from very early in Mr. Shea's career). I often think the mythos is best served by short stories rather than novels. In the HPL story a meteor falls from the sky to land in Nahum Gardner's property. A globule in the meteor has a strange color: "They had uncovered what seemed to be the side of a large coloured globule embedded in the substance. The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor's strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all". This idea of a color not really perceptible by humans, not in the visible spectrum but not really in the infrared or ultraviolet, perhaps more extrasensory, is used very effectively by Mr. Pelan. Only those who have ingested the strange drug essence can perceive this color, described as an unidentifiable shimmering radiance. However perhaps more than the color, the author uses the idea of a completely alien sentience split into lesser parts, each of which acts independently, trying to regain enough power/energy by manipulating humans to rejoin itself, patiently doing this over unthinkable millennia. You probably recall how a fragment of the color in HPL's story fell back to earth and still lurked in the well.
Note: minor to major spoilers may follow, so don't read further if this bugs you.
Mr. Pelan turns away from the conventional mythos. He takes the very Derlethian idea of a cosmic war between outre entities where one was a distinct loser. It was rent into parts which were scattered about the earth. The chiefest part was entombed under the sea. Each part is now manipulating human psyches with the ultimate aim of reuniting and seeking its revenge. Here was an original twist for this book: there were not multiple Great Old Ones, rather they were all different ways these fragments were perceived through the limitations of human thought. There isn't even a Cthulhu, per se. The entity has no specific name. Rather, Cthulhu is how Lovecraft was manipulated into perceiving the largest part of this sentience under the sea, which was in turn interpreted as R'lyeh, and this was just one such example of many such influences of the alien on human thought. Parenthetically, I really dislike the plot device that Lovecraft was writing the truth disguised as fiction. This book deftly sidestepped that mortal sin; I'll call it venial and note I was not too annoyed with it. To extend human perceptions it gives its chosen acolytes a drug, essence. I won't give away the source of essence as it is one of the central shocks of the story. Unfortunately for the imbiber, in addition to unusual health and enhanced senses comes an inability to resist the unspeakable psychic commands of the alien. In fact, between each chapter is an interlude describing the actions of some famous person under the influence of essence. Let's just say Jack and Vlad had a little help from their friends.
The plot revolves around a Goth-ish Seattle nightclub, Cafe Sepulcher. To start with, the story is told from the perspective of a down on his luck hanger-on named Josh, one of a crowd of former street people who depends on the owner, Lara. After she was disabled in an accident she got some windfall money and now provides jobs for her friends, Byron, Brian and Sheree, as well as Josh. Josh has been carrying a torch for Lara but now seems to be out of the inner circle. He also starts to note weird scars on the others. About the same time, terrible things start to happen on the streets of Seattle. Josh is invited to try a new experience with Lara and the inner circle: essence. About midway through the book detective Joe Callaway comes on the scene investigating gruesome crimes. He starts to get an inkling of a new cult in Seattle and begins to trace it to its source, setting up a final vivid confrontation.
The prose is quite good, very readable and descriptive. Seattle's seamy underside comes alive under Mr. Pelan's pen. The author does not shy away from graphic language, either for violence or for sex, un-HPLish, but it works here. I finished the book in one night, so obviously it grabbed me. The ending was jarringly abrupt but very satisfying to the mythos fiction fan. Initially the characterizations were very good; in fact the story was very cohesive and compelling while we followed Josh's slow realization of what was happening to Lara and his friends. His character development was a strong point. But maybe two thirds through we suddenly abandon Josh to the machinations of the cult and start switching point of view characters rapidly. This allows the plot to move forward at the expense of cohesiveness. I found this disconcerting; to me it was the biggest weakness of the book.
So what's a mythos fan to do? Buy it, by all means! The price is very reasonable at Amazon for such a handsome hardcover, the story is not just a pastiche knock off, and the writing is quite good. I think you'll like the original take on the mythos as well. I am very happy to have this title in my library.