"The Colour Our of Space", first published in Amazing Stories, September 1927.
This is the the sixteenth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
It just makes the hair on my neck stand on end, immediately inspiring images of a dark and malign landscape that looms and threatens. The opening paragraphs carry this theme through, outlining the history of unsuccessful settlement in the area which establishes man's weak grip on the Earth and the ineffable nature of the wilderness.
HPL was a bit of a rambler himself, who knew his local area well, and the descriptions of the land have the feel of direct observation. Joshi outlines some of the inspirational locations in the footnotes to this story in The Annotated H P Lovecraft. The story was inspired in part by his visit to the Scituate Reservoir in central Rhode Island which was due to be flooded. “I well-nigh groaned at the future destruction of exquisite old villages like Dana & its neighbours.”
It's a strange series of nested narratives, where the first person narrator seeks out Ammi Pierce, who tells him the third person narrative of what happened to his friend, Nahum Gardner, which is then related back to us by the narrator. Maybe this is significant of how these stories used to travel in the days before there was even wide-spread use of telephones or wireless. All information came via print or word of mouth. It's a classic friend-of-a-friend story – would you really believe a deranged rustic on this sort of thing?
There is a novel-length sequel to this story, The Colour Out of Time, written by Michael Shea. It picks up the sotry fifty years later, when the reservoir has become a popular pleasure spot. Two old professor types are their for their annual fishing holiday when something rises out of the waters. Shea addresses the theme of cosmic horror in a slightly different way to HPL, as the colour eats away at the resolve of its victims, revealing the hopelessness of life and hollowing them out from the inside.
I think that HPL is hinting at something similar killing the Gardners. He very vividly depicts their physical demise, but in the best gothic tradition, this outward affliction is just a metaphor for an inner dissolution. Perhaps it's just the IDEA of the impact of the meteor that causes the contagion; maybe this sudden intrusion of outer space into the lives of the modest, god fearing folk of rural New England gave them horrible insight into their own smallness, breaking their minds and bodies both.
It also forms the basis of the sequence from the movie Creepshow, the Lonsome Death of Jordy vale, written by and starring none other than Stephen King! Thanks to the magic of youtube, here it is (starts about a minute in, although the rest of the movie is worth seeing if you never have):
[edit: Sorry, video's been removed! An easy one to pick up on DVD, though and a classic 80s horror.]