CD Review: The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror appears to be the first of the 1930s-style radio plays on CD produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS). I was sorry to see that Matt Foyer isn’t in this one—I’ve begun to be a fan of his.

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror is the story of a decayed and nearly forgotten rural Massachusetts farm community and the curious events that occur there in the early part of the 20th century, culminating in the Horror in 1928. The family at the focus of these events are the Whateleys: the old man, “Wizard” Whateley, who practices strange rituals at the ancient stone circle on the hill near his farm; his albino daughter Lavinia, who somehow gives birth to a son with no apparent father (old Whateley has some things to say about Lavinia’s husband, but who pays attention to his lunatic ravings?); and Lavinia’s very peculiar son Wilbur.

Wilbur’s remarkable growth and premature maturity is probably the least weird thing about him. Something else seems to inhabit the Whateley home besides these three persons; the neighbors don’t see it, but they do hear strange sounds, smell odd smells, and make note of the anemic cows that old Whateley has to replace so frequently. It’s only after the old man and Lavinia have gone and Wilbur tries to beg, borrow, or steal an intact edition of the Necromonicon from the Miskatonic University library to replace his grandfather’s tattered and fragmentary copy that the Horror begins to unfold.

As a story, The Dunwich Horror lends itself better to radio drama than The Shadow Over Innsmouth did. Instead of a single narrator, there are a number of characters with speaking parts. These characters, from the neighboring farm families to Miskatonic’s Dr. Armitage, are all witnesses to the peculiar behavior and eventual destruction of the Whateley family; their observations give the reader/listener the clues to identify the true nature of the Horror before Armitage and his stalwart band of professors finally confront it. These parts of the radio play are very nicely done. The conversation between the local inhabitants of Dunwich about the birth of Lavinia Whateley’s child and subsequent discussions about young Wilbur Whateley are reminiscent of the opening scenes of The Magnificent Ambersons.

The play also makes good use of its sound effects. The monster in this story is invisible until the confrontation near the end, which makes it perfect for radio. We hear its watery sloshing, and the sounds of uprooted trees and crushed barns and houses, just as the terrified farm folk of Dunwich would. We also hear the spooky trill of the whippoorwills, which attend the death of every Whateley. Young Wilbur’s voice is a disturbingly deep, basso rumble, just as described, and the Horror, when it finally speaks, has a voice even deeper and more disturbing.

Like The Shadow Over Innsmouth CD, The Dunwich Horror box contains some interesting extra items:

Items from The Dunwich Horror

  • A map of the Dunwich area, showing the location of the various farms and key geographical features.
  • A newspaper clipping from the World-War-I era about rural decay and the poor physical condition of the inhabitants of Dunwich, featuring a photo of the Whateley family at their farm (a shed with its door ajar can be glimpsed behind the overgrown Wilbur).
  • Pages from Wilbur’s cabalistic notebook as well as Dr. Dee’s English translation of The Necronomicon.

I love this stuff. Someone at HPLHS really put a lot of work into these little items with attention to story details.

I also had to laugh at the credit listings on the CD liner; the Horror is credited as “Yog Whateley.” Well, of course. He’s named after his father.