CD Review: Dagon: War of the Worlds

This episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre concludes with announcer Eskine Blackwell’s words:

“If we’ve taken more liberties with our story than usual, we hope that you and Mr. Lovecraft will forgive us. We thought it would be fun.”

Yes, dammit, that was fun! A lot of fun.

It’s not simply an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s short story Dagon; it’s also a sequel to Shadow over Innsmouth, as well as fanfic from the guys at the H.P Lovecraft Historical Society using their own characters, and an homage to Orson Welles’ famous Halloween 1939 radio broadcast that panicked the country.

It’s October 1935, and this week’s Dark Adventure Radio Theatre begins as usual. But after an introductory word from the sponsor, the invigorating beverage Bub-L-Pep (“The L is for Lithium!”), the show is interrupted by a news bulletin: A ferry crossing the San Francisco Bay has sent out distress calls and the Coast Guard is rushing to its aid.

The regular program resumes. An actor (Matt Foyer) recites the opening paragraph from  Dagon:

“I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more. Penniless, and at the end of my supply of the drug which alone makes life endurable, I can bear the torture no longer; and shall cast myself from this garret window into the squalid street below-“

Before he can get more than a few sentences in, the broadcast is interrupted again. World Wide Wireless News is on the spot in San Francisco. A reporter on the pier describes the scene of the Coast Guard rescue… but something seems to be going wrong. As he observes the two ships through field glasses, it appears as if both the ferry passengers and the rescue boats are being attacked by what he takes to be divers in “frogmen” suits with strange big-eyed goggles and flippers on both their feet and hands. Faintly, we hear faint splashes and screams in the distance.

The reporter cries out, “Those aren’t divers. They’re something else!”

As the ferry sinks and the Coast Guard boats are destroyed before his eyes, the reporter becomes incoherent with shock and horror. After one last “Oh, the humanity!” he’s cut off.

There follows a brief interlude of dance music with Raymond Roquelo and his orchestra.

Undersea AttacksWhen World Wide Wireless News returns, it’s with another bulletin about a riot at the Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine.

In an interview, Admiral Brookstone (Barry Lynch) describes the incident as a “disturbance” and adds that a small group of prisoners took advantage of the distraction to escape. Further questions to the admiral establish that the escaped prisoners were taken during the 1929 raid on the decayed coastal town of Innsmouth.

There follows a quick review of some of the odd facts about what was supposedly a series of Prohibition-related arrests. (Which also answers my question about who shot whom at the end of my Shadow over Innsmouth review.)

One of the curious points about the Innsmouth raid was that a Miskatonic University professor of anthropology, ancient cultures, and folklore, Nathaniel Ward, was involved in its aftermath and recommended that these prisoners be kept at the Naval prison.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, the Navy gunboat USS Palos has been called in to the scene of the ferry disaster. They find no survivors in the water, only some empty life preservers and jackets. Then the gunboat is abruptly called away to answer a distress call from Alcatraz. A riot is going on at this prison too.

When we return to the Portsmouth Naval Prison story, Professor Ward is being interviewed from Arkham.

Nathaniel WardNathaniel Ward (Sean Branney) isn’t an original Lovecraft character, but was created by Branney, HPLHS’s Andrew Leman, and friends back in their game-playing days. He features in several of their Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptations.

I first encountered Nathaniel Ward in the HPLHS film version of The Whisperer in Darkness (where he was played by Matt Lagan); he warned his friend Wilmarth that going alone into the wild hills of Vermont would be a really bad idea. Even then, Ward struck me as a man who knew more than he was willing to say about things that went on in the dark corners of the world. (And I hope he looked after Wilmarth’s cat after Wilmarth ignored his advice.)

Interviewed by the WWW News, Ward states that he’s “not at liberty to divulge” what he said in his testimony before the Grand Jury concerning the Innsmouth prisoners. He explains that he was involved in the case because of the Marsh family’s long connection with South Pacific islanders and their Esoteric Order of Dagon cult. Again, he gives the impression that he knows a whole lot more than he’s telling.

A bulletin comes in from the South Pacific–not another attack, but the USS Raleigh, a heavily armed warship, reports the discovery of a large and previously unknown island.

“Where?” asks Ward, since the South Pacific is a pretty big place. He wants to stay on the line while the reporter he’s been talking to chats via radio with the Raleigh’s Captain Craig.

Captain Craig doesn’t want to answer Ward’s questions, until the professor name-drops Admiral Brookstone. When he does receive the island’s coordinates, Ward murmurs “Oh, dear…” as if he were afraid of exactly that.

Craig also says that the island’s existence hasn’t been confirmed; his crew have picked up a castaway, an Englishman named Holloway, who claims to have landed on it.  Craig personally believes there’s nothing there, and that Holloway is demented. Ward asks to talk to Holloway anyway.

The story gets just a bit meta as we return to Dagon. Holloway (Kevin Stidham, not Matt Foley; that would be too meta) tells his tale of being lost at sea after the destruction of his own ship, discovering the island which appeared to be recently thrust up out of the water, and wandering until he found ancient monoliths that featured bas relief carvings of strange marine life and fish-man figures, one of whom is spearing a whale not much larger than he is. The story only takes about 10 minutes to narrate, even when interspersed with Ward’s comments and questions, so there’s one good reason why this radio drama was expanded so drastically.

An update at Portsmouth informs us that the prison has been secured, but the five escaped prisoners have been taken aboard an old ship named Java Bride. A Naval patrol boat is in pursuit. WWW News listens in on the patrol boat’s radio reports and hears the names of some of the escapees: Hollister, Weymouth, Delores.

Delores? Is one of the prisoners a woman?

As a matter of fact, Admiral Brookstone confirms, three of the prisoners are women–Delores, Bismilla, and Hecate Marsh, along with their two brothers. They are the daughters and sons of Barnabas Marsh, and great-grandchildren of the old sea captain Obed Marsh who first introduced the Esoteric Order of Dagon to Innsmouth. Their grandmother’s background is a little more mysterious… one might even call it fishy.

The patrol boat fires on the Java Bride when it refuses to stop and be boarded; the Marshes are putting up a fight.

The Palos, now offshore at Alcatraz, chimes in to report that part of the prison is in flames and the staff and guards and their families who live on the island are being held hostage by “radicals.” Strange, dark shapes are observed scaling the cliffs below the prison walls.

Reports are also coming in to WWW News about attacks on waterways worldwide–off Chile, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Egypt, and other ports around the U.S. Near Brisbane, ships are said to be under attack by “previously unknown sea animals,” humanoid fish-creatures as well as octapoidy, tentacled things.

It’s as if there’s “an uprising beneath the ocean!” says the reporter interviewing Professor Ward, then asks him, “But what does it all mean?”

Before Ward can reply, our attention is called back to the USS Raleigh, which has sailed to the island’s coordinates. It is there, right where Holloway said it would be.

“I hate being right,” Ward says in dismay. He’d hoped that they wouldn’t find anything.

As the Raleigh draws closer to the island, a warning comes over the ship’s radio, telling them to get away. The source of this message is an unidentified airship approaching overhead; the Raleigh immediately goes to red alert and prepares to fire, when Ward urgently asks them to describe the newcomer.

It turns out that the airship doesn’t belong to an enemy, but to an old friend of Ward’s, millionaire playboy and explorer, Charlie Tower.

Charlie Tower and friend

Charlie Tower (Lucas Dixon), like Nathaniel Ward, is a character created by the HLPHS guys. He also appears in Whisperer in the Darkness and several of these radio plays.

The two men, who have a better idea of what’s going on than anybody else, chat over the radio. Tower was tracking a German U-boat; Germany has been interested in what’s going on in the oceans’ depths since the Great War, due to the discovery a document written by the commander of a lost submarine.  This explanation is based on another Lovecraft story, The Temple, and the conversation between Tower and Ward gives us a minute or two to catch our breath before all Hell breaks loose.

The Raleigh is suddenly attacked. It’s not human-sized fish-men this time. A giant hand reaches up out of the ocean and grabs the ship’s rail to try and pull it under.

That carving depicting a fish-man hunting a whale was accurate as far as the comparative size of the two figures after all.

On Tower’s advice, the ship responds by firing–not at the monster, but at the monoliths just visible on the island. The U-boat also surfaces to fire at the island, even though they shouldn’t be there at all; under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany isn’t supposed to have U-boats anymore and as Captain Craig observes, “You can bet your bottom Deutschmark” that if there’s one here, it’s a sure sign that the Germans have others too.

What happens next is somewhat hard to follow with all the guns, explosions, and alarms going off. As far as I can make it out, Charlie Tower has brought along a special stone like the ones that Obed Marsh and the South Sea Islanders used to summon the fish-men, except that it works in the opposite way; that is, instead of calling them up from the ocean depths, it sends them back. This, he drops from his airship–

All transmissions from the South Pacific abruptly stop. We’re treated to another musical interlude with Raymond Roquelo’s orchestra. The tune is “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”

I won’t spoil the ending by describing it all in detail. Like H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds Martians being defeated by Earthly microbes, it’s a little thing that leads to the abrupt retreat of this worldwide invasion force. The surface world is safe… for now.

Newspaper articleWhatever lurks beneath the oceans is still there. And what’s at least as troubling in the aftermath are the signs of Germany rebuilding its fleet and preparing for another war. Ward concludes, “We may have postponed one kind of horror for another.”

It’s a fast moving drama–so fast that I had to  listen to it several times and I’m still not sure I’ve sorted out everything that happens during that climatic battle at the island. As the listener dashes from San Francisco to Portsmouth to the South Pacific, following one bewildered WWW News reporter after another, there’s a strong sense that the disaster in progress is sudden and worldwide.  In spite of the dire situations, however, in-references abound and the dialog is often funny.

One sequence near the end I particularly enjoyed was the surprise appearance from Robert Olmstead, the narrator of Shadow over Innsmouth (Matt Foyer again). Given the results of his genealogical research during that story, he’s certainly changed his point of view since then. Being imprisoned at Alcatraz for shooting an FBI agent hasn’t made him any cheerier either.

In his one scene, Olmstead has something to say about Dagon arising and the end of the world as we know it. He also makes a good point or two about the treatment he and the other imprisoned people with fishy Innsmouth ancestry have received that makes me almost sympathetic to him, apart from, well, that end of our world thing. But someone else takes this speech very badly; the elderly and extremely fish-faced Barnabas Marsh is at Alcatraz too. He feels strongly that Olmstead has broken certain oaths by speaking as he has–so strongly that Marsh retaliates and makes his own escape by jumping off the cliffs into the bay. (They say that an old man couldn’t possibly survive that leap… but you just know he did.)

In addition to the newspaper clippings shown above, the CD box also contains some other  items of interest:

  • Olmstead’s prison record, featuring a description of his crimes and of his increasingly fishy personal appearance as well as a personality assessment.
  • A somewhat censored letter from the Navy Department to the President about the Raleigh’s encounter at the island.
  • A 1917 letter in German; I think it’s about the discovery of the last message from the missing U-boat commander.

Dagon: War of the Worlds items


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.