Robert Bloch was a teenager when he wrote a fan letter to author H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930s. It was the beginning of a friendship-in-correspondence that lasted through the rest of Lovecraft’s life and launched Bloch on his own writing career.
This friendship also led Lovecraft to dedicate his last complete short story, The Haunter of the Dark, to Bloch, in response to a story young Bloch wrote about someone rather like him; the protagonist is named after Bloch, with his last name anglicized to Blake.
The Haunter of the Dark, set in Lovecraft’s own home town of Providence, Rhode Island, features a writer and painter of the macabre from the Midwest who is drawn to explore an ominous-looking, abandoned church on Federal Hill. Inside the church, Robert Blake discovers evidence of a cult that practiced occult ceremonies there in the late 18o0s, including a strangely angled, shining stone in a metal box. Gazing into this stone, he inadvertently rouses something that had been quiescent since the cult was driven out of the church by local Italian immigrants, something that can’t bear light and can only move in darkness, something that now turns its attention to him. It ends for Blake as badly as these things usually do for Lovecraft’s hapless heroes.
The story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hd.aspx
This is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories because of its setting among real places in Providence, especially the vivid descriptions of the old church:
“It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky. It seemed to rest on especially high ground; for the grimy facade, and the obliquely seen north side with sloping roof and the tops of great pointed windows, rose boldly above the tangle of surrounding ridgepoles and chimney-pots. Peculiarly grim and austere, it appeared to be built of stone, stained and weathered with the smoke and storms of a century and more. The style, so far as the glass could shew, was that earliest experimental form of Gothic revival which preceded the stately Upjohn period and held over some of the outlines and proportions of the Georgian age. Perhaps it was reared around 1810 or 1815.”
Sadly, the real church that this was based upon and the old-fashioned, gabled houses and crowded back-streets of Federal Hill that Lovecraft described are no longer there. (At least the Shunned House still stands and I’m looking forward to seeing it in the near future.)
The latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre program from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society is based on The Haunter of the Dark, but adds new characters and elaborates on Blake’s exploration of the church and local history to create a slightly different story.
In Lovecraft’s original tale, Robert Blake is already settled in Providence when his adventure begins. He’s been curious for months about the dark and distant facade of the church he sees from the windows of his study on the other side of town near Brown University’s Hay Library.
The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptation has aspiring writer Blake just arriving from Milwaukee to see famous author Philip Raymond, “a master of weird fiction” who has agreed to tutor Blake “in the art of crafting strange tales” (Philip loves his craft, you might even say).
But when Blake (Jacob Andrew Lyle) arrives at Raymond’s house, it’s going up in flames. Fireman are working to put the fire out, and they inform him that Raymond didn’t survive. Another friend of Raymond’s, Clark Gamwell (Kevin Stidham), is there at the scene, however, and offers Blake a place to stay while he’s in town. Since he has nowhere else to go and no idea what to do now that his prospective mentor is unexpectedly dead, Blake accepts the invitation.
Philip Raymond and Clark Gamwell do not exist in Lovecraft’s story. In this adaptation, it’s Gamwell who has a studio near the library; he’s an artist, illustrating stories in Astonishing Tales magazine as well as doing his own imaginative paintings.
The creation of a friend for Blake effectively splits Lovecraft’s original character into two. Like Frank Elwood in the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version of Dreams in the Witchhouse, Gamwell is someone for the previously lone protagonist to talk to and share his discoveries with. This means that much of the story that follows is delivered to the listener as a lively dialogue between two distinct personalities rather than a long monologue or narration of Blake’s thoughts and actions.
As Blake and Gamwell share reminiscences about their respective late friend, they realize that the work Raymond was doing just before his death–research into a “shocking chapter of local history” involving that ominous church on Federal Hill, visible through the studio windows–would make a terrific story. They agree to write and illustrate it together, and begin to investigate the church’s history for themselves.
A search of the archives of the Providence Telegram gives them tantalizing hints about the Starry Wisdom cult that occupied the church during the previous century until Italian immigrants rioted over the sacrilege in 1893, as well as the name of reporter Edwin Lillibridge, who disappeared around the same time. Lillibridge wasn’t the only one to disappear; the cultists all abruptly left town without a trace soon after the riots. A visit to the city Hall of Records and an aged local lawyer turns up information about the church’s owner, one Enoch Bowen, leader of the Starry Wisdom. Even though the church has been long abandoned and is falling to pieces, it’s kept in a permanent conservatorship by Bowen’s estate so that it can’t be resold or torn down.
Why keep the church? the young men wonder. Bowen and his Starry Wisdom cult haven’t used it in 40 years. According to the lawyer, Bowen said that “Some things can’t be moved.”
Blake and Gamwell next go to see the church for themselves. As in Lovecraft’s story, the local immigrants in the tangled streets and alleys of Federal Hill aren’t very helpful in pointing the way. Gamwell’s vocal prejudice against Italians doesn’t make their search any easier. They do eventually find the place, however, climb up into the elevated churchyard through a gap in the railings, and break in through a cellar window. An elderly Italian man (Andrew Leman), apparently as derelict as the church, prays aloud in Latin as they prepare to enter–more about him later.
Their exploration of the empty church isn’t as spooky as Lovecraft’s depiction, simply because there are two of them together instead of one man going through the cavernous cellar and the cobweb-strewn nave alone.
They do find the same things that Lovecraft’s lone Blake discovered:
- An Egyptian ankh instead of a crucifix above the altar, and some extremely non-traditional images on the stained glass windows.
- A collection of the usual forbidden books, including a translation of the Necronomicon and a ledger containing strange hieroglyphs like those carved upon the ankh; the boys take the ledger for later translation.
- A ceremonial chamber up in the bell-tower containing plaster statues, a circle of chairs, and that peculiar, multifaceted stone mounted in its open box on a pillar in the center.
- The skeleton of the missing Mr. Lillibridge on the chamber floor. What remains of his bones and clothing appear charred or dissolved.
It’s Gamwell who notices the body and retrieves the long-dead reporter’s notebook. Blake is too busy gazing into the depths of the stone; he hears chanting voices, begins to see visions of other worlds, and starts to chant himself: “Iä Azathoth!”
I like the layering of sound here–the deep, chanting voices that only Blake can hear, punctuated by Gamwell’s exclamations over the dead body he’s found, and the music that builds and builds in tension beneath it all. A sense of pending danger rises throughout this scene, but it’s the sudden, loud thumps from the steeple above them that send the two young men scrambling down from the tower and out of the church in a panic as if something were coming after them.
There’s that old Italian man again, waiting in the churchyard to help them climb out through the cellar window and get into the safety of the light from a nearby streetlamp. He seems to know a lot about what’s going on inside the church–and what just happened to Blake–but the two are only interested in getting away from Federal Hill at that moment and don’t bother to question him.
Once back at his apartment on the other side of town, Gamwell is ready to laugh off their fears and attributes the thumps to some natural source within the old building. He reads through Lillibridge’s notebook.
Reading the notebook leads into a scene that isn’t in the original story, a flashback to the 1893 riots when that old Italian man was a young priest, Father Bardazzi, who wanted the church torn down.
Lillibridge (Sean Branney) is covering the riots for his newspaper and interviews one of the cult members, who explains to him what Starry Wisdom believes (with a nod to Plato): “The great Truth of the Universe. All of this, everything you see around you, is just illusion. Dancing lights on the cave wall.”
“What is real?” asks Lillibridge.
“The cave. The dark.”
This man tells Lillibridge how Bowen brought the Shining Trapezohedron–that multifaceted stone–back from Egypt, then takes Lillibridge into the church to meet Bowen himself. Bowen seems rather attracted to the idea of oblivion and eager to embrace it; he also foretells the reporter’s fate as it relates to the cult and claims that his presence in the church tower will one day unleash “the captive blackness,” a prophecy that Lillibridge doesn’t particularly appreciate.
The cultists all disappeared soon afterward and Lillibridge never saw Bowen or any of his people again. His final notes are of his plan to return to the church to see if he can find any clues as to where they might’ve gone. “And we know how that turned out!” concludes Gamwell.
Blake is deeply disturbed by this talk of darkness–he’s seen it. (Gamwell: “No one can see darkness, Blake. That’s why they call it that.”) Whatever reached out to him when he gazed into the stone, it hasn’t let go. He’s remembering things he never knew before, seeing things, hearing things; he tells his friend that his thoughts aren’t his own–and to prove it, begins spitting out alarming alien phrases like “Ygnaiih” and “Ngh’aa!”
They try to locate the old man and learn what he knows before Blake’s mind is entirely taken over. When they aren’t out searching Federal Hill, Gamwell works on translating the symbols in that ledger from the church.
One phrase appears several times: The Haunter of the Dark. As, for example: “Look into the dark stone’s light, and the Haunter of the Dark shall rise like a fountain of ash from the depths of Ultimate Chaos…”
Blake finishes the passage without seeing Gamwell’s translation: “… at whose center sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth,” and he suddenly knows all about the Shining Trapezohedron’s history, which goes back well beyond ancient Egypt or human civilization on this planet.
A storm is brewing over the city. What will happen if the electricity goes out? Blake is certain that a night with no lights will be the end of him. Meanwhile on Federal Hill, the local Italians gather around the church with candles and lanterns in anticipation of this prospect.
Then Bardazzi shows up at Gamwell’s door. He’s got the Shining Trapezohedron with him and says that he may be able to save Blake by performing an exorcism… but things don’t work out as anyone hoped they would.
The climatic scene during the storm is terrific, and the ending–well, it’s not quite the same as Lovecraft’s, but it is dramatic and for the most part I enjoyed it.
I also like the development of the late Mr. Lillibridge’s last days and the expansion of Bowen’s Starry Wisdom’s philosophy, and the idea that the neighborhood around the church requires a (slightly demented) guardian to protect it from the evil within.
I think that the character of Clark Gamwell is the most effective addition to the story. It’s not only the interplay between him and Blake that livens things up even as they get themselves into unimaginably horrible trouble, but his comments on events as the story develops are entertaining. His problem with Italians can even be forgiven, considering how he ends up. But now that he’s part of this story, it’s a pity he didn’t make sure that poor Robert Blake had a flashlight or good lantern with him when the lights finally went out.
- A 1893 Providence Telegram article by Mr. Lillibridge about the rioting around the church.
- A letter from Blake defending Philip Raymond’s work in Astonishing Tales.
- Gamwell’s notes on his translation, including a sketch of the Shining Trapezohedron in its box.
- A letter from the Vatican to Father Bardazzi, advising him to “do nothing” about the Starry Wisdom cult at the church.
- Best of all–Mr. Lillibridge’s Press pass, in surprisingly good condition considering where it’s been for so many years. I haven’t been as delighted by one of these little props since I got Asenath Waite’s Miskatonic student ID.