Bad Medicine: The Picture in the House

The 12th plate from Regnum Congo

“The book fell open, almost of its own accord and as if from frequent consultation at this place, to the repellent twelfth plate shewing a butcher’s shop amongst the Anzique cannibals. My sense of restlessness returned, though I did not exhibit it. The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous.”

From HP Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House

This third and final segment of the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audio drama has been  stretched to fit into the “Bad Medicine” category. There is no doctor in the original story, and the physician added to this version seems more helpful than prone to horrific experimentation. But it is a spirited adaptation of an early Lovecraft story that’s never been one of my favorites.

A hapless bicyclist is forced to take shelter in what he takes to be an abandoned house during a violent rainstorm. But the house isn’t empty; its inhabitant is a loathsome old man who has become obsessed by an illustration of cannibals in Filippo Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo (which is a real book, by the way, as is the illustration described in this story) and hints that he’s been giving in to his “craving” for “victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy”.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ph.aspx.

This Dark Adventure adaptation begins with a patient named Eugene Crowley (Kevin Stidham) who has had a cycling accident and, more than that, has experienced something so traumatic connected to this incident that he’s expunged it from his conscious memory. He’s developed a stammer so acute that he can barely put two words together.

Hypnotism booklet coverEugene’s speech therapist (Kacey Camp) has brought in an alienist–that’s an old-fashioned word for a psychologist–(Andrew Leman) to hypnotize him. Once he’s been put into a trace, Eugene becomes coherent, even eloquent; his words are for the most part taken directly from Lovecraft’s story. He is finally able to tell the tale of what happened to him.

He was riding his bike, taking a shortcut on an old country road while traveling through the Miskatonic Valley in quest of obscure genealogical material, when the storm broke. Cold and soaked, he turned to the nearest house, a very old, ramshackle wooden one and ventured inside after knocking and finding the door unlocked.

He describes the interior of the house to the doctor and therapist, who don’t understand what this place has to do with his accident. Its furnishings are all remarkably pre-Revolutionary, he tells them, and if “less humble, the place would be a collector’s paradise”.  Among the objects of interest are an antique clock (which we’ll hear ticking away through the scenes that follow) and a small collection of old books, including the 1598 Latin translation of Pigafetta’s book with its peculiar and sometimes amusing pictures of African people and wildlife drawn from faulty descriptions and the imaginations of the illustrators.

But Plate XII, the illustration featuring a cannibal butcher shop, doesn’t amuse Eugene at all; he finds it profoundly disturbing and grows more ill at ease with the strange old house. He begins to sense that it isn’t unoccupied after all.

That’s when he hears someone moving around on the floor above and footsteps descending the stairs.

The old man, Ambrose (Barry Lynch, who has played creepy old men in old houses for HPLHS before), isn’t alarmed at finding an intruder in his home but, in an archaic New England accent, invites his unexpected visitor to sit down for a chat.

Eventually, Ambrose answers Eugene’s question as to how he came by such a rare volume: it was given to him in trade by a sea captain who probably picked it up in London. The captain “died in the war,” but like much of what Ambrose says, this fact can be interpreted in two ways. The original story is set in the 1890s and I believe this DART version is set in the early 20th century.  Ambrose refers to things that happened in “the ’80s” or during “the war,” which may be 19th-century dates and events… or they may have occurred a whole century earlier.  Ambrose has lived here at his home for a long, long time. Eugene observes that in spite of his apparent age, white hair and beard, he still looks quite strong, vibrant, and ruddy-faced.  Ambrose also has an  occasional chuckle over the disappearance of one person or another as he tells his story.

Eugene’s initial uneasiness abates when he finds out that Ambrose can’t read and doesn’t understand the Latin text in his book. The young man offers his own somewhat faulty translations and begins to feel a condescending amusement at the illiterate old man’s child-like fondness for these pictures. Until they come back to Plate XII, Ambrose’s favorite.

Ambrose has been thinking about that picture of the cannibal butcher-shop for a very long time. It makes his “blood tickle”. He tells Eugene that butchering sheep was more fun if he looked at that picture first, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy the craving within him. As Ambrose goes on about his obsession, Eugene suspects that the old man has done more than slaughter a few sheep, and that Ambrose believes he owes his longevity to his special diet.

“They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ’twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same…”

A drop that comes through the ceiling and lands on the book–a drop too red to be rainwater–suggests that Eugene isn’t the only hapless traveler who’s come to Ambrose’s house lately.

Lovecraft’s story ends there, in a way I’ve always found dissatisfying. So you’ve just stumbled into a cannibal’s lair. What do you do? How can you escape to tell the tale before you wind up on the dinner menu? A deus-ex-machina stroke that puts an effective end to the danger never really worked for me.

This DART version adds a panicked flight from the house (Ambrose’s shout to “Come back in–‘twill be the death of ye!” as Eugene runs out into the pouring rain mPage from the bookade me laugh). Eugene winds up in the barn, where the hints and suggestions of Lovecraft’s story are taken an extra step into full horror and give us tangible proof of Ambrose’s cannibal activities.

It’s at this point, faced with the unspeakable, that Eugene’s voice gives out. The deus-ex-machina ending then occurs under slightly more reasonable circumstances, and Eugene’s escape becomes more plausible.

There’s only one prop in the CD case that’s directly related to this story, but it’s an impressive one: a reproduction of the page containing Plate XII with bloodstains on it. They look more like smeared fingermarks than drops that fell from the ceiling to me, but that’s a picky distinction.

That’s the last of Bad Medicine. Now maybe I can get that song out of my head.

“When you find your medicine, you take what you can get. If there’s something better, baby, well they haven’t found it yet.”

 

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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.