DART Review: The Call of Cthulhu

Mystery Derelict Found at SeaThis isn’t the wonderful 2005 HP Lovecraft Historical Society silent film,  which was one of my very first blog reviews. It is the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version of The Call of Cthulhu made a few years later.

It’s another take on the same story of peculiar events during the spring of 1925, involving bizarre dreams, strange but similar sculptures related to a secret but worldwide cult, the terrifying discovery of an ancient city on a long-submerged island in the South Pacific, and a great, big, tentacled-faced guy who’s more than a little grumpy at being awakened from his nap.

You can read Lovecraft’s story online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cc.aspx

This Dark Adventure audioplay doesn’t follow the same narrative structure as the silent film, but adds a second framing device. It begins with the murder of the story’s narrator, Francis Thurston; he has just been stabbed by a mysterious black man, perhaps a sailor, in a Boston park. Matt FoyerThe police investigating this crime, Sergeant Hale (Barry Lynch) and Detective Mallory (Matt Foyer, who played Thurston in the film), quickly determine that this was no robbery.  Thurston’s wallet and cash are still on his body.

Using Thurston’s identification to locate his address, the two policemen go to his apartment to see if they can dig up a personal motive for his murder. A quick look around the room suggests that Thurston was intellectual–“Too many books,” Hale observes–and paranoid.  There are expensive locks on the door and even locks on the windows.

Esquimaux Cthulhu sculpture carved from a walrus tusk“What were you afraid of, Mr. Thurston?” Mallory wonders, just before he locates a secret compartment inside the apartment wall containing a metal lock-box full of Thurston’s papers.

They take the metal box back to the police station, where the detective unlocks it using a key found on the dead man’s person. He settles down to read Thurston’s journal, beginning with those famous opening lines:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far…”

Thurston’s voice (Andrew Leman) then takes over as primary narrator, using language directly from Lovecraft’s text. (Hale comments: “Yikes. What was he, an English professor?”)

The audioplay is sectioned into 3 acts, following the chapters of the written story. Erskine Blackwell (Dan Conroy*), Dark Adventure’s new announcer, introduces each with the chapter titles, beginning with:

Part 1: The Horror In Clay

Just a month previous to his own death, Thurston began writing down his account of how he inherited a collection of notes, newspaper clippings, and a curious clay, bas-relief sculpture from his great-uncle, Professor George Gammell Angell–who also  died suddenly after an encounter with a “nautical-looking negro” in the streets of Providence.

The late professor began gathering this information after a local young poet and artist, Henry Wilcox (Kevin Stidham), consulted with him in March of 1925. After having vivid dreams about a cyclopean city built at mind-boggling angles and covered with strange hieroglyphs and green gunk, Wilcox carved the bas-relief figure, which looks like a combination of “an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…  A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings.” This object is still among the items in the box for the police to puzzle over . In his dreams, Wilcox also heard or “felt” a repeated phrase that included the words “Cthulhu,” “fhtagn,” and “R’lyeh”.

Professor Angell was already familiar with these words, as well as the figure on the carving. He suspected that the young man was involved with a cult, but Wilcox insisted that he wasn’t; he had no idea what these words or the images in his dreams meant, and was hoping the professor could identify them.

Wilcox returned regularly throughout the month of March, describing his dreams. Near the end of the month, he had a nightmare so terrifying about an impossibly huge creature walking through the city that he ended up in a feverish delirium in the hospital. He woke nearly two weeks later with no memory of what had terrified him.

Mallory and Hale visit Wilcox in his studio at Providence’s colorful Fleur-de-Lys building, but the young artist has little more to tell them. He doesn’t remember much about his strange dreams, but he’s been trying to get back to them through his work. One of his paintings features a giant door.

Wilcox's drawing

According to Angell’s notes, Wilcox wasn’t the only person to have this experience: other artists and sensitive types had similar bizarre dreams during that same month, culminating in a horrifying vision of an enormous being. All over the world, events suggesting some wild emotional unrest among different groups of people occurred that spring; the professor collected hundreds of news clippings.

The two policemen look this collection over. Hale dismisses it all as a weird coincidence, but Mallory begins to be uneasy.

Part 2: The Tale of Inspector Legrasse

So, how did Professor Angell already know something about the Cthulhu cult? Thurston’s journal next takes us back to the 1908 meeting of the American Archaeological Society, which his uncle attended. A New Orleans police inspector, John Legrasse (Mark Colson) ventured in among the archeologists and scholars in hopes that they could help him identify a piece of evidence acquired on a raid in the Louisiana swamp: a sculpture that “depict[s] a creature perching or squatting on top of a pedestal of some kind. The monster has a vaguely anthropoid outline… but with an octopus-like head [and] face is a mass of feelers…”

Most of the professors have never seen anything like it before–not the carving style, the writing on the base, nor even the type of stone used–but one elderly man named Webb (Sean Branney) speaks up. He saw a similar figure with the same writing on it, years ago on the coast of Greenland, carved from a walrus tusk and used by a tribe of “Esquimaux” who “practiced a curious form of devil worship.”

Webb recalls hearing the tribe chanting a phrase during one of their unspeakable rituals: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

He doesn’t know what these words mean, but Legrasse does.

Legrasse then gives us a tale-within-a-tale, nesting 4 narratives within one another, but his story of the police raid on a voodoo cult in the swamp is the high point of the audioplay in terms of the sound experience–drums beating, people screaming, cultists chanting the phrase above. It’s wonderfully atmospheric.

The New Orleans police didn’t arrive in time to rescue the swamp folk who were kidnapped by the cultists, but they rounded up everyone they captured  alive and took them back to the station.

Only one member of the cult, a man named Castro (Sean Branney again) was willing to talk about the object of the cult’s worship: the Great Old Ones. Cthulhu waits dreaming in his house at R’lyeh (which is what that chant is saying); when the stars are right, he will rise and the Great Old Ones will come back.

The man was insane, but Legrasse did have that stone idol, and Webb gave him corroboration that this previously unheard-of cult was as widespread as Castro claimed.

Part 3. The Madness from the Sea

Due to his untimely and mysterious death, the professor’s research ended with his interviews of Henry Wilcox and his collection of clippings; Thurston’s might have ended there as well, if he hadn’t stumbled on an article in an Australian newspaper that his uncle missed.

Call of Cthulhu props

Dated April 18, 1925, the article is about a derelict ship recovered in the South Pacific, with one dead man and one survivor aboard, and another Cthulhu idol.

The survivor, a Norwegian sailor named Johansen (Conny Laxéll), was deeply disturbed by his experience, but he told the story of how his ship, the Emma, ran across another ship, the Alert, at sea. They were attacked so viciously that the Emma‘s crew had to kill everyone aboard the Alert to defend themselves. Their own ship badly damaged, they abandoned it and took the Alert. The idol was on board in a sort of bloodstained shrine. The Emma‘s crew continued the course on which the Alert was already headed, until they came to an uncharted island that had apparently been thrown up from the ocean’s depths after a recent earthquake. There, the other crewmen died. Johansen doesn’t say how, apart from some disjointed words about falling and wrong angles.

It’s not just the idol, but the fact that this happened during March and early April 1925, when Wilcox and so many others were having dreams about a sunken city and a monstrous creature within it, that grabbed Thurston’s attention. So much so that he traveled all the way to Sydney to have a look at the Alert and this Cthulhu statue for himself, then went on to Oslo (pretty much going all the way around the world) to speak to Johansen.

Johansen was dead by the time Thurston reached Norway, but he left a journal of his own–in English, so that his wife couldn’t read it. But she gave it to Thurston, who can and did.

Inspector Mallory, who’s very caught up in the story by this point, digs through the box to find Johansen’s journal and reads it too. He learns how the hapless crew of the Emma ventured ashore to explore the crazy-angled city of Rhl’yeh, discovered a vast door, and somehow accidentally opened it. The sound of Cthulhu’s awakening and the sailors’ panicked flight is also pretty good.

Only Johansen and one other man made it back to the ship, the others being dispatched in various horrible ways. And then Cthulhu waded out into the water after them.

Johansen has the distinction of being the first person to- well, not exactly punch Cthulhu in the face, but ram him with a ship, which has to take some kind of nerve. Of course, this doesn’t hurt Cthulhu, only dissipates him a bit so that they can get away. Johansen was shattered by the experience, and it looks like the same fate that befell Professor Angell and Thurston also got him in the end.

The island has since sunk back into the ocean and Cthulhu has gone back to sleep… for now. The stars weren’t right.

While I do prefer the silent film version, this adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu also has some good points. The police investigation not only provides a framing narrative with pithy remarks on Lovecraft’s text via Thurston’s writing, but adds an extra layer to the story with one of those additional twists at the end that HPLHS like so much. As he looks over the evidence accumulated by Professor Angell and reads Thurston’s journal, Detective Mallory becomes fascinated and begins to believe these incidents are more than a string of bizarre coincidences connected by a disturbed mind. Sgt. Hale dismisses it all as the ravings of crackpot with an equally crackpot uncle, and insists that they should continue their investigation on more mundane lines, like searching the dockside neighborhoods for sailors who fit the description they’ve been given. He stops Mallory every time the detective tries to pronounce the name “Cthulhu”.

As always, the CD comes with its own collection of props, including:

Chester Langfield, radio presenter, in iron lung

  • Henry Wilcox’s sketch and a written description of one of his dreams about Rl’yeh.
  • A photograph of the Esquimaux Cthulhu sculpture carved from a walrus tusk.
  • A mugshot of the cultist Castro, taken by the New Orleans Police after his arrest, along with a card containing a detailed description of him.
  • An article clipped from the Sydney Bulletin for March 1925 about the recovery of the Alert with Johansen and the little statue of Cthulhu aboard. The statue is pictured. On the back of the clipping, there’s a partial article about what happened to former Dark Adventure announcer and Fleur-de-Lys cigarette spokesman and ardent smoker, Chester Langfield.


* Yes, the same guy who was Ranger / Jungle Brad in the Lost Skeleton movies.


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.