One of my favorite Lovecraft titles, if not one of my favorite stories. Written in 1922, The Lurking Fear is the tale of a long-abandoned house in upstate New York that once belonged to a reclusive and xenophobic old Dutch family all with mismatched eyes like David Bowie (one blue, one brown), horrible and mysterious deaths that occur during thunderstorms in neighboring rural shantytowns, and an intrepid investigator who brings along some extremely unfortunate companions and takes a heck of a long time to figure things out.
It does, however, have some terrific horror images that will stick with you.
You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/lf.aspx
Even a quick glance at the text reveals that this story is a first-person narrative, told from the point of view of that investigator, who has made a career out of his “quests for strange horrors in literature and in life.”
This brand new Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version not only breaks up this long narration–always a good thing in an audio drama–but flips that point of view. The investigator, here named Nick Callum, a reporter for True Crime Magazine (Andrew Leman), is present and the major events of Lovecraft’s story in which he participates occur fairly faithfully, but he’s not the central character in this drama.
Instead, the story is viewed from the perspective of two Albany police officers who investigate these mysterious happenings in the Catskills as a series of possible crimes. Nick is the prime suspect in a couple of them.
The audioplay starts with the two policemen as they are sent out one summer night to the site of an unspecified “disaster” in a squatters’ village so tiny and ramshackle that it doesn’t even have a name.
Croft (Sean Branney), the elder and more cynical of the two, consults a map and notes that this village lies in the vicinity of Maple Hill and Cone Mountain; he dubs it “Maple Cone… like a flavor of ice cream.”
But what this man, used to dealing with bootleggers and related crimes, finds at his ice-cream shantytown knocks the levity out of him: Forty or fifty dead bodies torn to pieces, the earth caved in, all the shanties destroyed, and fresh fulgurites indicating an incredible number of lightning strikes
It’s the younger rookie DuClair (Kevin Stidham), a WWI vet, who views the scene of this disaster with more composure and interviews the old woman who brought them to the site. Ma Munnee (Kacey Camp)–who, like the rest of her family, is illiterate and doesn’t even have an idea of how to spell her name–attributes all this carnage and upheaval to a storm. “‘Twern’t no reg’lar storm.”
Nick Callum and his friend Arthur Munroe are among the reporters who have also gathered at the scene. While the two policemen have no definite information to give them about what’s happened yet, the reporters hear a number of other theories from the local people: blood poisoning that’s driven some of the shantytowners into a murderous madness, an attack by a pack of rabid bears, a bomb, or the Martense Spectre, a local monster that’s said to be called up by the sound of thunder.
Callum is especially interested in this last, which comes from Mama Munnee’s grandson. While the rest of the reporters are eventually satisfied by DuClair’s obvious cover-story of an exploding still, Callum remains unconvinced.
A month passes and the incident is pretty much forgotten by everyone but DuClair… when a woman named Mrs. Bennett comes to the Albany police headquarters to put in a missing person’s report for her husband George. George and the private detective he worked for, Bill Tobey, were hired by a writer to do some work for him as “muscle” someplace out in the Catskills. None of them have returned and she’s worried.
The writer’s name? Nick Callum.
Croft and DuClair head back out to Lefferts Corners, the small town nearest the site of the disaster, and locate Callum there; he’s stayed around to dig more deeply into the destruction of that shantytown, and he’s a little more shaky and nuttier than he was when they last saw him.
When asked what happened to his two companions, he only answers “I wish I could tell you.” The police take him in for questioning.
It’s here we get to the narration from Lovecraft’s original story, and the first of those memorable horror scenes. Callum uses Lovecraft’s opening sentence when he makes his statement to the police:
“There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear…”
The police stop him there. They’ve never heard of Tempest Mt. and have no idea what he’s talking about.
Via a series of flashback scenes, Nick explains. Befriending the Munnees, he learned more about the Specter which, as local legend has it, haunts the abandoned home of the Martense family on Tempest Mountain. The founder of the Martenses was a prominent merchant back in the 1600s, but hated the English and retreated to his remote country mansion after New Amsterdam became New York; the family grew more isolated and hostile toward strangers over the 18th century and disappeared entirely from view by the early 1800s. It’s assumed that they’ve all died off.
Nick gets the idea that the Specter must be the vengeful ghost of one Jan Martense, the only member of the family who ventured into the outside world–and was despised by his family as much as any outsider when he returned home. He was murdered by them in 1763. (We won’t hear most of this backstory until later.)
So Nick and his two companions spent a stormy night in the abandoned mansion, in the bedroom where Jan was supposed to have been murdered, in hopes of confronting his ghost. During the night, while all three were sharing a bed–Nick in the middle–the other two men were snatched away on either side and disappeared without a trace. Nick just glimpses the shadow of “a nameless, shapeless abomination which no mind could fully grasp” in a flash of lightning.
While it’s a good horror set-piece–two men disappearing from either side of a bed while the one in the middle is left untouched, and the narrator will puzzle over why he wasn’t taken–this is one of the things that irritates me about this story. The situation only exists to set up the mystery related to their disappearance. There’s no practical reason for it. Quite the opposite. After taking elaborate precautions to have two separate avenues of escape if they face danger, all three men lie down, even the one who’s supposed to be keeping watch? Of course he’ll fall asleep. Not that he would have saved his companions if he’d been sitting up, but still…
Croft and DuClair are doubtful about this story, but they believe Callum when he says he doesn’t know what happened to the other two men, and they have no reason to hold him. No bodies or proof of foul play. For all they know, George and Bill ditched this over-imaginative nutcase when he fell asleep.
Callum wants them to come with him back to the Martense mansion to “plumb the depths” of the mystery, but the officers decline. “Happy plumbing!” says Croft as they send him on his way.
That’s it until the end of November, when the two officers hear about another suspicious death out in the same area where the squatters’ village was destroyed. Once again, Nick Callum is involved. Then Nick himself shows up at the police station to demand that they investigate the death of his friend Arthur Monroe.
An “otherworldly horror is afoot,” he insists, and his story leads into the second and, to me, more horrific set piece.
Nick and Arthur had returned to Lefferts Corners to see if they could find any trace of the two missing men; Arthur was the only one who believed Nick about what happened to them at the Martense mansion. They talked to the Munnees about the history and nature of the Spectre, and Mama Munnee took them to meet an ancient woman. This old woman, who can both read and write, gives them the history of the Martense family outlined above, plus some information about their hereditary mismatched eyes and their propensity to be strongly affected by thunderstorms.
She also showed them a diary belonging to Jonathan Gifford, a friend of Jan Martense. This leads to a flashback-within-a-flashback as Gifford (Matt Foyer) writes of how he visited the isolated Martense house after failing to hear from his friend.
The family is hostile at the arrival of this outsider, but inform him that Jan is dead. Gifford, suspicious of their story that Jan was struck by lightning, returns at night to dig up the grave pointed out to him as Jan’s. He finds the body has a crushed-in skull, and flees when the Martenses discover him.
Nick, still convinced that it’s Jan’s ghost that’s haunting the neighborhood, formed an idea that the Spectre is somehow drawn from beneath the ground. He and Arthur returned to the site of the destroyed village to find what look like sinkholes and what might be a tunnel, when a storm descended upon them. They took refuge in a standing cabin.
Arthur, hearing a sound outside, stuck his head out the window… and suffered a very nasty and memorable death. If I had to pick the one detail in this story that has always stuck with me, it’s this. To quote from Lovecraft (although Nick’s dialog uses much of the same phrases):
“… I saw nothing to justify the interest which kept my companion silently leaning out the window. Crossing to where he leaned, I touched his shoulder; but he did not move. Then, as I playfully shook him and turned him around, I felt the strangling tendrils of a cancerous horror whose roots reached into illimitable pasts and fathomless abysms of the night that broods beyond time.
“For Arthur Munroe was dead. And on what remained of his chewed and gouged head there was no longer a face.”
Nick, understandably more than a little unbalanced after this, returned to Tempest Mountain to dig up Jan’s grave. He found no sign of Jan’s body, but he did find a tunnel going into the hillside beneath and ventured in. He claims to have glimpsed a creature with claws.
The police now think that Nick is a lunatic who murdered Arthur Monroe and probably the other two missing men as well. They agree to accompany him back to Tempest Mountain to retrieve Arthur’s body and hope that Nick will do something to incriminate himself. But Mama Munnee corroborates Nick’s account of how Arthur was killed, and old Moses Munnee can show them the burned body of a monstrous, clawed creature he set fire to in a tree the night before. It can’t be the same one that Nick saw.
DuClair and Croft have to take Nick seriously now. What the three men know or guess about the nature of the creatures responsible for the deaths and destruction around Tempest Mountain leads them back to the Martense house… to face the Lurking Fear.
I do like the shift in perspective to the more down-to-earth view that a couple of ordinary police officers would take. It’s more natural that they would take some time to put the pieces together, while it always made me impatient with Lovecraft’s occult-phenomena-seeking narrator being so slow on the uptake.
Here, while Croft and DuClair investigate, Nick’s mental condition deteriorates. He continues to obsess over his mistaken idea that the spirit of poor Jan Martense is responsible for what’s going on right up to the very end, long after everyone else has realized that this isn’t the work of a ghost, but of a dangerously inbred Dutch family that’s reverted back to a bestial state, taken to tunneling underground, and resorted to cannibalism and preying on their backwoods neighbors whenever a storm strikes. As so often happens.
The CD also comes with a nice collection of props:
- My favorite: Jan Martense’s last letter to Jonathan Gifford, folded up using an elaborate origami-like technique. I was afraid once I unfolded it that I wouldn’t be able to get it properly folded back up. But I did.
- A map of upstate New York, not only showing the location of Lefferts Corners, Tempest Mountain, and “Maple Cone,” but including amusing details. Not only the name of at least one DART performer, but an allusion to Joe Slaader/Slater from Lovecraft’s Beyond the Wall of Sleep.
- A Medical Examiner’s report about one of the victims of the disaster.
- An Albany newspaper clipping containing an article about the shantytown disaster. On the other side is an interview with Micah Munnee about the Specter.
- Arthur Munroe’s press pass.