DART Review: Mad Science

Last Saturday evening at the NecronomiCon in Providence, I enjoyed a live performance of this brand new Dark Adventure Radio Theatre episode–so new that I hadn’t yet received the CD I pre-ordered. I was hoping that it would be waiting for me when I came home, but it only arrived in the mail the night before last. I’ve listened to it once.

Andrew Leman, Kevin Stidham, and Sean Branney.

It was exciting to see the live version first, and especially entertaining because this was a scaled-down production. Instead of bringing the entire cast, Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and Kevin Stidham did all the characters — which sometimes meant there was one man talking to himself in two different voices.

Apart from the pre-recorded Dark Adventure intro theme, they also did their own “music,” humming a few notes of a traditional ominous tune to indicate scene transitions. Special effect noises were produced by two guys brought up from the audience, and the rest of us in the audience provided crowd sounds and jungle noises when prompted. As live theater, it was a great experience and a lot of fun.

This DART is an anthology that features four short stories, two written by HP Lovecraft alone and two in collaboration. All deal with a mad scientist and his experiments. As the intro informs us:

“…mankind’s ambitious steps into the unknown sometimes probe the unknowable–or that which we should not know. The pursuit of knowledge can come at a terrible cost and lead to hideous results.”

Beyond the Wall of Sleep

First is the story of Joe Slater or Slaader, a dim-witted Catskills hillbilly with vivid dreams of vistas beyond his waking ability to understand or describe. This is one of Lovecraft’s early works, first published in 1919. You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/bws.aspx

A new star

The DART version begins with a short scene in the Catskills. Joe, in a rage, murders a man while speaking of killing “the thing that shakes and shines and laughs” and threatens to “jump high in the air and burn my way through anything what stops me.”

He has no memory of the murder afterwards and is committed to a mental hospital.

There, Joe draws the attention of the mad scientist in this story, a young doctor on the staff who observes Joe’s state when waking from one of his dreams–his unusually intelligent expression and use of vocabulary beyond his normal abilities. Dr. Talbot’s theory is that “When man is lost to terrestrial consciousness, he is sojourning in another and incorporeal life of far different nature than the one we know.” He has developed a dream-reading machine to prove it. Joe seems like the perfect subject to test it on.

The older doctor in charge of the hospital does not approve of Talbot’s interest in “the Catskill Murderer”; when Talbot tries his machine on Joe one night to view his dreams, Dr. Brainerd suggests the young man take an extended leave of absence. But Joe is dying and Talbot, knowing that this is his last chance, returns to the hospital and tries once again. This time, as the waking Joe dies, the dream entity finally has its own opportunity to talk–at length–before going on to literally become a new light in the heavens. The sound effects and music on the CD during this scene are exceptional.

Dr. Talbot will not be returning to the hospital, Dr. Brainerd tersely informs the two nurse attendants who assisted him (it wasn’t until I listened to the CD that I realized that one of the nurses was a woman). The story ends with these two arguing about the news of a new star sighted near Algol–just where Joe said to look for him.

The Electric Executioner

Co-written with Adolphe de Castro in the late 1920s, this story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ee.aspx

The story has been altered slightly for this audio drama. The narrator is Mr. Smith, a Pinkerton detective who is serving on a jury during a murder trial. In spite of his belief in the accused’s guilt, he refuses to vote along with the rest of the jurors because he has a horror of seeing anyone executed by electrocution. His explanation of why, and the other jurors’ snarky remarks, provide a framing narrative.

Mr. Smith was hired by a mining company and sent to Mexico to retrieve documents stolen by a former mine supervisor, Arthur Feldon. The last leg of his journey to Mexico City was aboard an express train, where he found himself trapped in a compartment with one other passenger, a strange man who seized his revolver and proposed to test his new invention: a much more efficient way of electrocuting people than the chair, a brain-zapping cap that fits over the head.

It is “imperative… to remove everybody from the Earth before Quetzalcoatl returns,” the stranger tells Smith, and rants about the return of certain lost gods before he declares that Smith will be honored by being his first test subject for the zap-cap.

It’s probably de Castro’s influence that gives this story its Mexican locale and flavor, and the invocation of names of real Aztec gods instead of the usual Lovecraftian bunch. Also, it’s a rare Lovecraft story that’s funny; the DART version plays this up with the stranger’s increasingly demented rants and chants as well as Smith’s means of escaping an electrified death.

Mad Science props

After stalling for time as long as he can, Smith does some impromptu chanting of his own and tricks the stranger into putting the zap-cap on his own head. The man accidentally electrocutes himself.

Smith passes out and awakes to an empty carriage. He arrives safely in Mexico City to learn that Feldon has been found dead… with a peculiar contraption covering his fried head and a revolver in his pocket which Smith identifies as his own.

Winged Death

I’d never read this story, which Lovecraft co-wrote with Hazel Heald in 1933. It’s rather silly, but the DART version is amusing. The mad-doctor villain goes completely over the top. He gloats over his fiendish plans for revenge against another doctor he feels has wronged him, and is utterly callous in his disregard for his medical duties and the lives of other people while he carries out these plans.

I’ve found the text on the same HPL site as the others used in this anthology: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/wd.aspx

The framing story begins in a hotel along the Congo River. A man is found dead in his room under curious circumstances. He was apparently killed by chlorine gas. Was it suicide, or something else?

Book about flies

Three people — the hotel proprietor, a Belgian police officer, and Dr. Louise Pearce (not in the original story, but a real, historical expert on sleeping sickness in Africa) — examine the clues. The most important of these are a dead, inky tsetse fly in a bottle that smells of ammonia, and a diary belonging to Dr. Thomas Slauenwite — which is not the name the dead man checked into hotel under, but it is on his passport.

The first sentence in Slauenwite’s diary is “I have now fully resolved to kill Dr. Henry Moore, and a recent incident has shown me how I shall do it.”

The story that follows is narrated by the villainous doctor, who was working at a jungle hospital when he learned about the Devil Fly, a particularly nasty tsetse whose bite is always fatal if not treated. Native legend has it that the fly returns at its victims’ deaths to steal their souls.

Slauenwite’s diary recounts how he obtained live specimens of the Devil Fly, crossbred them with another species, tested their infectious potential on one of his hapless servants, and dyed the wings of his specially bred flies blue so that Moore–an expert on tsetse flies–would not recognize them. Then he mailed a package containing live flies to his enemy in New York.

Dr. Pearce notes that Moore did die two months earlier in New York, bitten by one of the infected tsetse flies that were mailed to him. Slauenwite had used another false name when he sent the package, so he has been hard to track down. But now it seems that he’s been the victim of revenge himself, by someone who’s left an inky message on the ceiling.

From Beyond

This final story was my favorite. It’s been one of Lovecraft’s more well-known stories since the release of Stuart Gordon’s film version in the 1980s starring Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton (the one I call “Lovecraft and Leather”). Short adaptations also frequently show up among the best of the H.P. Lovecraft Filmfest submissions, which I’ll be reviewing one of these days.

This DART version features another framing story. Theodore Waite has been invited by another real historical figure, Nikolai Tesla, to speak at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers about his exposure to the perception-expanding work of the late Crawford Tillinghast, and how he survived it. Waite’s speech has drawn a large audience — in the live version, that would be played by us, the DART audience. It was the audience involvement that kicked this section to the top for me.

Waite’s narration follows the original story closely. He hadn’t seen his friend Tillinghast for some time, but was invited to Tillinghast’s home one evening for a demonstration of his Resonator. Waite had earlier rejected the idea of vestigial sense organs that could be awakened to widen human perception, and the two men had quarreled over it. Tillinghast wanted to show him how wrong he was, and to get revenge on Waite for not believing in him.

Tillinghast’s Resonator, which stimulates the dormant pineal gland, showed Waite what fills the unseen world around them:

“… great inky, jellyish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. They were present in loathsome profusion, and I saw to my horror that they overlapped; that they were semi-fluid and capable of passing through one another and through what we know as solids. These things were never still, but seemed ever floating about with some malignant purpose. Sometimes they appeared to devour one another, the attacker launching itself at its victim and instantaneously obliterating the latter from sight. “

Waite thought that these creatures had also devoured Tillinghast’s missing servants, until Tillinghast gleefully told him that these beings a were harmless. Something much larger and nastier is near, and will see him and get him too if he doesn’t remain still.

Lovecraft’s story ends with Tillinghast’s death and the destruction of his machine. But this DART version goes a little bit further. Waite and Tesla announce that they have rebuilt the Resonator.

In the live version, a screen informed us at this point: “YOUR PINEAL GLAND IS AWAKENING: Don’t Be Afraid”. We were told that the restored Resonator had just been turned on and it was important that we keep still. “Very still.”

We screamed. I loved it.

Props that come with the CD include:

More Mad Science props
  • A New York Times clipping with articles about the new star sighted near Algol.
  • A Pinkerton Wanted Bulletin offering a reward for the capture of Arthur Feldon.
  • A page from Dr. Moore’s book on tsetse flies; Dr. Slauenwite’s handwritten comments are a hoot.
  • The AIEE conference program with information about Tesla’s and Waite’s lecture.

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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.