DART Review: A Solstice Carol

At midwinter of 1921, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was something of a curmudgeonly and semi-reclusive young man, living in Providence with his two doting aunts Annie and Lillian and having no desire ever to live or even visit anyplace else. Unhappily employed as an editor and reviser of other people’s writing, while his own macabre stories in the style of Poe, Dunsany, or Machen were repeatedly rejected by the pulp magazines, he was afflicted with a frustrating case of writer’s block. As Christmas drew near, he rejected the friendly holiday overtures of his aunts, neighbor, and local acquaintances with a surly “Bah!” or even a “Humbug!”

But on Christmas Eve, he was visited by three spirits of the Past, Present, and Future…

Such is the conceit of the framing story for The Solstice Carol.

Dark Adventure Radio Theatre’s Yuletide audioplay is an anthology of three of Lovecraft’s shorter stories, all connected by a parody of Charles Dickens’ oft-retold tale that places Lovecraft in the Ebenezer Scrooge role.

What the spirits show Lovecraft isn’t the True Meaning of Christmas, but it does help him to find the inspiration to write in his own style and teaches him how to be a better and more generous person.

Props: Mason Farley's obituary, and the cover of Astonishing Tales featuring one of his stories

The story, narrated by DART guest announcer Barnaby Dickens (relation to the great Victorian novelist unknown) begins with:

“Old Mason Farley was dead as doornail, as the saying goes…”

Farley was an extremely successful writer of cheap pulp fiction. His stories continue to feature in magazines such as Astonishing Tales months after his death. On Christmas Eve, Howard–or H.P., as he prefers to be called–views the latest issue with dismay and disgust when he purchases a copy from the newstand down the street. Certainly not unnatural feelings for a writer who can’t get published when faced with the success of tripe like “The Panther-Lady of Acquelva,” but they don’t improve his already sour mood.

He rejects the “Merry Christmas!” offered by a Farley fan with this response:

“Christmas? Bah! … Don’t you know that Christmas is just the pale imitation of an older, darker, more interesting holiday? An ancient ritual of life and death, now covered in tinsel and candy canes!”

His favorite holiday is the recently passed Winter Solstice, the day with the most darkness.

He continues in the same vein with everyone he meets, Bahing and Humbugging his way through the rest of the day. Thurber, a neighbor, invites H.P. to come with him to Boston to meet his friend Richard, a painter whose strikingly macabre work would “even give you the heebie-jeebies.” H.P. refuses; he has no wish to leave Providence.

When he gets home, another rejection letter is waiting for him. He brushes off his aunts’ kind words of encouragement and comforting offers of cocoa, a sandwich, or cake, and goes to his room to work on a particularly appalling ghost-writing job. Falling asleep over this work, he dreams of the spirit of Mason Farley, paying him a visit. (“The hackneyed sound of ghostly chains? I’m a better dreamer than that!”)

Farley’s ghost has a warning to give him: mend his ways as a writer and be true to his own artistic voice, or else he might wind up spending the rest of his life writing dreadful-but-popular crap of the sort Farley’s own career was based upon. “Living to sell my writings, not living to write.”

To help H.P. find his way, three other ghosts will be dropping by. Each of these visitations shows him, and us, a story.

A Festival of Solstice Past

Solstice props “My past?” H.P. asks the first ghost, who arrives at 1:00 am.

“Your ancestral past,” comes the reply.

This insubstantial being of many shifting forms then whisks him off to the ancient town of Kingsport to witness his great-great-great-grandfather Jebediah Phillip’s visit to his distant relatives for their Yuletide rites, older than Christmas. As in Dickens’ tale, they can only watch the scenes play out but not interact with the people in them.

 The Festival is story I’ve always liked, but it has limitations as an audio drama. The odd people whom Jebediah meets in his ancestral family home don’t speak, and he doesn’t speak to them, so there’s no dialog within the story itself as presented. It’s up to the narrator, H.P., and the Ghost of Solstice Past to describe what they see, and to tell us what’s going on. It’s H.P. who observes that the mute old man who answers the door looks like his still, pallid face is actually a mask, who reads a passage out of the translation of The Necronomicon open on a table, and who notices that the crowd of silent and strangely soft-bodied, cloaked figures he and Jebediah accompany into the crypt of the old church on the hilltop have left no footprints in the snow.

Down in a subterranean river-cut cavern far beneath the church, the rest of the company performs the first ceremonies of their Yule ritual, then mounts “a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, nor sound brain wholly remember… not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats…” and fly off into even vaster chasms in the darkness for further ceremonies.

Jebediah is not surprisingly reluctant to follow. The old man remains behind to try and convince him, but the tokens he offers, belonging to an ancestor, are more disturbing. H.P., and presumably Jebediah, know that these possessions were buried with their long-departed ancestor.

When the waxen mask on the old man slips from “what should have been his head,” H.P. wakes in horror–but he’s been inspired by the visions of this nightmare. He begins to write down what he’s seen.

The Ghouls of Solstice Present

The Ghost of Solstice Present is a merry giant, as Dickens’ original was, but along with the usual traditional holiday fare he’s brought along lots of ice cream, which H.P. is particularly fond of. He takes H.P. off to Boston to show him what he’s missing by rejecting Thurber’s offer to go and meet Richard Upton Pickman.

The adaptation of Pickman’s Model is my favorite of the three stories presented here. Pickman's showing cancelledThe dialog during the scene at the Boston Fine Arts Club, as well as between Thurber and Pickman is lively. But I especially enjoyed H.P.’s delight as he views the painting that has so shocked and disturbed the Club members… and those in Pickman’s secret studio that haven’t been shown to the public. When H.P. hears the artist speak of tunnels beneath the oldest parts of Boston, of witchcraft and of smugglers, and the days “when people weren’t afraid to live and feel and die,” he feels he’s found a kindred soul and bitterly regrets not going to Boston.

He also hears Thurber’s opinions about his stubborn reclusiveness, his dismissive treatment of his sweet and supportive aunts, and his writing: “…his tales are as atmospheric as your paintings. He could stand to rein in his rather stilted vocabulary, but I think he’s really got potential..”

Because every version of A Christmas Carol needs its Tiny Tim, one is introduced into this story as Pickman’s pet kitten. Usually, I’d worry for a cat in such circumstances, but since this is based on a Lovecraft tale, I am reassured that no harm will come to the little kitty–not without grave consequences (later, we’ll hear that Tiny Tim was adopted from Richard’s neighbors, the Ulthars, which made me laugh out loud and frighten my own cats.)

After H.P. sees the photograph attached to the easel of the painting Pickman is currently working on, he finds himself back in his own bedroom in Providence. He begins to write again, when his final visitor appears.

The Last of the Four Spirits

The Ghost of Solstice Yet To Come has horns and a tail, but a smooth and featureless face. Of course it doesn’t speak, but whisks H.P. off to an extremely old stone castle–which H.P. observes looks more like the past than the future.

A cloaked and hooded figure approaches them, speaking to itself:

“Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.”

Which is the opening sentence of The Outsider, our final story.

The figure tells its story, how it has been alone here in the crumbling castle in the midst of a vast, sunless forest for as long as it can remember.

H.P. expresses his sympathies as a fellow outsider, and wonders why he can’t see the figure’s face beneath the hood. He gets no answer, not yet, and the Spirit gestures for him to remain quiet and listen.

They follow the figure up the winding and half-ruined stairs in the castle’s tallest tower, until they reach a trapdoor and the chamber at the very top with a stone-slabbed floor and oblong boxes stored on marble shelves.  The figure continues to describe these activities in the past tense as it performs them. It tries the chamber door, then a loose grating to see outside.

Rejection letter for The Outsider

If you’ve read the story, you know what happens next: the chamber is actually a mausoleum in a long-abandoned churchyard, and the castle is underground.

The figure goes out, following a road on a moonlit night until it reaches a house where there’s a party going on. It enters through a window. Everyone suddenly screams and flees in horror, frightened by something it doesn’t understand–until it glimpses a presence in a “ghoulish shade of decay” through a doorway into another room.

It’s H.P. who realizes immediately that the supposed doorway doesn’t lead to another room, but to an alcove containing a mirror. At last, he sees the Outsider’s face–and there’s a bit of a personal kick to the ending of this version of the tale, when he recognizes that decomposed face in the reflection.

The Spirit then carries him off to another cemetery, one that H.P. knows well: Swan Point. His parents are buried there.

His own gravestone is there too, but this doesn’t disturb him. He knows that he’s mortal. But what he sees around the stone are signs of what will become of him if he takes the lesson of these ghostly visions to heart–his literary immortality in the form of offerings from those his work has inspired:

“What’s this? A book? The Outsider and Other Tales by H.P. Lovecraft. And this? It’s like a green slipper with eyes and tentacles. Pages of sheet music marked ‘Thank you H.P.’ A prismatic silver disc with a central hole, ‘an all-talking H.P. Lovecraft motion picture‘? Clearly, this is the future!”

If that’s not sufficient incentive for H.P. to change his ways, nothing’s going to do it.

After he wakes in his own room on Christmas morning, he vows to be true to his own style of writing, and to encourage other struggling authors to find their own voices. He’ll travel, knowing that he’ll always carry Providence in his heart. And he’ll be kinder to his family and neighbors. He’ll even make them a Saturnalian feast that very afternoon.

May the gods bless us, every one!

Aunt Annie: “Well, that was… disturbing.”

Aunt Lillian: “I hope he hasn’t gone mad, poor dear.”

The first time I listened to this, I got a delightful surprise at the end. It’s a two-CD presentation, but since it doesn’t run long enough to fill up both discs, the second also contains a selection of Lovecraft’s short poems, including those he wrote as holiday greetings to his friends and their cats.

If you’ve ever wondered what his work would be like if he’d worked for Hallmark, consider this poem to his future wife Sonia, which has a charming Festival-ish flavor:

Once more the ancient feast returns
And the bright hearth domestic burns
With Yuletide’s added blaze.
So, too, may all your joys increase
Midst floods of memory, love, and peace
And dreams of Halcyon days.

Also included is the first installment of the serialized “The Panther-Lady of Acquelva,” and a few Solstice carols, written by the HPLHS guys. My favorite of these is the tribute to Lovecraft written to the tune of “We Three Kings”–not only funny, but fun to dance to.

All in all, it makes for a splendid midwinter evening’s entertainment!

Props enclosed with this CD set include:

Nujufru ad

  • Mason Farley’s obituary and the cover of the Astonishing Tales issue featuring “The Panther-Lady of Acquelva.”
  • A page from the English translation of The Necronomicon by Dr. Dee. I’ve already got one that came with the DART Dunwich Horror.
  • The Boston Fine Arts Club guide to their 1921 exhibition, with Pickman’s showing cancelled. 
  • A rejection letter from a pulp horror magazine rejecting The Outsider.
  • An ad from this DART episode’s sponsor, the New Jersey Fruitcake company (Nujufru), makers of fruitcakes so loaded with rum that they need no refrigeration; they’ll keep fresh on the kitchen counter for weeks.

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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.