One of my earliest reviews on this blog was of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society’s film version of Lovecraft’s story. HPLHS has returned to The Whisperer in Darkness a second time for the latest episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre.
This audio play is especially noteworthy in that it’s been produced, rehearsed, and recorded during these months that much the world has been shut down by the COVID-19 virus; since in-person meetings were impossible, the work was done by a number of individuals in separate locations.
While the film version of The Whisperer in Darkness expanded on Lovecraft’s original short story, adding new characters and a third act after Albert Wilmarth’s panicked exit from the Akeley farmhouse, this audio adaptation is trimmed down, even for a DART drama.
Wilmarth’s correspondence with a man who claims to have proof that old legends of flying creatures from other worlds living in the remote hills of Vermont are not only true, but that these beings still exist, as well as his subsequent trip to Vermont are told via “found footage.” Most of the recordings are in the form of wax Dictaphone cylinders dated from the winter of 1927 through September 1928.
The episode begins in the usual way–when the opening theme music is interrupted for a special emergency broadcast regarding a blizzard raging in upstate New York. People are advised to remain in their homes and take shelter.
The radio station is cut off. Since Lester Mayhew, Dark Adventure Radio Theatre’s host, is unable to come in to work, the unprepared “guest” announcer finds himself alone in the studio. He wings it through the program, playing the collection of numbered cylinders. These recordings, according to the script he has at hand, were discovered in the house belonging to Miskatonic University professor of folklore, Albert Wilmarth, by Wilmarth’s secretary, Marjory Pittman. Other shattered cylinders were found in the wastebasket. Professor Wilmarth’s whereabouts are “currently unknown.”
Each cylinder only holds a few minutes of sound. The first is dated September 19th, 1928.
Cylinder 1: Wilmarth has just returned home from his trip to Vermont to visit his sick friend. He is making this recording to explain the others he’s left numbered, ones that he’s made himself in the past year or that he took from Henry Akeley’s home before he fled the night before.
“The whole matter began,” he introduces his story, “with the flood, and the things that people reported seeing in the waters. A disaster like that, so much destruction, so much death–it’s no wonder that people’s imaginations got carried away.”
What drew Wilmarth’s attention as a folklorist to the flood were the descriptions of things that people said that they saw.
Cylinder 2, the next one the announcer plays, is dated a year earlier, November 5, 1927, and contains a recording of a Worldwide Wireless News broadcast of the historic 1927 floods that swept through the northern New England states.
While the broadcast concerns actual events, including the drowning of Vermont’s Lt. Governor, the newscaster also reports speaking to a local man who saw “pinkish things about five feet long, with crab-like bodies bearing fins or wings, and several sets of limbs” in the flood waters.
Cylinder 3: On November 16, 1927, Wilmarth dictates a Letter to the Editor of the Arkham Advertiser for his secretary to type, one sample apparently of his ongoing battle with a Mr. Marshall via the newspaper.
He states that Marshall’s most recent comments about evidence of creatures seen by Vermont farmers following the flooding have actually reinforced his argument. The “innumerable queer footprints or tracks in the mud,” rumored sightings of flying, crab-like beings, and sounds of strange, buzzing voices are being explained by recollections of “a primitive, half-forgotten cycle of whispered legend.” From a folklore point of view, these explanations are only natural, transforming the decaying carcasses of common animals and other flood debris which the “rustics” have seen from “something pitiful to something fantastical!”
He also cites a famous folklorist Eli Davenport, who collected similar stories over 150 years ago concerning a “hidden race of monstrous beings” which lived in the remote woods or the highest hills and mountains. Such tales are can be found all over the world. In the Himalayas, for example, these legendary creatures are called the Mi-Go.
Cylinder 4: To support his argument, Wilmarth includes a recording of his own work on this subject, labelled “Tantaquidgeon Field Interview, February 19, 1928.” In it, he speaks to Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Native American anthropologist, about the tribal legends of the Pennacook, “who said the Winged Ones came from the Great Bear in the sky… to our mountains because they were hungry for a kind of stone which they couldn’t find on any other world.” They would leave people alone as long as they weren’t disturbed, but “bad things happened” to people who tried to get too near them.
When Wilmarth asks her if she believes that the Winged Ones really exist, she answers that she respects the belief of those who do.
The interview ends with Professor Tantaquidgeon’s warning: “The one thing I want you to remember, Mr. Wilmarth is-” just before the cylinder runs out of space. Many of the recordings break off mid-sentence, but in this instance it seems that some important piece of information was missed.
Cylinders 5-9 record the beginning of the audio correspondence between Wilmarth and Vermont farmer Henry Akeley in May and June of 1928. Akeley uses a Dictaphone because his arthritis makes writing difficult, and Wilmarth quickly realizes that it’s easier for him to send his own cylinders directly to Akeley to listen to than to have his secretary type letters from his recorded dictation.
Akeley is able to provide evidence of the creatures Wilmarth has, up to this point, taken to be the product of legend and imagination. Along with his cylinders, he send photographs of claw-like footprints in the mud around his isolated family farm, and of a Black Stone carved with an unknown form of hieroglyphics, which he discovered in the woods on nearby Round Hill–and which he says the creatures are anxious to get back. He’s also made a recording of a ceremony in which these creatures and at least one human ally participated.
Akeley’s purpose in sending these items to Wilmarth to put a stop to the newspaper debate and prevent more publicity on the subject. If more attention is directed toward the Vermont hills, the creatures might respond to protect their secrecy. He already believes himself to be in danger from them.
Recording 10 isn’t a cylinder, but an old-fashioned disk labeled “May 1st,
1915, 1 a.m., near cave, Dark Mountain.” It’s that ceremony that Akeley recorded, and it closely follows the script in Lovecraft’s story. A man speaking in a cultivated Boston accent is leading the ceremony, and a buzzing alien voice provides the responses: “Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!”
There aren’t as many sound effects as usual in this audio drama, but this segment makes the best use of what they do have. The recording sounds old, staticky and scratchy, skipping words now and then. Background noises like crickets and the rising wind rusting in the trees indicate that it’s been recorded out of doors. And the buzzing Mi-Go voices are extremely creepy.
The announcer is shaken after listening to it.
On Cylinders 11-14, the situation deepens. Akeley attempts to send the Black Stone to Wilmarth, but it’s intercepted along the way and the package disappears. Telegrams are sent, and Akeley begins to feel more cut off at his rural farm, besieged not only by the creatures, but by their human spies and allies all around him. He regrets getting himself into this, and thinks it may be too late to retreat or escape. Anxious telegrams are sent to him from Wilmarth, offering to help, to send the county sheriff or to come himself.
Cylinder 15 is dated early September 1928. It’s a recording that Akeley never sent, and that Wilmarth may never have heard. If he had, he probably wouldn’t have been silly enough to head up to Vermont to see Akeley after receiving a typed letter signed with a misspelled name telling him that everything’s fine; he’s misunderstood the alien creatures and he’s friendly with them now.
Tempted by the information he could gain, and not only in his own field of folklore, Wilmarth goes. As he says in his last dictated message (Cylinder 16), which he decides not to leave for his secretary, “It’s just Vermont. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Oh, dear. (Which is just what the announcer has to say after playing this).
Cylinder 17 is recorded in a car, as Mr. Noyes, a friend of Akeley’s, meets Wilmarth at the train station and drives him to the farm. Noyes has a cultivated Bostonian accent, which Wilmarth finds strangely familiar, but can’t place.
Cylinders 18-21 get to the heart of the story, beginning when Wilmarth enters the farmhouse to see his asthmatic friend, who sits in a darkened room swathed from head to foot and speaks to him only in a whisper. Wilmarth doesn’t record their first conversation, only reports it after the fact. He’s disturbed by Akeley’s deteriorating physical condition.
That evening, there is a second interview. We hear Akeley’s whispering voice with its strangely buzzing tone as he tells Wilmarth all about his new relationship with the winged creatures. Parts of this interview are missing from the collection, including the crucial section where Akeley whispers his explanation of what the “Outer Beings” want from humans.
What we do hear is that these Beings have an outpost on a planet at the rim of our solar system; they call it Yuggoth, and they intend to let Earth’s astronomers discover its existence at a proper time. The announcer nervously notes that Pluto has just recently been discovered.
The Beings have the power to fly through space and time without the use of a Tardis, and they’re going to take Akeley on a fantastic journey to other planets. Well, part of him. His body will stay here in storage, while his brain in a jar will be carried to unimaginable destinations.
As proof, he shows Wilmarth how to speak to one of the brains presently in a jar, stored on the shelves of a nearby cabinet. There’s a new jar already labeled with Akeley’s name.
The particular brain that they hook up to the speakers, labeled B-67, belongs to another human who has made many of the same type of journeys. He describes it as a fabulous adventure, and invites Wilmarth to join them.
Wilmarth isn’t sure if he believes what he’s heard, or if it’s all some sort of trick with a radio, but he’s stunned and horrified at the idea of anyone wanting to have their brains taken out of their bodies and hooked up to alien machines. Akeley suggests that he go up to bed to rest and think things over.
Later that night, Wilmarth records (Cylinder 22) fragments of a conversation he overhears going on downstairs between two buzzing alien voices, the tinny voice of a brain in a jar using the speaker, and Noyes.
What’s most interesting about this segment is that I can clearly hear just those fragments that are in Lovecraft’s original text:
“. . . brought it on myself . . . sent back the letters and the record . . . end on it . . . taken in . . . seeing and hearing . . . damn you . . . impersonal force, after all . . . fresh, shiny cylinder . . . great God. . . .”
(FIRST BUZZING VOICE)
“. . . time we stopped . . . small and human . . . Akeley . . . brain . . . saying . . .”
(SECOND BUZZING VOICE)
“. . . Nyarlathotep . . . Wilmarth . . . records and letters . . . cheap imposture. . . .”
“. . . (an unpronounceable word or name, possibly N’gah-Kthun) . . . harmless . . . peace . . . couple of weeks . . . theatrical . . . told you that before. . . .”
(FIRST BUZZING VOICE)
“. . . no reason . . . original plan . . . effects . . . Noyes can watch . . . Round Hill . . . fresh cylinder . . . Noyes’s car. . . .”
“. . . well . . . all yours . . . down here . . . rest . . . place. . . .”
But the script for this scene (downloadable from the HPLHS site) does fill in those elliptical gaps.
After things quiet down, Wilmarth ventures downstairs to find the room unoccupied. Akeley is no longer in his chair–but his dressing gown and other wrappings are left behind, as are three suggestive objects that cause Wilmarth to gather up his recording cylinders and flee from the house.
It’s an economical but imaginative retelling of the story done under confined circumstances. The medium of the Dictaphone cylinders gives the “found footage” trope a distinct period feel. I also enjoyed the unprepared announcer’s reactions to what he was listening to.
Even though this style of presentation immediately leads the listener to assume that the Mi-Go got poor Albert Wilmarth in the end, the final cylinder recording holds out a hope that he might have escaped them after all.
The CD comes with a very nice collection of props:
- A photograph of the Black Stone.
- A page from Davenport’s manuscript of Vermont folklore featuring a sketch of one of the “Flying Things”.
- A telegram from Akeley to Wilmarth settling the arrangements for his arrival in Vermont. Akeley’s name is spelled correctly, though it seems to me it shouldn’t be.
- The label from an old Edison Amberol phonograph record, like the one on which Akeley recorded the Mi-Go ceremony.
- A newspaper article about the discovery of the planet Pluto. (Although I’m also intrigued by the adjacent article about Prohibition, which doesn’t have anything to do with this story. Is it actually taken from an 1930s newspaper?)