This second audio-drama boxed set from Big Finish carries on the adventures of detective Madame Vastra and her assistants as presented in The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 1.
Dining With Death
The first episode is noteworthy in that it’s written by Dan Starkey, who plays Strax.
Even back in the 1890s, Earth was a common meeting-place for various aliens, being both an out-of-the-way galactic backwater and neutral territory. When representatives of two great empires, attempting to negotiate a peace settlement, are blown up along with half the restaurant where they were having dinner, Madame Vastra ends up agreeing to act as a facilitator for further diplomatic talks–which will take place at her home.
The ambassadors that show up are a flippant aristocratic sister and brother from the Tsupaksi Republic, a species that look like foxes, and a grandee from the Hagdon Empire, who looks like a walrus. The latter is a stickler for protocol, ready to take offense at the slightest breach of obscure etiquette rules. After a centuries-long conflict, the two empires are attempting to ally against a new, mutual enemy: the Sontarans. They’ve never yet seen a Sontaran face to face, and assume that Strax (and Vastra too) are as human as as everybody else they’ve seen in London and that our species is more varied than they’d previously observed.
Amid all the diplomatic intrigue, most of fun in this story involves Strax’s efforts as household butler to serve the visiting ambassadors “with ruthless efficiency,” while trying not to let on that he is Sontaran. My favorite line occurs when he’s serving tea: “Only the bone china will suffice–and it’s not even the bones of our vanquished enemies.”
The Screaming Ceiling
My favorite in this set. The first thing that strikes the listener is that this story begins with a first-person narrator. The second, for those familiar with early detective fiction, is that this narrator’s name is Thomas Carnacki, the same as William Hope Hodgson’s Ghost-Finder. It soon becomes obvious that he is indeed the same Carnacki–or at least a younger, less experienced, parodied version of the character.*
Carnacki tells the tale of his adventure to his friends after dinner one evening; among them is one “Dodgson” who stands in for his creator, although there are points where he appears to be speaking directly to us, “out there in the dark” in a meta kind of way. Carnacki was invited up to the Scottish Highlands to investigate strange happenings at the remote Castle Creighton by Laird Campbell, but when he got there, he discovered that Lady Campbell had already engaged three very familiar investigators of her own.
There’s some conflict of purpose, since Thomas is a Ghost-Finder, and has brought along plenty of equipment for detecting them, while the Paternosters don’t believe in ghosts. Also, while Castle Creighton is reputed to have ghosts aplenty, it’s a different type of phenomenon that’s brought them all here: a huge mouth on the ceiling of the library, lips of plaster, teeth of broken joists, and screaming (Playing upon the manifestation of lips on the floor in The Whistling Room). It soon becomes apparent that the whole house is alive–breathing, sneezing, heart audibly beating.
Laird Campbell is a listless and vague sort of man, but his maunderings provide the most important information toward solving the case: He literally lost both his parents inside the house, which looks imposing enough from the outside but the corridors go on for miles within, and the housekeeper Dorothy has been here since he was a child, and even longer than that. “Older than the curtains.”
Carnacki’s condescending tone and metaphorical descriptions of the other characters is in keeping with the original, but the most delightful part of his narration occurs when alien who’s been calling herself Dorothy finally reveals herself and the truth about the house. As she speaks, all her words beyond Carnacki’s understanding become “blah, blah, blah, blah” and she goes on blah-blahing in the background while he tells his listeners that her true name was “terribly foreign” and tries to describe her “rum tale of being from another planet.”
Spring-Heeled Jack is an actual piece of London folklore: a cloaked figure with blazing eyes, capable of astonishing leaps, who haunted the foggy streets in the early Victorian era. In this final story, Jack has made his reappearance and is seen to be carrying people off in the night. The strange thing is that the missing persons’ nearest and dearest seem to be forgetting them within days.
The Paternoster Gang investigates with the aid of Gwendoline Pratt, a Police Illustrated News reporter with a taste for the lurid. Jenny ends up acting as decoy, and is carried off at the same time as Gwendoline to discover what exactly “Jack” is and the creature’s true purpose.
While I like the first part of this story very much, I think it loses its momentum once Jenny and Gwendoline find themselves in the place where the people who’ve been taken and hear the explanation for what’s been going on. On the other hand, that ancient entity that was alluded to at the end of Heritage 1 resurfaces briefly here–and we are assured that we haven’t heard the last of it.
*I’ve only just discovered that Big Finish has done audio versions of several original Carnacki stories, with Dan Starkey as Carnacki. Here, the character is voiced by Joe Jameson.