The Horror in the Museum was a story that H.P. Lovecraft either co-wrote with Hazel Heald, or ghost-wrote based on an idea of hers (her version of events versus his). It appeared in Weird Tales coincidentally around the same time as the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum came out; the two have similar settings, although the “Horror” is a bit more horrible.
Like The Curse of Yig, this is one of those Lovecraft stories I know that I’ve read, but can’t say I’m extremely familiar with. In some ways, that gives it an advantage over stories like Rats in the Walls or Haunter of the Dark that I practically know by heart; I first listened to this Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audio adaptation without expectations or close comparisons to the original text, although I did give the text a quick refresher read online after listening to it a couple of times.
This adaptation does stay fairly close to the original story, with the addition of one new prominent character and a bit of a twist at the end–neither of which is unusual for Dark Adventure. It also has one or two interesting things to say about achieving immortality through works of art. Not a unique sentiment, but in this particular case…
The audio drama begins with two Americans from Chicago visiting Madame Tussaud’s famous Wax Museum in London. Madame Tussaud’s is not the Museum of the title, where the Horror occurs, but it does introduce our two protagonists to it.
Steven Jones is an entrepreneur looking for a terrific new show to bring to the States. He isn’t very impressed with the historical waxworks he sees, but his publisher friend and potential business financier, Eleanor Patterson*, notices that the queue for the Chambers of Horrors is very long.
Then they see one wax figure that does intrigue: Dr. Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, astrologer, occultist, and reputed magician. In Lovecrafty circles, Dee is best known for his Latin translation of the Necronomicon. There’s something in the lifelike look and craftsmanship of this particular figure that leads Steven and Eleanor to inquire about the artist. They are given directions to the more obscure waxwork show of one George Rodgers.
The waxworks Rodgers has on display are figures from history as well as monsters from classical mythology, all presented with striking artistry and realism. And there’s a special section hidden behind a curtain, that only adults with strong nerves are permitted to view. Mr. Orabona, the reserved and mysterious manager of the waxwork museum, tells Steven and Eleanor that in this section, Rodgers “abandons the Greek monsters in favor of the sorts of myths that are only whispered of…. Formless Tsathoggua of Hyperborean legend. The tentacled face of Great Cthulhu’s spawn. The dread proboscidian, Chaugnar Faugn,” and other grotesque creatures drawn from Rodgers’ own imagination.
Of course, they are eager to have a look.
Jones finds the monstrous figures in the special section frightening but fascinating. Determined to transplant Rodgers’ horrors to Chicago, he arranges the opportunity for a business discussion with Rodgers via Orabona.
Orabona, who says that he wants what’s best for Rodgers’ work, suggests that the entrepreneur bring up his proposition subtly and conversationally. As an inspired but eccentric artist, Rodgers has little business sense and may take offense at an abrupt offer.
Rodgers’ basement studio is even more disturbing than his museum, with pieces of wax “bodies” scattered about along with glass eyeballs, scraps of wigs and fur and other costuming paraphernalia–plus a padlocked door with a strange symbol painted on it. Orabona says that it’s an African tribal sign that means “Store Room, Keep Out.”
Jones and Rodgers begin on friendly terms. The artist tells a few tales of his extensive travels to remote places around the world and hints at the forbidden books he’s read. After they share a bottle of whisky (Glen Lloigor, a little in-joke), Rodgers speaks more freely of beings that lived on Earth long before humanity–he doesn’t mean the dinosaurs. Then he claims that his most imaginative, horrific, and detailed waxworks aren’t the product of his overactive imagination; such incredible work requires great sacrifice. “Unspeakable sacrifice.”
It looks like we’re heading into Pickman territory; the listener might guess that Rodgers has been using forbidden tomes to summon up Elder Gods as inspiration for his waxworks. But that’s not the Horror here.
Steven Jones scoffs at Rodgers’ claims and suggests that these wild tales are an act the artist is putting on for him. Rodgers, offended, throws him out.
But Jones is determined to make a deal. He returns to the museum the next day with Mrs. Patterson. While they converse with Orabona, they hear the sound of a dog yelping in pain. Orabona says that strays often get into fights in the courtyard behind Rodgers’ studio–but when the two Americans see the courtyard, they find no blood nor other signs of a recent dogfight.
Eleanor heads back to their hotel at this point, but Steven hangs around to sneak back into the museum after hours to have another conversation with Rodgers.
Rodgers seems inclined to forgive and forget and, after Orabona has locked the museum up and left the two alone together, tells Jones another story, which we hear as a flashback scene.
A reference in the Pnakotic Fragments to “great gods imprisoned in the ice” and some astronomical calculations led Rodgers to fund an expedition to Alaska in quest of this frozen temple. Members of the crew he hired grew frightened as they traveled to the far north and, claiming that the area was cursed, refused to go any farther. Rodgers says that these guides are American, but their voices remind me of Bob and Doug Mackenzie; they swear a bit more–which is surprising, since this is supposed be a 1930s radio program–but they do not tell Rodgers to “Take off” or call him a “hoser” when they mutiny and turn back, and leaving him and Orabona with one less sled and a diminished crew to continue on toward his goal.
There in the icy wastelands, Rodgers tells Jones that he discovered Cyclopean ruins 3 million years old and a vast room with bones scattered on the floor before a throne carved of mammoth ivory. Still seated upon the throne was Rhan-Tegoth, a huge and ancient, monstrous, bloodsucking god who had “waited throughout all time. Not in death, but in eternal dream.” It was unable to move without nourishment, so as long as they had it immobile, they packed it up in a crate and brought it back to London.
Rodgers has photographs of the throne room to show Jones. When that isn’t enough to convince his doubtful guest, he announces that he has Rhan-Tegoth right there in his workroom with them, under burlap wraps. Orabona wants to keep it as it is and encase it in wax to put on display (as, Rodgers will later declare they’ve done with the other cosmic beasties in the special section, brought home from his travels). Rodgers, on the other hand, means to revive Rhan-Tegoth. He’s already offered it one small sacrifice today.
Jones continues to think the entire story is a fraud. As a final piece of proof, Rodgers challenges him to spend the night in the museum. Only then will he “truly understand”. Jones agrees, which seems like a pretty silly thing to do even if the creature under the burlap is only another gruesome waxwork, considering that he’s now certain that he’s in the company of a lunatic.
At a lonely, dark hour of the night, something does come for him–a towering shape with talons and the “rugose, dead-eyed rudiment of a head,” shambling out of the workroom. Stephen is terrified, until the creature starts chanting in Rodgers’ voice: “Iä! Iä! I am coming, O Rhan-Tegoth, coming with the nourishment!”
Well, he was absolutely right about Rodgers being a lunatic. Jones soon finds himself fighting for his life before he ends up as the next sacrifice to Rhan-Tegoth and encased in wax as part of a new display.
But even if Rodgers is a madman, he’s been telling the truth all along… and the night in the museum doesn’t turn out the way either man expected. Fortunately, Mr. Orabona is there to tidy things up afterwards and see that the show goes on.
The HPLHS guys often have a way of adding a final twist to their adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories, making his downer endings just a little bit darker. It works better on some stories than others, but I found the conclusion in this instance satisfactory, hitting the right ironic note.
As always, this latest Dark Adventure CD comes with a selection of fun props:
- A clipping from The Chicago Tribune; on the front page is an article about the opening of new Emporium of Waxen Wonders, and on the back is an advertisement for it.
- A ticket to Rodgers’ Wax Museum in London which includes a challenge for visitors to stay in the museum overnight.
- A souvenir brochure from Madame Tussaud’s.
- A page from the Pnakotic Fragments.
- A photograph taken of the ancient throne room discovered during Rodgers’ expedition to Alaska. The photo’s very dark, but there’s a great fold-out feature on the HPLHS site about the construction of the model they used for it with plenty of in-process photos that give you a closer look at the details. Rhan-Tegoth isn’t on his throne, though.
*Based on an historical person who does not appear in the original story. Near the end of this audio version, she promises that she will never mention this trip to London.