“They say foul things of Old Times still lurk in dark forgotten
corners of the world. And Gates still gape to loose, on certain
nights, shapes pent in Hell.”
This is my favorite Robert E. Howard story, and in my opinion his best Lovecraftian one, so I was delighted when I heard that Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was doing an adaptation of it. Although a downloadable version was available earlier, the CD with props finally arrived just before the holiday weekend.
In The Black Stone, an unnamed first-person narrator, acquainted with von Junzt’s occult book, Unaussprechlichen Kulten*, as well as the mad poet Justin Geoffrey’s “People of the Monolith,” takes his vacation in the location where the Monolith, or Black Stone, stands; this is in the mountains of rural Hungary, on an open meadow plateau above a tiny village with the intriguing name of Stregoicavar: the Witch Village. The age of this mysterious stone object is disputed; some claim a fabulous antiquity and puzzle over the strange markings upon in.
At Stregoicavar, the protagonist not only examines the Black Stone for himself, but learns something about its true age, the barbaric rites performed there on Midsummer nights long ago, and the reason why Justin Geoffrey went mad after his visit here — more than he really wanted to know.
The HPL Historical Society takes this tale and builds upon it, adding the usual spirited period dialog to enliven the audio drama and bestowing upon the nameless hero not just a name, but a character which DART fans are already familiar with: Charlie Tower.
This is not, however, the millionaire playboy adventurer we know from The Whisperer in Darkness, Brotherhood of the Beast, and Dagon: War of the Worlds. He’s a younger man, freshly scarred and disenchanted by the earthly horrors of the first World War.
In the summer of 1919, young Charlie (played by Sean Branney) is hanging around Europe after the war in pursuit of various decadent pleasures. We find him in Berlin in a nightclub named Himmel und Hölle –Heaven & Hell — sipping champagne and chatting with an underaged Marlene Dietrich, when he hears a poet read Geoffrey’s “People of the Monolith.”
“Against this blood red moon a tower stands;
An everlasting silence haunts the place.
It was not reared by any human hands,
The silent symbol of a shadowy race.
There, long ago, I stole through ancient night,
My footsteps woke strange echoes through the hour;
Strange specters walked with me through mazy light.
I left my soul, a ghost to haunt the tower.”
Since Charlie already has some experience of strange things, the poem grabs his attention.
The next day, he runs into an old friend from the war, Hungarian spy Kasimir Bartok (also featuring in BOTB). Kasimir can’t convince Charlie to write “tales of intrigue, adventure, occult mystery” about the weirdness they’ve both seen, but he does get him to buy a rare, unexpurgated, and extremely expensive edition of Unaussprechlichen Kulten. This section uses some of the bibliographic history of the book’s editions and translations which delighted me so much in the opening paragraph of Howard’s story.
Charlie isn’t personally wealthy yet; his father has just died and lawyers are still untangling the estate, so he has to wire them to ask for the money. Once they have the book, Kazimir proposes to introduce Charlie to a woman in Vienna, great-niece of von Junzt’s devoted friend and assistant. She knows secrets about von Junzt.
Charlie agrees to this. “I think this will be fun!” And off they go…
I’d read some criticism of this adaptation before I listened to it, that it had a very long takeoff before getting to Howard’s actual story. Now that I’ve heard it, I can see what they mean.
It’s not the opening scenes in Berlin — I really like that part, since it presents the crucial poem and the book that introduce the Black Stone. The subsequent steps on the way to Stregoicavar, however, even if they do individually have information necessary to our understanding of what Charlie is dealing with, begin to feel like one step too many. The elderly woman they consult has some personal history with Kazimir, but she tells us about von Junzt, his life and research on obscure cults, and his grisly death. She also provides the location of the Black Stone mentioned in Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Another war-maimed woman they meet on the train, Antanasia, ends up accompanying Charlie; she gives us the current fluctuating geopolitical situation in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as the story of the brave 16th-century Polish knight, Boris Vladinoff, who fought the Turks valiantly until a castle wall collapsed on him (and whom we’ll come back to later on). Then Charlie is detained, questioned, and threatened by border guards. If anything, I think that last bit could be cut.
At last, we reach Stregoicavar.
Charlie talks to people around the village, sometimes with helpful translations from Antanasia. These characters and the information they provide from Howard’s original text.
The village innkeeper points to the whereabouts of the Black Stone, but warns Charlie about going near it. He remembers Justin Geoffrey’s visit ten years ago, and isn’t surprised to hear that the poet “died screaming in a madhouse.” He also mentions his nephew, who has been tormented by nightmares since he was lost in the woods near the Stone as a child, and of a skeptical man who went out to the Stone one Midsummer Night and returned gibberingly insane.
Charlie then has an opportunity to speak with the nephew, now a grown man, and hear about his nightmares. These are mostly fiery, but once he dreamt of the Stone “set like a spire on a great black castle.” This is the only part of one of my favorite elements of the story to appear in this adaptation: the cliffs on which the Black Stone sits look “…more like ruins of cyclopean and Titan-reared battlements jutting from the mountain slope” in moonlight, and we are left with the idea that this dream is true and the cliffs and stone are the only parts of an enormous eons-old structure not buried beneath the mountains.
He next talks to the local schoolmaster and learns that the present inhabitants of Stregoicavar are not descended from the original people who lived there — the “witches” in the village’s name. Those people were a brutish, inbred lot who had lived in the mountains for thousands of years. They worshipped at the Black Stone, and kidnapped infants and young girls from the neighboring farms to sacrifice at Midsummer. They were slaughtered and their village destroyed by the Turks in the 1500s, to the relief of the local folk.
As the schoolmaster speaks of these terrible rituals, Charlie realizes that he’s been manipulated into this situation — hearing the poem, purchasing the book, taking this trip — by someone who wanted to be here with Unaussprechlichen Kulten at the Black Stone on Midsummer Night (although the listener has been aware of it from the beginning).
Midsummer is fast approaching. Charlie arrives at the meadow where the Black Stone stands just before sunset. This gives him an opportunity to get an up-close look at the monolith before things start to happen and we arrive at the heart of the story.
Like Howard’s unnamed protagonist, Charlie witnesses one of those unspeakable rites performed at the Black Stone by the original villagers of long ago — ghosts or images viewed through a portal in time. In this version, there’s no possibility that it might be a dream, for Antanasia and Kasimir are there to see it too.
The audio is forced to fall back on the narrator to describe what the characters are seeing, but I don’t see how it could be done via dialog without sounding klutzy. (“Look! There’s a nearly naked man wearing a wolf mask!” “And he’s flogging that wildly dancing woman!”) We occasionally hear gasps and other reactions to the horrors enacted.
The description of the rite sounds as if it’s taken almost directly from Howard, although I haven’t compared them word for word: the chanting bestial crowd, the old woman with the drum, the wolf-masked priest and his brutal flagellation of the dancing woman whom Howard calls “the votaress,” culminating in an extremely gruesome human sacrifice that occurs before the god this ceremony is dedicated to makes its appearance.
One interesting addition: Howard does not name the “monstrous wallowing toad-like being” that appears on top of the monolith, but the cultists in this version shout the name of Tsathoggua.**
It takes a little time to get going, but once it’s launched, the story delivers.
The cool props that came with the CD include:
- A map of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in post-WWI Europe; the location of Stregoicavar is marked.
- A newspaper page from the Chicago Examiner featuring an article about Justin Geoffrey’s commitment to a mental hospital shortly after returning from his trip to Europe.
- A postcard from the Heaven & Hell nightclub with a handwritten message from Charlie.
- A photograph of the crushed lacquer case dug up by Kasimir, along with the manuscript Count Boris was reading at the moment of his death and a remarkable little gold pendant.
- Charlie Tower’s passport. The information on the front is interesting, but I love the visa stamps all over the back.
- The sticker on the package is a copy of the pendant worn by Tsathogghua’s priest. Never has a “brain-shattering vestige of an outworn age” looked so cute.
*That’s “Nameless Cults” or “Unspeakable Cults” in English. I usually go with the latter.
**A toadish elder god created by Clark Ashton Smith (so the liner notes that came with the CD inform me). This is Howard’s subtle reference to it.