Madame Vastra, the prehistoric Silurian lizard-lady and Victorian detective, made her initial appearance on Doctor Who along with her cheeky Cockney wife Jenny and the battle-loving but lovable Sontaran Strax in the episode A Good Man Goes to War. We first meet them as old friends of the Doctor’s, which for a long time led me to believe I’d missed an important episode.
The trio appeared in several subsequent episodes during Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor, as well as in Peter Capaldi’s introductory story. I know I wasn’t the only fan who wanted them to have their own spinoff series, solving bizarre mysteries on the gaslight streets of 1890s London, but a period costume drama with science-fiction style special effects, plus two of the three stars in heavy alien makeup every week was more than the BBC was willing to budget for.
But these expensive production difficulties disappear with audio drama. Big Finish has done four boxed sets of stories under the title of “Heritage,” featuring Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey, and Catrin Stewart as Vastra and her companions. The first set contains three adventures and a bonus disk.
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.
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.
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…”
Last Saturday evening at the NecronomiCon in Providence, I enjoyed a live performance of this brand new Dark Adventure Radio Theatre episode–so new that I hadn’t yet received the CD I pre-ordered. I was hoping that it would be waiting for me when I came home, but it only arrived in the mail the night before last. I’ve listened to it once.
It was exciting to see the live version first, and especially entertaining because this was a scaled-down production. Instead of bringing the entire cast, Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and Kevin Stidham did all the characters — which sometimes meant there was one man talking to himself in two different voices.
Apart from the pre-recorded Dark Adventure intro theme, they also did their own “music,” humming a few notes of a traditional ominous tune to indicate scene transitions. Special effect noises were produced by two guys brought up from the audience, and the rest of us in the audience provided crowd sounds and jungle noises when prompted. As live theater, it was a great experience and a lot of fun.
One of my favorite Lovecraft titles, if not one of my favorite stories. Written in 1922, The Lurking Fear is the tale of a long-abandoned house in upstate New York that once belonged to a reclusive and xenophobic old Dutch family all with mismatched eyes like David Bowie (one blue, one brown), horrible and mysterious deaths that occur during thunderstorms in neighboring rural shantytowns, and an intrepid investigator who brings along some extremely unfortunate companions and takes a heck of a long time to figure things out.
It does, however, have some terrific horror images that will stick with you.
This episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre is an original story, a sort of sequel to Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu that continues the adventures of Inspector Legrasse as he investigates a report of a strange murder deep in Louisiana’s bayou. The inspector faces another cult and encounters not only a Lovecraftian horror, but an insidious evil that was quite real in the 1920s and unfortunately remains with us now.
The White Tree begins with the now-retired New Orleans police inspector, John Legrasse (Sean Branney this time) in conversation with his grandson; the young man is keen on following in his grandfather’s footsteps and joining the police force. Grandpa wants him to go to college and take up a profession like architecture. He thinks the boy has an idealized image of the kind of work he used to do and of police officers in general.
“There’s good ones, there’s brave ones,” Legrasse tells the boy, “and there’s ones that aren’t so good and aren’t so brave…. It’s true, on the good days you get excitement. You work with good, brave men. You deliver justice. But Claude, they ain’t all good days.”
As an example, he tells the story of something that occurred in the summer of 1922, shortly before his retirement.
Zeke and Hazel, and Cecil and Victoria are at last reunited, along with any surviving friends they’ve picked up during their respective adventures in Parts 4 and 5.
Pieces of the incredibly ancient technology recovered from the equally ancient ruins in Australia were copied and shipped to the Penhew Foundation via Shanghai, a city which happens to be the home of a cult named the Order of the Bloated Woman. Given some of the things that have happened in the last two parts, this name is particularly disturbing.
Shanghai is also where Jack Brady was seen alive after his supposed death 5 years ago. Since he was the one member of the Carlyle Expedition who didn’t enter the Bent Pyramid, there’s a chance that he might not only have crucial information about how to thwart the cultists’ fiendish plans, but may be willing to help them.
While Hazel and Zeke are occupied in Kenya with the events of Part 4, Victoria and Cecil travel to their next destination aboard the yacht of Victoria’s good friend, Cornelius Vanderbilt III.
“Neily” Vanderbilt sums up this phase of the investigation:
“Victoria’s cousin had a friend… who thought there was a cult in Australia… and apparently he was interested in rumors about a buried city somewhere out in the desert. And someone in Australia ships strange machines from Darwin to that company in England which makes new copies and ships them to China.”
So it’s off to Darwin we go.
At a dive bar in Darwin, Cecil chats with an aborigine, who tells him something about the Cult of the Sand Bat and the Buddai. The Buddai, he says, sleeps beneath an ancient city in the Great Sandy Desert “until he’s ready to wake up and devour the world.”
Victoria and Neily meet up with a cheerful young pair of Australians, Penny and Mark O’Brien. All the way back in Part 1, Hazel spoke with an archeologist at Miskatonic University about enormous and incredibly old stone blocks out in the desert; he has arranged for the O’Brien twins–his niece and nephew–to guide Hazel’s friends on a trek out into the desert, once they learn that that’s where the original versions of those “strange machines” that were shipped to the Penhew Foundation in the UK are coming from.
At the beginning of this part, our band of adventurers breaks up into two groups, each following a separate line of investigation from the clues they’ve gathered so far. Time, they feel, is growing short.
Victoria Woodhull and Cecil Watson set sail for Australia on Cornelius Vanderbilt III’s yacht. “Neily” is another old friend of Victoria’s. Hazel Claflin and Zeke Ford head farther south into Africa, along with Dr. Ali Kafour of the Cairo Museum, an Egyptologist who aided them during their adventures in Egypt.
We follow the latter party first.
Hazel, Zeke, and Dr. Kafour go to Nairobi. Zeke is still in a stunned and badly shaken state after his experiences at the end of Part 3.
In Nairobi, they locate the guide who led Roger Carlyle’s sister to the site where he and his Expedition were killed, so she could bring the bodies back for burial. The guide, Sam Mariga, agrees to lead them to the place where the bodies were found.
They’re also going to a semi-mythical place known as the Mountain of the Black Wind which is said to be an “unclean place… of darkness” where a powerful witch lives.
Before they set out, Dr. Kafour talks to the doctor who examined the bodies–what was left of them. There wasn’t enough for proper, individual identification but, as the doctor concludes, who else could it have been?
Hazel flirts with a drunken former soldier in a bar who claims he met Jack Brady in Shanghai some years after the Carlyle Expedition was supposedly slaughtered, and who believes that the natives executed for the crime were innocent.
Are members of the Expedition still alive? If they are, what really happened to them? Hazel and her friends have heard several different versions of their fate so far, but now it’s time to find the truth.
This part was my overall favorite because of the setting. I went to Egypt last year after listening to another Dark Adventure Radio Theatre, Imprisoned with the Pharoahs, and because I couldn’t resist the opportunity to stand between the paws of the Sphinx. I was delighted to hear the adventurers of this story play out in some of the same places I’d been to.
Insurance agent Cecil Watson is amazed to see camels in Cairo.
After the events at the end of Part 2, Cecil, Hazel, et al are traveling incognito. They’re staying under the name of Rockefeller at Shepheard’s Hotel, since they’re in the Rockefellers’ suite (the family has kindly lent it to Victoria while wintering elsewhere).
The group’s primary goal at this point is to find out what really happened to the missing Carlyle Expedition and how it relates to whatever all these cults around the world are planning. Before they follow their separate lines of investigation around the city, Zeke proposes a rule to his companions, to help them guard themselves against the vengeful Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh: