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:
At the end of Part 1 of The Masks of Nyarlathotep, Victoria Woodhull stayed behind in New York to take care of some unfinished business in the city and to keep a promise she made. Her companions Hazel Claflin, Zeke Ford, and Cecil Watson went on ahead to England to continue their investigation.
When the trio arrives, they make themselves at home in Victoria’s spacious London flat under the care of her loyal Indian manservant, Gupta.
Hazel’s been reading a book about occult sects in Africa during her ocean voyage. She’s learned a thing or two about Nyarlathotep since her encounter with the Cult of the Bloody Tongue:
“That name’s Egyptian, but the god itself is older than the Egyptians. It has countless forms and manifestations for worshipers throughout the world, organized into different cults.”
Which gives our heroes some idea of what they’re up against.
This latest episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre represents an ambitious undertaking from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society: A 6-disk, 7-hour audio play that spans five continents and includes an international cast of characters based, not on an original Lovecraft story, but on a Chaosium role-playing game.
Each disk in the boxed set breaks the story up into chapters, as the setting moves from one country to the next. I’m going to divide my review into the same sections, and try not to give too much away as the story progresses.
It begins in New York City in the 1920s, at an engagement party for Hazel Claflin (Sarah van der Pol) and Marcus Buchannan in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria.
The Claflin family is quite prominent both socially and politically, and includes a state governor and a Speaker of the House.
Oh, and Hazel’s cousin is Victoria Woodhull (Kacey Camp), the pioneer American feminist who ran for President in 1872. Still an active old lady in her 80s, she’s come all the way from England to attend her young cousin’s party and upcoming wedding.
While at the party, Hazel receives a phone call from an old boyfriend, Jackson Elias, a writer and world traveler who researches cults and other arcane mysteries. His most recent investigation has placed him in grave danger and he desperately needs her help. Hazel goes to him–she feels she owes it to him since their relationship ended badly. Marcus insists on coming along with her.
“We’ll be back before you know it,” Marcus says as the young couple exits.
Given this set-up, the listener might anticipate that Jackson will drag both Hazel and Marcus along on a series of exciting and terrifying adventures, and it will be quite some time before they return to their guests at the party.