CD Review: Rats in the Walls

Exham Priory: 1261 -1923“Our host spun quite a ghost story. M.R. James couldn’t do better.”

The Rats in the Walls is my favorite HP Lovecraft story. It’s a wonderful, deeply disturbing tale of a wealthy American named Delapore who restores his ancestral home in England. The sound of spectral rats (which only he and his pet cats can hear) lead him to an ancient stone altar in the sub-cellar of the old priory and a tunnel hidden beneath it; there, he discovers not only the secret that led his ancestor to flee Exham Priory in the early 1600s, but remnants of unspeakable horrors perpetrated by a cult that went on for millennia on that same site, a cult in which his family were only the most recent members.

What I like most about this story isn’t the trappings of old-fashioned gothic horror implicit in the ruins of the priory, nor the eons-old cannibal cult–though both certainly have their charms. It’s that it plays upon the same theme as the Nigel Kneale stories I most enjoy, Quatermass and the Pit, and The Stone Tape: the history of the Bad Place goes back and back through centuries to the earliest days of humanity… and perhaps long before that.

The only thing that mars it for a modern reader is the extremely unfortunate, casually racist name of the narrator’s favorite black cat, who has an important part to play in the story.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/rw.aspx

When I first heard that the latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was to be an adaptation of Rats in the Walls, I was delighted, but I wondered how they would handle the cat’s name. When I attended a live, dramatic reading of this same story last summer in Providence, the reader renamed the cat Blackie, and I was perfectly happy with that.

Long before the cat comes into this adaptation, we’re given a sort of meta-textual reassurance about how this element of the story will be handled. This episode begins with a prologue set during the American Civil War. Yankee soldiers are about to seize and burn down Carfax, the Virginia plantation belonging to “Big Daddy” Delapore, a bed-ridden old man. The about-to-be-freed slave-woman who is with him tells him that she’s not going hear that word from him again and makes him say “Please” before she bring him the lock-box containing papers concerning the Delapore family secret.  The old man intends to give the box to his grandson, 7-year-old Matthew, for safe keeping, but the mansion is on fire; the little boy escapes with his Yankee-born mother, but the old man is trapped within the flames and the contents of the box are destroyed with him.

A second prologue jumps suddenly to World War I, where a young American airman, Alfred Delapore, Matthew’s son, is telling this story about the plantation to his British friend and fellow aviator, Edward Norrys (Kevin Stidham, doing an adorable Mancunian accent).

Alfred says that the family secret–the reason why their remote ancestor Walter de la Poer fled England for the American colonies in the wake of a mysterious tragedy at Exham Priory after the rest of his family was killed–was lost forever in the fire and neither he nor his father knows anything about it. But Norrys can tell them quite a lot about the de la Poers; his family was given the abandoned estate by James I, and his uncle is currently the owner of Exham Priory, which has fallen into ruins and is shunned even into the 20th century by the local folk. Uncle has no use for the place and might be willing to sell it.

James I grants Exham Priory to the Norrys familyAlfred is keen to write to his father back in the States, but just then the two young pilots are summoned by their commander to go fly a mission. Continue reading “CD Review: Rats in the Walls”

Audio Review: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Dark Adventure Radio Theatre does a story by Edgar Allan Poe for a change. This audio drama is not on CD, but offered as a free downloadable MP3 file along with the “cover” art and a PDF of the liner notes.

From these liner notes, I learned that when this story was published in 1845, it was viewed as a real medical case:

“… perhaps because it has the word “Facts” in its title — it was taken as a piece of non-fiction. Many people believed “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was a true account of the disturbing power of mesmerism. Poe enjoyed the confusion for a while, but eventually confessed in various letters that it was pure fiction.”*

The Facts in the Case of M. ValdemarThe Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar is a story in which mesmerism is used to “stave off” death and “the boundaries of science and medicine journey to an unthinkable extreme.”

You can read Poe’s original story online at https://poestories.com/read/facts.

The audio play starts with a broadcast baseball game between the NY Yankees and  Detroit Tigers being called on account of rain in the middle of the third inning, leaving an unprepared local radio station scrambling for something else to fill in the air time. What they end up with is a special, “abbreviated” episode of Dark Adventure that’s about half an hour long.

Dr. Michael Quinlan (Sean Branney) from an unnamed medical facility has agreed to an interview to deliver the truth about this strange case, which the public has heard many so wild rumors about recently. He promises all the “disturbing details”—and, boy, does he deliver! His story unfolds mostly in flashback, with the occasional question or comment from the radio interviewer.

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CD Review: The Haunter of the Dark

Robert Bloch was a teenager when he wrote a fan letter to author H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930s. It was the beginning of a friendship-in-correspondence that lasted through the rest of Lovecraft’s life and launched Bloch on his own writing career.

This friendship also led Lovecraft to dedicate his last complete short story, The Haunter of the Dark, to Bloch, in response to a story young Bloch wrote about someone rather like him; the protagonist is named after Bloch, with his last name anglicized to Blake.

The Haunter of the Dark, set in Lovecraft’s own home town of Providence, Rhode Island, features a writer and painter of the macabre from the Midwest who is drawn to explore an ominous-looking, abandoned church on Federal Hill. Inside the church, Robert Blake discovers evidence of a cult that practiced occult ceremonies there in the late 18o0s, including a strangely angled, shining stone in a metal box. Gazing into this stone, he inadvertently rouses something that had been quiescent since the cult was driven out of the church by local Italian immigrants, something that can’t bear light and can only move in darkness, something that now turns its attention to him. It ends for Blake as badly as these things usually do for Lovecraft’s hapless heroes.

The story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hd.aspx

This is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories because of its setting among real places in Providence, especially the vivid descriptions of the old church:

Newspaper article about riots over the church“It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky. It seemed to rest on especially high ground; for the grimy facade, and the obliquely seen north side with sloping roof and the tops of great pointed windows, rose boldly above the tangle of surrounding ridgepoles and chimney-pots. Peculiarly grim and austere, it appeared to be built of stone, stained and weathered with the smoke and storms of a century and more. The style, so far as the glass could shew, was that earliest experimental form of Gothic revival which preceded the stately Upjohn period and held over some of the outlines and proportions of the Georgian age. Perhaps it was reared around 1810 or 1815.”

Sadly, the real church that this was based upon and the old-fashioned, gabled houses and  crowded back-streets of Federal Hill that Lovecraft described are no longer there. (At least the Shunned House still stands and I’m looking forward to seeing it in the near future.)

The latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre program from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society is based on The Haunter of the Dark, but adds new characters and elaborates on Blake’s exploration of the church and local history to create a slightly different story.

In Lovecraft’s original tale, Robert Blake is already settled in Providence when his adventure begins. He’s been curious for months about the dark and distant facade of the church he sees from the windows of his study on the other side of town near Brown University’s Hay Library.

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptation has aspiring writer Blake just arriving from Milwaukee to see famous author Philip Raymond, “a master of weird fiction” who has agreed to tutor Blake “in the art of crafting strange tales” (Philip loves his craft, you might even say).

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CD Review: Brotherhood of the Beast

This H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre is a whopping 3-disc adventure, not adapted from any one story of Lovecraft’s, but alluding to several of them and featuring characters created by Andrew Leman, Sean Branney, and friends back in their gaming days. The plot is based on the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu® role-playing game, “The Fungi from Yuggoth.” Chaosium is now a Dark Adventure Radio Theatre sponsor like Fleur-de-Lys cigarettes and the mood-enhancing softdrink Bub-L-Pep, with its very own 1930s-style radio ad at the opening of the show.

The story begins in Boston with the murders of three children. Because of the strange nature of these deaths, Nathaniel Ward (Leman) has been consulted by the city police. He’s just the sort of man you turn to when there’s weird stuff going on.

Since his old friend, millionaire playboy adventurer Charlie Tower (Branney), is in town, Nate phones and asks Charlie to help out.

Charlie brings along his latest girlfriend, a fast-talking brassy dame named Jenny Alexander (voiced by Sarah Van der Pol. I picture Jenny as something like a pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck).

Charlie Tower with a girlfriend who doesn't look anything like Barbara Stanwyck

Nate, Charlie, and Jenny visit the police station, where they view the bodies–the wounds on which resemble those seen on cattle in the small and remote Massachusetts town of Dunwich a few years earlier–and review the information the police have gathered. It’s Jenny who observes a pattern to the crimes: At the center of the area where the children were attacked is a neglected old mansion, once belonging to a Dr. Cornwallis and his wife–both died years ago in a scandalous murder/suicide.

Digging into old newspaper articles reveals a little more of that story: Mrs. Cornwallis stabbed her husband and was shot by him in 1891, about a month after the birth of their stillborn son. The doctor’s grave was later desecrated by someone who believed him to be a warlock.

This doesn’t tell the trio much, but it’s intriguing enough to send them over to the Cornwallis house to have a look around.

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CD Review: Imprisoned with the Pharaohs

Harry Houdini and Charlie TowerImprisoned with the Pharaohs (a.k.a. Under the Pyramids) was H.P. Lovecraft’s first collaboration with Harry Houdini; the serialized story was ghost-written for Weird Tales magazine in 1924 as a first-person account of an experience the great escape artist is supposed to have had one night while touring Egypt.

The story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/up.aspx 

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version is fairly faithful to Houdini’s adventure, but adds some elements that seem to me to improve the story. First, a reason is given for the events that take place. Second, additional characters are introduced to give Houdini someone to interact with.

In the original story, Houdini often refers to “we” and “us” as he describes his travels in  Egypt, but it often isn’t clear who is with him on his tour. Is it his wife? Other tourists in their party? Some Egyptian guys? Here, “we” is primarily Bess Houdini, Harry’s wife, voiced by Leslie Baldwin and given a distinct voice of her own. The Houdini’s relationship and interactions are some of the best parts at the beginning of this audio play–Bess’s practicality balances Harry’s impetuous and thrill-seeking nature, yet they are both at heart show-biz people.

The other new character is an HPLHS creation who shows up in a lot of these Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptations, and whom I’m always happy to see more of: Miskatonic University professor of archaeology, Nathaniel Ward (Andrew Leman).

The audio drama begins at the American Cosmograph Theater in Cairo. We’re presented with brief snippets that give us a medley of the kind of thing you’d get in pre-WWI Vaudeville: song and dance acts, trained dogs, jugglers, comedians, a ventriloquist, a hypnotist, and finally the big draw of the night–The Great Houdini!

Imprisoned with the Pharoahs props Continue reading “CD Review: Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”

CD Review: Dagon: War of the Worlds

This episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre concludes with announcer Eskine Blackwell’s words:

“If we’ve taken more liberties with our story than usual, we hope that you and Mr. Lovecraft will forgive us. We thought it would be fun.”

Bub-L-Pep
Yes, dammit, that was fun! A lot of fun.

It’s not simply an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s short story Dagon; it’s also a sequel to Shadow over Innsmouth, as well as fanfic from the guys at the H.P Lovecraft Historical Society using their own characters, and an homage to Orson Welles’ famous Halloween 1939 radio broadcast that panicked the country.

It’s October 1935, and this week’s Dark Adventure Radio Theatre begins as usual. But after an introductory word from the sponsor, the invigorating beverage Bub-L-Pep (“The L is for Lithium!”), the show is interrupted by a news bulletin: A ferry crossing the San Francisco Bay has sent out distress calls and the Coast Guard is rushing to its aid.

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CD Review: Dreams in the Witch House

Brown Jenkin has always creeped me out more than any of the betentacled, rugose, crinoid, or even squamose eldritch monstrosities that feature in Lovecraft’s other stories. It’s not Brown Jenkin’s rattiness that disturbs me, but his little human face and tiny human hands and feet, and his nasty way of chittering. Not to mention the gruesome death of the protagonist at the end of this story.

Dreams in the Witch House scrapbookThe first time I played this CD, it was during an evening hour with the light slowly fading as the sun went down. The Calico Horrors Part 2 and 3 were having one of their wrestling matches, so the sounds of squeaks and soft, furry thumps in the shadowy recesses beneath the living- room furniture, plus the occasional skitter of little claws on the floorboards augmented my listening experience of this audio drama about a malignant, mathematical witch and her rat-like familiar.

The Lovecraft story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/dwh.aspx.

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre’s version of Dreams in the Witch House is narrated from the point of view of a character who barely features in Lovecraft’s tale, a young man named Frank Elwood (Sean Branney). He’s the only other Miskatonic University student who has a room in the same ancient Arkham house as the hapless Walter Gilman (Andrew Leman); the other inhabitants of the house are all immigrants, mostly Poles. After the horrific events of the original story have concluded, Elwood goes to see a priest–not for confession, but for guidance and some spiritual comfort in light of the terrifying things he’s witnessed. He tells Father Ivanicki about his friendship with Gilman, beginning with the day of their meeting and ending with Gilman’s ugly death.

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CD Review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

“From a private hospital for the insane near Providence, Rhode Island, there recently disappeared an exceedingly singular person. He bore the name of Charles Dexter Ward and was placed under restraint most reluctantly by the grieving father who had watched his aberration grow from a mere eccentricity to a dark mania involving both a possibility of murderous tendencies and a profound and peculiar change in the apparent contents of his mind. Doctors confessed themselves quite baffled by his case, since it presented oddities of a general physiological as well as psychological character.”

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
H.P. Lovecraft

When I began to prepare for writing this review, I was surprised to discover that I don’t actually have a copy of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in any of the Lovecraft anthologies on my shelves. It’s been a long time since I read it, and had to hunt it up online to refresh my memory.

There are at least two rather loose film adaptations of this story–two that I’ve seen, anyway:

  • The Resurrected/Shatterbrain, starring Chris Saradon and John Terry, which places events in a modern-day film-noirish setting with stop-animation monsters.
  • The Poe’d-up Haunted Palace, starring Vincent Price and Debra Paget in a Victorian gothic version with putty-faced mutants roaming the misty streets of Arkham.

In both films, Ward is a much more mature man than the character in Lovecraft’s tale.

Photograph of Charles Dexter Ward with his ancestor Joseph Curwen's portraitThe novella, written in 1927 but not published until after Lovecraft’s death, presents a case study of a young man in his teens and early twenties, currently in an asylum.

Charles Dexter Ward’s descent into madness is said to have begun with his interest in a distant ancestor, one Joseph Curwen, who dabbled in alchemy and necromancy.

Charles identified strongly with Curwen, whom he resembled closely. As his obsession increased, his own studies into the occult deepened. He repeated  Curwen’s experiments and, after coming of age, he took up with mysterious companions who aided him in his secret work. His youthful appearance changed to that of an older man; his style of speech became more archaic, his handwriting changed too, and his knowledge of the modern world vanished while he seemed more in touch with 18th-century New England.

After The Thing on the Doorstep and The Shadow out of Time, you might be thinking that this is another Lovecraft story about body-swapping and that Charles has been possessed by the spirit of Curwen… but that’s not what happens this time.

The story is online at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecaseofcharlesdexterward.htm

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CD Review: The Thing on the Doorstep

The latest thrilling episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society just arrived in the mail this past week. It’s The Thing on the Doorstep, a Lovecraft short story of a peculiar marriage between two students of the occult that involves possession and leads to a contest of wills. A visit from a grotesque and stunted creature in a trenchcoat brings horrifying news about which one triumphed in the end.

There aren’t that many women characters of note in Lovecraft’s works: Lavinia Whately in The Dunwich Horror, poor Mrs. Gardner in The Colour Out of Space, the witch Keziah Mason in Dreams in the Witch House, and the villain of our current piece, Asenath Waite–although I’m not sure this last one actually counts.

Miskatonic Student ID for Asenath WaiteAsenath was the daughter of the reputed wizard Ephraim Waite, who died babbling in an asylum, and an unseen mother, one of those fishy Innsmouth people. She was also a formidable scholar of arcane knowledge  herself, a powerful hypnotist even in her schoolgirl days, and a leading figure among the decadent set at Miskatonic University in the late 1920s.

Asenath’s marriage to Edward Pickman Derby came as great surprise to friends of both. The two seemed a strangely mismatched pair. Edward was more than 15 years older than Asenath, but boyish even at 40; Asenath appeared the elder while still in her early 20s.  Edward was a former child prodigy, a writer of fantasy poetry, dabbler in occult practices, but overprotected by his parents, weak-willed, and unprepared to manage life as an adult alone. His wife, with her greater powers of concentration, dominated him from the very beginning and brought him deeper into the dark arts than he wished to go.

Strangest of all, the two sometimes seemed to switch places, with Edward showing a surprising new and forceful personality as he drove off on mysterious errands for days at a time while Asenath was glimpsed by neighbors sitting forlornly at home.

The text of the H.P. Lovecraft’s short story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/td.aspx.
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CD Review: The Colour out of Space

The Colour out of Space is closer to science fiction than horror than most of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, although it certainly has its horrifying aspects. This 1927 short story considers what lies out there in the vastness of space, unknown and incomprehensible to humanity; like the narrator, one may feel “an odd timidity about the deep skyey voids above” by the end of it.

Arkham newspaper article about the meteorite

The story begins with a meteorite that crashes on the Massachusetts farm of Nahum Gardner in 1882.

Scientists from nearby Miskatonic University come out to examine it, and discover an object too soft to be metal but possessed of peculiar properties. Not that they have much time for testing. The meteorite shrinks rapidly and, after several lightning strikes during a storm, disappears completely.

Yet something remains behind. That autumn’s crops grow extravagantly large and glossy, tinted with an indefinable color that reminds everyone of the fragile globule found inside the meteorite–but all the fruit is inedible. The next year, the plants grow stunted and brittle. Tree branches seem to move even when there’s no wind. Wild animals near the farm behave strangely and appear to be subtly deformed. The livestock that isn’t able to flee becomes ill and starts to shrivel, turning grey and brittle like the plants. The whole farmyard glows faintly at night. And although the water from the well is obviously contaminated, the Gardner family continues to drink it.

At first glance, this could be an early story about the effects of exposure to radiation; this being Lovecraft, however, there’s more going on than a mere environmental hazard. An active and conscious entity has taken up residence in the farm well and is draining the life out of everything organic in the vicinity.

The text is online at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecolouroutofspace.htm.

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