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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DVD Review: The Dunwich Horror

In some ways, this is a rather silly film as well as a loose adaptation of the original short story, but I can’t be too hard on it. It was, after all, my childhood introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft; if I hadn’t watched this movie and noted that it had some unusual elements that I hadn’t seen in other horror movies, and then seen the same title on the spine of a library book a few years later, who knows where I’d be today?

This was on television more than once in the early ’70s, and for years I was under the impression that it was one of those scary made-for-TV movies that aired during that time period and traumatized so many of my generation with images of little goblins dragging Kim Darby into the chimney or a Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black. Now that I see it on DVD, I realize that it was an AIP theatrical release. It’s actually one of the early examples of sexed-up Lovecraft–see also Dagon and From Beyond. The bowdlerized version I grew up with didn’t have visions of naked orgies, nor did the tentacled horror locked up on the top floor strip the clothes off one of its victims.

Wilbur Whately's idea of a date What we did see, even on ’70s television, was that Wilbur Whateley gets a girlfriend so he can try to repeat his mother’s experience with human / Old One hybrids.

This version of The Dunwich Horror begins with a prologue at the Whateley house, which is much larger, fancier, and in better condition than the dilapidated farmhouse of Lovecraft’s story. When we get a better look around the place later on, we can observe that the interior has the same sort of decayed opulence as the Usher house… and will meet with a similar fate.

Old Man Whateley (Sam Jaffe), who bears a staff with a Thunderbird-looking symbol atop it, stands with two albino women at the bedside of his heavily pregnant daughter Lavinia, who is not an albino. Lavinia writhes and moans to indicate the pains of labor–but after binge-watching all 5 series of Call the Midwife, I find it a tad unconvincing. Her father helps her up off the bed.

Cut to the animated credits, which impressed me very powerfully in childhood. A couple of robed figures in silhouette make a perilous journey through an ever-shifting landscape of trees and towers and jagged rocks.

Giant in the opening credits At one point, the hill they’re climbing up becomes a giant demon who devours them–but then the giant’s hand morphs into a snake’s head and the travelers emerge on its forked tongue, so no harm done. Eventually, they reach their destination, a large stone table, and one of the pair, who turns out to be a woman, lies down and gives birth.

It only now occurs to me that this is a symbolic representation of the Whateleys’ journey to the old stone temple where Wilbur was born. At least, I assume it’s symbolic and not what the Massachusetts coastline is actually like.

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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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CD Review: The Shadow out of Time

Original Astounding Stories cover of 'The Shadow out of Time' In 1908, a Miskatonic University political economics professor named Nathaniel Peaslee collapsed while giving a lecture to his class. When he regained consciousness, he had no memory of who he was, was badly coordinated, wore an odd expression, and spoke in a stilted, archaic style as if English were an unfamiliar language. His wife and children, convinced that this wasn’t Nathaniel at all, were horrified and had nothing further to do with him.

In his new personality, Peaslee pursued a very different sort of life, absorbing knowledge on a variety of subjects from the abstruse to the childishly simple. He made mysterious trips all over the world–Arabian deserts, the Himalayas, the Arctic–and contacted several occult leaders during his travels.

Then, in 1913, he built a small, strange machine in his Arkham home. An anonymous phone call requested that a doctor come to tend to him; when the doctor arrived, Peaslee was unconscious and woke slowly, speaking words from the lecture he’d been giving in 1908. The original personality had returned, with no memory of what he’d been doing for the last 5 years.
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CD Review: At the Mountains of Madness

I’ve been meaning to go on with reviewing the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre dramas produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. I’ve had the boxed CD set for years, but time passed and other things got in the way… until I was doing a Matt Foyer-fest this past weekend and included A Shadow over Innsmouth; I realized it’d been awhile since I’d listened to any of the others, some of which Foyer also has smaller roles in.

At the Mountains of Madness is one of Lovecraft’s larger stories in length as well as scope. We’re no longer in the narrow streets of witch-haunted Puritan towns crowded with gambrel-peaked roofs, nor in the claustrophobic New England hills with their own ancient legends. This story is set in the vast, frozen wastes of the Antarctic. It’s about a team of explorers who discover what appear to be remarkably well-preserved specimens of an early but sophisticated form of life that lived on Antarctica millions of years before it was covered in ice. But in spite of their great age, these Elder Beings aren’t quite dead yet. In fact, they’re feeling much better.

It’s a story filled with adventure–dogsleds and aeroplanes, wind storms, monstrously high mountains, a lost city, giant penguins, and a thrilling chase scene with one of the usual Lovecraftian nightmare creatures. There’s been a recent attempt at a film version, but it seems to be lost in production limbo.

The story is available online at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/mountainsofmaddness.htm.
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CD Review: The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror appears to be the first of the 1930s-style radio plays on CD produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS). I was sorry to see that Matt Foyer isn’t in this one—I’ve begun to be a fan of his.

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror is the story of a decayed and nearly forgotten rural Massachusetts farm community and the curious events that occur there in the early part of the 20th century, culminating in the Horror in 1928. The family at the focus of these events are the Whateleys: the old man, “Wizard” Whateley, who practices strange rituals at the ancient stone circle on the hill near his farm; his albino daughter Lavinia, who somehow gives birth to a son with no apparent father (old Whateley has some things to say about Lavinia’s husband, but who pays attention to his lunatic ravings?); and Lavinia’s very peculiar son Wilbur.

Wilbur’s remarkable growth and premature maturity is probably the least weird thing about him. Something else seems to inhabit the Whateley home besides these three persons; the neighbors don’t see it, but they do hear strange sounds, smell odd smells, and make note of the anemic cows that old Whateley has to replace so frequently. It’s only after the old man and Lavinia have gone and Wilbur tries to beg, borrow, or steal an intact edition of the Necromonicon from the Miskatonic University library to replace his grandfather’s tattered and fragmentary copy that the Horror begins to unfold.
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CD Review: The Shadow over Innsmouth

When I purchased Whisperer in the Darkness from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), I also bought a set of their radio plays on CD, charmingly boxed in a cardboard recreation of an old-fashioned, gothic-style radio cabinet. These plays are performed for The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre–the conceit being that these are episodes from a 1930s radio series, complete with an opening announcer and a sponsor, Fleur-de-Lis cigarettes.

The first one I listened to was The Shadow over Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s story of a young man from Ohio who takes an historical and genealogical tour of New England, including a visit to the decayed port town of Innsmouth. Once he starts poking around and talking to a crazy, drunken old man who knows all about the town’s history, he draws the ire of the rather fishy-looking inhabitants of Innsmouth and his brief visit ends in terrifying events that will change his life.

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Film Review: The Whisperer in Darkness

I’ve been waiting for this film to come out on DVD for a long time, since I first saw and fell in love with the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s (HPLHS) 1920s-style silent film The Call of Cthulhu. This latest film from the HPLHS is a talkie, done in the style of an early ’30s horror film.

The Whisperer in Darkness isn’t as close an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story as Call of Cthulhu. The first thing that struck me when I began to watch it is that there are a lot more people here than appeared in the written story. New characters are introduced, and characters that were no more than alluded to by Lovecraft are present, fleshed out with dialog, and given roles to play in the drama that leads our protagonist Albert Wilmarth to his fate.
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