Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Dark Adventures in Space, Time, and Gibbering Terror!

I can't remember when I first came across the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, but it must have been a good while ago. I have, rather oddly, been a Lovecraft fan for many years, despite never finding his stories remotely frightening. I know, it's weird. But it's not Lovecraft's fault - most horror stories don't scare me much, if truth be told, because the things regular human beings do to each other are far worse than those dreamed up by authors. No, I like Lovecraft because his stories are elaborate mental games with the reader. How much can we guess before he reveals it? How blatantly will he telegraph his punches? And how many adjectives can he cram into one sentence?

All of which is rather irrelevant preamble to my look at the excellent series of dramas from Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. Even if you don't like audio drama, the quality of these adaptations should impress you. The latest, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is a two CD job, offering a detailed (one might say loving) dramatisation of one of Lovecraft's most accomplished novels. Indeed, as adaptations go I'd say it bears comparison to Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace, which was scripted by Richard Matheson and starred Vincent Price. (The other film adaptation, The Resurrected (1992), starts so poorly that I've never been able to get past the first few minutes.)

CDW is a tricky one to adapt, because - like most Lovecraft stories - it is long on wordage but fairly short on action. Basically, a young man becomes obsessed with an ancestor who, having been an evil sorcerer, uses arcane methods to indulge in a very drastic form of identity theft. But the real meat of the narrative is the historical stuff, with its evocation of Massachusetts around the time of Salem witch mania. In the DART version these scenes are lively, and clearly gave the cast opportunity to let rip as a bunch of superstitious and often rather violent colonial Puritans. The scenes set in the early 20th century, by contrast, seem a tad restrained.

Young Charles and a family portrait

As with all DART productions, CDW is very well-produced, with good incidental music and sound effects. There are also period 'commercials' which offer a tongue-in-cheek way to get the listener in the mood. And the cast - members of a very versatile repertory company - seem like old friends, now. It's nice to hear co-writers Sean Branney and Andrew Lemon in a variety of supporting roles, with the ever-reliable Leslie Baldwin as Mrs Ward (Charles' mother). Kevin Stidham follows in the illustrious footsteps of Price and acquits himself very successfully in the double role of Charles Dexter Ward and Joseph Curwen. The main problem with the drama is simply that - like Lovecraft's story - the whole thing is a tad cluttered and wordy. Overall, though, it makes for a very good listen.

Since I'm on the subject, I might as well mention some other DART productions. The first I heard was At the Mountains of Madness, which is one of my favourite horror tales. The dramatisation didn't disappoint, not least because of the careful use of a framing narrative, with Worldwide Wireless News bulletins giving background on the Miskatonic expedition to the Antarctic before it all goes Horribly Wrong. Overall, it's an object lesson in how to take a complex narrative and give it plenty of dramatic impetus.

Worldwide Wireless News also provides the lead-in to The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The story begins with a look back at the famous Treasury Department raid on the eponymous seaport at the mouth of the Manuxet. A few years later, federal agent Jack McGraw goes to speak to his informant, a young man who visited Innsmouth while researching his family history. Robert Olmstead's story is genuinely absorbing even if you don't know the final twist. Overall, the atmosphere of the strange town and its unusual inhabitants is very well evoked and the ending has an authentic, visionary feel.

'Weather lovely, locals hybridised...'

The Dunwich Horror is great fun, not least in the cast's bold attempts to reproduce quaint old New England accents, plus the weird tones of the monstrous offspring of poor Lavinia Whately. The trickier elements of the plot - how to describe the invisible 'thing' and its demise, for instance - bring out the best in the DART team. So does the problem of Wilbur Whately, another memorable Lovecraftian character - his abnormally deep voice is just distinctive enough, without sounding silly.

The Shadow Out of Time, which was greatly admired by Arthur C. Clarke, is the most overtly science-fictional of Lovecraft's tales. Indeed, the main problem there's nothing especially horrifying about the original story, which is hardly DART's fault. The aliens behind it all are only physically monstrous. Mentally the 'Yithians' are rather admirable. The production also suffers from rather dodgy 'British' accents, but that's a minor quibble.

I can't end without mentioning the extras that the HPLHS always provides with the CDs (though not, of course, with the cheaper mp3 downloads). You get postcards, sketches, letters, and newspaper cuttings, among other things, all lovingly crafted to give a sense of 'historical' verisimilitude. Overall, the quality of these productions is so high that it bears comparison with the BBC, the only major producer of radio drama these days. It goes to show, firstly, what enthusiasts can do when they set their minds to it. It also illustrates - as if we needed to be reminded - just how much devotion Lovecraft's work still inspires. As someone remarked, friends are better than critics.

Oh, and the next DART production? Herbert West - Reanimator! I dread to think what the extras will be for that one.

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