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 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

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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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DVD Review: The Changeling

Ghostly wheelchairI remember seeing commercials when this movie came out in 1980. The featured image was of an empty wheelchair chasing someone down through a house, which my friends and I thought very funny and not at all scary.

This is a pity, since The Changeling is for the most part an effective, classic ghost story with a touch of post-Watergate conspiracy thrown in.

The movie starts with a happy family. A husband and wife (George C. Scott and Jean Marsh, who once played that less-happy couple, Edward Fairfax Rochester and Bertha Mason) and their little girl are pushing a paneled station wagon up a snowy country road in upstate New York.  In spite of the car’s breakdown in the middle of nowhere, everyone is laughing and joking.

When they reach a turn-off with one of those large wooden signs indicating the entrance to a State Park, the husband crosses the road to a phone booth on the other side to call for assistance. The wife and daughter engage in a playful snowball fight between the car and the sign.

Another car comes up the snow-covered road in one direction. A big truck appears in the other. The second car skids, and the truck swerves to avoid it–and crashes into the station wagon, propelling it into the sign.

The husband in the phone booth can only look on, horrified and helpless as the people most dear to him are killed.

Just over a year later, the man, whose name is John Russell, packs up everything in the apartment where he and his family used to live, and moves to Seattle. There, he tells his welcoming friends how long it took before he could believe that his wife and child were gone, and then he couldn’t stop saying “They’re gone” for several months more. It’s a heartbreaking but entirely convincing portrayal of overwhelming grief after a tragedy. The conversation also establishes that Russell is a well-known composer and an alumnus of the Seattle university where he’s accepted a position to teach advanced music theory.

His friends invite him to stay with them for as long as he likes, but Russell looks at their daughters, the elder of whom resembles his own recently deceased little girl, and gracefully declines. He says that he’d like to rent or buy a house for himself where he can work on his music. They suggest that he contact a friend of theirs at the local historical society.

Russell does so, and a woman from the historical society named Claire Norman (Trish van der Vere, who was married to Scott in real life) shows him a beautiful but neglected late-Victorian home called the Chessman House. No one has lived there in 12 years, but Claire thinks that it’s just the place for John Russell; there’s a music room with a piano.

Chessman HouseAs John removes the dust sheet over the piano to examine it, he asks, “What are the terms?”

The terms must’ve been be agreeable, since we cut from this question to a cleaning lady polishing the dining-room table, a handyman putting books on the study shelves, and John Russell playing his new piano.

Well, old piano. One of the keys sticks. But when he’s called away for a few minutes to deal with some business involving the house’s restoration to a habitable condition, the key depresses by itself, and an ominous, vibrating tone emanates from the piano.

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DVD Review: Die, Monster Die

Cursed is the ground where the Dark Forces live, new and strangely bodied... He who tampers there will be destroyed.After the success of Roger Corman’s cycle of films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, AIP naturally wanted to produce more like them, but they soon had to turn to other sources. There simply aren’t that many Poe short stories easily  adapted to the screen, and fewer still that could be stretched into full-length movies. Once they’d used up their best candidates, including a comedic spoof in The Raven and the anthology Tales of Terror, AIP turned to HP Lovecraft. In the early 1960s, Lovecraft hadn’t yet gained his fame, while Poe was well-known as America’s leading writer of the macabre, so they used the former writer’s story ideas, dressed up in trappings of the latter.

I call such movies Poe’d-up Lovecraft.

Die, Monster, Die isn’t the earliest example, nor the best, but it’s on the flip-side of The Dunwich Horror and it’s got Boris Karloff in one of his last films.

Those familiar with Lovecraft’s work will eventually recognize this film’s story as a loose adaptation of The Colour Out of Space.  Viewers unfamiliar with Lovecraft might take it for a modernized version of AIP’s own House of Usher; both films begin in a similar way.

Like Usher, Die, Monster, Die opens with a young man seeking out the family home of the woman he loves. This film’s hero Stephen Reinhart (a pugnacious Nick Adams) arrives at the sleepy UK–not Massachusetts–village of Arkham to encounter nothing but obstruction when the villagers hear that he wants to go to the Witley estate. They won’t drive him there, nor rent him a bike or car, nor even point him in the right direction. But walk he does, out into the countryside until he crosses a blasted landscape with dead, blackened trees that crumble in his hands when he touches them, and a prominent impact crater in the midst of it.

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Dark Shadows: The Book of Temptation

This Dark Shadows audio drama on CD picks up where The House of Despair leaves off: Quentin Collins has returned to Collinsport to find his family home haunted and abandoned, and his family mysteriously gone; he’s summoned up Angelique, who in turn has resurrected Barnabas Collins in a new body (to match his new voice).

The Book of TemptationsWhile this long-lived and supernatural trio are up at Collinwood trying to figure out what happened to the rest of the Collinses, Maggie Evans, now proprietor of the Collinsport Inn, looks after  traumatized Willie Loomis.

Willie had a rough time up at Collinwood due to his own part in driving out the evil entity that occupied the house. For one reason or another, it became necessary for the newly restored Barnabas to bite him again, so Willie’s back where he was as far as playing Renfield.

Not that Maggie knows this. She’s forgotten that she ever knew Barnabas was a vampire,  and certainly doesn’t know that he’s alive again.

Willie has said something to the effect that “he wants me back” at Collinwood. Maggie assumes that “he” refers to Quentin and heads up to the house to find out what happened to Willie there and why he wakes up screaming.

At the house, she meets the new Barnabas, who introduces himself–not as the Barnabas she used to know, you understand, but another member of the Collins family with that  same name who’s come to help Quentin. He doesn’t claim to be a relative from England, but he sounds more British than Johnathan Frid did.

While she’s at Collinwood, Maggie is lured into a room in the servants’ quarters by a whispered woman’s voice.  She thinks it’s Angelique, whom she met as an “associate” of  Quentin’s when she first came in, and who was jealously catty to her because of that Barnabas / Josette thing two whole centuries ago.

Maggie discovers an old journal written by a maid named Charlotte Howell and reads the opening passages, which are dated April 16, 1926.  Charlotte writes that the Collinses have made her work hard but they’ve been kind to her, more kind than her previous employers. But they have a weird habit of locking the servants up in their rooms every night. There’s a touch of romance concerning a young man Charlotte met at the Blue Whale.

It doesn’t sound like much, but this is where the trouble for Maggie really begins, for this journal is the Book of Temptation mentioned in the audio-play’s title. Once you start reading it, you can’t stop.

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Dark Shadows: House of Despair

I hadn’t realized when I bought this Dark Shadows audio drama on CD that parts of it would already be known to me. When I listened to it for the first time, familiar phrases jumped out:

“My name is Quentin Collins. I come from an old family–and old families have long-held secrets…”

“I’d forgotten what a strange town this is…”

“…poor people, barely people at all. They seem empty.”

I’d heard these lines spoken multiple times in an ad that appears at the very end of each of the Dark Shadows: The Beginning DVDs, long before I’d seen Quentin Collins on the show or grew to recognize Angelique’s evil laugh. Intriguing as the ad might be, however, these phrases  never really gave me an idea of what the story behind them was about.

The House of DespairThe House of Despair takes place a few years after the end of the series–how many years, I’m not certain. Quentin Collins (David Selby) returns home from his world travels. Even before he gets there, the conductor on the train has some information for this passenger with a ticket to Collinsport. It’s a place with a reputation. “Bad things happen” there; “murder and sin are all they know”. The “Collins family is the scourge of Maine” [Quentin agrees, aware that the conductor doesn’t know who he is]. And, just as they arrive at the station, there’s this last piece of ominous advice:

“Once you leave this train, you won’t have a chance. It will be dark by then.”

A lesser man might be daunted, but Quentin has lived over a century and seen plenty of weird and horrible things going on in his hometown. He gets off the train, and soon finds  that the town is worse than ever. Collinsport has almost literally become a ghost town.

Few people remain in town since the cannery closed, and many of those who still live there are in a dazed state.  They’re called The Lost, since they go about wandering the streets at night as if they’re looking for something. They don’t even seem to remember who they are. Flocks of strangely behaving seagulls also menace the town. Townsfolk who are not afflicted lock their doors and stay in after nightfall.

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Kolchak: The Energy Eater

Matchemonedo In spite of the not terribly descriptive title, this is an episode I’m fond of. It features one of those extremely low-budget invisible monsters–but it’s a interesting invisible monster, when the viewer does sort of see it.

The episode begins with Carl Kolchak writing, and narrating, from a hospital bed, about the  construction of Chicago’s new Lakefront Hospital. The dedication ceremony to open the place officially and show off the up-to-date medical equipment was a major press event, but once we go to flashback we see that Carl attends only grudgingly. This isn’t the kind of news story he’s interested in.

He rejects the standard press packet–and is very condescending to the young woman who offers it to him (“That’s very good. You remembered that all by yourself?”)–and gets sulky when he misses the opportunity to get a drink before the hospital administrators make their speeches.

Then the lights flicker; that rouses Carl’s curiosity. The building is brand new, so why is it having electrical problems already?

Unbeknownst to Carl (at that time, but since it features in his voice-over narrative, we can be sure that he learned all about it later), a man has just been electrocuted in the basement. There’s some sort of tremor that cracks the walls, and a high-voltage breaker panel behind him explodes in a shower of sparks.

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A Tour of the Borden House

A couple of weeks ago, I was staying in Providence, Rhode Island. Fall River, Massachusetts, is only about 10 miles away. Since I’d written a review of The Legend of Lizzie Borden this past spring and felt I was pretty well read up on the case, I had to go and see the site of the murders for myself. So on that Saturday morning, I took the short drive over to Fall River and located the Borden house on Second St.

The Borden houseThe house is about the only thing in the neighborhood that remains the same as it was in 1892. The neighboring homes of the Churchills, the Kellys, and the Bowens are long gone, replaced by new and larger buildings.

I knew that the present owners ran the house as a bed and breakfast and also held tours on an hourly basis.

I arrived too late for the first tour of the day and had to wait for next one. Tickets can be purchased inside the barn at the back–the barn where Lizzie Borden claimed she was eating pears and looking for lead for sinkers during the time her father was murdered. It’s now the gift shop.

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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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Kolchak: The Spanish Moss Murders

Many years ago, a friend and I were driving to Atlanta for a library conference; our route took us across the northeastern corner of Alabama during a moonlit night. When we stopped for gas, she excitedly pointed out some nearby trees draped with what looked like straggling clumps of green-gray yarn that someone had attempted to knit into scarves then tossed over the branches when the results turned out badly, but were actually the outgrowths of a parasitical plant.

Kolchak and some Spanish Moss “Look,” she said, “it’s that stuff you see growing on trees in movies about the South.”

That stuff would be Spanish moss, and it does look rather spooky in the right kind of  dramatic light even on a tree… and even more so when it’s all over Richard Kiel.

The Spanish Moss Murders sounds like the title for an Ellery Queen mystery novel, but it happens to be one of the best Kolchak episodes. It’s got a lot of humor, featuring a number of interesting and amusing characters in small roles, plus a monster that isn’t one of the commonplace vampires or werewolves.

This monster is a fabled creature from the swamps of Louisiana, used by generations of parents to frighten children into behaving themselves (although I can’t confirm whether or not it’s actually based on Cajun legends or if it was made up just for this show.) It’s brought into existence by remarkable means, through a combination of scientific research, the need to dream,  and the dark world of childhood fears that lurk in the recesses of our minds even after we’re grown up.

“The visions and nightmares of childhood,” Carl Kolchak tells us in his opening narration, “are the most terrifying any human being can imagine.”

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