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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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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Kolchak: Two episodes

The Devil’s Platform

Devil doggie. Are the fangs fake?“Palmer is evil incarnate! He’s going to go all the way to the White House, to the Oval Office!”

Not one of my favorites, but I suppose it was inevitable in the immediate post-Watergate era.

In brief, a Chicago politician (Tom Skerrit) has sold his soul to the Devil. (I know, I know — Just the one?) To facilitate his meteoric rise from obscurity to the Senate, and perhaps beyond, Bob Palmer gets rid of all who oppose him by killing them off in horrific and somewhat flamboyant ways. Occasionally, he accomplishes these matters personally in the form of a big woofums doggie, which is kind of cute when it’s not snarling ferociously.

Carl Kolchak gets in Palmer’s way while waiting for an elevator at a high-rise building. The elevator is coming down much too fast, since Palmer and his about-to-be-late campaign manager are inside, along with a number of other unfortunate people. Carl hears their screams as the elevator drops and, after it crashes into the basement, rushes downstairs to get a photo.

In addition to all the now-dead people in the elevator, there is also the doggie wearing a pentagram on a chain around its neck. No sign of Palmer. As the dog leaps past Carl, the chain catches on his coat sleeve and he winds up in possession of the pentagram–and pursued by the dog.

When Palmer’s opponent for the Senate dies in a car crash that evening, it occurs to Carl that there’ve been a lot of weird deaths surrounding Palmer’s campaign. Then he notices a photograph of Palmer wearing the same pentagram.

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Kolchak: Firefall

I’ve always been fond of this episode, in spite of its flaws. It shows a certain originality in merging the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion with the ages-old myths and legends of the double spirit, fetch, or doppelganger; the only similar supernatural story I’ve seen occurred in the Dark Shadows Phoenix plotline. I  mentioned this episode when I reviewed that and wondered if both might’ve been written by the same person (they weren’t).

Crossing the hearseIt’s a bad idea to cut off a hearse en route to a funeral. That’s the lesson famed Chicago Symphony conductor Ryder Bond (Fred Beir) will learn after he does precisely this to avoid being late for a rehearsal at the very beginning of the episode. The spirit of the deceased man, a convicted arsonist and cheap hood with thwarted musical ambitions by the name of Frankie Markoff, decides that the life Bond is living is much better than the one he recently departed from in a hail of mob bullets. He sets about taking over Bond’s life.

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DVD Review: The Legend of Lizzie Borden

LizzieLizzie Borden took an axe
Gave her father 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
Gave her mother 41.

Now that that’s out of the way, I must point out that most of the details in this famous poem are wrong.

Abby Borden was killed at least an hour before her husband, not long after 9:30 on the morning of August 4, 1892; she was last seen alive going up to the guest room of her home in Fall River, Massachusetts, to put fresh pillowcases on the bed. Her husband Andrew was murdered around 11:00 that same morning. Although both were struck multiple times with an axe or hatchet, the number of blows in each case was much less than 40/1.

And even though general opinion over the last century is that Lizzie Borden is the most likely person to have killed her stepmother and father, she was acquitted at her trial.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden was a made-for-TV movie that first aired ABC early in 1975 as a vehicle for Elizabeth Montgomery. In the years following BewitchedMontgomery chose to play a series of serious and critically acclaimed roles in controversial dramas–in this case, America’s most well-known probable axe murderer.*

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DVD Review: Dragonwyck

Dragonwyck

When I was 15, I was hit by a car while crossing the street on my way home from school. I spent several weeks in a cast and weeks more recovering afterwards, and which gave me a lot of time to read. My mother gave me a large paper shopping bag filled with romance novels, bought for a dime a piece at a garage sale. I read them all during those months after the accident, and even at that young age formed a general impression of romantic fiction that hasn’t changed much since. Most of these novels can be placed in one of three categories:

  1. The ones that want to be Pride and Prejudice. Usually set in Regency England.
  2. The ones that want to be Gone With the Wind, especially the part where Rhett carried Scarlett up the stairs. Often set against the sweeping backdrop of some major historical event. Bodices will be ripped.
  3. The ones that want to be Jane Eyre. May or not be historical, featuring a naive young woman who comes to a big and gloomy old house owned by a brooding older man with dark secrets. If the book cover features a woman in a white dress running away from said house, then it’s very likely one of these.

Dragonwyck falls into this last category. I haven’t read it since I was a teenager, but the 1944 novel by Anya Seton was an enormous success when it was first published. The film version followed in 1946 and was also a big hit, starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.

Gene Tierney and Vincent PriceIt wasn’t the first time Tierney and Price had appeared in a major film together; she almost married him a couple of years earlier in the noir classic Laura but ended up with Dana Andrews instead. For the best really.

She should’ve avoided making the same mistake this time too. His character’s much worse in this film–it’s one of Price’s earliest villain roles and probably led to the shift from playing junior George-Sanders at Fox to becoming a horror icon at AIP.

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Dark Shadows: Curse of the Pharaoh

Last week, I went shopping on Amazon to see how many other Dark Shadows audio dramas were available, following Return to Collinwood. Quite a lot of them, as it turns out. They come in two types: 1. Audio plays performed like old-fashioned radio programs with a cast of actors from the original show in their old roles or new ones; 2. Dramatic readings of Dark-Shadows-based stories done by one, maybe two, of the actors. I picked out one of each.

Curse of the Pharaoh is a dramatic reading, done by Nancy Barrett, who played Carolyn Stoddard, and Marie Wallace, who played Evil Eve and Mad Jenny.

Why this one? From the description on the back of the CD box:

Curse of the Pharaoh“Finding Nefarin-Ka’s tomb was only the beginning… I made the most important discovery in archeological history.”

Dr. Gretchen Warwick, famed Egyptologist … comes to Collin- wood, searching for the answers to life in the hereafter.  At first, Carolyn cannot comprehend why an expert in ancient, mystical lore would desire her help, but to her horror, discovers that she is indeed the key to a dark, dangerous world on the other side of death….

In my review of the final episodes of Dark Shadows, I mentioned a feature on the last DVD where one of the show’s writers foretold a future for Carolyn in occult research; I said I would love to watch a spin-off series based on that premise. Although this story doesn’t follow that idea exactly, it seemed to be along similar lines. Also, I’d just listened to the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre play Imprisoned with the Pharaohs to prepare for writing that review, and I thought I’d like to hear another story about an evil ancient Egyptian ruler with a cult that survives into modern times. As it turns out, the story does have its own Lovecraftian overtones.

It was amusing to me that this story begins with Carolyn looking over “strange, alien” hieroglyphics and declaring that “It makes no sense!” just as Nathaniel Ward did.

Carolyn, however, is not in a deep and long-forgotten tomb in Egypt, but in her own home at Collinwood. She is making subtle changes to the hieroglyphs as transcribed in the notes of some person as yet unnamed, and is terrified that that person will come in and discover her before she finishes.

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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!

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Who Killed Toby Glovins? Third Excerpt

It was dusk by the time Freddie returned to Foxgrove Park. At this same hour yesterday, they’d found Toby dead. Instead of entering the house, he walked a little way down the drive toward the Vixen and let himself in through a latched iron gate in the garden wall. He wasn’t ready to face anybody yet.

Toby Glovins cover detailThe garden was quiet, seemingly abandoned, but as he wandered the shrubbery, he heard the sound of someone sobbing. Freddie traced the sound to the pavilion. The decorative lanterns that had been hung up around the lawn remained unlit, but there was enough light cast from the Vixen’s windows for him to see Amelia weeping in the bower they’d made for her.

“Mellie?”

She lifted her face from her handkerchief. “Freddie?”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine… as well as can be expected. I had to get away. Everyone means well, but I can’t bear to hear one more person tell me how lucky I am to be free of Evvy. I don’t feel lucky! I’m sorry about the flowers,” she added nonsensically. “You worked so hard on this silly bower and now it’ll have to come down before they wilt and turn brown.”

Freddie ventured a few steps closer. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”

“No,” Mellie answered after a moment. “Since you’re here, you might as well stay.” She patted the wooden bench as an invitation to join her. “Are you still investigating?”

“Yes,” he said as he sat down.

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