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.

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version, like Lovecraft’s story, is told from the first-person perspective of Edward’s best friend, Daniel Upton (Andrew Leman). In this audio play, Upton explains to an unsympathetic assistant district attorney why he shot his friend at the Arkham Asylum–not to harm him, Upton insists, but to avenge him.

As with most of the Dark Adventure dramas, this first-person narrative provides a frame for a series of flashback scenes. We begin with Upton’s and Edward Derby’s first meeting as boys at school, when they form a friendship over their mutual admiration for the poet Justin Geoffrey (the boys should have taken heed of how Geoffrey ended up), and develop  their friendship over the years. Particular emphasis is given to Edward’s distinctive, rhythmic knock on the door when he visits Upton and his family.

Although Upton isn’t there to witness it, there’s also a scene of Edward’s introduction to Asenath.

Upton looks on during his friend’s courtship and unhappy marriage, unable to puzzle out exactly what’s going on between the couple. He’s especially baffled when he has to drive Edward home from the woodlands of Maine and listens to a somewhat incoherent explanation of how Asenath got her husband all the way out there, unable to make his own way back to Arkham. When Edward alludes to the body-swapping relationship between himself, Asenath, and Asenath’s supposedly deceased father, Upton can’t believe it.

As he speaks of what Asenath’s ultimate plans are with regard to him at the upcoming Hallow-mass, Edward abruptly changes in mid-sentence from an hysterical and desperate man to one entirely in charge of the situation. He now has a completely different explanation to give Upton about what’s been happening to him.

It all ends with some sort of show-down between the Derbys, and Asenath’s abrupt departure from Arkham–or so Edward later tells Upton. After some weeks, Edward has a violent relapse into terror and is subsequently committed to the city asylum. Then Edward suddenly appears to recover… but which personality is displayed when the initially relieved Upton comes to see him?

The district attorney listens with growing skepticism (and an eye-rolling “only in Arkham” attitude to the arcane beliefs of the people involved), culminating in her complete disbelief as Upton describes the night when the misshaped Thing appeared his doorstep and handed him a smeared note in Edward’s handwriting, speared on the end of a pencil. She feels she has a pretty good case to charge Upton for murder and several ideas on his true motivations, from money to jealousy. But the story concludes with evidence from the morgue, indicating that Upton might’ve been telling the truth after all.

I was very impressed by some of the voice work on this audio play. Hollie Hunt gives Asenath’s voice a deep richness with just a hint of predatory menace, particularly when she first meets Edward. “I could just eat him up.” The alteration in Edward’s voice when his personality changes from boyish to a more mature and self-assured tone made me check the liner credits to see if it was the same person doing both. It was: Kevin Stidham.

I also note that a number of female characters have been added to the story, mostly in smaller roles. The assistant district attorney is woman, a rarity in this story’s setting of 1930. Daniel Upton’s wife discusses the situation concerning Edward with him (with naive but perceptive comments added from their young son); the Uptons at first laugh over Edward’s infatuation with the seemingly older Asenath, agreeing that he’s looking for new “mommy” to replace his own recently deceased mother.  The dilettante witch-wannabe who chattily tells Edward all she knows about Asenath’s personal history, including how weird Asenath was even as a young girl at boarding school.  The neighbor-ladies that gossip about the newly-married couple’s odd behavior.

A lot of neat stuff is included in the CD box:

  • Asenath’s Miskatonic University student ID.
  • A newspaper gossip column about Edward’s and Asenath’s upcoming marriage.
  • The note given to Upton by the Thing that appeared on his doorstep, explaining just what’s been going on, and smudged by some greenish fingerprints. I especially like that the paper is actually punctured as if by a pencil-tip.
  • A rather grisly photograph of the remains of the Thing at the morgue, with some typed and handwritten notes on the back as to its identity.
  • The psychological assessment of Edward Derby’s mental state on his admittance to Arkham Asylum with handwritten notes on the strange words he was speaking.  (“Show Goth” — hah!)

Collage of items from Thing on the Doorstep

 

 

About Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats. As well as being the author of numerous short stories, novellas, and essays, she is the author of "Maiden in Light," "The Wizard's Son," and "Sonnedragon," novels set on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period. All three are part of an intended series of fantasy novels that mostly take place in a dukedom called the Northlands, a part of the Norman Empire that roughly covers the north-eastern U.S.
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