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.

Walter Gilman was a brilliant young mathematician. Like so many Miskatonic students, he also dabbled in the occult and sought to read forbidden books like the Necronomicon.

Unfortunately, his curiosity eventually focused upon a colonial-era witch, Keziah Mason, who showed a remarkable talent for higher maths and even seemed to put her work with non-Euclidian geometry to practical applications that allowed her move through time and space. She disappeared mysteriously from her jail cell in Salem during her trial–

“That was in 1692–the gaoler had gone mad and babbled of a small, white-fanged furry thing which scuttled out of Keziah’s cell, and not even Cotton Mather could explain the curves and angles smeared on the grey stone walls with some red, sticky fluid.”

When they first meet, Gilman explains all of this enthusiastically to his new friend Elwood, who’s from the Midwest and is unfamiliar with this bit of Arkham lore. “Go on!” says Frank. “You’re pulling my leg.” A lot of Arkham history, not to mention more recent events involving people at the university, would probably seem just as weird to him if he knew about them.

Gilman has taken a room at the top of what used to be Keziah Mason’s home, still known locally as The Witch House. For everyone else who lives there, it’s an old and unevenly built house that provides cheap accommodation; they stay in spite of the place’s reputation simply because they can’t afford anyplace else. For Gilman, its history is its greatest appeal:

“When he heard the hushed Arkham whispers about Keziah’s persistent presence in the old house and the narrow streets, about the irregular human toothmarks left on certain sleepers in that and other houses, about the childish cries heard near May Eve, and Hallowmass, about the stench often noted in the old house’s attic just after those dreaded seasons, and about the small, furry, sharp-toothed thing which haunted the mouldering structure and the town and nuzzled people curiously in the black hours before dawn, he resolved to live in the place at any cost.”

Which tells you right away that he’s just asking for trouble.

At this point in the audio drama, Gilman regards Keziah Mason as a scientist ahead of her time on par with Newton, Planck, and Einstein, victimized by the ignorant and superstitious of her own era. The higgildy-piggildy structure of her house is of interest to him. He’s especially intrigued by the peculiar angles where the walls and ceiling meet at one end of his garret–a room no one else will stay in. He believes that there’s a loft overhead, the entrance to which has been boarded over, and a secret space beside his room. He tears off strips of wallpaper against the baffled protests of his landlord, who refuses to let him knock holes in the walls or ceiling to search further.

There are already holes in the baseboards–rat holes–regularly blocked and then reopened by the rodents Gilman hears skittering around inside the walls.

In addition to his mathematical talents, Gilman has a hypersensitive sense of hearing, and it’s through this that his connection with Keziah Mason becomes more than academic.

My favorite part of the audio experience is the layering of sounds: the noises from the street, music, dogs barking, the clock ticking, one of the neighbors praying, and faintly beneath it all, the witch’s voice in creepy whispered incantations. It’s difficult to make out what she’s saying beyond “Naheb,” which is her own secret name, and occasional references to Azathoth. And then Brown Jenkin chitters and laughs.

For Keziah is still around–space and time mean nothing to her–and it looks like she’s as interested in Walter Gilman as he is in her.

He begins having vivid dreams of traveling through vast abysses past huge objects–structures, prisms, cubes–accompanied by bubbles that move around and might actually be organic beings. He also dreams of conversations with Keziah Mason and her ratty companion; he doesn’t remember what they said, but he thinks they have more secrets to show him. (Frank Elwood shares one of his dreams too: “That girl from the library was locked in a tower made of Eskimo pies… and by the time I got to the top, somehow she was my Aunt Helen. “)

Gilman’s own perceptions of abstract mathematical and hyperdimensional concepts expand. In a nicely laid out and amusing scene, he explains his ideas to his fellow students during a class.  He moves swiftly from 4-dimensional space to 5, and then goes higher; there are at least 10 dimensions.  We are already in these dimensions, he says, only we can’t see them.

When he brings up the possibility of travel to other planets by folding space, using the metaphor of an ant’s journey on a folded-over piece of newspaper, the other students dismiss it as “theoretical mumbo-jumbo.” When he brings up shamans, alchemists, and witches, and references the Necronomicon, the professor shuts the conversation down.

A group of concerned professors, including Dr. Armitage from The Dunwich Horror, call Walter in for a serious talk.* Undergraduates aren’t allowed access to the special library collections and he shouldn’t have gotten near the Necronomicon. They’re worried about the direction his studies have taken, combining differential equations with folklore. They want him not to study so hard and to see the campus doctor.

There are two key differences between Lovecraft’s story and this adaptation. First, Gilman here believes that his dreams are real almost from the beginning, while Lovecraft’s Gilman continued to his insist that his vivid dreams were only dreams even after he had evidence to show that these things were really happening to him. Second, Elwood isn’t just a bystander and witness to Gilman’s destruction, but becomes an active if inadvertent participant.

It’s already too late for Walter Gilman. He ignores everything the professors have said and is keen to go with his work.

The two boys take a rowboat trip to an uninhabited island the middle of the river, long said to be the site for witches’ rituals on Walpurgisnacht, or May Eve. Gilman says he’s visited the place in one of his recent dreams and has seen Keziah Mason there. He’s also seen Keziah in the slummy alleyways near the house. He believes that the ancient standing stones on the island are a map to those other dimensions beyond current human perception and he wants to make measurements. Elwood helps, although he doesn’t fully understand all this talk about mathematics and fundamental truths about reality.

At his friend’s request, Elwood “borrows” the Necronomicon from the university library.

Father Ivanicki, who has been listening to Frank Elwood’s account of all this, starts to pray. He knows that these are “grave transgressions with grave consequences”.

In Gilman’s dreams, Keziah and Brown Jenkin are now accompanied by a third figure, a black man in a long robe (In Lovecraft’s story, we get hints that this gentleman’s feet are in fact cloven hooves). Shortly before May Eve, this unholy trio meets with Gilman in a slanty-floored room filled with old books and odd curios–the sealed-off loft. The black man has a book he wants Gilman to sign his name in, in blood. The trio then take him into the streets of Arkham to accompany them while they kidnap a child from a nearby tenement.

When he wakes the next morning, Gilman finds his wrist bitten–just where Brown Jenkin sunk his fangs in. The neighbors are all talking about the little boy who was taken in the night, and some of them provide fairly accurate descriptions of Walter and his remarkable companions.

The other inmates of the house besides the two university students are very much aware of what’s going on–but then they’re all foreigners with funny names and funny accents, and superstitious Catholics besides, so why should they be taken seriously when they claim to see the violet glow of witchlights in Gilman’s room and start handing out crucifixes?

It’s when May Eve arrives and Keziah wants Gilman to help her sacrifice the child that he finally balks. He manages to defeat the witch by throttling her with a crucifix on a chain and kicking her rat-friend into the abyss… but that’s not the end of it. There’s still a terrible price for the young man to pay for his betrayal of them. The injured Brown Jenkin survives long enough to take revenge.

When Elwood concludes his story, Father Ivanicki says that this kind of thing is precisely why the Church tries to keep books like the Necronomicon and the knowledge it contains out of people’s hands. His final words give this audio play a darker ending than Lovecraft’s original version as well as recall a line from Mephistopheles in Faust: “Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it.” Only now we can see it.

So remember, Kids: Don’t play around with the Necronomicon and non-Euclidian geometry. Sure, it seems like a cool idea and all your friends are doing it, but before you know where you are, there’s an evil rat-thing literally eating your heart out. And where’s the fun in that?

Included in this CD box are some of those exquisitely detailed hand-made prop items I love:

  • Mathematical equations and sketches of the stone temple by Walter Gilman.
  • An article about the destruction of the Witch House and some of the horrible things found in the hidden spaces.Dreams in the Witch House scrapbook
  • A photograph of Brown Jenkins’ skeleton (one of the grisly objects discovered in the house), attached to a notecard from the Miskatonic University Exhibit Museum attempting to describe the little monster’s anatomical peculiarities.
  • Keziah Mason’s testimony during her 1692 witchcraft trial. It looks like it’s a page from a 17th-century book, using a font type of the era. (“In which the goodly C.M.  [Cotton Mather?] doth put queftions vpon the acus’d K.M. and to which this damned Witch doth moft abominably and blafphemoufly renounce our LORD and Sauior and All Thynges Holy“)

This is a good, creepy adaptation of the story and I probably shouldn’t have listened to it that first time in the dark–but by the time it ended, I was sitting in a room lit only by the little red lights on the CD player. The room had become quiet; the Calico Horrors Part 2 and 3 had gone off to play somewhere else in the house. As I got up to pop out the disk, Charley, the eldest of the Calico Horrors, came up behind me to run her claws down the wall. Scrittchhh.

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* It’s a small world at Miskatonic University during the 1920s and ’30s. Not only does Dr. Armitage make an appearance here, but Professor Wilmarth from The Whisperer in Darkness and his folklore and mythology class are mentioned a couple of times. Nathanial Ward–who isn’t an original Lovecraft character, but who does appear in the film version of The Whisperer in Darkness and at least one other HPLHS audio drama I haven’t gotten to yet–shows up as well to offer an opinion and a warning when Frank Elwood brings him a small, spiky sculpture that Gilman carried back from one of his dream visits to another planet.

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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