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.

The house is now occupied by the doctor’s sister Sarah. Miss Cornwallis apparently lives alone, but the local delivery boy can tell them that her weekly grocery order always includes seven whole stewing chickens. That’s a lot of chicken for one little old lady.

Nathaniel Ward When they approach the house for a chat with Sarah, she seems like a nice but slightly demented and frightened old woman. She offers them tea–which, Nate says, isn’t something they usually get on these weird adventures. Pity.

Among her vagaries, Sarah speaks of feeding “the baby” and it quickly emerges that Mrs Cornwallis’s child didn’t die at birth after all.

According to Sarah, her sister-in-law tried on a pair of peculiarly designed spectacles and not only saw something that terrified her–but something saw her as well. Like the unfortunate Mary at the beginning of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, Mrs. Cornwallis’s encounter with the terrible unseen world results in a child–half-human and half… well, whatever he is, his name is Jeremy and he lives in a well on the grounds. When Sarah forgets to feed him his chickens, as she’s doing more often of late as her mental state deteriorates, the hungry Jeremy goes hunting around the neighborhood for something else to eat.

The spectacles are still in the house, discovered in the doctor’s locked study/alchemical lab (Jenny picks the lock with a hairpin), along with some astronomical charts and the Dr. Cornwallis’s old diary in Latin (Nate translates).

That’s just the first part of Disc 1. The initial mystery of the child-murders is solved, but the clues the trio finds at the Cornwallis house lead them into a vast and even more dark mystery concerning a young boy who was considered the chosen one by a cult called the Brotherhood of the Beast. Not Jeremy. According to Dr. Cornwallis’s diary, this child’s birth was foretold by the “prophecy of Nophru-Ka”. Nophru-Ka, Nate tells us, was a priest in ancient Egypt, founder of the cult; he was destroyed by the Pharaoh for attempting to draw down monsters from the stars to serve the Beast. What, or who, the Beast is exactly isn’t made clear at this point, but Nate Ward has encountered the cult once before, on a dig in Egypt in his grad-student days. He was the only one of his group to survive.

The boy was obtained by Dr. Cornwallis and handed over to a Romanian Baron named Hauptman. It was Baron Hauptman who gave the spectacles to the doctor as a reward. The boy, whom Hauptman refers to in a letter to Cornwallis as “Young Master Edward” would be a man in his 30s now.

Since the diary also says that “the stars do not promise another such birth” for another century, they take the spectacles and star charts to an astronomer friend at Miskatonic Observatory, Jordan Lowell (David Pavao)*, to see if he can back-cast the precise date of Edward’s birth. This turns out to be February 2, 1880–that’s Candlemas, also known as the witches’ Sabbath of Walpurgisnacht.

The next step is to pay a visit to Baron Hauptman to track down “Young Master Edward’s” current location.

The search takes the group of investigators to a castle in Transylvania, where they pick up a strapping Australian friend of Charlie’s named Owen, then across the world to a mine in Peru, then to San Francisco. Along the way, they encounter vampires, mi-go, a sinister Chinese man in a white silk suit whom Nate Ward has encountered before, and that most dangerous of all creatures, a millionaire industrialist: Edward Chandler, president of the somewhat ominous-sounding New World Incorporated (NWI).

Once they’ve identified Chandler as the Brotherhood’s chosen one, the group now consisting of five adventurers tours the San Francisco headquarters of NWI to see some of the fabulous technological marvels this company is working on: a “trans-resistor” that will replace the vacuum tube and lead to the construction of radios small enough to be carried in one hand; mechanical men that can do work too dangerous for humans; and the wondrous “radiovisor” that will allow people to watch moving pictures in the comfort of their own homes.

NWI BrochureOf course, what they’re really looking for is a way to infiltrate the place and find out what Chandler is up to.

When Nate, Jenny, and Jordan slip away from the tour, they run into a guy named Jergens who’s been working at NWI under a maniacal  German scientist for some time. He knows a great deal about what really goes on at NWI and gives them the information they’ve been looking for.

So, what is NWI doing? Building a machine like Hauptman’s inter-dimensional spectacles but on a grand scale. Not only will the beings on the other side be able to see through to our world, but to come through. It’s not global domination Chandler is after, but global destruction.

The machine is going to be tested the following night and Chandler will be present at the San Francisco headquarters to watch. If it works, the big day–the Day of the Beast, when Chandler fulfills the prophecy of Nophru-Ka–occurs in Egypt in two weeks’ time.

Jergens offers his new friends access to the restricted parts of the building tomorrow night so they can put a stop to the test and destroy the whole place–and the machine and Chandler with it.

Returning to their hotel, the companions discuss the best way to deal with the pending situation. Each has their own idea:

  1. Charlie Tower wants to go back to NWI at the appointed time, even though Jergens might be setting a trap for them, and have it out with Chandler and his minions then and there.
  2. Nate Ward wants to try a little necromancy of his own and on the Day of the Beast, summon up the spirit of the Egyptian queen Nitocris to sic her and her army of wingless ka monstrosities on Chandler et al. To do this, he’ll need Nitocris’s mummy. (I thought that her own followers had stolen it from the Cairo museum at the end of Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, but Nate says that Houdini still has it. Well, let’s not be nitpicky about these minor inconsistencies, as long as the reawakened spirit of a mummy’s involved.)
  3. Jordan Lowell wants to go to the authorities, believing that the military has much greater resources at their disposal to deal with this kind of threat. But will anybody in authority believe their crazy story?
  4. Jenny Alexander, whose last boyfriend was a mobster, proposes that they conduct a “hit” on Chandler en route to Egypt, preferably shooting down his airship over the ocean so that he disappears without a trace.

Charlie says that he’ll consider all four of these options overnight and decide which course of action to take. He’ll let his friends know what they’re going to do in the morning. That’s where Disc 2 ends.

Disc 3 has four separate story tracks that the listener can select; each has Charlie Tower making a different decision on which of these plans he intends to carry out. The listener then follows that chosen scenario to its outcome. Some strategies are more successful than others, and not everyone in the group survives each scenario. There’s more than one version of how Nate Ward’s hand was injured, as seen in The Whisperer in Darkness. Those NWI-created mechanical men make an appearance–but you just know that killer ‘bots had to show up at some point once they were introduced. And the true nature of the Beast changes from one ending to the next.

I like Nate’s ending best, because I like him and I like Egyptian mystical stories, but no matter how the story ends, it’s a highly entertaining adventure, witty, full of allusions to Lovecraft’s stories as well as snappy, fast-talking 1930s’style dialog. In spite of its epic proportions, it never slows down, but keeps its characters and plot hopping all around the world at a rapid pace.

Among the props included with the disc are a delightful brochure from NWI about the marvels of the electronic age, a newspaper article from the 1890s about the deaths of Dr. and Mrs. Cornwallis, and a photostatic copy of the ancient papyrus of Nophru-Ka. HPLHS also offers a deluxe edition, that includes a whole bag full of props related to the episode.

Brotherhood of the Beast props____________________

*All three appeared in The Whisperer in Darkness. Ward and Tower have also shown up in other Dark Adventure radio plays (Dagon: War of the Worlds and Imprisoned with the Pharaohs).

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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