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.

Dr. Quinlan is a great proponent of mesmerism, which he will later make clear is not the same thing as hypnosis; mesmerism is a “direct manipulation of the vital force.” He’s eager to experiment with this power “in articulo mortis,” that is, at the threshold of death

Valdemar's note to QuillenTo accomplish this, he needs a volunteer and has just obtained one: his friend, M. Ernest Valdemar (Matt Foyer), whom he has mesmerized before.

Valdemar has sent Quinlan a note asking him to come right away, that he expects to die some time the following evening.

Valdemar is suffering from a phthisic condition–that is, a wasting disease, probably tuberculosis given the detailed information we receive about the deterioration of the patient’s lungs from his doctors (Andrew Leman and David Pavao) when Quinlan arrives.

Once he hears the two doctors’ best estimates about his friend’s anticipated time of death—one says midnight, the other puts it earlier, around 8:30—Quinlan splits the difference and sends them away, asking them to return at 10:00 pm. He’s prepared to mesmerize Valdemar then, and has his friend’s consent to do so. Quinlan has also brought with him a medical student named Lionel (Jacob Andrew Lyle) to take notes on the proceedings, check Valdemar’s pulse, and generally keep watch and monitor his condition as he begins to fade.

The next evening, Quinlan mesmerizes Valdemar and puts him into a light trance. Valdemar’s vital signs falter soon afterward and he shows every indication of dying by the time the doctors return. At the moment of death, Quinlan puts him into a full trance.

In the morning, he’s still the same, confounding his doctors’ expectations. His limbs are rigid, but Quinlan can get them to move, following the motions of his own hand.

Valdemar speaks: “Asleep now. Do not wake me. Let me die so.” He says that he isn’t in pain anymore. “Still asleep… dying.”

Then he dies. He doesn’t look peaceful, but horribly cadaverous. His mouth falls open. His swollen, blackened tongue is moving.

According to Quinlan, the gelatinous sound of this dead man’s voice is not describable, but the interviewer assures him that regular Dark Adventure listeners have heard plenty of indescribable sounds. (Yes, we have.)

What Valdemar says is “I have been sleeping. Now, I am dead.”

Lionel faints.

There’s no pulse, no sign of circulation, no respiration. Valdemar’s rigid limbs no longer move even to follow Quinlan’s gestures. All medical opinion agrees that this man is definitely dead. But his tongue continues to quaver as if he’s still trying to speak.

Quinlan explains that Valdemar was held in this state by the mesmeric trance.  If Valdemar woke from the trance, then he would die (again).

You couldn’t leave him like that indefinitely, protests the interviewer—but that’s exactly what they did. For seven months.

M. Valdemar remained closely monitored, unliving, undead, until last week, Quinlan tells us, then describes what happened when he finally attempted one last experiment and woke his subject.

Illustration by Harry Clarke, from the 1919 Harrap edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.It’s a brisk telling of the story, using a small number of characters in three principle scenes, with no extraneous subplots. The audio play sticks closely to Poe’s text, chunks of which feature in Quinlan’s narrative and in the dialog. To keep things from getting too grim, however, there are a few additional touches to modernize the story for a circa-1930 setting and to add a little humor—for example, the two attending doctors bet how long Valdemar might live (“You owe me a dollar.”)

The use of sound is terrific, especially the increasing gloopiness of Valdemar’s voice, indicating his decay. While we can’t see what happens to him at the end, we can certainly hear it.

This being an HPLHS production, the Quinlan concludes his tale with a quotation from Lovecraft: “That is not dead which can eternal lie.” Sure. But if it tries to sit up, it’ll turn into an unholy, disgusting mess pretty quickly.

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*This reminds me of an episode of the British 1970s miniseries, Dickens of London, in which the aged Charles Dickens (Roy Dotrice) reminisces about a visit to America when he met Poe. Poe takes him to see the entranced M. Valdemar in an empty old house near Baltimore. It’s not clear if Dickens is telling a tall-tale about his brush with Poe, or if Poe set the incident up as a prank on the more successful author.

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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