While the cinemas were closed I found myself exploring the world of audio dramas. I have been finding these quite entertaining, particularly if they are of the horror variety. You may recall that for Retro Hugo Awards research purposes I listened to an adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain, made for the radio programme Suspense! (and sponsored by Roma Wines, made in California for enjoyment throughout the world). When I downloaded that I saw that the same programme had also in 1945 adapted H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror‘ so I downloaded that too and eventually got round to listening to it. Unlike Donovan’s Brain it takes up only a single episode, which makes it a bit rushed. I don’t think Orson Welles is in this one (a cast list is hard to find) but the guy playing Wilbur Whateley (who turns out to be the less monstrous son of Yog Sothoth (spoiler)) has a suitably scary voice. Easily found on the Internet, this would I think be worth listening to if you are already familiar with the story and interested in the works of H. P. Lovecraft. This is one of his less racist works, unless you consider yokels to be a race.
Children of the Stones meanwhile was an adaptation for the BBC of the classic TV series, made by Bafflegab Productions. This version moves the story to the present day and jigs around the plot a bit but basically it’s the same thing – a child and parent move to the village of Milbury, which, like the real village of Avebury, is surrounded by a stone circle. The locals are all very cheerful and friendly, but maybe there is something a bit odd about how happy they all are, with their general-purpose greeting of “Happy day!” coming to seem more and more ominous as the episodes roll on. The child makes friends with some other newcomers, but they notice that after a while newcomers start changing and becoming like the happy people. And for some reason all the happy children in the village school are amazingly good at the kind of advanced mathematics that normally only astrophysicists know about. But two of the locals seem to be immune to the power of the stones – the local squire, who seems nevertheless to be in charge of things, and the village drunk.
And I think that as with the TV series, what is actually going on does not really matter as much as the sense of mystery around it, that feeling that things are not right but in a way that is hard to put your finger on. With this I was very impressed by the way the sound design created an extremely immersive experience when the episodes were listened to on headphones, particularly in the more spooky moments. And I was very fond of the song that the villagers can be heard singing in the background throughout the series and was very pleased when Bafflegab responded to a tweet querying the words by posting the lyrics. The first verse:
There is a place where stones stand tall
Where you’re held fist tight and never let fall
Where the sun shines bright if you heed the call
To join the Happy Ones!
Learn the words and we’ll have a lovely sing song next time we meet. Happy day!
The series did get me thinking about one thing that is more difficult for these folk horror rural gothic things to engage with now than it was in the 1970s, and that is race. Because this is a radio drama I failed to twig that Mia, the main character, is played by an actress (India Brown) who is a person of colour (as the Americans say). Even before learning that I was thinking about how one of Mia’s friends in the village was Rafiq, whose Asian family had recently moved to Milbury. In the past, dramas set in the countryside would have taken for granted that country folk are all white and so would not have cast anyone who wasn’t. We don’t really like monoethnic dramas so much these days, so these kind of rural dramas have to have some non-white characters thrown into them, either as new arrivals or as visitors (see also India Brown’s appearance in the Worzel Gummidge adaptations the BBC has been making). And again, that’s fine, but you end up with this weird version of the countryside where none of the white locals are Brexit-supporting racist Tories, because unless you are making something that is specifically about race and racism you don’t really want to deal with it in your drama. I don’t know what’s the way forward with this – perhaps making some rural horror thing that is actually about the yokels being racist Brexiters, or maybe just having them being a bit less friendly.
And then there was Eternal, made by Darkfield Radio for Dublin’s Bram Stoker Festival. This was a bit high concept: I had to listen to it on headphones in a darkened room while lying in bed. And I had to specifically be on the right hand side of the bed. While essentially being a monologue, this really went for it in terms of the sound design, at times using sound effects to make it seem that there was someone or something knocking around outside the room and scratching at the door (I’m pretty certain our cat was otherwise engaged), and then at times there was the extremely unnerving effect of the speaker being in bed beside me, whispering in my ear. Brrrr! The actual content of the monologue was the kind of vampire stuff you’d expect at a Bram Stoker Festival (though surely something about being a clerk of the petty sessions would also be appropriate?). It was also a broadcast rather than a download, so I’ve not been able to listen back to it, meaning that it has receded in my memory but was well spooky.
I should also mention The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the third of the Julian Simpson/Sweet Talk loose adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft stories made for the BBC (previously we were entertained by The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Whisperer In Darkness). As with the previous ones, the setup here is that we are following a real-life true-crime podcast, albeit one that has been diverted into strange territory. This one nods to the Lovecraft story of the same name but the plot is more apocalyptic, incorporating Covid-19 lockdowns into the plot and bringing us to a finale where the bad guys are trying to bring the entire universe to an end. This one keeps the tension going right to the end, with a conclusion that leaves loose ends dangling that cry out for a further series.
I know from his Twitter feed that Simpson is a role-playing gamer and at times there was a real evocation of the kind of moments you get in Call of Cthulhu games. My favourite of these was when a character accidentally interrupts some cultists doing their ritual stuff and then gamely tries to fast-talk his way out by claiming to have been looking for a friend who wasn’t there so he’ll be on his way see you around guys oh shit…
images (both from BBC Radio 4):
Children of the Stones
The Shadow Over Innsmouth