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Thursday, 29 April 2021

The Lovecraft Investigations

I've been listening to The Lovecraft Investigations, a BBC audio serial by Julian Simpson that takes interesting liberties with "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward", "The Whisperer In Darkness", and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". I've provided links to the original HPL stories there because I think you'll enjoy the audio serial more if you know what they're riffing off. I'm not sure if people outside the UK can download the episodes from the BBC website for free, but if not try here.

The conceit is that we're listening to a real-life mystery podcast presented by Matthew Heawood (Barnaby Kay) and Kennedy Fisher (Jana Carpenter). These are well executed dramas, with good scripts (bar the occasional exposition-dump episode) and top-notch acting. They even got the superb Nicola Walker on board. How on earth does she have any spare time? I suspect her husband, who plays Heawood, might have twisted her arm.

If I have any quibble (and of course I do) it's that the flavour of scariness is more Delta Green than authentic Lovecraft. And, yes, I know they're not trying to do authentic Lovecraft, but it's a big step down from cosmic horror to cults-&-conspiracies. Secret organizations saving the world from scheming bogeymen? Not again, thanks. Really, what we have here is The Derlethian Investigations, whereas Lovecraft's conception of horror was genuinely innovative and I'd love to see somebody turn his ideas into a modern horror movie, TV show or podcast. That sheer bleak dread was what I was aiming for with the scenario "The End of the Line" but even there the tension can only build for so long before it all breaks up into running and screaming. Maybe that's a problem with all drama: the takeoff is always more atmospheric and interesting than the landing. That could explain Lovecraft's own aversion to plot. Thrillers are just fairground rides, whereas what was at stake in his stories was something much more personal and disquieting.

But anything that retained the existentialist nightmarishness of unadulterated HPL would likely not be that popular. Audiences want the Doctor Who style of panto horror -- the same thinking that inflicted a queen on the Borg, so that they could get actors in to chew the scenery. After a century of tying plucky reporters to chairs and planning rituals that will summon the apocalypse, it's futile to hope that drama is going to change now. But The Lovecraftian Investigations is a great deal better written than Doctor Who is these days, so putting my purist nitpicking aside I'll happily recommend it as a gripping and genuinely creepy modern classic. I've been listening to it while strolling the sunlit woodland of Surrey and it has transported me to shabby London car parks, rain-swept patches of Orford Ness, posh Pall Mall clubs, and spooky old cottages at night. It's true what they say. On radio, the pictures are better.

Coming up tomorrow: what happens when your roleplaying adventure hinges on a key character -- and the player can't make it that week?

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