Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve waxed lyrical on a number of occasions now about a BBC Radio 4 Extra version of HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness (ATMOM) last year. I was very excited therefore to hear that the same team had reunited for a second Lovecraft adaptation – but also a little nervous, in case it didn’t meet the now-raised level of expectation second time around.
Richard Coyle is back as the narrator – still with that voice I’d cheerfully listen read from the phone book – and he gives a more subdued reading this time appropriate for this rather more low-key tale than the riper ATMOM, and it’s more effective as a result. He also gets to create two characters for spoken roles (ATMOM just had some radio comms chatter largely achieved by sound FX if I recall correctly) and he’s strikingly good at this, producing what sounded to me to be two very authentic and very different New Englanders. I even momentarily thought that the production might be pulling a “fast one” by bringing in additional actors to augment the reading, but it’s Coyle’s own work that just makes it seem like they’re sneaking a full-cast audio play past you.
The production is also helped by having (in my view at least) a much better source novella to work from. I’d suspected that the personal appeal of ATMOM for me may have been in its Antarctic setting (I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for snow-set thrillers, from The Thing from Another World to Ice Station Zebra), but here the setting is a dilapidated, decaying New England fishing town and it results in a far greater sense of disturbed realism and of the ordinary-gone-unnervingly-wrong. Apparently the book is seen as one of Lovecraft’s weakest efforts, which is a surprise to me as it seems much better written than the more highly-regarded ATMOM, with a much stronger structure, climax and denouement rather than the “all tease and nothing under the trousers” that I felt was the chief flaw of ATMOM. Of course, Lovecraft’s writing is still as full of purple prose (everything is malodorous, malignant, repellant, ruinous, grotesque, decrepit, a blasphemous abnormality, precipitous … ) and leaves little room for doubt in the reader’s mind. The underlying plot is similarly obvious by modern standards, although no less effective when unfolded well.
Moreover, it’s short enough to fit within the five 30 minute instalments without harmful hacking (see my comments about last week’s The Boys from Brazil adaptation last week on that score). The original novella is even already neatly structured into five sections that are used here as the basis from which to give each of the five episodes a natural, almost self-contained sense of structure – although the final section is a shorter epilogue and hence can’t sustain an entire episode on its own in the same way as the other four. The whole thing is done so seamlessly that you’d almost imagine that HP Lovecraft was still alive and well and had produced this script to order for exactly this BBC Radio 4 Extra format; all of which is a huge if inadvertently backhanded compliment to the actual adapter, Paul Kent, whose work is seamless and invisible in the best possible way.
But throughout, it’s the show’s realised soundscape that is once again the core of the success. I made the mistake of listening to some of this late at night, in bed, on earphones – and while I think I’m made of pretty stern stuff and am able to scoff heartily at most horror movies, there were times when I was listening to this that I started to feel genuinely ill-at-ease. It’s done impressionistically with a use of some subtle but well-chosen sound effects – from the crashing waves of the sea to the deadened clanging sound of boat masts, and especially later with the strange whisperings of the unseen townsfolk. It’s impressionistic rather than over-literal: we’re spared sound effects for footsteps or car engines, for example, and producer Neil Gardner mischievously avoids taking specific instructions from the spoken text, instead making us ‘hear’ the sounds from the words while he himself concentrates on realising the implied and unsaid. There’s also music again from Jon Nicholls, who seems to have been given greater freedom (i.e. time and money!) to produce more – and more varied – pieces of music for this production than he was able to for ATMOM: consequently the episodes are able to switch from rich, almost symphonic scores through tension, chases and chills, all of which are intelligently woven into the overall soundscape of the show.
The cumulative effect is to produce a vivid, captivating and engrossing end experience that lived up to every bit of my unrealistically heightened expectations. While I still don’t think that I’ve been converted into the full Lovecraftian cult per se, I certainly hope that this roll-out of Lovecraft’s works continues on at least an annual (if not indeed even more frequent) basis – maybe the end of October would be ideal, if they can keep the chills coming so effectively?
HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was a BBC Radio 4 Extra première, and is available to purchase from the SpokenWorld Audio store.