[The following contains spoilers.]
The BBC Radio 4 horror podcast “The Whisperer in Darkness” has given itself a huge jumble of different bags and suitcases to carry. It is firstly a loose adaptation of the 1931 horror novella of the same title by H.P. Lovecraft, albeit one that apprehends Lovecraft’s story in the present day and on this side of the Atlantic. It is secondly another investigative mockumentary, with that tension between the framing and the found that has characterised every podcast in this school since the days of “The Black Tapes.” Yet it hardly stops here. It still has an arm free to carry a storyline about the UFOs and the secretive government agencies at Rendlesham Forest, and it can also shoulder a fat box of Sussex folklore concerning Black Shuck and the green children of Woolpit. Finally, some contemporary, issues-based material about phone-hacking and privacy breaches has been added to the perilous load.
My goodness, what a sight! Is it going to drop everything? Hey, clap your hands!
Julian Simpson has written and directed this show. It is in fact a second season, since Simpson and his crew had previously adapted Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” I haven’t listened to this but I’ll give them a free one just to warm up. I have a feeling that in reviewing “The Whisperer in Darkness” I’ll be covering a lot of the first season by implication.
“The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad art and bad taste.” When I was an undergraduate, I had taken Edmund Wilson’s remark to be essentially criticism’s last word on Lovecraft. Or rather, I had thought that none of the Lovecraftian scholarship or reappraisals or adaptations over the last fifty years had added anything significant to Wilson’s crisp verdict. Today I agree with Wilson for a different reason – I can see now that in these stories there is often no “real horror” available. Instead, Lovecraft was ultimately a visionary pioneer of camp. What readers tend to value most about his aesthetic is the gurgling, crooning gorgeousness that is always waiting beyond his protagonists’ stiffly heteronormative white minds.
The instinct of “The Whisperer in Darkness” is to avoid the shrillness and the excruciating rhapsodies of the conventional Lovecraftian experience. It is aided in this through its selection of one of Lovecraft’s more surefooted forays into “real horror.” The Whisperer in Darkness is always as cold and as creepy as Henry Akeley’s dead face. The force of its eeriness derives from the contrast between the good humour of Akeley in his correspondence and his strange impersonality when Wilmarth, the narrator, finally meets him. Yet Simpson’s podcast is uninterested in building on this opening in the uncanny. Indeed, when it does flip its Akeley (David Calder), the old bird is actually revelling in the campness that the original tale had largely avoided. “I seem to have come out without my face,” he teases archly.
Simpson tries to filter Lovecraft’s excesses through the matter-of-factness of a documentary podcast. Barnaby Kay and Jana Carpenter play Matthew Heawood and Kennedy Fisher, an investigative duo who research and present the true-crime show “Mystery Machine.” This format brings an advantageous realism to the story but it equally means that the ominousness of the source material is neutralised early on.
Although “Mystery Machine” is seemingly an independent production, Heawood cannot work the authority of the BBC out of his voice, which generates a constant atmosphere of safety and assurance. Moreover, he and Fisher never manage to dispel the impression that they will be one day happily married. Some promising paranoia, which finds Fisher in suspicious proximity to various crimes, is curtailed before it can flower fully into horror. Naturally, if she died or was arrested whilst making the podcast, it would have never been completed and we wouldn’t be listening to it. “The Black Tapes” had shared the same flaw or rather a kind of inbuilt anti-horror structure. The podcast begins washed up at the end of its own story with its podcastmakers intact and now narrating retrospectively.
From Lovecraft’s perspective, if you could be allied with such a gutsy, go-getting female as Fisher then it is surely only a short step to teaming up with Yog-Sothoth himself. The factors that help Fisher to refresh Lovecraft’s musty lore – her clear eyes and brave heart – also mistakenly strengthen the brittle, vulnerable civilised psyche that she is meant to represent. This accordingly dispossesses the supernatural of its danger. To compensate for this, however, there is a great edgy interview with Eleanor Peck (Nicola Walker), who becomes the perfect advert for the Lovecraftian twittering white ego. Peck is a topsy-turvy academic who aggressively and automatically dismisses any manifestation of the truth as “bollocks.” She is subtly destroyed during her interview with Heawood when she ends up manically taking loud gulps of water, as if this will somehow correct the dryness of her mind.
In other respects this show’s format turns out to be a smooth fit with the original material. Lovecraft’s own protagonists were invariably investigators and, as with the fine supernatural smorgasbord that Heawood and Fisher are navigating, they were required to make links between apparently disparate phenomena. “The Whisperer in Darkness” is certainly as broad and as well-stocked a story as The Call of Cthulhu.
There is a great deal of online enthusiasm for “The Whisperer in Darkness” and it is hard not to be impressed by how well made the series is. The show is suspenseful and fast-moving; it boasts of skilful writing and some memorable acting. That said, it would have been a standout production had it been released several years ago. It does what “The Black Tapes” was trying to do much better than “The Black Tapes” had ever managed itself. But it has still turned up at somebody else’s party unreasonably late and it is now carrying it on with the BBC’s budget, its resources and its thespians.
These days, consumers of horror podcasting have come to expect flair and disruption. “The Whisperer in Darkness” is a splendid display of power that carries surprisingly little clout, or a high-quality product that has been expertly made from depleted materials. One might feasibly argue that the BBC, with all of its corporate gravitas, is introducing its army of general listeners to a base from which they might consequently go forth to explore independent horror productions such as “The White Vault” or “The Phenomenon.” Certainly, “The Whisperer in Darkness” will try the patience of those who are mistakenly swimming towards it, with its constant paternalistic explanations about what the Necronomicon is and where Nyarlathotep lies in the Lovecraftian scheme.
A typical independent horror production would show more rapport with its listeners; it would assume that they knew what it was talking about, or else that they could be trusted to simply google anything that was unfamiliar. Simpson would be advised to drop his podcast’s Reithian formality. It is also difficult to imagine what sort of simple-minded listener would marvel over the extra ninth episode, which plays a not especially compelling or relevant obscured message on a loop for half an hour. Perhaps somebody who is entirely new to horror podcasting and who does not realise that the use of such a device in “The Whisperer in Darkness” probably marks the moment when it has calcified into cliché.
Still, for all of my criticisms, I felt a pang of excitement on hearing that Fisher has been dispatched to Innsmouth for the third season. This shocked me slightly, like a driver who has not realised how eagerly they have been accelerating. The Shadow over Innsmouth (1931) is an enjoyably claustrophobic story and it will be interesting to survey it through the sharp modern lens of “Mystery Machine.” What will Fisher fish up in this fishy tale – and will I still be, despite my misgivings, hooked?