‘A Piece of Delirium out of Poe or Rimbaud…’:
The Whisperer in Darkness
“The whole matter began, so far as I am concerned, with the historic and unprecedented Vermont floods of November 3, 1927. I was then, as now, an instructor of literature at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, and an enthusiastic amateur student of New England folklore. Shortly after the flood, amidst the varied reports of hardship, suffering, and organised relief which filled the press, there appeared certain odd stories of things found floating in some of the swollen rivers; so that many of my friends embarked on curious discussions and appealed to me to shed what light I could on the subject…”
I suppose that it must be more than forty years since I first read those now-familiar words. They come from the second paragraph of H. P. Lovecraft’s superb tale, The Whisperer in Darkness, which was first published in Weird Tales magazine of August, 1931.
I can still recall the frisson that they gave me. It seemed that the writer was hinting at so much more than he was putting on the page. Floods in Vermont had a sort of romantic faraway feel to them; and the mention of New England folklore seemed almost extraordinarily exotic to my mind. Miskatonic University and Arkham sounded strange and mysterious (although little did I guess then that I would come to feel that I knew them as well as I did my own school and town); and then there was that tantalising suggestion that there were strange things in the floodwaters…
It was all marvellous stuff that, to this day, can still move me to a feeling of wonder at the unknown vistas stretching before us.
I didn’t know it then but this was one of Lovecraft’s crossover stories, where he was moving subtly away from outright horror tales and into science-fiction. Indeed if that was in fact what he was doing. I’ve never thought that it was a wise move to try to label him. If you were forced to do so then this long short story would be best classified along with his masterpieces The Call of Cthulhu and The Colour out of Space, where the horrors of the graveyard were being replaced by the chilling idea of immense gulfs of Space and Time that lie outside our normal and limited understanding of the universe.
Lovecraft was and remains a hugely important part of my literary life; and so it was with more than a little trepidation that I heard that a screen version of The Whisperer in Darkness had been made. As a matter of fact, I had pretty much dismissed the idea before I even looked farther at it. It is probably unfair, but I do the same when I hear that something of Robert E. Howard—Lovecraft’s great friend and fellow fantasist—has been attempted. At this stage it just isn’t worth while setting yourself up for the inevitable kick in the nuts.
Now there is good stuff out there, it’s just that there’s precious little of it. With Robert E. Howard we are incredibly lucky to have had the team that made the biopic of him, The Whole Wide World with Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellwegger. That is all that a fan could have asked of a film on his life. Howard has not fared so well with dramatisations of his characters, however. And Lovecraft has never really been well served at all.[I am going to admit here to something that will probably have me drummed out of the HPL purist club! I have a weak spot for director Stuart Gordon’s exploitation trilogy of Lovecraft titles, Reanimator, From Beyond and Dagon. Sure, that whirring sound you hear is HPL revolving at high speed up in Providence’s Swan Point cemetery; but for all that they are completely over the top I think that they capture the essence of a Lovecraft story. So there.]
So: I didn’t pay much heed. That is, until I heard that it had been done by that wonderful group of aficionados who go by the name of The HP Lovecraft Historical Society. This meant that if ever a project was in safe hands it was this one. And so, with some minor quibbles, it did prove.
In 2005 the HPLHS had made the only version of a Lovecraft story that has won widespread approval from general film fan and hardcore admirer alike—and they picked what must be one of the most difficult to try. The Call of Cthulhu was ingeniously done in the style of some forgotten silent film, complete with captions. Running at three-quarters of an hour it has met with solid approval wherever it has been shown.
Now the same team (in different permutations) has turned its attention to this longer, more complex and considerably more ambitious work.
Here we follow the folklorist Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) as he attempts to dismiss the claims coming out of Vermont concerning strange creatures that appear to tie in closely with a myth cycle that has existed for hundreds of years. He eventually finds himself believing the fantastic claims of a correspondent, Henry Wentworth Akeley (Barry Lynch), who lives on a remote farm in the region and who has had considerable contact with the beings, who he claims come from an undiscovered planet, Yuggoth. [In fact Pluto had just been discovered prior to Lovecraft being inspired to do the story.]
Now, this adaptation—directed by Sean Branney and written by Andrew Leman—is not completely faithful to the original story. In fact it is hard to see how it could possibly have worked so well if it had been. The HPLHS team have decided this time to go with the look and feel of a black-and-white horror/science fiction movie of the 30s or 40s. This makes for an interesting look to the film and the low budget of $350,000 (raised by and from the pockets of the team themselves) works very well indeed here; although I would be concerned that it would be uncommercial and problematic except for Lovecraft admirers.
There is also the addition of entirely new characters and on the whole this also works perfectly, especially with a talented child actress called Autumn Wendel, who plays Hannah. Also effective is the introduction of that tireless true-life collector of weird phenomenon Charles Fort (played by screenwriter Leman), who effortlessly plays with Wilmarth’s cynicism.
The biggest change to Lovecraft’s story is that what concludes it in print actually takes place about half-way through this version. I would guess that a full forty-five minutes pretty much strays away from Lovecraft’s prose completely. There is a very well executed aeroplane chase in particular that resembles nothing from the source. However, given the context of the re-enactment as a thirties film (right down to the plane circling the planet and the amusing HPLHS logo at the beginning) this is more than acceptable. Less so is the rather hammy incantation– which actually calls to mind Dennis Wheatley rather than HPL– before the cosmic well. This could have been dispensed with completely to no great loss. Indeed, perhaps this and the slightly overlong running time would be my only real complaints. If the film had been cut by ten minutes or so to around an hour and a half, indeed that running time would have sat well with the movie age it was emulating.
Overall, though, for the fan of things Lovecraftian The Whisperer in Darkness is without doubt a success. It is well-acted, captures many of the writer’s interests and is extremely atmospheric.
It is always pleasant to say good things about fellow Lovecraftians and I’d like to mention here a podcast that’s done by several Irish fans. It is entertaining and the banter between the speakers is often very funny. They have just finished their first season and about to start on their second. You can find them at www.hplovecraftlive.podbean.com
Finally, here’s a clip from an old Mastermind show. Ah, if only I was thirty years younger…