Note: I will be discussing Lovecraft’s racism in this article and linking you to a few must-reads.
Winding down in Portland this weekend is the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon, which showcases dozens of horror features and short films over the course of three days. It also gives mainstage attention for one afternoon to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Dark Adventure Radio Theatre (DART), full-cast audio play adaptations of Lovecraft’s works in the style of pulpy 1930s variety radio. This live show has become such a regular feature that long-time con runners couldn’t even remember what number it was–and there’s a reason for it.
It is completely impossible to unmesh the cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s work and the racism that is its foundation, unless bits and pieces are taken entirely out of their context. I am usually somewhat wary of any media that is a direct adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s stories instead of something inspired by his mythos. I’d seen only one Dark Adventure Radio Theatre production before, a year ago, so I had little context for what I was getting into when they performed The Shadow over Innsmouth.
The group shaved the novella down into an hour and change, spruced up the language so that it isn’t Lovecraft’s trademark impenetrable phrasing, added some enjoyable audience participation, and threw in a surprise ending. The performance itself was seamless, with a clearly seasoned group of actors who were thoroughly enjoying themselves. The show opened with radio host Chester Langfield, who even did a fake sponsor ad for “Fleur-de-Lys Cigarettes” (“a cigarette for a breathless age” absolutely struck home in ways that reminded me of the ads from What’s the Frequency?, if a little more tongue-in-cheek rather than darkly comedic). The host, by the way, went on to demonstrate his breathless range between four different characters, and the masterful control of his vocal quality and accent went a long way to being able to distinguish characters.
He wasn’t the only one on stage showing off his range; co-founder Andrew Lehman played several more characters, and this time distinguished them not just by vocal quality, but by the use of prop hats which eventually gave way to an excellent momentary gag during a dream sequence. This kind of visual implementation to help audience members distinguish roles is essential for double-casting, and having it lead into a moment of comedy you would not experience by listening to their recording made the live show experience a special one.
DART placed in the starring role of Robert Olmstead a powerhouse of a performer, co-founder Sean Branney, who did not sit down once and, as the narrator and main character, spoke for a majority of the time. He was engaging, vibrant, and quick with highlighting sly remarks to draw audience laughter–it’s not all the horror of the unknown on this stage.
The monologue of Zadok Allen, one that bridges the middle to the climactic action sequence and in the novella is a long and pontificating background information dump, needed a bit more fine-tuning as I lost my place in it several times. It might work just fine in recorded audio, but it’s a long passage, and likely needs to be broken up by something else in a live performance, especially one where the actor is not moving around the stage due to being attached to a standing microphone and a printed script.
But any loss to pacing or attention was saved by the action sequence that followed it shortly thereafter, one that had the promised audience interaction. The troupe had a giant light-up sign that said CROAK and upon the sign lighting up, audience members were to croak like frog-fish-creature-people at a volume dictated by the place of a hand in the air by a second performer.
It was asking a lot from the audience, especially since the CROAK sign and the volume indicator were on opposite ends of the stage, but it worked like a charm, even when the CROAK sign was on for what seemed like way too long. I fully enjoyed myself the first two times, but it ended up being too much to focus on the volume and consistency of my croaking without tearing up my vocal chords and also pay attention to the narrator, whose voice had been consistently rising in volume as well to speak over the sounds of most of a theater making menacing croaking sounds. Even ignoring the microphone, his projection was impressive.
Other than the CROAK sign (I really loved the sign, and I kind of want one for my bedroom), my favorite part of this live show was the sound work. The recorded foley and the original soundtrack were superb, in design and in execution. I could feel the atmosphere of dread palpably increase when certain scenes were backed by a creeping, thudding music track–and the light-heartedness sometimes returned when all sound drops away to emphasize the sarcastic nature of a conversation.
Lovecraft and racism are concepts that walk hand-in-hand. The Historical Society, in adapting The Shadow over Innsmouth, did an admirable job of controlling his xenophobia into one conversation designed to highlight a secondary character as someone familiar to the audience in this current day and age–you know the one; you’ve probably seen them on the other side of an awkward family Thanksgiving table or just walking down the street minding your own business–and Olmstead as the character who objects to the associations and descriptions. It takes up only a few lines of dialogue, and while there is certainly some argument for the need for Olmstead’s rebuttal to be stronger, the conversation existing is important: we cannot whitewash Lovecraft’s works into something palatable, as his fear of people he considered inferior is necessarily part of his horror.
Here, I’m going to point you to the writings of people like Nnedi Okorafor talking about the Lovecraft bust for the World Fantasy Award (which has since been changed, as a direct result of the campaign as a whole), Wes House on Lovecraft and his unextractable white supremacy, Bryan Thao Worra on writing Lovecraftian horror to portray the horrors suffered in Laos and by Laotian refugees. I’ll recommend you read works like Lovecraft Country, The Ballad of Black Tom, and She Walks in Shadows. We must engage with the facts of Lovecraft’s racism; his work had an enormous rippling effect on horror, fantasy, and science-fiction, and that kind of dialogue is healthy. I’m going to quote Daniel José Older here, from episode 237 of podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“You have to love the work to a certain level to engage with it that deeply. It’s the same thing you see with the feminist critique of hip-hop. It comes from love, and it comes from a deep need to express ourselves and find ourselves in the work.”
We should not laud Lovecraft as the public face of genres where people of color have fought to gain attention and traction. And we must never think that this conversation is over.
DART’s live show of The Shadow over Innsmouth had the fascinating combination of stable and self-confident professionalism and experience and subtly but deftly spitting in Lovecraft’s face. Dark Adventure Radio Theatre’s live show is a must-see event at the Film Festival, and one that I hope continues its performances and its own inspection into Lovecraft’s writings, racism, and their relevance in the world today. They have a large repertoire to choose from and are apparently currently working on a 7.5 hour adaptation of the Chaosium game Masks of Nyarlathotep. These are audio workers who are nothing if not dedicated to their craft.
*Note: Quotes are approximate. No cast list could be found online after the production, so I’m unable to name some actors.