The Shadow Over Innsmouth


Front cover to the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s audio adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Art by Darrell Tutchton. Copyright by the HPLHS, 2015

As a boy I became an avid reader of H. P. Lovecraft‘s fiction, horror, fantasy, and even some that comes closest to science fiction. His elaborate language, focus on incomprehensible otherness, and his indelible influence on the field as a whole made up for the affected antiquity of his worst prose, and his unfortunate racism and xenophobia. I still revisit Lovecraft from time to time; there’s no one else like him, and his myriad imitators grow stale quickly.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931) is one of Lovecraft’s most notable stories. The story, of hidden secrets in an ancient Massachusetts town (you can read it here) would seem to easily lend itself to dramatization, but it’s not so simple. Large parts of he story are narration and, while the action itself is sufficiently dramatic, working all the backstory in without getting very wordy is challenging. A straight reading is possible, and there are a number of them available, even some with their own odd twists, such as a reading done in a whisper for those who are ASMR-sensitive. (ASMR is a tingling sensation in the back of the head in response to quiet sounds. Some people seek out the sensation.)

The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society is a group of Lovecraft fans who make their own adaptations of Lovecraft’s works. Their films are enjoyable, but the largest part of their dramatic adaptations are audio adventures produced under the Dark Adventure Radio Theater (DART) monicker. I recently heard their version of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and it’s a fine, albeit somewhat hammy, telling of the story. They have also begun original stories along Lovecraftian lines. I haven’t heard any of those yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Lovecraft’s distinctive prose can be daunting to put across as dialogue, and there are times when sentences sound improbable coming off the top of a character’s head; this is especially true of Robert Olmstead, the main character, played by Matt Foyer, an HPLHS regular. But allowances must be made. The alternative – stripping the Lovecraftian language from the story – would be worse. Some minor alterations have been made in the story for dramatic effect – Sean Branney, one of the leading lights of the HPLHS, comes close to apologizing for them in the liner notes, but he need not have worried; the adaptation is very faithful to Lovecraft, which cannot be said of a great many Lovecraft adaptations over the years. (The horrors that have been committed over the years in adapting Lovecraft – for movies especially – rival any of the horrors HPL himself dreamt up) The yeoman’s share of the acting is done by Matt Foyer and Barry Lynch, as Innsmouth resident Zadok Allen, and both do their best to keep the air of growing horror in motion. You might argue that the performances can run a little broad – a natural pitfall when dealing with horror stories* – but the performances are consistent, so nothing jars.

DART productions are presented as if they were radio dramas of the 1930s or so, and manage the pastiche decently enough. The Announcer (Josh Theme) introducing host Chester Langfield (Noah Wagner) is pretty broad, but horror radio programs were not known for their subtlety; listening to “Raymond, your host” on the old Inner Sanctum radio show makes the DART crew sound understated. Tone is the greatest challenge when adaption horror stories; one slip, one over-hysterical reading, and the illusion is shattered. The HPLHS does a good job in maintaining a consistent atmosphere throughout. And the faux commercials, in this case for Fleurs de Lys cigarettes, brings a dollop of verisimilitude to the brew. So many podcasts these days use the single-narrator format, as opposed to full dramatization, that The Shadow Over Innsmouth manages to sound modern and old at the same time. If you’re a fan of horror fiction (and, really, besides Lovecraft there’s little that I read in that genre) the HPLHS is worth a look, and a listen.

  • Also with my own tastes in acting. Horror requires intense emoting, while my preferences are more toward subtlety. This is why so many horror films/radio shows, etc., leave me cold.

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