Doctor Who reviews: The Lovecraft Invasion

The audio play Doctor Who: The Lovecraft Invasion was released by Big Finish in late July. However, given some of the subject matter, with Halloween right around the corner, now is certainly an appropriate time to discuss it.

Written by Robert Valentine and starring Colin Baker as the Doctor, The Lovecraft Invasion begins in medias res, with the Doctor and companions Flip Jackson and Constance Clarke, accompanied by bounty hunter Calypso Jonze, fleeing through the corridors of Titan Base in the 51st Century. As always, the Doctor and friends reach the TARDIS just in the nick of time, but they have a formidable task ahead of them. The Somnifax, a mind-parasite capable of turning its host’s nightmares into physical reality, has escaped Titan and is fleeing simultaneously into the solar system and back in time.

The Doctor tracks the Somnifax to Earth, specifically Providence, Rhode Island in January 1937. The parasite has entered the mind of weird fiction writer Howard Philips Lovecraft, drawn to him by both his fantastically bizarre imagination and his virulent xenophobia. The combination of these two elements will enable the Somnifax to manifest unspeakably destructive nightmares with which to wipe out humanity.

Jones, who has been tracking the Somnifax, has technology that temporarily inhibits the Somnifax’s ability to manifest Lovecraft’s fantasies, but unless the parasite voluntarily leaves there is no way to trap it. The Doctor and Flip utilize Jonze’ technology to enter Lovecraft’s mind and fight the Somnifax in the mental landscape.

H.P. Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 to March 15, 1937) met with very limited success during his own lifetime, but posthumously became one of the most hugely influential figures of 20th Century horror and science fiction. Lovecraft’s so-called “Cthulhu Mythos,” with its eldritch abominations, ancient forbidden texts and themes of existential cosmic horror, has served to inspire innumerable writers and artists over the past 70 years.

That being said, Lovecraft is also a very problematic figure. Throughout his correspondence he regularly espoused extremely racist views.  Within his fiction the repeated threats of humanity being physically and ideologically corrupted, of being replaced by “the Other,” is heavily influenced by his own personal fears of miscegenation and immigration destroying the Anglo-Saxon race and culture in Europe and North America.

As this story itself points out, Lovecraft is one of those writers who people often discover in their teenage years, enthusiastically devouring his works, only to subsequently learn of his reprehensible real-world ideologies.  Such was my experience. Reading Lovecraft’s stories in middle school, I found them both brilliant and terrifying. My enthusiasm for him was later dampened when I learned more about the man himself.

I read the hell out of this book when I was 14 years old

The Lovecraft Invasion feels like a very timely work, and not just in addressing the reprehensibility of racism.  It delves headlong into the question over whether or not it is possible to separate the writer from his or her writings.  The Lovecraft Invasion was recorded by Big Finish on 29-30 January 2020, at which point the debate over Cancel Culture was already raging, but in subsequent months it greatly intensified due to such occurrences as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling making remarks that many regarded as transphobic.

Within the audio play itself, the Doctor offers his own (fictional) example of disenchantment, relating how in later life he learned that one of his favorite childhood authors went around blowing up entire planets for a hobby, and afterwards the Doctor found he was unable to revisit the books he had once enjoyed.  Awareness of the author’s real-world activities had forever poisoned those books for the Doctor.

I do not know if there is a definitive answer to be had to this debate.  I think probably it needs to be left up to the individual to decide for himself or herself whether, having learned unpleasant facts about a creative individual, they can still enjoy the works of art that person created.

While I do appreciate how vehement and well-articulated the Doctor’s rebuttal of Lovecraft’s bigotry is, I wonder if perhaps the story is a bit hard on the man. It could have been observed within the story that even though Lovecraft’s views were reprehensible, he was hardly an outlier. The unfortunate fact is that he was actually very typical of his time, and a great many Americans in the 1930s possessed strongly racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

Nevertheless, Valentine’s script does not make Lovecraft a wholly unsympathetic figure. He is shown to be a man haunted by the fact that both of his parents died in an insane asylum, and terrified that he is destined to follow that horrifying path himself.  And in the end Calypso realizes Lovecraft is a figure not to be hated, but rather pitied.

Like it says in the Necronomicon, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” … nope, sorry, Google Translate hasn’t got a clue!

One aspect setup of The Lovecraft Invasion feels that Robert Valentine drawing a deliberate contrast against both the real-world figure of Lovecraft and his fiction. There were practically no female characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, the majority of his protagonists being middle-aged conservative, celibate scholars.  In this audio play the Doctor is traveling with two women, Flip and Constance. A third woman, Calypso Jonze, joins them.

Coming from the far-distant future of circa 5000 AD, Calypso identifies as a mixed race, pansexual, trans, non-binary individual with extraterrestrial ancestors. Valentine acknowledged that he created Jonze to embody literally everything which terrified Lovecraft.

So, while the Doctor and Flip are exploring Lovecraft’s subconscious mind, in the real world Constance and Calypso, two assertive, independent women are left to look after him, and to challenge his attitudes towards both race and gender.

Miranda Raison, Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood

The cast of The Lovecraft Invasion all do good work. In the past I have often commented on how much I liked Colin Baker’s underrated portrayal of the Sixth Doctor on television, and how I have really enjoyed him in the Big Finish stories, where he has been given high-quality scripts with which to work.  Once again Baker turns in a powerful, passionate and entertaining performance as the Doctor. It is absolutely a joy listening to him.

Miranda Raison and Lisa Greenwood are good as Constance and Flip.  This is the first time I’ve listened to a Big Finish story with this particular TARDIS team, but I enjoyed it, and I think I will download some more adventures with this cast. The contrast between Flip, a teenager from 2010, and Constance, a war widow and member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service from Britain in 1944, is interesting, and it allows for some dramatic interactions to occur between the two women, as well as in their interactions with the Doctor.

The Sixth Doctor has a brash, forceful personality, and so the idea of pairing him with two female companions is a novel idea.  I think it allows for a slightly more equal power dynamic than you see when this Doctor is traveling with just one companion.

Robyn Holdaway as Calypso Jonze is more difficult to judge, since this is the character’s first appearance, and introduced mid-story it’s difficult to get too much of a feel for background or motivation. I do think Calypso has potential, and I would not be surprised if she, um, I mean they appear again. (Sorry, those non-binary pronouns take some getting used to. No offense is intended.)  I bet Calypso Jonze and Jack Harness would get on like a house on fire.

Alan Marriott voices the dual roles of Lovecraft and his fictional creation Randolph Carter within the mindscape. It is generally agreed that Carter was Lovecraft’s fictional stand-in for himself, a more heroic, handsomer, athletic version of the man. Marriott does a good job performing Lovecraft and Carter as very similar but nevertheless distinctively different.

British musical theater actor Jonathan Andrew Hume voices the Somnifax within Lovecraft’s mental dreamscape, giving a rich and sinister vocal performance.  The Somnifax assumes the guises of the malevolent elder gods Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu, allowing Hume to really chew up scenery of the audio landscape.

The cast of The Lovecraft Invasion… and their good friend Cthulhu!

Although not perfect, The Lovecraft Invasion is definitely a well-written, atmospheric, thought-provoking and enjoyable audio play with several strong performances. Valentine’s script certainly offers a distinctive and unconventional way of having the worlds of Doctor Who and the Cthulhu Mythos cross over.  Rather than simply importing the Elder Gods et all, the mechanism devised by Valentine allows for the story to effectively utilize Lovecraft’s creations while offering commentary on both the man and his writings.

Comic book reviews: Necronomicon

Halloween is right around the corner, so once again I am going to take a look at a horror comic book series that I really enjoyed.  A few years back, BOOM! Studios published a number of series inspired by the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.  For the uninformed, Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th Century.  He was very effectively melded aspects of the supernatural with science fiction, creating eerie, unsettling tales of “cosmic horror” and alien-spawned entities from the dawn of time exerting influence upon the present day.  Among the Lovecraftian titles released by BOOM! was the Necronomicon miniseries, written by William Messner-Loebs, with artwork by Andrew Ritchie and covers by J.K. Woodward.  Originally serialized in 2008, the four issues were collected into a trade paperback in 2009.

The eponymous Necronomicon is, within the fictional universe devised by Lovecraft, a tome of ancient, dark, powerful knowledge compiled over a thousand years ago by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred.  Throughout Lovecraft’s stories, characters often foolishly sought out the Necronomicon, either to uncover the secrets of Earth’s pre-history, or in the hopes of discovering methods to revive the now-banished god-like beings which once inhabited the planet.

Necronomicon TPB cover

Set in 1924, Messner-Loebs’ story focuses on Henry Said, the son of an Arabian merchant who is studying engineering at Miskatonic University.  Henry, although struggling with his major, is a polyglot who possesses an incredible aptitude for quickly comprehending new languages.  His remarkable abilities come to the attention of the Miskatonic’s theosophist society, composed of both faculty & students and headed up by Randolph Carter (who happens to bear a more than passing resemblance to H.P. himself).  The society is hoping that Henry can translate the Necronomicon, providing them a copy of the text in English.  At the urgings of his friends Jeremiah “Maxey” Maxwell and Rachel Schiff, Henry agrees to take on the task.  Soon, however, as he begins to experience strange dreams & unearthly sensations, Henry realizes the Necronomicon is no ordinary book.  This is confirmed when strange creatures masquerading as human beings attempt to steal the Necronomicon from the university.

As much as I am a fan of Lovecraft’s stories, I do have to admit that there were certain formulaic elements to his writing.  One of these is that his protagonists were typically middle aged white male academics.  When non-Caucasian or female characters did appear, they were usually depicted in an unflattering light, as servants of the various “Old Ones” who were threatening to once again encroach upon the Earth.  Unfortunately, it’s likely that Lovecraft’s own xenophobia and racism played a major part in this.  One of his primary themes is fear of displacement by some degenerate group of “others” or, worse, the discovery by his characters that they were connected by tainted bloodlines to those outsiders.

Therefore, it was very interesting to read Messner-Loebs’ story, which seems to have deliberately subverted this.  Henry is a foreign-born Muslim, and Rachel is a Jew possessing fervent Zionist ideologies.  Of the three protagonists, Maxey is the only WASP, and he is actually a rather dim fellow who is having an affair behind Rachel’s back, sleeping with a blonde-haired girl who makes anti-Semitic remarks.

Necronomicon 1 pg 7

Writing from the perspective of Henry, the outsider to American society, enables Messner-Loebs to look at the bizarre, disturbing events with an alternate point of view.  Indeed, it is Henry’s awareness that he is a stranger in a strange land, and his empathy for others who are in similar situations, who are looked upon as different, feared & scorned, that ultimately leads to his salvation.

Messner-Loebs also provides a glimpse into the possible history of the infamous Abdul Alhazred himself.  A number of commentators on Lovecraft’s writings over the years have noted that this is not a genuine Arab name, but rather something the author devised which sounded foreign & mysterious.  I believe, though, that Messner-Loebs is the first individual to expand on Lovecraft’s mythos who actually addresses this fact in-story.  Henry, originating from the Middle East, immediately realizes that “Abdul Alhazred” cannot be a genuine name.  But if so, then what was the true identity of the author of the Necronomicon?  Messner-Loebs offers up an interesting theory within his story.

When I was in high school and college, I enjoyed Messner-Loebs’ writing on Flash, Wonder Woman, and various other titles.  Regrettably he has not been employed as frequently within the last decade or so.  I was certainly happy to see him writing this miniseries for BOOM! and, indeed, it was on the strength of his past work that I purchased it.  Necronomicon is a very effective synthesis of the themes found in Lovecraft’s original writings and Messner-Loebs’ own sensibilities as an author.

Necronomicon 1 pg 20

I am not familiar with Andrew Ritchie, who illustrates and colors the miniseries.  I did a Google search to see what else he’s worked on and located his Tumblr site, which contains some really nice artwork.  It reminds me a bit of Charlie Adlard’s work.  Ritchie’s style is certainly well-suited to this miniseries.  He definitely imbues a macabre sensibility and atmosphere to the story.  Richie’s depictions of the Mi-Go and the Elder Ones have a genuine quality of the alien and unearthly to them.  And his renderings of Henry’s Necronomicon-spawned visions into other times and other worlds have the unsettling, sickly feel of a fever dream.

The cover work by J.K. Woodward is quite good.  These were done by him several years ago, earlier in his career, and consequently perhaps not nearly as polished as his recent amazing work on the Star Trek / Doctor Who crossover published by IDW.  That said, even back then it was obvious that Woodward had real talent & potential.  His cover for the first issue, a depiction of Lovecraft’s cosmic entity Cthulhu, is very striking.

If you are in the mood for an interesting, somewhat different interpretation on Lovecraft’s now-iconic legacy, the Necronomicon series is well worth a read, especially right around this time of year.  Happy Halloween!