The Cambridge Geek

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward/The Whisperer in Darkness

I've meant to listen to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for ages, but kept putting it off. The (relatively) recent release of the second series, "The Whisperer in Darkness", finally prompted me to get round to it, so thought I'd crash through them both at once.

Those who listen to a lot of fiction podcasts are likely aware of the "this is why I'm recording" trope. A lot of shows have a framing device of someone making either a podcast of mundane life that then turns supernatural, or recording logs for a science fiction expedition, or in more unusual cases telling a story through voicemails. It's often the approach taken by new podcasters, before they expand into the style long used by traditional radio, where there is no recognition of the medium, just the story.

Which is why I found it very interesting that the BBC (in the form of Julian Simpson), have done this show as part of their increasing stretch out into the world of podcasts.

In-universe, Kennedy Fisher and Matthew Heawood create "The Mystery Machine", an investigative podcast into various theoretically mundane events. All well and good until you realise that the series are named after Lovecraft stories, and everything goes a bit wrong. Eg, the first series follows the investigation into the strange way Charles, someone with rather heavy delusions of strange creatures, goes missing from a locked room in a mental institution in America. And then his psychiatrist wanders off to England to stab a theoretically unrelated woman.

Obviously, this is all related, as is a cult, a bit of possession, and "Things wot man was not meant to know", to misquote Terry Pratchett. It's all a modern re-telling of the original stories, retaining the principle characters, but updating the setting and repositioning it more in the true crime with ghosts bracket.

As you might expect from the BBC, it's competently done. Decent sound design, reasonably well plotted, and the twin leads have a contrasting style that adds more than I expected it to. Kennedy is the roving reporter, doing the on-site work and getting into no small number of scrapes. Matthew by comparison tends to sit back in the recording booth, pulling it all together. This means that he'll be playing back a previous interview to us the audience, and then frequently interrupt it to add explanatory notes, or expand on a point. It's a neat touch that I've not seen much of.

There's a couple of awkward moments though. Both series of the show have an infodump episode about halfway through, posed as an interview with a helpful expert, Professor Peck, who tends to give rather long lectures on the background of the spooky thing for a given series. It feels a little like a spoken footnote. This might be a replication of the true crime style it's pretending to be (I'm assuming they invite an expert on to talk about blood spatter, or victimology, or profiling or what have you), but it felt a bit out of place here.

The other problem is that it occasionally feels like the entire fictional world they've built is involved in this supernatural sneakiness. There's the same reveal in both series, and it felt a bit too much like they were striving for a "gotcha" moment, when perhaps it didn't need one.

Still, it's an excellent example of the fake true crime form, and one that fans of the style should listen to.

Score 5

Tagged: Audio fiction Horror Cast Fictional show Horror Serial