The Doctor, Constance and Flip join forces with a 51st-century bounty hunter, Calypso Jonze, to hunt down the Somnifax: a weaponised mind-parasite capable of turning its host’s nightmares into physical reality. Chasing it through the time vortex to Providence, Rhode Island in 1937, they arrive too late to stop it from latching onto a local author of weird fiction… Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
With time running out before Lovecraft’s monstrous pantheon breaks free and destroys the world, the Doctor must enter Lovecraft’s mind to fight the psychic invader from within. Can he and Flip overcome the eldritch horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos? And will Constance and Calypso survive babysitting the infamously xenophobic Old Gentleman of Providence himself?
It was that with some trepidation but also curiosity I approached reviewing “The Lovecraft Invasion”. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American early 20th-century writer of weird and horror stories which are in my opinion a bit of an acquired taste. His fiction uses a kind of formalised language which doesn’t translate for an easy read on the page. But something about the flow of the language actually seems to work better if heard as a story.
So I was interested to hear how a story using him as a central character would work. Secondly, this is my first 6th Doctor Big Finish story and I had heard such good things about how the Doctor’s character has been developed beyond the TV series with Big Finish that I wanted to see if it was true. For the most part with some few reservations, Robert Valentine has skilfully scripted an imaginative and complex story around his characters as the Doctor steers us through 1937 Providence and the HP Lovecraft mythos.
HP Lovecraft is the major character in this story and has been described as the father of modern horror writing. The world he creates of malign creatures, cosmic legends older than mankind which serve to highlight the insignificance of humans has many contemporary writers and moviemakers as fans. Robert Valentine explores the interesting idea about whether you can still enjoy the work of an author but not agree with his personal views. The copious letters (around 100, 000 ) left by the real HP Lovecraft highlight his xenophobic (having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries) and racist views. His various proclamations about Russians, Jews Asians and Black people are publicly documented and reprehensible. I doubt his views were unique to him at the time. He is just a visible representative of the views of a conservative right concerned about immigration prior to the Second World War.
There is a lovely moment where the Doctor describes sorrowfully to Flip being unable to read a favourite book after discovering the author’s pastime was rather destructive. The subtlety of his point is well made but then there are other times the message becomes heavy-handed. Perhaps he is protecting his companions before they meet HP but the Doctor far too easily seems to able to pass judgement on the man describing him as a “failure in his lifetime, racist and xenophobe, not someone he wanted to meet”.
There is a rather forced conversation towards the conclusion of the story between our two “gentlemen” where the Doctor lectures Howard Phillips that his hierarchical bigoty is blind, cruel arrogance showing the worst of humanity and the Doctor is nothing like him. Whilst I know this Doctor doesn’t hold back on his sarcasm it does surprise me somewhat that as a Timelord, who has met the best and creative of humanity, he allows himself a strong reaction to this particular human being. I do wonder whether the HP Lovecraft in this drama intentionally parts way with the real man to make the story modern and political, to resonant with current concerns around, race, acceptance and difference.
The story does stray slightly away from revealing Howard Phillips married a Jewish lady Sonia Greene, although the marriage only lasted two years. HP also drifted towards socialism in his later years and criticised his prior beliefs but the Doctor is just scathing of a man just a few months away from his own death at age forty-six “ His work lives on. Warts and all” he tells Calypso. Whilst I wasn’t keen on the lecturing tone of the story Colin Baker in his later years has a slight gravel to his voice which brings a greater maturity to the 6th Doctor than I was expecting. In a way, I never saw Colin Baker regenerate from the 6th Doctor originally ( well he didn’t and I’m sticking to that ) so in my head, the 6th Doctor always ages and mellows despite the coat. Here his Doctor always seems in control which is reassuring and enjoyable.
Alan Marriott plays both Howard Phillips Lovecraft and his fictional creation and alter ego Randolph Carter and his performance of both characters is polished as Robert Valentine’s script combines funny as well as humour against the background of the horrific. There aren’t recordings of HP but actor Alan Marriott creates a nasally New Englander keen to create the characteristics of Howard Phillips not being a masculine child obsessed by the idea of being a 17th century gentleman with manners. Its cleverly conveyed in the script by small scenes of Howard Phillips chiding the postman for a throwaway saucy comment about ladies when delivering the post and betraying his own inability to convey emotions in a letter to his wife.
I did wonder whether the script portrayal of him as a whiny highly-strung man at times made it easier to despise him and accept the other characters as they make their dislike of him and his views known. There is a tension between the horror writer, companion Constance Clarke who is living through the horror of the Second World War at home and pansexual, bi-racial bounty hunter Calypso Jonze ( played by Robyn Holdaway)who physically represents everything HP is afraid of.
In the social media world, we live in where everyone seems to have an informed or no opinion about how history should be interpreted there will be some people absolutely saying Calypso and Constance have a right to challenge his behaviour. Yes, they do but on the other hand, I never felt we had a satisfactory right of reply from him in the story or sufficient exploration of what caused him to hold those views except it was due to “logic and reason” so it felt one-sided.
Regarding the story, I’m relatively a newbie in Big Finish terms and so the beginning was a bit unsettling as the Tardis crew are running back to the Tardis from a previous adventure. This as I understand is an unheard adventure as the last story so far with Flip and Mrs Clark as companions was “Scorched Earth” set in World War 2. But they are chasing after a genetically modified parasite, the Somnifax which has escaped from a lab. Once the Tardis arrives in 1930’s Providence done fairly quickly the story then settles in its location.
This is my first Flip and Mrs Clark story and along for the journey is a bounty hunter Calypso Jonze (played by Robyn Holdaway). It worked splitting up the Tardis team up as Calypso and Mrs Clark were tasked with looking after HP Lovecraft whilst breaches in reality appeared. Constance Clarke kept HP calm in a very British stiff upper lip way and I quite like her calmness and strength of spirit which counterbalanced the single-mindedness of Calypso who has her eyes on the reward for the capture of the Somnifax. I enjoyed the touches to the script as they visited the place HP was born, Angell Street and Butler hospital which has emotional resonance to him.
The Doctor and Philippa (yes, she’s Flip but I’m not sure I actually like the name) meanwhile follow the Somnifax who has possessed HP Lovecraft’s imagination to lure it out of its host. I’m not quite sure how old Flip is meant to be, at times she sounds like a teenager other times older but I liked her energy. They encounter all sorts of monstrosities on the journey through HP Lovecraft’s subconscious including Wilbur Whateley, a repulsive inhabitant of Dunwich from one of the writer’s stories. Using the made-up world of an established writer can risk alienating a listener if they are unfamiliar with the references of “Lovecraft Country”. I must admit it initially felt a little strange to hear the terminology but Flip and the Doctor are our guides.
I do wonder where Lovecraft’s nightmarish ghouls and ancient deities before man existed that really don’t care about us came from. Can it be explained by the psychological scar of his mother repeatedly calling him hideous as a child or was it is his fascination with chemistry, astrology and the recognition that mankind is just a speck of dust in the cosmos? One of the benefits dear reader of Big Finish covering Lovecraft Country is as the Doctor, Flip and later Carter moved around the dark places I created my own fearful images in my head. The nightmare corpse city, Nyarlathotep / Cthulu with the sound of the tribal drums were well realised alongside the creepy musical score throughout by Andy Hardwick.
Robert Valentine clearly enjoyed writing this story which mixes a very current political message alongside a decent sci-fi horror plot. The examination of racism and xenophobic themes is timely but it shouts its message in a particularly heavy-handed way at times which is obvious. The nightmare world is probably the strongest element because the Somnifax manipulates the fictional landscape so the story doesn’t go down a familiar horror route. For lovers of Lovecraft Country, it’s a decent homage as Valentine uses the characters to explore relevant themes without seeming unreachable.