Stuart Jeffries

Radio 4’s new H.P. Lovecraft adaptation will give you the chills

Radio 4's new H.P. Lovecraft adaptation will give you the chills
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Of all the many things I’ve learned from the radio so far this decade, the most deranging is that the universe is the dream of the god Azathoth. Not unreasonably, Azathoth yearns to wake up and visit his creation. In The Whisperer in Darkness (Radio 4), a crusty coven of drug-addled neopagans seek to realise this wish by summoning Azathoth through a mystic portal they’ve opened — just off the B1084 in Suffolk.

Fools! Don’t they realise that they risk unleashing forces they don’t understand? Waking Azathoth would mean there will be no dreamer to dream the dream and so not just Suffolk but all reality would be obliterated as a result.

When a former member of this neopagan coven disappears in mysterious circumstances, our heroes Matthew Heawood and Kennedy Fisher investigate, and find a conspiracy embroiling witches, drugs, secret government operations and, less surprisingly, tailbacks on the A12.

Such, at least, is the premise of Julian Simpson’s virtuosic ten-part adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella from 1930. Simpson shifts the action from 20th-century New England to 21st-century East Anglia, and in so doing makes the latter appear even weirder than it did in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

Effectively, Simpson redescribes Suffolk as an occult epicentre. Dunwich, the port lost to the North Sea, is imagined as wiped out by medieval demons rather than rising tides. The many witches who populated Suffolk before James I’s goons wasted them become tools in necromancer John Dee’s cunning plan to push the Armada off course and win his queen’s gratitude. Wartime nuclear-weapons testing on Orford Ness and the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident when a UFO was spotted near an air base also figure in the drama. (Incidentally, the latter incident is commemorated today by a UFO forest trail — with the frisson that you and your picnic might get abducted by aliens.)

Simpson’s conceit is that our heroes host a podcast called Mystery Machine which investigates unsolved or unusual true-life mysteries. That postmodern conceit, effectively debunking the very narrative we are listening to, might have been irritating but it actually adds a layer of knowing pleasure to everyday tropes such as cliffhangers and wrong-footing reveals. My favourite character, folklore specialist Professor Eleanor Peck, whom the pair consult, pours scorn on the paranormal like a foul-mouthed Richard Dawkins. If there is an award for the number of times a character can say ‘It’s bollocks’ on Radio 4 — and there should be — she should win it.

Even though The Whisperer in Darkness is doubtless all bollocks, its audio effects — shortwave crackle, creepy voices from the netherworld, jarring noises off, sinisterly crunching leaves as Kennedy scarpers from paranormal forest forces — gave me the chills. This was the second series and ended by nicely teeing up a third.

Insanely, I’ve been listening to Whisperer in Darkness on morning runs through the pre-dawn mean streets of Corbyn’s Islington — while the borough’s knifemen, fingers crossed, are still abed. Why? It’s only since Christmas that I’ve understood how to download BBC Sounds podcasts so that listening to them outdoors doesn’t consume costly data.

Radio 4’s News Quiz helped me run this week. I especially enjoyed comedian Ahir Shah’s take on why even Mark Francois’s crowdfunding initiative won’t make Big Ben bong for Brexit come 31 January. ‘It is genuinely pathetic,’ Shah told host Nish Kumar, ‘that our ancestors were conquered by a people so crap.’ Now Kumar has been hired as series host, though, the quiz faces the problem of his hysterical laugh. It jars more than night-time necromancers cackling in Rendlesham Forest. Dial it down a few notches, mate.

My wife’s new in-shower radio has further revolutionised radio for me since Christmas. While TV allows one to time-shift (watching what one wants when one wants), radio facilitates place-shifting too. If only Maajid Nawaz, LBC’s eviscerator-in-chief, knew how many times I’ve shouted at his bonehead callers while wet and naked in the shower, he might get a restraining order.

This week Nawaz, Islamist-turned-LibDem candidate-turned-multicultural Britain’s shock-jock conscience, called for an investigation into paedophile grooming gangs. After the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the Macpherson report coined the phrase ‘institutional racism’. Now, Nawaz suggested, we need an investigation into institutional misogyny — the rape and abuse by men, mostly Muslim, of vulnerable girls, mostly white, facilitated by police and local authorities. ‘The fear,’ he said, ‘of anti-Muslim bigotry must never be an excuse to allow underage girls to be raped and abused in this way. But it was.’ And is: Nawaz’s phone-in was premised on the revelations of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham that grooming gangs are still operating in his city.

What makes Nawaz cherishable isn’t so much that he tells truth to power as that he tells truth to stupid. Stupidity’s faithful may slur him for betraying his own by calling out men who pervert Islam by using their faith to justify their evil. The stupid may doubt his view that the police and (mostly Labour) councils have given the perpetrators impunity to prey on the most vulnerable. But we needn’t. Indeed, George Orwell, daily celebrated this week 70 years after his death on Radio 4’s Orwell in Five Words, has in Maajid Nawaz a soul mate, one who insists on inconvenient truths while skewering the newspeak of political correctness. ‘Who will defend the voiceless in this national scandal?’ Nawaz asked his listeners. All of us should.