If there’s one thing fans of Lovecraft love more than his work, it’s criticizing that work, and “The Dreams in the Witch House” has had its fair share. From August Derleth to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraftians have heaped scorn upon the novella. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that jazz, but I find these attacks to be baseless, founded more in critics’ own views of what Lovecraft should be than what he sometimes is. Just as Joshi criticizes another Lovecraftian masterpiece, The Dunwich Horror, as an “aesthetic mistake” that presents a “stock good-verses-evil scenario,” there are some in the horror community who reject the good and evil paradigm altogether in Lovecraftian fiction, particularly when the good guys win.
“The Dreams in the Witch House” not only presents a struggle between good and evil, it contains elements that truly terrify some Lovecraftians—Judeo-Christian concepts. It also has some of the best characters in Lovecraft’s fiction—Brown Jenkin, Keziah Mason, and Walter Gilman. We have call-backs to the Salem witch trials, Cotton Mather, and Judge John Hathorne, Walpurgis Night playing a central role, the appearance of the Necronomicon, Book of Eibon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and a cutting-edge mathematical explanation for magic and the realms of the Old Ones.
That’s a lot to recommend it, and perhaps it’s no surprise that two of my favorite interpretations of Lovecraft’s work came from this story—the Master of Horror episode directed by Stuart Gordon and the unparalleled H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s production of Dreams in the Witch House: A Lovecraftian Rock Opera. Both are great, but the rock opera is brilliant. The HPLHS cut no corners here. Brian Sammons, horror critic and author, laid it out best:
First off, the HPLHS got some talented ringers to back them up on this massive, musical Mythos odyssey. The opera has 16 tracks that feature over 17 singers, including Jody Ashworth (The Trans Siberian Orchestra, which was original formed by members of the aforementioned Savatage), Alaine Kashian (Broadway’s Cats) and Swedish metal phenom Chris Laney as the wonderfully wicked Brown Jenkin. That not enough musical street cred for you? Well, how about this, the album features 14 musicians, including Bruce Kulick (former KISS guitarist) and Douglas Blair Lucek (guitarist for W.A.S.P.). Yes, this album has links to both Savatage and W.A.S.P. Oh, you know I was a happy metalhead to learn that.
So yeah, this is not just your brother throwing something together in his backyard. Over the next three days, we’ll walk through this masterpiece, song by song. Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments.
- The Confession/Arkham Overture
Our adventure begins with Frank Elwood taking confession with Father Inwanicki, setting up that our story will be told in the form of flashbacks. The intro establishes the overall feel for rest of the production, casting Arkham as a place of darkness and mounting dread, while introducing us to some musical riffs that will repeat themselves throughout.
- Dreams in the Witch House
The first real track is an ensemble blitz laying out the nature of the witch house and the contours of the story. Frank Elwood leads off, followed by the introduction of Walter Gilman himself. A chorus of characters serenades us, and then, like a canon shot, Alaine Kashian makes her first appearance as Keziah Mason, and you know you’ve got something special on your hands.
- Higher Fire: Breaking Me Down
We learn a little bit more about Gilman and how committed he is to the study of mathematics and the other dimensions that may surround us. Contrast that with Joseph Mazurewicz, who is equally committed to opposing the forces of evil he sees gathering in anticipation of Walpurgis Night. Gilman thinks that Mazurewicz is little more than an annoyance, part of the endless cacophony that is slowly driving him insane. But Gilman is starting to see that the very walls that surround him may hold the key to his studies into the strange geometries that make up the world.
- Bridge to The Stars
Gilman lays out the cosmic theory he is pursuing, as he attempts to find a way to pass between this dimension to the next. His professor and classmates are initially skeptical, but as Gilman lays out the theory, they start to believe. The chorus that follows reminds me of something out of Rent.
- The Nightmare
Even as Gilman’s theory comes closer to reality, the pressure of his work has begun to invade his dreams. In those nightmares, he walks the path of ancient lost cities of impossible geometries and sees unspeakable things. Gilman the scientist finds himself turning to his faith to protect him from the madness around him. As he calls upon his Lord, a new voice enters, that of Kaziah Mason.