The ghostly supernatural tales of the bookish academic M.R. James have continued to fascinate dramatists in the decades since his works came to public attention in the first half of the twentieth century. Audio drama producers Bafflegab have recently been establishing an impressive reputation as creators of high-quality ghost and horror audio adaptations through the release of Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Hellbound Heart.
The company’s latest release - The Conception of Terror, produced in association with Audible - is a series of four standalone stories, each inspired by one of James’ best-known works. Some James purists may object to Bafflegab’s decision to reset the stories in the present day, but it’s not just a temporal shift that they’ve effected. The writers working on this set have all been encouraged to take inspiration from each of the original texts to craft stories offering a fresh take on James’ extraordinary tales.
All four of the adaptations are faithful to James’ belief in the value of restraint in ghost storytelling, and to the conviction that permeates his writing that terror could lurk just beneath the surface of the familiar and the commonplace. That recognition encourages the writers to focus on building an atmosphere that’s discomforting, unsettling, and infused with a sense of rising unease and deepening dread.
James’ original characters often live quiet and settled lives, only to suffer the consequences of letting an over-inquiring mind drag them into danger. Their modern counterparts are more emotionally literate, and more psychologically flawed. Several are dealing with the impact of loss, dashed hopes and frustrated aspirations, leaving them more vulnerable to manipulation and to making unwise decisions, something that might result in poor “life choices” but which makes for cracking drama.
The performances, realisation and direction are all excellent. Opening story “Casting the Runes”, dramatised by Stephen Gallagher, sets the bar high. This is a pacy rendition of the classic revenge curse story, brimming with a claustrophobic sense of menace and ill will. Amidst a very strong cast, Reece Shearsmith stands out for his portrayal of the malevolent Anton Karswell.
AK Benedict gives the unsettling premise of “Lost Hearts” a present day twist with an updated plot full of current cultural touchstones. Rosa Coduri makes wide-eyed teenage protagonist Stephanie Elliot both relatable and believable, especially when her character becomes ensnared in a disturbing tale of deception and sacrifice.
There’s depth and complexity to Jonathan Barnes’ inspired retelling of “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”. It features a terrific performance by Pearl Mackie as history teacher Mika Chantry, reluctantly drawn to uncover hidden secrets that might best be left undisturbed. The set concludes with the full-on folk terrors of Mark Morris’ chilling “A View from a Hill”, in which grieving mother Sarah Fanshawe (a fantastic turn by Alice Lowe) is convinced her young son is trying to communicate with her from beyond the grave.
Sound design on this release is exemplary throughout. Dialogue is firmly to the fore with other sound textures pared back and unobtrusive during the tension-building sections. That reliance on simple everyday background noises makes the lurching, cackling, slithering, hammering sounds of terror even more alarming when they eventually kick in.
This is accomplished, polished, attentive work; each very different tale succeeds in being both riveting and unnerving. This take is not reverential to the original texts, but it very effectively captures the sensibility and the storytelling qualities that enthused James. It is sure to encourage many listeners to seek out James’ stories for themselves, which can only be to the good. Hopefully this audio homage will be the first of many “quartets of chills”.
THE CONCEPTION OF TERROR / WRITERS: STEPHEN GALLAGHER, A.K. BENEDICT, JONATHAN BARNES, MARK MORRIS / DIRECTOR: SIMON BARNARD / CAST: REECE SHEARSMITH, TOM BURKE, ALICE LOWE, ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN, PEARL MACKIE / LABEL: BAFFLEGAB, AUDIBLE STUDIOS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW