Regular readers of Third Eye are likely well aware of any number of my multifarious predilections.
Beyond the musical and filmic tastes the podcast revolves around, I’ve been a hardcore Whovian since first exposure back in the early to mid 80s (as a Yank, that meant the Hinchcliffe era Tom Baker and later a spot of Jo-accompanied Jon Pertwee, not Davison and Colin Baker…those would come much later). This obviously plays into (and is both enhanced and exacerbated by) my abiding love of the various Big Finish Who lines.
Followers of the Journal of Decadence are well aware of my literary inclinations towards Fin de Siècle Decadence, as well as vaguely contemporaneous, generally dark authors such as Wilde, Sade, Howard, Lovecraft, Hawthorne and Poe. Similarly, I’ve been a lifelong Holmesian and lover of the darker side of Victoriana (with a range of European authorial works generally ascribed to the nom du guerre of ‘Anonymous’). So you know how attached I am to both Jago & Litefoot and Dorian Gray.
I was introduced by my folks to some excellent, at the time long lost series as The Avengers and Dark Shadows, both of which I’d become something of a hardcore follower and fan of, devouring lengthy, multi-cast runs and eras and cheerleading and spreading the gospel to friends and likeminded acquaintances over the intervening decades.
And regularly exposed as a youngster and teen to the often quite superior programming of late 60’s-80’s vintage BBC and ITV, I’ve long been something of an Anglophile, far more familiar with offerings and celebs from across the pond than the (generally) more lightweight and vacuous variants on home territory. Check off Blakes 7, Survivors, Adam Adamant, the Brian Clemens Thriller, Space 1999 and literally dozens of ostensible childrens and adult series of note along the lines of The Tomorrow People, Into the Labyrinth and Children of the Stones (just to name check a few among many). Let’s not even get into all the Public TV Britcoms. Suffice to say, I’m well familiar.
And yet, out of all of this plethora and wealth of revivified cult entertainment given new and vibrant audio life through the auspices of the fine folks at Big Finish, which two stories do I find myself returning to again and again, practically without cessation?
Yeah, that’s right. Pathfinder Legends.
Is it the whole D&D 20-sided die tabletop roleplaying thing? Not really, my loves of Howard, Tolkien, Poe and the like go back much further than my introduction to the world of TSR way back when. Besides, I’d left that whole thing behind for more years than I care to remember, only returning to the fold over the last year or two when encountering long-lost friends from those halcyon days of youth – how much of an influence could that really play, at least on any conscious level, across the intervening decades?
But something about these night-set tavern meetings and ventures into untold horrors in the pursuit of justice, glory or treasure in the company of friends speaks to something deeper within: a primal need, a meaning to life that the empty pursuit of commerce fails on every level even to speak to, much less provide.
The very oddness of the band similarly evokes real-world compatriots through the years. “What sort of god would throw us together? Only one with a sense of humor,” the characters opine in the Skinsaw Murders. How apropos and true of various groupings of friends from grade school, high school, college and beyond. And yet, for whatever period of time, in whatever variations and sizes, these bands of individuals from disparate cliques, with very different musical, filmic or even televised tastes (and as the years drew on, hailing from completely different parts of the state) would nonetheless be fairly inseparable, regularly getting together for whatever mischief, entertainment or the stuff of future memories and amusing recollections which could be dredged up at the time.
Ill tempered, impatient Elven warrior Merisiel vacillates between ostensible distaste for her peers and a more subtle but central affection which peeks through at random intervals. Hell, at certain rare times, she’s downright happy.
Agedly resigned, levelheaded if occasionally imperious wizard Ezren serves as apparent leader, peacemaker and spokesman for the group, often much to the annoyance of the others. Nonetheless, they do inevitably, if begrudgingly, tend to follow his lead.
Pessimistically gruff and reserved if not morose dwarven ranger Harsk seems to prefer isolation and teetotaling, only rarely offering a sullen riposte or dour warning to those around him. And yet…he still tags along and does his part.
Drunken, blustery Valeros makes up for his lack of insight or self-awareness with an equal level of braggadocio and self-serving glory hogging. But does he really see himself as the brave, nigh-invincible hero he portrays himself as (to anyone who’ll listen)? Certainly he inspires an equal mix of bemused affection and maintenance at arm’s distance from both sultry Merisiel and the lovely barkeep Ameiko, though this often crosses the line straight into a more obvious frustrated irritation. And even so, they stick together. Value each other’s company and friendship. Trust each other with their lives, never to be disappointed. They have each others’ backs, if you will.
And if the comfortable familiarity and real life parallels of all this aren’t enough, then we have a genre appropriate menagerie of horrors to keep us entertained. Loveably stupid if murderous goblins, with their absurd battle rhymes. Evil wizards and undead liches. Dark gods, lamiae, haunts, ghouls, manticores and worse. And this is only over the course of two all too brief episodes.
So it was a bit of a surprise to find our heroes smack dab in the middle of…a hicksploitation slasher scenario?!?
Author Mark Wright (of Burnt Offerings) gets his chance at bat once again in this ongoing rotating double act, alternating scripting duties on the series with recurring writing partner Cavan Scott (who gave us late May’s Skinsaw Murders). But where Burnt Offerings was the comparatively lighthearted adventure complement to Skinsaw Murders’ eerie and unrelenting grimness, The Hook Mountain Massacre breaks the pattern by taking matters a sight further into the heart of darkness.
Set in a relentlessly rainswept Magnamar, we find our heroes cooling their heels while Ezren attempts to unravel the tangled skein tying together the varied menaces they’ve encountered of late. Hired by the city’s rather sleazy mayor to find out why communications have ceased from the district’s distant defense holding of Fort Ranic and its Black Arrow garrison, they head out to sea to the oddly monikered Turtleback Ferry. With the guys quickly ensnared in a common backwoods trap, Merisiel is sent off to track at a distance, in the hopes that she may hold the key to their eventual freedom…
Captured by some particularly Southern-fried ogres and paired with the few survivors among the Black Arrows, our mismatched band find themselves up against some especially vicious stone giants and a vice-ridden temptress who seduces men to their own ruination. Can they succeed?
Relative newcomer Kerry Skinner continues to steal the show as the generally ill-tempered elf Merisiel, though she gets far less airtime than she had in previous installments. While Stewart Alexander’s good natured Valeros may well seem the best of the crew to head out for a night of drinking with, his blustery attention-hogging and sloppy booziness leaves him a poor second to the, at such times, equally lively yet more restrained charms of our fairer compatriot. And I’m sure she’d be a lot nicer to look at to boot.
While Trevor Littledale’s nasal Ezren remains the voice of cool reason throughout whose musings would seem to drive at least the first quarter of the tale, it still feels like his actual airtime herein and Big Finish credits alike pale before those of the crusty Harsk of Ian Brooker (Embrace the Darkness, Wirrn Dawn and Dark Eyes 2’s The White Room among numerous others), who alongside Valeros gets the lion’s share of the lines this time around. And with Harsk fighting off seasonal allergies, it’s almost a contest to see which of the two characters sounds more unpleasantly congested…
Alongside the four leads, we get several return engagements among the guest cast, most notably (and certainly most appreciated) from the always enjoyable Helen Goldwyn (Mayor Deverin in Burnt Offerings and the ghoulish Lissa in Skinsaw Murders, as well as roles in such classic Big Finish Whos as Spectre of Lanyon Moor, Wirrn Isle and Iris Wildthyme’s The Sound of Fear) as the sensually sinister Lucrecia.
Toby Longworth (the erstwhile Sherriff Hemlock), Duncan Wisbey (the former Aldern Foxglove) and Salford Cat Sean Connolly (previously the craven Maester Grump) each appear here as various members of the degenerate ogre and giant clans, and even recurring bit player Sunny Ormonde gets a few minutes to curdle milk as the Troma grue fest Mother’s Day-style Mammy Graul…
With an omnipresent claustrophobic feel engendered by the unceasing rain and presumed muddiness of the mountainside setting, a gloomy sense of entrapment both imminent and impending and some rather grubby enemies, this is something of an odd detour from the more familiar village under siege and supernatural foemen of the prior series installments. While certainly quite atmospheric, it’s an entirely different ballgame in many respects.
Whether this sort of unwashed battlefield business appeals to the listener or no is down to personal preference, but it did feel that the main characters (and what appeared to be turning into a small cast of regulars in the Sandpoint-orientation thereof) are somewhat sidelined in favor of a comparatively much less appealing storyline, some entirely unpleasant minor characters and a number of skin-crawlingly sleazy hick-style baddies. Even ostensible head nasty Lucrecia seems to get far less time in the spotlight than one grotty compromised soldier, scummy ogre or idiotic giant after another, to the story’s ultimate detriment.
All told, I’m just glad to have another hour in the company of Merisiel, Valeros, Ezren and Harsk. But with their virtual screentime seeming far more limited than usual and the remaining space filled with unlikeable strangers and the peccadilloes of grubby enemies rather than the far more enjoyable recurring characters of Sandpoint, things do fall a bit flat by comparison to prior episodes.
Or to put it more simply: while it certainly does have its merits, the Hook Mountain Massacre is decidedly not the one to start your adventure path on.