“We’re trapped in a haunted house and you’re sending for your stoner mates?”
“Got a better plan?”
Our first course of this plentiful feast of audio drama comes courtesy of James Goss’ (Jago & Litefoot’s Night of 1000 Stars and Encore of the Scorchies) Blank Canvas, which takes the unusual approach of being a Dorian Gray story more or less without the leading man.
Essaying all the tropes of the supernaturally oriented slasher film with an accomplished flair, Goss drops a trio of soused punters into a particularly ill-starred adventure in housebreaking. And what starts out as a bit of a lark becomes a rather more final affair…
Sophie Wu, Alex Jordan and Edward Harrison imbue the would-be squatters with a suitable level of hysterics and suggestibility, and that mysteriously wry and sinister voice on the phone ain’t so bad hisself…
“When was the last time that chat up line was used? Jack the ripper?”
Having discovered the Dorian Gray audio series through last October’s The Prime of Deacon Brodie, I can’t vouch for exactly why Dorian appears to be deceased at the start of this year’s iteration, but questions of continuity aside, this is an…er…ripping opener to Series Three which treads some very familiar territory while retaining a measure of uniqueness, and one that proves quite gripping throughout.
“You’re married? To a woman? …You’ll forgive me, I thought we were in the 21st century.”
“Then why the beard?”
Next up, a very much alive Dorian Gray reunites with former lover Simon Darlow (David Blackwell), who’s turned himself into a successful (if callously self serving) investment banker. It also seems he’s playing at being “straight” for social and economic position…but when the elevator stops halfway down, they find they aren’t the only after hours visitors to The Needle…
“You’re so Naughties…as in the decade. That kind of hedonism, no one’s doing it these days. No one’s even shocked by it anymore, so why bother?”
Terry Molloy puts in an uncredited cameo as security guard Brian, who comes to a quick and unfortunate end at the hands of some rather vengeful spirits. Because the building has a horrible secret beneath its foundations…one that’s coming back, with a vengeance.
A sort of modernized nod to Massimo Pupillo’s classic Barbara Steele vehicle Cinque Tombe per un Medium (better known internationally as Terror Creatures from the Grave), David Llewellyn crafts an all too brief but succinct supernatural horror that leaves our hero in an unusual victim role. Like the first story in this series, it manages to capture the tropes of the sort of filmic precedent it draws from despite its brevity, and while quite entertaining as is, would certainly have been deserving of a longer exploration thereof.
“You must be very empty, Luke Glass, to feel the need to do this. You should get a hobby. Find a girlfriend…or boyfriend…or a cat.”
Next, Blake Ritson joins Vlahos as a murderously obsessed serial killer who sets his sights on Gray for a game of psychological cat and mouse with Saw-like overtones in a tale entitled We Are Everywhere.
Eschewing some of the grue of the latter for a slightly more philosophical audio take on values clarification that tags in something of a homoerotic attraction in motivation, author Roy Gill works this sadistic Gitmo-derived latter day zeitgeist as well as can be done given the intrinsic tastelessness of the trope, leaving the story as listenable as possible (and trust me, that’s a decided compliment for something tapping into this decidedly unpleasant genre).
In other words, considering we’re talking an effective torture porn story with creepy crawl stalker elements, things remain more or less on track throughout. It’s well written and the character bits, however exaggerated on Glass’ part, remain believable.
“Believe me, I remember every one. Every single person I’ve ever met, everyone who stood alongside me, those who lived and those who died. Even those who despised me, I can remember their names, their faces, even their families. Because they come to me every night when I close my eyes.”
The last few minutes of Gill’s tale bleed into Gary Russell’s (Bernice Summerfield’s The Curse of Fenman and In Living Memory) Echoes, which features an all star cast including Klein herself, Tracey Childs (A Thousand Tiny Wings, Daleks Among Us), Nicola “Peri” Bryant as Victorian era transplant Claudia Markham and Terry Molloy (the delightfully doddering Professor Edward Dunning in Bafflegab‘s The Scarifyers, Doctor Who’s Davros) in a more substantive role than his cameo in The Needle as the platitude spouting Father Sumner.
Dorian is spirited away to what appears to be a solo journey by rail, where two long lost personages from his past join him to arouse his memory of the many lost friends and loves of his life…and to surrender his prized portrait.
“It seems we’re rumbled, my dear.”
“There’s always one who understands the small print…”
Hinting at a John Constantine-esque history of supernatural combat alongside others who pay the ultimate price while he continues to live on effectively unscathed, Russell’s script drops some fascinating red herrings (however unreal) that point to a very different course the series could have taken…a far darker one indeed. And in fact, if this tale is any indication of what the future may hold, we may all be heading down that particular road, come Series Four…
“I started looking for ways to bring more meaning into my life. I had my aura read, my chakras cleansed, I tried gong therapy, color therapy…even colonic irrigation. Not the most pleasant experience…”
Dorian pays a visit to a particularly dotty medium (Annette Badland, one of the more prominent Slitheen in New Who) in Xanna Eve Chown’s Pandora. Unfortunately, she’s come into possession of a particularly nasty deck of tarot cards…
“The fourth is called the contract card. As you turn it over, you enter into a contract with the deck. The card reveals your heart’s greatest desire…and you allow the deck to make it real.”
With prior clients all turning up dead, Gray must return to Madame Pandora’s to uncover the truth…before he too becomes a victim of the cards that make dreams come true…
“It used to be simpler, back in the day. People vanish more often than you’d think…but now? There’s cameras everywhere. People telling the world what they’re doing, every moment of the day. Where they are, who they’re seeing, what they had for lunch…”
“People get missed before they’re even had a chance to vanish.”
Then Cavan Scott (Pathfinder Legends, Masters of Earth, Blakes Seven Scimitar, Liberator Chronicles Series 9) reunites Dorian with late lover Toby Matthews (Hugh Skinner, Bernice Summerfield’s The Winning Side) in Heart and Soul.
Pulling things straight into Anne Rice territory, Scott crosses the original Vampire Chronicles trilogy with likeminded fare such as Forever Knight for a trip into vaguely erotic vampire fiction from the days before that implied sparkling tweeny gobbledygook. There’s even a touch of seedy carny atmosphere thrown into the mix for good measure…and can you say Night Tide?
With so many elements thrown together, it’s like fighting something of an uphill battle to deliver anything of substance, but Scott, Vlahos, Skinner and Sean Biggerstaff’s Ivor manage to pull together what is probably the most emotionally charged triangle cum character study of all the vignettes contained in this season. Even Laura Doddington’s Sally provides an interesting mix of petulant girlish sensuality and gruesome horror in her brief appearance…
Again, much like Blank Canvas, The Needle and Echoes, Heart and Soul is probably too brief for all of the plot points being touched on, but regardless turns out as another surprisingly strong short story in a set positively filled to the brim with them.
“You hear that, Toby? We’re going to a party.”
Finally, we close out with two consecutive offerings from Scott Handcock (Bernice Summerfield’s In Living Memory and HMS Surprise). First up, Tracey Childs’ Victoria Lowell returns to manipulate Dorian into a trip to an art exhibition, where something called “the Eternity Canvas” is scheduled to be on display in Displacement Activity.
Continuing the reunion of Dorian with his compromised ex Toby, the trio attends as the rather snarkily pseudonymous Wilde, Stoker and Lowell, which prompts the following priceless exchange:
“Couldn’t you just have given them our real names?”
“Where’s the fun in that? Besides, I heard you used to like a bit of roleplay…”
Fascinatingly, Lord Henry Wotton himself returns from Dorian’s past…or does he? in the ever welcome personage of Bernice Summerfield’s Irving Braxatiel himself, Miles Richardson, courtesy of a certain mystical artifact…and it’s not the one you’re thinking.
Childs delivers a particularly malevolent touch of sexual sadism in her seductive taunting of poor Toby, while Richardson offers an appropriate mix of elegance and pomposity as the art gallery owner with a secret Dorian can’t possibly suspect…
“You make it sound so simple…”
Finally, Lowell resurrects the dessicated Dorian of the famed Wildean portrait (Bernard Holley) in a misguided effort to kill off the Dorian to whom series listeners are better accustomed…and a nasty piece of work he is. And if that weren’t trouble enough, we’re given some definite hints of who “Lord Henry” actually is…
Alexander Vlahos brings some deliciously smoky tones to bear as Wilde’s most famed Decadent antihero, imbuing as much world-weariness and regret as possible into stories generally so brief and driven by particulars so often outside of Dorian himself. He even manages to slip a dash of sarcasm and entendre-filled flirtation during the opening scenes of The Needle, which is no small feat in tales this tightly scripted and brief. And did we mention the anguish when he confronts Toby in Heart and Soul?
While Vlahos has lent his formidable virtual screen presence to both Bernice Summerfield (HMS Suprise) and Dark Shadows (The Darkest Shadow), he’s clearly been underutilized to date, and I certainly hope to hear more of him in the future across the various Big Finish lines.
Vlahos’ performance aside, The Confessions of Dorian Gray Series Three is something of an odd beast. Less active protagonist than a sort of Phantom Stranger type who either drifts into the picture obliquely bringing horror in his wake or serving as the tormented target thereof, Dorian Gray himself seems to be more active ingredient and acted upon than active lead per se in the better part of these tales.
This being my first delve into the series proper (as opposed to a single tale special episode), it’s unclear as to whether this is the regular format or some interesting variant thereof. But what can be said of a certainty is that Series Three of The Confessions of Dorian Gray does offer the prospective listener a well crafted batch of horror vignettes spanning everything from semi-gothic guignol and occult horror to a more modernistic slasher style, even going so far as to give a nod to present day torture porn.
And taken individually or in aggregate, the series’ entertainment value for fans of dark supernatural doings can be considered quite unquestioned.
And speaking purely for myself?
I can’t wait for the next installment.