The Whisperer in Darkness

The Whisperer in Darkness August 28, 2012

Review of The Whisperer in Darkness, Directed by Sean Brannery


The writings of H.P. Lovecraft are forgotten gems of American Literature. Despite the best efforts of his fans (including the good folks over at the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast), Lovecraft remains mostly known by gamers and devotees of alternative metal. So when a movie is made from a Lovecraft book, I generally get pretty excited about it, even if it’s as mediocre a movie as The Whisperer in Darkness. In style and theme, this movie has a solidly Lovecraftean scope, even while its plot and character deviate from the original story and into more modern action-movie tropes. Fortunately, the movie keeps one of Lovecraft’s most interesting themes: the American desire for our own body of myth and legend.

This has been a long-standing goal in American literature: we want to have a mythological narrative that is uniquely ours, and that explains who we are and what our place is in the world. Early in our history it was decided that we were going to be more than our mostly-British origins. We didn’t want to adopt Beowulf and the Arthur legends, we wanted our own meta-narrative. This desire is something we as Christians can certainly understand. Two of the functions of the Bible are to give us the grand story of human existence from the creation of the world to the coming recreation of the earth and arrival of the Heavenly City, and to tell us where we are between those two events. The first generation of American writers (Cooper, Emerson, Irving, Longfellow, etc) was self-consciously aware of this need and set about intentionally creating a body of stories which we could adopt as our own. Hawkeye’s adventures in the Leatherstocking Tales, Hiawatha’s tetrameters through the woods, and Diederich Knickerbocker’s crusty embellishments were all intended to good-naturedly build a collection of stories future generations could look to in order to understand our place as Americans in the world.

This is where The Whisperer in Darkness picks up, with a skeptical folklorist articulating this role of myth and legend in a culture, even as he denies any reality behind it. Long-standing local legends about strange lights in the sky are, according to Dr. Albert Wilmarth, just superstitious rednecks (or the New England equivalent) reading too much into a comet or some other natural occurrence. Recent stories about dead monsters floating in a Vermont river are just more of the same—most likely local yokels panicking over a bit of decaying livestock. Until, that is, Wilmarth treks to Vermont himself, and finds out that not only is there truth to the myth, but that the truth is unspeakably horrifying and signals the beginning of the end for mankind.

Which is an interesting twist for an American author. In general, American stories are full of unbridled optimism, the victory that comes through hard work and entrepreneurship, and the little guy defeating overwhelming odds. In the case of this movie (and Lovecraft’s writings in general), destruction is coming and there is nothing that tiny, insignificant humanity can do to stop it. The most we can hope for is to remain happy in our ignorance until the very last possible minute when the hammer falls. This movie performs its mythic role and shows us our place in the world:  an insignificant and doomed place.

So if you’re looking for an uplifting, optimistic movie about the triumph of the human spirit over all opposition, The Whisperer in Darkness is not for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a passable B-movie shot in the style of 1930s films (which alone might make it worth seeing) that deals with questions of the role of meta-narrative and the coming end of the world, you might find this interesting.

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