A young man named Charles Dexter Ward goes missing from his locked room in a Rhode Island institution, while his psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathon Willett later travels to Britain to murder a woman. That’s the start of a new podcast series from BBC Radio 4, based on an H.P. Lovecraft novel called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which follows a pair of investigative reporters working on a fictional true-crime podcast, Mystery Machine.
Set in 1928 in Providence, Rhode Island, the original novel appeared in the horror magazine Weird Tales in 1941, a couple of years after Lovecraft died. It follows a mystery of an institutionalized man, Charles Dexter Ward who vanishes from his cell, while his family’s doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, tries to unravel the reasons behind Ward’s insanity. Willett soon discovers that Ward had been obsessed with a distant ancestor, Joseph Curwen, a smuggler and necromancer who was engaged in a vast conspiracy with fellow wizards.
The 10-part podcast from the BBC is an updated version of that original story, and there’s a meta quality to the series as you follow a pair of journalists trying to put together a podcast like Serial or S-Town. It’s an enthralling listen — the series updates the story for the modern day, and follows the efforts of two reporters who are trying to unravel the connection between Ward and Willett. The show’s Lovecraft roots become apparent halfway through as Matthew and Kennedy discover that the people they are investigating are linked to some very ancient cults, with supernatural overtones. In many ways, the series feels like a mashup of Serial with the first season of HBO’s True Detective.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward comes from British director and writer, Julian Simpson, who’s directed episodes of Doctor Who and Hotel Babylon, and who has recently started up a podcasting studio, Storypunk. He tells The Verge that he has been a Lovecraft fan for a long time, and a couple of years ago, he “got a bee in my bonnet about the idea that Charles Dexter Ward specifically could be done as a sort of Serial-style podcast,” he says. “A few of Lovecraft’s stories lend themselves to that, actually. He always has a kind of developing mystery, often via correspondents or archival material. I’d been listening to Serial and S-Town, and thought ‘there’s something here that we can do with Charles Dexter Ward.’”
He explained that there were a couple of appealing components to the story: it was a locked-room mystery, and an ideal hook for a listener: “guy gets locked in his room in the sanitarium, and the next morning, he’s just vanished.” But beyond that, he imagined that in the modern day, Ward’s psychiatrist would have been recording his sessions, and that that would provide good material to anchor each episode of the series.
His fellow producer Karen Rose then pitched the project to BBC Radio 4, which eventually picked up the series when it began to experiment with original podcast programming. From that point on, Simpson went to work writing the series. “It was very seat-of-the-pants,” he says, “which I think gives it this weird energy.” When plans for a writing room and co-writer collapsed, he had to quickly pull the ten episodes together himself.
A big part of that was updating the series for the modern day, which required a bit of work. “Because I wanted to do it as a podcast,” he says, “it wouldn’t make any sense to keep it in 1921. And, the book itself — I don’t want to offend Lovecraft fans — is kind of a stiff read. It’s pretty dense and doesn’t move at the kind of clip that audio drama needs to move.” He pointed to a prior audio dramatization by the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre of the story from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, saying that it was an excellent adaptation, and that there wasn’t any point in trying to do the same thing that they did.
“If it was going to be a Serial-style podcast,” he explains, “then it needed feel like a story that was unfolding in the present day, concurrently with the investigators on the Mystery Machine uncovering this stuff. There was no point in kind of going ‘we’ve got this amazing story from the 1920s that we’re going to tell you,’ because it doesn’t have any resonance to the present day and doesn’t have any urgency to it.” Adding to the urgency and realism was the fact that they recorded the series in a week, and not in a studio — the exterior scenes were recorded in actual locations, allowing them to create a realistic environment for the characters.
Simpson also found that Charles Dexter Ward was a bit easier for him to adapt because he felt that it was one of the author’s least problematic stories. Lovecraft “was a massive racist,” Simpson explains, “a guy who was basically afraid of the world in all its forms, and that’s not all that present in Charles Dexter Ward. It’s more about the occult, and it felt that I didn’t have to sidestep Lovecraft’s hangups.”
The response to the series from fans of Lovecraft fans has been “ridiculously good,” says Simpson. He notes that he’s done a lot of work in TV, film, and radio, and “I have never had the response to anything I’ve done like this.” He noted that he was expecting the author’s fans to have been more critical, but says that “it doesn’t hurt that Lovecraft was in a network of other authors who borrowed [ideas] back and forth and cribbing from one another, so the purity might not have been the same if I did something similar with [the works of Charles] Dickens.”
With the success of this series, Simpson says that he’s “chomping at the bit to do season 2, but I’m waiting for the official greenlight from the BBC.” Should that pickup come, he’s already picked out a story that he can bring into the modern day. He has other projects on his plate as well — he’s working on starting up his own fiction podcast studio, Storypunk, saying that there’s a lot of space in the industry for more long-form, serialized fiction stories.