Review by Cavan Gilbey
If Chimes of Midnight has taught us anything it’s that Big Finish fans love a good ghost story over the Christmas period. Nothing quite gets you in the festive spirit that a good fright, and Torchwood audios over the past couple of years have treated us to sci-fi scare for tide us over until the next holiday season. This year’s entry into that collection is from veteran of the Sherlock Holmes audio stories Jonathan Barnes, slipping into his comfort zone of the Victorian period to give us a series of short horror vignettes with Queen Victoria. But this story ultimately ended up leaving me more frustrated than frightened.
Calling the Prime Minister and close assistant Mr Castringham to a secret meeting place in order to seemingly have an innocent time telling ghost stories. But the PM, a huge sceptic, isn’t having any of it and scoffs at the notion of anything supernatural in stories that to him just seem about sleep loss or a child’s imagination. But surely a story about a mysterious forest, a haunted hotel room and a cursed coin can’t have anything in common can they?
I am a huge fan of gothic horror, I think it’s a style that has much potential for either experimentation or really tight use of the tropes to create something truly unsettling. Unfortunately for Barnes, he has written a series of three not very well developed or interesting short stories that feel more so like they were dictated by someone who was on the phone with a friend who had just finished reading The Picture of Dorian Grey. A lot of this story is held together by Lisa Bowerman’s direction, she gets the cast into the spirt of things really well and she works well with sound designer Toby Hrycek-Robinson to craft some pretty evocative soundscapes to do help pull you in even if Barnes’ script isn’t his usual high quality.
The first story, as told from Victoria’s perspective, is a very traditional ghost tale about a spooky forest from the Queen’s childhood that she visits later in life hoping to meet the creature that lives with in. If you have heard literally any ghost story then there are no surprises here for you, it is very reliant on tropes in a way that isn’t particularly interesting since it isn’t subverting them in any way. The strongest of the three is Castringham’s tale of a chest of drawers that haunt his stay in a hotel. This has a really interesting piece of imagery within it where our narrator opens a draw to find a baby-like creature, something that resembles an unborn human baby at the least; capturing one of the more iconic images of short living videogame PT but in a way that is far more conventional. Not bad, but I honestly believe this vignette has a premise that could easily hold a full hour. The third and final story sees our Prime Minister become obsessed with an antique coin that seemingly has a powerful hold over him. The most interesting, actually the only interesting aspect of this story is that the PM hasn’t realised he is still holding on to the coin until after he’s told the story, it’s a suitably eerie twist and stops the story from completely falling flat. The conclusion of the story contains my favourite moment and helps develop a much darker side to Victoria, one that is willing to withhold info from Torchwood if it means she can hold some of the chips. It’s a twist you can’t actually see coming and it was a great surprise when I found something I could get enthused about, shame it was at the very end of the release.
I’ve never been huge on Queen Victoria as a character, just not a protagonist I get particularly interested in when she does make an appearance but I think Rowena Cooper always does a brilliant job and here she proves her skill as a narrator as she keeps the prose moving along great and does maintain the proper sense of unease you need here. I loved how Richard David-Caine plays this PM, he’s arrogant and thinks he is above all this phantasmagoria but you can tell there are moments in his performance where the PM is getting into the spirit of things before snapping back to a more serious persona. Hugh Fraser puts in a fun performance as the stoic Castringham, there’s some good moments in his story where he gets to show how even the most serious of people can have their sanity broken by the unexplainable.
I can’t help but feel really dissatisfied with The Empire Man, on the surface it has a lot of stuff I should love; supernatural vignettes in one of my favourite horror styles, a heavy focus on the fear of the unknown and emotional weight of the horrors. But ultimately it all falls flat for me. Barnes feels like he is overstretching himself and tries to do too much in too little time, had he focused on a single story here then I could see myself loving this one but The Empire Man is going on the pile of stories I doubt I will ever listen to again.
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