The Ghastly Impermanence: Autumn Horrors

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As my colleague Fred Greenhalgh at Radio Drama Revival notes, “October is huge in audio drama.” Why? Halloween, of course.

Halloween means horror stories. Radio drama has a long and rich tradition of horror tales. Many of the cliché images of “Old Time Radio” in fact involve children sitting around a radio in suspense, or listening to scary stories with their heads barely peeking out of the covers. Radio excels at conveying horror because it is essentially ambiguous and completely imaginative–two qualities that are the root of suspense.

I have had a few people ask for some recommendations in horror audio. So here you are.

The “classic” American radio drama of the 1940s and 1950s produced many series dedicated to horror and thrillers. One of the most renown is Escape, from which comes an adaptation of George Toudouze’s story Three Skeleton Key. Starring the great Vincent Price, this remains to my knowledge the most popular horror story in the history of American radio, popular enough to be broadcast at least five separate occasions. It represents the American horror radio style at its apex: heavy narration, extraordinary sound design, brisk pacing and superior acting. This is the most renown performance, from March 17, 1950.

While Escape and Suspense were the two most renown radio thriller shows for some time, aficionados of horror radio like Richard J. Hand and Harlan Ellison opine that the best show of the time was the largely ignored Quiet, Please. The most striking difference one immediately notices when hearing an episode of Quiet, Please is its spartan sound design. There are sound effects and occasional music but they are sparse, forcing the listener to concentrate on the words. In another show this would highlight weaknesses in acting. But Quiet, Please had the brilliant Ernest Chappell, one of the most flexible and subtle voices ever to grace American radio. The Thing on the Fourble Board, starring Chappell and written by Wyllis Cooper, is legendary among fans of horror radio. Within thirty seconds a listener will know why.

Crossing the pond, the BBC have always had their own approaches to horror and the supernatural. Their literary tradition in the genre speaks for itself and many of these have found their way into audiobooks and radio plays. The British too are equally excited about radio this month and have produced a couple of series for the occasion. But why, oh, why does the BBC broadcast four Weird Tales episodes two weeks before Halloween and then make them completely unavailable a week before the holiday?

Ed Hime’s entry into the Weird Tales, Bleeder, is perfect for the Halloween spirit. A surgical trainee is involved in a catastrophic car accident and his dreams become haunted by a man with his internal organs on the outside of his body. It is quite an eerie half hour of psychological horror. The sound is lavish, as in all Ed Hime’s work (see The Incomplete Recorded Works of a Dead Body, for instance), helped by Jessica Dromgoole’s brilliant and clear direction. It is no longer on BBC’s iPlayer but you might be able to find an “alternate source….”

The Gothic Imagination series currently on the BBC has brought a couple of gems. The new Dracula adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz takes a different approach from past versions. The vampire tale has been used by many artists as a metaphor for many things. In her two-hour abridgment of the novel, Ms. Lenkiewicz’ version returns the tale to its dark parable of how female liberation and sexuality unleashes a world-changing force, a power not unlike Pandora’s Box. It uses the novel’s innovative structure with different points-of-view maintaining a lean approach to its material.

Dracula Part 1
Dracula Part 2

Also part of their Gothic Imagination series, the BBC invoke the spirit of Frankenstein. Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry based on his 1984 play deals with the same subject as Ken Russell’s Gothic, only not quite so sophomorically: the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But here the focus is not upon the creative act but upon the the consequences of that famous meeting; it is about the relations between the characters and their Utopian idealism and ultimately about committing to life without traditional conservative morality. It is a strong play, and the radio adaptation is to me even stronger than the stage version by dint of its shifting points of view.

The real classic, though, of British horror on radio is the BBC production of Robert Westall’s The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral from 1996. This tale of a steeplejack and a possibly hungry gargoyle atop the cathedral tower on which he is working is simultaneously horrifying and heartbreaking. Quite unlike anything else except, on a different level, the tenderness of W.W. Jacobs’ story “The Monkey’s Paw.” The production is extraordinary in every way, a great argument for the entire BBC method of drama production–and probably for that reason, the BBC have not released it publicly. Again, I recommend “alternate sources.”

My esteemed colleague Mr. Greenhalgh himself has promised four straight weeks of horror on his Radio Drama Revival anthology podcast and has delivered the first three, with the fourth to come on Halloween. The Damned Are Playing at Godzilla’s comes from J. Michael Straczynski’s Seeing Ear Theater and stars Steve Buscemi as a racist bar owner and his new house band. The Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack starring the legendary Julian Glover comes from Wireless Theatre Company in the UK, with all three of its forty-minute episodes available from Wireless Theatre Company’s own website. Most recently from Radio Drama Revival comes Horrorscopes’ version of The Statement of Randolph Carter by H.P. Lovecraft.

No All Hallow’s Eve would be complete without at least some mention of lycanthropes. From the old Suspense series, The House in Cypress Canyon is probably the scariest tale ever written for Christmas. Of course Christmas often strikes fear into the hearts of men as well. This oblique tale of a mysterious closet is a classic in the annals of radio’s werewolf tales and a good example of the postwar American approach to radio drama as well.

Finally I would never resist a chance to show my hometown some love. From our own fair city of Seattle comes 19 Nocturne Boulevard’s story, Loup Noir–a slightly different take on the traditional werewolf story written by the lovely Julie Hoverson. It is, I think, one of her strongest scripts in the entire 19 Nocturne Boulevard podcast series and is well worth a listen.

There you have it. Something to keep you feeling warm and fuzzy on this chilly October weekend.

Filed under Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net