“There ain’t no sense to nothing”: I Love a Mystery and the Gothic of Listening

by Harry Heuser

This essay served as a foundation for my chapter in the forthcoming anthology Audionarratology: Lessons from Audio Fiction. The following excerpt, not featured in the chapter, introduced the discussion.

Re-Sounding Vaults

Come, follow me, please, for again we visit the wizard who dwells yonder in the great hall . . . .   Now, up these steps to the iron-studded oaken door, which yawns wide on rusted hinges, bidding us enter. . . .  Follow softly . . . down this long stone-wall corridor. . . .  [The sound turns hollow in mid-sentence; organ music is heard in the distance] Music! do you hear it?. . .   Yes, it is he, sitting before the organ, clutching the keys in his ancient bony fingers. . . .   There, perched on his shoulder is his pet raven. . . . Wait! it is well to stop, for here is the wizard of the Black Castle!—Opening of The Black Castle [1942-44], a fifteen-minute mystery-terror program, offering “mini-dramas of the weird and occult”; Dunning, Tune in Yesterday 76)

No theorist of terror intimately acquainted with the labyrinthine passageways of Otranto and Udolpho has yet accepted the invitation—or, rather, the challenge—to step into the Black Castle.  No literary chart, chisel or sheer levelheaded niche-market ingenuity has been employed to regain access to the formidable Inner Sanctum, once foremost among the haunted columbaries of the Columbia Broadcasting System.  No critic’s voice has been raised of late in the echo chambers of The Hermit’s Cave, a lowbrow hypogeum that resounded “with the supernatural, killed at least four people every script, allowed evil forces to win victories in gore, and didn’t seem to care about logic, probability, or explanations as long as the audience was thoroughly chilled” (Ewbank and Lawton 292).  And while a sweeping survey like Davenport-Hines’s Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin occasionally permits itself to get caught in the folds of a “full-skirted, long-sleeved black Balenciaga dress” such as the one worn by Madonna at the Golden Globe Awards in 1998—arguing it to be “a fairy-tale fantasy for a goth princess” (375)—the sounds emanating from The Black Hood, one of radio’s supernaturally invested avengers, or indeed any other hair-raising voices of the airwaves, remain unwarrantably muffled.

Even a massive—and presumably comprehensive—tome promisingly titled Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet devotes but a few columns to Hörspiel terror, providing a haphazardly compiled list of horror, fantasy, and science fiction series culled from works like John Dunning’s 1976 encyclopedia of old-time radio, to which the baffled reader is tersely referred.  Moldering in the shadow of the gothic repositories erected by the academia, for decades now illuminated by flickering images appropriated from Universal Studios or the House of Hammer, edifices of the ether are all but unheard of.  And yet, evidence of the erstwhile proliferation of gothic sound and fury on American radio is hardly wanting.

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