Today, as I have been announcing for quite some time now, broadcastellan will commence an experiment in shared listening. Perhaps, “experiment” is rather too scientific a term. It’s the sharing that matters. My idea was to listen to a popular American radio serial as audiences would have done in the 1940s—that is, in week-daily doses, rather than an omnibus edition. I have always wanted to experience Dickens’s fictions that way: not as stories all wrapped up in one complete volume, but as an adventure in reading that unfolds in installments. That is why I appreciate the current BBC TV adaptation of Bleak House, which recreates the cliffhanger sensation Victorian readers enjoyed as, week after week, they followed their favorite stories in the issues of periodicals like Household Words.
An expert storyteller in this tradition was Carlton E. Morse, whose radio thriller serial I Love a Mystery continued on this day, Halloween, in 1949, with a sequence bearing the invitingly penny-dreadful title “The Thing That Cries in the Night.”
Yes, even though it tossed listeners a new storyline on that Monday night, I Love a Mystery nevertheless continued where it had left off on the previous Friday. So, the first chapter of “The Thing That Cries in the Night” is best read not so much as a beginning than as a connecting piece in a continuous puzzler.
Following I Love a Mystery‘s sonic signature of train whistle, screeching tires, the strains of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste,” the chimes of a clock (and a narrated prologue no longer extant), “The Thing” takes off in mid-air.
The first sound we hear is the noise of a plane engine. The three central characters—adventurers-for-hire Jack (voiced by Russell Thorson), Doc (Jim Boles) and Reggie (Tony Randall)—are on their way. Up in the clouds and high on adventure, they recall the thrills and challenges of their last mission and debate what is to be done with the reward money they just pocketed.
During the ten minutes we spend with the trio, we witness little more than an exercise in comic deflation, as Texan “he-fighter” Doc Long is being joshed by his comrades (as they used to be called prior to the excesses of late 1940s anti-communism) and cut down to size by a stewardess immune to his macho charms.
Much to Doc’s chagrin, the young woman (portrayed by radio drama stalwart and I Love a Mystery regular Mercedes McCambridge) is entirely unimpressed by the newspaper account of Doc’s fight with a mountain lion, lines the “modern Tarzan” can’t help rereading with great relish. “Pooh!” she taunts him, “My folks live on a mountain ranch up in Washington. My mother scares mountain lions out of her chicken yard by shushing her apron at them.” To Doc, those are fighting words—and the downsized daredevil must find another fight to prove he is still all that.
When I first heard this banter back in the mid-1990s, I was as yet unfamiliar with the codes of Morse’s writing. New to radio dramatics and still bewildered by speech unsupported by visuals, I was pleased to realize how effortless it was for me to get acquainted with the characters and take part in their adventure; at the same time, I was frustrated that there was so little of it (adventure, that is) in this lighthearted vignette. All talk, no action.
Revisiting this first installment of “The Thing” now, listening to it as a transition, rather than an opening chapter, I can appreciate more fully the skill with which Morse developed his multi-part thrillers. Those three amigos are not, as Doc has it, “a bunch of doggone heroes.” Despite their daily derring-do, they are decidedly not super-human; they talk themselves into our everyday and become real to us in their foibles and shortcomings.
As Morse made clear, life’s adventures can await anywhere—in the jungles of South America and the streets of L.A. So, when Jack, Doc, and Reggie are surprised by a black limousine, “a block long,” waiting for them at the airport, something wicked and perilous is bound to come our way. Unable to resist the pretty “armful of girl” in the back seat, Doc exclaims: “Let’s climb in. What are we waiting for?”
In the economics of radio writing, I argued in Etherized Victorians, the comic deflation of Doc’s ego serves to counteract the “potential erosion of the serial’s thrill value. To characters so puerile and vulnerable, hopping into an unsolicited auto may be as hazardous as hunting werewolves and vampires.”
Of course, “What are we waiting for?” is the very question on the minds of Morse’s listeners. Whose car is this? Why is it there? Where will it take us? The chief benefit of a serial is that such unanswered questions linger in the imagination of the audience. The stalling is over—and the next installment will have to prove worth the wait.
Say, don’t just wait for the next installment of my blog. As Sibelius’s waltz fades out, tell me how “The Thing That Cries in the Night” keeps swirling round in your mind’s eye!