Well, here’s to the delights of absent-mindedness. In the pursuit of pleasurable thrills, it is only the forgetful, thoughtless, or ignorant man who is entirely self-sufficient. He never has to rely on others to maintain a cheerful state of glorious surprise. Last night, I was all prepared to see a touring production of Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall; but when I glanced at our theater tickets shortly before leaving, I noticed it was to be The Importance of Being Earnest, as staged by the Ridiculusmus company (you see, I had the date right at one point). As those not “born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag” will be undoubtedly aware, Ridiculusmus does Earnest (and Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, Cecily and Gwendolen) with a cast of only two players and an assortment of ghastly costumes. Quite a romp, that! Night won’t fall until Thursday, and rather appropriately so, since that day the power is going to be cut off in our house (for maintenance, the “outage” notice read). It will be another blackout to misremember.
Anyway, let’s saunter over to the one house where power need never be in short supply—the theater of the mind. The stage is all set for the fall of the House of Martin. I am referring, of course, to the house that novelist-radio dramatist Carlton E. Morse built back in the late 1930s, an old-time radio serial that I am enjoying in the daily doses in which it was dispensed back when television was not yet ready for mass consumption.
If you’d like to join me in my daily inspections of that other bleak house (I am still following the BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’s thrilling story with great interest), you can find recordings of it in the Internet Archive. In chapter seven (as heard on this day, 8 November, in 1949), “The Thing That Cries in the Night” takes an unnerving turn.
“There ain’t no sense to nothing,” Texan adventurer Doc Long grumbles during a conference with his British pal, Reggie York. Jack Packard, the third member of their A-1 Detective agency, is merely giving instructions, but shares little about what he surmises with his fellow soldiers-of-misfortune. With questions piling up like dirty laundry in a bachelor’s pad and little opportunity to roll up one’s sleeves for some action, Morse’s adventurers—and his listeners—may have cause to be frustrated.
Something’s rotten all right—but just from where is this “stench of a decaying family tree” wafting? What is needed, for the sake of sanity, is empirical evidence. After all, the three amigos do not only have to find whoever murdered the Martin’s chauffeur and attempted to do away with or implicate the Martin siblings; they also need to solve the puzzle of the ominous “Thing,” the cries and giggles of an invisible infant foretelling each violent attack.
“That baby gag gets me down,” Fay Martin sneers, “A houseful of widows, spinsters, and neurotics. What’s a baby doing here?” Now, the permanently distraught Charity Martin warns that her brother Job is in imminent danger of adding to the body count. The murderous entity in their midst, she insists, is intent on rooting out the family tree altogether, killing off the Martins one by one. For now, however, Job has disappeared; and, as Doc, Reggie, and Hope stand by, it is Charity whose skin receives a few new slashes.
To the impatient Doc, the lack of certainty sure puts a damper on the prospect of being in a place where “all these female women are running around in flimsy wisps of lace, wanting to be rescued.” Who among the Martins really wants to be rescued—and who is in pursuit of them? It is an ill-defined chase in which clues are in short supply and alliances dubious.
To those listeners who align themselves with the benighted Doc in an effort to solve the case of a terrorized maiden whose mind does not appear to be altogether sound, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” may be little more than an overwrought mystery of the Gaslight school. The audience, of course, is encouraged to consider Doc’s momentary loss of brio as an act of misreading and to side with an imaginative fellow like Reggie, who is convinced that the puzzle will be solved eventually but declares the present state of confusion to be “deucedly interesting.”
Doc’s momentary frustration is a reminder that Morse, like many storytellers in the gothic tradition, felt compelled to offer his impatient audience, namely that ambiguity is its own reward.