Recently, I was asked to write about the “The House in Cypress Canyon,” a radio play first heard in the US on CBS’s Suspense program on this day, 5 December, in 1946. Robert L. Richards’s neo-gothic thriller has received some scholarly attention, but it is rewardingly suggestive enough to accommodate multiple readings.
In her essay “Scary Women and Scarred Men: Suspense, Gender Trouble, and Postwar Change, 1942-1950,” Allison McCracken refers to “The House in Cypress Canyon” as a play that “amply demonstrates the particular kinds of domestic horrors that radio thrillers could convey.” Indeed, Suspense specialized in homegrown violence, in the terror of jealousy and the horror of revenge, in the manifestations of greed and green-eyed monstrosities.
Like the film noir, whose first-person voice-over narrations are reminiscent of and influenced by radio storytelling, many 1940s radio thrillers comment on the threat posed to men by independent females in the workplace, by shoulder-padded career women who, rather than being kept contentedly within white picket fences, appeared ruthless enough to impale their male counterparts upon them. At least their assertiveness was portrayed in such a light by the men who fictionalized this very real change in the position of women in wartime America as well as their forced retreat into the home. The first year after the Second World War was in many respects an uneasy period of adjustment. It was a time out of joint—and “The House in Cypress Canyon” reads the signs of the times by forcing past, present, and future into a bewildering confrontation.
The titular abode is seemingly “ordinary” and “undistinguished.” Part of a pre-war housing complex whose construction was put on hold for the duration, the house was completed after VJ-Day and now awaits occupancy. No doubt, some who might have wished to live here are no longer alive, while those who remain—alone and robbed of future happiness—have no need for it at present. Lives have been put on hold so that life might go on; blood has been shed so that future generations may dwell here. Can any home built under such circumstances truly be ordinary? Not according to the real estate agent who is about to make the house available for rent, who has evidence that something extraordinary is going on inside. That is . . . has it already happened? Is it yet to happen? Is it bound to happen?
Confiding in his detective friend, the agent relates how the construction workers found a manuscript in the as yet unfinished house. It appears to be a diary—an account of life within the house after its completion, the story of how it was rented to Jim Woods (played by Robert Taylor), a chemical engineer, and his wife Ellen (Cathy Lewis), a former schoolteacher; how the “reasonably happy” couple moved in and found one of its closets locked; how the two were awakened by strange howling; how they investigated and found “oozing” from under that closet door something that was “unquestionably blood”; how they left the house in “something very close to a panic” and returned with the “moral support of two stalwart Los Angeles police lieutenants”; and how the couple, having received no assistance from the officers, found their lives forever altered.
Like the title character of Arch Oboler’s “Cat Wife,” Richards’s Ellen undergoes a destructive change; she becomes bestial and predatory but seems entirely unaware of her second nature. That side of her quite literally emerges from a secret closet, a locked room of which she had been unconscious. “If that isn’t a commentary on the housing problem, huh? A woman moving into a house without even knowing where all the closets are,” Ellen laughs.
The opening of that closet is a “commentary,” too, namely on the uncertain boundaries of marital relations, on what lies beyond as the uncommunicated, that realm where the social and the biological converge. Whereas the “den” is being advertized to Jim and Ellen as an “attractive little room, particularly for a man,” there is no such “attractive” nook for the woman of the house. Instead, the blood-oozing closet becomes the scene of Ellen’s transformation from mate to monster. Once it is unlocked, domestic stability as defined by the male architects of heterosexual relations are shattered. Men become Ellen’s vampiric prey.
According to a newspaper clipping attached to the found manuscript, Jim committed suicide after doing away with his spouse, an event said to have occurred on the night after Christmas, the year being unspecified. The real estate agent once again emphasizes that the journal was discovered in the unfinished and as yet uninhabited house. However impressed by the story, the detective does not consider it further and leaves his friend as he puts up the “for rent” sign. The first people to express interest in the place appear almost immediately after the detective’s departure. They are none other than Jim and Ellen Woods.
“Do you know what time it is?” Jim at one point reprimands his wife as she continues to rearrange the furniture while the midnight hour approaches. Do we know what time is it? Is the manuscript found in the “House in Cypress Canyon” a blueprint for a new phase in the battle of the sexes? Will the events described therein play themselves out with the same inevitability that brings Jim and Ellen to the doorstep of their doomed abode? Are the two rehearsing a text that Jim has already written for them, a domestic play that casts the wife as fallen angel in the house?
The dischrono-logic of “The House in Cypress Canyon” drives home the gender role confusion in which men and women found themselves in postwar America and the uneasy future anticipated by skeptics of the seeming consumer comforts of Leave It to Beaverdom.