Halloweaned from Image Horror

Montague was hoping for a feast as I carved the pumpkin, next to which he condescended to pose for me here. Much to his disappointment, none of his tricks could get a treat out of me. The treats this evening are going to be for the ear, delivered to those who are willing to lend one in exchange for the promise of goose bumps, up-and-down-your-spine shivers, or a state of unease and lingering disquietude. “Did Freddy Kruger Slay Cocteau?” I once asked. I am inclined to think that pictures numb us more quickly than the exposure to sound and silence, and the protean apparitions they conjure, millionfold, in the minds of those who dare to wear a blindfold.

This would be the night to lay your eyes to rest (unless you are already equipped for the trial, like Edward Arnold’s non-sighted detective in Eyes in the Night, which I screened yesterday) and accept the invitation to pass through the Creaking Door into the Inner Sanctum of sonic Terror, a world in The Shadow of doubt and Suspicion removed from the image hell of the in-your-face horrors with which we, jumpy enough at the very mention of “terrorism,” are wont to make ourselves jump these days. You know, the kind of boo! that so quickly turns into the blech! of boredom and disgust. So, Quiet, Please, and Lights Out, everybody. It is time to step into the vault . . .

Mind you, many found their way back into that Black Castle. In this age of podcasting and streaming, the thrill of listening to ghost stories and dramatized tales of terror is once again being experienced by a vast audience, a ratings-defying, multicultural multitude impossible to track down. Anyone anywhere can listen now; and, apparently, quite a few folks do. As of this writing, episodes of The Shadow have been downloaded nearly 225,000 times from the Internet Archives. To be sure, that is a fraction of the original weekly audience for this long-running episodic thriller program (previously discussed here), but a sizeable fraction nonetheless.

“How a thirty-something academic in the valleys of Wales acquired so much knowledge of American old-time radio begins to shape up as the makings of a new Mysterious Traveler script,” remarked the aforementioned radio thriller writer David Kogan. Now, Kogan could have been describing me, who, as a thirty-something academic, moved from the broadcasting metropolis of New York City to this Wild West of Britain. He was, in fact, describing Richard J. Hand, whose Terror on the Air! (2006) I am perusing this Hallowe’en.

I was curious to discover which radio thrillers Hand gave his “thumbs up” and which ones got the finger (there is no mention of Edith Meiser’s Sherlock Holmes thrillers, for instance). Predictably, Howard Koch’s previously discussed adaptation of The War of the Worlds) features prominently. If I were in New York City on 3 November, I would certainly return to the Partners & Crime bookstore in Greenwich Village (last visited here), where this seminal and resonant shockumentary is being recreated in the make-believe studio of W-WOW!. Surely, few American radio plays have surpassed the thrills elicited by that infamous Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast from 30 October 1938.

Also mentioned by Hand are the Mercury productions of “Dracula” and “The Hitch-Hiker,” as are radio melodrama anthologies like Creeps by Night, The Hermit’s Cave and Alonzo Deen Cole’s pioneering Witch’s Tale. Making the bloody cut as well is “It Happened” (11 May 1938), one of my favorites among Arch Oboler’s Lights Out offerings, starring Mercedes MacCambridge as a schoolgirl rather too eager to delve into the mysteries of Paris. Hand calls it a “fast-moving play” that combines elements of the “crime thriller” with “Gothic horror,” a play that is “melodramatic in plot but modernist in technique.”

Now, despite leaping at the opportunity of witnessing the “State Executioner” in a soundstaging at the Museum of Radio and Television in New York some years ago, I am no Oboler enthusiast, as I made clear in Etherized Victorians; but “It Happens” is largely devoid of Oboleric pretensions. Dragging listeners Grand Guignolens volens into the sewers of their dirty minds, and there is no mind dirtier than a receptive one, it creates indelible images without having to show—or shower us with—buckets of blood. “Pleasant dreams . . . hmmmmm?”

4 Replies to “Halloweaned from Image Horror”

  1. For me the thing that brings Oboler, Welles and Wyllis Cooper (Quiet, Please) are their understanding of the use of silence. Obviously, in an audio medium, the thing we would fear most is silence and Cooper and Welles especially knew how to use it. Oboler not so much as he seemed too caught up in his use of sound effect. Welles brought his genius to the Houseman/Koch script by interjecting the silence at key moments. Cooper was a master minimalist and the use of silence was only one portion of his genius in producing his own scripts. But I have to agree that \”It Happened\” – is one of Oboler\’s best scripts/productions. Truly, a horrific picture vaguely reminiscent of \”Phantom of the Opera\” in its underground horror of captivity.

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  2. What I object to in Oboler work is his propaganda and his pretensions. As a melodramatist concentrating on thrills, however cheap, he was very effective. Note to myself: I must revisit Quiet, Please again soon.

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  3. Though I would have liked to descend to the sewer sooner, it happened that my opportunity didn\’t arrive until last night. I\’ll make no (reeeaaaall humannnn) bones about it: I found this tale of a sassy, spoiled rich girl\’s flight to \”fun\” gone awry delightfully creepy.Did you see anything in/with Eyes in the Night? In spite of all its silliness, I\’m rather fond of the film (based on Bayard Kendrick\’s The Odor of Violets), with which I am well-acquainted.I agree that it is not the gore and severed limbs but the creaks and footsteps (and silence) that have the greatest impact. \”Keep sawing [audibly]!\”

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  4. Can you imagine what slasher movies would do with (or to) such material? The horror! I very much enjoyed Eyes, except for Donna Reed\’s part in it (her unconvincing reformation). To be sure, it was hardly a vehicle worthy of Harding; but the actors involved seemed willing to pretend that the script warranted their best efforts. No, I am not familiar with Kendrick\’s writing, but very much intrigued. Now, I\’ve got to smell those Violets (and go in search of The Hidden Eye).

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