The Gothic of Listening

[This is an excerpt from a graduate essay that served as a foundation for “‘There ain’t no sense to nothin’: Serial Storytelling, Radio-Consciousness and the Gothic of Audition,” my chapter in the forthcoming anthology Audionarratology: Lessons from Audio Fiction. The following extract, not featured in the published chapter, introduced the discussion.]

Re-Sounding Vaults

Harry Heuser

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.

Prominent among gothic narratives accommodated to the console are The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whether suited to the 30-minute format of Favorite Story or refitted as a 15-minute serial in 52 parts, and Dracula, an adaptation of which launched the famed Mercury Theatre on the Air in July 1938.  A number of narratives were reborn on the air before (or with- out ever) being conceived visually; and when a dramatization of Rebecca opened the Campbell Playhouse on 9 December 1938, the legitimacy of the production, its kinship to the novel, was underscored by producer Orson Welles’s transatlantic telephone conversation with Daphne du Maurier, who congratulated star Margaret Sullavan on her performance in a “splendid adaptation” she claimed to have “enjoyed . . . enormously” (“Rebecca”).  To be sure, the creators of prestige drama, in attempts to counter the view that the airwaves were a mere promotional vehicle for the film industry, at times downplayed the symbiotic relationship between film and radio.  John Houseman, for instance, insisted that the Mercury Theatre remake of Dracula was “not the corrupt movie version but the original Bram Stoker novel in its full Gothic horror” (363).  Yet it was nonetheless the big screen, rather than the bookshelf, that generally served as the immediate purveyor of prêt-à-transporter fabrications presented on Hollywood-based anthology programs.

Many anthology series on the air appear to have taken their cue from the “great granddaddy” of broadcast terror, Alonzo Deen Cole’s The Witch’s Tale, which supplemented original programming with adaptations of Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni, as well as Schauerromanzen by Fouqué and Chamisso (Siegel 3; 239-49).  The Weird Circle was occasionally drawn around works by De Maupassant and Algernon Blackwood; nor was Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” spared the fate of being tossed into the airwaves.  Suspense, acclaimed for plays fashioned specifically for the medium (such as Lucille Fletcher’s influential “Sorry, Wrong Number” and John Dickson Carr’s “Cabin B-13”), offered not only its own half-hour transmogrification of Frankenstein , but dramatized works by Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone, “The Traveler’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed”) and Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, “The Signalman”), while Escape, a show “designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure,” presented stories by M. R. James (“Casting the Runes”), H. G. Wells (“Dream of Armageddon”) and Conan Doyle (“The Lost Special”).  Even the prestigious Columbia Workshop acknowledged radio’s gothic affinity by evoking the elopement on “The Eve of St. Agnes,” granting its audience the privilege of listening as the “key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans” while there “are no ears to hear, or eyes to see.”  Indeed, so necrogenous, so Frankensteinean was the American radio play that when Austen’s Northanger Abbey was reopened to the public on the NBC University Theatre of the Air in October 1950, the listener’s cognizance of the gothic corpus could be readily assumed.

To be sure, as the above conspectus suggests, none of the American remade-for-radio plays of the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s were dramatizations of the gothic romances consumed by the contemporaries of the impressionable Catherine Morland.  Indeed, virtually all novels prior to those of Austen and Scott met with silence; those of Dickens met with Lionel Barrymore.  In its periodic (rather than sporadic) and episodic (rather than fragmented) structures, broadcast fiction remained generally circumscribed by the publishing and repertorial conventions of Victorian print culture (which it perpetuated in the form of serials and magazine tie-ins) and popular stage melodrama (which it, along with motion pictures, by and large superseded).  A few experiments aside, adapting for radio frequently involved drawing on Jane Eyre to display the talents of Madeleine Carroll, Loretta Young, and Deborah Kerr, or drawing out The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 52 installments, like box-office gold to airy thinness beat.

In attempts to counter the notion that the ether was a mere promotional vehicle for the film industry, the creators of prestige drama at times downplayed the symbiotic relationship between film and radio.  John Houseman, for instance, insisted that the remake of Dracula—the first dramatization to be performed on the famed Mercury Theatre on the Air in July 1938—was “not the corrupt movie version but the original Bram Stoker novel in its full Gothic horror” (363).  And when a dramatization of Rebecca opened the Campbell Playhouse on 9 December 1938, the legitimacy of the production, its kinship to the novel, was underscored by producer Orson Welles’s transatlantic telephone conversation with Daphne du Maurier, who congratulated star Margaret Sullavan on her performance in a “splendid adaptation” she claimed to have “enjoyed . . . enormously” (“Rebecca”).  Yet even though a number of narratives were reborn on radio before (or without ever) being conceived visually, it was nonetheless the big screen, rather than the bookshelf, that generally served as the immediate purveyor of prêt-à-transporter fabrications presented on Hollywood-based anthology programs.

Since the resulting dramatizations were often gothic in source rather than execution (turning Jane Eyre into a screwball comedy akin to She Married Her Boss or Frankenstein into a critique of fascist master race ambitions), one must needs turn to more phonogenic series like The Sealed Book, The Mysterious Traveler, or the Robert Bloch scripted Stay Tuned for Terror, where each night the rags and bones of romance were processed into fresh pulp.  Sheltered from censors by virtue of its overt melo-didactics, even a comparatively tame series like The Shadow—whose eponymous hero was ostensibly appointed to substantiate the saw that the “weed of crime bears bitter fruit”—often afforded intriguing skiagrams of the “evil” that “lurks in the hearts of men” (as promised by the show’s haunting signature). 

The appeal of such episodic ausculations had already been exploited by Samuel Warren in Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician, serialized in Blackwood’s a century earlier.  Cranston is a “student of science” who adds telepathy to stethoscopy by exerting his ability to “cloud men’s minds.”  “[N]ever seen, only heard—a seemingly supernatural nemesis—as haunting to superstitious minds as a ghost; as inevitable as a guilty conscience” (Gibson 94-95), the filter-miked Cranston seems to concur with Du Pont in The Mysteries of Udolpho, who, reasoning that the “most impious men are often the most superstitious,” awes his enemies with a disembodied voice “from the commission of the crime [he] dreaded” (Radcliffe 460).  Yet despite the program’s sanctioning of The Shadow’s tactics as “advanced methods that may ultimately become available to all law enforcement agencies” (Gibson 95), the menacing laughter of Cranston’s alter ego exposes him as a merciless ear-for-an-eye avenger who relishes the very fruit he pronounces unsavory.

An evening with The Shadow, the Whistler, or Suspense’s “Man in Black” might even inspire critics to ventilate their studies of Radcliffe’s “cinematic word-paintings” (Flaxman 124) or their “association of melodrama with elemental contrasts of darkness and light” (Meisel 66) with synesthetic admixtures like Radcliffe’s “picturesque sounds” (73) or connections between optical illusion and auricular substantiation, gothic preoccupations that, as titles like Quiet, Pleaseand Lights Out!, The Whisperer and Dark Fantasy suggest, are as central to radio terror as they are to the 18th-century gothic novel.  Both the dis-quieting narratives of the romantic age, an age that rehearsed the uneasy shift from phonic to graphic culture in the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [. . .] recollected in tranquillity,” and the scripted or phono-graphic broadcast fiction aired during the second quarter of the twentieth century—an era Walter J. Ong argues to be one of secondary, self-conscious orality (136)—often play upon our brittle faith in ocular and typographic proofs in torturously self-conscious performances.

Whether posing as translated medieval documents or presented as epistolary and travel narratives, gothic novels frequently foreground the precariousness of chirography through stories involving the word’s corruption in the unholy writ of rotten clerics, or by means of crypto-centric plots hinging on illegible wills and purloined diaries.  Similarly, the latter-day gothic on the air often romances its mode of transmission with tales of treacherous telephony and ear-rending iconoclasm, with astatic texts that at best suggest Stanton’s manuscript (in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer), untranscribable, unstable “beyond any that had ever before exercised the patience of a reader” (28).  Like Conrad’s Marlow, who is “no more to [his audience] than a voice” relating a “narrative that seem[s] to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air,” many radio plays in the gothic tradition taunt listeners by turning them into thwarted translators: “Do you see the story? Do you see anything?” (Conrad 42).  Broadcast or typographic, the gothic often teases us out of our senses with the visuals of which we have been stripped, thriving on our longing for its alleged shortcomings, succeeding by making us aware of our failings.

“The gothic,” Maggie Kilgour suggests, “gives us an ancestor for our current obsessive self-criticism and self-scrutiny. . . .  Like other ironic and parodic art forms, it appeals to a postmodern sensibility because of its . . . blatant confession of its own inability to create anew, or originate” (222-23).  More than any inventory of mad monks and ruinous castles, it is this reflexivity—the rehearsal of its dependency upon motion pictures and magazine fiction, its belatedness and transience in the presence of talkies and television, the tube’s first “narrative dramatic anthology, The Television Ghost” having aired in 1931 (Hawes 34)—that defines the radio gothic of the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s.

Roy Soderbjerg, the enthusiastic transcendental tinkerer in Garrison Keillor’s WLT: A Radio Romance insists that radio

was a raw primitive gorgeous device that unfortunately had been discovered too late.  In the proper order of things, it should have come somewhere between the wheel and the printing press.  It belonged to the age of bards and storytellers who squatted by the fire, when all news and knowledge was transmitted by telling.  Coming at the wrong time, radio was inhibited by prior developments, such as literature. . . .  (146)

            If only radio had come first, it would have kept poetry and drama and stories in the happy old oral tradition and poets would simply be genial hosts who chant odes and lays instead of a bunch of nervous jerks like T. S. Eliot.  Radio could have saved literature, but instead, literature had imprisoned radio in literature’s own disease. . . .  Literature had taken radio and hung scripts around its neck, choking the free flow of expression that alone could give radio life.  Scripts made radio cautious, formal, tight, devoted to lines.  But radio is not lines—radio is air! . . .  It is dreamlike, precognitive, primitive, intimate.  It has less to do with politics or society than with sex, nature, and religion.  (146)

Yet radio did not “come first”, nor is it simply air.  More than a hazardous noose choking radio’s neck or a necessary helpmate saving ours, the radio script attests to the self-consciousness of the voice art to which it gives birth, and which only the reverberating bodies of the transcribing audience can sustain.  Script—the condition of scriptedness—did not entirely stream-line or clog the air-waves, however mercenary or lily-livered, however restricted by page and patronage the heirs of this Promethean spark might have been.[1]  The most terrifying gothic performances involve us—along with its characters—in acts of hazardous transcriptions.

Confining the radio play to the page while glossing over its existence as script seems a bungled performance fraught with contradictions, a betrayal of the medium we seek to access, as well as the one to which we are now beholden and bound.  Not unlike Maturin’s Alonzo Monçada, readers stepping into the ill-defined soundscapes of the Hörspiel may find themselves to be at once trapped and escaping, like “pioneers of darkness,” clinging to an extinguished lamp in a seemingly endless passage steeped in blackness, lured by the “faint sound” of the “chaunt of matins,” a “parricide for [a] companion” goading them on: “‘Follow me, and feel your way in darkness.’  Dreadful sounds!” (191-94).  Not unlike Emily St. Aubert sitting in “torturing suspense” by the “casement to catch the sounds, which might confirm, or destroy her hope” until “wearied with anxieties” (Radcliffe 387-88), readers of radio gothic forced to rely on the midnight air, may find it a mercurial, perilous carrier.  Yet decidedly unlike the scholarly perusal of clear black type on clean white sheets, the definitiveness of which never quite permits us to experience the frustrated acts of decoding as they are suffered by Stanton or Emily (who not only confounds the voices of her suitors, but is tricked into signing over her property), listening is Gothic performance.

Our prolegomenon, therefore, need not turn into a ponderous apologia or prolonged ululation.  The paper-construct of the radio play as “pure oral production designed for pure auditory experience” (Schroeder 253) having, upon reflection, proven as illusory as the notion that scripts alone will guide us here, we might as well appreciate the filtered air as we re-sound the largely uncharted vaults of the American radio play to expose the gothic headstones in the melodramatic arches of . . . I Love a Mystery.

[1] German for broadcasting, Rundfunk literally means circular spark.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of DarknessJoseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in             Contemporary Criticism, edited by Ross C. Murfin.  St.Martin’s P, 1989.  17-94.

Dunning, John.  Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.  Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Ewbank, Henry L., and Sherman P. Lawton.  Broadcasting: Radio and Television.  Harper, 1952.

Flaxman, Rhoda L.  “Radcliffe’s Dual Modes of Vision.”  Fetter’d or Free? British Women         Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski.  Ohio UP, 1986.  124-33.

Gibson, Walter Brown, with Anthony Tollin.  The Shadow Scrapbook.  HBJ, 1979. 

Hawes, William.  American Television Drama: The Experimental Years.  U of Alabama P, 1986.

Houseman, John.  Run-through: A Memoir.  Simon, 1972.

Keillor, Garrison.  WLT: A Radio Romance.  Viking, 1991.

Kilgour, Maggie.  The Rise of the Gothic Novel.  Routledge, 1995.

Maturin, Charles.  Melmoth the Wanderer.  1820.  Oxford UP, 1989.

Meisel, Martin.  “Scattered Chiaroscuro: Melodrama as a Matter of Seeing.”  Melodrama: Stage Picture Screen.  Ed. Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill.  BFI, 1994, pp. 65-81.

Ong, Walter J.  Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.  Methuen, 1982.

Radcliffe, Ann.  The Mysteries of Udolpho.  1794.  Oxford UP, 1966.

“Rebecca.”  The Campbell Playhouse.  9 Dec. 1938.  CBS.

Siegel, David S., editor.  The Witch’s Tale: Stories of Gothic Horror from the Golden Age of Radio.  By Alonso Deen Cole.  Dunwich, 1998.