Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Mercedes McCambridge, Airwaves Advocate

Last night, I watched The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), a seedy but glamorous rags-to-riches-to-rags melodrama starring Joan Crawford. Crawford was a perfectionist on screen, even though producers like Jerry Wald determined that, by the mid-1940s, her physiognomy was less than ideal and called for that extra layer of gauze in front of the lens to soften her mature looks (because most leading roles in Hollywood are, to this date, a little too young for anyone over forty). No doubt, Crawford’s need for control contributed to what those in the radio business called mike fright. When Crawford went on the air, starring in dramatic programs like Suspense, she insisted on being recorded for later broadcast rather than going on the air live. Apparently, to someone as protective of her persona as Crawford, any screw-up in radio insinuated something tantamount to crow’s feet on screen. Not to Crawford’s Johnny Guitar (1954) co-star and rival, though, the radio-trained and true Mercedes McCambridge.

Her career in film and on stage notwithstanding, McCambridge was a genuine radio actress; and unlike many aspiring thespians, she would not have objected to the term. Sure, her voice was so distinct that even the hearing impaired could not fail to spot her in any of her many notable radio roles; but, however obvious her vocal disguises, McCambridge, whether performing in night-time thrillers, daytime soap operas, or wartime propaganda plays, rarely did less than throwing herself, larynx and soul, into each and every part she accepted to play.

On this day, 8 February, in 1950, for instance, McCambridge was “Jack Dempsey,” the rambunctious teenage daughter of a prize-fighting crazed rancher. Determined to get married to a man of whom her father does not approve, she convinces a trio of adventurers to defend her rights in what was billed as “The Battle of the Century.” That was just one of the adventures in which McCambridge played a part in 1939—and again a decade later—in a thriller serial called I Love a Mystery. The program, and McCambridge’s role as the maniacal Charity in “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” has been discussed at some length in previously in this journal.

She was also heard in many other Chicago-originating drama broadcasts, including episodes of the legendary horror program Lights Out!. My favorite among those is an episode in which McCambridge plays a spoiled teenager on a school trip to Paris. Abducted by a man who claims to know her family, she is dragged into the sewers, where she is forced to make necklaces out of the bones of those killed by her capturer. It’s Grand Guignol, all right—ghastly melodramatics that don’t require images to conjure up unimaginable horrors.

To moviegoers, McCambridge is best known as the demon voice in the The Exorcist, a performance she attributed to a fortuitous bout with childhood bronchitis. McCambridge thought of this role, in which she is never seen, as a radio performance. Until the 1970s, when radio enjoyed a renaissance, she returned to the airwaves with former colleagues, enjoying the freedom that radio afforded the performer, notwithstanding the limitations imposed by producers and sponsors.

“In radio you had to be a tiger or you didn’t last,” McCambridge wrote in her autobiography, The Quality of Mercy, “If you didn’t keep your toes curled under, you would fall of the edge of that marvelous world. For me, nothing in films, or theater, or certainly TV as ever touched the magical kaleidoscope of radio.” Most television and film producers may have been clueless about radio; but you sure got us, tiger! I consider myself mauled.

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Fifteen): Radio Is a Deserted Home

Well, Heavenly Days! This morning, I caught a glimpse of the Great Gildersleeve and the McGees (Fibber and Molly, that is), who were featured in a triple bill of radio-takes-the-pictures comedies on Turner Classic Movies. Of course, radio always takes the pictures, provided the audience has a mind’s eye keen enough to develop them. Soon I’ll head out to pay a visit to the Museum of Television and Radio. As I noticed yesterday, the bookstores, second-hand or otherwise, are not exactly well stocked with radio-related publications; the late-1990s resurgence of interest in radio dramatics and pre-TV broadcasting here in the US seems to have died before it could mature as an independent, sustained, and regenerative field of study.

My own study on the subject of old-time radio, Etherized Victorians, doesn’t have much of a chance in a market that caters to people with short memories or nostalgic longings, instead to those who, like me, think of audio drama as alive if largely abandoned.

Today, my rather unsuccessful attempt at creating enthusiasm about Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery must come to an end. On this day, 18 November, in 1949, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” stopped bawling at last.

In his fifteenth and final chapter of “The Thing,” Morse keeps on postponing the prosaic business of making sense, until he eventually explains away the mystery of the voice without a body and solving the case of the name without a face.  Not that Jack Packard, one of Morse’s trio of adventurers, finds pleasure in lifting the veil.

“The House of Martin has fallen,” he concludes, soberly; the collapse has proven too devastating and deadly to call for celebration.  The story of a house under the corrupting influences of Hearst and Hollywood, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” is also a chapter in the history of radio, the medium for which Morse chose to write. Exposing the double life of the not-so-sweet Charity, the secret career and inglorious demise of a radio voice and its bodied double, Morse turns ventriloquism into a metaphor for the depersonalizing business of commercial broadcasting and its body of tongue-tied artists and scribes who, generally barred from speaking their mind and forced to mind their speech, stomached ignominy while devising various modes of indirection.

The dark art of casting voices, narrowly or broadly, is exposed as a duplicitous act, an impersonation in whose impersonal nature we can descry the corruption of communication and the unwholesome fragmentations of modern life.

Thus concludes my adventure in radio listening. Had it met with a more favorable reception—or just more of a reception, for that matter—I might have fixed my mind’s eye on a longer serial, such as Chandu the Magician. Instead, I will listen to the sounds of the city for a while as I mingle with the more tangible multitude. Perhaps you’ll be here when I return.

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Fourteen): Desperation Is a Clash by Night

Well, if prices had plummeted as rapidly as city temperatures, I’d be enjoying some terrific bargains today. Yesterday, I went downtown to my favorite electronics store and went hunting for a few old movies. I am not prepared to pay $25 or more for a copy of, say, Queen Kelly; nor am I eager to get my hands on $5 DVDs that turn Hollywood entertainment into headache-inducing eyestrainers. I always keep abreast of what’s in the stores by reading the notes and reviews posted by fellow bloggers like Brent McKee and Ivan Shreve; so I pretty much knew what to look our for while in town.

I had my eye on The Doris Day Show and the Ann Sothern sitcom Private Secretary, both of which I turned down for the reasons just stated. This time, I walked away with The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, a set of seven DVDs containing most of Lloyd’s best films, some shorts, stills, as well as episodes from his Old Gold radio program. With prices for this anthology as high as $100, I was pleased to have snatched it up for the relative bargain of $63. Today I will head downtown again to have a browse at the best second-hand bookstore in town (you know, the one featured in Absolutely Fabulous). Now, on with the show . . . I Love a Mystery that is.

On this day, 17 November, in 1949, creator-writer-director Carlton E. Morse opened the penultimate chapter of “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” the fifteen-part radio thriller I have been following for nearly three weeks now. Compared to the previous installment, today’s 10-minute segment is a decidedly noisy affair. It is the equivalent of a car chase sequence in an otherwise not uninspired detective story. For all its excitement, it is something of a cop-out.

Only yesterday, Morse was demonstrating how terrifying and mysterious a voiceless presence can be when the ambiguities of silence are introduced to challenge the sound-equals-life dynamics of radio drama. Silence, however, was dreaded by none more than the broadcasters, who filled the air with words, noise, and music to prevent listeners from twisting the dial or questioning the soundness of their receivers.

In Jack’s dialogue with death, Morse had found an ingenious way of giving silence a voice. Now, in a desperate attempt to crank up the thrills, his storytelling is in danger of being reduced to a frantic mess of juvenile tumult and shouting, a nocturnal free-for-all during which the stuffy air of the Martin mansion is filled with much mindless clamor and sense-numbing chloroform (the weapon of choice for Morse’s unseen and supposedly ethereal adversaries).

I Love a Mystery was always introduced as an “adventure-thriller”; and in episode fourteen, it is adventure that prevails. If silence is the stuff of mystery, adventure plays itself out in loud noise and boisterous speech. Will “The Thing” shut up when the mystery concludes tomorrow? Time for me to take a break from blogging and signal-hunting. The town beckons.

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Thirteen): Terror Is an Intangible Presence

Well, it is a mild, sunny afternoon here in the asphalt jungle (even though the trees on the block I used to call my neighborhood suggest another kind of jungle altogether). I’ll be off on a shopping spree in a moment, hunting for movies, books, and a few clothing essentials I just can’t seem to get in the UK. I will report on my tour of local second-hand book shops and video stores before long; but before I venture out, I must first pay another visit to a certain LA mansion that has been in my mind’s eye these past two and a half weeks.

I mean, of course, the dark house featured in Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery serial “The Thing That Cries in the Night.” In the thirteenth installment, heard on this day, 16 November, in 1949, Morse’s mystery exposes listeners to what is as rare on the streets of Manhattan as it is in radio drama: the disconcerting din of silence.

In the previous chapter, private investigator Jack Packard claimed to have untangled the mysteries of the Martin mansion, but refuses to share his thoughts with anyone, including his two partners. Doc Long and Reggie York. Staying put, despite Grandmother Martin’s attempt to dismiss her inquisitive retainers, Jack provides his bewildered friends with a list of cryptic instructions (such as peeling off the three top layers of the wallpaper in the bedroom of Charity Martin), to be carried out in the case of his demise.

Having sent all to their rooms, Jack remains behind in the sepulchral stillness of the deserted library to confront the “Thing.” Knowing less than our guide—who, for the first time, is keeping a secret from the audience—we cannot but cling to his every words as we try to determine whether Jack is facing a deathly adversary or dead air, whether the verbal sparring in the library, the repository of words, spells reasonable maneuvering or hapless fumbling.  Is the “Thing”?

Delivering his speech, Jack is interrupted by Doc, who staggers into the room, stammers that he has been hit over the head, and then collapses. The “Thing” makes itself heard once again, and Jack cries out for Reggie.  Things are getting frantic again; but it is that confrontation with nothingness in the library that, to me, is the most disturbing moment in “The Thing That Cries in the Night.”

And now, from the Martin library to Manhattan’s bookstores.  Perhaps I’ll find a used copy of Martin Grams’s I Love a Mystery companion.

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night” (Chapter Twelve): Pride Is a Fierce Old Lady

We are experiencing technical difficulties. I arrived in New York City yesterday after what seemed a well-nigh interminable journey by train and plane, prolonged rather than relieved by a sleepless stopover in Manchester, England. Now I can’t seem to get wireless access long enough to update and edit this journal. So far, I resisted having to consume cups of overpriced coffee for the privilege of keeping the silent few abreast of my adventures in living and listening.

Right now, this means resting my laptop under a scaffold while waiting for the rain to ease. Not quite the walk in the park I enjoyed yesterday (as pictured above). I am determined, though, to continue my three-week mission to explore strange goings-on, seek out new death and old civilization, to boldly venture deeper into the house of Martin, whence I’ll be reporting back as regularly as technology, weather, and footwear permit. Today’s installment, the twelfth in the fifteen-part radio thriller “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” was first broadcast during the East Coast revival of Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery program on this day, 15 November, in 1949.

Jack Packard, one of the three investigators hired to rid the formidable Mrs. Randolph Martin of her “granddaughter trouble,” makes a startling statement. He claims to know the identity of the mysterious “thing,” the menacing no-show that bawls like a baby, supposedly to warn the Martin’s of death and destruction.

It is unclear whether we are to regard the “thing” as a neo-gothic alarm system or as the destructive force that has already caused the death of two people and the injuries of other members of the Martin clan. So, Jack is in a position not only to put an end to the mystery but to prevent further crimes. Yet instead of sharing his knowledge, he keeps his two fellow adventurers, Doc Long and Reggie York as mystified as most of Morse’s listeners are likely to be at this point.

The rules of the game have changed: we are no longer Jack’s secret sharer. A compact has been broken. The police are on the scene of the crime; they, too are being left in darkness. Morse does not as much as give them a voice. They are figures of no consequence; and since they are not given a voice, we cannot expect any assistance from such muffled authorities.

Mrs. Martin is about to go back on another agreement. Just when the case shows promises of being solved, the old woman dismisses the men whose services she had been anxious to secure. So eager to protect whatever secrets are cloistered in her less-than-happy home, she even expresses herself pleased at the prospect that cracking this nut of a case might be the death of Jack.

Is Jack willing to pay so dearly for his supposedly superior position, a fiercely contested vantage point from which he is now able to threaten Mrs. Martin with the disclosure of her deadly secrets? Will the price of knowledge prove higher than the cost of ignorance? And will I manage to post again tomorrow? Please stay tuned.

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Eleven): Promise Is a Name Remembered

Well, I am on my way to New York City, the town I once called home. It has been a year since I left, and I am looking forward to catching up with friends, revisiting old haunts, and walking through streets that are so much part of the landscape of my soul that I never thought I would be able to find myself elsewhere. I did, eventually; but I would not be the man I am today, for better or worse, were it not for my New York education—and I don’t just mean earning my PhD. Technology permitting, I will continue my blog from there; it is the first time I am travelling with my laptop and I wonder whether or to what extent being back in town is going to influence the way I am writing here, even though my mind’s eye will remain fixed, for a few days longer, on a certain mansion in Los Angeles—the house of the doomed Martin family.

For two weeks now I have been listening to the old-time radio thriller “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” a serial in fifteen chapters that aired as part of Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery program back in 1939 and (in its New York revival) in 1949. The eleventh chapter was broadcast in the US on this day, 14 November, in 1949.

So, what’s been going on? The troubled Charity Martin has been carried to her quarters, a room she claims to have “always hated.” During her childhood, it was wallpapered with less-than comforting nursery rhyme figures, creatures that seemed to spring to life in the darkness. When asked to return to the events of the night—a night during which the young woman was found bound and gagged next to the basement furnace, Charity tremulously relates being abducted by a faceless figure in a blood-red hood carrying out the horrors which, she insists, have “got to go on and on and on until there isn’t any of [her family] left.”

Having encouraged this outburst, Jack surprises Charity, his partners, and us listeners with a seemingly unrelated question: “Do you know a girl named Pauline West?” Charity (or Cherry, as she prefers to be called) hesitates, acknowledging little more than a vague recollection. Jack explains that he read the name on a casting sheet he found next to Cherry’s body, and that Pauline West appears to be a radio actress.

What else is down there in that basement: transcription disks? The 1949 transcribed run of Morse’s serial was produced during the early days of tape recording; but the script for “The Thing” is a decade older and dates from the time when radio was live.  Is the titular “Thing” live? Or is it a recording, like Morse’s remake?

Before the chapter closes, another shot is fired—right in our presence. Charity and her sister Hope are struggling for the possession of the gun that killed the family chauffeur. Hope is shot. For once, the “thing” has not cried. Was the shooting accidental? Or did one sister try to do away with the other? And was it all part of the scheme to bring about the fall of the house of Martin?

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got a plane to catch . . .

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Ten): Opportunity Is an Unguarded Furnace

Well, before I continue packing my suitcase for a trip back to New York City, I am going to take a moment to consider the journey proposed in my second broadcastellan poll, now closed. Venturing to shed temporal fetters, I asked the following question: “If you could travel in time, when would you stop?” Here are the results (30 votes):

In the distant past (3% / 1 vote); One to three centuries into the past (10% / 3 votes); A few decades into the past (23% / 7 votes); I’ll stay put, thank you very much (17% / 5 votes); A few decades into the future (3% / 1); One to three centuries into the future (10% / 3); In the distant future (20% / 6). Since I always insist on the reader’s right to question a question, rather than accepting it outright, I added the to me valid response “I think it’s a waste of time to think this through” (13% / 4 votes).

Given the subject of this blog, I am not surprised that a chance to return to the recent past would be more welcome by those who care to read these words than any of the other time travel opportunities. I must confess to having expressed my preference for staying right when I am, even though I half regret my lack of daring. I am not sure whether I would be able to resist an offer to walk among the Victorians I have read and studied for so long.

My steadfast refusal to see myself as nostalgic got the better of me, I guess. Besides, I neglected to clarify whether this exploration into the fourth dimension would mean a return trip. The problematics of polling questions did not prevent me from creating a new and considerably less esoteric survey, which will run until my return from the US in early December. What might it yield? Time will tell.

The clinging to a supposedly happier past and the relentlessness of time’s onward march are very much at the heart of Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall, the theatrical thriller I saw yesterday in a production by Clwyd Theatr Cymru. The play opened with the amplified and hence ominous sound of a ticking clock in the home of the superannuated Mrs. Bramson, a self-righteous, imaginary invalid who derives pleasure ordering others about while seeking refuge in the orderly morality of Victorian melodrama. Her time has run out as surely as night must fall.

In Williams’s drama, the retreat into the past is exposed as a false comforter. It offers a superior vantage point, a chance to assign meaning, catalogue and judge; as such, it leaves us unprepared both for the daily negotiations the present in its contingencies demand and for the future that looms dauntingly vague, unfathomable to all who lack a sense of vision. Williams kills off the past as symbolized by the tyrannical Mrs. Bramson; but he offers no future to Dan, her killer, or to Olivia, the old woman’s deeply dissatisfied niece and companion who eventually strips her inhibitions to take his side. The past is not to be conquered by breaking with it violently, Williams suggests; instead, it is the responsibility of the living to dwell and progress in the present with the full understanding that night must fall on us all.

The formidable matriarch of Carlton E. Morse’s radio thriller “The Thing That Cries in the Night” has much in common with Mrs. Bramson; and her grandchildren are all as eager to escape her clutches as Williams’s miserable Olivia, even if it means having to resort to violence or side with their violators.

In the tenth chapter, as heard on this day, 11 November, in 1949, the unconscious Charity Martin is found naked, bound and gagged in front of the furnace down in the basement of the Martin mansion. Who brought her there—and why?

Reggie, one of the three investigators hired to deal with old Mrs. Martin’s “granddaughter trouble,” fears that the young woman was about to be tossed into the flames. Are the violent deeds committed in the house of Martin to be read as an attempt to bury a less than joyful or healthy past—a past whose rotten secrets are fiercely guarded by old Mrs. Martin? Who is playing Atropos? And who might benefit from robbing the Martin children of their future?

Playing by the rules of Morse’s radio serial, I shall have to wait until Monday to find out just what the future will hold. In the meantime, I am living in the now, packing my bags and taking off for New York City, my former home. Catching up with my past while making decisions about the future . . . it’s the adventure I call my present.

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Nine): Destiny Is an Assigned Seat

Well, the scheduled power outage has been postponed due to regional flooding. I ought to be thankful, I guess, for one of the dreariest, wettest, and stormiest autumns ever to be weathered by the umbrella of a smile. Last night I was tolerably amused watching You’ll Find Out (1940), one of those star-studded Hollywood efforts whose chief purpose was to exploit and ostensibly promote the burgeoning radio industry by supplying listeners with images the mind’s eye could have very well done without. While the headliner of the movie, bandleader Kay Kyser, made my head ache with his bargain basement Harold Lloyd antics, the lavishly produced horror-comedy—co-starring Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff—nonetheless kept me in my seat.

You’ll Find Out makes much use of one of radio’s most intriguing technological novelties: the Sonovox. A patented sound effects device, the Sonovox could invest a trombone, a locomotive, or even a few raindrops (in short, anything capable of producing sound) with the power of human speech. Now, if only that deuced infant would speak up and let us know what it’s all about.

I am referring, of course, to the mysterious “Thing” in Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery serial “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” an old-time radio thriller I have been following for nearly two weeks now. On this day, 10 November, in 1949, the “Thing” made itself heard once again, announcing imminent death. When the Martin household’s peculiar baby alarm goes off tonight, another life is being claimed . . . the life of the prime suspect.

It is a thrilling twist in a story that, for two chapters, assumed the guise of a whodunit. In the previous installment, Job Martin, the heretofore good-natured drunk, was exposed as an ill-tempered cynic who showed little affection for his three tormented siblings. His youngest sister, Charity, promises to get a confession out of him, claiming that he was responsible for the murder of the Martin’s chauffeur. She urges Jack Packard, the man hired to investigate the mysterious goings-on, to round up all members of the household in the dining room.

Once they are assembled, Grandmother Martin insists on the observance of the family’s traditional seating arrangements. When the conference is just about to commence, the lights go out; yet no one has been within ten feet of the switch. The “Thing” begins to cry. It is not until the light is being turned on again that a gun goes off and Job is shot through the head.

This is the first murder committed in our presence. We are in the thick of it and, like the three members of the A-1 Detective Agency, left very much in the dark, despite the fact that the Martins and two of their hired investigators were standing right there in a brightly lit room when the shot was fired.

New questions arise: Was Job indeed the murderer of the Martin’s blackmailing hoodlum of a chauffeur? If so, he dodged the electric chair by taking that seat. Was he being silenced by one of his accomplices? If so, he must have been harboring a secret whose revelation is dangerous to another. Or is the “Thing” an otherwordly avenger of the sins committed in the house of Martin, a house doomed to fall?

Say, where were you when the lights went out?

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Eight): Suspicion Is a Frustrated Drunk

Well, here I am, a German in Britain’s wild Welsh west writing about American radio culture of the 1940s. And now that there are finally a few good reasons to follow some made-in-the-UK television programs, I am about to leave for New York City. Anyway. I’ll just have to catch up with The X-Factor, Bleak House, and the new season of Little Britain when I return in early December. I sure had a laugh looking at these pictures from Little Britain‘s forthcoming third season. In the meantime, enjoying a glass of brandy by the fireside, I will continue my daily visits to the Martin mansion, as I listen to the eighth installment of the radio thriller “The Thing That Cries in the Night.” Part of Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery series, it was originally broadcast in the US on this day, 9 November, in 1949.

Job Martin, a supposedly good-natured drunk, has been forcefully returned to the home of his grandmother, the formidable Randolph Martin. Was he just out for a drink? Or is he responsible for the murder of the Martin’s chauffeur? After all, Job’s gun was found next to the corpse and the chauffeur’s attempts to blackmail the less-than-saintly Martins would be motive enough. According to his sister Charity, however, Job is likely to become a victim himself. She claims that he is in grave danger of falling prey to “them,” mysterious and as yet unseen adversaries intent on killing off the Martins one by one.

Meanwhile, the three Martin sisters are locked up in their rooms. For their safety? Jack Packard, hired by Mrs. Martin to prevent further “granddaughter trouble” without being told just what this “trouble” might be, looks upon all of them as suspects in a case as muddled and bizarre as any yet tackled by Jack, Doc, and Reggie, the trio of the A-1 Detective Agency.

This particular instalment plays more like a conventional whodunit, and Job, who is rather nasty when sober, comes across as a prime suspect. “Look,” he sneers, “we got a motto in this house. You mind your business and I mind mine.” He sure shows little concern for his three sisters. He dismisses Hope’s near-death by chloroform as an attempted suicide and, when reminded of the bloody attacks on Charity, remarks disdainfully that “somebody scratched her with a pin.” And if something happened to Fay, he would “send flowers to the funeral.” Besides, Job reminds his interrogator, “nobody is dead, except for the chauffeur, and he doesn’t count.” In vino veritas? Or does the truth come out when the booze runs out?

Having wavered between hard-boiled action and neo-gothic thrills, Morse’s mystery commits itself to one genre for once, putting in place one of the genre markers it previously tossed about in willful abandon. We are in whodunit territory now, with a line-up of suspects or at least some clarification of motives in a murder case whose killings seemed rather arbitrary so far. We have gotten to know all the members of the Martin household, and we have learned enough about them to find them sufficiently suspicious to allow that keeping whatever secret their home is harboring might well be worth a few more murders.

One aspect of the case remains as puzzling to me as it is to the impatient Doc Long: why has Mrs. Martin engaged the three adventurers-for-hire to take care of her troubles if she is so unwilling to disclose just what those troubles might be?

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Seven): Agony Is a Child Heard, Not Seen

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.