Sanity through liberal application of insanity

This past weekend my wife and I celebrated our twelfth anniversary by attending the Hyde Park Community Players’ “An Evening of Classic Horror and Suspense” a well-intentioned stage show in the style of old time radio (OTR) thriller programs. With professional, academic, and financial pressures threatening to crowd out every last bit of humanity from my day-to-day experience I’ve found the little flights of fancy that radio drama provides every bit as enjoyable and necessary to maintaining my mental health as they must have been to their original audiences.

While I am far too young to have enjoyed even the last of drama radio’s dying gasps, OTR has remained one of my most faithful, life-long friends.  My aunt introduced me to several suspense programs including The Shadow, The Whistler, and The Black Museum when I was seven or eight years old and by the time I was in my teens I had discovered the early horror show Arch Obler’s Lights Out! and sci-fi X-minus 1 on cassette tape.  A series about a big city journalist solving mysteries–often through improbably photographic evidence–Casey Crime Photographer was part of the reason that I got into journalism and the newspaper business.  With the advent of the world wide web I’ve been able to track down thousands of shows for free in the public domain and have even come across some contemporary shows being written and produced just for the internet.

I am an unabashed fan of cinema and the visual arts in general, but the evocative power of sound to thrill and chill is unmatched.  The flamboyance of the mise-en-scène with its pictoral representation is more adept at communicating action and event, but the starkly immediate sound of the human voice and understated ambient sounds of radio are far better at developing character and pathos.  When radio drama is at its best–taught stories, rich characterizations, and surprising twists–it is infectious–haunting one’s thoughts for days, weeks, or–for me–decades and at its worst–warbling theater organs, cheesy MCs, and terrible ads–it is still a guilty pleasure.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for a quick diversion from thesis papers or long hours in the cube, here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Modern Productions:

1) Apotheosis Saga

This has got to be one of the greatest pitches for a story–ever.  A man discovers that he is a god with the power to create and destroy at will.  He is abducted from his home by reality cops and taken to stand trial in the realm of the gods for his crimes.  What follows is a surprisingly literary–and mathematical–tale that plays fast and loose with religion, mythologies, and–most of all–audience expectations.  Sadly the last of this ten part series has been “in production” for better than six years and it seems unlikely that we will ever learn of Bill Wright II’s ultimate fate.

2) Fear on Four

This show was a half-hour horror and suspense anthology from across the pond, hosted by “the Man in Black”–a character originally used in the BBC’s 1950s series Appointment with Fear– but resurrected for a several seasons of the BBC’s Fear on Four program between 1988 and 1997.  Not one of these episodes is bad and every one is nightmare worthy.  Just a note though, these are not your grandfather’s radio shows: “By The River, Fontainebleau” and “Gobble, Gobble” are particularly grim and explicit.  The season four finale “Life Line” is probably my favorite radio show/ short story–it really is that good.

3) Pseudopod

Unlike Apotheosis and Fear on Four, Pseudopod is not a radio program per se, but a literary pod cast showcasing great contemporary fiction in the horror genre.  If horror isn’t your preferred poison, the sister podcasts Escape Pod (sci-fi) and Pod Castle (general fantasy) are also great.  However, at Pseudopod Alasdair Stuart’s introductions and summations are spot-on perfect and could frequently almost constitute a literary analysis of the preceding story.  With new podcasts arriving at a rate of one a week and a back-catalog of over two-hundred and fifty shows this one site could keep you sane for years.

Classic Old Time Radio

4) CBS Radio Mystery Theater

CBS Radio Mystery would constitute that last gasp that I referred to earlier.  The show was the creation of Himan Brown–who also oversaw Inner Sanctum Mysteries from 1941 -1952–and CBSRMT followed a similar format from 1974 to 1982.  Unlike some of the earliest radio mysteries, the writers of CBSRMT were at pains to provide–more–complex characters and–less hackneyed and obvious–denouements.  It’s not that they were necessarily better writers than the fathers of golden age OTR, it’s just that the tropes that we identify today as hackneyed and obvious were birthed in the forties and fifties by those original shows.  But that is not to say that later shows didn’t help themselves to some of Radio Mystery Theater’s plot-points–for example compare “A God named Smith” episode 658 to Apotheosis above and “A Horror Story” episode 929 to Fear on Four’s “The Specialty of the House.”

5) The Mysterious Traveler

This show would constitute on of the “Golden Age” radio programs and ran on the Mutual Broadcasting System from December 5, 1943 until its last show on September 16, 1952.  Like The Whistler, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and many others, the traveler character served as a creepy narrator to introduce and close each episode complete with horrible puns and awful jokes.  However, while it is possible to enjoy the TMT as high-camp, the stories often do manage to surprise and even scare.  “Behind the Locked Door” and “If you believe” are stories that aren’t played for laughs and still pack a visceral punch.

Well, my self-imposed word limit is running out and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the great stuff–old and new–to pluck you out of your life and deposit you somewhere even darker.  For more great modern radio also drop by Dead of Night Radio and Decoder Ring Theater.  Happy Halloween and happy studying.

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