Thursday, August 28, 2014

Voices in the Dark: The Horrors of Dark Fantasy (1941-1942), Part One

by Jose Cruz

Old time radio.

The term doesn’t necessarily engender interest upon hearing it. The modifier “old time” is, of course, what turns people away. When we associate it with other things, “old time” could just as well be replaced with “outdated,” “outmoded,” or “obsolete.” This is a shame, as the broader, more appropriate and dynamic definition of the genre—“radio drama”—speaks more closely to the heights that the medium could achieve when it was at its best. And, more often than not, it truly was great.

It seems ironic then, and a little sad too, that a brand of entertainment that offered such a wealth of genre material (covering everything from space adventures to police procedurals and all that was in between) has not really received the type of enthused, dedicated coverage that other contemporaneous amusements like pulp magazines have garnered since its heyday. The milestones of radio drama—Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, children fare like Little Orphan Annie, and even spooky programmers like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and its memorable creaking door—have permeated into popular culture at large but, for the most part, “old time radio” and its smaller shows have been shelved away in the archives of time.

But not really. For many shows are in fact currently available free to the masses, thanks to the efforts of such stalwart facilities as the Internet Archive. One of these programs is Dark Fantasy, a title all but unknown save to the most fervent fans of aural terrors. A grassroots effort that was produced in Oklahoma City on station WKY in 1941, Dark Fantasy was picked up for national syndication by the NBC Red network fairly early in its run.

The scripts penned by head writer George M. Hamaker (who, under the nom de plume of Scott Bishop, wrote extensively for the pulps and, allegedly, other shows such as The Mysterious Traveler and The Sealed Book) were thrilling and moody playlets that involved such treasured horror tropes as ghostly vengeance, time travel, werewolves, mad doctors, and trees that strangled people.

(For more information on the show’s history, I encourage you to refer to Karl Schadow’s diligently researched account at the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club.)

What surprises the listener most about Dark Fantasy is not only the fact that 27 of its 31 broadcasted episodes are readily available (a rare thing in the annals of radio drama), but that the show maintained a fairly sustained level of quality and ingenuity throughout its all-too-brief run. With a dedicated staff of technicians and actors who typically performed double-duties in the studio, Dark Fantasy was able to conjure up delightful nightmares during its midnight time slot with nothing but the wavering tones of a Kilgen organ, the cry of a howling wind… and voices in the dark.

This humble project is meant to review, in multiple parts, the stories that made Dark Fantasy an equal contender in the realm of radio horror and as a means to ensure that this program may never meet the unjust grave of oblivion.

1. The Man Who Came Back
Original Broadcast: November 14, 1941

Cast: Ben Morris (Keith Granger), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Sylvia), Fred Wayne (Casey), Muir Hite (Captain Sullivan), Murillo Schofield (Cab Driver), and Eugene Francis as ‘The Man Who Came Back.’

The wail of police sirens brings us to the mansion of Keith Granger, a millionaire whose death has brought a premature end to the masquerade that he was hosting. One of the officers on the scene, Casey, hones in on a particularly mysterious fellow in black costume and domino mask who tries to elude the crowd of gawkers. The masked man speaks cryptically of the incident and, when pressed by Casey to remove his mask, the partier responds ominously “It may be better, my friend, that you didn't see my mug” to use Casey’s colorfully tough Irish copper vocabulary.

The man then begins to narrate the tale of Philip Blake, playwright husband of Sylvia, a woman whom Granger had been seeing on the side. After Philip finds a key to Granger’s apartment adorned with his and Sylvia’s initials inside her purse (So much for discretion!), Philip confronts him with his accusations but gets the raw end of the deal when Granger pulls a gun on him. The playboy says that he’ll easily play the self-defense angle and, right after Blake has the chance to swear vengeance from beyond the grave—“I’ll be back, Grange, even if I have to fight all the demons in Hell to do it!”—Granger plants one right between the scribbler’s eyes.

Sure enough Granger is deemed as having acted in the right by the courts and, though Sylvia warns she might tell the truth to the police, she’s quickly curbed when Keith tells her she’s an accomplice for corroborating his story. Granger then fancies himself scot-free. That is until he hears Blake’s voice echoing his own verdict of the smiling murderer: Guilty!

Soon Blake is manifesting himself in a more “physical” manner. The ring Keith buys for Sylvia turns out to be Blake’s own initialed jewelry, the very same one he was buried with. And when Keith takes a cab that no one else could possibly have entered, a bodiless voice sardonically jeers at hearing his destination “Excellent. That’s where I’m going…”   

In order to bring his spirits up (and keep the bad ones away), Keith holds a masquerade ball at his place. But even this revelry is disturbed by the presence of a man—one garbed in black and a domino mask, naturally—who leads Keith to a darkened room where a piano plays a ghostly tune of its own a-chord and Keith’s gun awaits him. Blake’s phantom voice tells Granger that the gun just has one bullet in the chamber. “But that is enough…” the spirit chides. And everything that has happened certainly has been enough—for Granger.

Back in the present, Casey presses for the storyteller to reveal himself. The man asks if Casey remembers how Philip Blake was shot between the eyes. “That doesn’t make a very pretty sight,” he says. Just as Casey retrieves his captain to instill some order in the weirdo’s heart, they find that the man has vanished into thin air… only leaving a small pool of blood in the exact spot he was standing.

Existing records indicate that “The Man Who Came Back” was likely the show WKY used as an audition for their new supernatural program. It initially aired on October 28, just in time for Halloween and eager to usurp the terror throne of the recently-ended Lights Out. In many ways the episode feels like a try-out for what was to come. The old “murdered-spouse-rights-the-scales-of-justice” saw wasn’t new even by 1941 standards.

Dark Fantasy might have come from humble beginnings, but it certainly speaks to the professionalism inherent in the acting, technical direction, and script that not one second of the story ever seems boring or tepid. “The Man Who Came Back” may be pretty tame stuff with its drops of blood and unearthly voices, but Bishop’s radio play is a slick number, moving unfussily from one event to the next until it reaches its completely expected but well-handled conclusion.

Bishop’s dialogue, both naturalistic and descriptive as necessitated by the medium, flows and almost seems underwritten while remaining perfectly potent. Granger’s response to Blake’s accusations, paired with Ben Morris’ calm delivery, is punchy in its simplicity: “No, I don’t deny. You’re wife has been here. Often.”
Straightforward and full of promise, “The Man Who Came Back” is certainly enough to make sure listeners come back for more.

2. **The Soul of Shan Hai Huan** LOST
Original Broadcast: November 28, 1941

3. The Thing from the Sea
Original Broadcast: December 5, 1941

Cast: Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Judith Johnston), Ben Morris (Phillip Hayward), Fred Wayne (Johnston Sr.), Eugene Francis (Ned), Georgianna Cook (Lana), and Daryl McAllister (Buul, ‘The Thing from the Sea’).

A reporter gives the skinny on an interesting tidbit to be buried in the front page to his editor: a Hollywood couple, Phillip Hayward and Judith Johnston, along with her filmmaker father and the crew of their yacht, the Dolphin, have disappeared along with their vessel off the coast of New Zealand. Could their research into Johnston Sr.’s new movie concerning arcane legends of the ocean and the strange creatures that dwell within it have lead the group into some choppy waters?

Of course it has.

After the ship’s motors conk out and the yacht drifts for a few days, everyone starts fearing the worst. Especially the elder Johnston, who thinks that the ship might have been stopped by supernatural forces. Phillip poo-poos the director, saying that the auteur of “eight-reel clambakes” is just acting overly superstitious. Phillip has considerably less snark when Judith awakens moaning in terror from a dream, one in which she was confronted by a mermaid who was not only centuries old, but also intent on taking over Judith’s body.

Bishop shows a real flair for eccentric imaginings when he has Judith describe the sea maiden thusly:

“She had long hair, green and slimy like seaweed. Her teeth were brilliant red. They were long and pointed. She kept staring at me with her little, beady eyes. They were horrible, for she had no eyelids. She never blinked once. She just stared and stared.”

Definitely not Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Suddenly the Dolphin starts speeding ahead for destinations unknown. But the motors are still dead and there is no wind in the air. What could be propelling the ship forward? Further intrigue is added when first mate Ned spots a mysterious figure at the helm. This is no normal sailor, but some kind of awful sea monster who sports “long, narrow fingers with webs between them.” “And no fingernails!” gasps Johnston, as if that’s the deal-breaker on the helmsman’s humanity.

But the crew has bigger problems (literally), as a tremendous tidal wave makes its advance upon the boat. The crew takes cover and when they emerge they see the formation of a veritable continent in the distance that could not have possibly been there before. Johnston realizes that the tidal wave was caused by an underwater disturbance, one that brought to the surface what had long been buried. For the steaming, seaweed-strewn land is in fact the fabled city of Ebaan, told to have been ruled by Emperor Buul and Empress Lana before the city was sent into the ocean by Buul in a power-driven madness. It is prophesied that the spirits of the Ebaanites will reclaim their original bodies and take over the world. Or something like that.

Descending into the shallow water and journeying to the island, Johnston and Phillip are shocked to find that the body of their own Captain Webb (!) has been possessed by none other than Buul himself, intent on getting back to his former shell in the “vacuum-like” temple where he stored it for a rainy day. There to block his path is Judith, now controlled by the spirit of Empress Lana who knows all too well Buul’s habit of blowing things up. She accompanies the group into the temple with a mind to stop her crazy husband from further destruction.

Once in the temple (where Johnston’s unfortunate muttering of the word “vacuum” sounds like a request to Phillip to look at “the glass rectum,” adding unsettling meaning to his earlier comment that the island is the “most evil-smelling place I was ever in!”), Buul and Lana regain their scaly Ebaan bodies. Buul then reveals himself for the natural jerk that he is before Lana shoots him down. She then beseeches the humans to flee and, showing that the fate of the island is better restored into her hands, she blows Ebaan up in a shower of fire and lets it sink back into the sea.

Maritime horror isn’t always an easy sell, and unfortunately “The Thing from the Sea” shows some of its weaker points, especially as an entry in the ‘Atlantis-restored’ sub-sub-genre. Bishop falls prey to the traps this kind of endeavor involves, namely the prolonged explanation involved in detailing the lost city/continent’s background and denizens that ends up taking up 90% of the narrative and leaving very few compelling events for us to enjoy. I think of the story from the first issue of Creepy, “H2O World,” in regards to this type of tale: a history lesson with a mere whiff of the monstrous wrapped up in the veneer of a horror story. “The Thing from the Sea” is better than that, but not by too much.

Still, it’s worth a listen if only for the howl-inducing “master plan” of Buul: if the emperor was really set on blowing up the joint, why would he seal the bodies of the entire citizenry in a crypt with the intention of returning one day in the future to reclaim the earth? Did he just want a change of scenery or a couple of centuries to cool off his wet head?

All the unnecessary complexities and bits of lame dialogue (“I will rule Ebaan!” Buul challenges his interfering wife) makes this episode seem more juvenile than it should be, but even “The Thing from the Sea” isn’t enough to sink one’s opinion of the show.

4. The Demon Tree

Original Broadcast: December 12, 1941

Cast: Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Clara), Ben Morris (Humphries), Garland Moss (Danvers), and Murillo Schofield (Crane).

In a country inn near the Barlow Forest in England, a group of friends sit playing cards trying to idle away the hours of a boring vacation from London. Crane suggests taking a nature walk to take in the scenery. Humphries, Danvers, and Clara acquiesce. But Humphries recalls a strange anecdote related to him by the clerk concerning the Barlow Forest. Despite the place’s serene and breath-taking sights, few people have taken the journey into the woods. And those who did were never seen at tea-time again.

Crane and Danvers initially jeer at the moody Humphries, but he then produces a newspaper clipping from 1857 detailing the bizarre death of a local earl who was found wrapped up in the branches of a tree, apparently strangled by the mighty oak. Regional legend has it that a witch cursed the descendants of the Wakefield clan who persecuted her and, in a novel move that Martha Stewart probably wouldn’t endorse, smeared an acorn with her blood and grew from it a giant tree to act as executioner of her undying will.

After contemplating that he may in fact be an extended family member of the Wakefields, Crane decides to go ahead with his initial plan anyway. The rest of the gang is game, save for Humphries who can’t help but wonder “Wouldn’t it be odd if the whole thing were true?”

Though the forest’s entrance at first appears to be too thick with foliage to enter, Danvers finds a footpath and they make their way in. Immediately they feel an unnatural chill in the air, one completely at odds with the mid-afternoon, summertime weather. Danvers is particularly disturbed by it, saying “It’s a different kind of cold. The kind that creeps up your spine when… when some evil comes over you.”

Apt description, Danvers old chum, for just straight ahead the group spots a tree that looks like “a human giant” and one that appears to almost move. When Crane touches the bark, he notes that it feels “warm and smooth and soft” like skin, and not in the good way. (There’s a humorous exchange when the group touches the queer tree all together and, when they invite Humphries to join in, he gives a deadpan “No thanks.”) For Humphries knows that the strange thing is none other than the Demon Tree of Barlow Forest! *Cue organ sting*

Too busy feeling up the witch’s familiar, the group realizes too late that the forest has become almost impenetrably dark and that they’ve lost their way. Trying to find a way out, Crane feels a branch caress his face while in an empty clearing and, finally realizing this probably isn’t the best place for the target of supernatural revenge to be hanging around, he beats a quick path the hell out of there. “Now he’s in for it,” chimes Danvers, showing yet again his aptitude for timing. Seconds later, Crane lets out a banshee shriek of death. “Sounds like he’s being strangled!” Humphries cries.

The fact that Humphries can recognize this specific kind of scream goes uncommented on, perhaps for the better.

The group quickly finds Crane’s remains, his throat marked with hand-like imprints and green staining as if from smeared leaves. An eerie moment passes when the trio realizes it’s actually the same spot they initially discovered the tree… but the tree is gone. Rustling through the brush, Carol fancies them all lost marionettes, to which Humphries asks “Controlled by what strange puppeteer?” Humphries gets in a real funk here, saying that the swift darkness that overtook the forest “Reminded me of how a corpse must feel when the lid is placed over him.” Danvers starts to get fed up with his friend’s morbid talk, so he trades in his companion’s emotional quagmire for a literal one when he falls into some quicksand.

Humphries and Clara try to rescue their screeching friend by extending a pole to him, but the blasted demon tree is there to bat Danvers away with its branches before he finally drowns. Surprisingly, Humphries and Clara manage to find the light at the end of the brambled tunnel and escape the forest and its horrors.

Or do they? Both of the survivors have a nagging feeling that their dilemma isn’t over yet. Entering Humphries’ room at the inn, they see how right they are. A demonic branch awaits them on the bed, ready to finish what it started. They try to escape, Humphries suggesting they take the elevator instead of just running down the stairs. Bad thing that the lift’s gate has been left ajar, as it gives the branch ample opportunity to slither over and push Clara down the elevator shaft. The conclusion is pure comic book. As the tendril monster advances, Humphries can only cry out what is happening to him: “The tree! The demon tree! It’s choking me! Aaaagh!”

With its fourth episode, Dark Fantasy hits its first home run right out of the woods. While “The Man Who Came Back” was a classic (if just-slightly-stale) chiller well-told and “The Thing from the Sea” was ambitious but muddled, “The Demon Tree” is pure pulpy fun drenched in atmosphere. Bishop utilizes the fabled “Strangling Tree of Nannau Woods” to spine-chilling effect, recalling such fantastic literary mainstays as the Fighting Trees from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books to the crushing guard at Hogwarts in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

As silly as the idea of an ambulatory tree might seem to be (which it is at times, like with the pathetic-sounding swats it takes at the drowning Danvers and the whacked-out finale), the play manages to be truly eerie in its depiction of the infernal weed. A great magazine-cover-moment occurs when the three friends spot the tremendous tree walking in the distance, glowing with a mad phosphorescence like the Baskerville hound, Crane’s broken body tucked up in the crook of its knobby arm. The organ score is also put to wonderful use, augmenting scenes like the touching of the tree and the heroes’ weary journey with great tension.

And if there’s one thing “The Demon Tree” delivers on, it’s the suspense. This may not be white-knuckle adventure, but the performers give it the goods, with Moss and Schofield particularly excelling at their sumptuous screams and ravings. If you think of old time radio as a staid and hoary venture, let Schofield’s death-cry put a few hairs on your chest!

5. Men Call Me Mad
Original Broadcast: December 19, 1941

Cast: Ben Morris (Charles), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Princess Elena), Fred Wayne (King Londolier), Murillo Schofield (Dr. West), Muir Hite (Dr. Smith), Daryl McAllister (Specialist).

Charles is a scientist, and he has gathered two of his peers, Doctors Smith and West, to witness a most startling discovery that he has made. Using a special stock of color film, Charles has taken a series of magnified shots of a moonbeam and, with each advancing slide that he displays to his awestruck audience he reveals an entire, hidden world existing within the ray of lunar light. Charles marvels over what he calls “My world within a moonbeam,” a planet that is marked with startling hues of color like the “leaves of brilliant scarlet,” “sun of dazzling blue,” “vivid orange streams,” and a man riding an undescribed “strange animal.”

The trio of lab coats are all duly bowled over, the concept of “worlds within worlds” (and our own Earth possibly being one such plane of existence) almost too much to handle in one sitting. So Charles throws them another curveball: he plans to journey to the land of moonshine himself! He proposes to do this by entering a ten-inch glass igloo that he will shine the moonlight on, making a veritable chamber that he can use to physically “enter” the beam. (Don’t ask me cause I don’t get it either.)

When asked by Smith how he supposes he could enter such a tiny structure, Charles tells him that he has concocted, for all intents and purposes, a shrinking potion made from radium. Charles assures his comrades that he has tested the formula on animals and says that even his clothes will conveniently downsize as well, as he found out when a test dog and its collar both minimized to board game player-size. Which is probably better for him, because if Charles didn’t already look crazy, he certainly wouldn’t be pulling in any more supporters as a six-inch naked guy.

Once the potion is imbibed, Charles becomes temporarily blind and “a strange weakness” comes over him (rather a nice description for the shrinking sensation). His dutiful friends place his ever-decreasing body before the igloo. As the mini-Charles reaches his cosmic destination, old Smith thinks aloud “I wonder what he’ll discover…”

Entering the igloo, Charles is transported to the moonbeam world. He marvels at the colorful landscape and is suddenly accosted by a beautiful alien woman. She explains that she is Princess Elena and he is in the gardens of her father, King Londolier, who rules over their entire realm with “kindness and justness.” Charles explains that he is a citizen of the United States and describes its relation to Elena’s world. She’s fairly unsurprised, as the scientists of her world had long ago discovered the presence of other dimensions but had not found the means to traverse among them.

But Elena warns Charles that all is not happiness and light in her world: a horrible plague has risen up and is killing thousands of moonlings every day. She beseeches him to leave, but Charles presses on, eager to help the citizens of Landolier’s kingdom. The old monarch sees their situation as hopeless, but relents when Charles requests to examine his stricken son. But to the scientist’s amazement, the plague that they are suffering from is nothing but typhoid. Ecstatic, Charles has vaccinations made up and gets the kingdom’s death toll down to nil.

Charles is seen as a god in the eyes of the people, but something else in the eyes of Elena, and soon a mutual affection has developed between human boy and moon girl (no relation to E. C. Comics). The princess asks Charles to say, but he feels his discovery is too great to keep from Earth and promises to return to his beloved after he has told his story to the masses.

Back on Earth, West and Smith wait expectantly for their friend’s return, either a sign that time works very differently in the moonbeam or that Charles has great friends who would stick around in the same room for five months for him to come back. Charles takes his radium capsule and grows back to normal size, filling in his friends on his amazing discoveries. Charles then drops a bombshell on the assembly (and us): he explains that his greedy sister is desperate to get her claws into some oil property that the siblings share, even going so far as to lodge accusations that he is mentally unbalanced and unfit to manage the holdings. Charles is to be examined by a group of analysts the following day and asks his pals to be there and back up his fantastic tale as a means of demonstrating his capability. Surprisingly, they agree.

Needless to say, when you try to prove your sanity with a story that you shrunk yourself down to the size of an atom and saved an alien planet from a bad case of the flu as opposed to telling the doctors, well, anything else, your odds of coming out looking like the most brilliant person in the room are pretty slim. Sure enough, the examiners try to tell Charles very calmly and very quietly that he should probably start packing his chemistry set away for the prescribed sanitarium vacation.

But where are West and Smith, the ones who saw the whole unbelievable affair with their own impartial, scientific eyes? As a handily-timed phone call to one of the examiners reveals, West and Smith have died in a car accident on the way to testify for their good friend, which goes to prove that no matter how many worlds there may be in existence, God likes to laugh in all of them. Though Charles laments in his padded cell that now “men call me mad” and that there is no escape from this hell, he hears Elena’s voice calling out to him from the ether. “No escape?” he says. “But of course. The moonbeam!”

If “The Thing from the Sea” stumbled from putting too much in, “Men Call Me Mad” underwhelms because it feels as if something’s missing. The descriptions of the moon world are imaginative enough—though they’re really just limited to psychedelic colors—but one wishes a little more time was taken to make the moon land sound alien.

Dark Fantasy has proven to be a bit reticent with the special audio effects, either for artistic or budgetary reasons, and concepts like the shining glass igloo and the grand majesty of Londolier’s kingdom invite all kinds of unconventional music and foley stunts to really sell the otherworldliness of the place. But the scenes in the magical moonbeam sound exactly like what they really are: people standing around in a circle talking.

Clearly owing to Fitz James O’ Brien’s short story “The Diamond Lens” (1858), Bishop’s script shoots for a sense of wonder and romance but falls just short of its goal. The passionate dialogue spoken by Charles and Elena just before he departs is particularly dusty:

“Elena, my darling. Is it wrong to say I love you?”

“Is it wrong for the stars to shine? Or the flowers to bloom?”

If one sums this up simply to the “antiquity” of the medium, I suggest you listen to any one of the plays penned by Bishop’s contemporary Wyllis Cooper for his program Quiet, Please to hear how love scenes could take on air of genuine darkness and mystical eroticism without resorting to these greeting card niceties.

Though the entire device of Charles’ villainous sister and the resulting deaths of West and Smith feels completely shoehorned in solely for the purpose of giving a reason for Charles to be found insane, the ambiguous ending does leave matters off on a tantalizingly uncertain note. Does Charles hear the voice of his alien mistress calling out to him from within the stars, or just from inside the depths of his own disturbed mind?

You can listen to these episodes and more at this fabulous site!



Jack Seabrook said...

Great post, Jose! I have to listen to "The Demon Tree" now!

Jose Cruz said...

Thanks, Jack. Trust me, you'll be happy you found it!