Thursday, September 11, 2014

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

by Jose Cruz

6.      The House of Bread
Original Broadcast: December 26, 1941

Cast: Ben Morris (Scott Bishop), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Sonya), Fred Wayne (Boss), Garland Moss (Word).

Scott Bishop, author of pulp stories and radio plays a-plenty, sits at his typewriter one night trying to strum up some inspiration. A smell of incense and the reverential tones of an organ fill the air and soon Bishop falls asleep. The writer dreams deeply, envisioning himself atop the tallest peak in all of creation, able to hold a God’s-eye-view of the “common clay that mankind calls the Earth.” Soon he is greeted by an older man, one who speaks in vague tones of seeking the ultimate Truth in life. Despite his mystic attitude, the man—who is named Word—tells Bishop that the Truth is by no means unclear and that he will know it when he sees it. He tells the writer that he shall find what he seeks in the House of Bread.

Awaking from the vision, Bishop realizes that he must take on this new life mission. He turns in his resignation to his unnamed boss (perhaps an editor?), despite his employer telling him what promise his career has, including a request from “Fantastic Periodicals” for a new series of supernatural tales. Bishop’s wife Sonya, on the other hand, is much more understanding, astoundingly so. Sonya never once questions her husband’s motives or mental health, chipper and supportive of the whole endeavor regardless of the risk their journey will have and the time that it will take to complete.

Withdrawing the necessary funds from the bank and getting the car fixed, the Bishops start on their cross-country trek. Sonya chronicles their progress in a diary, a nifty device used to economically describe the couple’s advancement across the U.S. to the east coast where they board a ship bound for London. Bishop muses at how “something [told] us our goal was far beyond the sea.”

From there the Bishops hit all the big names of Europe, from Buckingham Palace and gay Paree to the dilapidation of Morocco and opulence of Tripoli. They stop at several sites of interest that go by such holy titles as “The Light of the World” and the “Place of Peace” thinking they will find their destination there, but to no avail. No one knows anything about the House of Bread. Weeks become months and the countries whir past in a blur, the Truth always eluding their desperate grasp.

The Three Kings by Phillip Brown Parsons
Finally, the Bishops finds themselves in Jerusalem. The date: December 25th. But the Bishops are not greeted by idyllic snow on this Christmas Day but a ravaging storm, the clouds “covering all newborn stars but one.” This solitary light overwhelms the couple and they follow its brilliant rays to a humble house where they find shelter from the harsh weather. Also in the abode is none other than the man named Word himself, here to greet and congratulate the duo for their efforts. Scott recognizes the old one from his dream and realizes that his mission has been completed. The old man also reveals his true nature by quoting scripture: “And the Word was God.” He also comments with just a touch of wise judgment that Bishop now fully believes in the Truth only because he can see it. “Blessed is he who has not seen Me and still believes,” the old man intones as the organ pipes its sacred chorus.

It is only after Scott and Sonya awake the next morning feeling incredibly refreshed that they understand Bishop’s dream entirely. They learn from some locals that Jerusalem was named by the Hebrews, a word when translated means “the house of bread.”

Though it might surprise contemporary listeners, a religiously-themed play on a horror program was not exactly rare. Wyllis Cooper, original creator of Lights Out! and Quiet, Please, had written one such story for the former show (the title varies in radio logs: “Uninhabited,” “Three Men,” “Christmas Story”) that served as a Yuletide special. It tells the tale of three WWI soldiers of varying ethnicities who are united by chance around Christmastime when they share a train compartment only to find out that they are contemporary variants of the Three Kings after they are beset by powerful dreams and fragrances of myrrh, echoing Bishop’s similar episode from “The House of Bread.”

This unofficial tradition makes for a surprising entry in Dark Fantasy’s catalog of wraiths and monsters, one that will either fascinate the listener as a refreshingly different take on the hallmarks of the Bible being considered as supernatural events or a thudding bore filled with saccharine homilies about belief and good will. Or, like me, a little bit of both.

“The House of Bread” is strongest during its hallucinogenic scenes, ones that portray the search for Truth that Bishop is tasked with finding in the cryptically-named, titular site as a journey into mystery where anything is possible. The effect of this episode, however, might be dependent on the listener’s beliefs. The elucidations of Word might come off as too preachy in his extensive quoting of the Bible, but if viewed in general terms they take on a kind of mythic power and wisdom. When the elder tells Bishop “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light,” Bishop asks who had said that. Word’s response is moving in its simplicity: “They were words spoken by a man who was about to die.”

The rest of the play has other affecting passages. At hearing Bishop’s newfound mission, his boss asks him exasperatedly “What in the name of heaven has come over you?” Bishop (the real one that is) lets the statement’s irony register with the listener without thankfully having one of his characters point it out. Sonya also makes a witty estimation of Madrid’s two social classes, saying that the populace is divided into “those who stay up past three and those who wake up before four.”

The characters themselves are, of course, of interest in themselves. Continuing the tradition of Arch Oboler and Wyllis Cooper casting “themselves” in their own respective shows (Oboler was the only one to genuinely perform in his), Bishop puts himself in the middle of the drama for “The House of Bread.” An unorthodox choice, considering that Oboler’s and Cooper’s episodes dealt with them primarily as the writers and creators of their radio programs (“The House of Bread” makes no such mention of Dark Fantasy). Perhaps “The House of Bread” reflects Bishop’s own search for the truth, his metaphysical ponderings worked out under the guise of a holiday special.

The satirical pokes are still present though, especially in evidence during the exchange between “Bishop” and his boss. The employer makes reference to “the trunk full of rejection slips” that the writer received trying to submit to the slicks and the evening hours he spent penning for the pulps, a background that Bishop (in reality George M. Hamaker) would undoubtedly have sympathized with. He even makes dissatisfied reference to a radio play he’s writing (“an Egyptian mummy thing”) and Sonya later purchases a back issue of a magazine that has one of her husband’s stories in it, a throwaway detail that adds a touch of genuineness to their relationship. Did the real Dores Hamaker nee Hatfield collect her husband’s work and bestow complete trust in him like Sonya in the episode? Like the central Truth found in “The House of Bread,” it would certainly be nice to believe.

7.      Resolution 1841
Original Broadcast: January 2, 1942

Cast: Charles Carshon (Duke Tobac), Minnie Jo Curtis (Laura Cabot), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Helen Richards), and Ben Morris (Ed Richards).

Laura Cabot recounts the strange events that occurred only a few hours previously when she and her friends gathered together to celebrate the New Year, 1942. “I must tell someone,” she explains. “And so… I’m telling you.”

Duke Tobac, a friend of Ed and Helen Richards, is accompanying the couple and Laura as they make their way across the snow-swept country lane in Quincy, Massachusetts, to the cabin that has been in Laura’s family for centuries. The Richards are clearly hoping that Duke and Laura will hit it off, which they certainly seem to be doing as they spend time getting to know each other. A revelation suddenly comes to Laura: Duke’s last name reversed is Cabot. Adding to the oddity is the fact that Duke recognizes the house despite having never being there before.

Laura herself feels the complete opposite. The usually cozy atmosphere of the familial estate somehow seems different and off. Both Laura and Duke compound the mystery when they voice their opinions of their “dates.” Duke says that Laura is charming but that “it seems I have known her before. Somewhere. Sometime.” And Laura confesses to Helen that she has felt a similar attraction to Duke, “something greater” than love.

Later the group bids farewell to 1941 and look forward to what lies ahead. “May all our troubles disappear like bubbles of champagne,” Laura toasts, an optimistic attitude for Bishop to give his characters considering the fact that it wasn’t even a month prior to this broadcast that radio listeners received a very different kind of New Year’s resolution from President Roosevelt. Seeing that the fire is starting to get low, Duke volunteers to brave the cold and fetch some wood.

Laura comes back wearing a dress that belonged to her mother she found in an old trunk, her friends commenting on how quaint and antiquated it makes her look. At the mention of her family, Laura reveals the trouble she’s in: the house has been heavily mortgaged and she can’t afford to keep it with all the debt she’s accumulated. Quick to reinforce his status as a man, Ed tells her they can’t help her out. Just then a loud clattering is heard from outside. Ed rushes to the rescue and finds Duke sprawled in the snow with a semi-serious head wound.

Times Square, New Year's Eve 1941
Duke is barely lucid as he’s carried back into the cabin, finally calling out to Laura in a hoarse, aged voice. He refers to Ed and Helen as strangers and asks Laura why she keeps addressing him so informally. He tells her that he is not Duke but Jeremiah Cabot, Laura’s great-great-grandfather, and she his daughter. Laura is stunned: Jeremiah was the source of a Cabot family legend that held that the old codger made a New Year’s resolution to return to earth after his death.

The purpose of the spiritual visit isn’t made clear until Duke/Jeremiah indicates to Laura that there is a brick in the fireplace that can be removed. In the stone hutch, Laura finds some family photos, the original deed to the house, and ten thousand dollars stowed away. His mission completed, Jeremiah’s whiskery spirit leaves Duke’s body and the friendly lug is back to his old self. Laura reads the words from Jeremiah’s last will and testament in awe, recording his sworn intent to come back to the land of the living from the year 1841!

“Resolution 1841” is a quietly magical though slight episode from Dark Fantasy, relying on the old reincarnation theme without adding its own flavor to the mix, leading the audience to feel just as much déjà vu as the characters. It is an interesting progression for the series showing that, like with the previous religious-themed story “The House of Bread,” there was ample ground to cover besides the regular ghosts and ghouls.

The quaint narrative doesn’t ever move past bland generalities in its exploration of the supernatural though—the characters always refer to “something” that’s either “strange” or “odd”—and the final wrap-up with the ancestor’s spirit pointing the way to the buried treasure might smell a bit too much of Scooby-Doo and The Hardy Boys for some tastes. The blustery wind effects do add a potent note of chilliness that give the story a solid sense of place.

Sadly, it’s the moment when Helen refers to Laura as being twenty-three years old—as portrayed by the very worn and brittle voice of Minnie Jo Curtis—that accounts for the episode’s one truly unbelievable incident.

8.      The Curse of the Neanderthal
Original Broadcast: January 9, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Reggie), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Amanda), Murillo Schofield (Hayes), Fred Wayne (Doctor Gustaf), and Daryl McAllister (The Neanderthal Man).

Amanda Loveland is desperately trying to call her sister Grace in London from the artist colony she’s residing in at Lookout Point. Her beau Reggie and friend Hayes gently joke at Amanda’s urgency, but despite her sarcasm—“Oh no, I’m just sitting here jiggling this receiver for the exercise!”—Amanda is taking the matter very seriously. She knows Grace is due to be at a tea party, but she has reason to believe that her sister is nowhere near London.

As she explains to Reggie and Hayes, earlier she had gone out to Nannau Canyon to do some painting. Nannau Canyon, by the way, might be a reference to “The Demon Tree,” as the source of that story was the legend of the Strangling Tree of Nannau Woods. This would be corroborated by Hayes’ reaction to hearing Amanda’s tale: “They say the place is simply oozing with ghosts at night!”

Just as Amanda is starting to apply the coloring to her portrait, she hears a great rumbling and sees that the path back to the colony has completely caved-in, leaving her stranded in the middle of the canyon. Trying to find her way out, Amanda hears the horrid screeching of a bird (most likely provided by WKY animal impersonator Muir Hite) but ponders why there is “No other night noises at all.” Suddenly Amanda spots a light illuminating a figure in the distance. She’s shocked when she recognizes it is her sister Grace, beckoning her sibling to the way out of the canyon. Before Amanda can reach Grace, she has disappeared without a trace.

Back in the colony having told her strange tale, Amanda gets a call from her sister. Grace confirms that she is in fact in London and has been the whole time. So just who could it have been that acted as Amanda’s guardian angel? Hayes believes that it was one of the resident Nannau spirits that took the familiar form of her sister to help her in her time of need, though Reggie is less inclined to believe in the possibilities of the paranormal despite the evidence he’s already seen.

Hayes asks Amanda if he can look at her painting, but when it’s unveiled the group is shocked to find a new addition to the landscape that Amanda has no memory of creating. “A strange, monstrous-looking creature lurking in the shadows” they gasp. “A huge, fiendish thing” they utter. The mystery now ever so thicker, the group decides to investigate further by journeying back to the canyon… but in the full light of day.

Going back to the exact location where the monster was painted, the trio spots a pile of human bones resting there. Reggie concludes that the remains are from a Neanderthal man hundreds of years old, and it is he who then posits that it was this ancient caveman’s spirit who turned into Grace to save Amanda. Way to stick to your convictions, Reggie.

The group takes the fossils to the resident historian/archaeologist Dr. Gustaf, and the old man similarly concludes that the bones are from a caveman. He also proves helpful in deciphering a sample of the Neanderthal’s “picture writing” that the group found along with the remains: “Who moves my bones will surely die as I have died.” Gustaf insists on making an exhibit of the remains at the museum and poo-poos the curse. The doctor then puts on his exhibit, is claimed a genius by the historic community, and goes on to live a long and fruitful life.

Oh, you wanted to know how the story actually ended?

Reggie and Amanda later return to the museum to check out the caveman display but are perturbed to find the exhibit missing. Just then an eight-foot tall man who speaks very slowly interrupts them to ask the way to Gustaf’s study. Reggie gives the man the directions and the stranger goes on his way. The couple marvels at the giant’s “bushy eyebrows” and “wide forehead,” also noting the grotesque twist the stranger had in his neck. Amanda has her suspicions, but before you can say “revenant” she and Reggie are spooked to find the intact caveman skeleton inexplicably back in its place. Rushing to the doctor’s study, they find Gustaf dead of a broken neck. Reading the last line Gustaf scribbled in his notebook, Reggie discovers that the caveman perished by the very same means.

“Curse of the Neanderthal” goes for a sense of grave solemnity and mystery that unfortunately only seems to make it more risible. Bishop cannot seem to settle on what properties he wants to bestow upon his threat. It’s not enough that the caveman himself comes back to life; his spirit must also have the power to transform at will too. He acts as both savior and executioner. This dichotomy might not seem so bad but the narrative is too confused to be truly suspenseful.

There are some just plain goofy moments that level any kind of tension out. The encounter with the revived Neanderthal (the sonorous tones of Daryl McAllister, previously seen as Emperor Buul in the similarly odd “The Thing from the Sea”) is especially non-frightening. McAllister talks in a stilted fashion to embody his inherent primitiveness, and yet he still speaks perfect English, a power undoubtedly picked up during the Changeling classes he took in the centuries after his death. Not to mention that he has perfect manners for a knuckle-dragging brute. “Pardon me for having disturbed you,” he tells the couple after asking for their assistance.

This episode also suffers from some deterioration that hampers the listening experience in some spots. The scene of Amanda talking to her sister Grace on the phone has prominent white noise and a persistent “clapping” can be discerned when the group consults Dr. Gustaf’s expertise. The finale in the museum is barely audible through the aural scratching, but the pertinent information can still be gleaned if one listens closely.

9.      Debt from the Past
Original Broadcast: January 16, 1942

Cast: Jane Wyatt (Mary Billings), Ben Morris (Mark Matthew), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Office Manager), and Muir Hite (Mr. Gibson).

A woman asks a man sitting on a park bench if she may peruse his copy of the newspaper and he gladly concedes. It seems both of them (she Mary Billings, he Mark Matthew) are in the desperate process of searching for employment. Mark jokingly acknowledges his shoes: “Those are yesterday’s want ads I’m walking on.” He’s been sleeping on the same bench for days and eating sparingly. Noticing Mary’s own hunger, Mark invites her to hamburgers and coffee at the local diner.

Mary explains that she’s only been in town for two weeks and her search has been just as fruitless as Mark’s. She does point out a particular ad in the paper that seems promising. It asks for an “ambitious, talented, and reasonably attractive” woman to apply for the position of a typist at the Temple Building. Mark coyly references the fact that Mary certainly has the looks for the job. But they both ponder the one odd caveat in the ad: interested parties can only apply after midnight. Still, a job’s a job.

Traveling to the deserted building in the dead of night, Mary takes the elevator up to the appointed thirteenth floor (!), praying that this may be her break. The lift doors open to reveal a huge office that’s filled with “rows and rows of desks” and “brilliant lights.” It looks by all appearances like a contemporary workplace, but Mary can’t help but note the old-fashioned clothes that everyone seems to be wearing. Consulting head honcho Mr. Gibson in his office, Mary is further confused when the manager insists that he placed his want ad in the City Bee, not the Times as Mary had seen.

Testing his new applicant’s dictation prowess, Mr. Gibson outlines a letter to be sent to an associate and is astounded by how efficiently Mary takes it down. For this strong asset Gibson is willing to offer Mary a cool twenty dollars a week for her services. Mary is politely depressed by this news, telling Mr. Gibson that she might feel the need to ask for a raise after a period of time when she has proved her work ethic has earned it. Gibson is open to this, but he is a little more critical of Mary’s appearance, telling her she must dress in more conservative long sleeves and ankle-length skirts and do away with her makeup.

The young lady is eager to please, so she offers to tidy up Gibson’s office, noting that the calendar is clearly outdated. She tells him that it’s January 1942, not April 1912 as the calendar says. “I can’t understand what would lead you to say a thing like that,” he tells her. To further prove his point, he furnishes a crisp edition of the daily paper, the headline of the R. M. S. Titanic’s tragic sinking screaming out to her from the front page. Mary is completely mystified by these events, and she can only dazedly agree when Mrs. Johnson, the office manager, takes down her pertinents and observes that if Mary is twenty-two she must have been born in 1890.

Jane Wyatt
At the end of her overnight shift, Mary reports to Gibson who appears to be in his own strange reverie. He provides her with a check for eighty dollars, the sum of a whole month’s work. He tells Mary that she is just what he expected her to be and looks out at the advancing new day. “The dawn will soon be here and… Would you mind going now?” Gibson bids farewell to Mary, wishing her the utmost happiness.

Mary tells Mark of the entire odd experience and the two resolve to go right back to the office. But when they arrive, the clerical setting has transformed into a shuttered room with “heaps of junk and boxes and barrels” strewn about. Not only that, but Mark informs her that the City Bee, the newspaper Gibson insisted he advertised in, had gone out of business at least twenty years earlier. And why is the check Gibson offered made out to Mary’s mother, Margaret Billings?

It isn’t long before they find out. Looking through her late mother’s diary, Mary comes across an entry that explains she worked for Gibson’s company when it suddenly shut down operations, leaving all its employees without a month’s pay. Gibson promised to pay back his workers as soon as he could. Margaret laments this sad news in her diary and mentions the terrible Titanic accident that occurred that same day. So it seems that even though Gibson had to transcend life and death to do so, he ensured that this was one debt that was fully settled.

“Debt from the Past” was a play written by Scott Bishop especially for Jane Wyatt, the program’s only guest star player. Wyatt would later be a three-time Emmy-winner for her performance as Margaret Anderson in Father Knows Best, and she certainly does an admirable job of playing the innocent but persevering Mary. It’s too bad a more dynamic story couldn’t be provided, as “Debt from the Past” is the type of rote “They were friendly ghosts the whole time” yarn that you see in “true-life” titles like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction all the time. It’s fairly fluffy stuff, and when compared to the premiere episode, “The Man Who Came Back,” it makes the latter seem like a rip-roaring yarn of epic proportions.

There are some bizarre lapses in logic that aren’t doing any favors for anyone either. Most glaringly, why would Gibson’s ghost feel the need to stage this elaborate scenario of hiring Mary at a phantom office just to give her eighty bucks he owed her mother? And why would he pretend like he couldn’t understand Mary’s confusion with the anachronistic surroundings while being fully aware (if his final words are any indication) that this was all just a supernatural intervention from the beginning? Couldn’t he just have appeared at her front door and said “This for you-oo-oo-ooo…” before vanishing into thin air? That would have been a decidedly shorter episode, but it reveals the true thinness of the premise.

Not only that, but the act of charity that Gibson’s payment of the owed money seems to be is negated when one considers that the spirit wasted Mary’s time working for a non-existent company and ended up leaving her back in the unemployment line. So much for favors.

Mark’s acceptance of Mary’s fantastic story is just as shaky. Upon returning to the dilapidated office, Mark recovers a tube of Mary’s lipstick, an item she says she accidentally left behind. “Then what you told me did happen,” Mark responds in awe. No, it just proves that Mary might be a mentally ill woman who was playing with makeup in an abandoned building. It’s strange why Bishop didn’t save Mark’s reaction for a stronger piece of evidence, such as the check Gibson wrote out.

“Debt from the Past” may lightly amuse for its twenty-odd minutes, but when it comes to being well-written it doesn’t have a ghost of a chance.

Coming in Two Weeks: Part Three of Voices  in the Dark!

This Saturday: John Milius and The Sons of Anarchy!

1 comment:

Jack Seabrook said...

This is such a detailed and interesting series, Jose! I think I would enjoy "The House of Bread." I listened to that one about the scary tree last time and it was cool.