Thursday, October 9, 2014

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

by Jose Cruz

14. A Delicate Case of Murder

Original Broadcast: February 20, 1942

Cast: Georgianna Cook (Laura Winsted), Ben Morris (Harvey Winsted), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Frederica Keaton), Muir Hite (Rogers), and Fred Wayne (Doctor). 

After a fresh dose of piercing organ music is served up to our ears, we’re guided into the home of the Winsted’s one very late night/early morning. The present group is there to witness a séance held by medium wife Laura. Husband Harvey is a surly sourpuss who tut-tuts the proceedings, calling the spiritual writing his spouse performs as “hair-brained messages” and generally warning the other two members of the party against indulging Laura’s foolishness. Both of them, Miss Frederica Keaton and her acquaintance Rogers, take Mrs. Winsted’s purported powers very seriously, recalling that it was she who was able to communicate with the spirits via Ouija board even when mighty mystic Quentin Ramsay could not.

Laura has apparently been studying the spiritual arts and has now gained the ability of materialization, so the lady promises her guests that tonight “There’ll be more than mere rappings.” The four gather at table and join hands after Roger has doused the lights. “No one is to break the contact,” Laura says. “No one!” The medium then asks the spirits to make themselves known, requesting that they knock upon the boards twice for “No” and thrice for “Yes.”

A phantom starts speaking to Laura, telling the psychic that she has a message to give to Miss Keaton. When the ghost tells Frederica that she is hovering over her (!), Miss Keaton looks up and recognizes the old face of her late mother. The spirit tells Frederica that she has nothing to worry about before splitting it back to Bogey Land, effectively bringing the séance to an end. Not wanting to publicize these awesome abilities of hers, Laura asks that Frederica keep what she’s seen to herself.

Harvey then volunteers to take the young lady home, but the only thing he is interested in driving is his lips towards hers! For Harvey and Frederica are secret lovers, you see. The relationship between Harvey and his wife has dissolved over the years into bitterness and resentment, and his repeated requests for a divorce are met with stubbornness by Laura at every turn. “I used to love her immensely,” he tells Frederica, but now the old ball and chain has grown “indifferent, overbearing, and sharp-tongued.” 

Harvey also shows the young woman that Laura is a fraud to boot, displaying the papier-mâché figure that was used to masquerade as Frederica’s dead mother. Laura storms in at that moment, claiming that the vision was indeed fake but that the unearthly voice was genuine. Laura says “There are many things between earth and heaven that none of us know,” a tin-eared rendition of Shakespeare’s sentiment if there ever was one. She swears to her husband that she will convince him of this one day.

Harvey and Laura argue the next day about their marriage. Even knowing that her husband is a philanderer, Laura will still not release her hold on him, telling him that it’s “convenient being married to your income.” Later in town, Laura drives up to the curb and invites Frederica for a ride. The automobile is soon involved in a terrible crash, the precise details of which are conveniently relayed to us by a ballyhooing newsie who apparently lives in a town where auto accidents are a hot broadcast item.

Laura herself has been killed, while Frederica lies in critical condition at the hospital. The doctors report to the grieving Harvey—who asks nothing of his smashed wife—that Frederica’s nerve centers have been damaged and that she cannot use her voice. Harvey agrees to pay whatever sum is necessary to ensure his lover’s recovery and, once the operation is performed, he gets the good news that Frederica is back to her old self. The couple wed immediately, but upon carrying his new bride across the threshold, Harvey is a little alarmed by the spiteful sting Frederica’s voice has adopted. And as the wicked woman mocks her new husband’s stupidity, Harvey realizes with horror that the deceased Laura has now gained possession of Frederica!

“A Delicate Case of Murder” is a bit stupider than it needs to be, not to mention its trading on some very old narrative tropes in its attempt to startle and shock the audience. Among the other bizarre contrivances, the biggest one seems to be that not a single murder is to be found in this episode! It’s just barely hinted that Laura invites Frederica for a ride with the intention of crashing the car, but not is that only “A Vague Case of Murder,” it makes no sense whatsoever. How could Laura have known that she would die in the crash and, more importantly, that Frederica would survive for her to later possess? Aren’t there more direct ways to ensure the type of outcome Laura was hoping for?

There’s not much else to comment on for this entry. We may have reached the bottom of Dark Fantasy’s cobwebbed barrel. 

15. Spawn of the Subhuman

Original Broadcast: February 27, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Michael Brock), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Adelaide Rhodes), Garland Moss (Dr. Luther), and Muir Hite (The Gorilla). 

Michael Brock and renowned soprano Adelaide Rhodes are aboard a plane to Mexico during a stretch of her extensive national tour. Though Adelaide has been gaining acclaim and accolades during her musical stint, she can’t help but feel an overwhelming pall of “impending danger” hanging over her. 

The source of her trepidation goes back to when she was involved in an auto accident that resulted in the disappearance of her famous tenor colleague, Stephan Wilder. Driving late one night with Wilder, Adelaide felt as if “100,000 evil spirits” were racing after her. Trying to make a curve, she crashes the auto, proving that the only thing deadlier than the demons of Hell is a woman behind the wheel of a car. Upon recovering, Adelaide discovers that her friend has seemingly vanished into thin air. 

Adelaide notices that outside the plane the sky is darkening as a storm approaches, just as it had those four long years ago. Awakening from a nap, Adelaide is told by Michael that they stopped the plane to fuel up in Monterrey before heading toward their destination. But when Adelaide sees they’re flying over water, she realizes that they’ve strayed off course. Michael goes to the pilot’s cabin to inquire. The door is locked but Michael is able to peer through the porthole, and what he sees shocks him to his core. “That’s not our pilot at the controls,” he gasps. “That’s a monkey!”

Wait. It gets better.

Adelaide joins Michael and they both marvel at the large gorilla sitting in the pilot’s chair. They grimace at the weird, “human-like” expression the simian possesses. It’s then that Michael realizes that he never saw their original pilot re-enter the aircraft after fueling up and surmises that the gorilla shanghaied their vessel. The plane is lowered onto a remote island, Michael commenting in awe on the “absolutely perfect landing” that the ape managed to conduct. When the gorilla comes out of the cabin, he speaks to the couple in perfect English and informs them that he will be guiding them to his master, Dr. Luther.


Meeting the physician, Michael and Adelaide are told forebodingly by the loopy doc “You may be interested in… what I have planned.” And who wouldn’t be? For Luther has set up a secret laboratory retreat where he has been able to practice his revolutionary theories far away from the small-minded medical community of the civilized world. Luther explains that he captured the gorilla and trained it for five years to adopt the mannerisms of its Homo Sapien brothers. Then, in order to demonstrate the full extent of his work, Luther commands the ape to sing, showing off the animal’s robust, operatic tones for the benefit of his guests. 

And there it is.

Luther reveals in short order that he grafted the vocal chords of none other than the missing Stephan Wilder into the body of the gorilla when the singer made an appointment to meet with Luther. Luther apparently saw the car accident as his open window and whisked the tenor away for his dark experimentations. He lets the gorilla, whom he has appropriately “named” Stephan, to practice his scales. “Doesn’t he have an excellent voice?” Luther gushes of his project. 

It seems that Luther has big ideas in his head and big dollar signs in his eyes. He plans on making bank for exhibiting his singing primate to the world. And when he displays the female ape he has in captivity, his intentions to make his act a double bill become all too clear. Stephan asks that Adelaide comply with the mad doctor’s demands, but the songbird has her own surprises stuffed up her sleeve. She tells Luther that the reason Stephan Wilder scheduled that appointment with him in the first place was because he was losing his voice.

Luther is flabbergasted and thinks the lady is lying so he commands Stephan to sing again. He raves at the sumptuous notes. “A beautiful quality!” he rants. “Beautiful tones!” But his victory is short-lived when Stephan’s voice starts to catch and screech like a bad motor. Luther has a meltdown, genuinely shocked that all of his research and money has been wasted in a scheme to create a gorilla that could sing opera. The doc takes out his revolver to gun the miserable failure down but finds out the hard way that bullets only make Stephan very, very angry. Michael and Adelaide can only look on in horror as the snarling beast tears his master apart.

Now that’s entertainment. 

Nothing in the preceding fourteen episodes of Dark Fantasy could possibly have prepared the listener for the lunacy that is delivered in “Spawn of the Subhuman,” which also manages to have an even weirder, completely unrelated title than “A Delicate Case of Murder”! But that’s just part of the episode’s uproarious quality.

The most surprising thing here is that there is hardly a flicker of a tongue-in-cheek attitude during the duration of the drama. “Drama” is exactly what it’s played as; Caughron and Morris especially are particularly grim-toned as they’re exposed to one rib-tickling revelation after another. If anybody was smiling while reading out the script, you’d be hard-pressed to put a finger on it!

The exception to this is Garland Moss, who was apparently asked to channel Tod Slaughter in his performance of Dr. Luther. Moss is a joy to listen to, punctuating his dialogue with theatrical flair. You can practically see him tearing his hair out by the fistfuls the second Stephan’s voice starts to falter. It’s the one role that ever seems to be played for laughs and Moss wrings enough frills out of it for the rest of the cast.

It certainly helps that “Spawn of the Subhuman” boasts the best audio we’ve heard in Dark Fantasy’s run so far. The sound effects and dialogue come through with crystal-clear clarity, giving the already snappy story an aural crispness that ensures we hear every last crazy detail that Scott Bishop includes in his nutty script. This episode delivers the pulpy goods and brings the whole opera to an end right as Luther meets his monkey maker. “Spawn of the Subhuman” is canny enough to know that anything else that occurred afterward could never match up with what came before it. 

16. The Man with the Scarlet Satchel

Original Broadcast: March 6, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Sam Willard), Fred Wayne (Peter Craig), Georgianna Cook (Rose Esther), and Muir Hite (Professor White). 

“Scarlet is my favorite color because it reminds me so very much of blood.” 

These are the words that open Dark Fantasy’s sixteenth episode. They’re spoken by elderly scientist Peter Craig in regards to the eponymous satchel that he owns. We first hear of Craig through his lawyer Sam Willard and live-in nurse Rose Esther. Their exchange is not exactly kind and caring: Rose is worried that Craig may be starting to suspect their scheme to influence him to sign over a cool hundred grand to the nurse in his will, to later be split between Rose and Sam. The dastardly duo have been accomplishing their plan by feeding Craig dope mixed into his drinks, keeping him in a sleepy, disoriented state so as to best prey on his mind.  

Sam advises that Rose disappear for a while in order to extricate herself of any involvement in the plot. The greedy nurse demands that Sam deliver her share of the money upon the completion of their plan. Craig is tinkering around in his lab later when he gets his “medicine” and Sam comes to him under the pretension of getting his property deed in order. Craig is so discombobulated that he willingly signs the dotted line on the form, little realizing just what he is doing. Craig naps in his lab but, upon awakening, he is overwrought with paranoia and fear (perhaps from the drugs) and collapses to the floor in a panic, thinking he has been left for dead.

After the funeral, Sam reads the will to Craig’s other servants. They do not question Craig’s leaving the bulk of his estate to Rose… perhaps because they themselves have been left some compensation as orchestrated by Sam. Craig has left a sealed envelope in Sam’s care that includes some funerary provisions that the lawyer is to carry out upon his client’s death. The letter specifies that Craig is to be buried with a small box from his laboratory that contains a handful of modeling clay. 

Afterward, Sam speaks to Professor White, one of Craig’s old colleagues. The instructor goes on about Craig’s genius in the field of electrical engineering. Indeed, the late man’s quarters are filled with panels and tubes galore, along with copper wire hooked up to bits of the same clay from the parcel. Certain things about the place cause the crooked lawyer to become a bit wary. The wax seal that currently held the only door into the lab is broken and both the clay and a hand towel are damp as if recently used. The clincher is that Sam notices the small parcel in the lab: “The very same box I put into the casket!”

Meanwhile, Rose is holed up in a hotel when she gets a call from the front desk that the “man with the scarlet satchel” is waiting to talk to her. Rose’s dismissal of the call does little good when she sees the undead Craig standing right before her in the room. He tells her that he’ll be leaving the satchel behind for her before bidding her good night and disappearing. Rose quickly discovers that the contents of the bag are not exactly dormant. “Something is opening that satchel from the inside” she gasps. The naughty nurse lets out a wail of terror as the unnameable thing shambles forth to claim its victim. 

Sam reads through a newspaper account of the incident with Professor White. Rose was found with both of her hands clasped tightly to her face, “eyes… staring blankly,” the result of a massive and sudden fright. She could only mutter “Scarlet satchel” over and over before finally passing away. The thing that unnerves Sam the most is that no sign of the satchel could be found in Rose’s room. He resolves to break into Craig’s crypt with the professor to settle the matter once and for all.

Their find doesn’t exactly placate their nerves: the vault door is open and Craig’s body is gone. That’s because it’s currently standing in the darkness of the crypt, greeting the two interlopers. Craig explains in no uncertain terms that “those who are murdered never rest easily within their graves until they have wrought their full and perfect vengeance,” making it clear the fate he has in mind for Sam. He goes on to explain that he used the modeling clay, originally purchased for him as a joke, to mold a pygmy figure which he has brought to life with electricity to use as his agent of punishment. Opening the satchel, Craig looks on approvingly as Sam screams to the heavens and the little Frankenstein wreaks its master’s revenge. 

As opposed to “Spawn of the Subhuman,” this episode delivers some genuine thrills and chills based on a premise that may seem risible at first glance. The idea of a little clay-man (showing echoes of Robert Bloch’s famous “Mannikins of Horror”) killing full-grown humans might have been laughable had Bishop attempted to approach it directly and straight-facedly as he had done with his opera-singing gorilla, but the final horror of “The Man with the Scarlet Satchel” is kept in the shadows for the most part, the little clues found in Craig’s laboratory gradually leading up to the satisfying payoff.

The central image of the scarlet satchel being opened up from within—a sequence that is reminiscent of the moving stones in the floor from “The Headless Dead”—is a wonderfully dreadful moment that Bishop wrings for its maximum, tingling effect. In opposition to the descriptive language that is typically used to “sell” radio drama (think the lurid appearance of the monstrous mermaid in “The Thing from the Sea”), Bishop leaves off any real details about the clay-figure, giving the audience the chance to envision the animated monstrosity with their worst imaginings.

The cast and direction is really rather spritely for this vignette too, with even the usually weary-voiced Casey getting the opportunity to inject some energy into his performance via some choice lines from the script. Take his grim remark about exiting his resting place (“That lid was heavy…”) or his grand, melodramatic stinger in explaining Sam’s horrible fate: “I have created with it your damnation!” Morris too is surprising as Sam, showing an acidity and coolness that we haven’t heard since his philandering playboy villain from “The Man Who Came Back.”

Bishop, as in the previous episode, knows right where to end things. He knows that after the final screams of the guilty wring out as judgment is met, there’s just nothing else that needs to be said. 

17. Superstition Be Hanged

Original Broadcast: March 13, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Barker), Mae Ray (Ruby), Garland Moss (The Fortune-Teller), and Murillo Schofield (Detective Kurt Gilfoil). 

A ringmaster announces the final attraction of the circus showcase to an anxious audience: “Flyer” Samson, the renowned and daring trapeze artist, will be performing his act on the “Gigantic, Colossal, Giant Flying Swing Set,” without the aid of a net to boot. Ruby Brooks and her husband Jeff “Barker” Kilby stand in the sidelines as Samson readies himself for flight. Ruby says that Samson is pressing his luck by not using a safety net… especially since he isn’t wearing his lucky token of the single white feather dotted with blood. 

It seems that Samson’s luck has run out. In the middle of the act, Samson gets wound in the trapeze rope, breaking his neck. Ari Jala, the circus swami, is there to offer his ominous words of warning that those who do not carry the magical feather will meet their death.

Detective Kurt Gilfoil is on the investigation, and he grills Ruby and Barker of their involvement with Samson. Ruby shows her true colors when she drops her classy inflection for a street-smart attitude. Gilfoil thinks it’s strange that Samson should forfeit using a net on the first night of his newly proposed stunt, while Ruby herself, a fellow trapeze artist, would use a net during her own act. 

Gilfoil asks Ruby about the mysterious feather. What he doesn’t know is that Ruby and Barker carry identical tokens with them at all times. Gilfoil thinks the combination of the absent net and the superstition of the feather point to foul play. The detective tells the couple that he’ll be hanging around should anything else happen. Ruby is anxious for her part, telling Barker that she couldn’t find the feather anywhere on Samson’s body or in his dressing room. Samson had always scoffed at the idea as foolishness.

On cue, Ari Jala suddenly appears in the room. The old fortuneteller tells the couple that “the white feather of a baby swan spotted with the blood of a dove” is their only protection from harm. The swami then reveals that it was he who removed Samson’s feather, a retaliation against the trapeze artist’s insults against the mystic powers. Barker is overcome with anger at the old man’s treachery. Ruby tries to stop him, but Barker strangles Ari Jala to death. The police on the grounds are alerted and the couple flees into the night. 

Ruby and Barker take a plane to San Francisco with only three hundred dollars left to their names. The tension is starting to get them, as Ruby grows hopeless while Barker gets more irritated and desperate by the minute. When Gilfoil is spotted waiting for the couple at the airport, Barker holds the pilot at gunpoint and forces him to take to the skies again. Their attempt to hole up in a hotel for six months is similarly foiled and, with the coppers closing in on them, they make their exit by the fire escape. 

Running across the rooftops, Ruby realizes that she left her feather back in the room but Barker just orders her to keep going. Coming to a gap in the roofs, Barker makes it to the other side. Ruby isn’t so lucky. She stumbles during her leap, and she is given an impromptu hanging by a series of suspended wires over the alleyway. 

Later in some unnamed city, Barker enters his hovel and finds that it’s been searched. The law’s breathing down his neck, so he takes to hopping a train to elude his would-be captors. From the darkness of the boxcar, Barker hears the unearthly voice of Ari Jala calling out to him. Barker fires his gun, but bullets are no use on a ghost. The spirit asks Barker to give him the white feather. Barker complies and Ari Jala is appeased. “Now… I have all three of them” he purrs. In his nervousness, Barker goes to jump off the boxcar. But the train has picked up speed and Barker didn’t count on one obstruction getting in his way. “And how pretty you look,” Ari Jala observes, “hanging from that mail hook.” 

“Superstition Be Hanged” is a continuation of Scott Bishop’s run of snappier Grand Guignol stories for Dark Fantasy that he penned after some of the more syrupy supernatural antics of “Debt from the Past” and dusty campfire yarns like “The Sea Phantom.” This episode blends the uncomplicated, driven narrative of “The Man Who Came Back” with the blackly ironic climax of “The Headless Dead” to construct a solid twenty minutes of entertainment. 

Bishop shows a moderate flair for noir with this playlet, detailing the flight of his convicts-on-the-lam with flavorings of tough dialogue concerning “dirty coppers” and the like. The best bit occurs when Ruby tries to convince Barker that he’ll regret murdering Ari Jala, to which he fiercely responds “I’ve never regretted killing a snake in my life!” 

Newcomer to the show Mae Ray performs admirably in her role, showing a nice range of sassiness and fear within the short amount of time before her character’s untimely demise. Everyone else eases into their characterizations with the familiarity they’ve accumulated from their stints on the shows, with Garland Moss essaying his patented “voice from beyond” for the story’s final moments.

Be here in two weeks for Part Five of Jose Cruz' continuing study of Dark Fantasy!

1 comment:

Peter Enfantino said...

"Spawn of the Subhuman" is just about the goofiest radio show I've had the fortune of sitting through. Just when you think it can't get any weirder -- "That's a monkey!"
Absolute gold!