Thursday, October 23, 2014

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

by Jose Cruz

18. Pennsylvania Turnpike

Original Broadcast: March 20, 1942
    Cast: Ben Morris (Ken Miner), Fred Wayne (Hank), and Muir Hite (Filling Station Attendant). 
      An old hitchhiker saunters into a filling station, the friendly attendant inquiring as to his destination. Their casual talk eventually brings to light some strange facts and habits of the hiker: he doesn’t know what a sandwich is and he tries to use an authentic 18th century gold coin to pay for it. The old man is undetermined as to where he is going but he has a definite plan in mind. “I always pay off my debts,” he tells the attendant, adding an extra odd note when he explains that he only takes rides from men with red hair.
        The hiker owes a debt to a red-headed man and thus seeks them out as his travelling companions in hopes of settling his score. Just then a motorist enters the station asking the way to Pine Knob, Pennsylvania. The old man offers his help but first asks that the motorist take off his hat. The attendant goads the man to humor the hiker, and not only does the old feller see that the man has red hair but he makes note of the initials in the hat: “K. M.” for Ken Miner.
          Miner irritably asks the hiker again for directions to Pine Knob. The hiker offers to point Miner in the right direction if he’ll drive him there and the two promptly depart. Picking up a bag of tobacco that the old man had used, the attendant marvels at the insignia on it that reads “King’s Choice, 1756.”
            Miner tries to chat pleasantly with the taciturn hiker, who points to a road for Miner to take off the turnpike. Miner is perplexed as he hadn’t seen the road there before. Driving along, he’s astounded that there aren’t tracks from any other passing automobile on the road, just the deep ruts made from wagons and stagecoaches. “Six coal-black horses,” the hiker chirps. “The pride of Pennsylvany!” 
              Ken grows uneasy as the buildings and highway shrink in the distance the further they drive out. “Nothing but open prairie land,” he mutters. “Trees. Hills. Tall grass.” The hiker starts to get a little cryptic when he asks Miner to imagine something incredible happening to him, to think of his immortal spirit swearing vengeance throughout the ages for this incredible incident. “What could you do but roam place from place?” he asks. He goes on to say that time is ever-fluctuating, but Miner won’t hear it. “What’s going to happen certainly isn’t taking place now,” the driver retorts.
                Seems he spoke too soon. Just then they pull to a stop in front of a miraculous scene. Ken witnesses two men, both of them dead-ringers for the hiker and himself, conversing in front of a covered wagon. They’re discussing the fate of a stash of gold they’ve just acquired. The Miner of the past tells his companion Hank that he plans on taking the gold for himself. Hank refuses so Miner shoots him down in cold blood for his troubles. The hiker explains to Ken that the two panhandlers are past versions of themselves. “Nine score years I’ve waited,” Hank’s spirit wails. Taking control of the wheel, Hank sends the car over the edge of a cliff onto the rocks below.
                  Bishop scores more points for delivering an efficient, well-told tale that uses the supernatural to push the narrative smoothly forward. A small but considerable sense of mystery is generated by the real-time opening, stirring up questions in the listener’s mind as to what the ultimate endgame of the enigmatic hitchhiker will turn out to be and what such a strange turning point as red hair has to do with the whole thing. 
                    The tale possesses a Twilight Zone atmosphere, especially with its preoccupations with the shattering of time’s barriers, travelers, and roadside stops, recalling most prominently “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” and “The Hitchhiker.” The latter was actually broadcast on radio for Suspense four months prior to Bishop’s play, relaying Lucille Fletcher’s famous story of a man on a cross country trip trying to elude the damnable presence of a persistent spirit asking the eternal question “Going… my way?” 
                      Fred Wayne manages to turn his character’s surliness into a maintained sense of menace, with Morris and Hite putting in their always-reliable characterizations to balance the oddity of the proceedings. In comparison to the high antics and glorious pulpishness of the last several episodes, “Pennsylvania Turnpike” serves as a nice breather but one that nevertheless holds its own with its straightforward narrative of paranormal vengeance on the highway.

                      19. Convoy for Atlantis 

                      Original Broadcast: March 27, 1942

                      Cast: Ben Morris (Harvey Adams), Murillo Schofield (Winston Everly), and Garland Moss (Siegfried, the Ruler of Atlantis).

                      Harvey Adams and his friend Winston Everly have been stranded on an open boat for nine days without food or water, each passing hour feeling like an eternity. Harvey is a reporter who was hoping to get the scoop on the recent string of mysterious boat disappearances that had occurred in the open sea. Three separate ships had all seemingly vanished into thin air with no sign of the passengers or indication of a distress signal. Harvey solicits the aid of Winston and his yacht to trace the final course of the vessels and perhaps discover some answers.

                      What Harvey only knows in hindsight is that by doing this they had “offered [them]selves as bait for some unseen devil.” Harvey and Winston bicker fiercely during the voyage, the reporter convinced that the ships disappeared within the exact same vicinity of each other and that they themselves are nearing this perimeter now. Winston finds it impossible that all three ships should be wiped out in the same spot. To add further bewilderment to the affair, news reaches them that every single passenger from the vanishing vessels have returned safely to the mainland aboard lifeboats, though none of them can recall what had happened to them.

                      Just then a weird figure enters the room. The man identifies himself as Siegfried, the one responsible for all of the disappearances. He tells the two men that he needed the boats for his own purposes, all of which he will gladly show them. “It will entail a trip to the bottom of the sea,” he adds and mentions that all of the passengers from the other vessels were given the same tour. And like them, Harvey and Winston will remember none of the awesome sights that they will witness.

                      To prepare them for the journey, Siegfried commands them to imbibe a potion. Winston tries to back out of the deed, but the centuries-old denizen of the sea hypnotically controls the rebel to carry through with the plan. Harvey and Winston wake up later in the undersea chamber. Siegfried says that they are now 50,000 leagues below land and that the formula they drunk induced their spirits to leave their physical bodies behind, thus explaining the men’s ability to still be able to breathe underwater. That’s when Siegfried drops the big news on them: this is no second-rate oceanic kingdom, but the lost continent of Atlantis itself!

                      Having been sent to a watery grave 11,000 years ago by volcanic disturbances, Atlantis was still able to survive through the tenacity and perseverance of its people. Siegfried has been commandeering the ships in order to salvage their metal. As they’re pulled along by a sliding panel, Harvey and Winston sees that the Atlantians are using the steel to fortify their continent against the crushing waves that imprison them. At the end of the tour, the men are shown a chamber packed with gold, silver, and other innumerable treasures. Siegfried has been giving all of the human visitors a small but generous portion of the treasure, enough to cover any losses they might have suffered from the boat-snatching and then some.

                      Winston, his mind overflowing with riches, sneaks back to the treasure room to snatch his own reward. Harvey comes in looking for him and confronts him over his greediness. Just then Siegfried enters and sees the treacherous scene unfolding. “You could not conquer the worldly desire to steal our treasures,” he criticizes. Enraged by this betrayal, Siegfried tells both men that he shall be sending them back in time to face their due torture.

                      This brings us back to the opening episode with Harvey and Winston delirious from starvation and exposure. A cache of the treasure from Atlantis lays at their feet, utterly useless now. Driven past his breaking point, Winston screams that all of the treasure belongs to him before he takes it and himself overboard and into the ocean.

                      Although the prospect of another “kingdom under the sea” story set this listener a little ill at ease, Bishop shows that he has grown since the time of his scattershot sophomore episode, “The Thing from the Sea.” The writer demonstrates this mainly by keeping any convoluted background concerning Atlantis under the rug, concerning himself more with the motivations and interactions of his characters. A wise move no doubt.

                      However, the script does still suffer from some of the logical inconsistencies that have plagued the show in the past. The most egregious of the lot is Siegfried’s “plan” that consists of giving his unintended victims a tour of home base. Firstly, why should he feel obligated to do this? No indication is given that Atlantis is going to be making a comeback or anything, so why couldn’t the continent just go on being perceived as a myth? Wouldn’t that make life easier for the Atlantians? This brings us to the second point: if Siegfried is doing this just to be a stand-up guy and show that there are no hard feelings by the work he does, then why in Neptune’s name would he erase the memories of all who found this out? Is he afraid that the world at large will rediscover Atlantis? If so, then why give people a Fast Pass to his homeland and show them what they’re all up to? And then on top of that he just throws money at them and tells them to buy themselves a new boat. Okay then.

                      It doesn’t help that “Convoy for Atlantis” suffers from some of the worst audio that has been heard thus far. Like “Curse of the Neanderthal,” there are some aural beats and clipping that make it difficult to discern the action, but this episode suffers from a persistent skipping that occurs during the opening and closing wraparound, making just about everything that happens complete guesswork. Does Winston (a great slimy portrayal by Schofield, by the way) jump into the ocean with the treasure? Is there a ship seen heading towards the men’s boat? Do both of them get eaten by a kraken? It’s anybody’s say.

                      20. The Thing from the Darkness

                      Original Broadcast: April 3, 1942

                      Cast: Ben Morris (Donald Thurman), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Princess Ilana), Fred Wayne (King Tinasi), and Muir Hite (Eivan).

                      Donald Thurman is awoken from a fitful sleep by his ringing telephone. The caller inquires if the pilot will be able to make a trip to Mantilla. Don is uneasy about traveling through the desert and insists that he be paid six hundred for the flight. During the voyage, a terrible sandstorm blots out all sight from the aircraft, Don commenting that the whirlwind is “thick as pea soup.” Hoping for a soft landing, Don noses the plane toward the ground.

                      The pounding of war drums is what arouses Don next from his slumber. A hulking native tells Don that he will be brought to King Tinasi, but he may be sacrificed to the leopard pit if it is seen fit. The native, Eivan, explains that when the moon is full the leopards become maddened and rabid until they are placated with human flesh. Don has been temporarily blinded by the sandstorm. “You have come where white man is forbidden,” Eivan tells the felled pilot.

                      Don also finds out that the tribe’s Princes Ilana is due to be married and that it was she who brought Don back to health. Eivan and the King believe that the man’s blindness was induced by gazing at the beauty of the princess. Guiding Don to the main camp, Eivan becomes highly excited when he sees leopard tracks in the dirt, convinced that evil spirits are loose.

                      At Tinasi’s court, the King accuses Don of rendezvousing with Ilana, despite the pilot’s denials. Don later finds himself left in the middle of the jungle as opposed to the prison hut that Eivan was supposed to lock him into. Seeing a “great star” coming over a ridge he realizes that it is the full moon and his sight has been restored. Don is met by Ilana, who tells him that Eivan did disobey orders and left him to die. Ilana is due to marry the brute but she can’t stand him. The nuptials are put on hold when they hear a leopard groaning in the bush and find Eivan wounded from a feline attack.

                      King Tinasi forbids the two from helping the warrior, though he is quick to blame Don for the attack due to the blood on his hands, stains he only got from trying to carry Eivan off to safety. Tinasi passes judgment that both he and his own daughter shall face death in the leopard pit. The couple are brought to the hole and forced down the stone steps to face furry death.

                      Ilana is hopeless, telling Don that once the full moon shines over the pit the “tenemahasi” will be driven to slaughter them. In the adjoining, gated room inside the pit they can see Tinasi cooing to the animals. Legend has it that if the prisoners are in fact not guilty the cats will not harm them. With just a few iron bars separating them from fangs and claws, Don and Ilana are prepared to meet their doom when suddenly a bank of fog passes over the sky, covering the moon’s rays. Disappointed by the change in weather, the leopards decide to make a meal out of the screaming King instead.

                      “The Thing from the Darkness” comes close to reaching the overzealousness of “The Thing from the Sea” as it details the intricacies of the foreign tribe’s superstitious beliefs involving possibly shape-changing wereleopards, but it’s mainly kept at a lively pace thanks to its E. C. Comics flavor that’s made when the romanticized jungle adventure meets a particularly nasty conclusion. The leopard feast foregoes any squelchy sound effects for the nerve-rattling screams of poor Fred Wayne.

                      The episode is also a touch confusing at times. At one point we hear a man that we eventually come to find out is King Tinasi speaking to his pet leopards: “Tonight is the night we hunt!” We imagine this is somehow tied to the sighting Eivan has of the leopard tracks that transform into human footprints, but the connection is unfortunately tenuous and not clearly defined.

                      Bishop also sticks in a rather unnecessary plot point delivered close to the conclusion where Ilana tells Don that she is actually white but is not Tinasi’s real daughter. Neat, I guess? Do you have any information about how to keep from getting eaten by wild jungle cats, Princess?

                      21. The Edge of the Shadow

                      Original Broadcast: April 10, 1942

                      Cast: Ben Morris (Steven Fuller), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Martha Fuller), Muir Hite (Hank Marsh), and Georgianna Cook (Stewardess).

                      Steven Fuller is perturbed by the discovery he has made in the stables of his farm: one of his prize cows has been wounded by barbed wire. This is especially strange since Steven has no barbed wire fences anywhere on his property. He asks his farmhand Hank Marsh if he let the animal out, but Marsh says that he kept all the cows within the pasture. Stranger still is the bottle of disinfectant and the clean rags Steven finds in the stables, items he knows were stored elsewhere. Surmising that someone must have intentionally injured the cow and attempted to treat it before being interrupted, Steven has his suspicions confirmed when he finds the bloody link of barbed wire hidden in a stack of hay… and Hank holding a gun on him.

                      The laborer admits to the crime, his motive to get Steven out of the way so that he can be with his wife Martha who detests her husband and wishes for a divorce. Steven is confused as he knows nothing of this, but Hank is convinced Fuller has been savvy to the affair the whole time. Hank’s devious plan entails him shooting Steven through the heart and, once startled by the sound of the shot, the loose cow will rear up and trample the corpse past recognition, making the true cause of death undeterminable!

                      Thinking fast, Steven splashes the disinfectant into Hank’s eyes and wrestles the gun away from him. Steven’s a pretty forgiving sort, chastising Hank like a child as he guides him to the well to wash the burning fluid off of his face. As the sputtering Hank washes himself, Steven points out the airplane to New York that regularly flies over the farm at evening. But Steven realizes too late that the low aircraft is ablaze and on a crash course with the farm!

                      We find out Steve has been dreaming this whole episode. He is quite shaken by the night terror and convinces himself that it must have been real. When he runs to Hank’s bedroom and sees that he’s gone, he only becomes more ill at ease. He explains the crazy dream to Martha and she convinces him to go out to the barn to ascertain if there was any truth to it.

                      By the light of a lantern, Steven finds the very same cow with an identical injury, the barbed wire and the gun hidden in the hay just as they had been in the dream. Thinking Martha had somehow missed the plane crash, Steven rushes out but sees that there are no signs of fire or rubble anywhere. The airport later confirms that the New York plane had a safe flight, but even this and Martha’s insistence that all the other occurrences were mere coincidences does not sit well with Steven.

                      When Hank enters reporting on the cow’s injury, Steven’s fears are fully kindled. He becomes a hysterical mess, accusing both Hank and Martha of conspiring against him. They claim innocence and try to speak to Steven’s reason, but he isn’t having any of it. “You can burn together!” he roars before using the same gun to shoot both of them where they stand.

                      Later, Steven is on board the plane bound for New York. “They won’t find me there,” he tells himself. His nerves are calmed once the plane takes off, though he is a little jumpy when the flight attendant greets him. He tells her of his strange dream, including the bit about the plane exploding in the air! He glances out the window and sees the familiar farm below. “Look how close it seems…” he muses, just before seeing the wing of the plane on fire and feeling the vessel hurtling toward the earth.

                      The strength of its ominous opening scene is just about enough to carry “The Edge of the Shadow” over the finish line. It’s one that puzzles the listener, leaving them wondering as to just where the story is going to go next. Is this going to be a crime thriller? A ghost story about the executed hubby coming back from the grave? When the first scene ends with the airplane crash, we don’t even know if the only two characters in the play have just been wiped out altogether!

                      Once it is revealed that we’re dealing with a tale in the “nightmares come true” strain of horror, things seem to settle into a more identifiable pattern, but even then Scott Bishop manages to keep the proceedings fresh and engaging. Not even the actors tip their hands here. Maybe I’m getting rusty, but I honestly couldn’t foresee hardly any of the events in the show until they were actually happening, barring when it is revealed that our hapless “hero” Steven has boarded a quick plane to immolation. (Strange, by the way, how the flight attendant and the rest of the passengers are all incredibly silent during the accident. Another dream perhaps?)

                      A nebulous little curiosity, “The Edge of the Shadow” delivers some of the series’ best surprises.

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                      Don't miss the sixth chapter of Jose Cruz' look at Dark Fantasy in two weeks!

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