Thursday, November 20, 2014

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

by Jose Cruz

28. Rendezvous with Satan

Original Broadcast: May 29, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Carl Fisher), Bloyce Wright (David West), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Laura Fisher), Fred Wayne (Satan), Muir Hite (Reverend Brooks), and Georgianna Cook (Secretary). 

Reverend Brooks is delivering a solemn eulogy at the funeral of Carl Fisher. He comforts the guests by saying that although Carl led an illicit life, he will still find peace “in the coldness of death.” Somebody should have told Carl that because soon a woman is screaming after seeing the cadaver’s hand stirring in the coffin!

Meanwhile on the River Styx, Carl’s spirit is sailing down into the depths of Hell upon a silk-lined boat steered by none other than Old Scratch himself. “They have your body in a church, Carl,” Satan muses. “Imagine. You in a church.” Carl finally starts to grasp the reality of the situation. “You devil!” he hisses at Lucifer’s cutting jibes. “That’s irony!” Satan retorts, cruelly adding that Carl’s daughter—whom he had refused to bury in a churchyard—now resides in heaven while his soul occupies a less honorable space. Carl insists that he was forced into the sinful path that led him to fire and brimstone and makes a bargain with the devil that he can turn his whole life around if given the chance. Satan agrees, but only on the stipulation that Carl will be able to fully redeem himself in 24 hours. 

Oh, how that Devil loves his clauses!

On Earth, Carl’s wife Laura is talking with one of their mutual friends, David West, after the service. Coming upon Carl’s crypt, the pair are stunned to find the doors unlocked and his casket empty. “Carl said he would always come back,” David recalls, even if it meant beating the Devil himself. Back at home, Laura hears the sounds of an electric razor and finds her resurrected hubby sprucing himself up. (Step one to redeeming your soul: Always have a clean shave.) Carl initially has no memory of his death at all, but bit by bit he remembers being shot in cold blood at his office and the episode in Hades. 

Just then David enters the apartment while Carl holes himself away. David is delirious with passion, ranting about his immense love for Laura and how they should be together now that that “criminal” Carl is out of the picture. David knows that Laura has feelings for him too because of an incident that occurred during a party at David’s place when all the female guests gave him a little peck but Laura, being the naughty pussycat, waited until her husband had left the room before she embraced her host. 

Hearing noises from the next room, David begins to think that some other Lothario has stolen his beloved’s heart. Satan begins to speak to Carl from the netherworld, prodding him into believing that Laura has been having an affair behind his back. After David leaves and Laura explains the situation, Carl earnestly tells her “It’s alright, dearest. I believe you.” The organ chirps accordingly, signaling that Carl has retrieved his soul from the sordid depths he previously dwelled in.

The next day Carl enters his office, giving his secretary a good scare that sends her shrieking out of the building. David is there to anticipate his arrival, hardly shaken by his formerly deceased friend’s appearance. David tells Carl that he will happily look the other way and even leave Laura with him if he’ll adjust his will so that David will acquire half of his business. 

It’s then that Carl realizes that it was David who murdered him, but Carl refrains from doing anything that would land him back in the hot seat. David pulls a gun on Carl and shots ring out. Laura arrives just at that moment with her own gun and manages to shoot David, but not before several fatal blows take Carl down. As his final living act, Carl asks Laura to give him the gun so that all blame for the murder will be placed on him. After Carl passes away, Satan solemnly concedes that the man has won his bet. 

This episode sees Bishop returning to the melodramatic—but economical—storytelling that made the series’ first episode, “The Man Who Came Back,” such a joy to listen to. The role of odious villain that had originally been essayed by regular lead Ben Morris is here played by newcomer Bloyce Wright, and he shows that he was more than game for the challenge. Morris plays the wronged hero in a nice twist, and the final scene between the two actors sparks as the merciless West faces the born-again Fisher in a stand-off that is fascinating for going against the grain of other genre tales: Carl doesn’t try (or even wants) to hurt David for what he’s done, simply acknowledging his belief that the ne’er-do-well will meet his karmic executioner soon enough.

There’s another moment earlier in the episode that also carries an air of sophistication in the depiction of its characters. During the scene of Carl’s gradual recollection of his death and spiritual adventure, we are hearing him attempting to grapple with an incredible situation, one that implies that he is just a small, insignificant soul in the face of powers that control his very existence. It’s a fleeting impression, but once made it resounds throughout the rest of the drama.

That said, Bishop isn’t immune from throwing in some hand-wringing dialogue that reeks of barnstormers. Depending on your tastes, this may be a good thing, but not even Wright with his capable skills can make the line “You belong to me now. Yes. Yes, I say, you're mine!” seem like anything but the type of writing solely meant to elicit hisses and jeers from the peanut gallery. Bishop and the cast keep the histrionics down to a minimum though, and the conclusion that sees the irascible Devil bowing his head (cause he knew that he’d been beat) and Carl presumably going to heaven is a heartening change of pace. 

29. I Am Your Brother 

Original Broadcast: June 5, 1942

Cast: Ben Morris (Dr. Julius Zamek), Bloyce Wright (Stephan Hamlin), and Muir Hite (Carl Miller). 

Dr. Julius Zamek is giving an important lecture on blood loss before he is forced to reprimand a student for balancing his bank account during class. Relieving his woes with colleague Carl Miller, Julius is reminded of Stephan Hamlin, a brilliant student of his that was on the rise before his untimely death. Carl notes that Julius did not seem surprised or saddened by the news of Stephan’s passing; if anything he appeared to be relieved. 

And that’s not all. Julius shows his friend that he now has Stephan’s brain preserved in a jar. He says that it was the “best developed human brain I’ve ever seen,” so the fact that he has it stowed away in his office is less creepy because it’s for SCIENCE. Carl is astounded to see that the gray matter moves as if alive. As if it wasn’t already apparent, Julius goes on to explain that Stephan Hamlin was something more than human.

Julius originally met Stephan when he was a child in Kansas. Stephan was eight years old but for some bizarre reason would only crawl about the floors like an infant despite the fact that he was perfectly capable of walking. Some said that the boy suffered from a mental handicap but Julius never believed this for a second. While hanging out with the kid, Julius is jostled when he sees Stephan standing before him and addressing him with the voice of an adult. “You don’t like me,” the boy states. Stephan claims that he has had these abilities since birth but never exercised them before because he didn’t find any interest in the effort. 

As a further demonstration of his powers, Stephan conjures a horrible vision of a derailed train, forcing Julius to shield his eyes in order to blot out the “unspeakable horror.” He blacks out and upon awaking discovers that there was an actual train that fell into a gorge in Paris. The insinuation that Stephan had a hand in this is rather ambiguous… or maybe that was just me falling asleep.

Julius comes into contact with the weird wunderkind again when Stephan is a student at the college where Julius is teaching. Stephan has become cold and distant from the rest of the pupils, the source of many a-rumor from the judgmental majority. Stephan invites Julius to his dormitory and the professor marvels over a wonderful essay on human diseases the lad has composed. Stephan accomplished it all through his own intrinsic knowledge. 

Stephan finally reveals his true nature: he is an alien being and he has been searching for his spiritual brother for his entire life. He has complete knowledge of the universe and even provides details to Julius concerning the apocalypse that he has planned (?) for mankind, yet he knows nothing of his own demise. Julius has him covered on that point. Just as he’s revealing his plan of doom and destruction, Stephan is cut down by a bullet from the heroic professor. With his dying breath Stephan refers to Julius as his brother.

I’ll be honest: I actually started dozing during this episode. This certainly didn’t help me sort out the notes that I had written or to remember some of the story’s finer points. The performances are uniformly solid. Morris and Hite are always reliable (the latter doesn’t get much to do besides the establishing scene) and Wright demonstrates his able talent at characterization in his second episode for the program as the enigmatic Stephan. The fact that their competent acting is derived from one of Bishop’s lesser scripts actually doesn’t hurt the overall production. 

The giddiness or suspense that fueled other dramas like “Funeral Arrangements Completed”—an energy that would otherwise mask any narrative shortcomings—is short on hand here, but the prevailing somber mood is consistent throughout, and despite the fact that Stephan’s alien qualities are a little vague Wright manages to build him up into a mysterious and even threatening character by virtue of his forceful, measured vocalizations. 

Though at times it feels more like a sketch than a story, “I Am Your Brother” coasts along thanks to its moderately strong thespian talent. 

30. The Sleeping Death

Original Broadcast: June 12, 1942

**No Cast Listed**

Paul Wentworth is laid up with a sore leg in the office of Dr. Clarence Mason. Although the physician attempts to calm his patient’s nerves, he is more than direct in explaining to the man that his limb will very likely have to be amputated in order to prevent the poison in the leg from reaching his brain. Something seems to be amiss when Mason begins asking Paul if he has any relatives that he should notify; Paul has none. 

To add to that, Paul can’t even seem to recall how he ended up in Mason’s care. The doctor is quick to tell him that he fainted in the street and was rushed to his hospital. It’s not just any healthcare facility though: Paul is in the private-island Fairchild Sanitarium, a place that has been closed for years. “Has it?” Mason teases. Paul used to work as an orderly at the sanitarium… and so did Mason. The doctor asks Paul to study his face carefully. With no small amount of shock Paul recognizes Mason is really Abraham Holtz, the physician he testified against in court. 

Mason/Holtz shows that he’s a little unhinged himself. Thinking that Paul was trying to win the heart of lead doctor Von Sickle, Holtz did the natural thing by killing the old man though the cause of death remained undetermined by the authorities. “They’re so easily baffled,” sneers the mad medico. Paul can’t understand how Holtz escaped his life imprisonment at the state penitentiary, and Holtz doesn’t let on to how he managed it. Paul makes a break for the exit but finds he can’t move. The “sedative” that Holtz has administered is working nicely.

In a short flashback to the trial we hear Paul claim Holtz had “[become] more like a devil;” reports of the doctor’s mistreatment of his staff served as the instigating event of the judicial proceedings. Holtz asserts that the hospital workers were treated like beasts because they were beasts, and just as he corners Paul with another hypo at the ready he mutters evilly “What will happen next will probably amaze you,” adding with quiet wickedness “At first I was only going to take one of your legs…” 

Later, Miss Linda Young arrives at the hospital to interview for an open position. A nurse approaches her and tries to desperately warn her away from the wretched place. The arrival of “Dr. Mason” cuts her off. The doctor tries to explain the nurse’s hysteria away by telling Linda that the lady’s brother was a surgeon at the hospital who was dismissed that afternoon for carrying through with an operation that Mason had forbidden. But the villain has a tougher time accounting for why the rattled nurse referred to him as “Dr. Holtz.”

By this time Linda has seen through the charade. A former employee at Fairchild herself, Linda calls out Holtz for the dirty devil that he is. Realizing the game is up, Holtz breaks out of character and addresses Linda as his true self. He hints that Paul has already been admitted to his little hospital, and promises that Linda will be having a reunion with her old colleague “much sooner than you expect.”

Wow, talk about potential! It’s a bloody shame that “The Sleeping Death” should only exist in this abbreviated version, as the extant scenes detailed above are just as thrilling and sharp (if not moreso) than any of the other scripts Scott Bishop had written for the show. The concept of the avenging doctor may not exactly be fresh product, but the program is attacked with such energy by the actors that one can’t help but squirm in delight at every turn of the screw. 

Mason/Holtz is probably Ben Morris’ best characterization in the whole run. We’ve seen him play some dastardly dogs before like Ken in “The Man Who Came Back” and Barker in “Superstition Be Hanged,” but whereas those were treated as our slightly-sympathetic protagonists, Holtz is all evil all the time. He doesn’t reach the outlandish heights of Garland Moss’ Dr. Luther from “Spawn of the Subhuman,” but his slinky, sardonic approach is just as tickling as that nutjob’s ravings. I especially loved his response to Linda when she tells him he had a fair trial: “Are you so very certain I did?” The way Morris says this drips with acid.

Perhaps it is only appropriate that Dark Fantasy’s run should “end” in this manner. Without an exciting climax provided for us, we listeners are encouraged to use our fertile imaginations to dream up the horrible fate that likely befell our wicked doctor. Was there a high-speed chase that ensued between captor and heroine that ended in Holtz’s death by cliffside plunge? Did he try to toss Linda into a pit of his cruel “operations” only to find himself at the mercy of his mutilated victims? Would we discover that all of the events were the products of Holtz’s diseased mind as he rotted away at the penitentiary, the guards lamenting over how the poor doc believed he had escaped all along?

The choice, dear listener, is up to you!

31. **Title Unknown** LOST

Original Broadcast: June 19, 1942


Best Performances

1. Dr. Luther, “Spawn of the Subhuman” (Garland Moss)
2. Clarence Mason/Abraham Holtz, “The Sleeping Death” (Ben Morris)
3. Carl Fisher, “Rendezvous with Satan” (Ben Morris)
4. Barker, “Superstition Be Hanged” (Ben Morris)
5. Mary Billings, “Debt from the Past” (Jane Wyatt)
6. Philip Blake, “The Man Who Came Back” (Eugene Francis)
7. Winston Everly, “Convoy for Atlantis” (Murillo Schofield)

Best Scripts
1. “The Demon Tree”
2. “W is for Werewolf”
3. “Rendezvous with Satan”
4. “The Edge of the Shadow”
5. “Pennsylvania Turnpike”
6. “The Man Who Came Back”
7. “Superstition Be Hanged”

Best Musical Accompaniment

“The Demon Tree”

Best Featured Creature

Stephan, the Gorilla of the Opera!

Top Overall Episodes

1. “The Demon Tree”
2. “Spawn of the Subhuman”
3. “W is for Werewolf”
4. “The Man Who Came Back”
5. “Funeral Arrangements Completed”
6. “The Man with the Scarlet Satchel”
7. “The Headless Dead”

*Special mention to “The Sleeping Death” for what it could have been!


Well, that was surprising.

It’s been years since I’ve listened to any of the Dark Fantasy shows, so revisiting them proved an enlightening experience, both in regards to what I remember of the program and what I have learned in the intervening time of auditory narratives. This has revealed some of the episodes (more than I initially thought there would be when I mounted this series, admittedly) were not quite as fresh and exciting as I recalled them; entries such as “Dead Hands Reaching” and “The Thing from the Darkness” lacked the punch that had been impressed on my mind when I stayed up late with nothing but my headphones and the shadows to keep me company. Still others, like “The Letter from Yesterday,” turned out to be even more boring the second time around!

But we’ve heard all that already. What is it that we can take away from Dark Fantasy?

For a grassroots effort that managed to wrangle national syndication just like the New York studio heavyweights like Lights Out! and Suspense, Scott Bishop’s program was certainly commendable for the hard work that was put in by its familial staff of actors and technicians. Though it never boasted a vast array of aural effects and Foley shocks or sometimes even the most polished of scripts, Dark Fantasy brewed some wonderful moments from its Midwestern witch’s cauldron that should earn it a place in the hallowed hall of horror radio shows.

Its staff of thespians was almost always in fine form, from such steadfast and endearing leads like Ben Morris and Eleanor Naylor Caughron to the delightfully colorful portrayals of character actors Muir Hite and Garland Moss. The stories would hearken back to time-honored tropes like zombies and reincarnation one week and in the next attempt to break the barriers of narrative and genre with fusions of acid-visioned science fiction (“The Cup of Gold”) and metafictional excursions into religion (“The House of Bread”). Dark Fantasy was nothing if not ambitious in its own way, and even when its limited resources became apparent the show’s heart was always in the right place.

It’s this aspect of the series that seemed to resonate the most with me in returning to its crackling terrors. It draws you into its grasp with the howling of a creepy organ and the promise of spooky stories, but in tuning in you can picture all the participants working together in a “Let’s put on a show” kind of camaraderie that provides you with a glimpse at the smiling wizards working behind the curtain. 

If you’ve had the opportunity to listen to Dark Fantasy, let us know what you thought. Have any memorable episodes? Have a say on any other radio shows of yesteryear that you shuddered along with? Tell us all about it in the comments! We thank you for joining us for the ride and hope that you enjoyed your stay.

Just don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave. The voices only come out in the dark. 


Jack Seabrook said...

You did a great job on this series! I had never heard of this radio show before. I listened to "The Demon Tree" online and enjoyed it. Thanks for digging up this classic!

Jose Cruz said...

Thanks for reading along, Jack! You should check out some of the other highlights when you get the chance.

Peter Enfantino said...

What a fabulous series of articles. I never wanted it to end. It was a pleasure and an honor to play host to your musings, Jose. Welcome aboard for a long ride. Next stop: The Chamber of Chills!