Editors’ Note: J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history. He writes the blog www.honestyisnotcontagious.com, and has the band Beerfinger (available on iTunes) in order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.” If you’d like to submit an article, send us a pitch. Payment is one digital copy of your choice of any issue of Broadswords and Blasters.
I’ve often joked with people that in addition to being well read I’m well heard, by which I mean I’ve listened to a lot of fiction over the years. Growing up little held my fascination more so than the weird world of darker radio dramas. Programs like X-Minus One, The Whistler, and I Love a Mystery held a particular fascination, especially that last one.
I Love a Mystery follows the adventures of three friends — Jack, Doc, and Reggie — who formed the A-1 detective agency. Jack is the quintessential leader, who solves cases, and is capable of spotting a femme fatale from a mile away. Reggie is a classy strongman, gentleman brawler with a British accent, while Doc is typical comic relief, a Texan with folksy expressions as well as a weakness for pretty faces.
Written by Carlton E. Morris, the series ran from 1939-44. Unfortunately, most of the episodes have been lost. Only two series exist entirely intact, “The Things that Cries in the Night” and “Bury Your Dead, Arizona.” That said, these two more than demonstrate the quality of the show as well as the potential of scripted audio drama.
Both titles drip with dread, and implications of horror lurking around the corner. Even better, they deliver. “The Thing that Cries in the Night” finds the trio almost forced into helping a wealthy dysfunctional family. What begins as a straight forward lite noir soon turns into something far more sinister and twisted.
The youngest daughter, Charity Martin, is being plagued by mysterious forces she refers to only as, “They.” They throw her down stairs, the very shadows seem to slash her without warning, and They arealways lurking, watching her every move. What’s worse, whenever something terrible is about to happen a baby lets loose unsettling cries which echo throughout the Martin family mansion, though there is no baby in the house. Death and torment creep through the home. Matters come to a head when Charity is abducted by someone she describes as a hooded man wearing a blood red smock. Rescued at the last second, she’s found in the basement beside a roaring furnace, her vanished abductor apparently intending to burn her alive.
“Bury Your Dead, Arizona” is no less weird. Taking place immediately after “The Thing…” the trio are on the run from gangsters. Fleeing town in a freight train they encounter an odd individual who insists on being called The Maestro. Accompanying him is a beautiful Eastern European woman, Nasha, who has a tendency to threaten to stab people. The Maestro claims to possess mystical powers, and continuously attempts to prove as much to an ever skeptical Jack. Things really take off when they arrive in the titular town. People are found dead, torn to pieces, and The Maestro claims he’s been summoning wolves to attack the townsfolk. At one point, he even seems to turn a wolf into a man, and after her death, he calls forth Nasha’s ghost.
What these stories excel at is creating a palpable atmosphere. A combination of quality acting, tight dialogue, and excellent sound effects help even the dullest imagination bring everything to life. One can easily picture sitting in a dark decaying mansion as a baby cries out unexpectedly. Charity’s terror is infectious, and The Maestro’s confidence in his supposedly mystical abilities makes one worried to look out the window lest you’ll glimpse the leering hideous malformed face of that wolf turned into a man.
Another adventure survived, though isn’t intact. “The Temple of Vampires” finds the trio in the jungles of Central America. There they discover a lost ruin filled with worshipers of vampire bats as large as any human. Less a mystery, more of a straightforward adventure, the quality remains the same. It’s worth mentioning, however, not only because it shows the narrative diversity of the show, easily oscillating between mystery and adventure, but because there are episodes missing.
Due to the program being written prior to the bingeing age we live in, there are regular recaps of previous episodes that allow one to piece together what’s lost. That said, these recaps, found throughout the series, are rarely tedious since they allow perspectives to enter the narrative; the way different characters recap says something about that individual. In other words, Carlton E. Morris utilized the potentially tedious nature of regular recaps as a means to expand characters.
Overall, what survives of the series is a set of tales that are haunting. “The Thing that Cries in the Night” features characters with enough depth to make them feel real which turns the hideous events in the story into something all together tragic. “Bury Your Dead…” is a bit more quirky, yet there’s an unsettling plausibility stoking one’s curiosity as to where things are heading next. Meanwhile, “The Temple of Vampires” is a classic monster adventure, where the humans are worse than the creatures. After all, giant bats are just animals, the strange cult worshiping them, feeding them, are the ones with malicious intentions.
Scripted audio drama is a unique medium with a great deal of potential. That’s why it’s nice to see it making a comeback. Programs such as Welcome to Night Vale are popular enough they’ve started producing other shows, while podcasts like Homecoming have gone on to become television series. Even Marvel comics got in on the act with Wolverine: The Long Night. Though not as sophisticated as these modern examples, I Love a Mystery and others like it paved the way for today’s scripted podcasts. There’s a lot to learn from the show, but perhaps more importantly, it’s still entertaining.