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A near-perfect episode of radio horror and book inclusion

Thursday 1/18/24

It's not quite as prevalent now--but there's still plenty of it going on--but there was a time when any mention of Vincent Price seemingly had to include some mention of what a ham he was. His acting wasn't taken seriously, as though Price did nothing but chomp on scenery and that was the point of Vincent Price, actor.

As a kid who delighted in all things horror, I never understood this, and I put it down then--as I do now--to Price's appearance in the three-part Hawaii episode of The Brady Bunch, which was actually a little scary for a kid, in which Price was supposed to be over-the-top. All the same, he's sweetly over the top in the end, even funny.

This was a highly cultured, well read man. He collected art, was a gourmet chef, he wrote a winsome book about his dog. He played himself--Vincent Price, kind-natured aesthete--on an episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, with Bob Bailey, called "The Price of Fame of Matter."

Price was a valuable character actor in notable films like Laura and Leave Her to Heaven. He could have "just" done that. But then we get the horror work, in which he was always interesting, with some of those films--House on Haunted Hill, The Masque of the Red Death--numbering among the best films of the genre. Price was good in those films.

Then we have Price's radio legacy. He was in many episodes of various programs in the golden age of old time radio, and there's one episode in particular that I've been listening to a lot lately, because I think I'm going to include it in a book of mine I'm working on called Athena's Annex: 100 Overlooked Works of Art to Enrich Your Life, which comes from all different areas: literature, film, art, architecture, dance, music, television. There's even a coin. A baseball card. Each work gets its own entry.

There will be some examples of old time radio, but I don't want to include things I've already written on before. The Price episode I'm thinking of including is "Three Skeleton Key," which comes from the program Escape. Price performed it--I think that's the right word in this case--for Suspense as well, but the Escape version from March 17, 1950, is the go-to.

The radio play is based on a 1937 short story by French author Georges-Gustave Toudouze, though James Poe's radio adaptation makes some significant changes--most notably with the end. And they work.

Price plays Jean, one of three light keepers at a lighthouse off of the coast of French Guiana. Price's voice, in a virtuosic vocal performance--he was a dazzling linguist with sound--takes us into the story. His pitch and volume rise and fall, as if going up and down the steps of the lighthouse itself, which is an additional character. We learn all about the lighthouse and the job quickly, efficiently, poetically, realistically. One of the other guys talks too much and is flaky, while the third is this old salt who mostly doesn't want to be bothered. Jean is in the middle. He's a trustable narrator, and one whose life was changed by an event he's going to tell us about.

One day, the three men see a beautiful--but abandoned--ship coming straight towards them from out on the sea. They're uncertain at first why men would leave such a vessel, but then they find out why while looking through their telescope--the ship is teaming with huge, ravenous rats. It's like a sailing rat plague. The ship crashes into the bit of land on which the lighthouse sits, and the rats try to find a way in to devour the men.

It's just about a perfect episode. One thing I like about it is its unity of time, place, and action. There are all kinds of ways to have this kind of unity. You can have a story that takes place at different points that still has a unity of time, place, and action, if there's some driver that brings everything together and keeps it all in a form of the same place as the narrative advances. "First Responder"--the first story in Cheer Pack--is a classic example of unity of time, place, and action.

Anyway, these guys have a problem, which leads to other problems, and what saves them dooms others.

This is where we can hear how it all could come together with a radio drama. The story, the sounds, what we learn, what we sense, the feelings and sensations we have, how we are there. There's no waste, not a morsel left on the bone, despite the rats not gaining a complete victory against man.

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