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Excerpt from essay on scariest radio episode

Tuesday 11/1/22

Just get up and get right back to it. Constant creation.


***

Even by the standards of the golden age of radio, the run for the program Suspense was extreme in length. It positioned itself—and certainly marketed itself—as the gold standard in what were called thrillers at the time, and was arguably the most prestigious radio show—an audible legacy brand—between the years 1942 and 1962.


During that concluding year, as the 1960s inched closer to being the decade we’d come to know it as, with JFK implementing policy and the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan flexing musical muscle, both Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar—another program of longstanding appeal—took their leave of the airwaves, and an era in American broadcasting closed. No longer would Americans twiddle a nob to find a station in order to be told a story that would whisk them away into the lives of others, with only ears and imagination for equipage.


We definitely lost something. An ability to close our eyes and go. To listen to the best radio programs of that mid-century period was to be complicit in narrative, the same as when we read a book. The mind forms images, sets the scene, and upon that mental canvas, we watch story unfold as we all but join with it.


I think we’re smarter when we undertake the pleasurable mental exercises. A peace descends upon you, which I still hear people speak of when they learn that I often write and talk about what is quaintly termed old time radio, but don’t be fooled, because certain old time radio episodes can buttonhole you as if intent on shaking the soul from your being.

These ardent listeners—all of whom are too young to have grown up listening to radio dramas as regular entertainment—will describe how they put on a favorite show in bed at night as they shuffle off to Dreamland. They end up spending dozens of hours each month with their favorites. Not that the preferred show is heavy on longueurs; rather, it’s that peace of which I spoke. Of story-based contentment.


But old time radio can count itself amidst the most radical art forms in our country’s history—at times, anyway. Let’s just say dramatic radio had its moments where, if you were building a time capsule should the aliens ever come down to determine what we were about if we happen to be gone, you’d want a couple of offerings from the medium alongside Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The General, Citizen Kane, and Blonde on Blonde.


The term thriller could often be reliably exchanged with the label of horror, unless there were police involved, and the same went for movies. The cop procedural wasn’t called noir at the time, nor the heist flic, or the tale of ex-cons getting together for one last stab at the dough. Suspense didn’t deal in noir. When it gave you a thriller—which was almost all of the time, over the course of nearly 1000 episodes—it wanted to scare you.


The show was based in Hollywood, as many of the golden era old time radio programs were, but this was especially important for Suspense, which went out over the airwaves once a week, with a different Hollywood star as the lead in the episode. The star usually came from film, but performers from all walks of entertainment were welcome, with a cool catch: if possible, they’d be cast against type.


Judy Garland—who was known as a singer rather than a dramatic thespian as she rose to prominence and then as America’s premiere starlet—was inserted into a story about a sociopath at a drive-in eatery who had just killed and was now going to rub out sweet Judy, who has to end that fella, and does so skillfully with a salt shaker. Jimmy Stewart became a murderer. Bela Lugosi—well, Lugosi is going to Lugosi, and not transition to peaceable gardener who heals a horse with a broken leg for the blind girl next door who loves the animal, but you get the idea. One’s expectations were usurped and dashed to the ground like the shattering of a glass goblet. No standing on ceremony here.


The problem with Suspense—and it was a biggie—was that the programs usually built and built and built, larding up splashy narrative excess, just so there could be some crazy twist at the end. This was the Suspense brand and the Suspense recipe. Listeners were told about the approach in the show’s marketing materials, and in the intro to each episode, in which an announcer outright guaranteed that you were about to be kept…in Suspense! Until the relief/release provided by the twist, that is. You were meant to know that you weren’t meant to know what was coming.


Thus, many Suspense episodes are risible now. I think they would have been back then, if you knew the drill, and believe me, it didn’t require years for you to be up to speed. They were well-made shows, though, and in an era and medium where the sound effect was raised to the level of art, Suspense was a mid-level All-Star on the rung belong the 1956 five-part Johnny Dollar episodes with Bob Bailey as the title character, and Gunsmoke (1952-61), the sterling radio iteration that was some distance better than the sterling TV show that grew out of it.


You can still listen to Suspense episodes—almost all of which survive, in fine sound—and view your time as well spent. They’re fun. And while the pattern of the “give me a break!”-style of ending held firm, there were instances where the twist was neither here nor there. Either one wasn’t utilized, or the twist wasn’t a twist at all, but a natural progression of a well-made narrative that held surprises and delivered kicks that no mere twist ever could.


When this occurred, rare as it was, Suspense approached perfection. And it could also produce a program like the one I’ve probably heard 100 times, which isn’t just stellar entertainment and stellar art worthy of the aforesaid capsule for the aliens, but also what may be the most frightening half hour ever to be heard in this Republic where fear has always been its own kind of backbone, dating back to the time of Hawthorne and ghosts that embodied—ironically—the best of story, and stories that bundled the human mysteries our best ghosts recognize as the meat of our existence.


So let us turn back to Christmastime 1946—specifically, December 5 of that year of post-war joy and thankfulness—and consider “The House in Cypress Canyon,” an episode of Suspense that is going to keep you a long, long time after you hear it. Keep you for good, in its way, as you nonetheless receive the better end of that deal.