This is the second installment in my essay series of lesser-known examples of horror fiction as it appeared in the audio format (the first, on Dreadful John at Midnight, is available here). As co-editor of Pseudopod.org, I am intimately involved with the presentation of horror & weird/supernatural fiction in this form and, when I took over the editor slot in 2011, I tasked myself with reflecting on how audio had already served the genre.
As noted in the previous entry, I’m more interested in looking at the presentation of readings of horror fiction than the classic “audio drama” format (although I may eventually get around to those) – a form that has been around for longer (dramatic recitation being an art form that predates TV or radio), but never had the popularity of the “radio play” (except in the United Kingdom). Still, there are a few examples of it to peruse, overlooked though they may be. In this week’s case, the example is even odder, as it concerns a forgotten television show that aired weekly for nearly a year on Channel 5 WNBQ (NBC) at 11:30 PM on Saturdays in Chicago. This was the now-forgotten Faces in the Window, which featured half-hour recitations of classic & modern short fiction by supreme voice artist Ken Nordine.
Ken Nordine (1920-2019) is perhaps most famous to people of a certain age as THE prevalent commercial voice-over artist (for, example, his famous Levis’ ads with a distinct, naturally deep voice that was perfectly suited to catching your attention. Others may know him from his “Word Jazz” albums and NPR radio show of the 1970s, where he read self-composed short pieces or just improvised over varied musical backings. But, five years before the first album, he was reading short fiction of a decidedly dark nature on television broadcasts (possibly, in the half-hour preceding station sign off). Seemingly, this was an offshoot of his presence in many Chicago area “beat” bars, where he recited poems by artists like T.S. Eliot. The idea of a television show of someone reading out loud may seem strange to us now, but television was kind of a free-for-all format back then.
As usual, even the audio evidence we have of the show is not complete – a handy log online lists the contents of shows ranging from late November, 1952 to September, 1953 — and some of those missing episodes sound particularly tantalizing (works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Robert Williams Buchanan, H.P. Lovecraft, E. F. Benson & Honoré de Balzac, to name a few) but what we do have (unless further tapes or video turn up) are just nine episodes to serve as a record (there are possibly another twelve recordings floating around, but I’m still following up on that).
The show may have been live – TV of that time (1952-1953) often was — but as no image recordings are extant, we only have audio recordings and vague interview mentions to imagine the visual component of the show. Most likely it was a single camera affair, focused on Nordine as he read, although he does state that he remembers that they would “drop the beam” and the image would implode on itself, so that the visual accompaniment to the reading was a shifting pattern of shadows and abstract shapes.
That said, the audio framing component itself is compelling and near-hypnotic, as a voice commands us “And now wait… wait for a voice…” followed by “This is Ken Nordine. I come to you from out of darkness into a single point of light.” Then, an announcer sets the mood over the eerie, melancholic solo violin theme music: “From out of the darkness that walks to this turn of midnight, and enters the long, lonely road to dawn. From this deep darkness, the mind accepts a single point of… concentration. The senses are sharpened to it, all else are blacked out. And from any floating form and shifting shape, the midnight mind will see faces in the window.” It’s an evocative, somber, and chillingly mesmeric way to open a television show, with no bombast, and it feels almost like a strange, horror hosted program.
“Spine-tinglers for the thriller lovers” was how the stories were described – and while this was certainly true (as the presence of the usual suspects like Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce indicates), Nordine also made a point of including fairly recent stories. Collin Brooks’ tale of a newlywed writer’s mental breakdown in a new house, “Possession On Completion,” was published only the year before it was read, and classic oddities such as Herman Melville’s linking of fear and consumerism in “The Lightning-Rod Man” (1856) and Fyodor Sologub’s depressingly intense tale of a maternity and a child’s terminal illness, “Hide And Seek” (1898), had not been attempted by others, to my knowledge. The show was also backed with music – most probably provided by recordings of classical scores, sounding at times like Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s romantic Hollywood soundtrack work, with the segues between tracks often abrupt and a bit clumsy. There was even occasional audio production, like echo or flat filters, on Nordine’s voice (as in the reading of “The Masque of The Red Death” – which ends with a humble thanks to the audience from Nordine, and a request for future reading suggestions).
Nordine’s fine voice, at turns resonant, commanding, insistent, obsessive and meek, highlights his ability as a monologist and his strong voice-acting chops, and you can easily thrill at his dramatic quaver as he lingers over an occasional syllable. What’s even more interesting is how the inherent dramatic approach to the material can even improve it a bit, making the rather ripe final speech of “The Lightning-Rod Man” or the somewhat dramatically weak ending of Frank Belknap Long’s “A Visitor from Egypt” really strike home.
Of the available episodes, the reading of H.G. Wells’ atypical conte cruel “The Cone” is perhaps the best example of the show at its finest — with Wells’ sterling descriptive prose of a steel mill at night rolling like poetry from Nordine’s mouth (although Nordine’s sensitive, almost existentialist reading of Chekhov’s “The Bet” is yet another stand-out). In truth, they’re all worth hearing but, despite the affirmation “You have been listening to a reading by Ken Nordine…” that finalizes each proceeding, it might be better to ask the question “Can you listen?”
Because, yes, much like the preceding essay’s focus, “Faces in The Window” does not seem to be easily available. I had (perhaps ridiculously) assumed that someone would have uploaded the surviving audio recordings to Archive.org or Youtube, but such does not appear to be the case, sadly. If you search around online, you should be able to find a few outlets offering them for purchase – and, if you are a fan of the strange sub-history of short horror fiction I have been illuminating here, they would certainly be worth your investment.
This post was written for Nightfire in partnership with Pseudopod.