With this essay series I hope to examine some of the lesser-known examples of horror fiction told in audio format (at least to start with). As co-editor at Pseudopod, 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.
Of course, the favored form to present fright for the ears is the “audio drama” format, and there’s a lot to be said for this approach, which has a long and distinguished history (see: Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, Nightfall, Fear on Four, etc). There is certainly an immediacy to audio drama, not to mention the opportunity for sound effects, music, and atmospheric “treatments.” But I would, instead, like to focus on another approach – one that has been somewhat overshadowed by the scripted drama. This would be the straight, dramatic recitation of the actual text of short fiction – a form that used to enjoy some popularity in the United States (although it is now consigned mostly to books on tape and Libravox) and is still robustly broadcast in the UK. With the reading aloud of actual text, one can experience a story in the form that it was created, with all of the author’s language, phrasings, effects and timings intact, while adding in the engagement a really good reader can bring to the work.
There has been a scattered history of this form in 20th century radio and recordings – ranging across the decades. Instead of providing a chronological history, I’m going to focus on one particular and distinctive example to start – an obscure show broadcast at midnight on 89.9 WKCR (King’s Cross Radio) from Columbia University in New York City in the early 1960s. The show was called Dreadful John at Midnight. Only a handful of recordings remain and very little is known about it (although I have recently been able to discover a bit more through perseverance and good luck – more on this anon).
To the tolling of a clock bell, “Dreadful John” (actually Columbia student John Morrow) introduces that week’s reading, sometimes giving us a bit of author background or historical context before diving in. John’s readings – methodical and considered – don’t gesture towards regionalism (thus, no accents in Bierce offerings) but have a certain tone pitched somewhere between cultured and slightly morbid/sardonic. This doesn’t mean he’s not up to entering into the spirit of the thing – the Gothic relish he brings to “The Parricide’s Tale” (an excerpt from Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer), or the enthusiasm (and then increasing mental decay) he takes in adopting the first-person monologue of H.R. Wakefield’s “Ghost Hunt” (a superb story of a radio investigation of a haunted house that goes disastrously wrong – this story may be the first ever textual appearance of what we now consider the conceit of the “found footage” film) are superb. The episodes run between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the length of the text.
Even though the episodes are readings, there are some incidental bits of auditory filigree that really add to the effect (while not distracting from the actual fiction – always a tightrope that has to be walked carefully when choosing to enhance straight readings). Minuscule production (an occasional slight echo on the readings), non-intrusive sound effects (soughing wind, bird and insects), and subtle, appropriate music (classical and religious chants for the Gothics and decadents, spare and echoing keyboards or twittering electronics for the modern) are also used. The show, in the few recordings extant, has a number of producers noted, although Clive Thomas Cuthbertson seems to have been the most prominent.
The range of genre fiction read on Dreadful John at Midnight is truly noteworthy – from Gothics (the afore-noted Melmoth excerpt), early decadent/fantastique (“Was It A Dream” by Guy De Maupassant) and conte cruel pieces (Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam‘s “The Torture by Hope,” “The Cone” by H.G. Wells), through the expected figures of the genre (“Oil of Dog” and “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce, Poe’s “The Masque of The Red Death” “The Pit And The Pendulum” “The Tell-Tale Heart”) and on into modern practitioners (Ray Bradbury & Richard Matheson). Interestingly, there is no Lovecraft (although that may be more related to the scarcity of offerings) and, in one instance, an original and previously unpublished story – “The Spirits of Thoth” by Benjamin Folkman (seemingly a classmate of John Morrow’s, he later went in to a career as a music lecturer, and helped Walter Carlos in the production of the noted synth album Switched on Bach). In all, there are 16 episodes of Dreadful John extant…
Extant but… available? Ah, therein lies the rub. I purchased the tapes of Dreadful John that I refer to here from a dealer at a regional OTR (old time radio) convention in the mid-1990s. As far as I can tell, only one episode (a reading of Bierce’s “The Boarded Window”) is easily accessible through the internet, at Archive.org, while others may be floating around through the usual trading sources.
This summer (while assiduously converting my cassette tape holdings to digital format and working my way through those aforementioned episodes) I decided it might be worth doing a little detective work, and I was eventually able to track down and contact John Morrow himself, now a grandfather and living on the West Coast. I hope to clarify details with him – how long the show ran and how it was conceived and begun for example – but probably the most exciting piece of news was that he had in his possession 7-inch reel-to-reel tapes of some of the original shows, including episodes not formerly available (for example, a recording of the reading of Ray Bradbury’s pitch-black classic “The October Game”). I will update the readers as I discover more, and work a little audio archeology in my attempts to rediscover some of the lost history of horror fiction in the audio format.