Over the past several weeks, a number of people who have read or have heard me read aloud some short stories from my upcoming collection of fiction, What Lies In Wait, have commented that the stories would make intriguing radio plays and they remind them of those old time radio shows that aimed to give listeners a late night chill. There’s likely a good reason for this, as old time radio has long been a quiet passion of mine. Over the years I have been listening to a wide variety of suspense, mystery, horror, and crime radio programs from the 1930s through the late 1960s, using the Old Time Radio Internet Archive, which has hundreds if not thousands of episodes available for streaming or downloading. To say they have affected my storytelling in recent years is probably not giving them enough credit, as I’ve become absolutely fascinated with the eerie tension within these stories
If you like podcasts like Serial, or if you are an audio-book junkie, you’ll love some of these old programs, and many are complete with their original commercials for everything from Wheaties to wine, coal to car batteries, and even U.S. war bonds. I throw them on my iPod and ride the subways of NYC listening to some of the best actors and writers to ever lend their talents to radio, people like Ray Bradbury, Humphrey Bogart, Vincent Price, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lucille Ball, Orson Welles, and many others. Below are my Top Five favorite programs that I highly recommend for all of you out there.
5. Beyond Midnight – “Lanceford House”
This one can be a little hit and miss, but the South African horror and suspense radio program from the late 1960s has a few gems in the mix, including the episode “Lanceford House.” (You can listen to it online here.) This episode, running in 1969, tells the story of a man who buys a strange and long-abandoned home, but is instructed to not touch the green vase in the parlor. Tempted by the warning, he begins to lift the vase and the house suddenly erupts with cries and screams from some far-off room. Each time the vase is touched, the screams begin, and each time the vase is released, they subside. The new owner makes the mistake of telling his impetuous and skeptical friend about the oddity, and when this friend decides to challenge the house, well, that’s when the horror truly begins.
4. Lights Out – “Murder Castle”
Each show begins with the foreboding instructions, “Lights out…everybody. Lights out.” Running from 1934 to 1947, this show was one of the first to focus on horror and the supernatural. First helmed by producer Wyllis Cooper, the show eventually became a vehicle for the dynamic and prolific producer and writer Arch Oboler. Some notable stars to appear on Lights Out included Boris Karloff, Bette Davis, Peter Lorre, and Olivia de Havilland. “Murder Castle” has a great name, and an eerie premise. Young women are lured to a castle via newspaper ads for jobs as assistants and housekeepers for an aging millionaire, but they are never seen again. When one missing girl’s sister tracks her down, she is determined to discover the secret that lies within this house of death.
3. Night Beat – “Night Is a Weapon”
It pains me to rank this show at just #3 on my list, because this one is a classic. Frank Lovejoy, who voiced the Chicago night beat reporter Randy Stone, had one of the most distinctive and enjoyable voices in radio, and his show ranged from political and social themes to strange adventure tales of suspense, garnering accolades for exploring the many sides of journalism and the life of a beat reporter. This episode finds Randy Stone chasing after a man who is afraid of the dark and has murder on his mind, all because someone else is using his paralytic fear of the darkness to ruin his life. It has a nice “twist/moralistic” ending, and the episode has an excellent creepy flashback to a scene in a gloomy wine cellar and reminds me a little of “The Cask of Amontillado.”
2. The Shadow – “League of Terror”
The only reason why The Shadow isn’t #1 is because I’m very partial to the Orson Welles version, and he only played the shadow for one season, between 1937 and 1938. Still, it’s a great series (that haunting laugh is amazing!) and showcases one of the first “superheroes” in pop-culture, the mysterious shadow, who has the power to fog men’s minds and remain invisible. He is also the alter-ego of a rich playboy, Lamont Cranston (akin to Batman/Bruce Wayne), and is assisted by Margo Lane, who, sadly, seems to just be there for the Shadow to explain his actions for the audience, although now and then she gets in a good scene and keeps Lamont Cranston in check. “League of Terror” is my favorite because it was my first, and it concerns a group of gangsters terrorizing small shopkeepers. The gang kidnaps one women who refuses to bend under pressure and the Shadow tracks them to a ship on the waterfront for a final showdown/shootout with the bumbling baddies. It’s your typical Shadow format: crime occurs, Lamont hears about it, investigates as the Shadow, falls back to make a plan, has a final confrontation. Slightly formulaic, but always fun.
1. Suspense – “Three Skeleton Key”
This is my favorite program because it covers such a wide range of stories with a variety of famous actors (Bogart, Welles, Ball, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, etc.) and writers (Lovecraft, Bradbury, Poe, and more). Well calculated to keep you in...suspense! You get murder plots, ghost stories, monsters, villains, humor, tension, everything you could possibly want, and it ran for twenty years, from 1942 to 1962. I love the ringing bells that open earlier episodes, and many were introduced by “The Man in Black,” actor Robert Montgomery. Picking just one to suggest is so hard, but “Three Skeleton Key” starring Vincent Price comes as close perfection as you can get. Price narrates the tale of three lighthouse workers isolated on a remote jungle coast who spot a derelict ship sailing right for them. Just before it crashes into their reef, they see it is crawling with thousands of starving ship rats, who swarm the island lighthouse and trap the men inside. As the men slowly go insane, the rats begin finding ways to get in, and they’re hungry for human flesh…
I’m going to go ahead and offer a runner-up for Suspense, because this one is great too. “Hitch-Hiker” stars Orson Welles (who gives a fantastic introduction to this "spook show") and plays a man driving west who ignores a hitch-hiker as he leaves New York City, and as he progresses west he spots the same hitch-hiker over and over, always on the side of the road, always calling out for him. Welles cannot escape the man, and in the end, when he finally pulls over to make a desperate call for help at a remote payphone, where he makes the most horrifying discovery of all.
These are all great shows, so give them a listen. They have been incredibly formative and wildly entertaining. If you like these, you'll like my new book, so stay tuned for What Lies In Wait, which has the same kind of stories within, tales of ghosts, monsters, crime, passion, humor, madness, and apocalyptic fear!! Coming soon!!