Eerie Midnight Delight: New-old radio horror

Eerie Midnight Delight: New-old radio horror

Midnight is a radio program, a 13-episode horror anthology produced by Roger Rittner and originally broadcast on “NPR Playhouse” from July to September 1982. Each week, Midnight featured original half-hour tales of mystery, horror and the macabre. The entire series is currently available in CD and MP3 download formats from PulpRadio.net.  See the Episode Guide below.  Audio sampler from several shows here. WARNING:  Some episodes mention physical violence, ghosts, vampires, and Satan.

 

Discovering Old Time Radio

I discovered Midnight during my recent immersion in old radio programs. It started a few months ago when I injured my lower back while washing my car.  My physical therapist prescribed “homework” — several hours of bending and stretching exercises each day.  “Great!  I can catch up on my movie watching!”

Not so.

The exercises aren’t compatible with watching a TV screen.  They look a lot like yoga.  The body turns and bends every which way and holds its positions for several minutes – mostly away from the screen.  So movies didn’t work.  I could listen to music, but wanted to hear storytelling.

Then I remembered an old 1950’s radio program I enjoyed when it was re-broadcast in the 1980’s.  Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator.  It was a private eye story like the ones by writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker. I remembered liking Barrie Craig’s old-fashioned noirish style, as well as the quick-moving plot, the skill of the voice actors, and the rich sound effects.

That was it!  I could do my physical therapy to Barrie Craig and other old radio shows!  I began to look for them.
 

Popular Programs

It turns out that there are a lot of old radio programs.  Even among private-eye programs, there were about a dozen like Barrie Craig.  When I looked outside that genre, I found most of the popular characters of the early and mid-20th Century, including Charlie Chan, Doc Savage, Sgt. Joe Friday, Dick Tracy, Fu Manchu,Gene Autry, Green Hornet, Lone Ranger, Mr. Moto, Miss Brooks, Perry Mason, Philip Marlowe, Roy Rogers, Sam Spade, Superman, Tarzan, and The Shadow.  That’s just a small selection.  From the late 1920’s to the early 1960’s, there were hundreds of different programs, which generated many thousands of individual episodes.  Radio was the internet of its day. In many countries it was the main communications medium until it was edged out by a new innovation — television.

Many episodes have been lost because early radio was often performed live for the air and wasn’t recorded.  But there’s still a lot of material available, painstakingly preserved by collectors through the years.  Fans and collectors call the medium “OTR” or Old Time Radio.  The pre-TV time period when radio was the dominant form of entertainment is called the “Golden Age of Radio.”  I’ve heard it said that there are so many Golden Age episodes available that you would be able to listen 8 hours a day for decades.

These days, the most fondly-remembered programs include plenty of horror, the genre that includes Midnight.  In the context of radio programs, the term “horror” has a broader and gentler meaning than it does for modern movies.  The term covers programs that have an eerie, suspenseful, spooky, or supernatural ingredient.  Because horror deals in primordial and life-threatening situations, it tends to age better than dramas of other genres.  You can enjoy an old-time horror tale without having to be a nostalgia buff.  In fact, two of the most memorable radio broadcasts of all time belong to the horror genre.  Orson Welles’ production of “War of the Worlds” (1938), and Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1943), with Agnes Moorehead.  Orson Welles himself thought Lucille Fletcher’s story was “the greatest single radio script ever written.”  Other great horror tales belonged to programs called Creeps by Night, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Lights Out, Quiet, Please, and Suspense, all of which are still regarded as classics.
 

“The World Awaits … MIDNIGHT!”

Midnight is a collection of 13 original eerie episodes that aired on NPR Playhouse in 1982, decades after radio’s Golden Age.  The episodes cover the standard pop-culture genres: classic horror, mystery, romance, thriller, adventure, science fiction, and Western. Each episode takes a sinister turn, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end.  “A Case of the Gothic Blues” is a classic vampire story. “Toltec’s Tomb” is a modern take on the H. Rider Haggard motif of tropical adventures and ancient curses. In “Of Magic and Mephistopheles,” the magician protagonist makes a deal with the Devil. In “The Lascar’s Hand,” paranormal researchers investigate an alleged ghost sighting. But instead of debunking the event as a hoax, they find a truly haunted ghost who haunts a human in turn.  In “Dead Shot for a Dead Man,” there’s a ghost who haunts himself.

Most of the episodes have surprise endings. A few episodes reserve the surprise for the very last word.  I found the stories to be original, unpredictable, and delightful.
 

Your Host, Graves

As an anthology program, Midnight has no recurring characters.  Except for the host, named Graves.  But why the need for a host?

If you’ve ever seen horror anthology programs on TV, you might have noticed that they almost all have hosts.  The TV hosts screen different movies each week.  They introduce the movie and provide patter, eerie laughs and a sense of continuity.  The fabulous Vampira in the 1950’s set the stage for later hosts such as Sinister Seymour, Count Floyd and Elvira.  Classic horror hosts function as the connective tissue that keeps the entire program together.  The hosts are likeable and memorable, often more so than the movie they introduce.  Elvira was a girl next door in vampish drag.  We may not even remember the movies she hosted, but she herself became such a hit that she starred in movies of her own.

Horror hosting actually began on radio, early in the Golden Age.  Among the earliest known horror hosts was probably the centenarian Old Nancy, the “Witch of Salem,” for The Witch’s Tale program in the 1930’s.  Some horror hosts were real-life celebrities, such as Boris Karloff or E.G. Marshall.  But others were characters created specifically for the programs, like Raymond from Inner Sanctum Mystery or The Man in Black from Suspense.

Midnight’s host, Graves, belongs to this same tradition. He’s a ghoulish entity of a certain age, about 300.  He addresses his audience from an echoey crypt painted in various shades of black and furnished with coffins, tombstones and electric chairs.  Graves is sociable — for a loner.  Sure, he wants friends, but people keep dying around him.  It may be his looks.  He’s so un-photogenic, he actually cracks camera lenses.  But he manages to stay active.  When he’s not hosting radio, he goes to the hair stylist or redecorates his chambers.  As a character, Graves is spirited and campy.  He was enthusiastically voiced by Los Angeles actor Bob Farley.  It really seems like Farley enjoyed his work.

Graves

Bob Farley, the voice of Graves

Graves provides an opening and closing narration for each episode, along with hearty “Mooohaha’s” and bad ghoulish puns.  And in the best horror-host tradition, he’s got a trademark intro and outro.

At the beginning of each episode, he says,

“The sun has set, the darkness deepens, and the world awaits… Midnight!”
(Sound clip 1)

And at the end,

“Now, until we meet again, this is your host, Gravvvves, reminding you that wherever you are, it may not be midnight now, but it soon will be. Hah-ha-ha-ha-hah!”
(Sound clip 2)

Graves has an effortless grasp of the stories, as if he’d written them. He may even add a tiny plot detail that pulls the entire episode into focus.  Visualizing Graves, I picture a sepulchral character with a twinkle in his eye.  I see him as fiendishly inhuman, combining the Gothic vibes of Vampira with the hideous appearance of Dr. Phibes.

 

Midnight as Transitional Drama

As a 1980’s dramatic program, Midnight can be seen as transitional between the Golden Age radio format and something more contemporary.  To be sure, Midnight is faithful homage to the Golden Age.  But it’s also different. It’s separated from the Golden Age by several decades, better audio equipment and by changing social Zeitgeists. As we’ll see, it’s different from broadcasts airing forty years earlier.

To me, the most obvious differences show up in two areas — the voices and the attitudes.

The voices in the 1980s differ from the Golden Age voices of the 30s, 40s and 50s.  In Golden Age radio, voices typically had an orotund, polished sound that’s often called the Mid-Atlantic Accent.  It’s a mellifluous combination of American Midwest neutrality and British posh.  Think Walter Cronkite, or even Orson Welles and Agnes Moorehead.  This style of speech faded away after WWII, and by the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, it was gone.  By the 1980’s, American voices on radio (and TV) sounded less studied, less oratorical, more natural and more conversational.  Most of the voices on Midnight have this sound, and it’s noticeably different from Golden Age radio.

Toni Attell and Arthur Dutch

Toni Attell and Arthur Dutch

The attitudes differ as well.  Private-eye stories provide an excellent example. They tend to be narrated by the main character in first-person mode.  In Golden Age dramatic radio, they are told in a sincere and straightforward way.  The verbal style tends to be succinct and poetic, as if influenced by Hemingway and Chandler. This means fewer words well chosen, as though there isn’t much time for talking in a world of work.  Here’s an intro from the early 1950’s program, Night Beat. It’s terse in the private-eye mode. The character Randy Stone is a reporter, but his style is classic private-eye.

Hi, this is Randy Stone.  I cover the night beat for the Chicago Star.  Stories start in many different ways.  Tonight’s story began when one man tried to destroy another with the strangest weapon of all — darkness.
(From Night Beat, Feb. 13, 1950 “The Night is a Weapon.”)

This is a great example of verbal economy. But by the 1980’s, sensibilities and styles had changed.  Narrators became a little more ironic or self-conscious about what they were doing, even to the extent of breaking the fourth wall. They often wanted to say more as well. Midnight‘s only private-eye tale, “The Lost Chord,” illustrates these more modern sensibilities.  In this episode, private eye Poco Vamp investigates a note missing from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  (Even that kind of abstract “crime” seems like a modern twist on a classic motif.) Here’s Poco Vamp’s introduction.  This might be a good time to go get a cup of coffee.

My name is Poco Vamp.  I’m a private detective.  Like any private detective, I’m tough if I have to be, and sometimes I do.  But then this is a tough town.  Not that it’s any tougher than some other towns.  It ain’t.  It’s tougher than some, not as tough as others.  Sometimes it’s tough.  Sometimes it ain’t so tough.  But when it is tough, you gotta be ready for it.  And I am.  I’m a private detective.  It’s a tough life.

The case I’m going to tell you about now is a tough one.  I call it (old-fashioned suspenseful music bridge) “The Case of the Lost Chord.”  I’m going to start from the beginning.  I think it’s probably the best thing to do to start from the beginning, I mean if you start from the middle, there’s a whole lot you’ve missed.  And sometimes you can’t figure out what’s happening until it’s all over.  If you start from the end, the same problem, only worse.  Sometimes you never figure out what’s going on.  Then again, if you start before the beginning, you get a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t make any difference anyway.  So I’m going to start at the beginning, like I said.
(Sound clip 3)

From beginning to end, this intro is a satirical take on the genre.  It starts with the name, “Poco Vamp,” which is probably a humorous reference to a well known detective, Philo Vance.  And then it lampoons the private eye’s concise verbal style by indulging in repetition and sheer verbal excess.  It’s funny, yes, even memorable and quotable.  I also found myself wondering when it would end, and I was left with the feeling that our hero Poco (whose name means “little” in Spanish) isn’t all there.

This episode also spoofs one of the most beloved conventions of the private eye genre – the one-liner, which is usually a simile.  The simile is an essential part of the private eye’s verbal toolkit.  With just a few words it provides fresh description, often by juxtaposing the familiar with the unexpected, and also delivers quotable wisecracks.  Made popular by Raymond Chandler in his Philip Marlowe private eye novels, similes have been a staple of the genre ever since.  At their best, they are tough, clever, and poetically apt at the same time.

Here are some examples from Chandler’s novels:

a brain like a sack of Portland cement (The Long Goodbye, 1953)

as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake (The Big Sleep, 1939)

The lobby looked like a high budget musical (The High Window, 1942)

Among radio detectives, the king of the simile is probably Pat Novak.  Novak was played in the late 1940’s by Jack Webb in his pre-Dragnet days.  His program, Pat Novak, for Hire, is a favorite among connoisseurs of old-time radio.  His similes are lively and memorable, very much in the Chandlerian style.

She sauntered in, moving slowly from side to side like 118 pounds of warm smoke. (“Dixie Gilligan,” Nov. 24, 1946)

He was draped over the curb like a tired carpet.  (“Little Jake Siegel,” June 26, 1949)

It was something you got rid of in a hurry, like a bent quarter. (“Father Lahey,” April 2, 1949)

Poco Vamp, on the other hand, deconstructs the detective’s use of simile by dispensing with any poetic aptness and edging towards overkill and non-sequitur.

When pressed for time, Poco tells us,

Already I could feel the blood in my veins fizzing around like the rapids on the Washatauki River in July.

At the end of the case he feels a relief from the pressure,

It was like taking an aardvark off my back after trying to swim the English Channel. But there’s one thing … that stays with me like cream cheese in a vice.

Poco’s “The Lost Chord” is a memorable story, partly because of its satirical attitude towards the genre.  Yet it also flows like a regular detective story, and true to the Midnight format, it has its macabre elements and surprise ending.

I mentioned that Midnight as a 1980’s program can be seen as transitional.  Golden Age radio came before, but what came after?  I’d say the fiction podcasts of the 2000’s and 2010’s would be the next incarnation of audio dramas.  Prominent examples would be Welcome to Night Vale, The Black Tapes, and Homecoming, which was made into a Netflix series starring Julia Roberts.  These podcasts are definitely audio dramas, but stylistically they’re different from the older radio stories.  Podcasts can be done on budgets low and high.  Their audio and soundscaping take advantage of a wide variety of electronic technology.  Fiction podcasts are a 21st-century medium, so they’re even more naturalistic, ironic and postmodern than Midnight and other 1980’s dramas. They also feature much fuller representation in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, LGBTQ+, plot and social situations.  I don’t have hard data on this, but I suspect that podcasts appeal to a younger generation than Golden Age radio programs.

In fact, I’ve heard it said that millennials don’t listen to radio, which has a bit of a fuddy-duddy reputation.  But they do listen to podcasts.  It may be a generational or a technology thing, as most radio programs are sold on CD’s or via MP3 downloads.  These are considered older media by podcast fans.  I’m sincerely overjoyed that fiction podcasts are there, and especially that they have taken steps towards wider representation.  I’m glad that audio fiction is flourishing these days.  But perhaps because I am a nostalgia buff, I prefer to spend my audio storytelling time immersed in the dramatic focus and old-timey feel of Midnight and Golden Age Radio.
 

The Production

I first took to Midnight because it sounded so good. During my first weeks of searching for old time radio programs, I discovered that it was easy to find episodes that sound scratchy and muffled, but harder to find them sounding crystal-clear.  One must essentially join the ranks of old-time-radio collectors to find material sounding that good.  It’s definitely out there, but if your only source is Youtube, you’ll probably miss it. Finding better quality took some time, and meanwhile I discovered Midnight.

The episodes are available in lushly re-mastered stereo, which means that producer Roger Rittner re-edited and improved the audio from almost 40 years ago.  After hearing so many garbled Golden Age recordings that sounded like my speakers were under water, I found Midnight an absolute pleasure to experience.

Like the best classic radio dramas, Midnight has a full range of sound effects and a cast of actors.  But unlike the Golden Age dramas, Midnight makes use of directionality and sound staging through stereo.  If you listen with two speakers, you can locate the characters from the direction of their voice.  You can visualize people walking when footsteps make their way from one speaker to the other.  Several times while I was listening with headphones and heard a door knock, I’d actually go check my own front door! Roger Rittner calls this “geography,” which is what theater directors consider when planning the layout of people and props on stage.  In Midnight, this layout is evoked by the audio alone.  (Sound clip 4)

Sounds effects by Dave Surtees

Sounds effects by Dave Surtees

The acting is always very good, and in many cases superb – as good as the best of old-time radio.  Producer Roger Rittner managed to assemble a troupe of very talented voice actors, including a few amazing individuals who can do Golden-Age accents that sound like Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, or a wealthy New England matron.  (Sound clip 5)

Leonard Sloan and Samantha Snow

Leonard Sloan and Samantha Snow

The characters always come alive, and they interact with good chemistry and great timing.

“A Case of the Gothic Blues” is an example of Midnight’s great acting and sound.  It’s essentially a one-woman show in which real estate agent Samantha Field narrates her search through a spooky mansion with links to Transylvania. Samantha makes me care about what’s happening.  I feel the eerie tension and gloom, and she never under- or over-does it.  The sound effects employ echoes and stereo effects that helped me picture Samantha walking across the basement, feeling her way in the dark, and bumping into objects.

There’s something about the writing in Midnight that I find exemplary for storytelling on audio.  The episodes seem carefully written for the ear, not for the eye. The eye can always backtrack and go over the same text again and again.  But with a radio broadcast, there’s no rewind. Midnight’s characters never rush or cram too many crucial details into a single piece of dialog.  I’m never given the feeling that I should go back to refresh my memory.  This is a kind of thoughtful, even generous scripting quality that even some of the Golden Age broadcasts didn’t have. For example, Pat Novak, one of my favorite radio detectives, fast-talks a lot of particulars in his ending wrap-ups.  I can’t always keep up. Sometimes I do rewind, sometimes I just listen and enjoy.  But Midnight doesn’t do that.  It has an immediacy that keeps the listener in the present at all times.

I was very impressed by a lot of these things, and I actually reached out to Roger Rittner at PulpRadio.net to ask him a few questions about his process.  He agreed that audio drama should be written for the ear. He also told me that it’s essential to find actors who can give life to a character using just the voice.  After all, facial expression, body language and gestures aren’t available on radio.  Now that I’ve heard some very good dramas, I know that a good voice actor can communicate all these things.

Roger told me,

Midnight was all original writing, so it followed radio drama formats and approaches.  These stories were created to be heard, so writing was always from an audio perspective. A couple of writers proposed stories that I knew just wouldn’t work for a listener – too much was conveyed through awkward exposition and characters ‘talking to themselves’ to move the plot.  So we rejected those.
(Roger Rittner, private communication)

I think Roger has found the magic formula for storytelling that’s effortless and enjoyable.  His dramas give you rich, holistic experience through sound alone.  They’re like audio movies, as are some of the best Golden Age programs.
 

As Dramas

As dramatic stories, I find that some Midnight episodes work better than others.  “Mitosis” and “Second Sunday in May” are classic science fiction stories.  In “Mitosis,” Capt. Herbeck and the crew of the Navy submarine U.S.S. Grouper head out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to test a new propulsion system for subs and missiles.  Once en route they receive orders to divert from their course and go investigate mysterious seismic conditions on the ocean floor.  Meanwhile, the officers are being micromanaged by a pushy Pentagon agent.  Just when we don’t expect it, the story takes a shocking, sinister and totally satisfying turn.

“Second Sunday in May” is a psychological mystery story set in a scientific research lab.  Dr. Morgan Garvey at Dysart Hunamicals is in charge of an expensive and controversial android project.  His most intelligent android, Allen 27, has taken over the control center that guides the androids.  No one knows why Allen is doing this or what he wants, so Dr. Garvey and his colleagues go to the control center and talk to him.  They psychological and emotional aspects are compelling, and it’s another Midnight story with a one-word surprise ending.

Two of my favorites are “The Lascar’s Hand” and “Of Magic and Mephistopheles.”  In “The Lascar’s Hand,” Dr. Robert Bennett of the Paranormal Research Institute goes to the aid of his uncle Joseph, who says he’s been haunted by a ghost.  Joseph had been a government physician in India for 22 years, and reports that the hauntings started as soon as he got back home.  This is one ghost story that treats the phenomenon with due literary respect.  The ending is wholly unexpected and at the same time, logically inevitable.

What I like about “Of Magic and Mephistopheles” is the circus atmosphere and the dark, menacing mood.  Mystic Martin the Magical Marvel is a really bad magician.  After having a particularly bad day at the circus and flubbing all his tricks, Martin gets fired.  Even his mentor, who had seen the performance, advises him to go find a day job if he can’t do “real magic.”  In pursuit of “real magic,” Martin makes a deal with a talent scout named Mr. Deville.  Of course when these Faustian deals happen, the dramatic clock starts ticking.  We can’t wait to see how the Devil will get his due.  In this case it’s another surprise.

Not all episodes are so successful.  “My Cup Runneth Over” is the story of Jeffrey Hogbein, an alcoholic with a special talent.  When he’s under the influence, he’s able to see into another world.  But since there are creatures (called “Cobalts”) in that world who might threaten this world, the CIA recruits him as an agent.  But I was thrown off by the cartoonish voicing and music. I felt that they swerve the story towards goofiness, and I just couldn’t care what happened next.  I found myself fast-forwarding through this one.

I was also unable to get involved in “Details, Details.”  It’s the story of Eugene and Freddy, two merchant marines on shore leave.  They run into a debt collector in a shady port tavern.  Taking flight, they end up on a mysterious ship.  The story didn’t grab me because the two sailors don’t sound like sailors – they sound like actors or drama students.  At one point, Eugene calls Freddy a “slimy, stinking, ignorant, incompetent, pusillanimous pismire.”  I know some sailors.  My father was a merchant marine. They didn’t talk like that. I found that Eugene and Freddy’s polysyllabic light-hearted banter kept me from caring about the story.  There were parts I liked, such as Leo the debt collector, who reminded me of Elliott Gould’s Reuben Tishkoff character in Oceans Eleven (but of course “Details, Details” was almost 20 years earlier).  And I really liked the surprise ending – the last two words.  It was a shocker.  It almost saved the story for me.  Almost.

I liked all the other episodes, and I’d love to see Roger produce more. His website (see below) also has lots of audiobooks. They are a longer medium than half-hour radio shows, but I’ve heard excerpts and they also have the same rich sound palette.
 

Conclusion

Hal Kanter, a radio writer for Eddie Cantor, Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope, quipped that radio is the “Theater of the imagination.”  Rod Serling, when he hosted the radio program Zero Hour, invited listeners to “Rest your eyes.  Exercise your imagination.”  I agree.  Being able to enjoy storytelling without using my eyes was exactly why I got into this, and Midnight is a wonderful example.
 

Episode Guide

All episodes originally aired on what was at the time called NPR Playhouse.

# Title Description and (Air Date)
#1 Toltec’s Tomb Tropical adventure.  In Central Mexico, a crew of archeologists explore the site around an ancient Toltec temple.  (1982-07-06)
#2 A Case of the Gothic Blues Eerie horror.  A Los Angeles real-estate agent discovers the estate of the Transylvania-born actor originally cast for Bela Lugosi’s Dracula film.  (1982-07-13)
#3 The Lascar’s Hand Mysterious ghost story.  Paranormal researchers investigate the case of an elderly doctor haunted by a ghost.  (1982-07-20)
#4 The Lost Chord Detective parody.  A private eye investigates “the eighth da,” a note missing from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  (1982-07-27)
#5 Of Magic and Mephistopheles Horror.  A failing magician makes a Faustian deal to improve his art.  (1982-08-03)
#6 Sentimental Journey Time-travel romance.  An unhappily married couple journeys on a cruise ship back to the 1950’s.  (1982-08-10)
#7 Traffic Incident Mystery.  A reporter and a lawyer investigate two suspicious traffic accidents happening a year apart in the very same place.  (1982-08-17)
#8 Mitosis Nautical thriller.  A Navy scientific ship’s mission to test new navigation equipment is interrupted by severe earthquakes.  (1982-08-24)
#9 My Cup Runneth Over Comedy horror fantasy.  A heavy drinker is recruited by the CIA for his ability to communicate with alien enemies in the next world.  (1982-08-31)
#10 Details, Details Light-hearted maritime thriller.  Two merchant marines running from a debt-collector sign on to a ship they’ll never return from.  (1982-09-07)
#11 Mountain of Solitude Rural supernatural adventure.  A pair of lawmen investigate a series of inexplicable killings in wooded hill country.  (1982-09-14)
#12 Second Sunday in May Classic futuristic science fiction.  A large biotech corporation seeks to shut down their intelligent-android project.  (1982-09-21)
#13 Dead Shot for a Dead Man Western ghost story.  A stagecoach robber is haunted by the ghost of one of his victims.  (1982-09-28)

 

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Roger Rittner of RulpRadio.net for generously sharing photos and information about Midnight’s production.