As Halloween approaches, I present more old-time radio versions of Poe stories to entertain you on chilly nights. In this and Part 1 of my Poe playlist, I’ve tried to represent a large range of Poe stories and radio programs.
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
July 11, 1937
“The tell-tale-heart effect, which you heard, was an actual human heartbeat, amplified more than 10 billion times.”—Announcer, Columbia Workshop
NBC Presents: Short Story
“My senses sharpen. Every second makes them sharper. I can hear the rhythmic beating of the old man’s heart…the beating of his heart.”
About These Series: Columbia Workshop was an early radio series that experimented with the new medium’s narrative possibilities. In dramatic radio’s dying days, NBC Presents: Short Story dramatized work by some of the world’s greatest writers. Try to imagine a major TV network airing series like these now (at its own cost—neither of these shows had a sponsor). Columbia Workshop aired on CBS for eight years, but the NBC program didn’t fare as well. According to The Digital Deli Too, the network pre-empted it frequently and ultimately left 11 episodes, including this one, unaired.
Thoughts on These Episodes: Though the sound quality is better on the NBC Presents episode, I prefer the Columbia Workshop version. The voices the NBC protagonist hears—and his reaction to them—become almost comical. In contrast, the voices that cry out from the wind and the rain and walls in the CBS version are eerily effective. The police are none too swift, though. Sample exchange:
Murderer: “You’re laughing at me! You’re torturing me! You’re making believe that you don’t hear so that I’ll confess!”
Policeman: “My dear young man, you’re working yourself into a frenzy. I think we better leave you to yourself.”
These officers should really lay off the wine.
Read “The Tell-Tale Heart”
December 16, 1937
“Tonight is the end of the house of Metzengerstein!”
Thoughts on This Episode: This episode does a good job capturing the story’s creepy atmosphere. Castles, curses, horses, fire—what more do you need for an exciting half hour?
“Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”
September 19, 1943
“The wind was screaming through the sails like an insane witch on a broomstick.”
About This Series: Many radio series explored horror and suspense. One thing that differentiated The Weird Circle was its source material; it frequently presented “literary” horror stories, including several of Poe’s tales.
Thoughts on This Episode: I’ve tried to read Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, his only novel-length work, but just can’t plow through it. I think I’m allergic to nautical adventures. I’ve read enough, though, to know that this adaptation takes major liberties with the story. It also abandons the 19th century setting for a modern one. Phrases like “The captain’s nuts!” and “Awww, shut up!” jar in a Poe story. I would still rather listen to this than try to read the novel again, though.
Read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
“The Pit and the Pendulum”
November 10, 1957
“Minutes…hours…days… Who can say how long it was? It might have been many days before that hideous blade swept so closely as to fan me with its acrid breath.”
About This Series: Suspense billed itself, with ample justification, as “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills.” Extremely popular, it ran for 22 years (1940-1962). For much of that time, it attracted top Hollywood stars, who often got the chance to play roles that contrasted with their on-screen image. By 1957, the show’s star power was diminishing, but it was still presenting outstanding radio drama.
Thoughts on This Episode: Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe—an unbeatable combination! I think this is my favorite Poe story—it’s exciting and has a merciful lack of beautiful dead women. It needs little elaboration to succeed as a radio drama, and Vincent Price (who would star in the Roger Corman film version of The Pit and the Pendulum four years later) gives a good performance.
Read “The Pit and the Pendulum”
CBS Radio Mystery Theater
January 9, 1975
“The teeth! The teeth! The terrifying teeth!”
About This Series: Although not exactly “old-time radio,” CBS Radio Mystery Theater represented the last major gasp of network radio drama. The show ran on weeknights from 1974 to 1982. E.G. Marshall hosted, and radio veteran Himan Brown produced the program.
Thoughts on This Episode: CBS Radio Mystery Theater presented an entire week of Poe stories in January 1975. With about 45 minutes to fill in each episode (not counting commercials), the program had to expand on Poe’s shorter stories.
“Berenice” sticks with the outline of Poe’s story but adds a love triangle and lets us meet Berenice for ourselves; in Poe’s story, we only see her through the narrator’s disordered vision. (The most interesting part of the short story, to me, is Poe’s detailed description of Egaeus’ mental illness. I wondered how modern professionals would diagnose him and found this interesting paper suggesting he was schizophrenic.) The story doesn’t benefit from these additions, but the ending still packs a punch.
“The Masque of the Red Death”
CBS Radio Mystery Theater
January 10, 1975
“Oh, wow. I mean, like, wow.”
Thoughts on This Episode: CBSRMT transports Poe’s plague story to the apocalyptic future that is 1996 (hee) and turns it into an ecological morality play. The morality is confusing, though—I’m a liberal, card-carrying Sierra Club member, and even I don’t understand how the rich capitalist is making the world’s situation worse by protecting his family from the red death. The episode lacks the lurid atmosphere that illuminates Poe’s story, but it’s entertaining as a window into 1970s concerns.
Read “The Masque of the Red Death”
Next week, I’ll be posting a bunch of Halloween-themed old-time radio!
My other old-time radio posts:
Old-Time Radio Playlist: Edgar Allan Poe, Part 1
Old-Time Radio Episode Spotlight: Those Magnificent Cats in their Flying Machines
Old-Time Radio Playlist: Till Death Do Us Part (and That Might Be Sooner Than You Think)
Old-Time Radio Episode Spotlight: A Snapped-Worthy 1920s True Story
Old-Time Radio Episode Spotlight: CSI, 1940s Style
Old-Time Radio Playlist: London Calling, Part 1
Old-Time Radio Playlist: London Calling, Part 2