Thump Thump

Monday, February 13, 2006

Audio Horror -- A Thump Thump Polemic

As a jpeg of Vincent Price's head, I'm particularly delighted to spend a few minutes talking about audio horror: Old Time Radio, hörspiele (earplays), horror on LP or CD, and even modern audio horrors for the digital age.

Someone correct me if I'm wrong (that's what comments are for) but it seems to me that one can be a perfectly adequate obsessive science fiction fan without ever once listening to an episode of X Minus One or Dimension X twelve or thirteen times in a row. If you've read every back issue of Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Science Fiction, or Analog, you're already familiar with the bulk of audio SF stories, in their native format.

Mystery adepts are certainly encouraged to check out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Saint (especially The Saint), and many, many other great radio mysteries, but it's hardly necessary to do so in order to wear the badge of "mystery fan."

But I ask you, can anyone truly claim the mantle of "horror fan" without being able to describe "The Thing on the Fourble Board" (embedded mp3)? Are you really a horror fan if you don't know what supernatural event occurred at a tiny lighthouse on Three Skeleton Key (embedded mp3), off the coast of French Guyana? What exactly was stolen in the Death Robbery? What's the strange, eldritch connection between wooly bear caterpillars and the Northern Lights (embedded mp3)? Consider: For over 100 years, everyone -- everyone -- suppressed the horrid memory of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Everyone except Arch Obeler of Lights Out, in Murder Castle, a story that beggars belief, except of course that it represents a watered-down version of the truth.

There are so many absolutely vital horror stories that exist only in audio format. Transcriptions are a wonderful resource for the documentarian, but are no substitute for the real thing, which, thanks to the mp3 format, are freely available to the canny web-surfer. It is a crying shame that great radio dramatists like Arch Obeler or Wyllis Cooper are not nearly as well known as Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Curt Siodmak, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, George Romero, Stephen King, and other literary and cinematic creators of horrors.

Audio, in the hands of a master who understands the medium, is in some ways the perfect format for presenting horror. The thing on the fourble board, for one example, simply cannot exist in any other format -- not plain prose, not movies or TV, not comics. The most sophisticated computer graphics imaginable cannot make sense of something invisible, made of living stone, with a voice like a lost kitten, a face like an angel, and a body -- "And a body... Well, I'll tell you about that; I told you how I'm scared of spiders" -- hidden in a store-bought sundress, her invisible little-girl face made up with greasepaint. "Sit still or I'll have to shoot you." (Geocities. Use Firefox.) As soon as you stop to contemplate all the contradictions in the description, it becomes ludicrous. Try to realize it with visual special effects, it becomes a sad joke. And yet, The Thing on the Fourble Board is the only horror story I've ever heard that actually made me so feel so f*cking cold that my teeth began to chatter. The story -- just a story! -- made me literally* hypothermic. No movie, no novel, no short story has ever done that for me.

Three Skeleton Key? One of the greatest classic horror stories ever. More than any film, it secured Price's reputation as a horror star when his film roles were still primarily melodramatic. It transcends cinema in scope. Price himself (embedded .mp3) has singled it out as one of the things he is most proud of in his career. Maybe, just maybe, the art of special affects has reached the point of presenting the naked horror of Auguste (Geocities link) making rat angels on the windows of the lighthouse. But who's going to spend tens -- hundreds -- of millions of dollars on a half-hour story? "Peter Jackson to the white courtesy phone" our friend Carnacki might say, but what's Jackson going to do for the remaining ninety minutes?

* I know the difference between "literal" and "figurative." I love horror movies. I love horror literature. But only audio horror has made me feel physically cold. For what it's worth. (And if you're a horror fan, it's worth everything you have.)

Bonus link: The original short story on which Three Skeleton Key is based, in English translation. It's good, but it's just not the same.

Extra bonus link: Shout out to Datajunkie, who rewards regular surfers with audio horrors amid the many wonderful comics. I had meant to link some of the aforementioned stories to his posts, but a great many of his audio links have gone defunct. Reposting continues apace, though, so check often.


  • Hiya Howard, good to see you're back. Just found your new blog and I haven't gone through it yet (but will).

    By Blogger Sean, at 2/14/2006 8:56 PM  

  • Had to go way back into the archives for this old thing:

    My post about 'Quiet, Please'

    By Blogger The Retropolitan, at 2/15/2006 2:34 PM  

  • Old Time Radio is one of the things that made me get satellite radio. My old 20-year plus tapes had begun to wear out. You're absolutely right. Audio horror is about the best way to experience scary stories.

    By Blogger Carnacki, at 2/15/2006 3:57 PM  

  • Very good post. And thanks, once again, for introducing me to "Fourble Board" some time ago.

    When I was teaching my Gothic lit classes, it was very hard to find references to audio horror anywhere in the scholarly lit. Movies, sure. But radio barely ever surfaced.

    By Blogger Bryan's workshop blog, at 12/18/2007 9:56 AM  

  • I agree that "The Thing on the Fourble Board" and "Three Skeleton Key" should top anyone's list of the scariest horror radio episodes in history. But what about #3? My nominee is Peter Lorre in "The Horla". There's a moment towards the end of the episode when he breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to the audience that delivers the shivers everytime I hear it!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/15/2009 11:09 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home