Our current day version of Halloween is often tantamount to a bombardment of the senses, in keeping with our let’s-all-get-barraged-by-our-days style of living.
We are becoming people who do not process what is around us. Rather, we bounce from one would-be point of interest to another, thinking ourselves busier than we are, people who, above all, must get things done, though we’re getting worse at that, too, and we’re learning less as we go along.
At Halloween, you have the costume to procure, either for your kids or yourself, or both. The activities to ferry the children to. The requisite number of horror films and TV specials to watch, the candy to acquire and pass out from your front door. Come the morning after Halloween, it will feel as though Christmas is around the corner, and if you didn’t already sense it, the heavy-decorating touch at the local CVS is there to remind you. A frantic pace will thus double.
One result of all of this is that we don’t listen as we used to. We hear things, certainly, but even in conversation that person we’re talking to is increasingly someone we’re indulging, waiting for them to finish what they have to say, so that we might take our turn. As they talk, we work on what we’ll say, ordering through our points. It’s the result of the social media age, the one-sided conversation, a life of perpetual announcing, rather than significant processing.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and there are reminders of how glorious it might be when it is not. One of the great rewards of listening, rather than hearing, is that it allows us to speak with more substance, more clarity, more of a kind of zoning in, a quicker path to a point. You talk that way, and not only do you reach the person you’re talking with, you learn from them as well, which fosters accordance, deepens friendship, and revives something that we are increasingly losing: connection.
Not that you were able to add your own commentary, but discounting that, radio once served as the social media of its time, insofar as how it reached so many people, bringing them together, after a fashion. You weren’t scrolling through the main Facebook feed to see who had posted something new, but you were hunkered around your radio, letting your imagination twine with what you were hearing, knowing that many people—your friends and family among them—were doing the same thing. Seventy years ago, one might have first heard what is conceivably the scariest radio program to ever air in this country, one that is as perfect for Halloween in 2018 as it was in 1948, but perhaps more valuable in what it can teach us, by way of reminder.
The program to be touted here is called “The Thing on the Fourble Board,” an episode of the series, Quiet, Please, which ran for only two years. It was the creative spawn of Wyllis Cooper and Ernest Chappell, a somewhat unlikely duo. Cooper had already spearheaded the program Lights Out in the 1930s, which he intended as “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of listeners at the witching hour,” a premise I’ve long found pregnant with excitement and telling. You’ll note this idea of capturing someone’s focus, as though it was as fleeting back then as now, though focus is a strange thing to aim to capture at a time when most people are asleep. Then again, Cooper was a man of singular purposes. Lights Out is beloved by radio historians and buffs on account of its sound effects, which are easily the grisliest in the history of the medium. I am not exactly certain what the sound of a skull being cut in two is like, but I’m thinking it’s not far off from what I have heard on Lights Out.
Quiet, Please, was going to be something different, its very title a sort of play on words—well, sounds—indicating that what you heard on Lights Out won’t be what you hear here. There will not be that bombardment of sound effects. You’re going to have to listen more, rather than hear; the former is more active, the second passive. What Cooper wanted was engagement from his listeners that bordered on participation. As though they were part of a dialogue. If ears could speak, they would be in constant communication with Quiet, Please. As it were, they were tasked with doing what they do best.
Speaking of listening: Chappell, who served as host and usually the lead actor, had been the announcer on The Campbell Playhouse, that august program where Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe did their very considerable thing, with their emphasis on precise, artful sonics. Chappell had been a song-and-dance man, a professional baritone, and never thought of himself as an actor, which suited Cooper just fine. Because what he heard with Chappell was an Everyman voice, somewhat raddled at its edges, but full of warmth and vibrancy at its center, where the sound was not quite gravelly, on account of how hearty it was. Bonhomious. Welcoming. And a welcoming voice, when matters turn sinister, when the voice itself turns sinister, can do a real number on you, based upon the expectations that that voice sets up.
The set-up for the show was Chappell telling a story, usually in the first person, in which he featured, with no more than two or three other actors involved. Orson Welles had a thing for the first person singular, and so too did Quiet, Please, and to no greater effect than with “The Thing on the Fourble Board,” first broadcast in June 1948, and the ultimate in American terror on the air.
Chappell’s character is at home, presumably sitting in his living room. He sounds like a guy who is about to kick back with a beer. He’s friendly. He has a wife he calls out to, because he wishes us to meet her, but she can’t hear him, ostensibly because she’s busy in some other portion of the house. She’ll join us later. This ingratiating fellow used to work on the oil fields, on derricks. He doesn’t have to anymore, thankfully, and his days as a “roughneck”—which, mind you, isn’t a pejorative term, in his view—are behind him. But something happened once that was unlike anything else that had ever happened to him, and that’s what he’s going to tell us about. [Mild spoilers follow.]
Cooper’s pet peeve was acting; he simply wanted someone to talk to you, with the natural caesuras of human speech. One wag critic mentioned at the time that if you eliminated the dead air from Quiet, Please, the twenty-five minute episodes would run for half of that time. Organist Albert Berman helped fill in some of the lacunae. We all know the standard organ-based sound clichés of vintage radio, which are as familiar to us as a metal tray being bent to signify thunder looming in in the sky. But Berman’s organ became a character unto itself, fitting into the gaps in the radio-play, sometimes restating the show’s theme in a different key, like Bach had a descendent whose love of fugue carried him to a mid-century radio gig.
Chappell certainly doesn’t act as we think of acting. He sounds like someone who is consulting you, more than merely asking you to hear him. He starts to describe a singular night back out on an oil platform, and this he does by bringing you into the world of the oil driller. Most of us are not oil drillers, most of us do not know the terminology of this world. And almost all radio programs would try to find a way around that, rather than educate us in this world, but Cooper takes care to do just that, with Chappell providing the perfect voice that prompts us to say to ourselves, “Hmmm, I had no idea, that’s damn interesting!” You are listening so intently; the harder we do so, the more our surroundings wherever we happen to be sitting, back in our world, dissolve around us; the more we come to take up a post, too, on the oil platform.
A fourble board is an especially high platform, a catwalk that’s four lengths of drilling pipe up in the air. Quiet, Please affairs were set pieces, normally, for two or three characters, and it’s no different this time. An uneasy man has joined the narrator by the derrick at night. He’s heard something, the narrator tells him that it’s easy to hear things, and offers him a pork chop, which he likes to cook up on a portable stove on nights like this. It’s a perfect selection, a pork chop. So innocuous. That writing choice further takes one’s guard down. We begin to expect that the narrator is going to experience some oddity, a curio he’ll speak to us about, but which isn’t deadly. Nothing graven—or, as it were, earthen. Deep earthen.
Suffice it to say, things are not going to end well for the narrator’s friend, and after that dispatching, the narrator starts to hear this mewling, high-pitched voice that is part otherworldly baby, part Theremin, its volume highest at the top of the oil derrick, on the fourble board, which the narrator then mounts. Science and myths of ancient earth are now coming to bear on what seemed like a simple recounting by a friendly guy kicking back with some beers for a tale of what had happened a few years ago that was well over now but could still stoke our curiosity. This is very Lovecraftian, but also with a dash of Tolkien, though it still feels intimate, self-contained, and yet as if the earth had become the sea, and was essentially bottomless, with more creatures lurking than our human imaginations had begun to conceive of.
Cecil Roy plays the sound—I will not call it a voice—of the creature who draws the narrator to the fourble board. She was dubbed The Girl of a Thousand Voices, but I re-brand her in my head as The Girl of the Unique and Horrifying Sound. If you’re a radio buff, this is a signature performance that you live for, that you replay, that thrills you that it can be revisited, though you would be wise to save that for special occasions.
The narrator is not killed, at least not so far as we think of standard death. But something will happen to his mind, something which won’t stop him from talking to us, as he has been all along, as he has been drinking his beer, waiting for his wife to join him from “somewhere else in the house.” What has played out is a kind of psychical, mental raping from the subterranea of Hollow Earth, and a wonderful play on temporality, as the past that had been recounted, in tones of well-meant friendship, becomes the ultimate nightmare of domesticity, with implications that begin to open up to us as the program comes to a close, leaving us to deal with someone else’s nightmare made real.
That they don’t think it’s a nightmare makes it all the more tortured and evil, so far as what this presence, this “wife,” has wrought upon having come home, as it were, that night. Chappell signs off, as he always did, “And so, until next week, at this same time, I am quietly yours, Ernest Chappell.” And it’s like, are you? Are you Ernest Chappell at all? Or are you that which is possessed by some plutonic demon? What, even, is the radio, or the computer screen where the clicked link has brought us to a place that questions our very concept of safety? What is not a potential portal? And what radio program signifies delicious terror more than this one?