In our age where recency bias is so rampant that it seems that all we care about is that which comes next, there can be great, soul-saving value in reinstating dimensionality to time. Some works of art and entertainment help us to do this, giving us perspective on past, present, and future, and letting each time-vector shape our understanding of the others.
Which is why I’ve been thinking lately about a radio program that dealt with all of themes when it came out 70 years ago. It’s a work of highly entertaining, modern terror, one that deals in ideas of past, present, and future while showing us the folly of chanting, “next next next.” It also happens to be damn good scary fun.
H. Russell Wakefield is a name known to ghost story aficionados, albeit less known than contemporaries like M.R. James, E.F. Benson, or Algernon Blackwood. Like them, he was English. His ghost stories came out over a four-decade period, from the late 1920s until the early 1960s, which is also when he died. If you’ve read anything by him, it’s likely the tales “He Cometh and He Passeth By!” and “The Red Lodge,” as those are the two most regularly scooped into anthologies. A rarely spotted Wakefield story, “Ghost Hunt,” from 1938, caught the fancy of Walter Newman in the late 1940s, prompting this second writer—he wrote for radio—to adapt the work for the popular program Suspense.
Suspense was a humdinger in the radio world. It ran from 1942 to 1962, and it featured just about everybody in Hollywood: Orson Welles, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Alan Ladd, Agnes Moorehead, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Stewart, and Judy Garland all put in appearances. If you were an A-lister, or a redoubtable character actor, you wanted to be on this show.
The production values were top-drawer, and the show cast against type. So, if you were stuck playing comedic roles on the big screen, the producers of Suspense would insert you into a harrowing drama that probed the edges of human endurance, or visited unique night terrors upon your character. The shows were introduced by the so-called Man in Black, a mysterious emcee of sorts, who warned you what you’d be in for. The first episodes of the series piggybacked atop another radio program and were directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock, newly come to Hollywood from England.
Almost 1,000 episodes of Suspense were aired. Around 900 still exist. What will strike you now if you listen to just about any of them is their modernity. There are certain works from the past that age in terms of their language and their feel. We have to adjust to their modes of expression, their forms of conveyance. That’s not Suspense, and it certainly was not the episode from 1949 that Wakefield’s story ultimately became.
It, too, was titled “Ghost Hunt,” and it’s one of the scariest pieces of fiction, audible or otherwise, to have ever graced American culture. It’s meta, it’s clever enough for Beckett, frightening enough for mid-1970s Spielberg, and unlike a Jordan Peele venture, it’s actually scary, not just Woke and therefore “important.” If we lionize it—as I am about to—it’s not because it merely fits a prescribed narrative conveniently, or meshes with a political platform. No, the “Ghost Hunt” episode of Suspense is legitimate art, legitimately germane to us right now.
The program starts with a DJ, Smiley Smith—played by Ralph Edwards—closing out his program by spinning a side from Louis Armstrong. This is before Armstrong became essentially a musical ambassador who barnstormed around the country, touching off technically perfect trumpet solos but rarely innovating. At this time, he still had his Modernist swagger. Smiley’s is a progressive radio program, by some measure; it’s not for the dolt-ishly inclined. There are brains behind this operation.
Ralph Edwards was a radio host in real life, but he was hardly a cutting-edge type. He was avuncular, reliable, not flashy. But as Smiley Smith the DJ, he has a much more amped-up presence than Edwards himself. He sounds like he’s overcompensating to a degree—not ostentatiously, but discernibly—and you sense this persona fills a kind of void for him, just as we often play parts in our modern world. We all know the type who hops on Facebook to extol how grand their existence is, how they’re finally living their “best life,” when in reality they’re all but hanging on by a thread. You wonder if Smith might relate.
But now is when we start plumbing time’s dimensionality. We are in the present. Then Smith informs us that tomorrow night he’ll be heading out on one of his weekly field trips, a staple of the show which involve a peek into a corner of life typically unseen, aided by Smith’s trusty portable recording device. (Last week, Smith tells us with a giggle, he stuck it inside of a woman’s Turkish bath.) What he is going to do at this juncture is spend a night in an alleged haunted house, where four people in the recent past have committed suicide. He’ll be joined by a Doctor Reed—a World War I veteran and current paranormal investigator—at the bequest of the owner of the property, who wants to unload it after proving that it’s not haunted, and a real estate agent.
Suddenly, we are in another timeline, hearing that property owner and real estate agent returning to the house the morning after Smith and Reed’s sojourn there. What they find—and don’t find—in the house shocks them, causing them to play back the left-behind tape recorder for clues. We are losing time’s dimensionality, as if past, present, future, were all involved in a three-way crack-up on the motorway.
As the playback begins, Smiley and Doctor Reed stand on the lawn, waiting to go into the house (known by locals as “the death trap”). We’re informed by the soon-to-be-departing owner that the last suicide ran straight off the cliff, with its 100-foot drop into the Pacific, just a few paces behind the house. Dr. Reed sputters and coughs, saying that he was gassed in WWI; Smiley let’s out a “yep,” then segues into the next line of his set-up for his radio listeners, who are not listening live, but will hear the tapes the next evening. He’s not noting what is occurring in his present, being so fixated on “the next.” Ah, the titillating lure of the next and our displaced focus that we are, God forbid, missing out on something.
The owner leaves, Smiley and Dr. Reed go into the house, the latter working his way up the stairs, communicating via Walkie-talkie with Smiley, who remains in the house’s expansive front room. He has his wire-haired terrier with him, and when he cracks open the French windows to let in some air, sending a bat flying, the dog leaps from the house, vanishing. Eventually Smiley hears rats in the walls—shades of Lovecraft—as the doctor provides blow-by-blow commentary from upstairs. Doctor Reed has hit a cold spot, his pulse is tachycardiac, he feels like he’s been punched in the solar plexus, he’s depressed. Smiley tries to crack a few jokes, but they aren’t landing, and he knows it. He mentions how lonely he feels, then, in what is one of the great moments of raw candor in all of American radio, he takes the soliloquy further, talking about his loneliness as a child. He adds that he doesn’t know why he said that, but keeps at his theme nonetheless, describing his alienation as a young man, all of the hours alone, his fears, the fight of how hard it was just to continue on as anything, let alone someone pursuing a radio dream, every day.
This is bracing stuff, because it is a form of pure present. The past is informing cognition in the present, but there is no fixation on the immediate next. Smiley is realizing that it took this setting, and being coerced into a situation he could not have engineered on his own, to deal squarely with issues that we sensed right from the opening of his broadcast a couple hours prior, when the strains of Louis Armstrong tickled our ears. He’s alone.
Not wishing to be, desperate to be anything but, he decides to look for Dr. Reed upstairs, now that an enormous stain has begun spreading across the ceiling, and has even dripped liquid onto Smiley’s hands. He enters a kind of dressing room—which Dr. Reed had first thought was a closet, before finding it far roomier—from which he had last heard from his fellow ghost hunter. There are four people there: two men, two women. They are the suicides. Smiley wants to pass. They offer him companionship. All he has to do is accompany them, down the stairs, out the front door, and then to run, run towards the cliff at the back of the house. “I don’t want to be alone anymore!” he cries out as he follows their lead.
The owner and the real estate agent come to collect Smiley and Dr. Reed in the morning. They find the former’s recording device, but no Smiley. Dr. Reed is in a pool of blood, but still alive. When he awakes later in the hospital, thinking Smiley is with the other two men, he believes that he has “merely” hemorrhaged; an occasional result, presumably, of his World War I gassing. He makes no reference to having encountered anything unusual, or reported anything unusual to Smiley.
Two people, exploring the same space at the same time, formulate antithetical narratives from that space: each one embracing “my truth,” as it were. We do not know if Smiley alone has been visited and acted upon by wraiths, or if the demons emerged from within, as one tends to think, given the highly personalized remarks that have emanated from his lips. He has lost control of an ability to impose narrative upon reality. This is his undoing, because it is all he has come to know and is reliant upon.
Smiley’s fate is literal death, but not before reminding us that there are worse, more active forms of dying, before anyone has need of undertaker or autopsy report. The psychological bottom-line is the idea that all of this played out within the mind of a person who has lost all of time’s perspective. For Smiley, the knowledge that comes from experience is choked off, as if at the midpoint of an artery, not getting to where it needs to go. He cannot grapple with his past, nor reckon with the present. His blind leap into the foreground sends Smiley Smith, once-lonely—and still lonely—flying headlong over a cliff, to his demise.
We are often no different, as this culturally relevant episode of Suspense reminds us. Only, we do not literally die when we do our version of what Smiley does here; we die in subtler ways. Is that better? I don’t know. Harangue the radio gods to fish out Smiley’s ghost and ask him. Or ask yours.