Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Wait Here While I Describe the Eldritch Horror: Weird Tales Radio? [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

You learn the strangest things when you read "The Eyrie," the old letter column in Weird Tales. Like that a boyish Julius Schwartz was a big Robert E Howard fan back in 1933. Or that the readership was split 50-50 over the interplanetary fiction of Otis Adelbert Kline. Or that Weird Tales tried to spawn its own radio show. "A radio show?" you ask.

This should be no surprise as many of the pulps either had radio counterparts or even started as radio shows. The classic example of this is The Shadow, which began with Orson Welles as the mysterious voice and narrator. This, in turn, spawned the pulp adventures of Lamont Cranston that went on to become Street & Smith's best selling magazine. Usually, it worked the other way around. Pulp characters such as Tarzan, the Saint, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Zorro began as magazine characters, then got radio and eventually film counterparts.

One of the popular formats was the anthology show, with programs such as Suspense, Escape, Lights Out! and X-Minus One. Whether mysteries, horror or science fiction, the audience expected a new tale each week in a manner we have come to think of as The Twilight Zone format. Though Rod Serling certainly borrowed the idea from radio. The anthology shows often took their material from magazines, allowing the publications to plug their content. X-Minus One partnered with Galaxy and Astounding. Suspense tried it the other way, spawning a short-lived magazine edited by Leslie Charteris in 1946. Why should Weird Tales be any different?

The recordings are very rare and there isn't much solid information. Was it a show or just a proposed show that never caught on? The promotional flyer says that the producers planned to do 52 episodes. The company that did the recordings was Hollywood Radio Attractions (4376 Sunset Drive, Hollywood, CA.) Actors included William Farnum, Jason Robards Sr, Richard Carle, Viola Dana, Richard Tucker, and Priscilla Dean. All the episodes were adapted by Oliver Drake and produced by Irving Fogel .

There were three initial episodes done on a demo record. These were recorded in two lengths, as half-hour programs or they could be played in two 15-minute shows. Some radio stations were not part of the larger networks and could determine their own content. Shows like the Weird Tales programs or the earliest adventures of Tarzan could be played as station managers saw fit. There is some evidence that the Weird Tales shows played at midnight on certain local stations.

The three episodes that were recorded for sure were:

1. "The Living Dead" by Kirk Mashburn (based on "De Brignac's Lady," February 1933). I haven't been able to locate this piece, but in The Monster With a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature (1989), author Brian J Frost writes of this story: "Of the latter was captained: 'A story of baby vampires: infant marauders belonging to the Undead!' It's just as ludicrous as it sounds..." Weird Tales featured many vampire and werewolf stories, so this is a natural subject matter. Why they picked Mashburn when they could have gone with Greye LaSpina, H Warner Munn, or Seabury Quinn, I have no idea? I do know that Carl Jacobi's much better vampire tale, "Revelations in Black" was one of the proposed 52 stories.

2. "The Curse of Nagana" by Hugh B Cave (original title "The Ghoul Gallery." June 1932) is the story of Doctor Briggs who goes to the haunted mansion of Lord Ramsey, along with his beautiful fiancée, Lady Ravenal. In the best gothic tradition, the lords of Ramsey have been killed in the upper galleries of the house by a strangling phantom. The villain proves to be a vengeful ghost in the form of a painting. Cave's style is typical of his Shudder Pulp stories with the setting and psychic doctor character harkening back to the English ghost writers. (Not everyone agrees with me on that. In "The Eyrie," reader Harold Dunbar of Chatham, Massachusetts wrote: "...This author has a fine rolling style and a depth which few writers of weird fiction can rival...")

Fortunately, thanks to Rand's Esoteric OTR, we can listen to a portion of this show and see how the original material was treated. The story's original cast of four is expanded to include a maid (cannon fodder), but more importantly the character of Nagana, a stranger from the Orient who turns out to be the villain of the piece instead of a real ghost. The final scene in the gallery is the same but instead of finding the coffin of Sir Ravenel, the doorway behind the painting leads to the roof where Nagana plans to sacrifice Sir Guy, having hypnotized him. All this is narrated by Parker, the butler who acts as the doctor's side-kick. What Hugh B Cave thought of this I'm not sure, replacing his admittedly well-worn ideas for different well-worn ideas.

3. "Three From the Tomb" by Edmond Hamilton (February 1932) is a typical what-if story from that author. Hamilton wrote many interesting SF tales by asking that question. What if humans all reverted to cavemen ("World Atavism" in Amazing Stories, August 1930)? What if a man evolved centuries into the future ("The Man Who Evolved" in Wonder Stories, April 1931)? What if everyone fell asleep at the same time ("When the World Slept" in Weird Tales, July 1936)? And on and on...

I suppose the company presenting the first shows would not want to confuse potential consumers with too wide a genre selection, so they selected one of Hamilton's stories with a more morbid angle. In the original story, we follow reporter Jerry Farley and county detective Peter Todd as they unravel the mystery of how Dr. Charles Curtlin resurrects three rich men who had been dead for six months. Todd interviews each man, asking him if he remembers being threatened by unknown parties before their deaths. Each answered that he did. The final solution to the mystery is presented at the moment Dr. Curtlin reveals his final specimen, before he will supposedly destroy the resurrection ray machine and his notes. Todd knows the whole thing is a con and proves it by admitting that none of the dead had ever been threatened at all. Curtlin is a famed plastic surgeon and created false millionaires so he could control their money. This kind of fake science fiction tale would prove more popular in magazines like The Saint with stories by Cleve Cartmill, or in the tales of Ed Hoch in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, though the tradition runs back to Ann Radcliffe and her explained away horrors.

A business letter dated February 14, 1933 - included in Lost in the Rentharpian Hills: Spanning the Decades with Carl Jacobi (1985) - written by Farnsworth Wright to Carl Jacobi states that any money the radio broadcasts might make would be given to the authors as Weird Tales was not using the show to make money, but to increase sales of the magazine. The fact that the personal correspondence between WT authors don't include lengthy discussions of radio income suggests that the radio show never took off. This is too bad for several reasons. First off, writers like HP Lovecraft could have used that dough. But more for us today, I would love to have heard a radio dramatization of Jules de Grandin, filled with exclamations of “Sacré nom d’un fromage vert!” Now there's an acting job only an old-time radio star could pull off.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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