Sunday, July 18, 2021

Skeleton Crew: Here There Be Tigers (1968).

A while back I read and reviewed a children's short story by Phillipa Pearce.  It was called The Lion at School, and I gave it a positive enough review, as I recall.  It's one of those neat little literary staples of childhood, the kind you grab and read through on your way onward and upward.  Then if you're lucky, or curious enough, it turns into one of those dug up relics from your past that you decide to indulge in during an idle mood.  You probably dredge it up out of the mothballs expecting just some light fluff, one of those pieces of doggerel that seemed epic in youth, and just wind up sounding trite to adult ears.  It's the kind of expectation that helps make the surprise all the more pleasant.  What you might discover is that Pearce's story is one of those titles that manages to carry enough thematic weight to allow even the world of grown-ups a few moments of genuine enjoyment.  In my case, it was sort of like mining around for random spare traces of gold, and hitting a small, yet decent enough vein.  At least it seemed good enough to give it a vote of confidence, anyway.  All that happened is I discovered, I read, I thought it was pretty good.  So, I just thought it worth writing down my two cents on the matter.  No more, or less.

In nine out of ten cases, that's usually all there is to it, at least as far as I'm concerned.  For some reason, I'm the type of critic that likes to be as encyclopedic as possible about the stories I like.  Even if I wind up with a bad final product, I tend to prefer to be as thorough and constructive in figuring out why the whole thing didn't work.  What this means, though, is that while I'm sure I will never succeed at it, I always try to discuss as much of the subject as possible.  That's a pretty tall order for any critic, and I'm sure I've not even come close to it once.  There's always bound to be something overlooked, some detail or plot element I forgot to mention or place under the microscope for further inspection.  There are also those exceptions where sometimes a topic seems too big to try and encompass in just one article.  These are the stories and writers that get the lucky break of multiple posts.  It doesn't happen often, yet they're not blue moon occurrences, either.  It's all just part of the gig, really.  Then there are those interesting hybrid moments where sometimes all it takes is for one simple story to spark an idea or association off in my mind, and then I find myself with unforeseen results on my hands.  That's sort of what happened when I got done reviewing Pearce's story.

What I got thinking about was one or two other stories of a similar nature.  Another good way of stating the facts is that Pearce's writing kinda-sorta sparked a simple question: Haven't I read all this somewhere before?  The answer, it turns out, might surprise you.  It's one of those weird cases where I have to say more or less no and yes at the same time.  I think it's a mistake to claim I've read the same story told by different authors.  Each of the other stories I'm thinking of now were written in such a way as to give them their own distinct identities, ones where even a novice would able to tell the differences between all three of them.  It's just that even thought each of these other two stories were like their own beasts, there was also this remarkable level of similarity in terms of both setup, and even characters, to a certain extent.  It's not enough to erase the boundaries that separate each tale.  However, I do wonder if the resemblances might be enough to act as a kind of thematic unity.  I'm not talking about plagiarism at all here, in other words.  What I mean instead is that I'm wondering if three individual authors, each at divergent points on the historical timeline, might nonetheless have had their imaginations sparked by the same archetype, or imaginative moment of inspiration?  

Granted, that is all just one big question, not a statement of fact.  There's also a lot of speculation going on there as well.  The real kick in the teeth is that there's not really anything like a solid account from any of the writers involved on just how they each came to conceive of, and then set down their respective creative efforts.  That leaves the critic with the unenviable task of having to theorize into the void.  I'm not saying it can't be done.  If that were the case, would arts criticism in general even be able to exist?  I just feel obligated to point out that this kind of approach is precarious at best.  It's the literary-critical equivalent of building up your own soapbox flying machine, and then taking off without some kind of established safety net to fall back on.  It's also probably the norm for the great majority of this particular business.  If that's the case, then at least I'm flying no more blind than everybody else in this rarefied air.  For the time being, therefore, let's just stick with this idea of a shared archetype inspiring three otherwise unrelated writers.

I've already mentioned Philippa Pearce.  The first story that wound up sharing an uncanny level of resemblance with her own efforts were Tiger in the Snow, by Daniel Lynn Barber.  We now turn to the final, and last installment in the informal series examining the strange connective threads between stories.  The final offering for tonight was a story that first saw the light of day a long time ago, in a strange place known as the 1960s.  It was a very early effort, and it's author was just some small town kid, really.  I recall correctly, I think his name went something like, Stephen Edwin King.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Nightfall: Welcome to Homerville (1980).

This is something of a cheat.  Those who've been keeping score lately might just feel like they've been robbed of a promise.  Didn't I just say in the last article that I was planning on a reviewing a Stephen King story?  Yeah, guilty as charged, folks.  So what the hell am I doing here?  My reasons for this unexpected little detour has at least one favor in its own defense.  It sort of goes right to the heart of the kind of storytelling tropes we've been examining so far.  Lately I've been preoccupied with a series of independently written stories with a surprising amount of similarities to them.  They each center around the idea of ordinary main characters that somehow find themselves confronted with animals that display behavioral traits that are distinct enough to label them as being pretty much out of the ordinary.  The title figures in Philippa Pearce's Lion at School and Daniel Barber's Tiger in the Snow both somehow manage to come off as something more than just your ordinary Big Cat.  They behave in ways that just don't seem to gibe with your real life specimens.  In fact, if forced to choose, I guess I'd have to say that in both cases, the reader is perhaps dealing with more than just a number of random animal encounters.  Each lead actor in the two literary dramas mentioned above seems to one of those lucky (or otherwise) few who find themselves in encounters with figures whose very nature seems to border on the miraculous, or otherworldly.  I'm not sure of any better words to describe it.

Even if that's the case, there's still the question of how all that can lead me to want to talk about on old radio play?  I think the the main reason is because it just seems to encapsulate the very idea of the basic narrative situation that I've been dealing with for a while now.  In order to demonstrate how that might be the case, however, I think it's best if we take things one step at a time.  As always, the best place to start is with some context.  In his genre study text, Danse Macabre, Stephen King shared his opinion that he didn't see the world of dramatic radio plays as having much of a future.  This is an argument he lays out in his chapter entitled Radio and the Set of Reality.  While the great majority of that section of the books is fascinating, and to this day still remains well worth a read, and containing a great deal of valuable insight.  The inescapable fact is that King's view for the prospects of the audio drama have been proven summarily wrong by the very march of time itself.  Rather than falling into obscurity as he predicted, what has happened is that instead of falling into obscurity (and hence being rendered a sort of curio, or historical artifact) the art of the radio play has been undergoing a constant form of resurgence with the passing years.

If I had to pinpoint any particular reasons for this, then it might hinge around three important factors.  The first factor is also kind of the most obvious.  It shouldn't be at all surprising that when technical innovation reaches a certain level of sophistication, then one of its inevitable fallouts is that it creates a space in which the audio drama can survive and thrive thanks to the availability and affordability of the new technology.  The second factor should really be listed more as a result of the way 21st century tech has also had of creating a greater sense of inter-connectivity, even across borders and oceans.  This has been especially true in the case of America's relation with places such as Great Britain.  What King, and perhaps the majority of Americans didn't realize for a long time is just how much of a powerful juggernaut the popular dramatic radio format has been across the pond.  Not only has the audio drama remained a steady feature of British life.  Unlike here in America, there never seems to have been a time when it ever went out of style.  Instead, the medium seems to have cemented itself as an integral part of the cultural landscape.  And right now it very much looks as if it is this factor to which America is just now starting to catch-up with, meaning the renascence of U.S. dramatic radio might still (with any luck) just be in its infancy.  The third factor seems to come down to a simple question of enthusiasm.  The format had enough fans, and inherent artistic quality, to be able to outfox King's dire prognostications for it, and I think its the Brits who've helped the most in this regard.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this is the kind of influence that extends to other parts of the world as well.

This might be at least part of the case with the Canadian Broadcasting Company's radio division.  It's also here that we begin to approach our main subject for today.  The medium of radio has never been what you'd call a stranger to the idea of the Horror anthology show.  In fact, if you want to get technical about it, the truth turns out to be the reverse of what a modern audience might think.  Before there was ever anything like TV or streaming, it was radio that remained the biggest form of mass communication for a good stretch of the 20th century.  It's also the same place that saw the birth of the type of schlocker programming we now associate with shows like Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Black Mirror.  It's another of those dramatic conceits that are really a lot older than the look, and have enough staying power in them to make the various leaps of transition over the years.  In fact, just as King was starting to set down his gloomy diagnosis for the chances of Horror on the radio, someone further up in the Great White North was sort of unintentionally busy in proving him wrong.  

From what I've been able to find out, Nightfall appears to have been the brainchild of a CBC radio producer named Bill Howell.  From what I can gather, he was a regular producer for the audio wing of Canadian Broadcasting, in particular his greatest claim to fame before then was on the CBC Playhouse, and a cult Sci-Fi serial with the perhaps appropriately pulpish name of Johnny Chase: Agent of Space.  It was sometime around or maybe just before 1980 that he came up with the idea of Nightfall.  He was tasked with giving the CBC's dramatic audio division a shot in the arm, and given a budget necessary for this particular mandate.  I guess he must have thought that the Horror genre was just the ticket needed for making listeners want to come back and tune in once more to the wireless.  Whatever the case, the results of the paper trail shows that by the next time we meet Howell, he seems to have had the basic idea and concept all down on the page.  It was just a matter of getting it on the airwaves. 

The rest of the story seems to have been told best by the good folks over at The Nightfall Project website.  "At the very beginning of the 1980s, the CBC hired Susan Douglas Rubes, veteran actress and founder of Toronto's Young People's Theatre, to re-invent and re-invigorate the Radio Drama department. Almost immediately after her installation as Head of Radio Drama, she was approached by Toronto producer Bill Howell (best known at the time for his work on CBC Playhouse and the popular sci-fi adventure series Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space) with an idea for a new supernatural/horror anthology series that would push the boundaries of what had been heard on CBC Radio before. Though not a fan of the horror genre, Rubes recognized a hit when she saw one and gave Howell the green light for what was to become CBC Radio's most successful — and most controversial — drama series.

began production in March of 1980 and the first episode, Love and the Lonely One by Montreal writer John Graham, aired on Friday, July 4th at 7:30 PM. It was followed by stories like The Monkey's Paw and The Tell-Tale Heart by Len Peterson, the ACTRA Award-nominated Welcome to Homerville by Allan Guttman and Don Dickinson, and the controversial plays The Repossession by Arthur Samuels and The Blood Countess by Ray Canale. Over the course of its three-year run, the series featured episodes in a variety of genres beyond its staple of supernatural and horror stories. Science-fiction, mystery, fantasy, and human drama all found their place as part of the series' life. One episode was even adapted from the folk song Harris and the Mare by Stan Rogers.

But what made such a popular series at the time, and what makes it so popular among radio drama enthusiasts today, was Howell's vision of a show that pushed boundaries. Some episodes were so terrifying that the CBC registered hundreds of complaints and some affiliate stations — ones that carried certain CBC programs to outlying areas in the Provinces, but were not CBC stations in themselves — were forced to drop the series. Episodes like the previously-mentioned Repossession (which featured the sounds of a man tearing out his own heart), The Blood Countess (which aurally portrayed some of the hideous acts carried out by the Countess Elizabeth Bathory during her reign in the 17th Century) and The Porch Light (a tense psychological thriller about a couple trapped in a secluded house and haunted by the spectre of a pajama-clad man standing under their porch light in the midst of a raging blizzard) contributed to the collective nightmares of the listening Canadian public. Despite the controversy, however, Nightfall’s popularity grew and the series went on to run 100 episodes (web)".

In essence, what you've got then is very much an old idea enjoying a new surge of popularity, and it all seems to have been a question of good timing.  Bill Howell had his light bulb moment at the very beginnings of a wave of fresh blood popularity for the Horror genre as a whole.  Books like Carrie and Salem's Lot, and films The Exorcist and Halloween had made a big enough impact so that Horror was now the cool and hip thing to be aware of.  So of course publishers and Hollywood studios jumped on the bandwagon as fast as they all could.  The result was that for a surprisingly long time, lasting perhaps until up around 1994, the genre found itself as a constant billboard presence on the pop cultural landscape.  I suppose this also means the fallout was inevitable.  Looking back on the Horror boom of the 80s, its easy to see where the major mistakes lay.  The first was that publishers and studio execs valued quantity over quality.  Making a good work of Horror is as much a genuine Art, as it is a craft.  It seems you can't just throw a daub of stage blood on a wall and expect people to be frightened of it.  There's a lot more than that involved, a greater level of sophistication is required, more often than not.  This requirement seems to have gotten lost in the scramble for any available box-office dollars.  

The second problem was the mistaken belief that Horror is the kind of storytelling that you can just franchise, and then everything will take care of itself.  The trouble is that we're talking about a genre that works best when everything is a kind of delicate balancing act.  Even if things have to go axe-happy sooner or later, the risk is that if you apply the splatter punk technique, then the whole thing is libel to have audiences rolling with laughter, rather than screaming in the aisles.  It's the sort of creative decision that helps cheapen the genre, and the kind of effect and thematic resonances it is trying to accomplish.  It's also the one decision that the big studios kept crawling toward and falling back on.  A lot of it seems to have stemmed from the conviction that it was the safest way to go about things.  All it did for the genre, though, was one big, prolonged disservice.  Thanks to ideas like that, whenever people think of Horror nowadays, one of the first things they still think of is guys like Freddy, Jason, or Chucky.  Meanwhile, the real Art of Terror got lost in the shuffle.  We seem to be just now in the process of rediscovering the genuine literary qualities of the genre as a whole.

The good news is that this is a pit-trap that Howell's brainchild seems to have avoided.  Nightfall itself seems to follow less in the tradition of 80s gore fests, and gears itself a lot toward the more classical approaches of Rod Serling and Richard Matheson.  That's not to say that blood and guts are absent from the proceedings, far from it.  It's just that you can tell the folks in the writer's chair for each episode know something about the genre and what makes it tick.  This leaves us with an anthology that gives you reasons to care about the fictional characters, even when they're being stalked by an extra in a rubber monster suit.  One of the most interesting ways it is able to pull this off is through the series innate sense of the off-kilter.  Much like The Twilight Zone, Nightfall is not afraid to steer things into the realm of surreal and unexplained.  Even when the audience can see the terrors coming, the writing will often have just the right oblique angle to give the horror a twist we didn't anticipate.  It's a technique the show was able to put to good use.  Nowhere is that more obvious than in tonight's episode.