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.

The Story.  

No, it was all a long time ago.  Haven't been a trucker myself for almost forty years now.  These days that sort of life can't even manage a reflection in the rear-view mirror, if ya take my meaning.  Doesn't mean I don't have memories, though.  Hell, most of us old haulers could have some mighty interesting tales to tell, if anyone ever bothered to listen, that is.  Sounds like a cliche, I know.  However, it turns out there really is a lot of truth in the old saw about how you get to learn and know a lot on the road.  Most of it is stuff you won't find in guidebooks, I can tell ya that.  You know it ain't all just long hours with not a damned thing to do except just listen to the airwaves while watching the tar of the blacktop unscroll in front of you.  The open roads can be pretty fascinating in their own right.  Turns out there's all sorts of reasons for that.  Some of them are good, a lot of others just might surprise ya, and then there are what ya might call the less pleasant forms of notoriety.

Now you take the highways at night, for instance.  Guess this ain't news to ya, however it should go without saying that there are times when being behind the wheel of a big rig can be downright uncanny.  There's just something about a lonely stretch of road at night, gets on yer nerves.  You can't see too far from own nose, for one thing, least as far as the headlights are concerned.  For another, while they might keep you steady on the road (as long as yer not some irresponsible damn fool, in the first place) they still can't do anything about the night itself, can they?  You're always stuck out there in a big, black piece of empty.  Nothing but the radio for company most times, and then just your own thoughts once ya get too far from any broadcast signal.  Sometimes I think that's got to be the worst moment any rig hauler has got face up to.  When it's daylight it ain't so bad.  At least then you always know where you are.  And in case I forgot to mention it, ya still got the big night light in the sky for company.  Night time, though, well that's different.  That's when it starts to get easy for the mind to play tricks on ya.    

No need to be so surprised.  It's a lot easier than it sounds, especially in those nightmare moments when you begin to feel the first pangs of sleep beginning to tug at your mind.  That's what the rig bunk is for, of course.  And then, yeah, there are the uppers, yet only the purest form of idiots ever try to make it on that stuff.  Trust me, that's a lesson I learned for myself the hard way.  I can even recall where it happened.  I don't know that I was ever what some call a young Turk.  However I was a lot more spry than I am now.  That's when I was just getting my start in the business.  I'd broken into the job somewhat by then.  Still didn't make me nothing but a green under the gills journeyman at the time.  I can even recall the destination I was bound for that night.  Don't think I've ever been able to forget.  Homerville, the place was called.  What it's like, I wouldn't know.  Never managed to get there.  It's one of the few times my quota was botched.  Funny thing is, no one held it against me.  Took a long time for me to figure that one out.  These days, however, I think I begin to see why.

It's like I said, sometimes its easy for the night to play tricks with your mind.  The vision gets fuzzy.  Sometimes it almost looks as if the signs and landmarks all round ya (what little can be made out, anyway) are either closer than they appear, or farther away than ya thought.  That's razor's edge territory, right there.  When a truck driver can't get a good handle on the nature of the road he's on, that's a clear danger signal.  It means either the light is too bad, or the landscape has turned nasty on ya.  Or else it's like I said, the mind plays tricks on itself in the night.  Or is it the other way round, guess I'm not too sure anymore?  The worst part is when yer so wired up, for whatever reason, that you'll swear yer starting to see and hear what ain't there.  It's almost like you could swear someone's speaking to ya on the CB, even when know you're well out of range from any good signal.  Still, there she is, sweet talking ya, just as if you was up to the bar on a Saturday night, looking for a way to get rid of a lonely heart.  Can't tell what's worse, really.  Hearing voices that you know ain't true, or else the nagging thought that you keep catching shadows of things crouching by the side of the road.  Creeping up and slithering around out there, watching you with those eyes.  Just waiting for the moment when you fuck up and send everything into a turnover tailspin, yourself included.

Yeah, I know I'm not making a lick of sense.  You'll just have to take my word for it.  If you wanna know why I never finished my assignment for Homerville, well then, I just told ya.  Warts n' all.  Also, before ya start giving me looks and wondering if you should call for a home, let me assure you there are plenty others out there who will tell ya the same.  Go ahead, try and ask any of the truckers who travel regularly on this stretch of the country.  Most folks around here know all the stories connected with the Homerville Route, anyway.  I supposed you'd call it one of those places yer not supposed to go.  An urban legend, ain't that the word for it?  Still, some of us get unlucky.  I can still recall the last time I even heard of the place, at least till now.  I was making myself a sandwich when the old squawk box I still keep around lit up and heard someone asking if there was anyone out there.  So I go over and spend some time jawing with a fellow hauler for a spell.  Never met face to face, yet you'd be surprised how much someone can tell yay just by the way they speak.

This young fella, he was no longer a journeyman.  However, you could still tell there were lingering traces of green on him.  There were a few things in life that boy still had a lot to learn about.  To his credit, he seemed to be on the verge of realizing just that.  Didn't sound like it sat too well with him.  Anyway, like the clod I am, I asked the young man where he was headed.  Homerville, he says.  There were things I shoulda said to that.  Perhaps a lot of it needed to be said.  Fact is, there's a lot about that godawful night about my run to a place called Homerville that I still haven't talked about to this day.  Don't reckon I ever will either.  There's somethings ya just can't say without coming off like a madman.  Way of the world, I guess.  Either way, I tried to tell this young fella at least some of it.  However, he was well out of range before I could even begin to explain.  Nor is what happened next all that surprising, at least not to me, or any of the other survivors of the Night Siren Road.  Guys like that young trucker I mentioned are always just passing through, really.  It's no real wonder if sometimes they just can't read the signs.  He claimed he was making a delivery to Homerville.  Can't say whether he was successful or not.  You see, no one's ever heard of him since.  It's like he vanished into thin air.

Roadside Horror.

One of the things I'm curious about is what part a proper sense of effect has to play in a work of Horror fiction?  In other words, how often, or how much, does the Horror writer have to depend on the emotions of fear in and of themselves?  From a surface standpoint, the answer seems pretty obvious.  Most audiences and critics would agree that the writer had better darn well find a way of tapping into the emotions of fear if they want their story to work, at least if what they're scribbling down happens to fall within the actual boundaries of the Gothic genre.  To be fair, that's a valid enough point.  I'm just not sure if audiences have ever stopped to consider how much emotional weight a story should have, or just how often a certain subset of genre stories find themselves relying on specific sets of emotions.  In a Fantasy story, the overarching effect that most writers seem to aim at might called the sense of wonder.  In Horror, the emotion of fear is held to be paramount.  It's sounds simple enough when you put it like that.  The trouble is just how easy such a simple setup tends to break down once you leave the confines of two easily identifiable genres.  What about Science Fiction?  What kind of emotional response are we supposed to get from a story of space exploration, if any?

If some, or most of you reading this find yourselves having trouble finding out what the right answer to that last question is supposed to be, then let me pause hear and make a note of that moment of uncertain hesitancy.  That right there could be of very good importance.  At least I think it could be, from a literary perspective, anyway.  The reason for that is because while there may be some who believe that the art of terror in a Horror should be a cut and dried thing, my own experience of the genre keeps telling me that a good artistic scare is a multi-layered thing.  Sometimes a work of fear can use the story simply for the means of getting the audience to its main big shock effect.  This what Stephen King holds to be the point of old urban legends, such as "The Hook".  It's a point he makes rather well in the pages of his genre exploration, Danse Macabre (21).  In the course of his study, all King seems able to discover about the emotions of literary fear is that they can be broken down into the separate (yet perhaps interrelated) categories, each one more visceral than the last: Terror, Horror, and what the author charmingly refers to as Revulsion, or the Gross-Out.

The way King defines these terms is, once again, pretty simple.  Terror is artistic fear at its emotional height.  It's the sense of creeping unease one gets from works like "The Monkey's Paw", The Turn of the Screw, Rosemary's Baby, or stories like The Haunting of Hill House, The Invasion of the Body Snathcers, or a good episode of the old Twilight Zone show.  No matter how present the horrors are in each respective story, their effects work mainly on a more psychological level.  Horror as an emotion, seems to exist in a nebulous middle ground between the mental and visceral forms of fictional shock treatments.  A good way to describe it is might be to say that it incorporates elements of Terror, yet it plays them at a different decibel level.  There's a bit more background hum from the base, however faint it may be.  Stories that fall into this second category can still have a certain amount of elegance to them, yet their not afraid to get their hands dirty.  The best story I can think of that fits this example is to point to Hitchcock's Psycho.  It keeps things relatively restrained, yet it also marks the first time the genre was willing to tread far into taboo territory.

Then, there's the good old Gross Out.  I'm sure you've got your own examples stashed away in your memory banks somewhere.  The candidate King offers is a good one, the Chest Burster scene from Alien.  Then of course, there's always Tales from the Crypt. Whether we're talking about the comic or TV show, it comes to the same thing, at least in terms of effect.  Now story proper, on the other hand, that's something else.  I said at the start of this post that, by and large, the 80s were a mixed blessing for the genre.  It helped bring Horror to a mass audience awareness.  However, the problem is the way it came about was by relying too much on the Gross Out effect in and of itself to do all the heavy lifting.  The producers of a lot of the films I'm thinking of seemed to forget that this was really supposed to be the job of the narrative itself.  It's a simple yet necessary lesson that only a handful of directors like John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and Fred Dekker never seemed to have forgotten.  As a result, their work seems to hold up, where others just come off as ludicrous now.  The trouble is that it's the ludicrous side which everyone still remembers, and that memory seems to color and distort our perception of what Horror is or should be to a great extent.  This seems to hold true for audiences even in an age when the toilers in the terror trenches seem to be waking up to the finer shades of the genre.  It's an artistic disconnect that still seems to be in the early stages of realignment.  

My reason for dredging up all this back page history is because I wonder how many out there can begin to get a grip on the bill of fare that a story like Welcome to Homerville has to offer.  While the show in general, and this episode in particular, can be counted as somewhat a product of the 80s Horror Boom, its whole method of execution tends to the old fashioned approach.  We're not dealing with the typical splatter punk aesthetic here.  This is a tale that prefers to takes its time, while also knowing how to subtly stick the knife in, and then give it a turn.  At first we don't here much of anything after the opening introductions are made, just the white noise of a local Country-Western station broadcast, complete with Wolfman Jack sound-alike.  I'm making the opening sound like a dull slog, yet that's not the way it plays out at all.  Instead, what it does is help establish an immediate sense of creeping unease.  It's a beginning whose operating principle seems to be the idea that sometimes nothing is scarier than any rubber monster suit you can bring shambling out of the shadows.  

After establishing its initial, low-key note of silent dread, leaving the listener hanging in thin air, the story's writers (Don Dickinson and Alan Guttman) proceed to make their next wise choice.  They start to draw things out.  It's one of those tightrope walk creative choices.  If you use it wrong, you're in danger of sabotaging the whole story.  If you play the cards right, however, knowing when and where to turn your hand up, then you sometimes get lucky enough to score a jackpot.  This time Guttman and Dickson's gambit is able pay off.  The continued refusal of the story to dole out more information at this point just ratchets up the tension, and our sense of being unnerved increases.  The listener begins to feel as if they've been left stranded, and will have to fend for ourselves.  The dread is palpable enough that by the time a final bit of introductory dialogue starts to happen, it might make some in the listening audience give a brief jump in their seats.  It's a feat that Dickinson and Guttman are able to pull off just by using the beginnings of what is ostensibly the normal sounds of everyday life.  

The key here is that once the story begins to tell itself in full, our fear dials have been turned up to just the right point.  It's not all the way up to eleven, that would be playing your hand to early, and ruining the game.  Instead, what Guttman and his writing partner have done is very clever.  By telling us nothing, they force our minds to go into nervous overdrive.  This is a Horror story, after all.  If something scary doesn't happen sooner or later, the audience will just feel cheated.  Both Dickinson and his co-author seem to realize this on a gut level, and they then proceed to do more than provide an average setup.  Instead, the script provides a move in which the story takes the very sounds of the quotidian, and gives them a slow burn frightening quality by doing no more than allowing them to be themselves. It's a creative choice could only work in this particular genre.  

If the script-writing team were penning a comedy and chose to use this same opening approach, it wouldn't have the same impact.  Worse, the audience might just grow impatient with a technique that doesn't go well with a humorous approach.  If you give it the right ball field to play in, however, it becomes pretty much what it is, a stroke of inspirational genius.  By the time the story is ready to kick into gear, our minds have reached a point where even though nothing has happened, there is now a firm sense of wrongness about everything, and that leaves us with the lingering fear that something terrifying could happen at any moment.  We've been primed to expect the monster to come shambling out from under the bed, and we're barely even aware of how we've been lulled into this state of terrified expectancy.  There are probably other examples this in different Horror stories, yet it's a feather in the writers cap that right now I just can't seem to recall it ever having been done this way, or with such skill.

That's the good news.  The better news is that the writers don't let us down from there.  Instead, as things go on, Dickinson and Guttman discover that they're capable of finding all the right ways to turn the screws on the reader.  The first few moments sound as if the edge is being taken off of the tension.  What happens next is one or two scenes of character establishment.  We follow our main lead, a trucker known simply by the initials RC, as he travels the roads and shipping routes of the Wolverine State.  The setting is probably supposed to be Michigan, yet since the series itself hails from Canada, I keep wondering if the whole thing isn't supposed to be envisioned as taking place somewhere a lot farther north.  Either way, there are no deal breakers here.  The main character's only reason for being there at all seems accounted for by a whole cabin full of stacks of printing paper.  As he explains to the second character we get to meet for the evening, all that seems to have happened was pure luck of the draw.  There was a delivery commission for some place called Homerville, and RC's name was the one plucked out of the proverbial hat, in a manner of speaking.  It's this bit of information which begins to dial the sense of tension back up a notch.  When the other trucker hears of the destination, the first thing he does is to try to warn the main character off, telling him, "You ain't gonna make it one piece".

It's the first time we've had the sense of threat clarified in any sort of concrete manner.  The great thing about it, though, is that the writers still leave a lot unspoken, forcing our imaginations to misbehave.  What follows next is a few more character notes, and setup establishment.  Among the other things we learn is that sometimes the life of a long-haul trucker can take its tole on a marriage.  Some guys just get too damned addicted to the road, like it's a drug that lures you on down its circuitous, and unending routes.  Hell, maybe it is a kind of drug, or at least something like it.  One of those natural elements that has an uncanny knack for tugging at whatever part of our brains that can easily turn into an involuntary addiction, till really all your left with is just one mistress, and she goes on for miles.  I'm making this all sound like heavy going, however Guttman and Dickinson handle all this material with a light, humanistic sort of touch.  What the second scene of the play does is establish the protagonist as someone who's world is kind of ending, at least as far as any marital relationship is concerned.  This piece of narrative information establishes two things.  The first is that it gets us on the main character's side, while simultaneously standing him at a curious yet effective distance from the reader.  The reason for that would be obvious to any ancient Greek audience.  We're being introduced to a somewhat classical, tragic figure, decked out in modern road hog garb, and driving a rig instead of a chariot.

Aside from this, there is the situation in which our protagonist finds himself.  We're able to learn just enough about Homerville, though what we find out remains somewhat vague, and ominous.  It comes at us in bits and pieces of rumor and hearsay.  We're told things like, "Homerville, huh?  Wasn't that where they found Norm"?  Or else it's things like, "Homerville, eh?  That's, um, quite a ways from here".  "Bad road up there", etc.  When asked for more information, the best we and the main lead are given is, "Well, there's been a lot of accidents up that way".  "Bad ones", we're told for emphasis.  This is how it goes from here on out.  The final pieces of truly relevant information that gets doled is how the trucker is "heading into a bad stretch of road".  You got about a hundred miles to go.  What I mean is it might be easier to take after a night's sleep.  The mind can do strange things when you're on a long haul".  The real info dump comes with just two more lines of dialogue.  The first is, "Don't listen to that voice".  The second is what drives the unease home, "You'll find your not alone".  Gulp!

What's interesting is that this is almost were Guttman and Dickinson choose to leave things, at least so far as any explanation goes for what happens, and how things shape out.  We're given perhaps one final clue, after the show has ended as to just what we've been dealing with once the cast list is read off, however I can't help wondering if that doesn't take us too far into spoiler territory, so I'll just leave off on story description by saying that far from feeling cheated, or like I was given no explanation at all, I instead believe enough has been doled out so that we can discover just what happened to RC out on the road all by ourselves.  For those who demand to be told in full, however, here's my advice.  Think back carefully, if you will, to Homer's Odyssey, and the time when the hero of that myth found himself tied to the mast of his own ship.  That was another "bad stretch of road" as well, in a manner of speaking.  

Conclusion: A series and an episode that deserve to be remembered.

In his early 90s anthology collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Stephen King once made an observation about certain types of expectations that audiences might have when it comes to a Horror story.  "My favorite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen.  In novels and movies (save for movies starring fellows like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger), you are supposed to explain why things happen.  Let me tell you something, friends and neighbors, I hate explaining why things happen, and my efforts in that direction (such as the doctored LSD and resultant DNA changes which create Charlie McGee's pyrokinetic talents in Firestarter) aren't very good.  But real life very rarely has what movie producers are this year calling "a motivational through-line" - have you noticed?  I don't know about you, but nobody ever issued me an instruction manual; I'm just muddling along as best I can...trying not to fuck up too badly in the meantime.  In short stories, the author is sometimes allowed to say, "This happened.  Don't ask me why (882-3)".

Looked at from the perspective of the current situation, there's an almost charming naivete about the whole sentiment.  I wonder how the King of today would view those ideas, knowing what he's been through now.  Far from being able to say "Shit Happens", it seems that real life is more than happy to provide us with all the "motivational through-lines" we can manage.  There are apparently so many of them out there, we're libel to choke on all the concentrated sense of purpose.  I suppose right now the best thing to do is make sure all our own priorities are straight, and just hope those in charge of the big through-lines are operating with a full deck of cards.  If time and tide have sort of tripped up King's early 90s sentiment, then what about stories like Welcome to Homerville?  Are we dealing with just another "Shit Happens" type deal, or is there any method to the madness?  My own take on it is that the story itself provides enough information for the careful reader to piece together the sense of purpose going on in the text.

I've even hinted above at just what that clue might be.  The radio script itself makes this clear when one of the cast of characters is listed simply as "The Siren".  It's just possible that some ears in the audience (say, those belonging to a lot of former English Majors) perked up a bit when they hear that term.  I know mine did.  Why is that, do you suppose?  Maybe if we go back and look at some elements of the text itself, then with any luck things will start piecing themselves together?  It's worth a try, anyway.  Now let's see, here.  We got a character that's known as the Siren, and it's in a play called Welcome to Homerville.  Hmm.  Homerville, Siren.  Siren, Homerville.  Homer, Siren.  Homer and the Siren.  No wait, that's not right.  It wasn't Homer and the Siren.  That guy was just the writer.  It was always Ulysses and the - oh wait!  So, yeah, in other words, that appears to be what's going on in this story.  Something old, something borrowed, something new, in other words.  At the heart of Guttman and Dickinson's play, in other words, lies the figure of a very old, and still reasonably well-known figure of an ancient Greek archetype.  I guess it pays to be an English Major, sometimes?

In any case, if this is the type of creature we're dealing with, then it does to help simplify things to a great extent.  We now know not just what type of horror is driving the engine of this Canadian tall tale, we also have plenty of resources available with which to help us situate the main events of the text.  This is sort of an extra treat for me, on account of I often find that modern stories grounded in folklore offer some of the more intriguing food for that.  As most audiences still seem to know (somehow), the Siren was a figure of old myth.  They were often portrayed as seductive and gorgeous looking, non-human women.  They have also been portrayed as having birdlike features, such as wings or claws.  Other depictions portray them as a subset of the ever popular mermaid species of imaginary beings.  "The first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder discounted Sirens as a pure fable, "although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces."[11] In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, "The siren sings so sweetly that she lulls the mariners to sleep; then she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners (ibid)".

What's interesting is that while today the Siren is often depicted as an early, mythological version of what's now often known as the femme fatale, it seems there are one or two accounts where they are portrayed in a more or less positive light, even going so far as to try and offer assistance to the heroes in certain myths.  The one in the Nightfall episode, however, stays close and otherwise conforms to the style of the creature in its most famous literary incarnation.  That leaves the reader facing the most important question.  Is it any good?  One way to answer that it is to ask if a tale of terror can still do its job once the audience knows what it's dealing with?  This is a conundrum that King and other writers and filmmakers in the genre have had to deal with in various ways.  The phrase King has for this dilemma is that Horror fiction requires an extra amount of imaginative heavy lifting.  The audience has to be willing to suspend their disbelief a hell of a lot more than it does for, say, a film like There Will Be Blood.  The reason for that is because once you bring the monster onto the stage, sooner or later someone in the audience is going to spot the zipper running down the back of the costume.

Once that happens, so this logic goes, then the jig is up.  The illusion is ruined, and any legitimate tension the writer might have been able to dredge up is swallowed whole in the sudden awareness that it's all just a show, and the tension is dissipated.  That leaves the Horror writer with the constant challenge of just how much to show and withhold, in order to pull their story off?  It could be there's more of a trick involved here than most practitioners in the field are aware of.  From what I can tell, different artists have varying ways of dealing with this issue.  During the 80s, a lot of filmmakers were willing to go full bore and let the newly opened field of special effects do all the talking for them.  The trouble is I'm not sure anyone takes it all that seriously anymore.  They've created the gore-hound equivalent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.  That might be entertaining on a different level, however it is not doing the proper functions of a Horror story.  The real curious part is that my own experience has shown that even the cheapest monster costume can succeed if there's enough good writing in place to carry the load.

It can be argued that, in a sense, this is a challenge which Guttman and Dickinson are able to neatly sidestep.  Since they don't have to rely on any visuals to tell their story, they're allowed to get off scot-free.  All they have to do is just sit back and collect their paychecks.  Simple, isn't it?  My objection to this line of reason contains several points.  The first is that there's this inherent laziness involved that doesn't really manage, bother, or care to get at the heart of things.  It's content to just coast on the surface of a story (regardless of genre) and treat the whole thing in this vague, ill-defined, passive sort of light.  I'm not at all convinced that's the right way to read any text, regardless of medium.  Something else King said also applies here.  In an intro to Golding's Lord of the Flies, the author said that in order to really get any story the reader has to "first dig the experience (web)".  It's a phrase that looks simple enough, yet I think that sells it short.  What King is talking about here is a level of reader immersion that I'm not sure most audiences have ever bothered with.  The possible reasons for why that should be is what leads me to my second point.  

My second reason for not buying into the idea that the writers can just coast on their story is because of an unspoken sentiment going on.  At it's heart, it amounts to a fundamental lack of respect for Horror as a genre.  Now, to be fair, this is one complaint that is really as old as the hills.  Horror has been, and will probably always remain the black sheep of the popular genres, and it's not too difficult to see why.  Out of all the popular fictional modes of storytelling, this one is forced into to being wild, unpredictable, and impolite by its very nature.  It's confrontative.  It gets in your face and then tries to go for the jugular, using all kinds of wicked contrivances.  Sometimes it does so in a brash and loud way.  Other times is goes for the still quiet, creeping-up-on-you approach.  It's the kind of thing that will always gain fans, though maybe not ever anything like a mass popularity.  I'm fine with this setup as it stands.  The real problem starts when non-genre fans think that they've got a good read on this type of story without bothering to gain a clearer, more comprehensive knowledge of the format.  The result can only be a half-defined, ill-conceived critique of a style of storytelling that some have no real taste for, and hence little in the way of understanding, or even any real desire for such comprehension.

The real truth, I'd argue, is that it is all down to the quality of the writing.  If the words themselves are all in their place, and have shown enough bones of the story's skeleton in order to get the major points across, then even a cheap, poverty row costume such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon will be able to achieve a genuine kind of narrative dignity.  It might not be the kind most audiences are used to, yet its real all the same.  That's sort of what happens with the Nightfall installment.  What Guttman and Dickinson have created is story containing elements and tropes from way older narratives, and yet the thing is that it's all able to work.  I think the best way I can demonstrate this is by using  one story to help highlight the strengths of another.  Much like Daniel Lynn-Barber, Guttman and Dickinson show themselves capable of building and sustaining tension through the course of a short narrative.  It's a skill that can be important to this type of tale.  Because of its natural brevity, the short fiction form of the Horror story has to rely a lot more on the ability to deliver an effect than is the case of a full-length novel.

Much like Barber, this is a fact of the writing life that Guttman and Dickinson are well aware of.  Finding themselves under a similar type of deadline, they proceed to uncover a streamlined narrative that makes us ill-at-ease from the very start, and then proceeds to turn the dials up until the show's explosive climax.  Another aspect of their creative method is the subtle hints of distorted reality the writers are able to discover along with the audience.  There are moments in the play where we're not quite sure what is happening.  For instance, the closer the trucker in the story gets to his destination, the further away it seems to be.  There may also be another moment where what appears to be a casual back and forth between RC and the Wolfman Jack announcer on the truck's radio begins to turn so specific, that the audience invariably finds itself asking if somehow the voice on the radio has started to talk directly to the main character.  It's this neat blurring of the line between fantasy and reality that give the story a lot of its hypnotic, narrative power.  What's also interesting is that it's another thing the radio script has in common with Barber's Tiger in the Snow.  Both come to rely on a similar ambiguous, hallucinatory perspective that slowly begins to skew and tilt  the objectivity of the situation, until we're no longer sure if we're dealing a completely sane mind, or if it's something worse.

There's one other bit of shared similarity between the works of Barber, Dickinson, and Guttman.  At their respective hearts, Tiger in the Snow and Welcome to Homerville might just count as stories about confrontations with the unknown.  Both of them center around protagonists whose ordinary existence slowly begins to turn upside down as their respective and similar stories progress.  There's a hint of the uncanny going on in each narrative.  Part of that has to do with the demand of the genre, of course.  As I said, a Horror story without the horror is something of a cheat.  However, a great deal of that shared sense of the uncanny in both texts has a lot to do with all three writer's skills for delving into the specific types of fears that make up the majority of both their works.  These include the fear of being alone, or the threat of being observed, watched, stalked, and hunted.  Another is their ability to both introduce a threat, and then keep it off-stage until the audiences' breaking point has been reached, at which point all three of them let their wild and otherworldly jacks out of their boxes.  

The similarity that jumps out at me the most, however, comes from the strange resemblances between Barber's Tiger, and Guttman and Dickinson's Siren.  On a surface reading, it is just possible for some readers to claim the two works have nothing in common.  One concerns a child's fear of tigers, while the radio play is about a Siren out of Greek myth haunting a lonely stretch of highway.  My own reading, however, is that the two may have greater deal in common than a surface glance can assume.  Looked at from a thematic and symbolic angle, the respective horrors at the center of Dickinson and Barber's works begin to show a remarkable number of similarities.  To start with, both entities are written in a way that eschews a straight-forward naturalistic reading.  A tiger in real life remains just that.  It has little choice in being what it is.  What Barber writes down on the page, however, becomes almost like a talisman.  It's not real tigers on actual street corners the story is interested in.  Rather what we're given in Barber's tale is an idea or suggestion of wildness, and all the primal fears and night terrors it can still inspire in humans that have left the jungles far in the past.  The fact that it still makes the reader apprehensive is a testament to how some fears remain universal.  Also, Barber's descriptions in regards to the closing action of his story just winds up tipping things out of the realm of the natural.

The reason for that is pretty simple once you stop and think of tigers in general.  Even at there most intelligent, animals remain very basic creatures in terms of their needs and motivations.  This remains true when it comes to questions of hunger and shelter.  Simply put, there is no reason a real tiger in a situation like the one Barber outlines would ever be as intelligently selective.  If food is food, why even bother to focus in on a single main character, especially after he finds himself surrounded by other company?  Most big cats tend to turn tail and bolt away when the apes with firing sticks become too numerous.  Instead, everything about Barber's Big Cat gives it an aura of the unworldly.  Whatever we're dealing with, it seems to be more than just an animal.  In this sense, claiming that Tiger in the Snow has more in common with the Guttman/Dickinson play might make a least a bit of sense.  Each story is concerned with an ordinary protagonist stumbling across a situation that could be either mundane, or out of the ordinary.  Both stories feature characters that have a slight supernatural suggestion to them.  For Guttman, it's a classical Siren.  For Barber, it's an otherworldly tiger.  

What's interesting is that not only do the setups of both stories share many commonalities, it can also be argued that their respective conclusions are able to more or less mimic each other.  The only major difference, in this sense, might have to do with the level of knowledge on the part of the protagonists involved.  The main character in Barber's story seems to show a greater sense of self-awareness in regards to his situation.  Though whether Justin is able to profit from this is perhaps a matter of debate.  Then again, maybe that's a a bit of a misreading.  Maybe the truth is that both Justin and RC are in the dark about what's really going on, and the truth just catches up to them at the very end.  Either way, what seems undeniable to me is that in each case, we are presented with a literary trope that is so traditional it could almost be considered folkloric.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that there are many old wives tales out there about travelers having unfortunate or supernatural encounter while out on the road.  It almost sounds as if there's a scholarly term for the type of story I'm describing.  And if there isn't one, then for some reason I can't shake the idea that there ought to be.  It might even just be possible to describe the type of creatures that both RC and Justin run up against.  Havard Norjordet has a term that sounds very applicable here.  He once referred to the idea of "middle spirits (28)", supernatural entities that always have this nebulous, borderland status in Horror fiction.

It might just be possible then to say that the particular type or literary genus of story that Guttman, Dickinson, and Barber each have to tell might fit with the label of Middle Spirit Encounters.  Whether this is coining a new term, or riffing on much older scholarly definitions that I remain unaware of, I'm afraid I'm stuck in the dark on this one.  In any case, it's the best term of description I can either come up with or discover for the sort of archetype that is powering both Tiger in the Snow, and the Nightfall episode.  In any case, there's still one thing that remains important overall.  How does the episode work as an entertaining story?  With any luck, all of what I've written before now should be a good enough answer to that question.  Though in case it needs clarification, I have no problem in saying that this little known radio drama is able to do its job by firing on all cylinders.  I'm not certain how difficult it can be to tell a scary story.  I can't pretend for a second that talent isn't an actual requirement.  The genre has plenty of pitfalls all its own, and while I can't pinpoint any one automatically, I'm pretty sure everyone would know an example of poor writing in this format when it really presents itself.

For the kind of story Dickinson and Guttman have to tell, the sort of traps they need to avoid seems to be mainly one of boredom.  They have a more or less ideal setting (a lonely traveler on a dangerous road at night) and the trick is to make sure they either know, or are able to discover all the possible right ways of maximizing the inherent terror of situation.  I've already outlined above all the reason why I think they were able to succeed.  Perhaps the most enjoyment I got out of it, however, stems not just from discovering an older sample of the Horror genre, yet also the sense of gratification that comes from realizing that a specter from the past can still have plenty of life left in it.  This episode of Nightfall may come off as a product of its time, yet I'd argue that this is in fact one of its main strengths.  It's an able demonstration of the more sophisticated chills that existed before the advent of the Franchise Gore Fests.  This one instead harkens back to the more restrained nail-biters of yesteryear.  It's the kind of neat campfire story you'd hope to find after picking up the latest issue of Weird Tales, or maybe an old, forgotten episode of the Zone, or Tales from the Darkside.  In that sense, a show like Nightfall is very much of a piece with the small screen boom that the Horror genre experienced during the 80s.  And heaven help me, I love a great deal of that glorious schlock.  

In some ways, that description is unfair, though.  Those who feel that Horror needs all the budget it can get in order to succeed are gonna wind up disappointed more often than not.  It's the same type of thinking that a guy in a hockey mask is all you need to be scary.  Horror, the real tale of terror, I think, has always been about a lot more.  Maybe that's one of the reasons why not many seem willing to wander beyond the comforts of good ol' Elm Street.  Once you get past that gated community, you're apt to find yourself in the big leagues, and that stuff can be daunting if you don't know what you're dealing with.  I'd still say that's no reason not to try, however, and a story like Welcome to Homerville is one of the many good places out there with which to get started.


  1. (1) Interestingly, just today it was announced that a podcast based on "Strawberry Spring" was in the works. From what it sounds like, this will be a serialized piece of fiction about a journalist tracking "Springheel Jack." Cool idea; and that's essentially a form of radio play, I'd argue. So while King's assertion of the radio play being dead made perfect logical sense when he wrote that, he's (as you say) turned out to be wrong, and I'm glad for it.

    (2) "What kind of emotional response are we supposed to get from a story of space exploration, if any?" -- I'd say it varies based on the story. You get something different from "2001" than you get from "Alien" than you get from "Star Trek" than you get from "Star Wars," but I think they are all valid.

    (3) "Perhaps the most enjoyment I got out of it, however, stems not just from discovering an older sample of the Horror genre, yet also the sense of gratification that comes from realizing that a specter from the past can still have plenty of life left in it." -- Isn't that a great thing to be able to have happen once in a while? Not a skill all consumers of culture are able to wield, either. Their loss.

    (4) "Nightfall" sounds cool. Another one for the queue!

    1. (1) Sounds like a pretty neat idea for an adaptation. My one caveat would have to be that the source material has a definitive end, and a rather surprise twist one, at that.

      At the same time, I can kind of see how this could work, at least as long as nothing gets too over-complicated, and nothing is drawn out too long. All you'd need to do, is have the reporter start piecing things together, and when the picture is complete, you add one or two final bits of business that hopefully wrap things up in a gruesome manner.

      That said, one of the great things about history is that it doesn't always have to throw the good stuff away.

      (2) Probably valid on all counts.

      (4) And now I recall the one thing I forgot to do. I didn't post a link for where all this can be found. Oh well, better late than never, I guess. The best part is that all the audio in the link provided has been remastered. Now that's fan dedication for ya: