Radio could almost have been made for supernatural drama. It’s the medium which can create sound and atmosphere while leaving just enough to the listeners’ imagination. Alone or with family, in the muted lamplight of the evening, listeners can visualize the very things that scare them most.
Fans of supernatural drama are excited that Mark Gatiss is unearthing the annual tradition of the Christmas ghost story for BBC television and particularly that the subject is a radio host who specializes in late night horror stories.
The story, The Dead Room, will have its first broadcast in the UK on Christmas Eve. The fictional radio host, Aubrey Judd, will be played by Simon Callow.
Gatiss, co-writer and co-creator of Sherlock, has the perfect pedigree for the Christmas horror tradition. A long-time M.R. James enthusiast, Gatiss dramatized James’s The Tractate Middoth for television in 2013, and wrote and presented the documentary, MR James, Ghost Writer. Gatiss’s self-penned portmanteau supernatural drama, Crooked House (2008) satisfyingly combines an M.R. Jamesian interest in antiquities — in this case a door knocker — with a Tudor necromancer searching through time to steal an heir for his name and fortune.
The fact that The Dead Room involves a radio host promises to bring the ghost story back to one of its most natural homes.
The premise will remind many of another radio-based story, David Thompson’s, A Child’s Voice, an Irish production broadcast in the UK also in 1978. Thompson’s story, directed by Kieran Hickey, features a larger- than-life storyteller, Ainsley Rupert Macreadie (T.P. McKenna). Each week, in three nightly episodes, radio star Macreadie gives his flamboyant introduction and reads a new macabre tale.
The solitary studio, the producer watching through the glass, the rituals of performance — a tray of sherry glasses brought to Macreadie after his sign off — all speak of a fondly-observed tradition. We imagine a whole population united in one mood, pleasantly chilled yet satisfied, cocooning themselves in their cozy bedrooms as the station closes down for the night. “There’s magic about radio,” Macreadie tells his producer. “It glows gently upon the embers of the imagination.”
This week, Macreadie’s story involves a stage magician, Orsino, whose trick leads to the accidental suffocation of his assistant, a young boy. After the first atmosphere-building episode, Macreadie feels uneasy on his walk home. Late at night, while in bed, he receives an anonymous phone call. It is a child’s voice pleading with Macreadie not to finish the story.
Naturally, Macreadie ignores the warning, but his nerves begin to fray when, after the second of the three installments, he receives another warning.
The battle lines of the drama would have been very familiar to an audience brought up on M.R. James television adaptations such as Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and The Treasure of Abbott Thomas (1974). Reducing the stories to a basic pattern, the formula might read like this: a cocksure individual is pitted against supernatural forces which slowly eat away at the foundation of their certainty.
It’s a universal enough comment on the human condition to be pretty much the default structure of the ghost story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In A Child’s Voice, the use of a technological medium, the radio broadcast, is a feature which adds a new dimension to the terror. Suddenly, it’s the levers of advancement and civilization — the radio station, the phone — the very trappings and protections which are supposed to move us away from primitive fears, which become the conduits of the haunting.
The radio acts as a point of convergence between modernity and primal fear. It is, after all, a disembodied voice; if the hearer is unmindful of the science behind it, a disembodied voice is the essence of a ghost.
The same idea was exploited by L.P. Hartley in his 1926 short story, A Visitor from Down Under. A rich prospector, Mr. Rumbold, returns to London after many years in Australia, and checks into a familiar old hotel. A smug sense of having ‘got away’ with something hovers around the guest as he’s greeted as a returning hero by the hotel staff.
At the same time, a cadaverous stranger on an open-top omnibus is making his way to the same location through the wintry rain.
As Rumbold drowses in the hotel lounge before the fire, he’s startled by, “A cultivate voice, perhaps too cultivated, slightly husky,yet careful and precise in its enunciation.” The voice is emanating from nowhere. He knows just enough of the changes which have taken place since he left the country to calm himself. It is only a BBC broadcast.
Hartley has fun with the novelty of radio in his ghost story. Curiously, although written nearly a century ago, the BBC culture is entirely recognizable today to those over a certain age. The host self-consciously describes a children’s party taking place at Broadcasting House, his voice, “nicely balanced between approval and distaste.”
Stilted dialogue and children’s games subsequently give way to nursery rhymes. With the sense of disquiet descending on Rumbold, the rhyme of Oranges and Lemons takes its well-known morbid turn:
Here is a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Chop, chop. chop…
Meanwhile the cadaverous stranger comes closer to Rumbold’s hotel . . .
A Visitor from Down Under is one of the cleverest and most innovative ghost stories from the period. Hartley seemed to realize that primal terrors do not require ignoring the wires and electricity of the modern world.
Much better to embrace them and make them part of the terror.
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I will return to the Dracula theme in the next blog entry.
Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).