“Would a ghost from the ’70s work?” asks Tara, producer of the radio show, The Dead Room, Tales of Terror and Unease. She’s talking to Aubrey Judd, the show’s veteran host, and it’s a loaded question.
As non-patronizingly as he knows how, Aubrey (Simon Callow) has been trying to educate the millennial Tara (Anjli Mohindra). He talks of the “haze of distance” necessary for a good ghost story opening line, such as, “Thirty years ago. . .”
“Or Forty,” Tara suggests. This is how long Aubrey has been narrating The Dead Room. Beneath the thin camaraderie of the studio, battle lines form in this most recent BBC Ghost Story for Christmas, written and directed by Sherlock co-creator, Mark Gatiss. Aubrey resents change, and, though he doesn’t quite say so, he also resents Tara.
Tara, for her part, thinks Aubrey might be simply stuck in the past.
One vital element of a successful ghost story, Aubrey persists, is “an old fashioned thing: reticence. Hold back, hold back, always hold back until the climax.”
Aubrey doesn’t much care for the vulgarity of the new material he is forced to read. He longs for the days when he would intone tales inspired by M.R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu.
As our host reads from the script, describing the thing which is “pure malevolence, all directed at him,” we catch sight of the impassive stare of Joan, the sound-effects technician.
Is she looking at Aubrey with “pure malevolence?”
Not really. But that doesn’t quell Aubrey’s growing paranoia. He complains bitterly to Tara that Joan has worked with him in the same studio for four decades but has never said more than hello to him.
Dimly, we get the impression something is troubling Aubrey’s conscience. His overreaction to Tara’s cell-phone ditty confirms this. He demands to know why her phone should have “that” tune — Single Bed, by the band Fox, a cloying hit from the summer of 1976.
Strange occurrences ensue. The script Aubrey is reading from morphs into something else, a description of a young man on a beach. A shadowy figure appears briefly in the corner of the studio. He lashes out at Tara, apparently believing she is playing a trick on him.
Then, calmed, Aubrey explains his disorientation; the long hot summer of 1976 was his first working at the studio. He had an affair which was “not entirely legal” because of the age constraints placed on same sex couples in the era. Soon after, the young man died tragically in a swimming accident. Afraid for his career and his reputation, Aubrey pretended not to know him.
But this confession is, it turns out, only part of the story.
The Dead Room is laced with irony. Aubrey’s haunting closely follows the incremental pattern he admires so much in M.R. James. It begins unobtrusively. Cell phone ditties, altered scripts, shadowy figures are all entirely in line with the old-fashioned “reticence” Aubrey favours. Its substance, however — a hidden crime coming to life — seems to owe more to Poe, and to novels like Therese Raquin (Emile Zola) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde) which deal with projections from a troubled conscience.
This literary tradition tells us that a half-baked confession will not be enough. Aubrey is keeping something to himself, and, ultimately, he will have to pay for it.
Mark Gatiss’s script is finely honed. Every phrase — even those of the modern horror story for which Aubrey has no time — resounds with thematic significance. Simon Callow moves persuasively between irascibility and smugness. He is a man moving out of his era and his comfort zone, and he doesn’t like it. Anjli Mohindra gives Tara a sense of wary patience; she’s more well-read than Aubrey seems to think she is but has to make sure she defers to the show’s star. A playful genre connection is provided by Susan Penhaligon, a memorable Lucy Westenra in a 1977 BBC production of Dracula. Penhaligon is the inscrutable, and not particularly friendly, Joan.
The question — the only essential question according to author L.P Hartley who famously wrote that the ghost story “either comes off or it is a flop,” — is this: Does The Dead Room frighten?
The answer is no. But this may be not such a bad thing.
“But it has to be scary,” says Tara, in response to one of Aubrey’s lectures about subtlety. “They are supposed to be horror stories.”
“Horrifying, yes, but not just horrible,” says Aubrey.
This is the philosophical nub of the story. There is a great deal going on in The Dead Room, too much perhaps for a single-minded focus on creating a shiver; you might even say The Dead Room proves that the more a story engages the intellect, the less it is likely to frighten. When Aubrey’s full history is revealed, the dominant emotion isn’t so much terror as a sense of waste mixed with sadness.
Author/director Gatiss — a prolific renaissance man with a particular fondness for history and nostalgia — unearths a forgotten era in his portrait of Aubrey Judd. There is a backstory about Aubrey’s predecessor, “Seymour Rand” with a voice like “dark chocolate with just a hint of poison.” This seems to be a tribute to Valentine Dyall, ‘The Man in Black’ and long-time narrator of the BBC radio show Appointment with Fear.
“Irreplaceable,” muses Aubrey mistily as he thinks of Rand.
“Except not,” says Tara, snapping Aubrey out of his reverie. “You did replace him, didn’t you?”
Irony, character, and layers of meaning aren’t natural allies of supernatural frisson. The Dead Room, however, is a mature and thoughtful riff on the genre, well worth a second look.
Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).