The weekend following the arrival of my unique treasure, I experienced a particularly violent sneeze which dislodged a small fragment of tissue in my left eye, causing a half-moon shaped blind spot right in the center of my vision.
It wasn’t anything serious, but just another one of the little nightmares that become the norm once our flawed sacks of flesh hit middle age. I couldn’t do much in the way of reading or videogame playing or movie watching while I waited for the microscopic gobbet to dissolve or drift to a less intrusive part of the affected peeper, so I decided to pass time with YouTube’s extensive archive of CBS Radio Mystery Theater episodes.
The series, which ran from 1974 to 1982, was a throwback to Inner Sanctum, The Whistler and other classic spooky-suspense series from the Golden Age of Radio. (CBSRMT was the brainchild of Himan Brown, who’d created Inner Sanctum three decades prior.) Hosting duties were handled by E.G Marshall, framing the main event with a more avuncular take on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone riffs.
The radio plays themselves? Well, they are definitive proof of Sturgeon’s Law, but sheer number of episodes — almost 1400 of them — means that the ten percent that isn’t crap offers a pretty rich vein of material to explore. There’s mystery, suspense, crime drama, psychological thrillers, Twilight Zone style “modern fantasy,” old-fashioned ghost stories, with an occasional bit of science-fiction thrown in to the mix.
I’m most partial to the direct adaptations of tales by likes of Bierce, Poe, Stevenson, Le Fanu and the rest of that old school spooky stories crew. The efforts to contemporize them were less successful, with a scfi-fi slanted take on “The Masque of Red Death” coming off as extra goofy during the present circumstances while a serial-killer noir interpretation of “The Cask of Amontillado” just feels overlong and gross.
The above doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement, but I found it’s wiser to undersell, rather than oversell, retro entertainment artifacts. There a thick layer of not-so-finely aged cheese to the material, many of the plots are shallow reskins of familiar tales, and every female character under thirty sounds like they were voiced a chain-smoking great aunt who grew up in Toronto.
But if you have an hour to kill on either side of sunset, a comfy sofa to stretch out on, and a willingness to roll with the periodic bouts of goofiness, tuning (or rather “streaming”) into of the choicer episodes can be a sublime spooky season experience. So much so, in fact, that I’ve kept it as a Sunday afternoon tradition even after my eye problem cleared up.
Recommended listening: Peter Wolf – Lights Out (from a 1984 single)
Speaking of cheesy shit from the past I can’t help enjoying…