A Pre-History of Pseudopod by Shawn M. Garrett
When I took over editing PSEUDOPOD in November of 2010, I realized that to do the task justice I would need to seriously think about what the podcast was and what it could become to transcend its basic format – that being, recitations of short genre fiction. Not surprisingly (in a sense of “return to first principles”) both questions could be answered by closely examining the collection of audio horror recordings I had been assembling for years.
A small bit about Ye Olde Editor – I grew up on the Jersey Shore in the 1970s, and so was lucky enough to be exposed to one of the last, and most tenacious, manifestations of the radio drama form in the United States – Himan Brown’s CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER on station WOR, hosted by famed actor E. G. Marshall. This daily (think of that!) attempt to recreate the wonder and suspense of the Golden Age of Old Time Radio held me enthralled during long car trips to Brooklyn, instilled in my young self a deep enjoyment of experiencing fear in a purely audio format, and led to an adolescence of endlessly (and expensively) hunting down cassette tapes of various famous shows (this was pre-Internet and Archive.org, remember) and familiarizing myself with the history of the form. Another seminal influence was a youthful encounter with the classic Disney “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” album from 1964, a strange admixture of sound effects and spooky narratives (I’ve extrapolated on the history of this odd sub-form of sound horror - which I’ve dubbed the “dark audio tone poem” – in a special installment of the show: Episode 377 from March 14, 2014. Please see our back catalog for access).
But back to PSEUDOPOD — which was not, of course, either an audio drama or dark tone poem — and putting aside the rise of the audiobook in the late 70s for the time being, my research into my holdings uncovered some precursors to provide both example and guidance for the task before me. As it turned out, there was a specific history for narrations of short horror/genre fiction that could be assembled from disparate sources. While curated examples of the following shows will eventually be made available to PSEUDOPOD subscribers, I thought I might take this opportunity to inform the interested reader of what has come before, an illustrious pre-history of our chosen form of fright.
I imagine I should initially note that this essay might technically be titled AN AMERICAN PRE-HISTORY OF PSEUDOPOD – as the UK, Canada and Europe never actually abandoned broadcasting narrated fiction (or radio drama, for that matter) – continuing to produce exemplary examples long after television had supposedly killed the form in the United States. Also, before we start, it is worth mentioning that there is a parallel history of narrative vinyl albums containing dramatic renditions (the length of many short tales seem tailor-made for an album side), including wonderful examples by such illustrious monologist actors as Ugo Toppo, David McCallum, Orson Welles and Roddy McDowell, performing works by Bierce, Lovecraft, Poe, Joseph Conrad and Shirley Jackson.
Nelson Olmstead, creator of the infamous radio drama horror show BLACK NIGHT (1937 to 1939 - sadly no recordings exist) read various short horror, mystery and suspense stories on SLEEP NO MORE, which ran on the NBC Radio Network from 1952 to roughly 1957. Over needle-drops from LPs of dramatic music, Olmstead (a trained voice actor) performed stories by Cornell Woolrich, Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce. While a bit too rushed at times, these shows are still fascinating documents – notable for including Irvin S. Cobb’s proto-Lovecraftian “Fishhead” among its offerings.
Commercial voice-over master Ken Nordine read on the spectacular FACES IN THE WINDOW (1953) on WNBQ, Chicago’s Channel Five, while still at the start of his career. Nordine’s deep, resonant voice (he would later create his signature word-jazz narratives, and host a long-running NPR show), booming over prerecorded dramatic music, presented the Gothic horror works of Poe, Balzac, Dostoyevsky and even Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long! Technically, it’s a little bit of a cheat to include FACES, as it was actually a live television show, but the video is now lost to the ether, whereas some audio remains forever preserved on tape.
With the tolling of a clock, the mysterious DREADFUL JOHN AT MIDNIGHT’s formal, cultured and slightly morbid-sounding voice would ring out from WKCR at Columbia University, New York City, from 1963 to 1967 at exactly the witching hour. Produced and directed by Clive Thomas Cuthbertson, John Willis Morrow read a variety of the usual suspects (Poe, Bierce, etc) while also travelling farther afield with the occasional conte cruel from Guy de Maupassant or Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. I was able to track down a few pieces of short fiction by Clive Cuthbertson from literary journals and local magazines of the time, but very little is known about this show.
Erik Bauersfeld (you may know him as the voice of Admiral “It’s a Trap!” Akbar) read for the exceptional BLACK MASS, heard on San Francisco’s KPFA and Los Angeles’ KPFK from 1963 to 1967. Backed by eerie, original music, Bauersfeld (a leading American radio dramatist of the post-television era who just recently passed away) presented a wide range of creepy stories: Dunsany, Benson, James (Henry and M.R.) and some truly effective takes on Lovecraft (the climaxes of “The Outside” and “The Rats in the Walls” are dramatic dynamite!). The show itself was a hybrid of radio drama and straight reading, as Bauersfeld seemingly scripted them to retain as much of the original prose as possible.
And finally I should mention the long-running speculative fiction readings by Michael Hanson (and occasionally Carol Cowan) on WHA out of Madison, Wisconsin for a program called MINDWEBS (running from roughly the mid 70s to the mid 90s). Since the show was a local college radio program that flew under the radar of copyright concerns, Hanson was able to read whatever stories he liked (usually over a backing of electronic music), and while he mostly presented classics from the entire history of science fiction (technically making the show a precursor of our sister podcast, ESCAPE POD), he occasionally found time for a story or two from Robert Bloch or William Sansom.
So there you have it – five radio shows which presented readings of short horror fiction long before PSEUDOPOD ever stretched a tentacle. The audio narrative form of short speculative fiction is a strange beast, fraught with more considerations and perils than most listeners realize (but which would take a separate essay to elaborate on), but I consider these shows as beacons along the weird, murky path we have all chosen to trod, lighting the way by example. All of the creators did fine work in keeping the sounds of literary fear alive for earlier generations, and we can only tip our hats and do our best in keeping up this fine, if nearly invisible, tradition.
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD and either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious - be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer - he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010.