Historian of Horror: Why Did It Have To Be Rats?!?!?!?


Rats… Why Did it Have to Be Rats?!?!?!?

September 30, 1962 was the end of an era in American popular culture. On that date, the last two programs of what has since come to be known as Old-Time Radio came to an end. Fifteen years after the introduction of national television broadcasting, and less than a decade after the proliferation of rock-n-roll oriented stations on the radio, the art form that had dominated the airwaves and entertained millions of Americans since the 1920s finally gave up the ghost. 

Not that dramatic radio was never heard again in the United States. Almost immediately, new series popped up, and mostly sank into obscurity as quickly. The one significant exception was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater that ran for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s, and resurfaced briefly in the late 1990s. I will address that estimable program in a future column.

In other parts of the English-speaking world, the medium limped along, often as a companion to popular television shows or specifically to adapt popular or classic works of literature to a less expensive medium than television. In South Africa, where television was banned until the 1970s, radio remained a vital art form. But in America, it was television that ruled. 

Two long-running series ended that last night of September in 1962. The final episode of the mystery show, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, about the insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account, was immediately preceded by the finale of the twenty-year-old Suspense!. Since 1942, Suspense! had featured major Hollywood stars in hundreds of stories based on some of horror literature’s most notable works, including the first adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story into another medium. From 1947 to 1954, Suspense! had a sort of companion show called Escape!, with which it occasionally swapped scripts and stars.

Some of those film stars made a secondary career in radio, including the redoubtable Vincent Price. He was radio’s Simon Templar, AKA The Saint, from 1947 to 1951, and in the meantime made guest appearances on dozens if not hundreds of other broadcasts. One such was the most memorable adaptation on either Suspense! or Escape! of the short story, “Three Skeleton Key”, by French writer Georges-Gustave Toudouze. The yarn was originally published in the January, 1937 issue of Esquire Magazine, and initially adapted to Escape! on the 15th of November, 1949. The broadcast starred Elliott Reid, William Conrad and Harry Bartell. That one’s pretty good, but it was the next adaptation that really sticks in the lizard brain section of the old bean.

It was Vincent Price’s first time in the lead four months later that was the one version that really gets to me. Nothing against Reid, Conrad and Bartell, who all enjoyed long and illustrious careers on radio, and on television in the case of William Conrad, but Vincent Price brought something special to the broadcast of the 17th of March, 1950. Or maybe the sound effects were better, or some other technical detail. I’m not completely sure what it was, but that one has always been the version I put on when I want to enjoy that frisson I mentioned way back in my first column in this space. 

I’m not especially frightened of spiders, nor of any snake, I can see. That doesn’t mean I’m not wary and cautious of the ones I know to be dangerous, but I don’t let that wariness translate into incapacitating fear. And the same is true of a rat. One rat. As in, rattus norwegicus in the singular.

But hundreds of rats? Thousands? Enough to completely encase a lighthouse on a lonely rock cut off from the mainland, just off the coast of French Guiana and in the middle of a tempest-tossed sea? Enough to drive the inhabitants of that isolated edifice mad, so that the danger within is as great as the peril without? Yeah. That’s not at all festive.

Maybe it is just me. I leave it to the populace to judge for themselves. Listen, if you dare.

Harry Bartell returned in this version, with the added participation of Jeff Corey, a character actor with a resume as lengthy and impressive as the prominent nose on his face. 

One last adaptation on Escape! followed, three years later, starring Ben Wright, Paul Frees and Jay Novello. After Escape! was canceled, the story moved over to Suspense! for two more versions, both starring Price with the support of Wright. John Dehner also appeared in the November 11, 1956 broadcast, and Lawrence Dobkin on October 18, 1958, but neither of these carries the impact of that first one with Price from 1950. 

The power of Old-Time Radio lies in the fact that the images of the horrors inherent in the story are generated within the mind of the listener, and therefore are so much more terrifying than could be created by any visual medium available in that period. The monster you don’t see is much worse than any you do. That goes for rats, or “The Dunwich Horror” from the November 1, 1945 episode of Suspense!, or “The Thing on the Fourble Board” from the August 9, 1948 episode of Quiet, Please, or the Martian invaders from Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater presentation of The War of the Worlds on Halloween Eve, 1938, or any of the other myriad horrors unleashed upon the millions of Americans whose ears were glued to the speakers of an old Crosley or Philco radio in those halcyon days prior to September 30, 1962. 

Unfortunately, many if not most broadcasts from the era of Old-Time Radio are lost to time. Whole swaths of radio history were not preserved. What remains is a fraction of the total number of programs aired over the four decades plus that the medium was a dominant force in American life. What we have, though, is lots of scary stuff, and a huge amount is available online, in the Internet Archive, and elsewhere. I encourage the populace to seek it out and enjoy it. 

Most of the information used in this essay, by the way, came from that most invaluable website, Jerry’s Vintage Radio Logs http://www.otrsite.com/radiolog/ or from John Dunning’s hefty tome, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio

So, listen, you who have ears to hear. Spooky things await you in the realm of a lost medium. And, as always…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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