Radios Going Bump in the Night

By the 1960’s listening to stories on the radio might have seemed square, but not if it was the wonderful and weird terrors of the work of Erik Bauersfeld.

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I am not sure if people still make a practice of listening to the radio in bed, late at night. This was always something, in times past, one endeavored to do in youth, especially as there was a sense of getting away with an act — albeit a harmless one — that had to be carried out so surreptitiously as to require darkness. And for the best nocturnal stealth listening, there were two sources that just couldn’t be beat: baseball games and horror radio programs.

Horror radio programs were long billed as thriller shows, as if that took the edge off to classic mid-century ventures like The Weird Circle and Suspense, with their mélange of gruesome sound effects and higgledy-piggledy netherworld beasts turned loose in this one. And, more crucially, turned loose in the imagination: It’s one thing to be haunted by some creature who follows you down the street, quite another to be molested by the one who lurks inside your every thought.

Horror radio programs were virtually kaput by the end of the 1950s. Westerns ruled on the radio, even though horror cinema was doing okay thanks to Hammer films like Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein making their way from over in England. If you were going to get night terrors under the covers, it was more likely to come from your preferred baseball team kicking away a ninth inning lead. That is, until Erik Bauersfeld decided in 1963 that what the world could really use — or the San Francisco Bay area, anyway — was a literate horror radio program, something that you would, if you were, I don’t know, Frasier and Niles, find properly edifying, and cause to put the lights back on and maybe unwind with a Gunsmoke comic book.

If you know the name of Erik Bauersfeld these days, you’re probably a Star Wars fan in possession of the knowledge that our man voiced Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi. But to listen to a single episode of what Bauersfeld titled Black Mass (or The Black Mass, in some of the official histories, as if there were other black masses going on in town and this was the one that stood above the competition) is to know what this voice actor thought himself best at.

Any Black Mass fan will tell you that the episodes can be hit or miss, and this is, in large part, a prime selling point for them. Because if you hate one, chances are the next show will be right up your street. The warhorses are here — productions of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” — but the most Black Mass-y fare is stuff like a haunted take on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” assorted Ambrose Bierce shows, a generous helping of the perpetually under-read Lord Dunsany, and some Bram Stoker with that author, in Bauersfeld’s intro, said never to have existed at all, the name being but the nom de plume for that mad, over-caffeinated, deadline besotted, midnight oil-burner, Dracula. Ha. And awesome. So: There’s some suspension of belief at work here, and good Danse Macabre fun going down, but what is going to creep you out — and I have no doubt about this — is Bauersfeld himself. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone so throw themselves into their parts, and I have no problem envisioning the froth around Bauersfeld’s mouth as he disclaims, bemoans, croaks, comes back from the dead, talks like a woman, goes mad, contemplates suicide, manifests, enjoins, scares. Cuts loose, as it were.

Sound effects are at a minimum. Sometimes, there’s tasteful — as in nicely accomplished — music. A bassoon, a sitar. Waves are not uncommon, nor is wind, two of the regular audio breadwinners of radio horror history. The casts are small. Bauersfeld kicks off each episode in the guise of the horror host, that fellow who was big on TV at the time, popping up out of a coffin to introduce a screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon or Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man from the old Shock Theater package that went out to TV stations across the country for weekend creature double features. Normally, the horror host would ham it up and have some ridiculous punning name — Baron von Hauntinstein or what not — but Bauersfeld isn’t much of a joker. There’s this bit where he says there are 12 people in the audience, and 12 is such a vile number, wouldn’t 13 be better, so, you know, why don’t you volunteer your soul to fill that missing chair? He tells you what’s about to happen, more or less, and then it’s nightmare time, with words, inflections, and cadences replacing the jelly-made squishy sounds, hatchet blows, and popped-balloon sounds of yore.

It’s fun to think of there once being Black Mass fans amidst a cultural backdrop of the Kennedys, Beatles, Dylan, the French New Wave, and the Hippie era — the show lasted until 1967 — but some people, presumably, are called to do what they do, damn the times or the fashion. The Bauersfeld during the performance of his Black Mass production of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” was clearly one of those people. This is what I think of as one of Bauersfeld’s “frothers,” and if a San Francisco boy thought, perhaps, he had stumbled across something, well, L7 — as in square, baby — on his FM dial, at the outset of this sonic depiction of what it’s like to go mad, I suspect he’d feel differently by the end, even if, conceivably, he’d have no desire to head off to a Black Mass again. A treatment of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” is similarly loopy, but quieter, with aspects of Beckett and Ionesco such that you feel as though you’ve been at once transported beyond the horror realm, and interred square in the middle of it. This is an account of chaos, of the random forces of life, nature, and cognizance; an absence, in short, of control, which nobody likes, that reality of being acted upon, without any defense to not have that be so. It ain’t a bat that is true terror — it’s this.

The denizens of the Black Mass form a community of sorts. The title character of “Charon,” embroiled in his business of escorting souls across the River Styx is, after a fashion, henpecked by the gods such that you can imagine him listening attentively to the plight of the protagonist of Bierce’s “The Boarded Window,” another character sorely taxed by the gods, the haunts, the spirits, whatever one wishes to call them. Actually, it would have been a blast if Black Mass went intertextual, as Lights Out did (stuff would happen to the writers of the program), with characters wandering into each other’s episodes, or Bauersfeld himself getting involved as himself. After painstakingly stitching the episodes together in the middle of the night — naturally — Bauersfeld would proceed to get ripped on gin, and sometimes when I mull that image, I think how satisfactory it would be to hear the sound of one of Bauersfeld’s own vocal creations emerging to ensnare him in a new kind of tale of terror.

But, alas, that’s not how Black Mass works, and it works rather well on its own sometimes musty, oft-adventurous, always emotive ways. Sometimes, the haunts even touch you in manners that we figure haunts never can. Which is to say, as symbols of our own love, after the fact: the love for another who has left, the love that is sounded in our hearts when the chord of some painful bit of memory is struck. The quick, ten minute production of Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House” is the Black Mass series at its apex. Bauersfeld plays, intriguingly, the titular edifice, a home no longer occupied by two people who loved each other very much. The spirits of such loves, though, have a tendency to linger on, and they do just that here in the voicings of Pat Franklyn and Bernard Mayes. We drift atop a sea of displaced pronouns — “he,” “she,” “you,” “me,” the gutting past tense suggested by “us” — around the rooms of this house where now only ghosts consigned to memory reside, dormant and dependent upon someone, no longer the same, recalling them and bringing them back toward the light, before all is stoppered up again. For these are the ghosts that, as we all know, are stronger and more affecting than those we find in forests, graveyards, castles, and cottages. These are the ghosts that leave you a’shudder and reaching for the Gunsmoke comic book, or whatever the 21st century version of that is. A blog about The Walking Dead, perhaps. • 28 October 2013

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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