I apologize for my absence. This past summer I had major reconstructive surgery on my foot. Unfortunately, it took a lot out of me. However, I’m ready to resume my exploration of the works of horror which have played a role in my development as a writer, so I hope you’ll rejoin me on this journey.
For those new to this column, it began several years ago as I began reflecting on an experience which sent me on a quest through the works of horror writers who came before me. Up until then, I’d been a faithful reader of the Holy Trinity: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub. Also, whatever Leisure Fiction was putting out at the time. However, after that fateful evening with F. Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone, and Stuart David Schiff, I began searching out writers who had previously been only names to me, and nothing more.
This began a highly transitional period in my writing career. I was searching for my own unique voice. During this period, I spent a lot of time on the road. Most specifically traveling to Horrorfind, a now defunct horror convention in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s no coincidence, then, that on my way to and from Horrorfind, I absorbed hours and hours of stories from the old radio drama Quiet, Please!, after learning of its existence from Stephen King’s seminal Danse Macabre. These understated stories played an important role in my development as a writer.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King shares his first experience with radio drama in 1958. He tells of sneaking downstairs when he was supposed to be sleeping, to hear a production of Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven” on Dimension X (Highly recommended, also).
I didn’t sleep in my bed that night; that night I slept in the doorway, where the real and rational light of the bathroom bulb could shine on my face. That was the power of radio at its height. – Stephen King, Danse Macabre
King references several other radio dramas in Danse Macabre. Hungry for this new medium, I filled my iPod with episodes of Quiet, Please!, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Dimension X, Dark Fantasy, Lights Out, and others. While I highly recommend them all, for now I’ll focus on Quiet, Please.
During its initial run, amongst many other radio dramas such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Dimension X, Lights Out and others, it earned modest acclaim. Since, then however, in many circles it has earned critical praise as one of the finest horror radio drama series ever produced. Professor Richard J. Hand of the University of Glamorgan argues Wyllis Cooper and Ernest Chappell “created works of astonishing originality” and describes the program as an “extraordinary body of work.” Radio historian Ron Lackmann maintains the episodes “were exceptionally well-written and outstandingly acted.”
For me, what raises Quiet, Please! above other similar radio dramas is a foundation of realism which subtly twists further and further into the “strange” as the story progresses. Narrated by by Ernest Chappell, the stories weave an entrancing web of casual storytelling which slowly ropes the listener into the strange. Often told in the second person speaking to us, the audience, our narrator is very much like a typical Twilight Zone character. A regular person who finds himself caught in the midst of something strange and unusual, facing things from beyond this world.
To be fair, this is a radio drama of the forties and fifties. There’s clashing organs, trumpets, and some of the sound effects do sound a little cheesy. Also, some the dialogue and characterization (of women, in particular), comes off as dated. Regardless, Ernest Chappell’s storytelling is the strength here, regaling us with very strange stories in a matter-of-fact, dry tone. The kind of tone one uses when telling stories at the bar. It’s incredibly effective in establishing suspense of disbelief, even in some of the more mediocre episodes.
Also, there’s a fair bit of surrealism at work. It’s implied that these stories have been “delivered” to writer and producer Wyllis Cooper through supernatural means, as very often the protagonist is regaling us with his story after he’s met his demise and has passed on to the “Other Side.”
“Camera Obscura,” which aired October 13th, 1947, begins with the question: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever killed anyone, have you? Naw, I didn’t think you had.” From this point on, our narrator tells us how he’s committed a murder and has gotten away with it. What follows is our narrator playing a casual game (as all murders seem to) of trying to see how far he can go before he gets caught. Of course, in a very Twilight Zone-esque way, he commits another murder to cover his tracks, but in the end wishes he’d just fessed up and gone to jail, instead of having to face his supernatural comeuppance.
In “Take Me Out to the Graveyard,” our narrator is a baffled and world-weary taxi driver accustomed to encountering strange individuals with even stranger destinations. However, when his all passengers start requesting the same strange destination — whatever graveyard is closest — and they all die in his taxi upon arrival, he starts thinking that maybe, just maybe, he’s no longer a taxi driver for the living.
Like its successor The Twilight Zone, Quiet, Please! often played things tongue-in-cheek, leaning into a speculative, fantastical type of humor. In “Meet John Smith, John,” a man of fortune encounter a penniless beggar of the same name, who claims to be him. Claims that he, John Smith, will come to ruin, if he doesn’t listen to his advice…because he’s John Smith, also. Listening to this episode, we know what’s coming, even as the beggar convinces John Smith of who he really is. We are human, after all. And we don’t like being told what to do. Even by our future selves.
Very much like TZ would years later, Quiet, Please! often told speculative stories about marginalized individuals. In “Wear the Dead Man’s Coat,” a homeless man desperate for a coat to warm against the cold kills another man for his coat. It turns out to be the best, warmest coat he’s ever worn. Now all he has to do is make sure no one catches him for his crime. He doesn’t realize that won’t be a problem….because he’s wearing a dead man’s coat, and with that comes a certain price.
Quiet, Please!, of course, isn’t without its flaws. Some of its episodes fall prey to the same clichés and logic leaps which occasionally plagued The Twilight Zone. And, as I mentioned, it is culturally dated. However, the best of its episodes offers tantalizing “what ifs” told in a very conversational, easy-to-listen to tone. Also, even though it takes some work because we are so conditioned to visual storytelling thanks to television and movies, I found that radio dramas allow for a sleight of hand not possible with a visual medium.
This is used to great effect in one of the best Quiet, Please! episodes, “The Thing on the Fourble Board.” Our narrator, an oil-driller from an oil-drilling crew, relates what happens when his crews unearths something old, ancient, and inhuman from untold depths below the earth. I highly recommend listening to this episode in the dark. In the quiet. And all alone…
Kevin Lucia’s short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, most recently with Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, Peter Straub and Robert McCammon. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014, Through A Mirror, Darkly, June 2015, and and his second short story collection, Things You Need, September 2018. His novella Mystery Road was published by Cemetery Dance Publications May, 2020. For three free ebooks, sign up for his monthly newsletter at www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com.