Even by the standards of the golden age of radio, the run for the program Suspense was extreme in length. It positioned itself — and certainly marketed itself — as the gold standard in what were called thrillers at the time, and was arguably the most prestigious radio show — an audible legacy brand — between the years 1942 and 1962.
During that concluding year, as the 1960s inched closer to being the decade we’d come to know it as, with JFK implementing policy and the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan flexing musical muscle, both Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar — another program of longstanding appeal — took their leave of the airwaves, and an era in American broadcasting closed. No longer would Americans twiddle a nob to find a station in order to be told a story that would whisk them away into the lives of others, with only ears and imagination for equipage.
We definitely lost something. An ability to close our eyes and go. To listen to the best radio programs of that mid-century period was to be complicit in the narrative, the same as when we read a book. The mind forms images, sets the scene, and upon that mental canvas, we watch the story unfold as we all but join with it.
I think we’re smarter when we undertake pleasurable mental exercises. A peace descends upon you, which I still hear people speak of when they learn that I often write and talk about what is quaintly termed old time radio, but don’t be fooled, because certain old-time radio episodes can buttonhole you as if intent on shaking the soul from your being.
These ardent listeners — all of whom are too young to have grown up listening to radio dramas as regular entertainment — will describe how they put on a favorite show in bed at night as they shuffle off to Dreamland. They end up spending dozens of hours each month with their favorites. Not that the preferred show is heavy on longueurs; rather, it’s that peace of which I spoke. Of story-based contentment.
But old time radio can count itself amidst the most radical art forms in our country’s history — at times, anyway. Let’s just say dramatic radio had its moments where, if you were building a time capsule should the aliens ever come down to determine what we were about if we happen to be gone, you’d want a couple of offerings from the medium alongside Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The General, Citizen Kane, and Blonde on Blonde.
The term thriller could often be reliably exchanged with the label of horror, unless there were police involved, and the same went for movies. The cop procedural wasn’t called noir at the time, nor the heist flic, or the tale of ex-cons getting together for one last stab at the dough. Suspense didn’t deal in noir. When it gave you a thriller — which was almost all of the time, over the course of nearly 1000 episodes — it wanted to scare you.
The show was based in Hollywood, as many of the golden era old-time radio programs were, but this was especially important for Suspense, which went out over the airwaves once a week, with a different Hollywood star as the lead in the episode. The star usually came from film, but performers from all walks of entertainment were welcome, with a cool catch: if possible, they’d be cast against type.
Judy Garland — who was known as a singer rather than a dramatic thespian as she rose to prominence and then as America’s premiere starlet — was inserted into a story about a sociopath at a drive-in eatery who had just killed and was now going to rub out sweet Judy, who has to end that fella, and does so skillfully with a salt shaker. Jimmy Stewart became a murderer. Bela Lugosi — well, Lugosi is going to Lugosi, and not transition to the peaceable gardener who heals a horse with a broken leg for the blind girl next door who loves the animal, but you get the idea. One’s expectations were usurped and dashed to the ground like the shattering of a glass goblet. No standing on ceremony here.
The problem with Suspense — and it was a biggie — was that the programs usually built and built and built, larding up splashy narrative excess, just so there could be some crazy twist at the end. This was the Suspense brand and the Suspense recipe. Listeners were told about the approach in the show’s marketing materials, and in the intro to each episode, in which an announcer outright guaranteed that you were about to be kept . . . in Suspense! Until the relief/release provided by the twist, that is. You were meant to know that you weren’t meant to know what was coming.
Thus, many Suspense episodes are visible now. I think they would have been back then if you knew the drill, and believe me, it didn’t require years for you to be up to speed. They were well-made shows, though, and in an era and medium where the sound effect was raised to the level of art, Suspense was a mid-level All-Star on the rung belong the 1956 five-part Johnny Dollar episodes with Bob Bailey as the title character, and Gunsmoke (1952-61), the sterling radio iteration that was some distance better than the sterling TV show that grew out of it.
You can still listen to Suspense episodes — almost all of which survive, in fine sound — and view your time as well spent. They’re fun. And while the pattern of the “give me a break!”-style of ending held firm, there were instances where the twist was neither here nor there. Either one wasn’t utilized, or the twist wasn’t a twist at all, but a natural progression of a well-made narrative that held surprises and delivered kicks that no mere twist ever could.
When this occurred, rare as it was, Suspense approached perfection. And it could also produce a program like the one I’ve probably heard 100 times, which isn’t just stellar entertainment and stellar art worthy of the aforesaid capsule for the aliens, but also what may be the most frightening half-hour ever to be heard in this Republic where fear has always been its own kind of backbone, dating back to the time of Hawthorne and ghosts that embodied — ironically — the best of story, and stories that bundled the human mysteries our best ghosts recognize as the meat of our existence.
So let us turn back to Christmastime 1946 — specifically, December fifth of that year of post-war joy and thankfulness — and consider “The House in Cypress Canyon,” an episode of Suspense that is going to keep you a long, long time after you hear it. Keep you for good, in its way, as you nonetheless receive the better end of that deal.
“The House in Cypress Canyon” is a frame story — a story within a story, with a return to the outer casing of the narrative shell at the close. All stories, I’ve learned, exist within other stories; it’s simply a matter of how overt the frame will be, or, the degree to which we recognize it.
We start inside a land developer’s office, in California, where Sam, a detective, played by Howard Duff, is visiting his buddy, Jerry, played by Hans Conried. The visit is of the variety that people make at the Christmas holidays — the seasonal rounds.
You want to wish your friend the best of the season, do a quick run-through of their recent life events to make sure your friend is well, because you care about them and you’d not want to miss out on saying an in-person hello if possible. (NB: Have you ever noticed that some of our best and most meaningful Christmas interactions are those that occur “on the fly,” rather than in place, as planned, and protracted?)
Jerry has something on his mind, though. His job is to put people in homes that have recently been built. I should qualify — that were recently finished being built. Construction on these homes began before the war, then stopped, as the attention of the nation and its resources were directed elsewhere.
The war is over now, and the building may resume. They’re not fancy structures. Cheap homes for people getting back to the business of living their lives and growing in post-war America. The war paused lives, and this strikes me as a key point to the episode. These homes stood in rows in would-be new developments like the one at the bottom of Cypress Canyon, half alive and half not alive. Dead isn’t quite the right word, but these were homes occupying a liminal state.
A subtle metaphor, but a metaphor all the same. Getting caught between two worlds is natural — that’s life. Not freeing one’s self, though, is a form of death. What’s bothering Jerry — and who better to bring this up with than his detective friend? — is that in one of these homes, a manuscript was found and brought to his attention. The papers were sitting on a crossbeam in a house that had never been lived in and had just been completed.
Such a haunting image of off-kilter, encroached-upon, pre-domesticity — an empty front room, the house still going up, with a book on a rafter. Jerry wants Sam to check out the manuscript and tell him what he thinks. Sam is dubious. People write all kinds of things and this is California, after all, where everyone wants to make it in Hollywood. Who knows what texts end up getting left around?
The transition to the manuscript itself is smooth. We don’t know if Sam sat there and read the thing as Jerry waited, and we don’t need to know the particulars. We know the gist. The gist need not be belabored. If you, the writer, the content maker, get us the gist, you can simply move on with your story. We’ll trust you. Save the spelling out for what needs it more.
What we must have after this intriguing opening is the larger story, now that we’ve penetrated the outer casing. It’s a few days before Christmas with this new narrative, which is told by the writer of the manuscript, James A. Woods, a perfectly ordinary — in his own words — 35-year old chemical engineer recently married to his wife Ellen, a school teacher. They’re from Ohio and moved to California for his job. They see a sign for a newly-built house in their meager price range, and despite thinking there has to be a catch, they stop and see a realtor. There’s a crucial line when they’re in the office of the latter, and it’s about a subject as benign as the weather. “Looks like it’s fixin’ to rain,” we’re told, and a gloom settles over the story.
The couple takes the house, and while it’s not perfect, they have a roof over their heads, and they feel like they’re making progress in their new start out West, in their lives, in their marriage.
Robert L. Richards wrote “The House in Cypress Canyon.” He’d worked for Time and been a newsreel writer for the March of Time, so he knew how to tell a story with crisp efficacy. “The House in Cypress Canyon” is emotionally quick — it cuts us in clear, effective slashes, but it’s layered, so Richards had other talents in his quiver and I bet “The House in Cypress Canyon” was the outlet he was waiting for.
The house is lightly furnished. A couple of stock pictures on the wall, which Ellen wants to take down. A woman making a house her home. Her own. Her family’s own. The posters go into the closet, and this closet is going to be a problem. Falling asleep that night, the couple awakens to cries that are not human. They’re not animal sounds either. They try to fool themselves that it’s some tomcat, out on the amorous prowl, but neither is convinced. The larger issue, though, is that there’s blood seeping out from under the closet door back in the main room, which they also can’t open. They go and get the cops, but upon returning to the house with a pair of California’s finest, the closet door is open, and there’s no blood.
Look at the ingredients with which we’re working here. Newlyweds, new home, locked closet, blood on the floor, a sound in the night. Simple. These elements, though, have been arranged in such a way that we feel as if we’re under a psychological attack. Not that we mind — fear of this nature is pleasing. We feel alive. On the balls of our feet, mentally speaking, you might say. Our senses heightened, and, crucially, our imagination heightened.
I don’t think you can hear this program and not be in the room with these people. You see that closet. You know the front room of this house. When you think about this radio program later, you see everything in your mind’s eye the same way you do when recalling houses you’ve actually been in that you won’t be in again — the house, say, of one of your friend’s from childhood, or the house where someone put you up that night your flight was canceled, who may have been tangential to the rest of your life. Perhaps the house of a groomsman you kind of knew, when you were heading out of town from a wedding. But you remember where his second-floor bathroom was, which you went to in the middle of the night, and you can always, in your memory, take a walk down that guy’s hallway, even though you might not remember his name. That’s “The House in Cypress Canyon,” because, in a real way, we do go and stay there, on account of how the story partners with our imagination.
Life goes on, for a day, anyway. Night number two is worse than the couple’s maiden voyage in their new home. James finds Ellen sleepwalking, and when he attempts to rouse her, she bites his arm, tearing the flesh. After he does manage to wake her, she has no idea that anything has happened. The noise that we hear from the closet, that permeates the air of this story and occurs all around — terror in surround sound, like when the Monster manages to throw his voice in 1931’s Frankenstein — sounds like some enigmatic, high-pitched death siren from the radio — or your computer these days — is one of the greatest effects in American sound design.
It’s so outstanding, that you really don’t want to hear it. I’m not sure what makes the sound. A person makes it, yes, but it doesn’t sound like a person. That I know both things to be true only makes me more frightened when I do hear the sound. I suspect that I’m experiencing what James experiences, with a couple degrees of removal, if that.
You know how you hear a third-generation copy of a show played by your favorite band? It’s close to what the first generation — the master — likely sounds like, right? That’s the brilliance of “The House in Cypress Canyon,” but also the reality of our imagination when we are compelled to use it. We always have reason to use it, but that doesn’t mean we do. We rarely do. “The House in Cypress Canyon” gives us no choice.
The next day James gets the wound treated. The doctor remarks that he’s never seen infection set in that quickly. This detail doesn’t change the plot, but it adds to the story. Such is the nature of the well-chosen specific. The best writers can make a story work with so few components, because of what they do with those components. You really need next to nothing if you’re that level of writer, and you will have everything, both on your end, and on the end of the audience member, who won’t be able to conceive of asking for more.
Returning home, James learns that a milkman in the neighborhood has been found dead, and lacking a throat, which had been torn away. A classic looky-loo — with extreme reason to be — James goes to the scene, where he comes upon one of the policemen who’d been at his house. The policeman is suspicious, but it’s not a lot different than he was the other night, when he clearly thought he’d been called in by a couple of idiots. “Nature of the job,” seemed to be his attitude. James explains that he lives in the area, which is enough for the cop, who certainly has — in his view — bigger problems.
James gets home, where he is alone, waiting. He sets down the words in his manuscript, which is obviously a few pieces of paper, and not some leather-bound book. These pages are what will be discovered on the crossbeam. They probably looked like notes made by a foreman whose crew was erecting those houses. Or maybe they were left by the last foreman — the one before the war — for whoever his successor might be.
Naturally, you’d pick them up, just as if you were James you’d want to do your best to scratch out a record of what was happening to you. Because this isn’t just a record — it’s a very specific form of note, the kind of note that you never want anyone you care about — or even anyone you dislike — to feel like they have to write. Ellen will return home, and James is going to do something to her, and then something to himself.
We don’t really see that coming: the bleak, unmitigating starkness of the two acts. We see accounts of murder-suicides in the news, but how often do we envision the particulars? How do the conversations go? (“Are you ready?”) If the person who committed the first act finds that they have to pause to commit the second. How much time elapses between the acts? These are not fun queries to ponder, and we are definitely not having a merry little Christmas at the house in Cypress Canyon. But we’re also not done.
Back at the real estate office and having partaken of what he deems a pretty good yarn, Sam the detective tells his buddy to chill. “People are crazy,” he says. This could be a million things. Maybe it will be a movie later on.
He’s not deflecting — he believes what he’s saying. The cops and the private dick are unmoved by the possibility of the supernatural in this story. Doesn’t register at all for them. Jerry is comforted by Sam’s phlegmatic nature, but the worst part of the matter to him is that these events transpired in a house before the house was built. He can’t let that go. Obviously, it will continue to haunt him, no matter what Sam says.
Sam issues his goodbyes. The two friends wish each other a happy Christmas. Jerry remains in the office, when a couple comes in. They’re looking for a home, and Jerry begins to do what Jerry does all of the time, because this is his job, talking about the housing market, making the small talk, when he says the line, “Looks like it’s fixin’ to rain,” but catches himself — there’s a hitch in his voice — in the middle, when he recognizes the words.
It’s at this point that we think, “Please don’t let this couple be . . . ” which is exactly who the couple is.
What is this? Is this death? Is death a loop? Is this the byproduct of murder-suicide? Did one man have a series of psychopathic moments that led him to believe events occurred that never did? Is that the nature of murder-suicides? You almost feel like it’d have to be when you see those accounts of presumably regular people, two of them now dead. No one was sick, they had regular jobs in regular communities, a regular house. Is this what happens, in some form or other?
I have none of the answers to these questions, which I ask each time I listen to “The House in Cypress Canyon,” but I do have an overriding suspicion that those questions themselves are obviated by whatever the hell happened in that house.
You can tell me the house is not real, but my imagination would beg to differ with you. And what’s real anyway? How do you think Jerry would handle that question? I’m not sure, sometimes, whether there’s a fitting answer for you, or for me. For any of us. And if that doesn’t hold the listener in suspense, then you’re just drifting through a whole lot of nothing. You may even be dead.•