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As Dark Locks In: Nightfall

By (October 1, 2012) No Comment

All Hallow’s Eve, 1980: the CBC broadcasts “Ringing the Changes,” a new episode of the radio series Nightfall. Years later, but not that many years later, I begged my father to turn off that very episode, which we were listening to on cassette; the story was about to reach its climax: Holihaven’s bells had stopped ringing, an anonymous street evangelist had cried, “The dead are awake,” and, indeed, the dead were dancing and chanting: “The living and the dead dance together. Now’s the time. Now’s the place. Now’s the weather.” My father finally snapped the tape off, but not until one voice rose above the chanting: a phlegmy, corpse-with-little-left-of-its-vocal-chords kind of voice: “Now’s the time. Now’s the place…” Eventually I heard all of “Ringing the Changes” and it has since become my favorite episode of Nightfall, in no small part because it introduced me to Robert Aickman.

Aickman’s short story “Ringing the Changes” is the better version, of course. P. Norman Cherrie, the author of the radio play, had to fit the story into a half-hour. He eliminated some of the story’s complexities, such as Commandant Shotcroft’s backstory (he is punishing himself, living in Holihaven, for what he did during a war, perhaps) and a few details, such as the samurai suit at the end of the hall (an element of atmosphere that goes unexplained in the Aickman story—a perfect illustration of Aickman’s understanding that while everything in this world might add up, we are unlikely ever to discover how or why). Yet, Cherrie does Aickman’s story justice, as does the production. “Ringing the Changes” is perfect for radio, and the sound effects people met the story’s potential. The ringing of Holihaven’s bells steadily increases, and the chanting of the dead, as I described, became too awful for me to bear as a boy. When Phrynne and Gerald walk down to the beach, looking for the sea—“I think seaside attractions should include the sea,” Phrynne says—Phrynne screams. Her scream is not just a high-pitched scream, but something more subtle. She sounds revolted and chilled all at once. And all the while sodden ground squishes and church bells ring. Cherrie adds a line here that, though too heavy-handed for Aickman, works well for the show. Gerald asks, “What do you think it was you stepped on?” and Phrynne replies, “It was something soft. Something soft and…” She hesitates, Gerald pushes her on, “And?” he asks. She says, “…And bone.” Perhaps the best sound-effect moment comes when Gerald and Phrynne attempt to escape Holihaven. They leave the Bell Hotel and rush into the streets; the bells are ringing like mad—and then they stop. From the moment Gerald and Phrynne arrived in Holihaven, bells rang. As a listener, you become inured to the sound. When they finally stop—we freeze. A moment later, the evangelist announces that the dead are awake and we hear earth churn.

Nightfall began in 1979, when Susan Rubes was hired by the CBC to update their radio dramas. She, “asked for an increased budget, more air time, and a variety of time-slots in order to reach a wider audience.” She was contacted by a producer from Toronto, Bill Howell, who sold her on his idea for a horror radio anthology. Rubes felt she had a hit on her hands, and gave Howell the go-ahead. Bill Howell, several years later, wrote a piece called “Notes on Nightfall for NPR” (America’s National Public Radio aired about thirteen episodes of Nightfall, beginning October, 1981). He wrote this about the origin of the show:

It started innocently enough. Somebody on a network management task force decided that CBC Radio Drama should shed its tweed-pipe-and-smoldering-jacket-image, and a seductive way to do this would be to produce a new horror series, “like the Inner Sanctum or The Shadow.” Five senior executive producers immediately had heart attacks, sixteen script editors resigned in protest…

Most of Howell’s writings regarding Nightfall are a mix of truth and his delightfully creaky horror humor. The series ran for two seasons under Bill Howell’s production, with episodes recorded in Toronto at “studio G,” which Howell described thusly:

Imagine a barn of a room, chipped and flaking institutional pastel walls, black drapes, stained glass, arcane gray sound effects doors and wind machines, a spider’s web of microphone cables, dilapidated armchairs, sections of scripts spread everywhere, and a control room jammed with dim nodes humming to be transformed. And, since you are a guest in this article, we’ll provide the bats.

Howell is always glad to go for the Tales from the Crypt-esque horror bit. Fortunately, most of the time, Nightfall didn’t.

For season three, the show’s final season, Nightfall was transferred to CBC Vancouver and the production duties were handled by Don Kowalchuk. Another thirty-three episodes were aired, and then Nightfall was no more.

Like the radio show Inner Sanctum (1941 – 52), Nightfall featured memorable introductions and memorable hosts—Henry Ramer during the first two seasons and Bill Reiter during the last. Ramer possessed a deep, gravelly voice, and he opened each show with these lines (I’ve added commas where Ramer pauses): “In the dream, you are a falling, lost, in the listening distance, as dark locks in.” This was followed by a scream and then Ramer’s voice: “Nightfall!” For Reiter’s intro, the “In a dream you’re falling…” bit was gone; Reiter’s intro was individualized to fit each story. For example, “Private Collection” led with, “When your suspicions turn to terrible truths—it’s Nightfall”; “The Tie that Binds” led with, “For people who believe they have a grip on themselves—a strong grip—this is Nightfall.” Reiter also introduced himself: “Good evening, Frederick Hende here.” Reiter’s voice wasn’t like Ramer’s either: it was muted. Nigel Bruce’s Watson—without the bluster—comes to mind.

“Ringing the Changes,” was the eighteenth episode of the first season. The Nightfall series produced a good number of other exceptional plays based on short stories. “The Monkey’s Paw” is especially successful. So too are “The Stone Ship” (William Hope Hodgson), “They Bite” (Anthony Boucher), “The Screaming Skull” (F. Marion Crawford) and “The Signalman” (Charles Dickens). This is but a small selection of favorite adaptations. The wide range of stories chosen for adaptation reflects the process by which they were chosen. Nightfall writers approached the producers with stories they wanted to adapt, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, it’s the plays written especially for the series that make Nightfall such an overwhelming success. Out of a hundred episodes, only a few are duds (“Mind Drift,” for instance, a tedious and predictable Manchurian Candidate story). Those episodes I consider to be mediocre—the plays that rely wholly on gruesomeness and nastiness—are still highly entertaining: will he rip out his own heart? will the vengeful spirit cut off his legs? Seated by one’s radio, in the dark, these simplistic stories work the same way any good campfire tale works—with a bump in the night. Terrific heart-rending and leg-tearing sound-effects abound.

The best episodes are those that demand another listen. Some, I listen to again and again because the story remains mysterious from start to finish. Tim Wynne-Jones, a well-known Canadian author of young adult books (most recently Blink & Caution), wrote a few such mysterious Nightfall episodes. “The Road Ends at the Sea” is set at a lighthouse by the Bay of Fundi, where the tides rise and fall twenty-five feet within an hour. The young couple who maintain the lighthouse are visited by an old friend—of sorts—a fellow writer who sold-out and now wants to steal the woman he felt he should have had in college, the woman who instead married the lighthouse keeper. The young couple are living at the lighthouse in pursuit of real isolation—at first under the guise of wanting peace and quiet for their writing, but now for a more profound and intangible reason. During the old friend’s visit, a great black ship appears in the bay. This ship is the lighthouse keepers’ ticket to isolation, so they believe; the old friend resists. And there isn’t much else to the story—a struggle and a little anti-climax with the police who come to check on the couple who live in the lighthouse. This episode is marred by maudlin incidental music, but otherwise it’s perfect, perfectly mysterious. “The Strange Odyssey of Lennis Freed, ” also by Wynne-Jones, is similarly rich, though not so much because of the story—a fairly basic ghost story—but because of the atmosphere. A husband and wife are making an annual holiday trip—they follow the same route each year, stay in the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants, but this year there’s a terrific snowstorm, which—with the occasional accompaniment of the chronically coughing Lennis Freed—has totally transformed their trip. Janet Bonnellie’s “In the Name of the Father,” John Douglas’s “Lazarus Rising,” and Tony Bell’s “The Jogger” are other stories I admire for their strangeness.

The episode that still unnerves me, no matter how many times I hear it, is “The Porch Light,” by Randy Brown. Another basic ghost story carried off entirely by atmosphere: the light that won’t stay off, the new house, the snow, the figure seen from the bedroom window but not when the front door to the house is opened—and oh! what a mistake opening the front door is, and yet, a mistake you and I would make, in spite of all the ghost stories we’ve read. The acting, too—just two people in a studio—carries “The Porch Light” to its peak, to a moment when I almost can’t stand to listen anymore.

Nightfall is still under copyright, so the episodes sold as cassettes, CDs, and Mp3s are bootlegs. Often the sound quality of these recordings is very poor—a few, in fact, are nearly impossible to listen to (some include unexpected pleasures: a weather report, a promo for an upcoming show, a little bit of local news). Several Nightfall episodes were sold, with full permission, on cassette and in stereo, by Durkin-Hayes Publishing and by CBC Enterprise. Those cassettes crop up on abebooks.com, at the CBC’s shop-online and elsewhere. There is also a CD, a volume one that never went beyond Volume One, which includes four episodes—all very different episodes, all good (even my least favorite of the four, “Future Fear,” is good). Recently, all the episodes have been posted online and can be streamed here. The sound quality is very good.

As I listened through my Nightfall collection again and again (most recently while house painting this summer), I began to wonder about the biography of the show. I began to pay attention to the credits and to contemplate the research that would be involved in writing a long essay or even a short book about Nightfall. The Web, for all its gathering of the obscure, yielded very little information. Then, something new cropped up online: Neil Marsh’s www.nightfall-25.com. I began to read Neil’s site, and was delighted by what and by who Neil had located. Somewhat relieved that someone else was doing all the hard work, I contacted Neil and he’s proven to be a generous fellow—only marginally interested in the horror genre, but fascinated by this particular show and by radio drama in general. I am currently surrounded by pages of research Neil kindly sent. Though www.nightfall-25.com isn’t yet complete (and may never be), there’s an enormous amount of material there, and Neil’s back to posting after a long hiatus. If you have any interest in the show, visit Neil’s site. If, in the reverse, you know anything about the show, let Neil know via his site. It’s also worth noting that Neil produces his own audio dramas (to call the shows “radio drama” is anachronistic) with the Post Meridian Players.

I asked Neil about a little bit of promo copy that is often included in blurbs about Nightfall that reads, “The show ignited complaints from many listeners that it was too frightening, prompting some stations to drop the series from their programming.” Neil has found no evidence that the show was ever dropped from a station’s line-up because of angry listeners, though he believes such calls were likely to have been made. True or no, Nightfall being too scary for radio is a nice legend.

Why the series was finally cancelled isn’t really clear. Susan Rubes said, “[the producers] simply felt they had done enough episodes for any future release or syndication….” That answer’s a little too neat. Perhaps the producers wanted to evolve—after Nightfall, there is CBC’s The Vanishing Point, a similar anthology series, featuring many of the same actors and writers (A favorite of mine is “The Testing of Stanley Teagarden, by none other than Tim Wynne-Jones). Some episodes of The Vanishing Point are horror stories, but most are just strange. Of course, I’d’ve kept Nightfall on the air. The series produced some of the best horror radio shows ever, as good as the best of Lights Out, The Hall of Fantasy, Inner Sanctum, etc.—as good as the greats.

Adam Golaski is the author of Color Plates and Worse Than Myself. He is currently at work editing a selection of Paul Hannigan’s writings, due from Flim Forum Press early next year. His poetry has appeared in a number of journals including 1913: A Journal of Forms (#6), MoonlitLittle Red Leavesword for/word, and LVNG. Adam blogs at Little Stories.