05 November 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 76

So far, the stories we've been listening to have been full of monsters and supernatural forces. In stark contrast, the threat in this play comes from something in nature--that is, something "rational" people can believe in. That doesn't necessarily make it scarier, but it does give it a special kind of charm.

Forget about being "trapped like a rat"! Apparently, the real worst-case scenario is to be "trapped by rats." Just ask Winston Smith. =P

Coincidentally, a friend and I were just discussing these rodents a few weeks ago. I was saying, half boasting, that Manila rats are the ugliest, nastiest, most deformed in the world . . . and she kept insisting that New York rats were worse. How she could have believed that, having never lived in New York, I don't know. As for my own stance, I base it on the time I saw a rat the size of a cat, with a tail twice as long as its body, waddle out of a Manila sewer. Beat that, New York!

But I'll admit that the sea rats in Three Skeleton Key are something else. They apparently have no fear of people (Then again, does any mob?), are able to climb many metres up stone walls, and can take a lighthouse beam straight in the eyes without losing some very tenuous grips. I don't know how realistic they are, but considering what I'm prepared to believe about Manila rats, I can surely accept that rats which either ate up an entire human crew or caused the crew to abandon an otherwise good ship would be unusually . . . capable

When the lighthouse keepers first slammed their door and windows closed to the rats, how long did you give them? I was naive enough to think they would last as long as their food and water supplies held, though I did wish that they had had the foresight to store some of the food in the room where they would have been most likely to have made a last stand. But as the situation got worse and worse, I couldn't imagine how human wit alone could get the three men--or at least the narrator--out of their hellish prison. The resolution was truly a reprieve from death . . . but at a horrible price for the unwitting saviours.

Again, I was curious about the original version, so I was happy to find an online copy of Three Skeleton Key by George G. Toudouze. I think the story does a better job of foreshadowing by explaining why the island was named after three skeletons, but that the play has a superior ending. The original resolution is great for the human characters and terrible for the rats (and therefore "happy"), while the "alternate ending" is great for both the humans and the rats. That is, great for one group of humans--but not so great for another group, which unwittingly get the evil passed on to them. Like, you know, a sacrifice.

Three Skeleton Key didn't frighten me the way some of the other plays have done, but what it had to say about our clumsy attempts at saving ourselves definitely disturbed me.

What are your thoughts on Three Skeleton Key?

1. Do you think the fear of rats is cultural (i.e., something we learned and can get over) or psychological (i.e., something we've always had)?
2. Can this be read as an allegory in which the rats represent something in human nature or society?
3. Are we ever justified in dealing with a problem by laying it on someone else's head?

How about a slightly different challenge for next time? Let's give the "golden age" of radio another break and try something from the first really ambitious revival. Our next play will be "Possessed by the Devil" from CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. Listen to it on the official CBS Radio Mystery Theatre site, My Old Radio, or YouTube. Note that it's an hour long!


love the girls said...

I really liked the play, perhaps because being eaten by irrational creatures is high on my list of ways not to end up dead, even though the risk of being bitten is pretty non existent. Unlike the farm my mother grew up on in eastern Colorado where the rats would sneak into the house at night and bite the children on the face.

Enbrethiliel said...


While I'd run away from a strange rat in real life, I also wouldn't mind having one for a pet. So my fear of the sea rats in this play was more intellectual (because I wouldn't want to be eaten alive, either) than visceral. There's another animal which would make me an Auguste instead of a narrator, but I'm not saying what it is! =P

Brandon said...

I was interested to hear at the end that the program received awards for its sound effects, because the sound effects really do a lot to make this story work in radio.

I think the rats are a bit creepier than most of the other monsters we've looked at; I think there's something especially horrible about the idea of things swarming over you.

1. I think most of our fears are learned; children don't seem to fear much until they learn that it hurts or does unpleasant things.

2. They seem almost to cry out for an allegorical interpretation, don't they? I'm not sure what it would be, though. I think an interesting part of the story is how the keepers all become a bit unhinged by the experience of being that close to death, which they can literally see on the other side of a pane of glass. I think the antics take a lot away from the horror part of the story, but I think they add an interesting dimension to the sense of being trapped.

3. I think we do this sometimes; indeed, I think we use policemen and soldiers in precisely this way. So I think it's justifiable. Of course, policemen sign up for it....

One of the things that was interesting about the 'hand-off' was how easy it was -- all the narrator had to do was just not say anything. That's one of those other features of the story that seems to be crying out for an allegorical interpretation -- how easy it is to get rid of something but simply not helping someone else avoid it. (It reminds me of the old camper joke about the bear escape plan -- always hike with someone slower than you are.) And it raises the question: How much of our handling of problems comes not from our ability to solve it but merely from making sure that someone else has it?

Enbrethiliel said...


I found that last bit of information interesting as well, Brandon! If I had known about radio awards before I started this short series, I would have relied more heavily on the list of winners.

1. I asked that question because although the characters are perfectly rational to fear the ravenous rats, I think there is something else going on beneath the surface. So while I agree that a child wouldn't naturally fear a rat, I think that one who has learned that a rat can cause pain (or distress in others) would also make an additional mental association. If a child were to start having nightmares about rats, for instance, we could interpret the rats as symbols.

2. As I hinted in the post, the rats make me think of a mob, in which members seem to lose the power of individual discernment. Being at the mercy of a mob happens to be very scary for me.

They could also stand in for one country's "troublesome" young men, shipped off to fight a war in a country that has no idea where they came from. It's one way to keep them from stirring up trouble at home, but it's also the palming off of a very serious responsibility to someone else. And it makes me wonder how the rats got to be so vicious and so numerous. What was the turning point in this plague's history?

3. You know, I didn't even consider that angle! I was thinking of the Japanese Horror film Ringu, in which the only way to save yourself from a mysterious death is to send someone else in your place--usually a totally innocent victim. And of course, there is the reality that we can, at any time, lay all our sins on Christ, since He has already received the punishment for us. But

Could the narrator have said anything, though? My understanding was that he couldn't light the lamp or send out any distress flares while the rats were there, and the exchange happened so quickly that even if he had called out, it would have been too late. On the other hand, he doesn't seem to feel any guilt for having kept silent; he asks no "What ifs?" But does this make him a philosopher or a psychopath?

Emily J. said...

Totally different subject: Super-typhoons are scarier than rats. Hope you and yours are safe.

Brandon said...

But does this make him a philosopher or a psychopath?

Not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I suppose that I thought that he had the means of warning them, but you're right that it does happen extremely quickly.

Brandon said...

I always lag behind on news, but I echo Emily's comment, with prayers.

Enbrethiliel said...


Emily -- The storm wasn't too hard on my city, but it was terrible in Leyte. Have you seen the footage of the church roof being blown off?

Brandon -- Coming from a Philosophy professor, your first comment is doubly funny! And thanks for the prayers, of course. =)

NoelCT said...

Glad to see you're doing okay. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Noel! =)