12 November 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 77

Has anyone else thought, like ABS in 1964, CBS in 1974 and Shredded Cheddar in 2013, about whether radio dramas could be successfully revived? It's probably too late now, partly because listeners who'd be nostalgic for the original series are no longer a big enough demographic . . . but mostly because someone discovering them anew today could spend his life going through all the archived material and feel as if he may never run out. Ironically, ABS's and CBS's joint contribution of over 1,500 "new" shows to the pot was probably the last nail in the coffin. Listen to two a day, and it will still take you about two years. Even if you start right now, with this one . . . 

Possessed by the Devil may have got several positive comments on its page at the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre Web site, but I confess that I wasn't too impressed with it. And when I was done listening, I spent more time wondering why it didn't seem to deliver than dealing with a fresh set of heebie-jeebies.

My first theory was that it was "wrong" for the main character and the protagonist to be different people--something we don't really figure out until the very end. The former is the young man who is dabbling in satanism; the latter, the hospital's cleaning lady. Now, inasmuch as she witnesses the demon pass into him at the beginning, it makes sense that she would be the one to vanquish him at the end. But since she is missing from all the acts in between, not even trying to warn Mike's family that something is up, it feels a little off. At least it does to me.

A second theory came last Sunday, after I listened to the latest Cracked.com podcast, Why Every Movie Plot Follows Weirdly Specific Rules, in which Jason Pargin (a.k.a. David Wong . . . a.k.a. the writer who inspired me TO CLOSE in 2013) explained that if you time every modern Hollywood blockbuster, you will notice that something big always happens at the sixty-minute mark. And that about fifteen minutes before that, something devastating would have hit the characters. It's a formula we're so used to that a director who messes with it risks having audiences complain that an otherwise good story told well "dragged a bit." There's a sense in which we can say this about Possessed by the Devil, which does not have the plot twist in the last five minutes which the Golden Age plays would have trained us to expect.

But perhaps it's just that we are informed immediately that demonic forces are involved and told exactly why Mike has summoned a demon. There's no real mystery any longer, and that numbs the play.

Of course, there's still a bit to like about Possessed by the Devil. For instance, I thought the actors portraying the doctors and the hospital cleaning lady were great. So good, in fact, that I now wish that the entire play had been a "hospital drama," in which science thinks it is discouraging superstition when it is actually being dogma shouting down truth. (In contrast, the Christian minister's failure to see that his own son has become a satanist is a twist which has no teeth.) I also really liked the one scene with Professor Aszerak (sp?): his recounting of Mike's brush with a demon is quite vivid . . . and for me, the scariest part of the entire story. 

What are your thoughts on Possessed by the Devil?

1) Would you believe someone who claims to have witnessed something fantastic, if you also smelled alcohol on his or her breath?
2) Should Trudy have told her fiance and father-in-law about Mike's attempt at seduction?
3) The alcoholic patient, Mrs. Gideon's sneaking of "sacramental wine," Mike's use of champagne "to anaesthetise" his target . . . Why make alcohol significant in a story about demonic possession?
4) Is it fair to judge this play by the form popularised by its predecessors?

For the next meeting, we'll be time traveling back to the 1940s. (Why mess with the formula any longer, aye? LOL!) One series we haven't listened to yet is The Whistler. Lacking a proper episode guide, reviews and recommendations, I've had to pick an episode at random. Let's hope that "Death Comes at Midnight" is a worthy Mystery Box item! Download it from the Internet Archive (where it's Track #12) or Podbay.fm, or listen to it at My Old Radio, Vimeo, or as always, YouTube.


love the girls said...

I thought the most interesting part is that it's the lower social order Catholic who is able to see the devil and is able vanquish him with a sacramental in a bastion of the modern learned that denies the supernatural.

That the son is put in a straight jacket, (signify a physical ailment), and sent to a hospital, (signifying the triumph of the material over the spiritual), even after it's discovered by a protestant minister that the son's been involved in satan worship and is acting possessed very nicely signifies the difference between Protestantism as creature of modernism and that of the Faith. I wonder if it was intended?

Brandon said...

So apparently a moral of the story is to watch out for your philosophy professors! (I found it odd, incidentally, that the primary moral the narrator draws from the the tale is that idle hands are the devil's playthings, which seems a bit as if someone concluded from a haunted house story that the important thing is to do regular housecleaning.)

I agree that it was a mistake to tell us at once what happened. It's also a mistake Golden Age radio wouldn't usually make -- if anything the temptation then was not to tell you enough! I also agree that the doctors and the cleaning lady are the most interesting characters.

I think there's some potential for family drama here, but we don't really get a clear idea of the family dynamic. It's clear that Mike's selfishness is longstanding -- he's always been able to take anything of Rod's that he wanted -- and yet everyone else seems oblivious to it. The Reverend complains that he can no longer connect with his son, but since we get nothing of that connection in the story, and he seems not to understand Mike very well at all, it's hard to know what to make of it. Trudy seems to have a considerable amount of trust in her father-in-law -- but we don't know why. There seems to be a consistent tension between Mike and Rod -- but it just vaguely hangs in the air.

I also found the Reverend's tabloid reading to be a bit curious, particularly since the narrator doesn't seem to approve of it that much. And we never really learn the reasons why the Reverend is an authority on demon lore (particularly since he never uses it). Perhaps the idea is that Mike has inherited a not-quite-safe curiosity from his father? There does seem some parental failure here, but we don't seem to get much indication about what it is.

Enbrethiliel said...


LTG -- Why I didn't jump all over the Catholic angle as soon as I saw it, I don't know! But I do like the way you set up the religious conflicts (materialism being another sort of religion).

Brandon -- The "idle hands" moral was so disjointed that I forgot it a few seconds after hearing it! And I could say the same for the cat . . . =P

The entire family seems to have their heads in the sand. Didn't anyone notice Mike's interest in satanism before Trudy did? And if someone did, wouldn't he, as either a minister or a minister's son, have been more worried? What happens in their home pales in significance to what happens in the hospital. I think the disjointed relationships are another contrast to Golden Age plays, which often imply huge personal issues or conflicts, with only a few words. (Take Martin and Cathy from Behind the Locked Door, for instance. Or Diana and Richard from The Undead.) Here, the family is just there and we don't see why Mike would envy Rod so much. If they had had a Cain vs. Abel or Older Son vs. Prodigal Son thing going, it would have vastly improved the story.

love the girls said...

Speaking of morals of the story, the moral of this story is don't sell yourself cheap.

If Mike had asked for more than Trudy, say all the babes in Paris, he would not have gotten bashed on the head, and he would have gotten all the babes in Paris, including Trudy.

Enbrethiliel said...


Paris? I thought they were in Ireland. =P

Pettiness seems to be a big part of Mike's character, but I wonder whether most writers would make characters who try to make Faustian bargains equally "cheap." No one's soul is worth that sort of trade. Someone who doesn't sell himself cheap wouldn't make a deal with the devil in the first place.

love the girls said...

Miss E. writes : "Paris? I thought they were in Ireland."

True, they are in Ireland. And while one would think she is from Germany, i.e. Trudy, diminutive of St. Ermintrude, patron of unrequited love, which by comparison of opposites signifies Mike's false unrequited lust, nevertheless she is Parisian because not only are Parisian women the most desirable, but Paris, the cowardly philanderer, likewise signifies by comparison of opposites Trudy's hellenistic attraction and steadfast virtue.

Enbrethiliel said...


. . . ?!