Eldrich Terror for the Whole Family: SUSPENSE and "The Dunwich Horror"
Updated: Jan 12
By John C. Alsedek:
Radio drama in the 1940s was a fascinating place. You could find all manner of programming, from mysteries on the high seas to adventures in the most desolate of deserts. Horror was well represented, with shows such as The Witch’s Tale and The Mysterious Traveler consistently popular with audiences nationally. But these programs by and large stuck to conventional thrills; about as far afield as they would go was The Mysterious Traveler’s "Behind the Locked Door," which concerned the descendants of frontier settlers who had degenerated due to being trapped in a cavern for generations.
Arch Oboler’s completely "out there" series Lights Out was perhaps the one exception, with episodes such as "The Dark" and "The Chicken Heart" taking spine-tingling weird concepts and running with them. But even Lights Out had to take a bit of a back seat on November 1st, 1945, when radio’s #1 anthology series, Suspense, introduced the American public to the Eldritch horrors of the late, great H. P. Lovecraft with the adaptation of "The Dunwich Horror."
Today, H. P. Lovecraft is recognized as one of the all-time masters of horror. But in 1945, he was all but unknown outside the Weird Tales crowd, having died in near-poverty eight years earlier. How such a traditionally "normal" radio show as Suspense ended up adapting "The Dunwich Horror" is a question I haven’t found a ready answer to, but it was the most unlikely mainstream appearance of Lovecraft’s work until 1987’s "The Collect Call of Cthulhu" episode of The Real Ghostbusters animated series.
The source material was a Lovecraft novella first published in Weird Tales. It concerned the Whateley family, denizens of the decaying village of Dunwich, Massachusetts. Into that family is born a child, Wilbur, from an unnamed father; described as "dark and goatish," Wilbur grows unnaturally fast and is instructed in the study of witchcraft by his aged grandfather, Wizard Whateley. All the while, the Whateleys are purchasing increasing numbers of cattle, though their herd doesn’t seem to grow at all. And there’s something in the family’s old barn. . . .
"The Dunwich Horror" is considered one of the central stories of the Cthulhu Mythos, a shared universe created by Lovecraft. In it, humans are all but powerless in the face of monstrosities of godlike abilities from other worlds and dimensions. The specific otherworldly terror referenced in "The Dunwich Horror" is (spoilers coming!) Yog-Sothoth, an entity that exists in all places and times at the same time and is most commonly depicted as a mass of glowing orbs. Yog-Sothoth is the presumed father of both Wilbur Whateley and the "other" that is kept in the Whateley family barn. The story itself was inspired by the works of an earlier horror writer, Arthur Machen; in particular, "The Dunwich Horror" draws from Machen’s "The Great God Pan" and "The Novel of the Black Sea." Lovecraft may also have incorporated facets of several other stories. One is "The Thing in the Woods" by Margery Williams, which concerned a pair of brothers living in seclusion in the woods, one far less human than the other; others include "Oooze" by Anthony M. Rud and the Ambrose Bierce classic "The Damned Thing."
While Lovecraft didn’t expect to sell "The Dunwich Horror" to his usual outlet, Weird Tales, the magazine instead snatched it up immediately and published it in the April 1929 issue. Perhaps this is where Suspense director/producer William Spier first discovered the story, as I don’t think "The Dunwich Horror" was published in a collection until the early sixties. In any event, Spier adapted the tale for Suspense, with Oscar winner Ronald Colman in the lead role of Henry Armitage and a strong cast of radio veterans including Joseph Kearns, William Johnstone, and Elliott Lewis in support. Spier structured the episode as a radio show within a radio show, with Armitage doing a broadcast from atop Sentinel Hill and using flashbacks to tell the story to that point. It concludes much the same as the short story, with the destruction of the otherworldly menace and the thwarting of Yog-Sothoth—for the moment.
The Suspense adaptation of "The Dunwich Horror" isn’t wholly successful, simply because there’s far too much utterly alien material to squeeze into a thirty-minute program. And the closing “May Heaven bless us all” is as far from Lovecraftian as can be imagined. However, there’s still a lot of interesting stuff here. Ronald Colman isn’t exactly what one would look for in a radio announcer-type character, but his dignified delivery gives weight to what must have been some pretty confusing dialogue for listeners who weren’t familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos. The use of whippoorwills as the harbingers of death and the hunters of souls is an effective device that is true to the short story. The monstrous Wilbur Whateley has an otherworldly voice that fits the character well. And as for Wilbur’s brother, the "Other,"the representation of it here (as well as its demise) is highly effective; give it a listen and you’ll hear what I mean.
Next time, we’ll be going from a man of learning talking to a national audience about an interdimensional horror to a man of learning talking to a national audience about science you can do at home. And no, it’s not Bill Nye, the Science Guy; it’s the one, the only, Mr. Wizard! Until then, thanks for tuning in.
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.