It always starts with an introduction by “the Man in Black" who promises thrills and twisted turns aplenty, usually followed by spooky music played by an aggressive-sounding horn orchestra and some kind of ominous glockenspiel—and then the man says, “We again hope to keep you in…TA-DA!...suspense!"

This is followed by a once super-hot Hollywood star, perhaps the versatile Charles “Quasimodo" Laughton or the I Love Lucy comedienne Lucille Ball, lending a voice to the tight plot, setting a dramatic scene, introducing a problem that will and must lead to life-and-death situations. The screws are tightened until the suspense is unbearable at the end of the half-hour drama. According to the formula, the climax was to be “withheld until the last possible moment".

What I’m talking about is the Suspense show that CBS Radio aired from the early 1940s onwards, until the series was shut down two decades later as TV overtook radio as the preferred home entertainment channel. In a sense, these radio shows were superior to later TV serials because the simplicity of the radio format, and the therefore lower budgets involved, allowed for much more wild experimentation. And in a happy twist of fate, the golden age of American radio coincided with the heyday of pulp noir fiction, and the producers of this particular programme (led by a certain Mr Spier) knew how to cash in by recording a show dedicated to our “horrification and entertainment".

Based out of Los Angeles (and sponsored by a wine brand “made in California for enjoyment throughout the world") the broadcasters roped in the biggest movie stars and story writers (crime novelist John Dickson Carr was probably the most frequent contributor) to collaborate on these breathtaking shows.

A vintage radio set. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Why exactly am I raving about a radio show that went off the air in 1962? Well, I’ve just discovered that the show still exists as an Internet archive maintained by a group of radio researchers who have digitized almost 900 of its 947 episodes. Anybody can go online and download the whole lot, some 36 CDs worth of programming, or select single episodes to sample like a maniac kleptomaniac. The half-an-hour story length is ideal for a bus or metro commute.

The 20 episodes on my phone right now constitute all the stories written by or adapted from Cornell Woolrich for the Suspense show. The master of nightmares, Woolrich was one of three “founding fathers" of American noir, alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and plenty of his stories were adapted into Hollywood blockbusters such as Rear Window (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Less revisited are these radio versions of his twisted plots, but here we find them all—If the Dead Could Talk, Deadline at Dawn and Post Mortem, plus a load of others brought alive again thanks to the archival work of these radio enthusiasts.

Other stories worth checking out are those by Lucille Fletcher, such as The Hitch Hiker (starring Orson Welles and later remade for cult TV show The Twilight Zone) and Sorry, Wrong Number which is said to be the most popular episode ever broadcast, about a bedridden woman who overhears a phone conversation about a murder plot and realizes that she herself is the intended victim (it played eight times on radio and was filmed twice, in 1948 and 1989).

To find out more, visit the Old Time Radio Researchers Group or get the recordings, mostly in MP3 format and all of them free of charge (click here). Do support their initiative by surfing there and spreading the message. Now that we all listen to MP3s all the time, these shows deserve a comeback.

To return to the menacing voice of the Man in Black, he is the distinctive host who appears at the beginning and end of each show. Although many held the job, this voice usually belonged to Paul Frees, Ted Osborne or Joseph Kearns (Kearns played Mr Wilson on the original Dennis the Menace TV show). He’d introduce the story and its stars, mentioning their latest movie hits, and then build up the suspense with descriptions of what we’re about to hear as a “study in terror" or a “black path of fear".

So if you ever see me on a Volvo bus, looking angelic with my ears plugged, you should know that there is constant murder and mayhem committed by pyromaniacs and homicidal maniacs inside my head. And perhaps you’ll then notice that I am always sitting at the very edge of the seat.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

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