After Hurricane Isaac blew through town and knocked out the electricity, our family sat in a darkened living room and listened for news of the storm’s path up the state. Gathered around the portable radio, we looked like a period portrait — a throwback to the Depression-era days when husbands and wives, sons and daughters routinely rallied around a console to hear not only news, but comedy and drama, too. The experience made me think about the special power of radio to tell a story well.
I’ve been reminded of this again the past few days while learning about “Selected Shorts,” a New York-based public radio show in which some of America’s best actors and actresses perform dramatic readings of short fiction before a live studio audience. Although “Selected Shorts” isn’t carried on Baton Rouge radio, CD copies and downloadable versions of the episodes are available for purchase at the show’s website, http://www.symphonyspace.org.
Just in time for All Hallow’s Eve, a compact disc of the “Selected Shorts” show devoted to Egdar Allan Poe has crossed my desk, and it’s been a happy reunion with an author I’ve liked since childhood. With “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his 1841 short story, Poe essentially invented the modern detective tale, crafting a plot in which an ingenious amateur sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, improbably solves a baffling pair of killings. But Poe is better known for those creepy stories in which grim misdeeds sometimes escape the toils of the law.
“Poe!,” the “Selected Shorts” recording of his best stuff, includes my favorite Poe yarn, “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which an aggrieved aristocrat tricks his adversary into an underground vault, then seals him inside with a fresh row of bricks. No justice here, as listeners are reminded when the murderer, who also tells the story, concludes by mentioning that he left his victim a half a century earlier, and no one has disturbed the remains.
David Margulies, who performs “The Cask of Amontillado,” takes full advantage of the dramatic intimacy of the story, even managing to spark a few titters in the audience with his wryly mordant asides.
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” another exercise in first-person confession, features Terrence Mann, a man slowly driven mad — and into the arms of police — after committing what seems like the perfect crime. In this story as in “Amontillado,” Poe points to pathological secrets resting, quite literally, under our feet, asking us to consider how many other horrors might be concealed within the everyday landscape, waiting to be revealed.
It’s the kind of question more than one trick-or-treater has asked while making his rounds, strolling through suburban neighborhoods that, while benign at first glance, suddenly seem more sinister in the shadows of our most haunted holiday.
I’m not sure what kind of treats everyone else will be getting this Halloween. With the arrival of these recorded Poe stories, I’ve already gotten mine.