Miskatonic University Press

The Thirteenth Sound


I’m continuing to listen to the old-time radio show Suspense, “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills.” It’s one of the best anthology shows from back then, with top-notch writing, acting and production from people who knew how to make great radio drama. Why listen to yet another podcast of two people chatting about not much when there’s all that great old radio available on the Internet Archive? Start with the 1942 episodes and work your way forward. (Or try The Jack Benny Program, an absolute comedy masterpiece.)

Today I listened to “The Thirteenth Sound” (broadcast 13 February 1947) starring Agnes Moorehead, written by Cathy Lewis and Elliott Lewis. Sound design is important in everything on radio, but here certain types of sounds drive a guilty woman to madness and confession.

Graffiti: Existing is punk.
Graffiti: Existing is punk.

The episode gets off to a quick start—Suspense was always efficient—with Moorehead’s character narrating that she is going to kill her husband, then doing so. His hands make scratching sounds as he claws for survival as he dies. Hearing similar sounds later makes her faint—and the sounds really are screechy, annoying to the listener, too.

About half way through she attends a chamber music performance of “The Thirteenth Sound,” a (fictional, I presume) composition by Julián Carrillo, who I didn’t know but was a real composer who invented a microtonal system by that name. There’s a realistically awkward introduction explaining that the musicians aren’t out of tune, it’s supposed to sound that way. Admirers of microtonal music will grimace ruefully. The music makes her faint again.

I won’t give away the ending, but it involves sound (and of course she is punished for her evil deeds, as always happened on Suspense, usually with a nice twist).

Sound is used very effectively in this episode, and the avant-garde music is a surprising touch.