Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Audio File: Poe Theatre on the Air


I am always happy to give reviews to podcasters who ask me, especially if they've enjoyed my previous reviews. I'm glad to do my past to help promote podcasts, and it often leads me to some truly undiscovered gems. That brings us to the podcast we're taking a look at today. We're taking a look at Poe Theatre on the Air.


Poe Theatre on the Air is a production of the National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre. Each episode is an adaption of a different Edgar Allan Poe short story. While by-and-large faithful to the source material, the writers make sure to put their own spin on the stories. This largely relates to the framing device. The framing device is that you, the listener, are a guest at the asylum of Dr. Maillard. He has developed a radical new treatment to cure the mentally crippled, and he considers all of the inmates his children who have lost their way. Each of the inmates are the protagonist of a different Edgar Allen Poe short story, and they will be sharing their tales with us.

I share The Audio File and The Alt-Hist File over on the Audio Drama Lovers group over on Facebook. If you ever see me over there, feel free to say hi. Not to brag, but my reviews always seem to be reasonably popular with the other members, and I have gained a few fans. One of these fans, named Alex Zavistovich, reach out to me about a podcast he's involved with. Obviously, that podcast is Poe Theatre on the Air. I had a few reviews to take care of, but I agreed to give it a listen and review it later.

I'm glad that I did, because I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The team is going for the shared universe approach with Poe's short stories. Even Dr. Maillard and his asylum hail from a Poe story. Specifically, he's from "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether." That's was always one of my favorite Poe stories. Suppose that means it might be a while before that one gets adapted. Poe Theatre on the Air is a fully performed audio drama with actors, music, and sound effects. This gives it a key advantage over a podcast that would just read the stories. The language used in Edgar Allen Poe's writing is a bit archaic by modern standards, and that can be a stumbling block for a lot of people. By contrast, the dialogue and bits of narration Poe Theatre on the Air uses are more modern, while still being a bit formal when needed. This allows the listeners to really focus on and enjoy the content of the stories.

Of course, this could not work without a talented team of voice actors. Thankfully, Poe Theatre on the Air has quite the team of voices at its disposal. I should also mention that Poe Theatre on the Air has been featured several times on NPR. Okay, now that we've covered all of that we can delve into the individual stories.

Our first story is "The Tell-Tale Heart." You've probably heard of this one, but if not, it's the one about the person who kills the old man and is then haunted by the sound of his beating heart.

With our first episode, we see what I meant about the writers putting their own spin on the story. The original "Tell-Tale Heart" leaves a lot of quest in unanswered. We don't know the narrator's gender, or their relationship with the old man, or even the motive for the murder, beyond a hated of the old man's eye. As such, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. So here, the narrator is a woman working at the inn the old man owns. Admittedly, I've never been the biggest fan of "The Tell-Tale Heart." I remembering linking it as a kid because of when I discovered it was used as the basis of that episode of SpongeBob where Mr. Krabs regifts some boots to SpongeBob; but the boots are very squeaky, so he steals them and hides them under the floorboard of the Krusty Krab. Then he is haunted by the squeaking of the boots until he confesses and then eats the boots.

It was neat to discover that connection on my own as a kid. I studied the story in English class in middle school and enjoyed it. Then I got older, and the story just didn't hold the same charm for me. I guess it was because I'd seen it parodied and homaged so many times that I just wasn't as effective as it once was. Still, for what it's worth, I think I liked this episode more than the original story.

The second story is "The Black Cat." This story is about a man who's wife loves animals and has turned their home in a menagerie. However, he has never been a lover of animals, and he does not care for the black cat, despite how often it shows him affection. He pokes out the poor cat's eye, and eventually hangs it. He thinks his troubles are at an end, but then he brings home a new black cat for his wife. There's something hauntingly familiar about the new cat, and it drives the man insane.

I had not previously read the story, but I very much enjoyed this episode, and it made me want to seek out the original. I have a beloved orange tabby named Tiger, so I say the protagonist got what he deserved in the end. It is unclear when the stories are set. I assumed the 19th century, just like the originals. Certain details do back this up, such as the police being Irish. I mean, it's not impossible for a modern police officer to be Irish, but that was more of a cliche you tend to see in stories set in the past. Additionally, there's no references to any modern technology, which would back-up my original assumption.

It is interesting to compare and contrast this story with "The Tell-Tale Heart." Both stories feature unarmed narrators, though the podcast gives them names. Both stories involve the protagonists committing heinous acts because of an eye. And both stories have the protagonists thinking they've gotten away with killing, only to be haunted by the deceased. Well, that is, unless they've simply gone crazy. From what I've gathered, the protagonist hating animals was a slight deviation from the original, but I understand he was a bit of an unreliable narrator in the original story. The actor playing the protagonist gave an especially strong performance. All in all, an excellent episode.

The third story is "Morella." This story tells of a man who has married a woman named Morella. He married her for her brilliant and intellectual mind. However, she's developed an obsession with the occult, and he fears this may lead down a dark path.

This one wasn't bad, but it didn't especially blow me away. I could guess where this story was going about a halfway through. That's usually not a problem for me, but it worked against the story here. The part where the main a character is driven to madness and shouts "Morella! Morella!" was supposed to dramatic, as it shows that Morella has triumphed and driven him to despair, but it just came across kind of annoying to me. I will say it did make me wonder about when the series is set. The protagonist takes his daughter to be baptized by a priest, but the service comes across like an Evangelical megachurch service rather than anything from Poe's time. Anyway, moving right along.

The fourth story is "The Cask of Amontillado." This is another one you've probably heard of. It takes place in Carnival in Venice. Montresor is from a noble family, but is constantly picked on by his "friend" Fortunato. So, he lures a very drunk Fortunato into his family's crypt on the grounds that they will be tasting a fine amontillado. Then he bricks up Fortunato and leave him to die.

Like I said, you've probably encountered this story in English class at some point. I think I read this on in high school, but it might have been middle school. Either way, I wasn't terribly impressed, but I grew to like it better when I got older and reexamined it. It helped that William Joyce made a really good animated short film of it that I saw at a screening of his short films. He's the guy who made Rollie Pollie Ollie, A Day with Wilbur Robinson and Rise of the Guardians, among other things. Poe Theatre on the Air gave us an excellent adaption, and I've got no complaints.

The fifth story is "Berenice." First of all, you pronounce that as baron-nice-cee. It follows a bookish man who has a monomania for books. He loves to read books, but also to study the shape of letters, and the arraignments of words. His beloved cousin Berenice always tries to get him to come out and enjoy nature. Then she falls ill to an unspecified disease, that was probably tuberculosis, and dies. Are protagonist remains obsessed with he beloved Berenice, especially her lovely smile. He is determined that not even the grave shall keep them apart.

This was another story I wasn't familiar with, but now I kind of want to seek out the original. This is very much a story about the dangers of obsession and passions run amuck. I said the disease was probably tuberculosis because, nine times out of ten, that's what unspecified illnesses turn out to be in 19th Century stories. Also, I should point out that marriage between first cousins wasn't considered unusual in Poe's day, especially among the wealthy. Sometime else that wasn't considered unusual was premature burial. Many coffins had boards in them that could be pressed with the feet. This would ring a bell on the surface and alerted the cemetery watchman that someone needed digging up. It is also not uncommon to find coffins from that era with scratch marks on the interior of their lids.

The thought of being buried alive has always been something that sends a shiver down my spine. True, Berenice might not have enjoyed having her teeth yanked out by her crazed cousin, but it sure beats suffocating in a coffin six feet under. Well, that's my takeaway. Though, I concede that having teeth pulled without anesthetics is hardly a picnic. All in all, another great episode.

The sixth episode is "A Predicament." It follows a wealth woman named Madam Zenobia and her man sergeant Julius. They're on vacation in an unspecified European country. Madam Zenobia treats Julius quite poorly, but she's about to receive her comeuppance during a trip to a cathedral's bell tower.

This was another story I was unfamiliar with, but made me want to seek out the original. Never pegged Edgar Allen Poe as someone who'd write comedy stories, but I guess I was wrong. I can certainly related to Julius, as I too have a fear heights. Though I've never had to deal with anyone quite so demanding as Madam Zenobia. Really, she only has herself to blame for what happens. Just what was she expecting, sticking her head into the bell tower's inner workings?

This story also deviates a bit from the original story. For example, in the original story, Julius was a black midget named Pompey, rather than an old white man. Obviously, that isn't exactly politically correct by modern standard, so I can understand why the team changed that. However, more importantly the ending if different. So if you don't want to know what happens, skip down to episode seven if you don't want to know.

Last chance, turn back now if you don't want to find out. You sure you want to keep going.

Well alright. Here we go.

In the original story, Madam Zenobia got decapitated by the clock's pendulum, but her head remains functioning independent of her body. In this adaption, however, the pendulum knicker her neck, but otherwise leaves her head intact. However, she believes that she has become a body without a head, and thus finds helpful in the asylum. Even without having read the original, I still found it an interesting twist ending. So well done on the part of the writers. Excellent episode all around.

The seventh story is "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." This story follows a hypnotist who believes it is possible cheat death by hypnotizing someone at the moment before death. His friend Ernest Valdemar agrees to be a test subject. But will Valdemar find himself facing something worse than death?

Alex recommended this as the best of the currently available episodes. I must say, it did not disappoint. This was a Poe story I meant to track down, but never did til now. You've got those elements of gothic horror, as is common in Poe's works. However, I'd also argue that this story is an early example of science fiction. We've got out protagonist trying make discovers and perform experiments using scientific means. Obviously, we now know that even the strongest hypnotism is no match for organ failure and blood loss. Still, remember that this story was written before germ theory caught on, and back when belief in the four humors hadn't quite died out. Poe was working with the information available to him. Gothic horror was important to the development of early science fiction. Just look at Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In fact, many of Poe stories are just as much science fiction as they are horror.

Even disregarding all of that, it is still nonetheless a very entertaining story. Amusingly, when first published, some people mistook it for an actual account. Poe hadn't specified that it was a work of fiction. There is a strong theme about the dangers of meddling with the natural order, and dabbling in things mankind was never meant to mess with. A very common trait of both gothic and early science fiction stories. An excellent story that certainly lived up to its pedigree.

The eighth story is "The Oval Portrait." This story tells of an artist who fell in love beautiful young maiden whom he eventually married. He decided to immortalize her beauty forever by painting a portrait of her. There more to it, but that would be spoilers.

This is your last chance to turn back. If you don't want any spoilers, skip down three paragraphs to where it says "So that's all the episodes that have been released so far." You sure you want to continue?

Okay then, here we go.

So what's the big twist? Turns out the artist's bride was sitting so perfectly still because she'd died. He was so enraptured by his work, and her beauty, he failed to notice he was painting a corpse. Dr. Maillard really rubs this fact in his face. From this, we begin to see that Dr. Maillard might not be as benevolent as he claims to be. I saw the twist coming, but the story was still effective and well-written, so I still enjoyed the episode. Chalk another one up for great episodes from Poe Theatre on the Air.


The ninth episode is "A Descent Into the Maelstrom." It follows a man who used to work as part of a fishing crew in Norway.  A big storm is on the way, and the crew must not stay at sea too late. Unfortunately, time gets away from them, and their boat gets sucked into a massive whirlpool. The story tells of how the man escaped from the maelstrom. 

This was another story that surprised me. Didn't expect Poe to be the type to write high seas adventure stories. This is another of Poe's stories that is often considered an early form of science fiction. Not sure if I can quite see that, but again, science fiction was in its infancy during Poe's time. And I suppose the protagonist did use his reasoning skills to get out of his predicament. I will say the way the protagonist escape the maelstrom was pretty ingenious. 

About the only deviation from the original is the framing device. In the short story, the protagonist is telling his tale to a mountain climber. Here, he's another patient at the asylum. The man insist that his hair turned white because of the stress of the adventure, and that he's actually thirty-two year old, as in the original story. Dr. Maillard, naturally, thinks the man is simply crazy. All in all, another excellent episode that made me want to seek out the original. 


The eleventh episode is "The Raven." This one breaks the trend a bit, as it is adapted from a poem rather than a story. It tells of a man who is mourning the death of his beloved wife. Then, late one night, he is visited by a raven who seems to mock his despair.

This was an unexpected change to pace, but one that worked out quite well. Alex told me that he wanted to keep the show going, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, so that's how we got this episode. He played all of the role, though said roles were limited to the protagonist, the raven, and Dr. Maillard, but he played them quite well. This episode is the exact same quality as all the others. It was certainly a unique angle to turn a poem into an episode. It isn't told in verse, it is a standard episode like all the others, and that's what I love about it. Didn't expect to see poems get adapted, but I think I'd like to see more poems get this same treatment. "El Dorado" was always my favorite of Poe's poems.

I must admit I always found "The Raven" to be a bit so-so as far as poems go. I've warmed up to it a bit more as the years have gone on. I've especially warmed up to it after listening to this episode of Poe Theatre on the Air. It helped that I'd recently watched a video recreating "The Raven" using characters from Thomas the Tank Engine. It was from The Stories of Sodor, a high-quality Thomas fan series. Anyway, this was another great episode from Poe Theatre on the Air. If they adapt other poems I'd suggest "El Dorado", but "Annabel Lee" and "The Conquering Worm" could be fun too.

So that's all the episodes that have been released so far. I was very impressed with what I listened to. I eagerly look forward to what Poe Theatre on the Air decides to adapt next. Personally, I'm hoping for an adaption of "Some Words with a Mummy." From what I've heard of it, "The Man Who Was Used Up" sounds interesting, and like it would make for a good adaption. "Fall of the House of Usher" is another of those stories people read in school, and I'd love to see what the team can do with it. Of course, as of late, "Mask of the Red Death" might make a macabrely appropriate adaptation. Really, I'm happy with whatever the team brings next, and I eagerly await the fruits of their labor. I think I'll have to come back and add my reviews of future episodes to this list, or create a second article once enough episodes have come out.

So there you have it. Poe Theatre on the Air is an audio drama that adapts the works of Edgar Allan Poe into a shared universe. It is an excellent podcast, and one that I happily recommend. Check it out today, you'll be glad that you did.

Well, I think that should do it for now. I will see you guys next time.



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