Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Audio File: Poe Theatre on the Air: Season 1


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 season one of 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 was always one of my favorite Poe stories. 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. "Eldorado" was always my favorite of Poe's poems. In fact...ah, but let us put a pin in that for now. 

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 "Annabel Lee" and "The Conquering Worm" as ones that could be fun too. As for "Eldorado" well, you'll see about that in just a bit. 

Episode twelve is "The Premature Burial." It follows a woman who suffers from catalepsy. Basically, it's a medical condition that causes her to go into a death-like trance, sometimes for hours on end. Unfortunately, she failed to tell this to her fiancé, and nearly wound-up getting buried alive.

I have previously discussed my own fear of premature burial. Though, unlike in Poe's time, at least the embalming fluids would kill me before I got put in the ground. So, I suppose that's a small comfort. This is another example of a story that deviated from the original out of necessity. For example, in the original the protagonist's gender isn't specified. Also, by the end of the original story, the protagonist gets over his/her fear of being buried alive. Obviously, this was not an option, as the protagonist had to wind up in Dr. Maillard's care. The protagonist also never got buried alive in the original. In fact, based on what I know of the original, it appears that Poe Theatre's adaption was created almost form whole cloth.

I must emphasize here that I haven't read the original story, so I don't know how much material the team had to work with. And none of my above comments are meant as a judgment. Judging the episode purely on its own merits, it quite an effective horror piece. You get a real sense of the dread and terror of being buried alive. We also get to see more of how Dr. Maillard abuses the patients. For example, when the woman goes catatonic, he places her hand on the flame of a candle just for the heck of it. Then, when she awakens, he lies and says that it is several hours later, and that he found her like that.

All things considered, another solid episode from Poe Theatre on the Air

Episode thirteen is "Eldorado." The patient in this episode traveled to the Wild West in search of fame and riches. While there he met an eccentric cowboy named The Gallant Knight, who offered to take him on a quest to find Eldorado, the mythical lost city of gold. However, after many weeks their journey failed to bear fruit, and they received a visit from a mysterious shadow. But is all really as it seems? 

I really enjoyed this episode, especially because I'm responsible for its existence. Remember when I suggested the poem "Eldorado" as a possible candidate for adaption into an episode? Well, Alex listened to that suggestion, and now here we are. I actually got to read the script, and listen to this episode, before it went live. But I waited to review it til you guys could enjoy it as well. 

Well, first off, I'm amazed at how well this story lent itself to being adapted into a country music ballad. Our patient begins his story by performing the poem as a song, accompanied by guitar, and what an amazingly well-done song it was. Alex said that this episode was very much inspired by the gold fever genre of westerns. He said that it just popped into his head as soon as he read the poem. It just goes to show how creative Poe Theatre on the Air is with adapting the works of Poe. It is quite the well-written episode. 

Of course, it wouldn't be Poe Theatre on the Air without some sort of twist. So this is your last chance to get off before we discuss that. 

Last chance, you sure you want to continue?

Well okay, here we go. 

You ever get the feeling that the protagonist and the Gallant Knight are the same person? If so, you're absolutely correct. Oh, he went searching for gold, but Gallant Knight and the Shadow were all in his head. Now he's stuck in an endless loop repeating his story. Well, must admit that I did not see that coming. Poe Theatre on the Air certainly knows how to keep the twists coming. And all of this from a relatively short poem. 

An excellent episode, and I'm glad I helped make it possible in my own way. I can't wait to see what they come up with if they adapt any of my other suggestions. 

This next one isn't actually an episode of Poe Theatre on the Air. It's a two-part guest episode by The Coldharts, aka Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan. It an adaption of one of their plays titled "Edgar Allan." It follows the boarding school days of Edgar Allan Poe himself. He's high-strung, short-tempered, easily excitable, and more than a bit neurotic. Still, he believes that he is destined for greatness. His plans hit a snag when he encounters another boy who also happens to be named Edgar Allan. Despite this, the two manage to strike-up a friendship and even found their own secret society.

I should also add that this special is also an adaption of Poe's short story "William Wilson." This was a bit different, but this is to be expect. Still, different doesn't mean bad. I didn't expect songs accompanied by ukulele to work so well in a musical about Poe, but it did. And just to clarify, all of the songs great. "William Wilson" is semi-autobiographical about Poe's boarding school days in England. As such, it makes perfect sense to cut out the metaphorical middleman and just set the story during Poe's school days. The plot of the episode follows "William Wilson" closely, so I guess that's another story the writers of Poe Theatre on the Air can check off the list. The depiction of young Poe was neurotic, short-tempered, and easily excitable was amusing. Both of the actors did an excellent job.

All in all, a bit unusual, but certainly not unwelcome of a special.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program for a two-part story. Our twelfth story is "Never Bet the Devil Your Head." The inmate who weaves this tale is an obsessive author who constantly scribes away at all hours of the day. He tells of of an old acquaintance of his named Toby Dammit. Dammit is a boorish uncouth man prone to saying "I bet the devil my head..." This proves to be an especially bad habit one fateful night when he and the author travel across a covered bridge.

So, it would seem we have another humorous Poe story. As the saying goes, speak of the devil and he shall appear. So, watch what you say, because you don't know who is listening. When I hear that the author's friend was named Toby Dammit, I immediately thought of those SNL sketches where Eddie Murphy would play Gumby. Specifically, Gumby as a washed-up vaudeville star who would always say "I'm Gumby, damn it!" And yes, Toby did indeed have the last name Dammit in the original short story. I thought that part one ended at the perfect moment. They get to the bridge, and then a fiesta appears out of nowhere. Took me completely by surprise, and was all the more hilarious for it.

Not too much more to add, other than it was an excellent humors story adaption.

Our next adaption is "Hop Frog." Our inmate is a ballerina named Trippetta who suffers from dwarfism. She used to perform in one of the royal courts of Europe. It was here that she met a jester who also had dwarfism named Hop Frog. At least, that's what the nobles chose to call him. After taking year of abuse, Hop Frog decided to give the nobles a taste of their own medicine. He gave them a performance that none of them would forget. 
 
This was a story I had encountered in the past, but I remember not caring very much for it. However, I very much enjoyed Poe Theatre on the Air's adaption, so good on them for that. Of course, I should have expected nothing less, given their excellent track record. There is some element of truth in this story. Many royal courts did indeed use dwarfs as a cruel means of amusement. The Russian court was particularly notorious for this. They often held mock weddings for the dwarfs of the court, among other things. 
 
The episode follows the original story fairly faithfully up until the ending. So, if you don't want that spoiled, turn back now. 
 
Everyone who wants out gone? Then let's get into it. 
 
In the original story, Hop Frog's plan goes off without a hitch, and he and Trippetta escape to their home country. In the episode, however, Hop Frog accidentally gets tangled in the rope which pulls the nobles aloft to the chandelier, and gets set on fire along with them. Trippetta is traumatized, and that's how she come into the care of Dr. Maillard's care. Well, something like that had to happen. The original ending was too happy for either of them to wind-up in the asylum. 
 
All in all, another solid adaptation.

Our next episode is another two-parter. It is "Fall of the House of Usher." Our inmate is a man named Richard who tells of a fateful trip he took to the home of an old university friend named Roderick Usher. The Usher were once a noble and respected family, but they, and their mansion, have seen better days. Still, Roderick and his sister Madeline find ways to stay entertained. But what shall happen when Madeline unexpectedly dies? 
 
This was another story I'd been hoping would be adapted, and it did not disappoint. I encountered this story in my eleventh grade American Literature class. I had a really awesome American Literature teacher, and she helped me appreciated this story. For that matter, she helped me appreciated pretty much everything we studied. For example, one of the details I didn't initially pick up on is why the Ushers are so sickly. It's because their family tree doesn't have many branches. That is to say, they're severely inbreed. "Fall of the House of Usher" is considered a quintessential gothic tale. It is very atmospheric, and there's a strong sense of dread and gloom, as well as death and decay, to everything. 
 
This is the third story Poe Theater on the Air has adapted that involves premature burial. Granted, that was a fairly common theme in Poe stories. As I've mentioned, Poe had a considerable phobia of being buried alive. Still, this story does make "A Premature Burial" feel redundant in hindsight. That's not to say "A Premature Burial" was a bad episode. To the contrary, I quite enjoyed it. Still, perhaps it's slot would have been better suited to a different story? 
 
The ending of "Fall of the House of Usher" slightly deviates from the short story. In the short story, when the house finally falls it kills both Usher siblings. This gives the title a double meaning. It literally refers to the collapse of the house. However, Roderick and Madeline were the last members of their family, so the title also refers to the end of Usher bloodline. In the episode, Madeline survives and becomes an inmate at the asylum. This is interesting, as this marks the first story to result in two people being admitted to the asylum. 
 
All in all, "Fall of the House of Usher" was well worth the wait. Another excellent adaption. 

Our final episode for this season is "The System of Doctor Goudron and Professor Plume." It's the moment you've all been waiting for. We finally get to learn more about Dr. Maillard and his staff. How did he come up with his unconventional method to cure the mentally ill? What are the rest of the staff like? Where did the good doctor get his degree from exactly? All these questions, and many more, are finally answered. 
 
Now, there might be some confusion about the title, so let me clarify. This story is indeed an adaption of "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether." However, in 1903 there was a French play that adapted the short story. Said play was named "The System of Doctor Goudron and Professor Plume." This episode draws elements from both the original short story and the play, hence the title. So, with that out of the way, let's talk about the episode itself. 
 
Overall, it was a good episode. I'd suspected for a while that this would be how the season would end. I guesses this episode didn't quite have the punch I thought it would. We've been with Maillard since the first episode, so he's almost like an old friend at this point. I also wonder if perhaps this should have been a two-part episode to give proper closure. The pacing felt a tad rushed. Though, I don't know if there would have been enough material to expand into two episodes. The episode hits pretty much all of the major plot points of the story. I guess, I built this episode up so much in my head, that there was just no way reality could live up to my mental image. 
 
But that all having been said, I still enjoyed the episode. We also get cameos from several characters from previous episodes. Trippetta from "Hop Frog" was one I immediately spotted. I'd also like to explain something that gets lost on modern readers of this story. It is mentioned that a disproportionate number of patients at the asylum are women. In the 19th Century, one way a man could divorce his wife was if she was declared insane and institutionalized. This was considered less embarrassing than if they divorced the usual way. Given how sexist the 19th Century legal system was, this was, this was ridiculously easy to do. The unfortunate women who found themselves in asylums often got gaslighted to the point that they went genuinely insane. 
 
Now we get into the bit about spoilers. So, if you don't want that, turn back now. If everyone who wants out is gone, let's get into it. 
 
If you've read the story, you'll know that the big twist was that the doctors and nurses were all actually inmates who took over the asylum. However, as previously mentioned, many of the inmates we encounter have appeared in past stories. This certainly casts an interesting new light on previous episodes. Maillard is thoroughly convinced that the patients are all genuinely insane. I, however, assumed that, barring a few notable exceptions, they were all more or less telling the truth. Now, I'm beginning to wonder if Maillard might have been onto something after all. Granted, the man we've gotten to know isn't the real Maillard, but that's beside the point. 
 
And so that was season one of Poe Theatre on the Air. It was an excellent first season, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I was very impressed by what I listened to. It will be a bit sad to leave the asylum behind. Alex said that, after nineteen episodes, he felt the show needed to go in a different direction. To that end, season two will adapt Poe's stories about the detective C. Auguste Dupin. I have full confidence in the team behind Poe Theatre on the Air, and I eagerly look forward to season two. 

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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