31 October 2011

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (9) Time and Again

Episode 22:  Time and Again
First aired:  27 January 1974
Author:  Ian Martin
A clock maker times the time:

And the last thing I heard that night... was the triumphant beat of the clock, sounding my inner ear.  Or was it the sound of my heart?  -- Ethan Vigil

Back in 2000, I was thrilled to learn that someone at a Pacific 12 university had posted almost the entire run of CBS Radio Mystery Theater.  As a relatively affluent and experienced Internet user, I was happy to have an ultra-fast 56k modem with which to download.  Sure, it took 45 minutes to pull in one episode; but at two (maybe even three!) a night, I could have the whole set loaded onto Zip cartridges sometime in 2003.  Woo-hoo!  Progress!

Well before then, I had downloaded my favorites, and even put a few of them on a CD I took to Chicago as 2000 came to a close.  As usually happened every Christmas holiday season until 2003, my sisters brought their kids (and one grandchild), and we had a family reunion.  My original plan was to listen to my freshly downloaded episodes on my father's computer his den, by myself.  Now that the kids were also in town, I came up with a better idea.

One night just before the New Year, at a few minutes to midnight, I convinced three cousins -- aged 8, 8 and 6-1/2 -- to join me.  While I sat at the computer, they formed a small arc behind me.  As second- and third-graders, my nieces and nephew were too young for most horror stories, but "Time and Again" held exactly the right amount of terror and excitement for supervised kids that age.  They shook and fidgeted with fear, combined with a grim, shared determination to stay until the end.  To their credit, they stayed -- and then they asked me to play "Time and Again" for them again.

The youngest of them will graduate from high school next May, but all three still cherish the memory of that amusing night.

So far as I know, "Time and Again" is entirely original, but the if teaser has brought a Twilight Zone episode or two to mind, that would be easy to understand.  Like the hyperlinked teleplays, Ian Martin's play, his fourth for Radio Mystery Theater, centers on someone who finds an object that can stop time.  But only in "Time and Again" does the using that object exact a price.

Oddly enough, this story about time doesn't specify when the action takes place.  It's certainly in the past, because host E.G. Marshall tells us that he's reading a note left behind from one Ethan Vigil (John Beal).  The note quickly tells its reader that Ethan ekes out a living by making and repairing clocks.  His work, in fact, doesn't pay the bills -- he has to share expenses and his home with his chronically ill wife Henrietta (Grace Matthews) and her hard-nosed sister Harriet (Bryna Raeburn).  Even then, they've been able to wire a telephone into their residence, but must still rely on kerosene lanterns to fulfill their lighting needs.  Some people have cars, but not the Vigils.  All the clues point to a Prohibition-era urban setting, but nothing more definite.

As the story begins, Ethan has closed his shop for the night when a derelict barges in with an unusual clock with several unusual features -- including the number 13 at the top of its face.  His decision to buy the clock draws Harriet's ire, not least because he's been burning too much kerosene for her comfort.

No matter how much Ethan tinkers with it, the clock itself refuses to work -- until sickly Henrietta sticks her hand in its hourglass-shaped case.  The moment she pricks her finger inside the case, the clock starts.  It runs, all right, but with a bizarre rhythm.

Like all the other working clocks, this one eventually strikes midnight, as Ethan and his doctor are playing chess.

For everyone but Ethan, time stops.

Ethan finds himself able to move about freely, but for exactly one hour, the world stops frozen around him.  That hour passes for him and him alone, and he can now explain the number 13 on his clock's face.  It happens again at noon, then at midnight, and so on.  Twice a day, the rest of the world freezes, leaving Ethan to do whatever he wishes, unopposed.

It all seems like harmless fun until Henrietta falls ill again.  Whatever is ailing her this time proves unstoppable, sapping her life force until she's finally too tired to take another breath.  Although it doesn't happen right away, Ethan eventually discovers a connection between his extra two hours a day, his wife's passing and "that damnable machine."  Meanwhile, we listeners get to observe the destructive power of Ethan's new addiction -- something that proves well beyond the reach of any twelve-step program.

One of my big objections to horror stories is that so many of them require stupid protagonists to work.  "Time and Again" comes awfully close to that cliché, but much of its suspense comes from watching Ethan finally "get it."  Anyway, it worked out for my nieces and my nephew when they were grade-schoolers.  They got to experience the creepiness, while avoiding the gore that had become too common in horror movies even in 1974.  It would work as well in a Goosebumps novella as it did for adults 37 years ago.

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