Malleus review: The Buoy (English)

Malleus Maleficarum German and English Audio Column

9 out of 10

As the buoy dips and water closes over your head for the final time, you reach a terrifying conclusion:? Steven Thomas Oney is one hell of a writer.

Written and directed by Stephen Thomas Oney

Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater, 1987

Availability:? Mp3 download from Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater’s home website, At $4.99 it’s a bargain.

55 minutes.

Try before you buy:? An mp3 excerpt of The Buoy can be found here –

Language:? English.

Syzygy:? the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system.??

– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The moon was my murderer!

– Edward Wolcott

A lesser writer would have cut it short.?

For six and a half minutes?announcer Floyd Pratt’s salty, husky voice engages you in polite conversation?while he steers out from Vineyard Bay into the Woods Hole Passage off the coast of Massachusetts.? Mournful foghorns sound in the distance as?his?boat’s small motor?putters amiably through the dark waters.? Pratt entertains with nautical?trivia and nods to the various landmarks that you pass on the short voyage.??He savors the?Native American names of the Elizabeth Islands:? Nonamesset, Uncatena, Naushon, Pasque, Nashawena, Cuttyhunk.? It’s all very?pleasant until you pass Devil’s Foot Island?and begin to near buoy #3.??Then Pratt cuts the motor and?tells?you there’s something he wants?you to see.? Another boat approaches, and some men unload a large sack.? A disturbingly?large sack that thrashes and strains.? Now they’re binding it to the buoy . . .

Writer Steven Thomas Oney’s?gradual approach distracts you with Pratt’s?maritime charisma?while it sets the scene, drawing you inexorably into the story.? By the time?Pratt’s?observations?take a macabre turn, the narrative trap has already sprung.? You’re hooked, and it’s far too late to pull out now.? This is how you grab an audience – young audio dramatists, take note.

The Buoy’s premise is easily summarized.? One evening Edward Wolcott (George McConville) finds himself stranded in the town of Woods Hole after missing?his ferry.? Wolcott makes the best of?a lonely night?until he is attacked and spirited from his hotel room by unknown assailants.? They put?him on a motor boat and tie him to buoy #3, and Wolcott’s night in hell begins.

The Buoy?seamlessly adapts Edgar Allen Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum to the foggy shores of New England.? Technically speaking, The Pit and the Pendulum?was not a mystery, and neither is Oney’s adaptation.? But Poe was the inventor of the detective story, and even his horror tales often contained a large measure of?ratiocinative logic.? For Poe’s?narrator in the pit, drawing rational conclusions about the nature of his imprisonment?was his only means?of staving off panic and insanity.? As the bladed pendulum swung ever lower, that thin veneer of rationality became harder and harder to maintain.? This sea-sawing battle between reasoned investigation?and blind terror?made?The?Pit and the Pendulum?a psychological tour-de-force.?

In Poe’s detective stories reason triumphs:? in his horror stories, it fails.? It’s a lesson Oney applies to great effect in The Buoy.? Bound and helpless, Wolcott’s able mind races, noting every detail of his environment and drawing a measure of comfort from each small deductive victory.? Oney?avoids?making Wolcott?too?clever or knowledgeable by having him narrate the ordeal?many years later, after he has had ample time to?research the circumstances of his ordeal.? In this way Oney is able to credibly lay out?a fiendishly elaborate deathtrap, describing the?shifting tides, the buoy’s movements,?and that strange term syzygy with a fastidious attention to detail?that would make Poe proud.?

Although The Buoy has a cast of six, Mr.?Wolcott’s?monologue dominates.? Fortunately actor George McConville is more than up to the task of carrying this story all by himself.??His understated?narration is subtly shaded with emotion,?navigating the twilight realm between?hopeful reasoning?and blind panic.? Like Pratt, McConville’s voice carries an authentic?New Englander’s cadences,?the kind?of voice Stephen King would kill to have?read one of his audiobooks.? This is?the rich, rooted accent of a true local that no actor can fake.? Listening to him made this old?son of Massachusetts?acutely homesick.

There are some minor issues with The Buoy’s cast and Oney’s otherwise?excellent script.? While The Buoy boasts strong performances in general, not all of the players muster McConville’s gravitas. ?Thom Dutton gives Wolcott’s companion David Halpole a young man’s charmingly?awkward enthusiasm, but?he doesn’t convey shock or horror believably.? Frankly a part of me wished Oney had written The Buoy as a straight monologue.? And while I’m not averse to supernatural elements in audio drama – far from it, as regular readers of this column know well?-?in this case the semi-mystical resolution of?The Buoy?detracts from?the story’s?effectiveness as a straight thriller.? And that’s a shame, since it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve heard, or for that matter, read or watched.

Mark Birmingham’s strong sound design and supporting music rounds out an intensely atmospheric package.? His synthesized chords channel the low base of a foghorn, painting an aural?panorama of muted greys.? Everything from the ticking of a hotel clock to the tidal churn of water around the buoy have a crystal clarity that invests them with metaphoric as well as illusory power.? The most impressive effect is the deep groaning of the buoy’s?anchor, which?sounds like an iron Leviathan stirring in the depths.? It’s easily one of the most terrifying sounds I’ve heard in an audio drama.??After this review was posted Steve Oney wrote to tell me how this effect was created:? “The chilling sound of the buoy anchor chain was made from a garbage?dumpster on rollers that had a squeaky lid that Mark Birmingham and I then processed by computer.”? Thanks for giving us some insight into the sound design process, Steve.? Highly inventive and effective.? Cumulatively, the boat motors, bells, and clanking buoy?meld with McConville’s voice and Oney’s knowing description to create a truly immersive experience.? While other?productions?might overwhelm you with?busier soundscapes, few can?transport you to a more convincingly or authentically?realized acoustic locale than The Buoy’s offshore New England.?

All in all, The Buoy stands head and shoulders above the innumerable mediocre “tales of terror” that clutter radio / audio drama’s long history.? Do yourself a favor and download this neglected classic, turn off the lights, and lose yourself for an hour in?the chilling fog of the Woods Hole Passage.

Next week:? Aural sex?

  • When I first heard this story, I was mesmerized. It is so weird, fascinating, captivating…I listen to it often.
    Not only do I love the story, but I have to say the narrator was what pulled me in from the beginning.
    The soundtrack is perfect too.

    I thought I was the only person who had enjoyed this story.

  • I agree completely.

    I was taken with McConville’s performance and very sorry to hear from Mr. Oney that he is no longer with us. Floyd Pratt, our maritime guide, is another great talent gone. I’m thankful that Oney was able to capture them both to such great effect in this tale.

    You’re not the only person who thought they were alone in savoring this audio drama! I’m glad the Buoy found you, and hope it continues to find the audiences it deserves.