Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Closer Listen: Markheim

Original artwork by Alla Bartoshchuk

When I stumbled upon the short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, I knew I'd found a gold mine. Dismissed in his day -- and all too often nowadays as well -- as a boy's adventure writer, Stevenson crafted potent little stories that are slick, mystifying, chilling, clever, and ahead of their time. They struck me as perfect for audio, where their imaginative plots and brisk pacing would keep listeners engaged. (There's a reason why so many of the original Mercury Theatre productions were adapted from adventure tales like Stevenson's Treasure Island.)

In Stevenson's "Markheim," a career criminal finally makes the leap into murder. As he ransacks his victim's antique shop, he is approached by a mysterious man who claims to know him "to the soul." The two then engage in a lengthy, sometimes cryptic debate, in which the future of that very soul hangs in the balance.

After the antiques dealer is killed, Stephenson launches into a long, rapturous, gorgeous, paranoid bit of prose that has Markheim seeing images of himself repeated throughout the shop:

He began to bestir himself, going to and fro with the candle, beleaguered by moving shadows, and startled to the soul by chance reflections. In many rich mirrors, some of home design, some from Venice or Amsterdam, he saw his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies; his own eyes met and detected him; and the sound of his own steps, lightly as they fell, vexed the surrounding quiet. And still, as he continued to fill his pockets, his mind accused him with a sickening iteration, of the thousand faults of his design. He should have chosen a more quiet hour; he should have prepared an alibi; he should not have used a knife; he should have been more cautious, and only bound and gagged the dealer, and not killed him; he should have been more bold, and killed the servant also; he should have done all things otherwise. Poignant regrets, weary, incessant toiling of the mind to change what was unchangeable, to plan what was now useless, to be the architect of the irrevocable past. Meanwhile, and behind all this activity, brute terrors, like the scurrying of rats in a deserted attic, filled the more remote chambers of his brain with riot; the hand of the constable would fall heavy on his shoulder, and his nerves would jerk like a hooked fish; or he beheld, in galloping defile, the dock, the prison, the gallows, and the black coffin.

Amazing. The story goes on like this for a while, delving deep into the new murderer's psyche.

But how to recreate this in audio? We could have opted to have Markheim narrate the scene, but his presence as narrator wasn't needed anywhere else in the story, and injecting it here felt awkward. (Unlike, say, Dead and Gone, where I think the final scene's shift into narration works beautifully.) A third-person narrator would have been even worse.

While struggling with this question, I realized that Stevenson was giving us a virtuoso performance as only a prose writer can: with his words. So, I reasoned, maybe the best way to tackle the segment would be to attempt an equally ambitious rendering using the language of audio theater, which is, of course, sound.

It's true -- in order to accurately adapt pages upon pages of beautiful prose, I decided we needed to get rid of the words altogether. I didn't even try to force them into a new medium, where they would almost certainly lose their effect. Instead, we sought to recreate Markheim's panic and paranoia inside the heads of our listeners. We aimed to put them in Markheim's shoes, causing their imaginations to conjure the feeling of the scene rather than its wording.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that the shift may not be totally successful. It may feel muddled or confusing in places, especially, I imagine, if you're only listening casually. I worried about this sequence when the show debuted on the radio, as sound quality is lower over broadcast, and the relative silence of the scene might be mistaken for a dropped signal.

But I'll let you judge for yourself. Here's the clip, and a play-by-play:

Markheim Clip (03:15)

00:00 - 00:34 The dealer is attacked, falls, and dies. We wanted this sequence to be loud, brutal, and awkward.

00:35 - 00:44 The deed is done. We hear Markheim's ragged breathing. And subtly those clocks, the ones surrounding him in the antique store, get louder.

00:45 - 00:55 Footsteps on the street outside. Is someone rushing to the shop, alerted by the crashing sounds within? No, it's just a boy running after his father on the sidewalk. He passes.

00:56 - 01:13 Markheim searches the dealer's body, finding his keys. He begins to look through the shop for a safe.

01:14 -  01:45 A knock on the door. The worst possible sound to hear in this situation! (Or is it?) The customer, discouraged, leaves, and Markheim resumes his search.

01:46 - 01:56 The clocks in the store all begin striking three. Markheim relaxes when he realizes what's going on. The strange cacophony is a nice way to announce our Visitor.

01:57 - 02:29 Footsteps upstairs. Or, anyway, loud noises upstairs. We hear Markheim's own footsteps as he walks further into the shop to investigate. The clocks fade as he leaves the main room and ascends the stairs.

02:30 - 03:15 Markheim throws open a door to find an empty room. He searches around a bit more and finds a locked cabinet, but the dealer's keys will not open it. Then the loud footsteps resume, and our Visitor makes his entrance in style.

If that's what you get from the scene when closing your eyes and listening, then great -- we succeeded. I wanted listeners to be on the edge of their seats, right there along Markheim as he agonizes over the tiniest noises and recoils at every possible danger. Our version of the story may not contain everything Stevenson said, but I hope it's close to what he meant.

(Be sure to check out the full recording on our website.) 

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