The October Country: Oct. 29th: “The Hitch-Hiker” by Lucille Fletcher

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 29:

The Hitch-Hiker by Lucille Fletcher

Found In:

The Hitch-Hiker

Opening Line:

“Goodbye, son. Good luck to you, my boy.”

In one way or another, all of us are likely familiar with the basic plot of Lucille Fletcher’s marvelous radio play The Hitch-Hiker. Produced for radio by the great Orson Welles, adapted into a Twilight Zone episode by Rod Serling (whose story, The Sole Survivor, we examined earlier this month), The Hitch-Hiker is one of those rare stories that sinks into the cultural conscience. You know it even if you’ve never heard the original before.

Fletcher was lucky enough for this to happen twice. Her other great radio drama, Sorry, Wrong Number, is another classic whose plot has been reused again and again in various guises.

The story begins with Ronald Adams leaving his mother on a cross-country trip. A nice, leisurely drive from Brooklyn to California. That’s a lot of open road, for sure, but a fine way to see the country. No worries.

But then:

Crossing Brooklyn Bridge that morning in the rain, I saw a man leaning against the cables. He seemed to be waiting for a lift. There were spots of fresh rain on his shoulders. He was carrying a cheap, overnight bag in one hand., He was thin, nondescript with a cap pulled down over his eyes. He stepped off the walk and if I hadn’t swerved – if I hadn’t swerved – I’d have hit him. I almost did!

Well that will certainly wake you up. But no matter. Ronald swerved, the man wasn’t hit, and all is well with the world.

Except:

Now I would have forgotten him completely except that just an hour later, while crossing the Pulaski Skyway over the Jersey Flats, I saw him again – at least he looked like the same person. He was standing now with one thumb pointing west. I couldn’t figure out how he’d got there, but I thought maybe one of those fast trucks had picked him up, beaten me to the Skyway, and let him off. I – I didn’t stop for him. Then, late that night, I saw him again. It was on the new Pennsylvania Turnpike between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. It’s 265 miles long with a very high speed limit. I was just slowing down for one of the tunnels when I saw him standing under an arclight by the side of the road. I could see him quite distinctly – the bag, the cap, even the spots of fresh rain spattered over his shoulders. He hailed me this time.

Surely, by now, you’re realizing that you know this story. Consider for a moment that The Hitch-Hiker was written and produced originally in 1941. It’s had seventy-odd years to permeate the culture. That anyone is familiar with it today is a testament to Fletcher’s immense skill as a storyteller. I could list on one hand the number of radio plays that have had such success.

Ronald is rather spooked by now. Especially given the hitch-hiker’s eerie Helloooo…Hellooo that he calls out whenever Ronald drives by. But Ronald isn’t having any of it. He speeds past the hitch-hiker and continues on his drive.

When he stops for gas, he asks the attendant (in 1941, friends, gas stations outside of Oregon still had attendants) if there’s been any rain lately. The hitch-hiker’s jacket is spotted with rain.

“Not a drop of rain all week.”

“Oh no? I suppose that hasn’t done your business any harm?”

“No, people drive through here all kinds of weather. Mostly business, though. Ain’t many pleasure cars out on the turnpike this season of the year.”

“I guess not. What about hitchhikers?”

“Hitchhikers? Here?”

“Why? What’s the matter? Don’t you ever see any?”

“A guy’d be a fool to start out to hitchhike on this road. Look at it!”

But Ronald knows better. He sees that hitch-hiker everywhere. In Ohio. In Missouri. In Oklahoma. In Texas, he picks up a hitcher, a young woman, and offers to take her as far as Amarillo. She looks like she knows her way around hitching, and Ronald asks her a few hypotheticals. Such as: if a guy like Ronald is driving a steady 45 mph (not exactly a lead foot, our Ronald), and a hitcher snags a ride with someone doing 65, couldn’t they consistently get ahead of the dude driving like his grandmother?

Well…gee, the girl says. What a silly thought.

Then Ronald spots the hitch-hiker again.

“Did you see him too?”

“See who?”

“That man! Standing beside the barbed-wire fence!”

“I didn’t see anybody.”

“Right there!”

“It was nothin’, just a barbed-wire fence. What’d you think you was doin’ tryin’ to run into that barbed-wire fence?”

“There was a man there I tell ya! A thin, gray man with an overnight bag in his hand. I was trying to run him down.”

Ronald’s losing his shit. But wouldn’t you?

You remember how this story ends, don’t you? Weary of his drive, Ronald finally pulls over and decides to call his mother. Let her know how the trip is going. Except when he tries to call through, a voice he doesn’t know answers.

No, he can’t speak to Mrs. Adams at the moment. She’s in the hospital. She’s had a nervous breakdown.

“Nervous breakdown? My mother doesn’t have -“

“It’s all taken place since the death of her oldest son Ronald.”

“The death of her oldest son Ronald? Hey! What is this? What number is this?”

“This is Beechwood 9970. It’s all been very sudden. He was killed six days ago in an automobile accident on the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Poor Ronald, he swerved away from that hitcher on the bridge alright. But he swerved a little too hard. As the story closes, Ronald is trying to decide what to do. Whatever he decides, he knows the hitch-hiker is a part of his future.

The vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa and mountains, prairies, desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me – somewhere. Somewhere I shall know who he is and who I am.

Until next time, radio fans…

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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