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Angels of death... and a curer who's got it licked

Every Monday, as weary wage slaves stare dolefully at slowly ticking clocks (and bittersweet memories of the weekend fade), John Kelleher – Irish radio's angel of death – swoops into Marconi House. Not to spread much-needed cheer but, rather, to regale the Moncrieff audience with tales of the recently deceased.

Starting the week with The Obituary Slot may sound perversely morbid – a cruel case of kicking listeners who are already sunk in a Monday funk – but Kelleher is such an amiable obituarist that the whole thing bounces along quite jollily. Becoming, on occasion, even life-affirming. Or maybe that's just me.

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A large part of the charm is that it profiles not just the mega-famous dead, but those who (as Moncrieff says) "you might not have heard of". This week's choice, however, turned out to be someone I'd not only heard of, but interviewed (pre-mortem, obviously). His name may not be as instantly and universally recognised as that of, say, Stephen King (one of a host of writers who toil in his shadow), but to horror and science fiction fans, Richard Matheson was a towering figure.

Kelleher reeled off the achievements. The brilliantly jittery and paranoia-soaked novels of the 1950s: I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man (the latter expertly filmed, the former thrice mangled). The seminal Twilight Zone scripts – most notably, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where a frazzled (pre-Star Trek) William Shatner is haunted by a plane-destroying gremlin only he can see.

The "secret of his success", Kelleher suggested, was that he rooted the fantastical aspects of his stories in the mundane. Extraordinary things would happen, but to ordinary people. In ordinary places. Like Dennis Weaver's stalked and terrorised motorist in Spielberg's Duel. Or the doomed and besieged everyman, Robert Neville, in I Am Legend. Though Kelleher singled out Matheson's recurring obsession with "isolation and psychological distress", Matheson himself was rather less inclined to discuss themes and subtexts present (or seemingly present) in his work.

"Don't emphasise any kind of subconscious desire on my part to make social commentary," he somewhat sternly told me, during our own slightly awkward interview, a few years back. I tried not to, but the (contemporary) anxieties that bubble just under the surface are precisely what makes Matheson's fiction so potent. Something The Obituary Slot acknowledged, even if the great man himself didn't.

"It is believed that faith healers and cures have been around since the beginning of time." So said documentary-maker and narrator Kevin McCann as he earnestly introduced The Cure at Hand, this week's Documentary on One. As openings go, it was worryingly – or amusingly – vague. Calling to mind, for this listener at least, the spoken word hilarity of Spinal Tap's Stonehenge (imagine Nigel saying it).

An unfortunate start, from which The Cure at Hand never quite fully recovered.

We followed McCann as he aimed to "experience the worlds of the healer and the healed". In Sligo, he met believers in "the cure". A Donegal man suffering from gout. A young girl plagued by psoriasis. Both there to see Danny Gallagher – a popular healer and, we were told, the "seventh son of a seventh son".

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From there, McCann travelled to Galway, to hear tales of traditional 'cures' from Claddagh-born Tom Houlihan, who spoke of a grandmother who had a cure in "the spit in her tongue" (using said tongue to lick away eye ailments).

What let the documentary down was an excessively reverential and credulous tone throughout. When McCann described Houlihan as "a descendent of the Fir Bolg people", he did so with a 'straight face'. Another Spinal Tap-esque flourish as the mystical meanderings got turned up to 11.


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