The slow sound of terror

I love horror, and horror has been on my mind a bit lately. I’m gearing up to run a short horror game, I have ideas for two adult horror novels and a middle-years series with age-appropriate horror elements, and I’ve been reading…

…um, well, I haven’t been reading much of anything lately, because my head isn’t in the game in the window I have for reading. But when I am reading, my horror options seem more limited than they used to. The genre is changing, the market is changing, and books you could call ‘horror’ rather than ‘paranormal thrillers’ or ‘dark urban fantasy’ are harder to find (for me, at least). That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing; there are cycles, and old-fashioned ghost-stab-blood-in-your-shower-head books will no doubt come back in vogue, hopefully when I have more reading time.

However! This weekend I discovered a whole new vector for horror, one that I can enjoy while also doing some of my other major activities – i.e. walking the dog or standing on the train – and I wanted to tell you about them.

Here’s a thing about me – I can’t listen to audiobooks, or similar spoken-word performances of texts. Prose is a visual medium for me – I need to see it, read it and process it in the optic centres of my brain to get enjoyment out of it. Hearing prose read aloud, even if you get actors in to read dialogue, leaves me cold at best and irritated at worst, because I can’t see the shape of the words; I can’t sense the weight of the lines on the page. I know this makes no sense, but it’s how I’m wired.

However! This aesthetic blindspot does not extend to audio drama, radio plays and other narrative works that were designed from the start to be listened to. And thanks to a minor aside in another show, this weekend I discovered three narrative podcasts that tackle long-form horror narrative in interesting and different ways. And so far, they seem worth a listen.

First and best – Limetown, which I described on Twitter as ‘like Serial, but about the Roanoke disappearances’. This is a limited-run podcast (about 10 episodes, most about 30 minutes or so) that applies the style and production of investigative journalism podcasts to a fictional crime – the disappearance of the entire population of a small Tennessee town, and an investigation ten years later that blows the case wide open.

Limetown manages to play it subtle while still being an obvious genre piece – there are markers and hints in the first episode, but it doesn’t over-egg the pudding and turn into a Twilight Zone episode. (At least, not so far, but I’m only two sessions in.) The production is top-notch, the voice-acting good to excellent, and the actual writing remarkably strong; the folks behind this know how to work with words.

There’s a second season coming, and possibly a novel or TV show in the works, so get in early before everyone’s into it.

Next up is the Black Tapes podcast, recommended by  Twitter-peep Filamina Young. So far this one’s reasonably interesting, but hasn’t grabbed me as strongly.

The premise is solid; it’s a semi-journalistic podcast, the kind of thing you’d get from studios like Gimlet or Radiotopia – something based on research, interviews and stories. Specifically on the case files of Dr Richard Strand, a paranormal researcher who remains highly sceptical that the paranormal exists at all. But in his black tapes, the show’s host and researchers keep drawing out questions that aren’t easy to answer.

It’s a good setup for an ongoing, episodic show – each ‘cast can look at one case file, explore it to some kind of conclusion and then move on to the next while adding a little bit to the overarching metaplot/mythology of the series. So far, though, the idea’s been a little stronger than the execution – some of the tropes and twists in the case files smack too much of the plot hooks we were throwing out in World of Darkness RPG sourcebooks in the late 90s. A bit dated, a bit obvious, a bit too derivative.

But hey, I’m only 3-4 episodes in, and it could lift its game a bit – and the production, sound design and voice acting are solid. I’m keen to keep listening, if only in the hope that the writing rises to meet the rest of the work.

Finally, Tanis – which was the one I was iffiest about, but rattled me to the extent that I had to stop listening to it while I was home alone tonight.

Tanis is from the same stable as Black Tapes, and has the same semi-journalistic feel – and on reflection, I really like this approach. It’s writerly without being just about prose; they call it a docu-drama style, and I’m not sure that’s the right use of the word but who cares.

Anyway, Tanis is about conspiracies – all the conspiracies. It explores the idea of mystery, and about finding the truth about ‘Tanis’ – which might be a city, a god, a state of mind or something else again. Tanis moves, Tanis changes, and in trying to uncover the truth, the show touches on a variety of classic conspiracy and weirdness tales/tropes, stuff of old that I recognise but that feels refreshed by this take on stitching it all together.

Tanis suffers a little from a lack of definition – it’s still not clear what Tanis is meant to be, or why the podcast exists – and some of the writing doesn’t quite click in the first few episodes. But most of it does, and it feels dangerous in a way that Black Tapes doesn’t – like it might not call up ghosts and demons, but it will still draw some kind of unwelcome attention. Like it’s a door into a world that takes advantage of open doors.

I’m only a few episodes into each of these shows, and they could all fall apart – but I’m willing to buy the ticket and take the ride nonetheless. And I don’t think they will.

Anyway, that’s what I’m listening to. Listening while thinking about the possibilities of diagetic storytelling. And wondering if I could pull it off myself. And wondering what else is out there.

So yeah, check these three shows out. I think there’s something very cool here. And if you know of another podcast that presents horror narratives in this way, rather than a straight prose reading – or indeed ‘casts in other genres, ‘cos it’s not like horror is unique in this – please throw up some links in the comments.

(However! You don’t have to mention Welcome to Night Vale, because we all know about that and I lost interest a couple of years back. Sorry to be an arse about it.)

And with that, it’s time to run from the writing shed back to the house, to grab the dog and hope that he will protect me from the consequences of the elevator game.

Oh man, the elevator game. I gotta do something with that.

11 thoughts on “The slow sound of terror

    1. I’ve been sprinting through Limetown today, and while it’s very good, I think Tanis is the one I’m enjoying most.

      It’s certainly the one creeping me out the most.

  1. Have you tried The Message – similar to Limetown in that it’s a finite story, told as basically a documentarian doing a piece about a crew of cryptographers. It’s smart and good, although a little uneven in its pacing.

        1. I listened to ‘The Message’ this week, and I think it was a good idea that never quite came together. Good writing, good voice acting, but the abbreviated length never gave it enough room to flesh out the ideas or fully develop the characters. The final twist fell flat for me – a strong idea, but they didn’t execute it effectively. With more or longer episodes, it could have really clicked.

          (And the science just didn’t work. If only they’d made it about information rather than about ‘sound waves in the brain’.)

          Ultimately it was a bit unsatisfying, but I’m interested in seeing what else that group have done.

  2. I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Dark Shadows by Big Finish – audio stories based on the old soap opera, with many of the original cast members.

    Dark Shadows is a supernatural soap opera primarily, and often descends some cheesie territory, BUT when it taps into horror tropes and uses them creatively, there are some incredibly eerie and atmospheric stories there.

  3. I finished “Limetown” yesterday. It didn’t really come together in a satisfying way for me, although that may in part be to due to originally being planned as seven episodes instead of six. (That the fictional radio series had a planned number of episodes for what was supposedly a discovery-in-real-time story felt contextually off.) Mostly, though, it was the unsatisfying payoff to the ongoing foreshadowing of the Man Who They Were All There For reference, which turned out more of a klunky narrative device than where I was expecting the horror to be. I think I was probably anticipating a more Lovecraftian resolution because of it, whereas everything ended up more mundane.

    Filmwise, recently I’ve been really shaken by “Luciferous”, and which I found really clever in both how it is structured and what it appears to be. I also enjoyed “The Invitation”, it struck the right balance between paranoia and menace before the revelation.

    “Tanis” sounds fascinating, will check it out next.

    1. Yeah, I finished Limetown too, and it didn’t really stick the landing. Like you, I think it suffered from compression; it needed a bit more time to establish mood and set stakes. Even 1-2 more episodes at the start could have made a difference.

      But at the same time, I think it had the strongest voice acting and dialogue of all three podcasts I mentioned. There’s more emotion in here, and it comes across more genuinely.

      Tanis takes a little while to pick up steam, and some of the elements (and actors) never quite ring true, but stick with it. It pulls from the same sources that have been on your radar for like 20 years.

  4. Actually one more I think you’d really dig: Watch With Mother is a “sketch horror” show that I caught on SBS a few times late at night. Genuinely creepy stuff.

    (I know none of these recommendations are podcasts but good horror is a rarity)

    1. I’ll check that and the films out if I get a chance. Podcasts are convenient in that I can access them while commuting or walking Ernie, both of which take up huge chunks of my day. Watching things means being organised.

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