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Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Audio File: Pseudopod

Guest post by Sam McDonald.
I hope you weren't thinking about getting a good night's rest, because in this edition of The Audio File we're talking about the horror podcast Pseudopod. The middle child of the Escape Artists podcasts, Pseudopod brings listeners the best horror stories week after week. Pseudopod is hosted by Alasdair Stuart, who always provides great observations and insights about the world following each story. In fact, Alasdair has recently released a collection of these musings knows as The Pseudopod Tapes. Like their sister podcast PodCastle, Pseudopod doesn't reprint the text of their stories, but they will usually link to them.

Now, a few things before we move forward. First of all this article will be heavy on the historical horror, but I did manage to find a couple alternate history stories. Second, and a bit more importantly, this is a horror podcast. That means that these tales are meant to terrify and disturb, and you might encounter things that potentially make you feel uncomfortable. If you have little ones you might want to consider listening with the headphones on. You have been warned.

On that note, get ready, because I've got thirteen stories for you...

The Murmurous Paleoscope by Dixon Chance
Narrated by Christina Ellis
Originally published in The Three-Lobed Burning Eye

We start our list off with a steampunk story set during the fossil hunts of the 19th century. Fossil hunter Hazel Cardanell has recently arrived in the Utah Territory and has made an amazing discovery. The new fossil has been named Anomalocaris and it looks absolutely terrifying. Hazel has also been having a series of strange dreams. It's almost as if some mysterious force is reaching out to her from beyond the grave, but it's only a fossil, isn't it?

I always have a soft spot for paleontology stories and this story is no exception. I also enjoyed that the story is presented as a series of letters like many of HP Lovecraft's stories. Anomalocaris was a perfect choice for this Lovecraftian story; go ahead and Google that and tell me it doesn't look like something straight out of Lovecraft's imagination.

Christina's narration did the perfect job of capturing that feeling of a person who's found themselves confronted with forces they can't even begin to comprehend. I also appreciated how the steampunk elements actually played a role in the story rather than simply acting a window dressing. However, I mustn't elaborate on that point or else I'll spoil the story.

It's got fossils, steampunk and Lovecraftian elements. What's not to love about this story.

The Burning Servant by Steven Saus
Narrated by Stephanie Morris
Originally published in Chain Story

We all heard of Sherman's burnings of Atlanta and Savannah, but is there more to the story? According to former slave Sarah Freeman there is. It seems that during the day of the Civil War the plantation owners of the Confederacy went to some desperate lengths to see the South triumph. One might even call their efforts downright Lovecraftian.

Okay, if you haven't figured it out by now, the plantation owners performed a ritual to summon a Lovecraftian monstrosity, but it got out of their control and burned a path of destruction across Georgia. A spoiler, yes, but not too much of one.

This story is in many way an inversion of a typical Lovecraft story. You've got so called civilized men connected with unearthly monstrosities, people of color as the innocent bystanders and the whole thing is told by a woman. Speaking of this story being told by a woman, I thought that Stephanie did an excellent job with the narration. I also appreciated that the depiction of life for slave in the American South wasn't sugar coated or watered down.

Overall and excellent story and a meditation on the various tropes and conventions of Lovecraft stories. Very much recommended.

Tales of the White Street Society by Grady Hendrixs
Narrated by Alasdair Stuart
A Pseudopod Original

This story takes places in 19th century New York City as the White Street Society, a group of gentlemen adventures, are having a meeting. The evening's host, Augustus Morrison recounts his recent adventures in the slums of the Irish immigrants. It seems that the Irish were being plagued by a monster from their old nation. The question is, could more such creatures be on their way to America?

I'm going to slightly spoil what the monster is, but this important for our discussion. The monster is...a leprechaun. Yes, you read that correctly. I tried, but it just couldn't take that very seriously as a monster. However, that's not where the real horror in this story lies for me.

The part of this story that truly horrified me was the ghastly descriptions of daily life for the Irish immigrants. The descriptions of these people living to absolute squalor at the bottom rung of society, and with nobody caring about their plight, will be sure to haunt you for days. Tellingly, at the end of the story, when the characters talk of how evil leprechauns are, it easily sounds like they're talking about the Irish instead.

The story does a really good job of capturing the attitudes and prejudices of the 19th century. It certainly does come across as a satire/pastiche of Victorian Gothic novels, and that certainly helps. Now, as I mentioned in the past, when Alasdair Stuart is pair with the right story he absolutely shines. This story is a prime example of that, though I will say that at times his British accent made me forget that the White Street Society were Americans and not British.

A frightful satire of Victorian fiction well worth your time.

Silver and Copper, Iron and Ash by Nathaniel Lee
Narrated by Dominick Rabrun
Originally published in Coins of Chaos

This story is set in rural Colorado in the 1930s. Our protagonist James is struggling to made ends meet and provide enough to eat for his pregnant wife. While out hunting James discovers a mysterious Indian Head coin. He tries to get rid of the coin on the advice of a passing vagrant. The coin, however, keeps reappearing and each time it brings even stronger feeling of hunger.

If there's one central theme to this story it's hunger; be that for food, money or anything else. Even before the supernatural elements become more obvious you can almost see hunger as the main antagonist. The atmosphere to this story was absolutely perfect, and is a testament to Nathaniel's writing talent.

Dominick did an excellent job conveying that atmosphere and feelings of hunger in audio form. I also found the backdrop of the Great Depression to be more than fitting for a story centered around hunger and money.

It's a story sure to leave you hungry for more.

Bophuthatswana by Lavie Tidhar
Narrated by Elan Ressel
A Pseudopod Original

This next story is set in South Africa after years after the fall of Apartheid. Our protagonist would have been considered colored under the Apartheid. He's lost loved ones to various far-right extremist groups and he's out for revenge. Yet these are more than just racist extremists. The men he's after feed on the blood of the innocent and they have for centuries because they are vampires.

Okay, a couple things. First of all there's quite a few Afrikaans slang words throughout this story, but Pseudopod does provide a glossary of their meanings on their page for this story. Second, it's debatable as to whether the extremists are literally vampires or if that's simply a metaphor. Personally, I say both interpretations are equally valid, you just get slightly different stories.

I liked this story's depiction of post-Apartheid South Africa. You see people learning from the past and trying to move on, but at the same time there's still a lot of tension and resentment left over. It was also nice to see this aspect of South Africa as it is usually ignored in fiction. For example, there was a scene mentioning that South Africans of Asian ancestry didn't qualify as white under Apartheid, but also didn't qualify for compensation following its fall.

All in all a good, if dark, depiction of South Africa after Apartheid.

Pran's Confession by Joel Arnold
Narrated by Ben Phillips
A Pseudopod Original

We're taking a holiday in Cambodia for our next story. Samnang, a former prison guard, is revisiting a prison he worked at during the Pol Pot regime. He can stop thinking about one particular prisoner named Pran, who was defiant to the very end. Samnang also worries that the spirits of the dead might not be at rest after all these years.

I always knew things were grim under Pol Pot, especially during the Khmer Rouge, but until I listened to this story I'd never really envisioned just how bad things were. An all consuming ideology that would make North Korea blush, people with glasses sentenced to death, entire fields converted into mass graves and countless other horrors. I almost feel that the supernatural wasn't needed to add more horror to this story.

Ben did a great job conveying the stark hopelessness of this story. I feel there really isn't much more I can add. The story really speaks for itself.

For a glimpse into the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge, look no further.

The Prophet's Daughters by Michael J. DeLuca
Narrated by Tina Connolly
Originally published in Oniresmes.com

The story take place in the Ancient Greek colony of Sybaris and one character's quest to follow in their mother's footsteps by becoming soothsayer of Sybaris. Okay, not the most exciting of summaries, but this is a great story. The atmosphere of this story was absolutely top notch. I really felt like I was walking along side the religious processions and rituals. Speaking of which, loved the emphasis this story placed on the rituals and practices of Ancient Greek religion.

That being said, I did find it a bit annoying that the gods and goddesses were referred to by their Roman names given the story's Greek setting. As for the narration, I though Tina did an excellent job conveying the terror and mysticism present in the story.

It's short, Ancient Greek and incredibly descriptive. Very much worth your time.

Acceptable Losses by Simon Wood
Narrated by Ian Stuart
A Pseudopod Original

The story is set during World War II, and follows the British campaign against the Japanese. During an expedition the British discovered a strange gelatinous organism with the ability to predict the future and communicate telepathically. Unfortunately, the organism, since named Oracle, feeds exclusively on human flesh. Therefore, one out of ever five battles is an intentional failure to provide Oracle with food. The Captain in charge of Oracle is beginning to wonder how he'll be able to live with himself after the war is over.

It's often said that those who wage wars must be ready to pay the price of those wars. The heart of this story is really all about asking what is the price of war. At the same time, there aren't any clear answers. The price to keep Oracle alive is undoubtably horrible, but at the same time it saved more than a few lives with its predictions.

Ian does an good job conveying the human emotions of the captain as well as the otherworld, yet familiar, speaking style of Oracle. I also liked that this story featured British soldiers fighting the Japanese, a topic often ignored in most works of fiction involving World War II.

It's a Lovecraftian take on an often ignored topic. Very much recommended.

The Three Chimes by David Longshore
Narrated by Corson Bremer
A Pseudopod Original

This story follows Louis XVI in the days leading up to his execution. Louis spends his time thinking about a strange clock that seemed to bring doom wherever it went. The clock seemed to cause otherwise inanimate object to try to eat him and he worries about what it will cause next.

One of the things I love about this story is that way it took something Louis XVI loved and then turned it into a source of terror. In real life Louis XVI was absolutely obsessed with clocks, and in the story his beloved clocks have become the instigator of his doom. It seemed rather fitting that the clock caused things to try and eat Louis, give that in a way his death was due to having been fed to a guillotine.

Corson did a spot on job with his narration. I also liked how the story presented a very human and historically accurate depiction of Louis. I have, in the past, encountered works of fiction set during the French Revolution that depict Louis XVI as a corrupt tyrant. He might have been incompetent, and he inherited quite the mess from his predecessors, but he was hardly tyrannical in his rule.

A great historical horror centered around Louis XVI. I heartily recommend it.

The Spirit of Nationalism by Richard Marsden
Narrated by Mike Bennett
A Pseudopod Original

This story is set in 1812 during Napoleon's campaign against Russia. A young solider named Gregorie has become lost in the snow and feel abandoned by Napoleon. He's been found by a fellow soldier who demands that he push on. Together they set off through the wind and ice to find the great general once again.

This story is very much a Jack London style man vs. nature story; though supernatural elements do appear towards the end. The atmosphere for this story is great; you get a sense of just how bleak the Russian winter is. This is really a story that feels like something you might have read in school, but you can't remember when. As for the narration, well, I think you can guess by now that I thought Mike did a great job capturing this story's feeling.

A story of finding meaning in the face of great odds. Well worth your time

Last Respects by Dave Thompson
Narrated by Scott Sigler
A Pseudopod Original

This story is actually an alternate history, well, kind of sort of. It takes place in a world where not only do vampires exist, but they got into a war with humanity and won. Following the war humans have been reduced to little more than animals. Also, Jesus might have been a vampire in this world. The story itself follows an older vampire as he and his family mourn his wife's recent passing.

For those of you wondering, yes, this is the same Dave Thompson who is former editor and host of PodCastle. It takes a special breed of writer to craft a story that is simultaneously deeply touching and utterly horrifying. Fortunately, Dave is one of those authors. The story juxtaposes a deeply touching family drama about coping with the loss of a loved along side the utter horror of what's happened to humanity.

The way the story handled religion was both tasteful and respectful. The vampires' version of Christianity is presented as no different than human Christianity; albeit vampire communion is a tad more literal. Of the implication that Jesus was a vampire, I won't comment much; though as the story itself mentions, Jesus did encourage his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in hopes of rising from their graves.

Scott's narration did a perfect job of balancing the emotion and horror of this story. This is the first story I've ever found from Dave, and I've got a feeling his writing has a very bright future ahead of it.

It's a story that will touch your heart and made you cringe with terror. I couldn't recommend it more.

The Corpse Army of Khartoum by Grady Hendrix
Narrated by Alasdair Stuart
A Pseudopod Original

Yes, I've got another story of the White Street Society for you. This time Augustus Morrison is on adventure to Egypt and Sudan. In particular, he's investigating the city of Khartoum and the rumors that it's home to sorcerers who can raise the dead.

There's a lot of overlap between my thoughts on this story and the last White Street Society story, but I'll do my best to add something new. First of all, you do see a bit of a colonialist attitude throughout the story, but then it is a satire on Victorian literature. Overall I can say it's a great adventure story with a supernatural twist to it. Though I must admit that when Augustus encounters the corpse army and describes them as smelling like...spiced chicken, it slightly ruined the mood for me.

Another fine addition to the White Street Society series. Very much recommended.

The Republic of the Southern Cross by Valery Bryusov
Narrated by Eric Luke
Originally published in Zemnaya Os, but is now Public Domain

I saved one of the best for last. It's not an alternate history per se, but it does have the feel of one. It's a Russian science fiction/horror mashup for the early 20th century. Without further delay, let's talk about this story.

This story chronicles the rise and fall of the Republic of the Southern Cross. The titular republic is located in Antartica, and is initially presented as a worker's paradise. Then several citizens come down with Contradiction; a disease that causes people to do the opposite of what they intend. At first the citizens take it in stride and find it all somewhat comical...then doctors and nurses start slitting their patients throats and pharmacists start handing out poison. Before long society begins to unravel at the seams.

Like I said before, this isn't exactly alternate history, but it does have the feel of one. The Republic itself has a predominately Russian feel to it, but there are hints if other cultures as well. In many ways this story feels like listening to an excerpt from a history book written in an alternate timeline. Fortunately, the writing never gets too dry and Eric's narration really brings things to life.

The famous comic book writer/artist Jack Kirby once said that you can tell a lot about a people based on their fantasies. With this story you really get a sense of the hopes and fears of the Russian people from the time this story was written. There as sense of wanting to improve the lot of workers, but also a considerable fear for what might go wrong.

It's one of my favorite Pseudopod stories, and I can't recommend it enough.

Conclusion 

Well, we've made it to the end of the list, and I'd like to take this opportunity to talk a bit about why I started The Audio File. First, because there are so many great stories out there, but sometimes they can be a bit hard to find if you don't know where to look. So, I figured that it would be nice if there was a place that had them all listed in one convenient location.

The Second reason is that last year all three Escape Artists podcasts experienced a bit of a financial crisis. Fortunately, this was resolved quickly, but for a few very tense weeks the future of Escape Pod, Pseudopod and PodCastle was up in the air. I contributed money, but I wanted to do a bit more. It is my hope that these articles will get enough people interested that it might, even if only in a small way, prevent future budget issues. Because what's really scary is a world without great podcasts and stories like these.

Of course, it's not just the Escape Artists I'm going to talk about. This is The Audio File, we cover all kinds of podcasts. In fact, next time we'll venture beyond Escape Artists and on to other great podcasts, starting with The Drabblecast. I'll see you then.

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Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found making and posting maps across the web and working on short stories that he hopes to have published in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Escape Artists Podcasts.

4 comments:

  1. Many thanks for your enthusiastic and detailed reviews. Online feedback helps us expand the potential audience for the cast and is much appreciated.

    Shawn M. Garrett
    Editor, Pseudopod

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're most welcome. Like I said, I do this not only to showcase great stories, but to promote and hopefully expand the audiance for this and many other great podcasts.

      It is always nice to hear some kind words, especially from the people who make the podcasts I cover.

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  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed The Burning Servant as well! Huzzah!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really, I should be the one thanking you for the great story. But, don't mention it. All part of the job

      Delete