One of the recurring discussions in the fiction world is the superiority of text over audio. I believe whatever format in which you prefer to consume fiction is the superior one. Considering the amount of time that I (and many of my fellow corporate slaves) spend commuting every day, audio is one of my favorite formats. With the numerous commitments on all of us, audio is one of our only opportunities to be able to consume fiction. My enjoyment of this format led me to chip in and volunteer over at Pseudopod, working my way up to being co-editor with Shawn Garrett.
If your audio disparaging friends happen to be swayed by peer-reviewed scientific journals, you should mention a 1977 study that showed the reading comprehension of short fiction in text and audio to be nearly identical (learn more at bit.ly/2dPRUd5, bit.ly/2ffpEl5, and bit.ly/2ek1n8K). Other studies have shown that reading text is superior when tackling dense technical information. However, they’ve also shown that listening is superior for tasks that include visualization of high-imagery passages. That’s part of why audio fiction is so compelling, as you are freed from the visual task of consuming the text on the page, allowing more cognitive space to visualize. Listening gets your eyes out of the way of the scene.
Audio horror adds another layer. When watching or reading horror, we have the opportunity to look away or skim when things get a little too intense. Audio forces you take a much more active role in escaping. We’re not allowed to cover our eyes when Button Boy is fastening those smiley faces to his victims in “Best New Horror” by Joe Hill. When our hapless editor is crashing through the woods at the end, our hearts are pounding with the same mix of exhilaration and fear. Audio horror stalks you relentlessly, one word at a time, machete in hand, and forces you to confront it or quit. And when you confront it, you can achieve catharsis on the other side.
Audio also has some distinct advantages. Narrators can lend prosody to the story that is sometimes difficult to pull off on the page. They can drive home sarcasm or emphasis or other things not explicitly coded into grammar. When Mia Farrow narrates Rosemary’s Baby to you, the suffering Rosemary endures rips through you. When Tina Connolly delivers that final line in Eugie Foster’s “When It Ends, He Catches Her” you can hear her heart break, and our hearts break with hers.
Listening also allows prose poetry to works its magic. Considering the lurid imagery of Dunsany or Zelazny or Gaiman, wild flights of fancy can wash over you. The whole of prose poetry is greater than the sum of its parts. Audio can be your silver key to the gates of the dreamworlds, and place something that may have been previously inaccessible within reach.
If you really want to step up your audio horror listening experience, you’ll follow the advice of Ambrose Bierce and find The Suitable Surroundings: “In solitude—at night—by the light of a candle.” An experience like this really assists with the verisimilitude. Effects and music, which we at Pseudopod tend to use sparingly, help to establish this sense of place. The gentle audio production in “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” by Jon Padgett establishes that we’re listening to a self-help record, as the static slowly builds to a reality-shattering crescendo.
This sense of authenticity is assisted with the right narrator. I find that hearing the unabridged World War Z audiobook is superior to reading it. For those of you who have not experienced it, we are presented with a series of journalistic interviews of a number of people who lived through the zombie apocalypse, from patient zero through crash to recovery. Max Brooks went to great lengths to find appropriate narrators for each of the different interviewees, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the story. A personal favorite is Henry Rollins delivering the story of a bodyguard who was employed to protect an ill-conceived reality show from the invaders at the gate during the crash.
Creating an experience like this is something that guided our 400th episode, which is the phenomenal “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. The cold delivery of congressional reports and newspaper clippings. The uncannily unblinkered interview with the infected soldier. The heartfelt emotions and fears that are slowly metered out in letters between a couple separated by work and continents. Each of these segments performs the click-click-click of the chain as your roller coaster climbs the first hill. We can see over the crest and then we are wholly owned by the story.
Picking the right narrator for the story is something we work on diligently and constantly strive to fine tune. If our POV character is a woman from New England, a British man is not the right fit. If our protagonist is Australian, a Kiwi isn’t quite right either. Grabbing a local or heritage narrator helps to ensure that the inflection is on the proper syllable and the names are pronounced closer to their intent. If you ever wanted to hear what a proper Mainer accent sounds like, grab a copy of The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. Jeffrey DeMunn elevates an unsatisfying story to something amazing. Anson Mount delivers a perfect wind-chapped rancher in “The Horror at the Mound” by Robert E. Howard. Jump scares are tough to pull off in a reading, but when the monster menaces, we’re given that visceral reaction. No one delivers a better British grave robber than Ian Stuart in “The Worm that Gnaws” by Orrin Grey. This performance continues to unsettle both the author and narrator. The right narrator is a critical piece in delivering the setting with proper articulation and dropped vowels.
With audio, our job is to help establish the setting as efficiently as possible, to remove as many cognitive barriers as possible, and to allow your visualization to work unfettered. Turn on, tune in, and let the bodies drop.
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