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A Voice at the Edge of the Firelight

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Horror storytelling takes as many forms as there are media in the world, and in the world of 2019, that means a great many forms indeed. From the page to the cinema to the console, technological innovation provides creators of weird and unsettling art with new tools to use and terrifying new themes to play upon. But — as any grim-faced stranger with too-wise eyes might tell you in a moonlit field on a summer evening, sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Sometimes the old ways have a taste that you can’t get on your tongue anywhere else, however hard you may try to slake your thirst.

When it comes to the art of sharing a good scare, of fleshing out the monsters of our imagination, there is no older way than storytelling. Not the printed word – although that obviously has its own delights – but the telling of stories, around a campfire, or in a bunkhouse late at night, or simply gathered together in our homes as the dark sacred night uncoils itself around our lonely little outposts of light.

Storytelling is as old as language – and as current as the latest TED talk. Every advance in technology has brought with it a proliferation of and an advance in storytelling. H.G. Wells’ the War of the Worlds was a modestly successful speculative novel (first serialized in the United States in Cosmopolitan magazine, as a matter of fact). The advent of radio made it a cultural phenomenon, forever shorthand for a media prank so artfully executed that it ropes in a gullible public.

Not all of the broadcasts on this new medium were the prototypical forerunners of today’s “found footage” films, mind you. No: radio, of course, brought with it the radio play – a venerable format that is with us to this day (but we’ll get to that in a moment). From the 1920s up until at least the early 1980s, horror and suspense radio plays were a lucrative and somewhat-respectable venue, one in which you’d hear Orson Welles, Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price. If vintage horror radio is for you, by the way, I recommend that you check out By virtue of their podcast, the Horror!  some of those radio plays from the 1930s are, in a way, in syndication to this day – in addition to the starry void into which they were originally transmitted, of course, which is its own eternal form of cold, empty syndication. The Horror! hosts some real gems, including one of my favorite adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work: “the Outsider,” originally written in 1926 (and mercifully free of Lovecraft’s cringe-inducing xenophobia or racism) produced by the radio program Black Mass in 1965. Give it a listen – it is eerie and excellent.

And that brings us to podcasts – my beloved podcasts. As a person with a significant visual disability, it’s hard for me to convey the delight I feel at the current renaissance taking place in horror storytelling generally, and audio storytelling in particular, thanks to podcasting. There are too many good horror podcasts to mention all of them here. There are so many of them that subgenres have developed – from the long-form, original, scripted variety (the venerable and indescribably excellent Welcome to Night Vale, audiophile favorite Darkest Night, the superb and mold-breaking the Horror of Dolores Roach) to the more creepypasta-oriented (NoSleep, Scary Stories Told in the Dark) to those favoring that old-school, gather-‘round-the-campfire format I mentioned (Snap Judgment’s Spooked – which produced one of the scariest stories I’ve ever heard, “El Payaso Zombie”).

My favorite horror podcast of them all is a venerable and straightforward one: Pseudopod, from the mad geniuses at Escape Artists. Pseudopod has been alive and writhing for twelve (twelve!) years, and features short horror fiction and flash fiction read by voice actors. It is unwaveringly excellent in its content. Recent episodes that particularly tickled my ears include #626 “Blue John,” written by D.K. Wayrd and narrated by Phil Lunt, and #617 “The Culvert” written by Maxwell Price and narrated by Paul Cram. Throw in the inimitable Alasdair Stuart with an insightful digest if at the end of each episode, and Pseudopod is, in my opinion, a must-subscribe.

And, of course, I would be woefully remiss if I didn’t mention Madness Heart Radio, and the first audiobook from Madness Heart Press, Shards of Shattered Sentiment; An Exploration of Poetic Form Through the Lens of Horror, by our own John Baltisberger. Hopefully, the podcast will soon be fleshed out further in ways sure to delight and unsettle. In the meantime, feel free to leave your recommendations in the comments. What episodes or podcasts strike you as particularly fearsome, particularly creative, or particularly deft in their delivery?

Wherever horror storytelling goes next – in whatever media, in whichever direction – I’m confident that there will always be someone there, crouched at the edge of the firelight. Someone with a voice, and a story to tell. A chilling tale.

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