[The following contains spoilers.]
A young couple are driving along in their automobile. Although one would not wish to be abusive at this stage, Greg and Stacy Carlson (Eric and Lauren Goins) are definitely hipsters. They sound, in that characteristic way, both banal and too smart for their own good. They are uncomfortably self-aware and yet lacking in any self-awareness about how hipsterish they sound. You will know the type. Driving home through Texas, they bypass the freeway to “take local roads… it will be fun: antique stores, roadside diners, local colour.” Greg has no music on his phone but, with the hipster’s self-aware savouring of the naff, he quickly alights upon the car’s AM radio.
The Carlsons pick up a mysterious and increasingly unsettling religious broadcast. A spaced-out preacher (Fleet Cooper) rants about “pools of blood” and “our personal tribulation.” The horror duly proceeds in deepening steps. One of the congregation sounds like he has been tortured. Next the broadcast is addressing Stacy by her own name. And finally the couple realise that their car is heading straight towards an old radio tower…
Tribulation is made by Zero Mile Media and written by Adam Jahnke. “Fire and Brimstone,” its opening episode, is so perfect in its construction, and so efficient in its engineering of horror, that it can be readily enjoyed as a standalone short story. It could be an old episode of The Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected that has been remade as a podcast. The horror is of being trapped in a seemingly safe and innocuous scenario that you are somehow fully aware will end badly. The couple’s car is able to turn around at any time even as it is being pulled magnetically towards the reckoning. Greg appears to be enchanted in his frantic desire to investigate the radio tower and he is insensible to his wife’s, and our, knowledge of the ominous. There is no way to cry out “stop!” or wake up from the nightmare.
Tribulation figures notably in Cian Gill’s survey “Thoughts on Horror Podcasting,” which I have had frequent recourse to since I started reviewing podcasts. Gill’s thesis is that horror podcasts “almost always share an obsession with their own medium” and that they are essentially an inheritance bequeathed to us by “found footage” cinema. He argues that the “found” recordings that comprise these podcasts are often, like the radio signal in Tribulation, nostalgic and pre-digital. Tribulation’s opener accordingly feels “like a mix between a late-night campfire story and the kind of urban legend that you might have been told in the pre-information age.”
This is true, but we can also press on a little further. Just as the story’s hipsters are not sincerely returning to the past by purchasing kitsch antiques or refusing to listen to music on their phones, the radio that they encounter behaves in a manner that is surprisingly unlike an authentic or traditional AM receiver. The broadcast downloads itself into their car, whilst Greg is uploaded into the church and stored there, as though he is being archived on the Cloud. Sister Abagail (Jeni Fleming), during her rendition of “Amazing Grace,” skips glitchily like a corrupted MP3 file.
Unfortunately, Tribulation’s signal steadily loses its strength. Having traversed miles of plot with its first episode, the second covers inches, with the plodding progress and routine transactions of a police procedural. Gill has praised the first episode’s “urban legend” charm but you never really need to get to know the characters in an urban legend. Tribulation pursues the mistake of trying to flesh out people who it had previously required to be stick men. Rather than simply reacting to the horror, Stacy now has a backstory and, yes, she is on a journey.
The production has some superb voice talent under its command. Trevor Goble makes the most of Reid Singer, an investigatory podcastmaker whose character swirls a colourful pick ‘n’ mix of wide-eyed hippie, slimeball journalist and superpartying, has-been rock star. This bag of contradictions is made human with an admirable lightness of touch, whilst never quite escaping the suspicion of being familiar or even faintly clichéd. Where have we met such a character before? Was he one of the Lone Gunmen in The X-Files? Was he Bill or Ted when they went on that trip through time?
Tribulation is highly reminiscent of the atmosphere in Laird Barron’s early fiction, in which gleeful conspirators, the partakers of ecstatic otherworldly agonies, are usually plotting to suck future brethren in. From what I can remember of Barron’s stories (I would have to tip over too many stacks of books to retrieve my copy), the villains are always hiding, tittering and watching, in the drinking water or the air conditioning. Even so, something about this subtly malfunctions when applied within Tribulation, where the cult becomes altogether too totalitarian in its emphasis. Its gloating pastorate often sounds as triumphant as O’Brien at the end of George Orwell’s 1984. Whenever the supernatural force is predatory and henceforth snappy, as it is during the first episode, then all that the characters need to do is react to being eaten. But Tribulation does not in this respect prove hungry enough. Several episodes in, and the Tribulation cult is sounding administrative rather than excitingly menacing. There is already a second season queued up.
Early on in the drama, an attempt was made to dial back the Carlsons’ inexorable eddying down the plughole by giving Stacy some mild superpower or a resilience of her own (I profess that I couldn’t understand this part of the story). Here the drama is trading away too much of itself for a longer life. The nightmare of Tribulation is that the sort of cult which would be normally wrong about everything has this time got an overwhelming supernatural power on its side. The horror is not only that God exists but that He is really as insanely vindictive as the story’s worshippers make him out to be. Yet as soon as Stacy is given a fighting chance, this horror lessens and relaxes. We conclude that God cannot be the exclusive guarantor of the Tribulation enterprise. If we open up the books, we will surely uncover other investors.
Nonetheless I suspect that most listeners are actually taking a neutral stance during this conflict. Tribulation’s worshippers are clearly not very much fun. But, importantly, the Carlsons are hipsters. In a regular horror movie such unlikeable characters, lost alone in the countryside and up against a supernatural cult, would have been dispatched fairly promptly. The Carlsons are trespassing, or else they are ghosts who are still haunting a world that the logic of horror storytelling dictates they should have left by now.