David Ault, Eyþór Viðarsson, Fool and Scholar Production, Hem Cleveland, Horror, K. A. Statz, Kessi Riliniki, Lani Minella, Peter Lewis, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Svalbard, The White Vault, Travis Vengroff
[The following contains spoilers.]
During season two of the horror audiodrama The White Vault, the repair team at the remote mining outpost on Svalbard will face starvation, injury, 130 kilometre-per-hour blizzards, violent abduction and possible dismemberment. Despite all of this, their expedition still has a higher rating on TripAdvisor than most package holidays to Benidorm.
Familiarity cures most ills and over the second season of The White Vault I seem to have quietly jettisoned many of the misgivings that I had once harboured about the first one. The listener has to learn where exactly to meet this story, which picks out and inhabits its own unique space in between modern-day cinematic horror and the traditional Victorian adventure or tale of exploration. It always keeps John Carpenter’s polar horror The Thing (1982) in mind even at those times when it would clearly prefer to be Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). There is indeed a subtle reference to Victorian polar exploration at the very end of season two, when Jónas Þórirsson’s (Eyþór Viðarsson) widow is criticised in the press in much the same way as befell Lady Franklin following her husband’s disastrous 1845 Arctic expedition.
Graham Casner (Peter Lewis) is a figure of obvious derring-do, whilst Dr. Rosa De La Torre (Lani Minella) would be an asset to any adventure mission. The characters bringing up the rear moan perfunctorily but they all quickly conform to a stoical, self-denying spirit that must necessarily still linger on frontiers such as Svalbard. The White Vault is an adventure on which everybody is well behaved and everybody does what they are told. Nobody has a special diet that causes them to fuss narcissistically over the ingredients of every meal. Nobody drones on about their mental health or gets extravagantly offended by any “inappropriate” remark. In other words, Outpost Fristed is a hell when it comes to the weather but an enduring paradise of good manners. Snow lies everywhere but Snowflakes are in short supply.
How is it, therefore, that such golden characters are planted into a horror format that rejoices in their worthlessness? The White Vault reaches deep into the lowbrow for a form of storytelling that had found its apotheosis in the Final Destination franchise. You typically begin with a chocolate-box assortment of what Marilyn Manson had called “disposable teens” – bratty, randy, and squabbling youngsters who are hunted and consumed, one by one, by a malevolent power. The genius of Final Destination is that it manages to function without the slasher or monster that is normally the only original element in this sort of movie. There is no middle-man and Death himself has to get his hands dirty. In films such as these, hope always ebbs remorselessly away the nearer we get to the bottom of the chocolate box. The person who lives the longest is hardly a winner since they are merely on the longest and most torturous route to dying.
The White Vault is recognisably a cheeky story in which a menu of doomed characters is devoured one by one. Yet this podcast has applied itself to replicating what is usually the trashiest and most cynical of formats with a peculiar absence of trashiness and cynicism. The production is lavishly atmospheric. The story is carefully crafted and sincerely told and its characters are always interesting and likeable. Perhaps, we might gradually start to wonder, this isn’t really the character-munching affair that it otherwise appears to be. And with this the very thing that the format aims to invalidate suddenly bubbles up again with a new, improbable life. We start to hope.
The writer K.A. Statz surely wouldn’t have created such a beautiful and charming being as Jónas Þórirsson if she was only ever intending to destroy him. Although the repair crew are up against almost certain destruction, we begin to search for some loophole big enough for them to all fit through. Perhaps rescuers will breach the freak storm conditions that have sealed in the team. Admittedly, whenever rescuers turn up at the eleventh hour in horror cinema, the rescue seldom sticks. After the chef Dick Hallorann broke through the snowstorms in The Shining, for example, he was promptly felled by an axe. But maybe, we reason to ourselves, it will be different in The White Vault.
The repair team’s food supplies are ravaged, but we are encouraged anew when Casner discovers some Arctic lampreys and makes a meal out of them. Perhaps this represents a turning in fortunes, the start of the team’s comeback? So desperate have we become for any slight hope that these slimy, hideous eels are transformed into a lifeline. We continue to try to bargain with the plot until we come to carry this feeling of futile hope with us like a constant ache. At some point, we will downgrade the odds that the whole team will be saved to the modest but still surely feasible possibility that Jónas will get out alive.
The exact status of what is hunting the team might also feed our optimism. One of the more original features of The White Vault is the implication that the predators are not simply mindless monsters and that there might be some extraordinary cryptozoological civilisation operating deep underneath Svalbard. The team are not being hunted for food and they are being actually pursued with a strange absence of urgency, considering the rarity of human visitors to the subterranean settlement. There is ostensibly human sacrifice involved but since we are unfamiliar with whatever theology governs this, we might hope that it will eventually work in the repair team’s favour.
We know that the predatory force can mimic the voices and appearances of the missing team members. Is it not possible that the missing have been taken temporarily and stored somewhere and that they might be still returned to us intact? Clearly this interpretation is ludicrous but most listeners are probably clinging on to some version of it. We never receive ultimate confirmation that the team are dead and the season ends with the sinister suggestion that one of them might have been retrieved alive (even though the imitative powers of Carpenter’s polar monster warn us not to take this at face value). And so it goes on, the bargaining and hoping.
The key difference between The White Vault and a stock horror scenario is that the dramatic irony that so enhances the latter has somewhere malfunctioned. Were The White Vault a regular horror story, we would be savouring the impending destruction of the characters and wondering how they would each deservedly perish. It is not a regular horror story because we instead empathise with the characters and we hope against all hope alongside them that, however impossibly, they might be spared. The circumstances of this story guarantee that everybody is going to die but the story itself seems so friendly that we mute our critical faculties.
There could well be an obscure cruelty or perversity beneath the storytelling. I was here inclined to compare the podcastmakers to their own sadistic subterranean creatures. Maybe the story’s human characters are insincere apparitions that are designed to appeal to our sympathy, even as they lure us on into total bleakness. But we need to believe that the entire podcast is as nice as these characters, otherwise its enchantment would falter.
Season two concludes with the Documentarian (Hem Cleveland), who has previously only ever curated the recordings, deigning to step down onto the floor of the story. I cannot think of an audiodrama in which such curiosity has ever surrounded the identity of a narrator. The basic facts about who she is, and who she is narrating the story to, are withheld until there is an unbearable accrual of suspense. The revelation of her identity scotches a personal conspiracy theory of mine that she is one of the creatures beneath the ice, emotionlessly analysing the evidence that her agents have captured from the surface.
The season also ends on the intriguing suggestion that somebody in the capitals of Europe has inside information about the hidden civilisation. With season three, The White Vault is thus due to acquire a third dimension, transforming it into a bigger, broader, and potentially even bolder story.