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[The following contains spoilers.]

Tychy began reviewing podcasts four years ago and today my Podcast Review feature looks a little lost in its own field. I had started out with the hypothesis that there would be no qualitative difference between podcasting and the Edinburgh Fringe. Although one exists purely as data and the other is incarnated across a particular time and space, both recognisably proceed from the age-old literary motif of the bazaar. Both are mazes where the reviewer becomes an explorer and the explorer is naturally bound to make serendipitous discoveries.

The average Fringe play does not last for thirty hours, however, and it is not released in seasons. Podcasting is, in other words, too time-consuming to be practically reviewed. The reviewer who implies that they have achieved any real overview of podcasting today is just putting on the necessary professional front.

Two of the best podcasts that I have listened to in recent months have not been new discoveries. I have probably said all that can or at least should be said about them when reviewing their earlier seasons. But let me comment on how they have lately developed, if only to tie up a couple of loose ends.

In season two of Kris Kaiyala’s Dirt – An Audio Drama we continue to traverse the hinterlands of Washington State. We are once again in the company of Joseph Elo, a tech entrepreneur who is running truant from the company that he had founded. Unfortunately for the company, it is on the eve of delivering a momentous presentation to some international investors. Elo is now away with the faeries and off on a treasure hunt that has been apparently organised for him by his deceased grandfather. The only encouragement that he receives in this is forthcoming from a “haunted” metal detector, which seems to be often pulling him impatiently towards the clues.

The listener might decide that the real treasure within this story is the masterful paranoia that comes to hem Elo in every which way. The treasure hunt feels always too good to be true. Perhaps its magic is itself “fool’s gold,” which has been somehow obscurely planted to distract Elo from the breakthrough that his company is about to make. But with its pleasant humour and its picturesque scenery, this story is surely too gentle to be settled by means of such a cruel, materialist solution. If there was really a conspiracy against Elo, then it would be using his own childhood nostalgia and his memories of his grandfather as the bait on the hook.

Every tiny aspect of Dirt refers back to the single quandary at its heart. Is Elo right to trade in his big tech future for nostalgia and historical treasure? Or rather, is it tasteful for him to squander his unique privilege and climb down into the dirt? The finale to season two is beautifully powerful and maybe Kaiyala should have found a way to end it here, even if various important questions about its story would remain unanswered.

Up until now, Elo has been like a bridegroom who is struggling to make it back from the ruinous aftermath of a stag party to his wedding. In having effectively announced that he is donating his bride to somebody else, he has annulled all of the suspense of his story. All that we have now is the treasure hunt and by itself this looks a bit flat. There will be a third season of Dirt but it will have to wrench itself about and kick very hard to regain the suspense and paranoia that have been hitherto its most attractive characteristics.

There is a strong autobiographical feel to Dirt, with Kaiyala writing it, starring in it and incorporating material about his own family into its story. If Dirt had been created during any previous decade then it would have been clearly a novel. Yet the storytelling is nimble enough in itself, without this personal affinity, and one wonders how Kaiyala might operate at a greater creative distance. He is definitely a podcastmaker to keep an eye on.

***

By now K.A. Statz’s horror audiodrama The White Vault is a huge podcast and it will be probably remembered as a cult series and a classic. Whenever you think of it, its theme music always plays stirringly in your head, which is a sure indicator that it is with us for the long term. At its finale, we are back at the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and the mining facility Outpost Fristed. This is at once a headquarters for the story’s ice faeries and a portal to their hive consciousness.

The White Vault is always good but it is never exactly perfect. Some striking performances from Hem Cleveland, Peter Joseph Lewis, Tanja Milojevic, Beth Eyre and Karin Heimdahl do not altogether manage to hurry the story along when it drags. There are too many characters and whilst the voice acting usually renders them vivid enough, the people beneath the voices can come across as bare or insubstantial. This bloated dramatis personae at times more resembles a bureaucracy in the public sector than a team of adventurers.

A broader problem is that The White Vault never succeeds in reconciling or coordinating the different narratives that comprise it. Some characters are inhabiting a horror story and it is clear that they are just snacks on a menu to be eaten. Others are off instead on a traditional Jules Verne adventure. But as listeners we never know whether we are meant to truly care about these people. Their bareness as characters implies that they are intended to be expendable and forgettable, like some doomed teenagers in a horror movie, whilst the time that we spend in their company implies that they cannot be so valueless.

Significantly, during the most enjoyable parts of season five, the story is telling rather than showing. The Documentarian (Cleveland) travels to Sweden, where her imperious mother (Heimdahl) spills the secrets of the snow faeries and her collaboration with them. This is a snow chronicle and an ice epic. Meanwhile, when the only character left from season one, Graham Casner (Lewis), gets his long-postponed comeuppance, there is scant sense of a narrative climax. His death is a small, undramatic incident, like some chance loss in any modern war. The realism of this is not necessarily unsuccessful but it fits confusingly into the adventure narrative that has until now framed it.

Casner is sacrificed by the Documentarian but he is no Jesus Christ. Indeed, his plan and motivations remain unintelligible. In aspiring to blow up the White Vault, he ends up posing as a suicide bomber in fairyland.

The snow faeries are more complicated than the standard monsters in a horror franchise. They unobtrusively shadow humanity, allowing the humans to retain control of the Earth whilst they make do with its uninhabitable places. One is reminded of John Wyndham’s novel about the Kraken, in which two civilisations that can never possibly meet (i.e. the aliens live at the bottom of the sea) still manage to start a war. For a while it had looked as though the snow faeries might overrun Svalbard and encroach upon the world of human geopolitics, which might have led The White Vault into a newer and more exhilarating narrative. Yet the disruption is explained away and tided up by the authorities, in a pattern that will be familiar from HP Lovecraft’s stories about Innsmouth and Red Hook.

There is a pleasant symmetry to The White Vault in that the Documentarian’s own circumstances are clarified as the snow faeries are correspondingly brought to the light. We have been all the time occupying the middle of this story, encircled by the seeker and the sought. When the story ends, the great surprise is that we are still here. The Documentarian has apparently just dumped all of her recordings online somewhere, as if she is her own Wikileaks, and we are the lucky ones who have stumbled upon this bonanza. Perhaps the Documentarian assumes that her story will be never found within the internet’s trillionsworth of data. It is like a jewel of inestimable value that is discreetly on display somewhere in the depths of the bazaar.        

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