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[The following contains spoilers.]

Tower 4” is an audiodrama from 7Lamb Productions, an ambitious indie podcasting house that is based in St Petersburg, Florida. The first episode was released in September 2020 and two complete seasons have followed to date.

I would like to just mindlessly celebrate “Tower 4.” Before this is possible, however, there is the problem of its relationship to a video game called Firewatch. It is as if we have been invited to explore a magnificent palace and this problem is in our way, like a thorn bush that has been planted in the front door and that is a vexatious tangle for us to get around.

Firewatch was released several years prior to “Tower 4.” Both stories are set in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming and each puts forward a man who is employed as a fire lookout. In each story the protagonist can communicate with the outside world only via a walkie-talkie and they can only reach a nearby female firewatcher. In the game this was Henry and Delilah and in the podcast it is Mike and Amber (Jack Austin and Gina Coyle). If somebody posted in a fire-lookout tower is as lonely as the Man in the Moon, in each story it feels as if such a setting-cum-psychology is on a natural schedule to be overrun by paranoia.

“Tower 4” has no formal connection to Firewatch. Neither, though, is Firewatch being necessarily stolen under our noses. Of course, stories can be retold, just as songs are never finished within the folk tradition, or as William Shakespeare could be said to have himself run a story-laundering operation. And in any case there is always significantly more to “Tower 4” than a retelling of Firewatch. I have never played Firewatch (or indeed any computer game that doesn’t feature Mario), but consulting with reviews appears to indicate that the world within the podcast’s story is bigger, broader, deeper and more detailed than that in the game’s.  

Firewatch might be itself like a lookout tower that gives us a preliminary view over “Tower 4.” Soon the tower is forgotten and we are in the forest by ourselves. Here and on its own terms “Tower 4” is a beautifully structured and written show.

The writer, Robert M. Lamb, always knows what to withhold and how much. The story will visit a lot of different things noncommittally before it decides to settle down. For a long time the horror is a blind force rather than there being ever an explanation of it organised for us and this may account for its startling intensity. Even after two seasons, it is unclear whether the horror in the story is supernatural or manmade.

Perhaps Stephen King’s novel The Shining (1977) is like a second lookout tower over this story, positioned a little way away. As with King’s protagonist Jack Torrance, Mike Archer has procured work out in a wilderness in the belief that its nothingness will help him to concentrate on writing a book. As with Torrance, it is doubtful that Mike will or should stick with the synopsis he has. A description of the mystery that is enveloping him would make for much more of a drama than the semi-autobiographical dirge that is currently on his hands.

It might seem that the affinity with The Shining only deepens when ghosts begin to make contact. The walkie-talkie picks up whispering and eerie flourishes of orchestral music. But eventually we are obliged to make a reassessment. The ghosts don’t appear to be omniscient and omnipresent, as they normally are, because they can only radio in.

Moving on, we visit the idea that Mike is being instead monitored and controlled by human conspirators. Rather than being up in his tower watching the forest, he is the one being watched, as if the forest is a two-way mirror. There follows a suggestion that Mike has been beaten up or even kidnapped. Meanwhile, we have been exposed to audio of what sounds like a dinosaur rolling around the landscape at night. Is there some secret scientific facility all piled up under the forest floor, like the Hall of the Mountain King?

Along the way we visit the idea that paranoia might be the ultimate engineer of Mike’s story. Maybe the dinosaur is merely a randy bear that has been amplified within the forest’s vast acoustics. And maybe the nothingness of the forest is causing Mike to fall through his own controlled book into an ulterior and increasingly psychotic narrative.

The forest always possesses an extra-unreal atmosphere due to the story’s inability to corroborate anything that Mike has experienced. Some way into the drama we might grow suddenly panicked, in being unsure what decade this is (Firewatch is set during the 1980s). When Amber eventually mentions that firewatchers are liable to be replaced with “drones,” we are forced to concede that this is the present day. But if so, what does it say about Mike that he has walked into the outstanding beauty of the forest with no thought of a camera?

Mike might even destroy the only recording equipment to ever appear in this story, namely a device that he has found squirrelled away inside his own arm. This is another reference to how the true source for Mike’s story or stories is lurking below the surface. His arm has been probably transmitting a more exciting narrative than the one the hand attached to it is writing.

Even so, “Tower 4” is never “found” audio. Many storytellers would have automatically signed Mike up to an audio-journal, with tapes left strewn along the forest path to place his story inside the story. Instead, Mike is gifted the surround-sound selfhood that Lamb has used in prior podcasts. The narrative is a duet between an action-packed outside speaking self and a more indoor one that reflects and remembers.

Mike is dumped in this forest in a state that is barely more than Neanderthal, armed only with his raw selfhood. He is in his late thirties when he enters the forest. Although he is at the sort of loose end that people characteristically find themselves in during their twenties, a time of life has arrived when he is finally coming to terms with the death of his mother, his father’s disappearance, and two previous failed relationships. The nothingness of the forest will, it seems, help him to hone in like never before on these crises. Indeed his book is going be a souvenir of one of his breakups.

There is something amazing about seizing an entire chunk of pristine wilderness and reducing it to a block of selfhood. When Mike roams through the forest he could be somewhere deep in the maze of his own mind. After a while we might have scraped away the surface flakes of this story’s horror narrative and found below a kind of active satire of the twenty-first-century’s unique sensibility. When the story observes Mike, an attack is being conceivably waged on the therapeutic narcissism that he presents such a stupendous example of. A narcissism that now seems to blight the USA, culturally speaking, more than the globalising militarism of previous generations had done.

Mike is not alone in here though. He encounters a man called Jerry (Robert M Lamb), apparently a former occupant of the tower. Jerry is equally bereft and woebegone, more like Mike’s fellow inmate of the forest than somebody who is “monarch of all I survey.”

As though a diagram of the Freudian psyche has come to life, the forest is calm and self-contained out in the open air but an industrial whirr below the surface. The rampaging monster that we hear at night might be akin to lusts or urges that have erupted out of Mike’s id or a pain that lives down there. The classical music that Mike picks up on his walkie-talkie is presumably meant to pacify this creature. More prosaically, Hell was also once underground. There is a whisper to “Tower 4” of those old urban legends in which openings to Hell are discovered and the lid loosened.

If the forest increasingly resembles a monstrous therapy, this is never complete without Amber. The story always deploys her character with considerable skill. She is terrifically passive, she scarcely does anything except chatter and yet the light that she provides will constantly give Mike’s own character and story its depth.

At first she sounds off-key – too perky, too companionable, too excruciatingly caffeinated. How could such a person ever manage to exist on an ongoing basis in the middle of a wilderness? Once we get accustomed to her, the awkwardness slides back heavily onto Mike. Why is he never interested in meeting her? It sounds like he would not need to work very hard for them to be both fixed up as romantic life partners. He is maddeningly oblivious to the awesome luck of his only human contact in the forest being so friendly. Alternatively, is it wise to always keep miles of forest between himself and such an unsettling personality?

Soon there has been a very subtle fluctuation somewhere and Amber sounds vulnerable and marginalised. The dismissal of her at the end of season two is sublime in its casualness. Mike is lately resourceful and self-reliant and her cheerful prompts over the radio are now out of season. Can the story yet find a use for her?

7Lamb have committed to further episodes of “Tower 4.” It sounds like they will be ready later in the year.

[Previously on Tychy: “Podcast Review: On The Night Train.”]