The Turkey City Lexicon is a document from the SF Writers of America that offers advice to would-be authors of science fiction, pointing out the pitfalls that snare the unwary novice.
A problem peculiar to SF is striking a balance between ordinary domestic events and the otherworldly happenings with which the protagonists are confronted. Says the Lexicon:
It’s hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad’s bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city.
It calls this problem ‘Squid-On-The-Mantelpiece’. The mantelpiece part comes from a rule attributed to Chekhov, that anything mentioned in a piece of writing should be there for a reason. Specifically, if a pair of dueling pistols is seen on a mantelpiece in Act One, it should be used by Act Three. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be there. When applied to SF, it’s the giant writhing kraken that should be the focus of our attention. Unless Dad’s financial problems have a direct bearing on the elimination of the be-tentacled menace, they should be omitted.
Notwithstanding inasmuch as which we all seem to be living through what seems to be the plot of a SF story in which the business of the world is brought to a halt by a peculiarly contagious virus, I had reason to conjure a mental picture of this squid while listening to a number of podcasts lately, although for clarity I listened to them sequentially, not simultaneously, and here, if you’re interested, or even if you aren’t, are some reviews.
I’m fairly new to podcasts — they have been, for me, a syndrome of the current crisis — and I tend to listen to them while walking the dogs through the
blasted post-apocalytpic dystopia pleasant woods and fields within a few miles of my house. I chose a few drama podcasts that dealt with horror and the supernatural, because at my age one needs a certain amount of spice to excite my jaded palate. So, what follows are brief spoiler-free reviews and links to the podcast series that impinged, via mes oreilles, to the auditory cortex. I shan’t rate them individually, but the order reflects my preference, from least worst to most worst. As you’ll see, I didn’t rate any of them as especially stellar. Another reason for not giving ratings, I suppose.
The Lovecraft Investigations (BBC Sounds) is a three-series podcast, which should be listened to in order. The series are The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Whisperer In Darkness, and The Shadow over Innsmouth. Each of the three series gets its name from a novella by the late hack writer and unrepentant racist snob Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), but tricks it out in modern dress — more or less, what Mark Gattiss and Steven Moffat did with Sherlock. Lovecraft was one of those authors that kept the guttering flame of the gothick burning into the age of modern conveniences, and his lurid tales tend to make up for in atmosphere what they lack in stylistic prowess. That is to say, they remain long in the memory even when one has forgotten their execrably over-wrought style, and their cast of demons with names which, as Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove remarked (in Trillion Year Spree, their compendious history of SF), read like anagrams of breakfast cereals. As my correspondent Professor P. A. of Uppsala has it — start each day with a bowl of crunchy Nyarlathotep with ice-cold milk. Many Lovecraftian tales involve the efforts of a banished cadre of trans-dimensional beings to impinge themselves on our reality, mainly through the incantations of witchy types who’ve stumbled across moth-eaten books of Forbidden Knowledge. In short, this is what The Lovecraft Investigations is all about. The framing device is a podcast — so this is a podcast-within-a-podcast — run by mild-mannered Brit Matthew Heawood (Barnaby Kay) and plucky, go-getting American investigative reporter Kennedy Fisher (the excellent Jana Carpenter). There’s also a lot of info-dump from Eleanor Peck, an academic who knows a lot about the occult (Nicola Walker). Heawood and Kennedy take in Lovecraft and go beyond it, to X-Files-style Secret Government Departments, flying saucers and so on, and the relationship between the co-leads does remind one of Agents Scully and Mulder in that
venereal venerable emission. Fun fact: this is a family show, in that Barnaby Kay and Nicola Walker are a real-life couple, as are Jana Carpenter and writer-director Julian Simpson, and this folie-a-quatre contrives to keep the squid on the mantelpiece.
The Harrowing (Storyglass: from Apple Podcasts) stars Joanne Froggatt (you know, the Lady’s Maid from Downton Abbey) as Sgt. Jackie O’Hara, who is posted to a remote Scottish Island called Toll Mòr [Tip for Aspiring Writers of Horror: Scottish islands are great locales, the remoter the better — Ed] Matters overwhelm this exiguous police presence when a once-in-a-generation storm hits the island at the same time that a grisly murder is discovered in the most remote homestead on the already remote island (did I mention that it’s remote?) The murder has ritual content which signals the imminent arrival of … well, that would be telling. The fact that any self-respecting trans-dimensional threat should make its presence felt first on a remote Scottish Island rather than, say, London, is by-the-by. The Daleks always get these things right [I hear that Cardiff is lovely at this time of year — Ed]. Overall it’s an involving, fairly fast-paced single-series adventure. The sound design is eerily good. Squid remains nailed to mantelpiece.
Tracks (on BBC Sounds) is a conspiracy thriller that runs over five seasons. They need to be listened to in order, and they are Origin, Strata, Chimera, Indigo and Abyss. It concerns the life of a GP called Helen Ash, and it’s fair to say that if it weren’t for bad luck, she wouldn’t have no luck at all. The conspiracy — or conspiracies — involve Big Pharma, illegal genetic and reproductive experiments, and a superfluity of abandoned military bases in Wales. Dr Ash has a nasty habit of getting anyone she meets killed, but that doesn’t deter her longtime co-conspirator, Freddy Fuller (played by Jonathan Forbes) who can’t seem to stay away, despite his protestations; the fact that Ash behaves in a perfectly horrible way towards him; and the fact that (in the later series) he has a very understanding wife back home. Which is a plus, as the by-play between Ash and Fuller provides the only humor in the entire wearisome enterprise. Certainly, the whole thing could have been made shorter. The frequent digressions into cod-science and speculations about Life, the Universe, and … er that Other Thing do add to the brooding, self-important atmosphere — spoiled when Romola Garai (who plays Helen Ash for two of the five series) pronounces ‘nuclear’ as ‘Nucula‘. Damn, those Molluscs of Mass Destruction. Apart from that, Dr Ash’s personal problems really are key to the plot, so the squid does just about manage not to slither off the mantelpiece.
Children of the Stones (on BBC Sounds) is a single-series podcast set in a village called Milbury that’s completely surrounded by a stone circle [Tip for Aspiring Writers of Horror: if you can’t manage a Scottish island, stone circles are always a winner — Ed]. Almost all the adults in Milbury have been brainwashed into a state of mindless cheeriness (‘O Happy Day!’ is their constant refrain) that reminds one of what might happen to Royston Vasey were Prozac piped into its water supply. The children and the remaining adults try to work out the reason for this indiscriminate happiness. The protagonist is a young girl who has been transplanted by her father, an archaeologist who’s been hired to investigate the stone circle. You’ll not be surprised to learn that she’s key to unlocking the mystery, which involves a mad scientist and some kind of implausible astronomical conjunction, and after a long, slow start, the series collapses into a swamp of hooey. Apart from the baddie, who would have seemed dated even when Christopher Lee or Vincent Price were in their pomp, the characterization is sketched just sufficiently this side of caricature, so the squid remains ascendant.
The Piper (BBC Sounds), in contrast, could certainly have benefited from some cheeriness. Like Children Of The Stones it runs over just one season (any more would have been intolerable). It is set in a deprived seaside town in Kent in which children hear strange sounds and then disappear. At various times all the as-yet-undisappeared children in the town stop what they are doing and act in unison (very Midwich Cuckoos, that), warning that the eponymous Piper is about to strike. Tamzin Outhwaite stars as an overworked police officer struggling to balance work commitments with home life, specifically attending to the needs of her much less ambitious sister. The series is so worthy you wonder whether the social issues are overplayed at the expense of narrative logic. Too much mantelpiece, not enough squid. What squid there is, is definitely undercooked. Although fleeting references are made to historical visits by the Piper, these are never pursued: the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is not mentioned at all, which is a shame. The Piper, for reasons unexplained, also has a love-hate relationship with electricity. And, not to spoil things, the denouement is pulled out of nowhere by one of the female leads, not through any logical inference, but because she’s a Mother, and therefore Knows Things. It follows from this that the social stereotyping is wearisomely familiar: working-class women are gritty, shrewish and shouty, whereas their menfolk are feckless layabouts (if white), or well-spoken but ineffectual (if ethnic). Only the children and teens are likeable, if barely. The dialogue and absence of humor are pure EastEnders (with a modish splash of Jafaican) and you expect some harridan to shriek ‘Git orf mar mantoo-piece!’ to some shivering mollusc before serving it, battered into unrecognizability. With chips.