Personal Essay: Ben Phillips
What was I thinking when I decided to spend countless hours on a project I knew would never pay out? Any profits went to increasing pay to authors, no questions asked, and I ran from anything that smelled like self-aggrandizing fame or “networking” just about as hard as I could and still have a functioning podcast. So what exactly did I realistically hope to achieve?
In 2006, on a train ride back to Atlanta from Baltimore—where Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe had appeared at a small fiction convention called Balticon—I accepted an invitation from my friend Serah Eley (who went by Steve back then) to co-edit a new horror podcast with Mur Lafferty. The entire thing was Mur’s idea. She just wanted some help with the workload. Steve said he trusted my opinion on stories from our years together in Random Musings, the critique group he started years before founding the podcasting company. Soon Mur and I discussed the editorial process (either of us could veto, we decided), and the writers’ guidelines: no limits. No taboos. That was a controversial choice, but one we eventually agreed was the only correct one for achieving what we were setting out to do.
The way I see it, it’s no good telling a creative person what not to do. Way too much like telling a child, “Just ignore that clown in the sewer grate.” Good luck with that. A year in, Mur had to bow out to focus on other projects and I weirdly found myself the sole chief editor. Having spent years discussing the accepted rules of writing, like the sacred text of Strunk and White and the implications of the Turkey City Lexicon, in the end, as long as a writer had most of the fundamentals down, the only right way I knew how to judge a story was with my gut. I bought it if I genuinely liked it, and not if I had the slightest reservations, even if we were having a hard time filling the schedule. Sometimes I felt pretty sure the forumites would like it too. Once in a while I bought something I was pretty sure most of them would hate—but which made me cackle with malevolent glee until I couldn’t help myself. We ran some pretty classy stuff too, of course, and on rare occasions we’d hear a complaint from a listener who was lulled into a sense of relative safety over the course of several episodes before something abominably gruesome and/or offensive upset their expectations. We’d point at the over-the-top warning message on the web page (not that any podcatchers show you that), I would duly mark certain episodes as “explicit” in iTunes (not that any other podcatchers show you that as far as I know), and we didn’t lose any sleep over it.
I have this notion that sometimes horror should be fucking punk. I like trying to imagine the audience reaction to the first few minutes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead when they first came out; things that really weren’t shy about driving away audience members with their sheer audacity. To those who don’t appreciate such things, I have no explanation that I would expect to be convincing. Sometimes at the end of an episode of Game of Thrones we look at each other and say, “Why are we still watching this damn show?” But we keep watching it.
Libsyn, the company that very generously hosted our podcasts for free, had a nice graphical report that put a dot loosely near the geographical location of each downloader. Horror, or at least Pseudopod, seemed to be particularly the purview of people in the U.S. as compared to Escape Pod and PodCastle, which had much larger audiences in (mostly English speaking) countries abroad. I don’t know if that’s still true, and I still don’t know what to make of it, but I’ve thought about it often. What does it say about our country, and us as individuals, that we want to dwell on the intensely negative for entertainment? My zealously Christian mother would have a thing or two to say here, you can be sure.
The only thing that made me a little sad was that my lovely wife Alice didn’t want to subscribe. She was, and is, otherwise quite a fan of the macabre, and did enjoy a lot of Pseudopod episodes on specific recommendation, but she had to be picky because she never knew when something would come along out of nowhere that would literally give her nightmares—and not really the fun kind. (She tells me she can pick and choose just fine by the excerpts on the website.)
These days, I’ve gotten away from reading much horror, or fiction, unless you count the news (which is often both). But when I read the final draft of Alice’s novel the other day, it genuinely creeped me out, especially toward the end. I stayed up too late reading it after she’d gone upstairs to bed, went out in the darkness for a cigarette feeling exhilarated and jittery, paced around awhile, then froze in fear when I saw a face staring at me from a window of our house on what I thought was the deserted ground floor. This of course turned out to just be Alice, awake again and probably wondering what the hell I was doing. I stepped into the light and waved at her, laughing at my own dumb ass and how jumpy I was.
I haven’t had quite that brand of fun from a book in years. Will it be just as effective on you? I have no idea. Horror, like comedy, tends to be personal—it draws widely varied reactions from different people. I definitely found myself wondering just a bit at whether the things that scare she and I are things we have particularly in common, analogous to the oddball things we find humorous more so than others do. I wonder if that makes me her ideal audience member. I wonder if it aids my ability to pick the few stories out of a giant slush pile that could traumatize her.
I was recently a groomsman at the wedding of my friends Megan and John, who work at the Skellington Manor haunted house in Davenport, IA (where last Halloween I got the only other exhilarating scare entertainment I’ve found in recent years). The wedding officiant (also a haunter) pointed out as part of the ceremony that they all worked at the haunt together, and that you really learn a lot about a person watching them scare the daylights out of someone else. At the wedding rehearsal I thought it was an okay joke, but at the ceremony while the attendees were chuckling at it, I realized it wasn’t a joke.
I’ve heard it said that horror and dystopian fiction appeal to those who are comforted in a backhanded way by the reinforcement of their own negative world views. While that has certainly given me pause for thought, I can’t believe it’s true in an absolute way. It was Alasdair Stuart who I first heard point out that horror hasn’t really so much disappeared from the various media markets as it’s been assimilated by other speculative fiction genres as elements within their stories. Arguably it was never its own genre. Clive Barker generally refers to himself as a fantasist or the like, and while you can always count on writers to come up with a lot of different words, that disregard for a descriptor like “horror” was indicative of a trend among many alleged horror writers last I checked. And, notwithstanding any accusations of marketing posturing on their part (since “horror” doesn’t sell as well), it’s far from wrong.
So if I can’t pin down what horror is or isn’t, can I at least figure out what I get out of it? What was I trying to do with copious amounts of my time for over four years that definitely wasn’t spent meeting people, advancing my career, or even having what most people would conventionally classify as “fun” given the workload involved? Don’t get me wrong—it was a real pleasure working with Mur, and later Alasdair. It was cool rubbing elbows with the likes of Rachel Swirsky, Jeremiah Tolbert, Ann Leckie, and Dave Thompson at the other EA podcasts. But mostly for me it was about listening to one play back (while I listen for errors and play some non-verbal game like that solitaire matching game that calls itself Mahjong) and sometimes the language would hit just right, the narrator would nail the delivery, and I’d get my hackles up or feel tears coming on because it was just that good. We were creating something beautiful—or at least sublime—out of words on a page that don’t otherwise get enough love from enough people. Three individuals—the author, myself, and the host, were each doing a bit of work alone in our rooms and the result was heard by 15,000 people or so, shining a spotlight on this bit of craftsmanship, on the magnificent everyday wonder of shared human expression and imagination. At a time when I was very isolated, it gave me a pinhole in my cocoon through which to project light to the outside, and through which light could come in—dim, shadowy, and often deceptive, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Ben Phillips is a programmer and musician living in Iowa City. He was a chief editor of Pseudopod from 2006-2010.