This essay was commissioned by @UncleAsriel. You can find out more about commissions here.
Watching a new group of artists set out together is a gamble: you look at the strengths they’re already beginning to display, the issues they’re working out how to overcome, and lay your bets as to where they’ll end up in a month, or a year, or ten. Zoom Doom Stories, who just completed their debut podcast Spines, has put an impressively strong foot forward with a mission statement to make “dark, creepy, queer, feminist podcasts.” Sign me up.
Podcasting is a hard game to figure these days. While the bar to entry is still much, much lower than it is for many other industries, it’s no longer quite the “wild west” that Kevin Smith described it as a few years ago. Major networks have popped up with the money, space, and marketing reach to promote its shows, putting the studio/indie dynamic back into play; increased listener savviness means a higher bar to entry for sound quality and editing, especially as more skilled producers enter the game; and an ever-increasing library of content, some of which might only make it five or six episodes, means people are understandably wary of investing in new shows with small libraries.
Spines enters into that playing field and acquits itself well, with solid scripts backed up by a quick learning curve on the production side. The series centers around Wren, who remembers waking up in a bathtub full of blood and very little else. Hoping to track down her other half, Zachary, she sets about tracking down the other people who were in that room in order to put together what happened.
The standalone portraits of the other survivors, all of whom have become something more than human, are some of the strongest moments of the first season. Writer Jamie Killen has a good eye for body horror and unsettling details; each time Wren runs into a new survivor it serves as its own Sandman-esque vignette, with the survivor and their powers centering around a central thought experiment or theme.
If there’s a downside to these episodes, it’s that they feel more like short stories read aloud than audio dramas: Wren’s narration is effective for describing the scenes she lays out before her, relayed with a kind of shell-shocked steadiness, but it works less well for protracted scenes of dialogue. The framing device that Wren is making recordings for Zachary to find strains against the ambitions of the writing, meaning that the standalone stories of the first season, which visit the aftermath of a deed already done are memorable; but the connective tissue, which is about the danger yet to come for our protagonist, runs a little thin.
The following two seasons open up to a small, recurring ensemble and hire several other voice actors, which is exactly what the series needed. Dryad Shan, hacker Winry, and the elusive Zachary all get a chance to step into the spotlight later on, and it does wonders to expand the world of the show. Because the story is so heavily linked to character interaction later on, it ends up far better suited to multiple voices than a single narrator reflecting on an event.
By far one of the best episodes is Winry’s, which is written to be occurring in almost real-time and feels like an authentic found document in-universe with audio distortion and an ironclad reason for why the single narrator is happening. While the natural inclinations of the writing clearly lean more to a multi-person audio drama format in the vein of Our Fair City, that can be a time-consuming and expensive process outside the budget of a brand-new studio.
Finding a way to deliver a story within those limitations is a testament to how well the crew learns and adapts, which quickly becomes an endearing and exciting meta-element to the text. I wound up rooting for the crew making the series as hard as the characters themselves, hoping to see them succeed.
Every time I noted something down as a rough patch—occasionally clunky writing that holds the listener’s hand a little longer than necessary, tension between the urgency of the story and the limitations of the format, a “not like other girls” sort of air around Wren’s early characterization, slightly cringy framing around the nonbinary Shan’s first appearance—it would go on to show improvement in those areas, suggesting a team of artists aware of and dedicated to improving their craft.
I walked away from Spines itself with a solid B impression of the story. It has strong concepts, quality body horror, some standout vocal performances, and a slightly anticlimactic but workable ending. It’s the same way I often feel when looking at the first work of a promising artist. It’s less about the story right now, as long as that meets a basic bar for entertainment (and it does), but excitement at what they’re capable of with a little bit of experience under their belts.
The biggest hurdle the Spines crew faces going forward is the fact that horror podcasts are a somewhat glutted game: Night Vale inspired a whole lot of copycats of varying quality, and the always omnipresent true crime genre exploded after the crossover success of Serial. This is not to say that the crew calling itself Zoom Doom Stories should get out of the game. Rather, it’s a lament that their genuinely promising work is likely to be somewhat overlooked.
Spines is worth checking out for horror enthusiasts, particularly fans of the atmospheric and slightly surreal, and for those specifically seeking horror with diverse casts (and casting) that make it to the finish line. Even if it doesn’t wind up being quite to your taste, though, I encourage you to keep an eye on this team of storytellers as they work toward their next project. There’s promise here, and it would be a crying shame if it were lost in the shuffle.
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