Review: Uncanny Valley

(Originally posted November 11, 2018)

Genre: Anthology, story telling, paranormal, horror
Possible Triggers: N/A
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG

You’re riding alone on a moonlit, but starless night. You just missed your exit, and now there’s only one way back home. So sit back, open your ears and hold on tight, because you’re about to take a quick detour—through Uncanny County…

General:
Un·can·ny – strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.

We all know the saying “this one didn’t quite make it out of the uncanny valley.” Uncanny County takes that one step further.

Imagine you’re a simple man, living a simple life, in a simple small town. You have yourself a nice sweetheart who you want to marry, but she’s so busy with her helper robots who are running the town. You start to suspect she might be cheating. One thing leads to another, and you discover that the entire town population is robots, your girlfriend is a robot, and they’re all being controlled by the human version of your girlfriend, who turned you into a robot after you were in a fatal accident twenty-five years earlier. And this isn’t the first time you’ve discovered this.

Welcome to Uncanny County.

This podcast is an anthology of seemingly unrelated stories that all have one definitive thing in common – they’re all a little strange and a lot wtf. There are small threads woven through the stories that bring them together (namely a sheriff and her deputy who keeps dying on his first day), hinting at a larger story line in an almost infuriating manner. It’s certainly enough to make you keep hitting the “next” button.

If you suffer from a second-hand embarrassment squick, the first few episodes can be a little uncomfortable. The voice actors almost overact their parts, laying things on thick – the small town atmosphere is too heavy, the nervous flirting between a man and a woman makes you cringe, the southern charm is laid on thick, and there are times where you have to hit pause and collect yourself before going back to see what shudder-worthy thing is being said.

And then you realize that’s deliberate. They’re trying to unsettle you, they’re trying to put you off, they want you to feel uncomfortable. They want you to feel exactly what the main character is feeling.

The first episode, for example, with the man who didn’t know he was a robot (no, I didn’t make that up, that’s a real episode), would have been a completely different if handled by another podcast. It could have been something truly terrifying, or truly hilarious, but instead of going one way or the other, Uncanny County made it both. It’s cringe-y, it’s funny, it’s scary, and in a weird way it’s heartwarming all at the same time. There aren’t many shows that pull off all of that in one episode.

It all adds to the charm of the show. One would almost call it uncanny. The point of it all is to unsettle you and put you on edge, not just through the story that’s being told, but by changing the way it’s told to you. It makes you feel uncomfortable and worried, and it puts you in the role of the central character, who, like you, has no idea what’s going on or how to deal with it. The worst part of it all? There’s nothing you can do to control the narrative. You’re just a passenger watching all of it unfold. And you’re almost certainly heading for a train wreck which has a twisted but happy(?) ending. The citizens of Uncanny County aren’t always the luckiest people, but they get what they’re due in the end – if not in a slightly different way than they might have imagined.

Maybe don’t book a vacation there, though. And never go to a clown hotel. Or the car wash/lawyer’s office. Or- yeah, don’t book a vacation there.

The writing of Uncanny County is undeniably stellar, and while the way the stories are told can certainly make you feel awkward, enough binge listening will get you passed that and eagerly on to the next episode. Whatever you feel, you have to give the writers and voice actors credit – they’re doing their jobs well here.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Yes
Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.
Length: 20-30 minutes

Overall: While Uncanny County isn’t necessarily unique in its premise (a strange place where strange things happen and no one questions them), the way the stories are told certainly is. There are plenty of horror podcasts out there, and plenty of humorous ones, but podcasts that try and succeed to be both are a rare treat. And there’s an added bonus if awkward, overdone characters are hilarious to you. For the rest of us? It’s gets easier, I promise.

Rating: 4/5

Review: The NoSleep Podcast

(Originally Posted August 18, 2018)

Genre: Horror
Possible Triggers: Gore, Murder, Death, Monsters, Abuse, Rape
Safe For Work: Somewhat – wear headphones
Content: Mature

Brace yourself… for the NoSleep Podcast.

General: Debuting in 2011, The NoSleep Podcast is a collection of narrated stories from the subreddit NoSleep, where writers can post their original horror stories. The podcast was started and is still produced and hosted by David Cummings, the voice introducing each episode with a warning of scary, horrifying things to come. The show has a variety of voice actors from all corners of North America – and a few from the UK – making for a fun and interesting listening experience.

All stories featured on NoSleep are the original works of the Reddit horror writers’ community – some of whom have gone on to publish their works. Each story in an episode (between two and five – more on that later) is narrated by a different person, with others stepping in to fill roles of side characters, making it seem less like you’re having a story read to you and more like a performance. Included in that performance is sound effects and music, produced in-house by the musical mistro Brandon Boone.

The narrations and the music are top notch. It’s apparent that, despite the distances (and oceans) between them, the voice actors get along well and enjoy working together. The show has done two live tours throughout the US, and was sure to keep the audience updated on their travels and tolerance for one another. The second tour featured a treat for those who couldn’t go to a show but were still listening to the weekly releases in season ten — a story put together by voice actor and temporary host Peter Lewis (who may or may not be a cryptid running around Detroit), where the Home Team (those not on the tour) were sent on a mysterious quest which… well, we wouldn’t want to spoil the fun, would we? Let’s just say it’s a miracle Lewis still has a functioning mind after the amount of times he was zapped.

The most important thing, of course, is the quality of the stories. How do they stack up? Luckily for its listeners, the NoSleep team has an eye for good stories. The few that cross the realm from mysterious and confusing are a rare occurrence, as are those which forget the importance of “show, don’t tell.” While there may be an odd flop here or there, a good 97% of the stories featured are excellent. The overarching genre of every story is horror, but it’s not all tradition monsters, paranormal, Satan worshippers, and mysterious tunnels found under one’s house. Some of the best stories are about the horror not of the unknown, but of humanity itself.

One of the best examples of this is the season seven finale, an excellent production of “Borrasca” by C.K. Walker, which featured the entire cast of voice actors in one way or another. It’s the story of a young boy who moves to a small town and discovers a mystery – as they do – involving the old mines outside of team, disappearing girls, and a strange noise that echoes through the air so often, the townsfolk are used to it. The story is well-written, and the main voice actors – Matthew Bradford, Jessica McEvoy, and Jeff Clement – put so much life into their characters that you’ll be invested from the very first twist, and on your seat for the rest of the nearly three-hour show. And you’ll want more when it’s over.

That’s another excellent trait of the stories chosen for the show – so many of them leave you wanting more. So many of the stories end in cliffhangers, with stomach-punching twists, and when you hear that outro music and Cummings’ smooth voice ushering you off to the next story or episode, you’ll want to scream or flip a table – but all you can do is sit and think for the next three hours about the implications of that one story, while your mind runs wild with all the things that could have happened after the metaphorical screen went black. That’s not to say the endings are at all unsatisfactory – quite the contrary. The authors are talented at knowing just how much to give to leave a reader happy, but also to make a reader think, and to keep the story in a person’s mind long after the show has ended.

The stories are, for the most part, separate entities, meaning you can drop in on just about any episode, at any point in any season, and dive right in without listening to anything before (although we recommend you listen to everything just for the entertainment). There are some stories – such as the acclaimed “Pen Pals” series by  Dathan Auerbach – which are written as a series and are featured in multiple episodes, but for the most part, each story is a standalone, and while you may be left baffled by what you just listened to, it won’t be because you came into the middle of a series and have no idea what’s going on.

In the realm of tiny details that may seem insignificant, even their in-show ads, for companies such as Blue Apron, MeUndies, and Loot Crate, have a horrific twist at the end of them (though they do refrain from adding such a twist to their TalkSpace ads, showing the respect for mental illnesses and the people who struggle with them every day). It’s one of those small details you don’t know you appreciate until you listen to another podcast and have a boring add cut into the middle of the exciting story.

Beginner Friendly?: If you’re new to podcasts, The NoSleep Podcast is absolutely a good way to start. There’s no storyline to follow, just hour after hour of horror content that would give Stephen King nightmares.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: In the introduction for a recent season eleven episode, Cummings addressed complaints he had received from listeners who felt the show was including “too many” LGBTQIA characters. Cummings responded with grace, saying if anything they didn’t have enough characters from that community, and in addition, the following episode featured stories by LGBTQIA authors and/or centered on LGBTQIA characters, and were narrated by the LGBTQIA members of the NoSleep voice actors.

Short answer, yes, NoSleep is indeed a friend of the LGBTQIA community. Though do keep in mind – they’re still horror stories. A happy ending is far from guaranteed.

Pay to Listen?: As is the case with all of us, the NoSleep crew needs to pay to keep the lights on, and as a way to do so they’ve found a compromise that won’t outcast those who can’t afford a subscription. The Season Pass program, started in season three, allows for listeners to pay twenty dollars a month (and contribute extra if they wish) to access the full four-five story episodes. Those who can’t buy a season pass are still able to listen to the first two-three stories, depending on the length. In addition to full episodes, Season Pass holders get early access to episodes and bonus episodes.

There’s also the Rent-to-Own program, in which a listener can pay $1.49 per episode for 14 episodes, and then be upgraded to a season pass.

The season pass is retroactive – if you were to buy one now, roughly halfway through season eleven, you would get access to the full-length first ten episodes, as well as the bonus episode which was released before season eleven as a treat to season pass holders. You can also buy passes for past seasons, and be up to your ears in hours of horror.

Length: Full-length episodes are 2.5-3 hours. Free episodes tend to be closer to 1-1.5 hours.

Overall: The NoSleep Podcast is an enjoyable listen – if you enjoy stories about cannibals, mysterious creatures roaming the forest, evil gnomes, sentient sand… it’s horror. And the authors of these stories can make anything horrifying.

Rating: 5/5