Did you know we're in the Age of the Podcast? New York Magazine, The Verge, and other publications certainly seem to think so. It's hard to say what kicked this off: the runaway success of Serial, perhaps, or the advent of the smart car, which can connect commuters to their favorite shows. And if you're not interested in listening to Ira Glass expound on contemporary issues in that really particular way that he has, good news: there are also dramatized, fictional podcasts. More than just stories read straight from the page or screen—which many genre magazines, including Strange Horizons, provide—these podcasts' narratives are native to the audio form, instead of being translated to it.
Distinct from the radio dramas of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, podcasts are given more leeway in their forms and functions. Welcome to Nightvale, arguably one of the most popular podcasts in the world, takes the form of a community radio show. The Truth describes itself as "movies for your ears." And, oddly enough, there seems to be a growing subgenre of "intrepid female journalist uncovers a supernatural conspiracy." Well, if not a subgenre, then at least a trope in the making. The Black Tapes, Limetown, and The Message all share this same basic premise: Serial goes full-on X-Files.
The Black Tapes is the most referential (or maybe deferential?) of the three, though possibly to the point of parody: even the show's theme song is extremely similar to Serial's, with a voicemail in the place of the announcement of a collect call.
The first episode introduces us to our main characters, and sets up their dynamic. Alex Reagan, a host with Pacific Northwest Stories, is interviewing professional ghost hunters for a new series on strange jobs. In the course of her work, she hears tales about Dr. Richard Strand, an avowed atheist and professional debunker of the paranormal. When she finally tracks him down, he demonstrates how he has debunked hundreds of so-called supernatural cases, all of which are stored in a series of white VHS tape cases. The first season starts by investigating into Dr. Strand’s unsolved cases, the so-called Black Tapes. As Strand puts it, "Those are cases we don’t have the resources or technology to disprove. Yet."
"'Yet' being the operative word," Alex answers.
Strand comes off as a charismatic, if occasionally didactic, character. "As soon as you apply scientific method to the paranormal, it vanishes," he says in the first episode, and then repeats variations on it thereafter. However, the scientific method has provided no real answers for the cases that Alex, with Strand’s assistance and guidance, investigates in the first half of the season: a musician’s grisly suicide, exorcism, bilocation; even a version of Slenderman makes an appearance. Alex rarely comes to a satisfying conclusion regarding the paranormal (or totally normal) origins of these cases, though Strand continuously refuses to entertain supernatural explanations. Their back-and-forth forms the emotional core of the show.
Strand, however, proves to be a less than reliable narrator. He’s at the center of another mystery: years before, his wife, Coralee, disappeared while they were traveling together. Though Strand was cleared as a suspect, Coralee was never heard from again. This adds a lot to his and Alex’s dynamic: both are pushing for the truth, and both of them suspect the other’s methods. Alex accuses Strand of being closed-minded; Strand asserts that she’s suffering from apophenia, finding patterns in random events.
Around episode seven, all the different strands of the story start coming together. Alex and Strand return to their earlier investigations as new twists are introduced. The boy being haunted by a Slenderman-like shadow is subsequently kidnapped; the bandmate of the suicidal musician disappears in Russia; the bilocating mental patient is obsessed with the same sacred geometry as a possibly satanic composer. Rather than expanding, the Black Tapes universe contracts, twisting all of these threads together.
It’s not a completely graceful or flawless process. Having so many different story threads meant that the show only spent a few minutes on them per episode, usually ending with a cliff-hanger and a promise to revisit it. In the end, the grand unifying theory of The Black Tapes strains the listener’s credulity more than talk about the Devil’s Door or the UnSound.
The Black Tapes trips up in other ways. The show introduces a number of one-off characters that sound almost indistinguishable from each other, and adds new information that muddies rather than clarifies the story. Certain episodes, such as episode nine, "Name That Tune," dump indigestible chunks of background information; in this case, we’re treated to seven minutes and twenty seconds of musical theory and advanced mathematics. The relevance of these info-dumps is unclear: maybe some writers were too in love with their background research to cut it out of the script, or the producers needed some unnecessary filler to pad out an otherwise anemic episode.
Lastly, and possibly my most petty complaint: the producers steadfastly refuse to admit that the show’s a fiction, which creates for some supremely awkward moments. In particular, during one of the bonus episodes ("Listener Mail #1"), Alex Reagan and some of the show’s producers answer questions from listeners. In answer to a question from Reddit that wonders if a continuity error is part of the plot, producer Terry Mills answers, "There’s no 'plot' or anything going here, I know that."
"It’s not like [a character] is an actor and we can go back and record another take," Alex adds. Maybe I’m projecting the self-consciousness in her laugh, but really, come on. There’s playing with the line between fiction and reality, and then there’s pretending that there’s no man behind the curtain when his feet are totally visible.
Despite taking inspiration from Serial, The Black Tapes podcast never comes together the way that show did. Each episode’s mystery is left unsolved, and the grand unifying conspiracy has no satisfying conclusion. All of the strings are left dangling, and at the end of the first season, we’re left with yet another cliff-hanger and too many open-ended questions. Well, that and a plug for the production company’s new spin-off show, Tanis, which promises more of the same: unanswered mysteries, global conspiracies, and a series of cliff-hangers that lose their edge after a while.
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In the Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.