- I Am In Eskew
18th August 2018
'I Am In Eskew' Interview
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your (frankly excellent) podcast?
Thank you very much!
The podcast is called I Am In Eskew; it’s a horror / weird fiction show delivered as a series of dispatches from a vaguely Central European city.
Eskew is a place that is, both spatially and psychologically, off-kilter. The streets wind too far in on themselves, the stairs climb too high, and both buildings and inhabitants can act in peculiar, obsessive, or frightening ways.
And every episode we follow the narrator, David Ward, a kind of semi-unwilling immigrant to the city, as he finds himself stumbling into new aspects of Eskew.
As for me, I’m a writer in London, working in digital media for the charity sector; I’m writing and narrating Eskew sort-of-anonymously. Not for any kind of grand scandalous reason, but because I think it adds to the fun and helps to keep the conceit alive a little bit.
Ah...that explains why I couldn’t find your name when I was researching for this interview. I thought my skills were slipping! I think it’s very interesting that Eskew focuses on horror based around spaces and buildings. Is this something of particular interest to you?
Yes, definitely! I think there’s a rich ream of horror, from The Haunting of Hill House to Ghostwatch, that delves into the idea that certain places can simply go wrong - and once these bad environments have been established and ostracised by society, they can’t be exorcised. They simply keep accruing power through the individual stories that play tragically out in their shadow.
I mention a real-life example of that kind of bad architecture in one episode; the Pope Lick Bridge in Kentucky, a place that looks and feels so sinister that it developed its own local folklore about a goat-man who attacks people who stray too close to the edge - and which has ended up resulting in deaths as visitors peer over the side trying to get a peek at the monster.
I find this kind of stuff fascinating, because it plays into my own paranoia about environments, and my dislike of ghost stories with explicably human antagonists. Like David says in the first episode, people aren’t frightening. Places are frightening.
If I’m sitting alone at home on a dark and stormy night, and I glance nervously up towards the bedroom doorway, my fear is not that my house is being haunted by a spirit called Mabel who died in the 19th century at the age of fourteen and is constantly seeking her favourite teddy bear...because all of these details both humanise her and make her ridiculous.
My fear is that there will be something standing in the doorway, because the doorway is where things come to stand.
Because unoccupied spaces, in our imaginations, must find something to fill them.
Could you describe some of your creative influences?
Thomas Ligotti is probably the writer I’m trying to crib from the most. Not so much in terms of his pessimism (or his love of puppets as a horror motif, which I can’t really get behind), but I see him very much as someone who bridges the gap between American horror and European absurdism. Some of my favourite stories of his - The Town Manager, Our Temporary Supervisor, The Red Factory - are hilarious as comedies! They’re very much scathing satires on our inadequate human response to the inexplicable and awful.
Junji Ito is also a big influence, in particular, his masterpiece Uzumaki: a collection of short stories about a town that’s driven mad by the symbol of a spiral. The brilliance is in the inventiveness with which he builds an anthology of horrors, with variety and with mounting awfulness, while playing on that simple motif.
I see Ito’s work as very much in the spirit of some of the most classic horror of all; Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the threat comes not from an external monster, but from our own bodies and minds, transforming at the whim of cruel, fickle and obsessive gods...which feeds into a lot of what I’m trying to do with Eskew!
I usually try and avoid thinking about Lovecraft as an influence, even though David is clearly an obsessive, neurotic first-person narrator in the Lovecraft/Poe mould. I think there’s a lot of baggage around what constitutes ‘Lovecraftian’ fiction, and I didn’t want to set up false expectations by referencing him (like the idea that there might be some monstrous cosmic intelligence behind it all).
I really enjoy Lovecraft too, especially something like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” I think the idea of monsters living in the sea near the town and the strange, inexorable link the townspeople have with them makes it a lot creepier than something like “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Yeah! I think the elements in Lovecraft that have made him so franchise-friendly (these brilliant alien races and gods) have eaten away at the edges of Lovecraftian horror, bringing it closer to something that can be quite kitsch, even a kind of steampunk pastiche at times.
With Eskew, I’m trying to keep to something I see in Ito, or in Ligotti, where any antagonists, whether human or otherwise, are only symptoms of something worse, something that’s simply a force of nature.
I see the city of Eskew as being a bit like a literal cancer in that sense - a highly complex structure where some of the cells (or in this case streets, art galleries, citizens...) have started to lose their original sense of self and are obsessively spiralling off in other, destructive directions...
What made you decide to do I Am In Eskew as a podcast, rather than as a graphic novel or book?
Honestly, it’s a lack of talent in the first instance, and a lack of discipline in the second!
Writing it as a podcast was my partner’s idea (she’s also the occasional voice of Riyo, an investigator looking into David’s disappearance, and she copy-edits every episode with me) - I knew I wanted to write a series of horror short stories based around the theme of urban isolation and weird architecture, but I was really struggling to get started.
She suggested that recording it as a podcast would force me to keep to a schedule, and hopefully it might even give me some audience feedback to keep me excited about the project.
So it was a pragmatic choice, but it’s one I’ve really come to be thankful for! I think the medium is perfect for bare-bones, atmospheric horror storytelling (Knifepoint Horror is probably the best example of that ‘lonely voice whispering in your ear’ kind of fiction), and there’s an incredibly welcoming, friendly, mutually-supporting community of listeners and creators online.
Once the podcast is complete, I think I’d definitely like to look at compiling all of the episodes, editing and improving them, and turning it into a full-length written anthology. I’ve definitely made a few continuity slip-ups along the way that I’d like to correct, apart from anything else.
I’ve enjoyed Riyo’s episodes too, especially now that she’s directly looking into ‘hostile environments’. I feel like the contrast in tone and narrative style help to strengthen the series overall. Do you intend for the story of I Am In Eskew to have a specific ending in the future? If so, have you decided on the arc of the story?
I think David’s story (and Riyo’s) needs to be a finite one, definitely. In my experience, most successful protagonists in serial horror tend to be investigators, or monster-hunters. That choice of profession makes them witnesses to the story, rather than victims - effectively, they’re exempt from the psychological cost of whatever happens.
With David, I very much wanted to avoid that sense of safety; I want the horror to keep taking its toll on the character, episode after episode - which means that eventually he does need to find some kind of resolution!
Otherwise that psychological cost starts to seem fraudulent, and the whole thing turns into a predictable game of ‘David sees something horrible, then miraculously escapes at the last second’ week after week.
So I do know how the finale is going to play out; it’s really just a question of how many more stories I can reasonably invent for the show, without things starting to feel stretched, before we get there.
Mind you, it’s been established that there are recordings from Eskew that have gone missing, so it doesn’t need to end, even if it ends…
Do you have a favourite episode of I Am In Eskew so far?
I really like Episode 3: Excavation. A mysterious digging sickness takes hold in Eskew, with citizens tearing their own hands to pieces just to get into the ground - and in retaliation, a religious cult starts to form, extolling the virtues of the sky and constructing a grand tower.
It’s not necessarily the best-written episode structurally, and definitely one of the crudest in terms of recording quality, but it was the first episode where I felt I was pushing the boat out towards the kind of outrageous, absurdist horror that I really wanted to be writing, where normal human behaviour was just being given a couple of extra screw-turns towards something awful and monstrous.
It was also the first episode where I really saw a few people begin to respond on message boards, so that was really reassuring to me - when it first went out, I was petrified that I’d gone too weird to sustain anyone’s interest.
I tried to pick a favourite episode in preparation for this interview, but I honestly couldn’t narrow it down past five or six. If I really had to pick, I’d probably choose Illumination - the episode about the sinister and compulsive call of an old railway bridge. Are ideas like this based on real examples?
That example definitely is - it’s based on a railway bridge about a minute’s walk from my house! I love that kind of very modern ruin; old brick stacks stood out in the open, arches filled with ivy, graffiti in a place that seems impossible to reach...
There are a few other specific London inspirations (I based the Fish Market on Spitalfields Meat Market, for example), but with Eskew as a whole, I was thinking specifically of hillier cities in Western and Central Europe: Budapest, primarily, but also Lisbon (the trams and cobblestones), maybe a bit of Rome...
I’m used to flat English cities without any kind of panorama, so I find it a ceaselessly astonishing thing to be lost in a city’s streets and suddenly find myself up high, staring down over a sea of winding streets and rooftops...
How do you feel having wrecked people’s appreciation of AA Milne’s poem Disobedience by highlighting how deeply sinister it is?
I’ve actually been driving myself wild trying to decide if that poem is just a nonsense rhyme celebrating bossy children, or if there’s a class-snobbery thing going on (James James Morrison’s mother puts on a golden gown, and goes to the end of the town...does she get robbed there? Is the end of the town so unsafe because that’s where the low-income people live?)
You may have a point there about class. After whatever happens to her happens, the King himself gets involved with a reward. Clearly, she’s a lady with connections! Could you describe your writing process?
My writing process is very much informed by necessity - I commute in and out of London every day and don’t have a lot of free time, so I have to do most of my drafting while standing upright in a crammed train carriage!
Which may not be ideal, but on the other hand, if you’re writing a podcast about the horror of urban life, there’s no better place to find inspiration than a crowded, sweaty, angry Underground train filled with blank faces...
How long does it take you to put an episode together, from first word to the finished product?
I’m very quick; I usually sketch out the episode concept well in advance, then take about a fortnight to draft it and edit. Recording and audio-editing happens very speedily, again out of necessity, on the weekends! I try and devote a day apiece to each.
Turning to the technical side, what do you wish you’d known about creating a podcast at the very beginning?
There’s still an enormous amount that I don’t know! When it comes to even simple audio editing, I’m learning all the time. I very much am still just a schmuck in his living room, talking into a handmade sound booth on his days off - which is the beauty of podcasting, I suppose.
But I’d probably give my earlier self some very common-sense advice like...
...be brave. Stick to a schedule. Know the signs of burn-out. Listen to other people’s work in the medium before you dive in. Stay hydrated so your mouth doesn’t make those disgusting wet sounds when you’re trying to talk. Never forget that this should be fun, above anything else.
What motivates you to keep producing episodes?
Honestly? Seeing that it’s connecting with people. Spooking people. Entertaining people. That means everything.
If people would like to engage with you or support you online, what’s the best way to do that?
If you’d like to support the show...please do just shout about it! Tell your friends, leave a review on iTunes. It really makes a huge difference.
If you’d like to chat, we’re also on Twitter: https://twitter.com/eskew_podcast