The American Gothic is a genre that’s crept its way into audio fiction since the medium’s American resurgence in about 2012, 2013. With works of audio fiction like Palimpsest, Alice Isn’t Dead, Rose Drive, and Limetown, we’ve heard American Gothic depicted in many different fashions. Today, Unwell joins their ranks, but with one specific distinction: Unwell is a direct response to place, a specifically Midwestern Gothic that feels unsettling familiar no matter where you’re from.
The first episode, “S1E1 Homecoming,” debuted today, but I was able to listen to the first three episodes for review.
Lillian Harper moves to the small town of Mt. Absalom, Ohio, to care for her estranged mother Dorothy after an injury. Living in the town’s boarding house which has been run by her family for generations, she discovers conspiracies, ghosts, and a new family in the house’s strange assortment of residents.
Framed by folk music and an eerie stillness, Unwell is the story of Lily, a woman reluctantly returning to her mother’s boarding house in the quaint Mt. Absalom. Played by Shariba Rivers, Lily, Unwell‘s protagonist, is prickly in a way that feels justifiable, or at least relatable. There’s a sense of both duty and frustration in her performance that helps Lily feel grounded–something that accentuates the strangeness that seeps into every part of Mt. Absalom. Unwell immediately understands that the crux of the Gothic isn’t the surreal, paranormal, or otherworldly events causing the turmoil in the story: the crux is, instead, the feeling of the mundane surrounding those events.
Produced by HartLife NFP, creators of the long-running and highly-acclaimed Our Fair City, Unwell is striking. One of the most common ways horror and horror-adjacent podcasts fall flat is by overcompensating for the lack of visuals by accentuating everything else. The sound design gets bigger or more pointedly eerie. The writing pushes more and more into the horror trappings and plot. There’s a focus on continually raising the stakes. Even within its first three episodes, it’s clear this won’t be the trajectory of Unwell. Instead of overcompensating with more, Unwell has such a beautiful focus on restraint. There are moments of quiet ambiance in each episode, moments of just feeling the space of the scene.
One of the biggest sources of that restraint is in Unwell‘s editing and sound design. While some sound design does skew just a little loud, it doesn’t feel obtrusive or distracting. It’s there to help give a sense of place and immerse the listener in the story, not force the listener into feeling scared or anxious; instead, the production allows the writing to carry the Gothic feel of the story. The design work becomes even more impressive when noting that all three first episodes were designed by different people, but they still feel completely cohesive.
The dialogue editing in each episode is especially impressive, allowing such a natural back-and-forth that’s specific to each set of characters. You can tell how each person in the story regards each other not just by what they say or how they say it, but when they say it. This pacing is something often overlooked in audio fiction, but it’s harnessed so well here.
But Unwell isn’t just eerie. It’s also, at times, hilarious. The comedy–jokes about casseroles, strange diners, over-friendly locals, and celery festivals–makes for a nice break in the unease, helping ensure it the podcast’s tone doesn’t become monotonous, while also still adding to the strangeness of Mt. Absalom. It’s a tongue-in-cheek understanding that the Midwest is as goofy as it is unsettling, and that the two sides of the place are intrinsically intertwined.
In its first three episodes, Unwell is already one of my audio fictions to watch in 2019. Its wise ear for stillness, its naturalistic dialogue and production, its compelling protagonist, and its knack for humor all culminate in one of the most fascinating, exciting premiers of the year so far.