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S. Craig Zahler and the Art of the Podcast

Bone Tomahawk

“We have a solution to Hollywood’s ‘development hell’ which I am pleased to share with everyone.” This was how Dallas Sonnier, or at least his marketing department, announced the introduction of “the original audiostate,” the neologism Cinestate (Sonnier’s Dallas-based indie production company) coined to avoid the dread word “podcast.” Through marrying the “grandiosity of Hollywood films with the intimacy of audio,” the audiostate is meant to transform that most beloved of objects, the unproduced screenplay, into multi-platform pitchable content. Since Sonnier’s 2017 statement, only one audiostate has been produced: the same year’s The Narrow Caves, a story of eldritch horror, eugenics and explicit fucking adapted by S. Craig Zahler from his own screenplay. 

Zahler’s recent career is deeply intertwined with Cinestate. As detailed by Scott Tobias, Sonnier made a personal bet on Zahler’s first film Bone Tomahawk (2015), financing it partially through the mortgaging of his house. Tomahawk, which saw a motley band of Western stock characters plodding across a desert to rescue a couple of 19th Century normies from some metal AF subhuman cave dwellers, proved to be of enough interest, to both critics and gorehounds, to fund the creation of Cinestate, which Tobias aptly describes as “a renegade outfit between the coasts.”

Previous to Tomahawk, Zahler had twenty-odd screenplays in various stages of Zeno’s Entertainment Complex Paradox, save for the Belgian Asylum Blackout (2011.) As the above Sonnier quote suggests, this is not an entirely unusual career for a screenwriter, although most professionals agree that said career type used to be more lucrative. Zahler’s writing, however, is what certain producers might call “tonally complex,” and Zahler himself unenthusiastic to the notes process. As Zahler says of his films, “Some people can get bored. And that’s fine. But that’s not what studios want to hear.” Cinestate, however, has seen fit to leave Zahler, as writer and director, a relatively free hand, which has led to three films which are, to again quote Tobias, as “challenging in their unusual longueurs as they are in their shocks.” 

The corrupt cop drama Dragged Across Concrete (2018) features a now semi-infamous scene in which Vince Vaughn does nothing but eat an egg salad sandwich for one minute and thirteen seconds. In Tomahawk, Richard Jenkins launches a digressive explanation about saloon musician economics. Zahler has stated the intent of such passages is to draw the audience into his characters’ world more fully, so that when the horror hits (and it always does), it smacks flesh harder. However, these films’ deliberation, duration, and pace, which isn’t leisurely but instead has the rhythm of a lengthy march across enemy territory, differentiate Zahler’s work tonally and formally from pulp forebears such as John Carpenter, Charles Willeford, and Don Siegel. As a director, Zahler is many things, but derivative only of himself. 

Though Zahler asserts that his “prose is clearly the prose of a novelist,” his fiction is less successful. In a medium where the creator cannot control duration, only suggest it, pacing comes with voice. Zahler’s voice marries laconic hard-boiled to the flourishing gothic, which often results in prose purpled like a much loved bruise. An early suicide in Mean Business on North Garrison Street (2014) is described thusly: “W. Robert Fellburn swallowed the steel cylinder, thumbed the safety, and squeezed the trigger until his shame covered the ceiling in gray and red clumps.” In A Congregation of Jackals (2010), a character speaks “[i]n a quiet voice that begat a coiled serpent of smoke.” Zahler the novelist also has a number of unfortunate tics, including race-baiting, gross-out spectacle and referencing characters by their descriptors. In Jackals, “the bartender” becomes “the rapidly-aging drink slinger”; later a rancher and his wife are referred to as “bipedal intruders.” In Mean Business, the protagonist introduces himself as “Jules Bettinger,” just before the authorial voice refers to him as “the man from Arizona,” two sentences after designating him “the detective.” Refusing to use pronouns is not a style, even if you’re an Oulipian. 

Despite their relative obscurity (Mean Business being the only title to have a mainstream publisher, Thomas Dunne), many of Zahler’s novels have been optioned for film. Though none have yet made it to production, it makes sense to attempt the same outcome with a Zahler podcast. Adapting existing IP into pitch material, or reverse-engineering the process, is a strategy currently much in vogue. You prove the content has an audience, then you leverage it into a more lucrative medium. Podcasts seem to be the ideal form, as they’re (relatively) cheap, have a (seemingly) large potential market and have (limited) success making the long trudge towards television. However, narrative-fiction podcasts have a unique challenge. The vast majority of the living residents of overdeveloped nations have never experienced a time when narrative was not primarily consumed via the medium of the screen. Even those who read analogue books still take in their narrative visually. The eye of the podcast-listener is, thus, constantly restless, searching for content but finding only bare life. 

This is why most successful podcasts are this historical period’s talk radio, best experienced as background chatter, the ideologies of their hosts seeping into your unconscious. (As podcast-host Caroline Busta recently said of podcasts on the podcast New Models, “as you’re listening, you’re not thinking as hard about exactly what’s being said.”) Vernacular rhythm, catch-phrases, vocal fry: these are the content that the podcast-listener comes to desire. Narrative-nonfiction podcasts (and I’m thinking specifically of Serial and its spawn) often deal with this issue by returning to the same foundational scenes with new, previously-withheld facts or from divergent POVs, so that the listener who is browsing Instagram or doing kettle-bell reps will get multiple chances to be reminded of the narrative. 

Many narrative-fiction podcasts mimic the tone, rhythm, and formal constraints of the narrative-nonfiction. BBC’s H.P.-Lovecraft-is-now-public-domain series The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (2018) and The Whisper in the Darkness (2019) revel in this artifice, posing as narrative-nonfiction. The prehistory of the podcast includes, of course, Orson Welles’ oft-referenced War of the Worlds false flag/radio broadcast, so it’s not like there’s no precedent for such formal fuckery. However, the continued built-in excuses for why the narrative in question has to be experienced solely through audio begins to feel like a pathological need on part of the creators to explain, if not apologize. The answer can’t be, “The meeting with Netflix didn’t go so well.” 

This has led to audience exhaustion, which the more successful narrative-fiction podcasts tend to side-step. The Horror of Dolores Roach (2018) adapts a one-person show into a monologue with background noise and inserted dialogue. Monologue with extras is also the format episode-of-the-week The Magnus Archives (begun 2016) uses as a base. Homecoming (2016-2017) threw money at the problem, using a large celebrity cast, contextless conversation, and location recording to keep the frame TV wide. (Homecoming, of course, now is a TV show.) 

Zahler, unsurprisingly, feels no need to apologize or explain. The Narrow Caves’ form can be best described as “elevated table reading.” Wyatt Russell and Lili Simmons head up the small cast, doing good work (neither can, I think, be blamed for the excessive, embarrassing sex scenes, one of which involves stick-fucking), and national treasure Vincent D’Onofrio is hellbent on out-deranging the material. Zahler’s own sub-Carpenter score differentiates the soundtrack from the usual Casio noodling, while The Narrator (Will Patton) reads chunks of Action. If that sounds a bit dry, remember that this is Zahler. 

The prose tics reappear immediately. Protagonists Walter (Russell) and Ruby (Simmons) are referred to as “the lanky youth” and “the pale woman” respectively, while Walter’s buddy Jason is referred to as, uh, “the Asian fellow.” However, the referents do extra work in this format, helping listeners keep in mind physical characteristics and becoming touchstones in the narration. Zahler’s baroque sentences are chewier for their relative scarcity. Standouts include, “Beer cans gleam like oblong stars along the weedy front lawn,” and “Several hungry partygoers pick at nachos which look like the remains of an exposed animal; others contend for the fried chicken, potato chips, and pretzels nearby.” Later, the Narrator christens a certain class of subhuman “Crawler” without further description. This forces the listener to do the work of creating the salient attributes of the Crawler, aided only by squelching foley work. The whiplash between what is (over)described and what is left to the imagination proves productive, especially in comparison to the genre offerings of the film industry’s mainstream, wherein everything must be backstoried, categorized and explained. 

To his immense credit, Zahler is uninterested in “world-building.” Invented in the cloistered yet drafty halls of SF fandom, world-building managed to survive being staked through the heart by M. John Harrison to be recuperated into a beloved entertainment industry standard. Instead, The Narrow Caves presents its protagonist (I lied, it’s just Walter, not really Ruby at all) with a not-really-intractable problem: what if the reason why you are so violently drawn to your lover is because of the brutal logic of genetic programming? And what if visiting her ancestral homestead and creepy dad leads to the two of you being dragged underground by members of a subhuman race who have interbred with humanity? And what if you yourself are in fact the eventual product of such ancient, unspeakable mating? Zahler isn’t interested in detailing an underground civilization and its intersection with human history, but rather with Walter’s refusal to succumb to his own eldritch genetic engineering. Zahler’s heroes, corrupted as they often are (Walter’s not that bad compared to most of them, although he’s a pseudo-intellectual whiney little manipulative dick), consistently find themselves faced with the necessity of cutting through the obscuring mists of amorality and seeing the eternal battle of good and evil. This evil is, in The Narrow Caves, an inescapable fact “hidden in our blood,” not accidental.  

Arguing about whether S. Craig Zahler’s work is racist or merely racist-adjacent has become fashionable in circles which must be described, unfortunately, as “film twitter.” (My favorite of these pieces is by K. Austin Collins.) I made my own determination when I read the authorial voice of Mean Business compare a character’s height to “that of a Chinese woman.” The Narrow Caves’ “ancient race that mated with human beings” appears to be—surviving across time, space and content platforms—Tomahawk’s aforementioned race of cave-dwellers who enjoy splitting people apart with rocks. Tomahawk clearly delineates these cave-dwellers from local indigenous peoples. This is a rather obvious attempt to dodge the consequences of deploying the racist trope of riding-out-to-save-white-folks-from-the-savages. There are symmetries here with Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), a centerpiece in the history of cosmic horror and often regarded as one of Lovecraft’s most racist works. However, “Red Hook” has a far more complex internal dialogue with immigration than its reputation would suggest. Its protagonist is an immigrant himself, Irish (which at the time was a category still in the process of being subsumed into White), while its villain, or at least the human who acts as vortical point for unspeakable, squamish evil, is of a long-standing Dutch family. The carriers of the inhuman cult which the latter delves into are “a very unusual colony of unclassified slant-eyed folk who used the Arabic alphabet but were eloquently repudiated by the great mass of Syrians in and around Atlantic Avenue.” This is the Zahler two-step from Tomahawk, a century beforehand: the real subhumans are the ones I made up from out of nowhere. Not that Lovecraft was performing wokeness, he was metaphorically aligning evil with brown people pretty explicitly, and there’s a lot of free-floating hate for generalized “dusky” foreigners later in the text.  

Zahler, of course, isn’t Lovecraft. He’s not the inventor of an elaborate pulp cosmos which metaphorizes positivism in the form of incoming species annihilation due to his despair over the decline of the white race; he’s a nostalgic neo-pulp multi-platform content creator whose defense of his films’ obvious racism is that they “don’t even consistently line up with themselves.” This, dear reader, is what we like to refer to as horseshit. Just come out and have The Narrator say it, bro. 

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