Everything is too long these days, isn’t it? Every series is at least two episodes too long, podcasts go on for hours, you have to scroll through pages of someone’s barely disguised eating disorder mania to get to the recipe on their blog, and every documentary on Netflix is four hours long, forcing me to go to Wikipedia halfway through just to finally find out what happened — and I cannot even slightly deal with Adam Curtis any more.
Podcasts also now have these excruciating intros before they start talking about actual things. No, I don’t care about how surprised you are to find that the thing you miss most during the pandemic is your favorite Panera order, you said this podcast was about how we Americans can finally get some healthcare, please get to the point! I am begging you! It’s not like I have anything better to do, but please don’t insult me while I’m lying here in the same clothes as the previous four days; at least let me pretend I have vitally important things to attend to instead of listening to you yammer on, thank you.
This is why I was so surprisingly charmed by Browned Off — it literally only has two episodes so far, but I am hooked — a new podcast about ‘diversity in the arts’, which yes, not only sounds a bit dull but also overdone at this point. But Faiza Khan has the throaty laugh of a villainess, and Moni Mohsin has this no-nonsense tone that delivers withering insights at rapid speed, and their discussions are short, little, terrific romps. They dive into a topic, they massacre it mercilessly, and they are out 30 minutes later.
Their most recent episode, ‘Servants’, was on why domestic workers used to be a mainstay of British literature, from Jeeves to Mrs Danvers and back again, and how they conveniently disappeared from contemporary novels. It’s not that the monied class have stopped bringing in housekeepers and landscapers, it’s just that the ones they are hiring are no longer white. So they disappear from view, even from our art. Yes, of course, I could read a desiccated 10,000-word essay on the subject in the London Review of Books, probably, but then I couldn’t fantasize about being utterly destroyed by Khan and Mohsin as I twist under their displeased gaze. I’m obsessed.
But sometimes I don’t want discourse, I want someone to tell me a story. And these days, I want someone to tell me a story about what it’s like to be walking around in your life one day and then you just smack into the occult, the unknown, you have an encounter with death or something impossible and you are all of a sudden stuck outside your life, trying to squirm your way back in.
For this, I always listen to Here Be Monsters, with host Jeff Emtman, who always sounds like he is reporting from deep within the heart of a tree. And the wood has grown around him, perhaps merging with some of his cells, and he can barely lift his head but he is still here to tell us stories about accidentally summoning a long-lost aunt during a séance, or why each of the Scientology buildings has an office for a long-dead man to use, or how to live your life after you almost die. Each episode is an encounter with the irrational, narrated with tact.
The stories are brief — most episodes are only about 20 minutes long — leaving you wondering if you actually heard what you think you heard. And then they are gone, poof, and you’re there in the real world again, not being talked to from inside a tree, unsettled and uncertain. The uncertainty is effective; the stories are not here to convince you there is life after death or that you can talk to god or whatever. This poses questions — what if the bounds of your reality, which you build strong and protected to preserve your sanity, started to slip and stretch, just a little. What if it became permeable, and let something dark and wicked inside? Devastating. Don’t listen to it in the woods.