Hello from the Hallowoods

It’s the end of the world.
And everyone’s pronouns are being respected.

The heatwave has turned London and its miles of concrete into a skillet. The black tarmac of the road is too hot to look at. I don’t know how it’s possible, but heat is oozing out of it. The city is a giant convection oven. I am a piece of meat.

I’m not a sweaty person. As in, I very rarely find myself sweating a lot or at all, even in summer. But right now, lazy drops are rolling down to my ankles from the back of my knees. I’m sipping frozen coffee while walking, which is objectively a stupid thing to do as: 1. coffee is known to dehydrate you; 2. it’s London and frozen coffee costs as much as a pint. Cosy Livs, man. She’s real. The grass in the park has turned to a dusty and coarse fried mess, which still remains more inviting to most than any of the benches with their sizzling metal bits. It all feels surreal. Sure, grass burns in summer and asphalt heats up in the sun. These are pretty normal things to see happening in July. But this is just too much. The intensity has been cranked up one tiny notch above what’s acceptable and that’s all it takes to make everything feel disturbing, to make your throat tighten. People in the park are shielding themselves from the fire under the trees, and I’m walking on a dirt path that cuts through the blasted lawn. There’s the blue-purple of the sky, the yellow of dead vegetation, and in the fuzzy space behind my eyeballs where my brain is, there’s the glistening black of pine needles on impossibly tall trees. Images of a forest somewhere north, in a world forever transformed by dark rains.

Hello from the Hallowoods is a fantasy/horror/post-apocalyptic podcast. It zooms in successively on a diverse cast of queer characters as they make their way in what was once Canada. A few episodes in (spoiler alert), we learn that 20 years ago, the world as we - we the listeners - know it, ended as the progress of climate change took an extreme turn of the eldritch kind. The rain turned black, imbibed the earth and since then the land has been slowly transforming to accommodate a nature that has grown monstrous and fantastical. The ice caps have melted and the thawed ground is laced with the roots of a hostile forest that slowly expands. The rules have changed, and so has the meaning of the word dead.

Broadcast in the listener’s dreams, the stories are told by a narrator who introduces himself as an eldritch entity/god. His purpose is to watch, witness and record, he tells us. And it is in his voice that the various characters speak, recounting the events happening in front of his many eyes. The podcast is written, produced and voiced by Wiliam A. Wellman. His style is verbose and dramatic, slightly over-the-top, and I like it. At first I wasn’t really sure about the shape taken by the storytelling, with only one person voicing the entire cast. It felt a bit weird; a bit silly. But it increasingly grew on me and now, after hours of listening, I can tell characters apart from little differences in speech, intonation or accent. I wonder how someone with English as their first language would perceive this show. Maybe it sounds really shit. But my English-loving French brain and ears really enjoy the convoluted prose and cannot tell if an accent is spot on or not, so all is well.

A sewn-up revenant awakes knowing only what their name is and that they have to walk somewhere. They meet the ghost of a boy. A witch who controls the weather heads back to a library lost between the trees. A girl is followed by the ghost of many dogs who protected her from what was once her parents. The daughter of an ex-rockstar and rebellion leader runs for her life.

The stories unfold simultaneously, they cross paths and crash into one another. This is one of my favourite storytelling tropes: individual and separate narratives that will inevitably connect at some point. Because obviously they will. That becomes a game, trying to work out how they will merge and in which configurations. So, the revenant and their ghost companion meet the daughter of the rebellion leader. The girl with the spectral hound is rescued by the weather witch. Connections ensue. We see the events happen through the eyes of all the characters, and from the overlapping of all these fragments we can make out a larger, more complex tale. Which also includes in no particular order:  the love story between a swamp monster and an invisible man; a talking car; religious fanatics; a lich called Democracy; an evil capitalist corporation; man-eating squirrels; vampires AND werewolves. Oh, and also demons.

I’ve never written a review, and I haven’t written anything in months, really. But this. I’d like to try and write something about it. Because three episodes was all it took for me to be hooked and wanting to do nothing else but listen to this podcast continuously. And so I did, for the whole weekend that followed. I walked around in the heat, headphones clamped over my ears, sunglasses on and skin sleek with spf 50. Keeping myself in-between places on purpose, in a constant state of heading-somewhere so that I could enjoy as much of that great feeling you get when the regular rhythm of your steps rocks your brain to sleep, leaving some space on the thinking stage for images to come on up and do their little dances. It felt brilliant. And since then I’ve been binging it, going through one episode after the other, so, so glad that there are so many of them already released. I even drew fanart my favourite character in my sketch book, which is not a thing I’ve done often and not a thing I’ve done in a while (my 14-year-old self is nodding in the back somewhere). So that has to count for something.

To be completely honest, I don’t think I want this to be a review. I just want to write about how much I love it and in the process try to explain why. I feel like a critique of the podcast is easy to make: it’s full of tropes we already know and love; the sound quality is not always the best; each episode follows the same structure which could be considered repetitive; as does the background music, the same pieces reused over and over.

First I’ve started writing about how I love being obsessed with things, about how much I cherish the feeling of having something taking all the space available in my head; I’ve written about my love for fiction and how I love being introduced to other universes which obey different rules than the ones I know. These paragraphs will remain in limbo at the end of this document (and I won’t share them, just to be clear). But when it comes down to it, you know what really got me? It’s the queer stuff. Who would have thought. It’s the fact that in the first 20 minutes a non-binary character pops up and they just ARE. They are THEY by essence and no one will ever question that. There is no narrative around a transition, around a possible before. A before that offers purchase for whoever wishes to tear their identity apart and call it fake, because you see how easily it breaks when you pull an pull and pull? That can’t be the real thing now can it? Here, there’s no doubt about the legitimacy of this individual’s identity. And it feels so good.
If there’s one thing being trans taught me, it’s the understated art of saying “It’s all good”. “Don’t worry” is a close second. It’s all good, don’t worry. I’m used to it. I understand that it’s hard for you to use my pronouns. I know exactly what you see when you see me. It’s fine, I get it, I really do. I come from a country and a language that has no room for things outside of the binary, so trust me when I say that I completely understand how hard it can be to reframe the way you put things in boxes, how you name them. It’s all good. It’s just a bit tiring after a while. It’s just always a little painful; like a pin prick, every time, that makes it hard to relax.  

So yeah, I don’t think I can describe how good it feels to listen to stories where the identity of the characters is unquestionable and unquestioned. When it’s not about preferred pronouns but just pronouns. About an end of the world where the queers and the ones who can embrace change, who can face the transformation the planet has undergone and who can learn about what stares back at them from the shade of the forest they call home will prevail. Those who’ve already had to leave things behind in the past, who’ve returned one day to find all their stuff packed on the curb and the door closed. Those for whom the world has already ended and started anew several times. But also those born in these changing times, who grew up while things were ending.

For those who cannot let go of the past, who cling desperately to values long dead, the forest will come. Good luck.

It is weird. It is wonky. It’s filled with classic fantasy tropes which in my opinion are delightful (you read that right, vampires AND werewolves). It’s very queer. It’s very dramatic. It feels damp and shiny. There are some found families in there and some good old fashioned romance. It has a reassuring predictable structure: intro, then theme song, then secondary intro, then three stories, with occasional interruptions. I think it’s great, and maybe others will hate it and that’s absolutely fine.

With all that being said, it is odd to find satisfaction and joy in a story whose premise is the devastating consequences of climate change. That bit does leave a weird aftertaste. And it’s not like this podcast is a radical piece of media, or a blatant commentary on capitalism and climate inaction. It’s not like it’s reminding the listener every ten minutes about what is at stake right here right now, in the present living time where they think and breathe and look at the sky jigsawed by chemtrails. Maybe it’s the heat. The way grass has burnt all over London. It’s too much. The ice cubes have fully dissolved in my overpriced coffee. It’s too much and it’s scaring me.

That is probably the other, deeper more complex reason why I love this podcast. Why it feels good, to hear about the end of the world, an end that is bizarre and monstrous but also a beginning. That is not just full of violence and misery. One where no one is misgendered. One that is filled with weird things and wonders. Because deep down we all know that something is coming. The feral little beast of my anxiety feels it and rattles in my skull. It knows 12 degrees on Christmas day is not right, so to calm it down I fill my head with a version of the end that, despite being terrible, is a billion times more acceptable than the idea of the real one.

Anyway. Go listen to Hello from the Hallowoods. It’s a good time.