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The Skull Sessions: Somewhere, Ohio



William

Good evening. This is your loyal host William A. Wellman. In addition to creating Hello From The Hallowoods every week, I write novels, read horror stories and tune in to the work of other podcasters in the horror fiction space today. Sometimes I invite them into my dimly lit parlor for an armchair conversation about horror. In this bonus episode, I sat down with Rat Grimes to talk about the border between the weird, the surreal and the horrible, and other things about living in Ohio. This is the Skull Sessions: Somewhere, Ohio.


*theme music plays*


William

We are here with the lovely and mysterious Rat Grimes today. Rat, can you please describe what it is you do around here? Corporate would like to know.


Rat

Sure. I write, and I guess produce, you could say, do a lot of the editing and music and sound design, for a series that’s completed: the Dead Letter Office of Somewhere Ohio; that’s all done for now. And the Department of Variance of Somewhere Ohio, kind of loosely related audio dramas. Both horror-ish, weird fiction-ish, and, uh, that’s my main thing.


William

That is one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about the Somewhere, Ohio series, is that although I feel like we have a lot of audience crossover within the like, horror space for fiction, yours does verge a bit into a genre that I find hard to describe? It’s almost like, office weirdness?


Rat

Yeah, yeah.


William

How did you find your way into that particular flavor?


Rat

Sure. Yeah, it’s tricky when marketing yourself. You can say, you can give so many genres, like um, sci-fi, horror, dark comedy, surreal, and everyone just tunes out after the first. But yeah, so I grew up reading a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, was like my guy. Then I got into various fantasy things, and read like Redwall. I read the Drizzt Do'Urden books, um, a lot of fantasy stuff. Eventually I kind of started running D&D when I was twelve or thirteen, and that really got me into like, wanting to do stories and stuff for other people.


But I didn’t actually like, start seriously writing until like 2020. I had written some poetry, I’ve got a couple poems published, but like short stories were pretty rare. I wrote you know, one every year or two before that. And when I started writing I really just realized, like, yeah. I love horror. I love weird surreal stuff. That’s gotta be what I write.


Partially because I really like it and partially because it has its own kind of internal logic that works for me really well, that a lot of other genres of writing, just. I can’t really wrap my head around too well. I don’t think you’d really want me writing a fantasy novel. I think it would get into like, five pages of introducing the world and characters and then it would just throw it aside for something else happening. So that’s why I kind of stick with the horror and weird fiction.


William

First I have to ask, what was your favorite Redwall book?


Rat

Man. If I can remember the names, there was… was it the Story of… some guy’s name… has like a red border, there’s a mouse with a sword on the front, um, Jacque maybe? I don’t remember. But that one was really good. It was like, a prequel, I think.


William

Yes. Was it Martin the Warrior?


Rat

That might be it, yeah! Yeah. ‘Cause Jacque’s like, the author, isn’t it?


William

I think it is, yeah. His name is on the cover, you’re not wrong.


Rat

Yeah yeah. I think it’s… yeah. I think that’s the one.


William

Now, as a kid I binged through the Redwall series, so. Why did that one capture your imagination?


Rat

Um. Part of it is the little critters. I just liked the animals. And an even bigger series I read that is maybe, maybe less relevant, I don’t know? Animorphs. I read a LOT of Animorphs. But in Redwall I liked, just kind of the setting of it, and the setting of scenes.


Where you have a couple characters kind of come up and then they describe the jam that they’re going to have and like, that was just really interesting in a way that… I liked Lord of the Rings a lot, I really loved the movies, but the books got a little more world-buildy, and kind of like, focusing on language, of course, because that’s what Tolkien loved. But the Redwall series kind of just felt like, maybe not more grounded, but it just more catered to my interests with the animal warriors and the food spreads and all of that.


William

I think Redwall grounds a lot of its, sort of lore, within the lives of characters?


Rat

Yes.


William

You generally only know about a hero if it’s someone that a young sprite with his first thumbtack sword is like, aspiring to live up to.


Rat

Right.


William

And then you might even get to experience the life of that hero in a later book that’s set before the rest. I think one of my all-time favorites from that series has to be one that was called ‘The Pearls of Lutra’, which was a treasure hunt for these various pearls that had been hidden all around Redwall and beyond. And so it was a lot of like, cryptic riddles and things that would make a Dungeon Master really happy.


Rat

Mhm. Right. Exactly.


William

There’s lizard pirates, there’s like, a hypnotic snake that they feed people to on a faraway island, like. I was always amazed that they had the power to make random forest animals like weasels or a lynx suddenly seem very threatening and intimidating.


Rat

Yeah, yeah. You wouldn’t think so, but like, when you’re from the perspective of say, a mouse or a mole, you know. They find a way to make it work.


William

Why was it that you fell into writing? I know that you’d mentioned that you kept up with short stories, and sort of the urge of writing takes you, but how did it happen around 2020, you’d mentioned, that you started to really invest more into that?


Rat

Sure. Before then I think, I had a couple short horror stories, I was kind of working on a little mini-series that was like, each one was based around a fear or something. I’m sure if it had gone on it would have been more interesting. But it’s so hard to get people to read written text, like fiction. Unless you have, you know, either you can publish it yourself, which I did not do, or you have an agent and publisher and you know, the literary world is brutal.


And even just like, online fiction is still difficult to get any kind of traction with. So I wrote a couple of those, would post them, would get one or two views, and eventually was like, I… this is a lot of time and effort for basically nothing coming out of it. Other than, you know, for me I always have to be doing something. I have to have some kind of project going on, even though it stresses me out and makes my life worse sometimes.


It takes up free time, but if I don’t do it, if I don’t have either something I’m writing, music I’m making, a game I’m running, I just kind of deflate. So that was what I jumped onto, was writing short stories. It kind of seemed like a good compromise between some of the poetry I had been doing and the daunting prospect of novellas, which I don’t think I’ll ever get into. I salute everyone who can.


William

I definitely relate, because early on for the Hallowoods, one of the questions was, I could do this as a bunch of like, online stories and put them out onto the internet, but I feel like only a couple people would be interested in like, checking the blog every couple of weeks to pick up new bits of the story.


Rat

Right.


William

When did it kind of cross your horizon that instead of putting it out in a print sense, you could put it out in a podcast sense?


Rat

Right. One thing before that, I did just remember, another one that subconsciously influenced me - John Dies At The End? That was a very like, weird fiction, written by one of the heads of Cracked at the time? But it was an online, serialized, sort of horror story. And I was like, that’s cool. Then I kind of filed it away for ten years, and just thinking about it now, thinking about like getting people to read online fiction, that’s one of the few that I can think of that worked. And like, he was able to sell it.


So, there was that. But in terms of how to, how I decided to do a podcast, it’s very funny and humiliating. So I’ve done music, I was in bands in high school, I’ve played guitar since like 2007, 2006 or something? So I had some recording equipment, I had some editing experience with audio, and I heard or saw people posting about The Magnus Archives, never listened to a fiction podcast before in my life, listened to one episode of it, the first episode. And I was like, that’s really cool. I’m not gonna listen to any more, because I’m gonna do that.


So then I just, I was like, I gotta jump into this. Let’s just do it. Let’s see what we can do here. It seemed like such a good combination of all the things that I like to do. I’m not so big on narrating, and I’m really not big on acting, I really don’t like to do it if I can help it. But you know, it’s like, I don’t have anybody else, so I have to do it. But it combines - I could make my own music, make my own like ambient tracks, which I love to do and love to listen to, and writing short horror stories that people might actually tune in to. Because it’s already got kind of a built-in indie ecosystem, whereas online short story publishing does not unless again, you have an ‘in’.


So I heard one episode of Magnus Archives and thought, that’s so cool that I’m going to do it now.


William

Many of us, when confronted with the prospect of making a show, it’s like, I’ve never made a show before, I don’t have any contacts, I’m gonna just do it all myself. And sort of like, narrate everything myself, and do it all as a one-person show. But if I’m not mistaken, does Dead Letter Office of Somewhere Ohio have a voice cast?


Rat

Occasionally? Rarely? I did pretty much all of it, and then Jesse Syratt from Nowhere, On Air is in a couple episodes as like a secondary character. I got Nathan from The Storage Papers in like one episode I think. But it was generally just, I didn’t know anybody. You know? At first. And so, then Dylan from Woe.Begon saw my show and was like, hey, Dead Letter Office, that’s funny, I like R.E.M., do you wanna join our group chat? And I was like, yeah, cool, sure!


And that’s how I kind of got introduced to some people. And then after you know, being in a group chat, was able to kind of be like ‘hey, does anyone want to do like ten lines for this episode?’ Because I was really nervous about, will anyone want to do this? Like, is it good enough to have these other people that have been established join it? And of course, everyone is so kind that they were, I got multiple people volunteering.


William

That’s one of the things I’ve been… I don’t want to say surprised by, but I definitely don’t take it for granted that when you step into the podcasting space, as it exists right now, it’s a very welcoming space. And a lot of people are really willing to be a guest on your show, to play a bit part for an episode, to work with you on things. There’s a lot of collaboration within these circles.


And what’s also funny to me, and I think one of the reasons I think this space is so special, is that once you get into one show, then you realize like, oh. That voice is Nathan, who has a different show. Let me go check that out. Or I recognize this actor, who’s been on this thing. Let me go check that out. So people kind of often have these organic throughlines to go check out other shows because we are so interconnected as a group.


Rat

Yeah. That certainly helped establish a small audience. I think another part of that is a little sad, but it’s because there’s such a massive bifurcation in success. You have, a lot of these indie podcasts are doing pretty well, you can support yourself, but you’re not making you know. Like rich person money. Unless you’re one of the top ten podcasters. So everyone else outside of like, the top ten, is more or less kind of in a similar bucket. The poor person bucket. You know, it’s like, the massive wealth inequality reflected even more so in podcasting than in a lot of other mediums.


William

It is. And I would go so far as to say, like, I think if you’re looking at the top podcasts in the horror fiction space, we’ve really got like a top five.


Rat

Yeah.


William

That’s like, there is this like pretty steep drop-off. Even some of the shows that are the most like, talked-about or the most, really like making a splash within fan conversations right now, the creators often still work a day job. Because there’s not a way to monetize it, or they haven’t achieved like, the massive success required to actually make a living in podcasting. Which is so interesting to me. Now a lot of your horror, at least from the two shows that you’ve worked on so far, there’s a certain corporate element to it? Have you had a really bad experience at a corporate job that sort of inspired a lifetime of loathing?


Rat

Kind of. I worked at Walmart one summer. The worst thing I’ve ever done. I no-showed, no-called, that’s how I quit, because it was so disrespectful of everyone’s time and effort. I knew a guy who like, injured his back on the job, and got fired the next day. And then my car broke down, half a year later, and in the middle of the road in this relatively small town I grew up in, thirty thousand people, during college season. Someone came out and helped me push my car to the side, and it was the dude who hurt his back at Walmart who got fired. He had no memory of who I was, he was just such a nice guy that he like, saw me trying and came and pushed my car.


So, that certainly didn’t help. But outside of that, it’s kind of a lot more just taking what the system we have now is, and just kind of looking at it as a… it’s so absurd. And so I’ve worked for the state for a long time now, and that is not really corporate, it’s a lot more laid back, a lot lower pay generally. But it’s, the corporate structure and culture is so alien to anyone who’s not in it. It’s just as if these people… at Walmart, there is not a chance in hell that I would meet the person who runs it. Like no way, no possible way. I think one time I met like, a regional guy.


And it’s like, the people at the top might as well not, like, you know. They’re a different species by that point. The amount of wealth and power they have is unreal, and should not exist, but you know, that’s its own point. But like, they’re so separated, it’s such a strange world. And there have been some other kind of corporate horror-y stuff, you can get into some of the like, Kafka stuff and as problematic as Terry Gilliam might be, you have things like Brazil that kind of touch on that a bit. Kind of, they show the absurdity but not so much the soul-grinding horror that happens. So. Maybe not personally, I haven’t had that experience so much, but just seeing it gets me so mad.


William

Kind of where along the journey did the spark for the Dead Letter Office begin? And I know you’ve continued it with the Department of Variance, and sort of looking at a different institution in the same world, but. Where was the point where you were like, I’ve done a bunch of short stories, and this is what I’m going to do a series about?


Rat

Sure. Well for my first show, I was like, you gotta have a framing device right? You can’t just tell a story.


William

*laughs*

That’s where it begins.


Rat

So I was like, alright. I need someone who’s going to be reading or listening or you know, some kind of archiving thing. And I was like, how can I do that that’s maybe even kind of original, kind of like, not been done a ton of times. And I thought like, well, the Dead Letter Office in general is such an interesting thing. And mysterious in itself, from the outside.


From the inside it’s like, here’s a room with a bunch of mail we couldn’t deliver, but your first time hearing about you’re like, ‘why do they call it that? Like what is this?’ and I thought, well it would be really funny if they put the things that they can’t show or deliver to people because it’s supernatural. So they put them there. And so first it was pretty just, simple framing, I was like it’s just a guy in a post office reading these things.


And then as it went along I got very bored of the framing device very quickly, and was like, okay we’ve gotta have something else going on here. And I just thought of, what are the things I’d like to see in media? And a lot of that is social critique, and like, cultural criticism, and I was like, what’s the number one thing I’d love to tear apart here? And that is the power structures of corporations and government, generally.


William

I don’t know, I think it’s a wonderful thing when a storyteller finds the theme that really moves them, that they really want to share. Because I think that’s the moment when a story about someone who works in an office reading spooky stories to the microphone becomes a story about something more, a story that gets to say something more.


Rat

Right.


William

And then you’ve moved on since Dead Letter Office to the new series, Department of Variance. What was it that kind of went unsaid from the first series that you wanted to put into the second one? And did you bring anything with you, like any knowledge that you’d gained from the first one that you were like, okay. We did it this way the first series around, this time we’ve got to do some things a little bit different.


Rat

Absolutely. The biggest one is to finish writing a season before you start producing it. Not everyone does that, but for me it made it so much less stressful. I did some video essays years ago, like four of them, and the process of doing that was so stressful and impossible it seemed, to keep up any kind of schedule. And then I kind of put myself in the same thing, with I’ll write one story, and then next week I’ll have another one written and recorded, we’ll just do that.


And by the end I was like, okay the next episode comes out in a month, see ya. So I’m getting it all written first, and now I’m going to record and score and do everything first and release it; it makes the work up front a little harder, but it makes the promotion so much easier, because you’re not also recording and also writing and all of that. I also really wanted to just get rid of a framing device, just like, have the story happen. And what I really wanted to see was, can I just write a cool sci-fi story? Can I just do it without all of these weird contrivances and all of this, can I just put out a, for me a straightforward sci-fi story, and make it work?


So I really wanted to just, I came up with a simple, sort of simple framing of. One character is in a building that’s locked down, the other one is on a different floor, they have a radio, they’ve gotta get out. Can I make that something?


I felt like I could connect it, in a similar world to the first series, and there’s a lot more you can explore in a kind of surreal sci-fi horror setting. It would be a waste to at least not have some vague connections with all this other weirdness going on. And there’s a lot that I would like to have happen here in the next few seasons that, we’ll see. We’ll see some interesting things happening. That did not get said in the Dead Letter Office.


William

That is the interesting thing as well, because Dead Letter Office was one season, but Department of Variance is planned for multiple seasons…


Rat

I’m hoping three.


William

The first one being out and then two on the way, do you think you’ll do other Somewhere, Ohio shows after Department of Variance? Or will you kind of be done with the setting at that point?


Rat

We’ll see. It really depends on how burnt out I am by the end. If I don’t want to do any more, I might just quit the scene altogether. I might just fly off and do something else. I’ve done that with so many other things. But this has been so fun, and the community is so welcoming and like supportive that it would be hard to just walk away entirely. So I’ll probably… I mean, it’s kind of cool to have this setting that’s not like, a specific multiverse or anything. It’s just a setting, basically. So if I make another thing it’s very possible it will be in the same setting probably vaguely connected. Just like, before.


William

Is there anything of real life Ohio that you really wanted to bake into Somewhere, Ohio? Because a lot of horror shows existing in sort of a nebulous Townsville. Is there anything about the actual state that you’ve kind of baked into the story?


Rat

Yeah definitely. In Department of Variance, that isn’t really coming to the fore quite yet, since everything’s just been happening in an office building, and office buildings country-wide are pretty similar. That will be coming out here more in seasons two and three. But in the Dead Letter Office, a lot of America, you know? It’s like, Ohio is such a strange place to be. It’s so flat, it’s so far from, I guess if you’re up north you’re kind of close to Eerie, but you’re so far from water. You’re so far from the ocean. From anywhere else.


And the people there vacillate between some of the nicest people you’ve ever met and people you would never want to speak to in your life. There are, you can go to an antique store and see some very nice old folks, and then some that are giving you like, death glares. And it really kind of represents a lot of America’s divides itself. Especially as things keep spreading apart between urban and rural. Ohio’s got such a mashup of those two; we’ve got some pretty big cities, and then the rest of it is like complete farmland basically.


You’ve got Cleveland, you’ve got Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, and then a little smaller than that we’ve got like Akron. But like, Columbus has the metro population of like 800,000, and it generally in a lot of places just feels like any other medium to large city. And then you go ten minutes outside and you’re in the worst suburb you’ve ever seen. And everyone there wants you out of the state. So it’s just, it’s such a weird place to be.


And the state government is very bad. And heavily gerrymandered so everyone, like, I would say the population is like 55-45 on a political spectrum, but the government is so lopsided that most people don’t have a say at all. It’s barely representative. And so in the Dead Letter Office, I really wanted to, some of the episodes I’m pretty explicit about it, like. The state itself kind of drains you a lot of the time. It’s so exhausting to be under constant attack. You know? Even if it’s like, metaphorical or psychic attack and not literal. The literal does happen, but. To just be constantly reminded, like, outside of your city people don’t want you there. It’s wild.


And I’m sure there are plenty of other places like that, you know, Indiana’s right next door and woof. I would not want to be in Indiana. It’s just such a unique place. And it use to be kind of the Bellweather, they would say, the way that Ohio voted would kind of determine the way the country was feeling, because it was such a representative of city and farm life. But uh. Now that’s gotten a little more vicious. So.


William

And so, yeah. It’s an interesting landscape to kind of set the story, which is itself about divides, in power, and resources. I definitely had to mention Toledo in the road trip season for the Hallowoods, just because it’s so strange to be just completely out in the middle of nowhere, there’s a highway, trees, like, empty grasslands, and then ten minutes later the outskirts of a shambled city, and then five minutes after that you’re in skyrises.


Rat

Yeah. And part of that is that so many of our cities were hollowed out by corporations and manufacturing just leaving. Like, Youngstown used to be a pretty big deal, it had like a whole steel industry. And then they just left. So all that’s left there is, it’s similar to Toledo although Toledo has a bit more revitalization going on. The good kind of revitalization going on, where there’s like a lot of independent art and stuff flourishing. But outside of that it’s like, houses people couldn’t afford anymore abandoned, it’s like mills and industry just left there to rot. So yeah, you’re like in a cornfield, or soy field, and then two minutes later you’re like, there’s houses around and maybe some silos or something, and then ten minutes and you’re in the middle of a city. And it looks nothing like the surrounding area. So. It’s interesting.


William

Has there been any sort of story concept that you’ve dreamed up but has been kind of too weird to execute so far?


Rat

Definitely. One thing I did as like a bonus for the Dead Letter Office was a really short kinetic novel, it’s like there’s no choices, it’s just a little visual novel thing. And that was so much fun. I’d wanna do more, but it’s very time-consuming, very difficult, I know zero programming, I don’t know any game design work. But what I did in that is use a lot of pseudo-religious and kind of numinous imagery and language. And play with that a lot. And I sort of went into that a bit at the end of Dead Letter Office as well, is this sort of pseudo-religious imagery.


I’m not religious myself, never really have been, not to be a Reddit Atheist or anything but I’m an Atheist. I think everyone can have their belief, it’s cool, I don’t really care, but Ohio is so religious. Like, especially outside of cities. And it’s held with such reverence and such strangeness. It’s so weird. Like, especially the different sects of Christianity that you have. You go forty miles south and you’re in southern baptist country, and that is a totally different world from like, the protestant country up north and like, it’s so wild. And I just think that the language used around that is so interesting. And so fun to twist.


And so I’m going to be doing more of that in the future. But have not really done that in the first season of Department of Variance yet. Like I said, I just kinda wanted to see, can I just make a story without messing with any of that? So. But that will be coming.


William

There was a quote which I’m going to paraphrase from one of the monologues in the last episode of Dead Letter Office, which I was I believe something like, ‘the moral arc of this world doesn’t bend toward anything’. And there’s some really poetic stuff in that last episode. But that stuck out to me especially. As you finish the first story and then have gone into writing Season One of Department, and then you’re writing more seasons now. Are you coming across any themes in your own writing that you’re like, huh! I didn’t realize it before but I seem to enjoy talking about this particular thing.


Rat

Yeah, there’s a couple, especially images that I find really striking. A giant hand falling from the sky. It’s, I used it, I ripped it off of Fooly Cooly, the anime, and there’s this giant hand that picks up an iron. And I was like, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, when I was like fourteen. So that’s just kind of stuck with me. And it’s so, it’s something that’s so absurd. If you saw it in real life, it’s like. That isn’t, that’s not happening.


You know if I see like Godzilla or something, I can at least conceptualize that, and be like wow, this sucks but I get it. But a giant disembodied hand is like, it’s just on the one hand it’s so strange, on the other hand it’s so familiar. It’s very uncanny in like the freudian sense. That it’s like, that’s a hand, but what the hell is it doing?


And I think a lot of uncanny stuff is what I find myself interested in. There’s like, episodes where a guy finds a mannequin that ends up looking like him and taking his place essentially, there’s the mimics in Department of Variance that it’s hinted they will take your memories and replace you, and all of that is just this uncanny feeling, and that is what usually gets to me in horror, and it’s like. There are very few things that scare me anymore, not to sound like a badass, I’m not, I’m a chicken. Horror games I cannot do. I play for two minutes and I can’t. But movies, it takes a lot.


Twin Peaks: The Return, scared the hell out of me. Mulholland Drive as well, two David Lynch projects. And it’s because of the sound design partly, and partly just the uncanny experience of it, where it’s so close to being normal and it’s not.


William

There’s a really fine line between absurdity and horror, and what could almost be an absurd or comedic image of a gigantic hand falling out of the sky, can also be a truly horrifying sort of eldritch thing in that you don’t have a frame of reference for that. Or a way to like, interpret that in a way that makes sense. I feel like for a lot of our audiences, and especially because most of us are writing for a horror ecosystem where people who are listening to your show have also listened to a couple of other shows, a lot of our traditional bones of horror become less scary.


Rat

Mhm.


William

And like, the more horror that you watch, the more it’s like, oh. I understand. This is just a space monster. And you know, it has some feeding habits that are a little offensive to people, and it has a strange life cycle and it reproduces, that’s a cool sort of biological creature. And like the scariness of it disappears as you begin to understand it.


Rat

Right.


William

And so I think it’s really interesting to explore this sort of abstract space where these things that maybe would not be traditionally frightening or would be too bizarre to be considered frightening, when you actually stop to think about them seriously for a moment, are actually deeply terrifying creations.


Rat

Right. You said like the line between absurdity and horror, I love to ride that line. It’s like, half the people will laugh at this, half of them will be so uncomfortable, and I love that. I really don’t mind if I get a 50-50 split. I kind of love it actually.


William

Although you mentioned some inspirations like Kafka and such, I think there’s still not a lot of stories that I would put in this unique space of ‘office related supernatural horror’. Especially given that you’ve mentioned that your work often comes back to the divides between the real and the surreal, the privileged and the unprivileged, and those are divides that we are also in our daily lives right now really confronting with more than ever before I think.


Rat

Right. Yeah. It’s just, I find it’s so captivating, the fiction that’s starting to pop up that is a lot more focused on this weirdness. This divide, and the absurdity. So.


William

Is there any like, confused feedback that you’ve gotten over making these stories? Because it’s at times I think a difficult genre for people to parse.


Rat

Right. Yeah. Myself personally, and I’ve seen others will get, whether it’s reviews, comments, whatever that things don’t really make sense. And I think that that is extremely unhelpful in a lot of ways. And I think that that kind of coincides with, this is kind of a personal pet peeve I guess, the wikification of media. And the need to make it all understandable lore. And have it all connect together, you know.


I love some good lore, I love Bloodborne, one of my favorite games, it’s all lore, but I don’t think that everything needs to be understood and needs to be a logical plot step or a logical, or even necessarily in-character decision. Like, we all make such… humans are not logical in any way to me. And we make such strange decisions all the time. Even to ourselves. Especially under capitalism, we’re so alienated from everything including ourselves that like. I couldn’t wikify myself, why should I do it for a plot?


So that also is a lot of the advice kind of given with screenwriting, is, partly that’s just because that’s what gets sold, because if you don’t have these steps in the script no one will buy it, but also just because that seems to be what is desired by studios and by some audiences. Is to have this sort of rigid structure or these understandable plot beats and things. And I don’t think that’s very helpful to think about when you’re writing. You need to think about one, what’s the feeling you wanna convey?


Who, what audience are you targeting? And like, just do what you want to do. If people don’t get it, that’s fine. You’re probably not going to be come a millionaire, whether people get it or not, so just. We have such limited time here, do what you wanna do. Don’t worry about whether, you know, the Dark Night of the Soul appears on Page 20 of your script. It can be useful, but trying to follow that will lead you to formulaic content goo.


William

It’s very true. And also, I think, the purpose is sometimes fundamentally misunderstood? Because a lot - and initially, when I was trying to learn how to write better, I would consult these writing websites and they would tell you oh, here’s the three act plot structure. The journey through the door at the 25% percent mark and the moment of truth at the 50% mark and the darkest hour at the 75% mark.


And A., I was endlessly fascinated because I would start watching movies and pause it halfway through and be like, oh, this is where the moment of truth happens, don’t you know.


Rat

Yeah. It’s like seeing the matrix code. It’s like, you know and it’s so hard to go back. But that’s why I love so many things that just completely ignore that, and have like the worst pacing you’ve ever seen. Sometimes I love that. Sometimes I can’t stand it, but it’s like. There’s no arcs at all here, what’s going on? And I’m like yes. Inland Empire, another David Lynch movie, a lot of people really hate. Because it’s three hours long, it’s meandering, it doesn’t make sense, all of this, and I’m like. I love it. It’s so weird.


William

There’s a movie that I caught on a plane flight, in that sort of dark, ill-lit, sleep-deprived portion of eight hours where you’re just stuck in a metal tube. And it was a film called ‘A Ghost Story’.


Rat

Oh yeah.


William

And ‘A Ghost Story’ is very quiet. Some would say it’s criminally boring. It’s very long. There’s a lot of shots that are just static, people move around a room while someone draped in a sheet as a ghost stands in the corner. And there is a almost five minute long sequence of a woman eating pie in a hallway.


Rat

Right.


William

And you don’t realize how long five minutes is until you’ve watched someone eat pie for five minutes. But, I found the film so ethereal, and so beautiful. And even in the pie scene, you watch and this woman acts out the five stages of grief as she eats this pie. By the end of her pie, she, you can tell on her face that she has gone through grieving this character who has died, and she has kind of come to terms, and she moves on with her life, and that’s the point of the pie scene. And I love to see when people try to push the limit of what seems feasible or what seems possible when it comes to their storytelling. And if you want to like, tell us about the grieving process of this character through a pie eating sequence, I think there’s a way to do that that is quite powerful.


Rat

Yeah, and for me that extends to so many other things too. Like I really like drone and ambient music, and like, I don’t listen to it all the time, but especially writing like a thirty minute long piece that has like occasional crescendoes and stuff, but doesn’t have a traditional song structure. I usually love that.


William

You’d mentioned that one of the things that people should prioritize when writing their stories or their shows is the feeling they want to convey over whether it hits all of the narrative plot beats of the traditional act. What do you want people to feel as they walk away from Department of Variance?


Rat

Season one of Department of Variance, I want them to feel mildly triumphant and then gut-punched. The arc of the series will overall I feel like, the feeling will be like confused, bittersweetness? Dead Letter Office I wanted a drop in the stomach, and that’s what you leave with. Because I think having a bleak ending can be good. But I don’t want it in everything I do. I think one of the major feelings I want people to feel with Season One of Department of Variance so far is, I love the feeling of getting to know characters in a hard situation, which is pretty common to a lot of things, but that’s kind of what I’ve prioritized in a lot of writing of the scenes.


Is like, how can we show some character off here? How can we show some little quirks going on? So the first season I really just want people to kind of feel, build a kind of fictional relationship with these people, the way you do in any media that you end up really liking. Spend some time with them, feel a little scared but it’s not too scary. I don’t want to say it’s like, comfortable or cozy horror, but I’m not really pushing too many horror buttons with that.


Season Two will have a bit more of that. But generally just like, mild unease? And kinship with bad times. To feel like you’re not alone when things go bad, essentially, is what we’re looking at here. The office is trying to kill you, and you don’t have anyone around you, but you have someone on the line who doesn’t like you at first, but you’re both in it together. Even if you don’t like eachother, you’ve got to deal with it, and get out somehow.


William

Do you hope in any way that this podcast could be the person on the end of the line for someone else?


Rat

I really hope so. I mean like, whenever I make anything, my hope is that one person finds it impactful. And that’s really literally all I care about. I don’t do this as a job, I can’t care about keeping an audience or making money. That’s not gonna happen. I make a very small amount on Patreon, not nearly enough to support myself let alone a whole cast. So like, I just, if one person it impacts, then it influences them, especially if it makes them go make something.


Like, I don’t care if they even rip me off. Do it. I have such, unless they start trying to call it ‘my thing’ and say I… as long as they’re not misrepresenting me and my stuff, then rip me off, do it all you want. I do it all the time. I would hope that the things I write, my biggest dream and the greatest happiness I get is when people tell me how it’s affected them, in some way. Even if they hate it. And it inspires them to go make something cooler, that is so cool. Do that please.


William

You’d mentioned the wikification of podcasts. And this is I think something that has really been popularized with the idea of the ‘red string board’, and the idea that every plot point you get goes on the board, it’ll all be relevant later, it’s all connected, there’s always an explanation that we’re waiting to find for everything that seems horrific or nightmarish within the show.


At the same time though, if you explain the absurd too much, it’s no longer absurd, and it’s just sort of another thing that exists within the world. Do you ever find yourself at odds when it comes to maintaining the absurdity versus giving people that stuff to fan theorize about and try to put the pieces together?


Rat

Oh absolutely. Every time I’m writing something. Because I myself love it when something casually mentioned long ago comes back up. But I don’t like it when that becomes the formula, when that’s what you expect. Because then it doesn’t work anymore. So you know, if a character gets mentioned in Episode 2 and comes back in Episode 40, I usually love that, but if that’s the whole thing, then I get very tired of it.


So I am constantly, it’d be really cool to do a callback to this and have this plot point come back up, and I have to tell myself not everything needs to be explained, I don’t have to tell them how this creature got here and how these people’s pasts came together. There will be some of it. I can’t help it. There will be some things like that, there will be lore and clues and things to piece together because I think that’s just fun. But I do try to make some things not make sense, and never make sense. So. We’ll see if I can stick to that myself.


*an ominous bell rings as we go into the Skull Question*


William, narratorly

A man in a rumpled grey suit steps through a paper-strewn office, flickering fluorescent lights burning in the darkness above. He approaches a photocopier which is spewing papers out into the air. On each sheet is a picture and a word. The picture is of the skull of Rat Grimes. What wisdom do the words spell?


Rat

Let yourself be bored.


And if I may expound on that for a moment, it’s advice I heard from Mike Rugnetta, who ran Idea Channel, Ideas Channel for PBS and does like, Fun City Ventures, is I think the podcast name. And it’s shared by some others as well. I find myself wanting to have stimulus and entertainment all the time, and I do it way too often. But if you’re struggling, or you want a good idea, just like sit in a room. Don’t read, don’t watch anything, don’t listen to anything, let your mind hate itself and try to entertain itself. And you’ll probably have some interesting thoughts.


I would bet it’s similar to what some people can get out of like, it’s not what everyone gets, but what some people might get out of certain kinds of meditation. Is to kind of make yourself cut off from all outside forces, as much as you can. And let yourself come up with something. Because if you sit there for fifteen minutes, with no stimulation, no entertainment, you’ll probably be fine, but you might have some interesting ideas. Or like, there was a time in Dead Letter Office Season One where I was struggling to find new ideas for episodes, and I shut off my music, I shut off the computer, and just stared at the wall for about fifteen minutes, and let things turn around in my head.


I’m like, okay like, what if there was a guy on a fishing boat, and he’s fishing and he gets like a monster, no, that’s no good, throw it out, crumple it, throw it away. Um, what if he’s fishing and the scene isn’t real, it’s a play on a stage? There we go, how do we. How do we continue from there. And it’s something I’ve seen in writing advice is like, similar to fishing. Is you’re going to be sitting there very bored for a long time, but you might catch a really good idea on the end of that. So I think that is something that I struggle with, but I think is very important and when I do it, it works. So.


William

That I think is wonderful advice. And I think, I often find that I’m not bored by media, I find that even in the sense that you’re a quiet landscape and there’s fog and birds and wind in the grass to enjoy, even in things that are very dreamy or very slow, there’s something to admire about why they chose to make it that way and what feeling it’s trying to convey.


Rat

Mhm.


William

And I think it’s, yeah. It’s so important. Both as a consumer of media and as a writer to let yourself be bored. I love that. Thank you so much for coming to talk with me today Rat.


Rat

Yeah, thank you for having me on this fun little program.


*credit music plays*


Credits

Rat Grimes produces the Somewhere, Ohio family of midwestern horror podcasts, including the Dead Letter Office of Somewhere Ohio and the Department of Variance of Somewhere, Ohio. You can find their shows at somewhereohio.com, or find them in the social media spaces at @RatGrimes.


Hello From The Hallowoods is produced by William A. Wellman. That’s me. For first access to new Skull Sessions with other voices in the horror podcasting space, look to the Hallowoods patreon at patreon.com/hallowoods.






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