I think perhaps that audiobooks have something of stigma attached. I can understand this – and to some extent agree with it. The narrator can get in the way of the narrative if he/she isn’t suitable for the title. It’s easy for the narrator to overdo (or understate) the story – in fact, it’s pretty hard to tell a good story verbally. And then there’s that nasty business of abridging – in my book, a euphemism for ‘chopping the heart out of’.
Real readers want real books, the way the writer intended.
Yet, storytelling has a long tradition; far longer than the printed word. It’s how stories were first handed down. If you’ve not been to a storytelling event, I very much recommend Festival at the Edge, a weekend of tales long and short, a little music and (if you’re like me) quite a bit of beer. Enjoying stories socially – and even interacting with the reader – can seem a little odd, but it’s remarkably enjoyable.
So in the end, I have to dismiss prejudice against the audiobook in the same way I do prejudice against the comic book. Just because it’s not printed prose, doesn’t mean it’s not a valid way to tell the tale.
And so, after that preamble, onto an audiobook I’ve just finished, Edgar Allan Poe – The Pit and the Pendulum.
I don’t often listen to audiobooks – I guess for the reasons stated above: I hate abridged content with a vengeance and I find that narrators want to showcase themselves and not the story. Not so with this audiobook.
And Poe – goodness, that’s hallowed ground. Poe is one of my favourite authors and, over one hundred and fifty years after his death, his style of writing can easily come across as hammy and pseudo-gothic in the wrong hands.
Add to that the choice of narrator – David Soul? Surely he’s a bit, well, lightweight?
My misgivings were entirely misplaced. Soul is the perfect narrator. I’m going to go out on a limb, too. If, like me, you were entranced by James Mason’s rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart, there’s a real worry that nothing will come close. But not only does Soul come close, in my book he entirely surpasses Mason. Soul’s voice may not be as distinctive as Mason’s but the reading is all the better for it – and it’s every bit as intense and expressive. Immediately after listening to Soul, I went back to the Mason recording and was surprised at how many places his reading is misjudged. Soul manages to hold back, just the right amount – and yet squeezes from each line exactly the right level of delivery. He does exactly what a great storyteller should do: fade just enough into the background so that his voice creates the pictures in your mind. He’s showcasing Poe, not himself. Each tale is a superb reading from end to end.
Each of the stories is delivered with equal skill: The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and Hop-Frog. And of course, the content is unabridged. Well, who would have the nerve to edit Poe?
Soul’s narration is underpinned by excellent music and sound effects. Director Barnaby Edwards has been responsible for plenty of full-cast audio plays; this experience shows when bringing into the narrative elements which don’t strictly belong there. Sound effects and music are there to support the narrator, not to overpower him. Some of this stuff is very subtly done – a wonderful experience when wearing headphones in the dark.
Clearly, this work has been directed by someone who isn’t just out to cash in on Poe: he understands his work and respects it thoroughly. It’s as much a labour of love as it is a commercial venture.
Is the release missing anything? I asked Barnaby Edwards about the lack of The Raven and he told me that a release of Poe’s poetry is on his mind. (You can follow Barnaby on Twitter as well as his audio company Textbook Stuff.)
If you love Poe do take some time to seek out this superb – and possibly definitive – retelling of some of Poe’s best tales. You won’t be disappointed. (If you love horror, you’ll also be pleased to note that Textbook Stuff has also released titles by MR James, Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker.)
The company is also using social funding to raise money to produce Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla. You can donate here to make this great project happen.