It’s near midnight when I make the conference call to Glenn McQuaid and Larry Fessenden. Outside I can hear early Halloween revelers making their way home - shouts, laughter, a distant scream. McQuaid is the writer and director of I Sell the Dead, which starred Indie King of Horror, Fessenden – who has been making horror films as an actor, writer, producer and director since 1985, when he set-up his company Glass Eye Pix.
The line crackles, then a faint casual tone. It’s answered, and there’s something of the séance about their voices – distant, ghostly, far off – as they come through. Eventually ‘Hello,’ Glenn’s soft Irish lilt, and we greet each other through a deafening roar. ‘Like a hurricane’ one of us says. ‘Better try again.’ This time we’re clear, and in the room.
Since 2010, McQuaid and Fessenden have been scaring the bejesus out of listeners, with their anthology radio series of top drawer horror stories called Tales from Beyond the Pale. Recorded live in front of an audience at a New York theater, Tales… brought the magnificent acting skills of Vincent D’Onofrio, Angus Scrimm, Ron Perlman, and James Le Gros, together with the writing talents of Fessenden (who also acted in certain shows), McQuaid, Graham Reznick, Ashley Thorpe, Paul Solet, J. T. Petty, Sarah Langan and Jeff Buhler. These tales of mystery and imagination varied from science fiction (“This Oracle Moon”) to fantasy and horror (“Trawler”, “Hole Digger”, “The Demon Huntsman”, “The Conformation”), and were an instant success.
The original idea for the series came to Glenn, when he and Larry were driving upstate, listening to an old Boris Karloff broadcast.
Glenn McQuaid: ‘Larry and I were driving up to the set of Jim Nichols’ movie, which Larry produced, and we were listening to an old Boris Karloff radio play. The rain started down and we found we were enrapt by this old time radio drama. And I just turned to Larry and started proposing the idea - that this was something that Glass Eye Pix could get behind, and we both talked about it.
‘A coupe of months later, we started to take the idea seriously. It came out of a desire to get a lot more of our own content out there. Initially we had treatments and outlines for projects that had been sitting around too long, and we thought this would be a good platform to get our own work out there, as well as the work of all our friends and collaborators - people like Paul Solet and Jeff Buhler. It was a desire to keep working to keep getting ideas out there, and I think it was very tempting for Larry and I to try something, which was essentially new for us at the time.
‘Basically, the project grew out of a desire to get stuff out there from ourselves, but almost more importantly from other people and step in as curators in a way, and design the anthologies. We reached out to people we’ve either worked with before, or had met and have enjoyed their work.
‘For instance, I met Paul Solet while I was showing I Sell the Dead and he was showing Grace at Fright Fest Presents… in Glasgow, and we just got on well together. When we started shifting gears with Tales from Beyond the Pale, I started reaching out to Paul Solet, Jeff Buhler - he’s another film-maker that I like, and similarly Larry reached out to a few folks he was intrigued by.’
Larry Fessenden: ‘Yeah, we hooked up with Simon Lumley, who I’d never met, I think you met him. Simon Barrett as well, who Glenn and I have both worked with, I was in Simon’s film You’re Next, and Glenn worked with him on V/H/S.
‘It’s really expanding the community, which is the other agenda, something I’ve always tried to do. It’s my theory that if there is enough of us in the same boat, then maybe we can all rise up together and take over Tinsel Town.’
Sean Young starring in McQuaid’s ‘The Crush’.
Fessenden, whose company Glass Eye Pix produces Tales…, is a legendary figure in horror world, and he is a multi-award-winning writer and director of such art-horror films as No Telling, Habit, Wendigo and The Last Winter.
As a film-maker Fessenden has always been aware of the importance of using sound to create tension, reveal narrative and manipulate the audience, all which has was to creating Tales….
Larry Fessenden: ‘We find that obviously to produce a radio show, you don’t have to rent the cameras, you’re focusing on sound and we’ve actually always treated sound with great reverence in the Glass Eye Pix little studio.
‘Ti West, myself, Graham Reznik, Glenn’s movies, we’ve all known the benefit of a good sound track. We used to say, you have one picture, and you’ll have 40 different tracks of sound in any film, and that’s where the audience is being manipulated and engaged. So, that’s an exciting part, taking that single picture away and just really focusing on how to tell stories.’
There’s nothing old fashioned about the way Fessenden and McQuaid create their radio shows. Their approach is modern, clever, and powerfully asserts the story-telling through sound.
Larry Fessenden: ‘The trend nowadays with CGI, and the appetite for more and more gore, takes literalness out of the equation and allows the audience to build a picture again as they used to. The imagination can conjure up more terrifying things than all of our visual special effects crews. So, that’s certainly of interest and that’s what gives us a sense that we can keep trying to push this envelope and keep trying to get film makers involved in the experiment.’
Glenn McQuaid: ‘It’s been interesting to see even younger members of the audience really get what we’re doing and appreciate it. You know, we’re all kind-of-long-in-the-tooth, and we’ve been watching movies pre-CGI and pre-the-idea-of-showing-absolutely-everything, that’s kind of the passion.
‘When we chat with some of the audience, some of the younger audience, they’re digging this for the first time, letting their imagination run absolute riot, as they would when reading a book.’
Tales from Beyond the Pale returned for a second series this October, with McQuaid, Fessenden and their troupe of actors producing 8 new shows over 4 weeks. 2 shows were recorded every Tuesday night, in front an audience at the Dixon Theater in New York.
The writers this season included Kim Newman, author of the Anno Dracula series, Joe Maggio, Simon Barrett as well as Fessenden and McQuaid.
Writers are asked to submit 3 or 4 very rough outlines, from which Glenn and Larry choose the best or “most appropriate” one. From this they then begin to make the decisions as to how best the stories will sit in the series.
Glenn McQuaid: ‘I think as we gather the material, it kind of depends on how far into the process you’ve applied to with stories. For instance, if we’ve got 3 or 4 already in, we’ll sense we’re maybe needing a monster script, or there’s a lack of something pulpy, or you know, something more overtly like a science fiction piece, and so on.
‘I think with Tales…, it’s strength is that with each piece you’re off to a different environment, and environments have really been important to us -transporting the listener to extremely different and bold locations has always been important to me anyway. That coupled with the desire to have an eclectic mix at the end of the day is what, at least, drives me.’
Larry Fessendedn with loud hailer, Sean Young, and Glenn McQuaid directing ‘The Crush’.
Larry Fessenden: ‘It is funny, I think that Glenn and I have more curatorial oversight than we even admit. We like to think it’s a free-for-all and that we only take people’s ideas, but I think we actually have strong opinions about horror and how the tales fit together.
‘We’re from very similar backgrounds, so very often if there’s 3 tales, we’ve very often seized on the same one we like. That is obviously just the compatibility of collaborators, so we’ve been able to ask them to make adjustments.
‘Also, we’ve had readings weeks before and that’s allowed us to actually hear them and to give advice if the directors aren’t in town. We can advise them as to how it went over. The idea is that it’s not a long drawn-out painful process like the development of a film can often be.’
Tales from Beyond the Pale also offers Larry, Glenn and the writers the opportunity to create a strong taster for possible movie scenarios and “trying to reclaim some little portion of audience’s minds with original content rather than the big blockbuster mentality that’s out there.”
Larry Fessenden: ‘I think that Glenn and me just want to build a body of work. I feel like even a second season of Tales… makes people want to revisit the first season, and so much of this has to do with sitting back in the old chair when you’re ancient and saying, ‘O, yeah, we did a good run of that.’ (And some of us are heading that way sooner rather than later.)
‘That’s why we like anthologies, they seem to speak to each other and enhance each other as they go along, and maybe things will refine themselves as time goes on. We’ve often thought that these are a very nice way to present story. Ideas that can be turned into movies. We hardly do it to entice our collaborators, but we suggest to people with a nice half hour radio show, why not show that to an executive rather than have them listen to a pitch?’
Glenn McQuaid: ‘For me, it’s tremendously exciting to be doing theater, to be back on stage, to be doing something in front of an audience and to be doing live foley and live sound design. And to have your troupe of actors and then have people like Sean Young and James Le Gros and Mark Margolis to come into the mix and Vincent D’Onofrio, and just to do all of that live is terrifying and thrilling and exhausting and huge.’
Larry Fessenden: ‘It’s always fun to see people come in and be surprised. John one of our sound designers, he didn’t tell his brother that Sean Young was going to be there and his brother’s favorite movie is Blade Runner, and apparently the brother was blown away.’
Glenn McQuaid: ‘At the end of the evening, once everything’s been done, and you hear that applause, for me, it’s been a huge triumph.
‘I think, in a way, good luck follows hard work, and everyone has worked so hard to get these off the ground.’
Each episode of Tales… includes its own specially commissioned art works, which have become integral part to the series.
Glenn McQuaid: ‘Larry and I share a great passion for, the Art of Horror, and the illustration of the movies, and the books and comics that we all grew-up with. I think also that was a big reason why we became so excited with the idea of radio play. You can basically disguise the limits and use your imagination to take these tales absolutely anywhere - whether it’s on an old trawler, or a space ship, or a different planet or whatever. So, it was fun inviting Gary Pullin and Brahm Revel and Ashley Thorpe to illustrate some of those worlds for us. ‘
Larry Fessenden: ‘Just like when you were a kid and you looked at a record cover over and over while you listened, similarly we create one image for each tale that hopefully invites the audience to check in and sort of languish over as you’re listening.’
Next up for McQuaid and Fessenden is a follow-up to I Sell the Dead, for which McQuaid has already written a 200-page scriptInspired by the Great Train Robbery, Grimes and Blake are back, this time robbing corpses from a locomotive.
Larry Fessenden and Glenn McQuaid have a creative partnership that is changing the Horror genre and bringing together a whole generation of actors, writers and artists, who, for my money, are producing one of the best radio horror series yet recorded. And long may their partnership continue.Rising Star: An interview with Glenn McQuaid