Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hammer Chillers: Sticks and Stones - AudioReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash

Something to chill the very air...

Many of us have experienced trolling at one time or another, the disturbing online abuse that can mark you, victimisation from an unknown who makes it his/ or her mission to post cruel remarks or threats for all to see, and otherwise make the whole online experience a deeply unpleasant one. Perhaps internet trolls are just as repulsive inwardly as their grotesque supernatural counterparts are outwardly? They are certainly the most foul of Earthly beings, a real-life horror experience...

Hammer Chillers latest offering, the fourth installment in this new and exciting audio anthology of spooky tales, touches upon this subject with the tale of Sam Pinker (played by Zoe Lister), a talent-show contestant, who starts to receive online threats from such a troll. Strange, seeing as the man in question, Neil Stanley (Alex Lowe), seems to have the perfect life - and a supportive wife in Val (Frog Stone). However, events take a rather sinister turn and before long there are deaths, and a greater mystery. Neil's obsession doesn't appear altogether... Human. Is there something else at work, or is Neil merely suffering from a psychological illness?

The opening five minutes of Sticks and Stones firmly focuses on a scene in the medieval period, as a woman is burned alive for being a witch. "The smell of consorting with the devil", as the stench of her flesh drifts among the cheering crowd. There are flies, a recurring theme. And in another scene, a mysterious attack by something from the dark - "What are you?!"

The link between this and the present-day setting with Neil's obsession could have been better realised, however. That said, even from the start, it is clear that the "something" must be old, angry and hungry. A rage?

As with all the other tales in this anthology of audio greats, Sticks and Stones is most definitely not for the young, with both language and content of these stories adult in nature. Fans of Hammer, Bafflegab, horror, drama, or audiobooks in general will no doubt relish in the various scenarios that are created via the mind of writer and comedian Robin Ince (Infinite Monkey Cage - BBC Radio 4 comedy series). While Val believes her husband to be busy "working" in the attic, Neil is, in fact, devoting every available minute of his life to trolling. Though his motives are not absolutely clear, the threats in his vile campaign do start to come true. And still the flies... Sam is encouraged to ignore the horrid online abuse but the whole affair is clearly getting to her emotionally. Even her work is being affected. "It's like the troll has got right in to my head," she says.

The climax to this tale is both fascinating (just me?) and sickening, and not something to hear without a strong stomach, as Neil's depravity reaches even darker limits. Fans of this drama will notice that the stars of Hammer Chiller's debut story The Box have returned for this outing, joined by Cicely Giddings.

So how to sum up Sticks and Stones? Words are indeed the most powerful of weapons, and what is said can encourage or destroy lives - even the burning of the witch resulted from gossip and social stigma. They are simply words but, in the case of trolling, without a face their impact can be hard to understand. Even with a face they are just as destructive. The anonymity of the troll encourages things to be said that may have never been repeated face to face, the computer a perfect camouflage. Of course, take this subject matter and sprinkle it with some Hammer and Bafflegab magic, and you are given a delicious example of both sanity and insanity, obsession and intimidation.

The world is the computer - nothing else outside of our screen is real! And in a society where social networking is common place, it is easy to be drawn in.

Fine performances from everyone. Lowe, in particular, as the unnerving Neil, whose single-mindedness could have led in almost any direction. With production values as high as this and with every tale to date, a second series of Hammer Chillers must be on the cards? Audio at its finest! The best horror is that which takes the familiar and exposes it in a different light. Or perhaps, to switch the light off entirely and expose each and every one of us to the down-right unfamiliar and terrifying.

The audio series can be downloaded or purchased as a CD digipack, direct from the official website. Just be aware of the flies, the Spanish ladies, any trash bags in the community, or a helicopter escape simulator that you might come across...