Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
The word "palimpsest" refers to something—an image, a piece of writing, or any kind of surface—that has been overwritten or covered imperfectly, so that traces of its former iterations are still visible. For example, a page that has been written on and only partially erased before being written on anew, a painting that has been covered by another painting but still shows here and there, in corners or behind lighter brush strokes.
Of course the concept works beautifully on a metaphorical level as well, and the team behind the new ghost-riddled podcast Palimpsest—Asheville's own Jamieson Ridenhour and Hayley Heninger—takes advantage of all of these nuanced levels. Palimpsest follows its protagonist, Anneliese, as she moves into a new apartment (in, of course, an old and atmosphere-ridden house that has been split into separate units) and confronts the death of her sister, Claire, who died when Anneliese was in high school.
Anneliese, now in her mid-20s, is in many ways frozen at the point in time when she lost her older sister, grappling with the challenges of being on her own and lonely in a city. She's dealing with a breakup, as well as with the return of childhood memories that she has tried to leave behind. The podcast is entirely in Anneliese's voice as she records a diary of sorts on her phone, for a therapist who lives in a different town, who may never hear her former client's confessional. As spookier things start to happen around her new home, we also start to piece together the narrative of Anneliese's own life through unsettling revelations she begins to share.
Chapter One, which will be available on Halloween, introduces us to Anneliese and her world, which has just become a bit smaller after the end of her relationship. The first-person podcast is a format that's been successful with mega-hits like Joseph Fink's Welcome to Night Vale and Alice Isn't Dead, and it works well here, too. Heninger (Transplanting, Terry Tempest: The Final Interview) is an assured and poised actress who embodies Anneliese's interior and exterior experiences with conviction—a necessity if only one person is carrying the performance. Heninger has been heavily involved with the series' writing, a process helmed by author and director Jamieson Ridenhour (Terry Tempest: The Final Interview, Barking Mad, The House of the Yaga).
It's clear that Fink's podcasts influenced the creation of Palimpsest, but its ghostly narrative has some clearer literary antecedents in works like Henry James' Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House. One link between those earlier sources and Palimpsest: the unreliable narrator. A staple that arguably emerged with the novel itself, the unreliable narrator has been put to use in gothic fiction and ghost stories, and to great effect. Heninger highlights the importance of unreliable narration in the podcast: "The unreliable narrator isn't necessarily lying," she says, "but the story is also not entirely true. We're very interested in how emotions affect your filter when you think back to certain events."
Ridenhour concurs. "I love stories where we question whether a person is haunted or mentally unbalanced," he says. "And really, is there a difference? We reshape our memories around things that happen to us, after all."
It becomes clear early on that Anneliese is withholding some very important details from her past, and trying to figure out exactly where the holes are in her story is a bit like playing detective. Ridenhour initially kept some of the details from Heninger to catch her off guard at exactly the right times during recording. But part of the pleasure of Ridenhour's process was writing the story with Heninger as it developed. "When we started, I knew that Claire was dead, and I knew the house was haunted, but that's all I had. We discovered a lot more together. I knew it would be a collaborative process, but I didn't expect how much Hayley brought to table in terms of the character and the story development."
Working together, the two have planned ten episodes of Palimpsest's first season, and have just recorded the fourth. New episodes will be released once every two weeks through December. Ridenhour is planning a second season that will feature the Heninger as a different character in a new storyline (but still focused on hauntings), a la American Horror Story.
The supernatural elements of the series began to leak out into real life a bit as Heninger became more familiar with the character. "There were a couple of points when [Ridenhour] was writing direct memories from my life without knowing," says Heninger. For example, one of Anneliese's memories, of sneaking into a show with her sister, mirrored an experience Heninger had with her sister as a teenager. At another point, she had a dream of one of Anneliese's experiences. "The dream felt so out of place for me," she says, "and I felt so much upon waking up. I remembered it vividly, but it didn't feel like me. It took me half a day to realize the dream was from Anneliese. It related to a plot point that I hadn't connected with before, but that dream happened on a real sensory level, and I felt much more connected to it."
Though Ridenhour is quick to point out that Anneliese "has it much worse than Hayley," Heninger still appreciated the chance to work through some of her own memories and experiences as she played the role. "I've never lost a sibling," she says, "but my sister was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer that came out of nowhere at one point. It felt like we were in the hospital forever, but my sister was amazing. Two years later, she's great and healthy, but I've always felt a psychic connection with her, like the one Anneliese and Claire share. I was immediately struck with the idea that could have gone a different way.
"That's compelling," she continues. "In terms of the theme of memory in the story, I realized I have things in my past where there are blurred or blocked parts of my memory and I think that's interesting. It's healing to explore that through creativity."
The result of this exploration is a genuinely creepy story told by a character whose past is as filled with ghosts as her present. "Horror isn't really a genre," says Ridenhour. "It's an effect." And while Palimpsest has its moments of real, visceral horror, most things happen in Anneliese's own head. "I'm interested in how supernatural elements are reflected in characters," he continues. "The characters have to be haunted in a psychological way before horror is effective."
Although Palimpsest never refers to the city in which it's set, Asheville has played a key role in the story. The apartment Anneliese moves into is modeled after the first house Ridenhour moved into when he came to Asheville in 1993. A team of local talent has also offered support: Ian Ridenhour (also the writer's son), performs the music in Palimpsest, artist Megan Lee designed the visual materials, and other area actors, including Cody Magouirk, Samantha Lebrocq, and Carrie Kimzey, will add their voices to an episode later in the season.
Palimpsest's first episode will be available to download or stream on October 31st via iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, and via the show's website.