A! Magazine for the Arts

Cam Collins and Steve Shell (photo by Cat Ford)

Cam Collins and Steve Shell (photo by Cat Ford)

Old Gods of Appalachia creates thrilling drama

October 30, 2023

“Old Gods of Appalachia,” created by Cam Collins and Steve Shell, tells tales they create in the best tradition of Appalachian storytelling — with a twist.

“Old Gods of Appalachia is an eldritch horror podcast set in the darkest mountains in the world. Our world is an alternate Appalachia, where these mountains were never meant to be inhabited. It is a place where the forces of the Inner Dark, beings of chaos and endless hunger, are opposed by the Green, the life force of our world, a power tapped by witches and other beings,” Collins says.

Collins and Shell are both interested in the occult and supernatural and love writing and telling stories.

Listening to their podcast is reminiscent of old-time radio shows, such as “The Shadow” or Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.” But if you want to create something like that in the modern world, how do you do it? Well, if you are Shell and Collins, you choose a podcast.

Collins says, “Steve and I were both big fans of podcasts and have produced podcasts previously. The bar for entry for podcasting is very low — anyone can do it, on a very low budget. You write up your ideas, you record it, you upload it to the web and put it out there. There’s no publisher or network that has to greenlight it. Each of us, individually, had listened to a number of shows, and were like ‘you know, I think I can do that.’ So we dove in.

“The two of us have been friends since the mid-1990s and have always thrown around ideas about some sort of creative venture that we could do together. When we both ended up getting into podcasting, it just made sense, like: This is it. This is our thing.

“The original idea was Steve’s. He was driving back to Asheville from a visit home to Wise County and had recently read that ‘sickest place in America’ article that was going around several years ago now. He start thinking ‘What if there was a reason things just never seem to work out for us here? All the industry that comes here, promising jobs and progress and money, always seem to die out. Nothing ever seems to work out for Appalachia. What if something didn’t want it to? What if we were never meant to be here at all?’ And from that, the seed of Old Gods of Appalachia — and the things that dwell deep in the mountains — was born.

“Originally, the concept was to create a limited run of stories inspired by historical disasters in Appalachia, with a supernatural twist that these were secretly caused by the creatures of the Inner Dark, each written by a different creator. At the outset, I think there were maybe five or six of us on board. But with one thing and another, everyone eventually dropped out but me. This was around 2018, and I was going through some major shake-ups in my own life at the time, so at first, I was only working with Steve on his original run of about three episodes, providing feedback and editing. We went back and forth on these for most of 2019.

“Finally, I told him it was time to quit tweaking the thing and put the show out there, and I was ready to jump in as well. ‘But what can you do at this point?’ he asked. ‘I mean, the story is just about told at this point.’

“I said, ‘Let me have the church,’ and he asked what I meant. To his mind, the church in Barlo, where our first season is set, was little more than set dressing. ‘Somebody had to bury those bodies,’ I told him, ‘and the church would have been the center of the community, where everyone gathered in the wake of the disaster.’ So, I began writing the character Cletus Garvin’s story, and we dropped the first episode on Halloween 2019. The show took off from there.”

“We were lucky in that it took off pretty quickly. It was a spooky show for spooky season, and ‘The Magnus Archive’ (which many fans consider to be in a similar vein of folk horror, although the two shows are in many ways quite different) had just gone on hiatus. Plus, we were lucky enough to have a couple of influential folks online discover the show and talk about us early on.

Collins has a friend who runs a niche perfume company with tens of thousands of followers, and she posted a glowing recommendation. Then, voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal, the voice of Spiderman in games and animation, tweeted about the show.

“Those two very kind people really helped get the show off the ground,” Collins says. “Once the show started to grow a listener base, we started doing cross-promotions with other shows, wherein we’d put an episode of someone else’s show on our feed, and they’d reciprocate. Then when we joined the Rusty Quill Network, our show began being promoted on other shows across the network.

“The pandemic was very influential for us. People were stuck at home, bored, and our show gave them something to listen to and look forward to. Many fans have told us the show provided a welcome distraction from all the terrible things going on in our world at the time. And luckily for us, folks still seem to find it compelling enough to make time to listen to, even now that most of have returned to something resembling pre-Covid life.

“To get started, you need a microphone and something to say. You can honestly get started recording on your phone if you have to, or you can find relatively inexpensive but decent mics on Sweetwater.com or Amazon. It’s best to record in an environment with some sort of soundproofing, but you don’t need a full-on recording studio. You can DIY soundproofing in a closet at home for relatively little money (that’s how Steve started out recording the show, in fact). We’ve had some of our guest voice actors record in their cars, with the engine off and the windows rolled up, which provides decent soundproofing.

“Technology-wise, there are any number of podcast hosting platforms that make it very simple to set up a show and start uploading your episodes. All you need is an audio file, some cover art, and whatever titles, descriptions, etc. you want to add.

Shell and Collins trade off writing duties, often writing episodes together. He narrates the show and performs many of the character voices. Shell is also responsible for sound design and has won awards for that, and designs most of their cover art.

Collins write episodes, and voices some of the characters. She is primarily responsible for editing all the episodes. The technical aspects of the podcast — uploading to their primary host as well as Patreon and YouTube; designing and managing their website and the software they use to manage our Patreon — are also her job.

Sometimes episodes require research in addition to their creativity. The first season of the show is set in 1917, and they move forward in time from there, with historical flashbacks to even earlier times, and other episodes set as late (so far) as 1992. Thus, the primary research they do is historical. While some of the questions they need to answer are fairly easily answered with a quick Google search (such as what cars were available or popular in a given year), others are more challenging. For these more in-depth questions, or those where there aren’t as many resources online, they employ a friend who studied history with a special focus on the region to conduct that research.

They also include their friends in other ways. Collins husband, Bryan Gibson, manages the merch that isn’t sold on their TeePublic store, i.e. what they sell at live shows. Another friend, Kris Hayes, is their tour manager and sound engineer when they perform live. Landon Blood, wrote and performs their show theme songs. Kaatalyst Alcindor and DJ Rogers act as cultural consultants and sensitivity readers for episodes involving Black characters.

“Promoting Appalachia in a positive way is one of our primary goals, second only to like, just telling good stories. We grew up seeing our region portrayed in these negative, stereotypical ways in the media — like it’s nothing but ignorant, uneducated hillbillies living in poverty and doing meth or whatever. That’s not all Appalachia is. Do we have poverty and all its associated issues, such as addiction and poor education? We do, absolutely. But those problems exist everywhere, not just here.

“We grew up being told that we needed to learn to modulate our voices and suppress our accents, because people would think we were stupid if we spoke with a regional dialect or accent. We absolutely encountered people like that, and it took a lot of time and growth to eventually realize those folks are ignorant and prejudiced and they don’t deserve to be catered to.

“The relationship we have with Appalachia is complex. One the one hand, it’s home. This place gets in your bones and doesn’t let go. On the other hand, growing up, we both had to deal with a lot of the small-mindedness and rejection of those who seem ‘different’ that can be common in small towns. Steve and I came up during the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s/’90s. We were called ‘devil worshippers.’ because we liked playing role playing games and listening to heavy music, that sort of thing. And we had it easy compared to some of our friends who were openly queer, or not white. We grew up wanting nothing more than to get out of here and never look back.

“But with time and maturity, and some positive changes we’ve seen in our culture — in Appalachia and everywhere — we’ve come to appreciate the positive things about it too. The sense of community, and family (not just blood family, but chosen family as well). The kindness in many people’s hearts. Appalachia still isn’t perfect by any means, but we have hope for it. It’s our home too, and we’re not willing to let the bigots just have it.”

“Old Gods of Appalachia” can be heard on Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Amazon Music, Spotify and any number of podcast apps like Pocketcasts and Overcast, etc. Listeners can also hear it on their website, oldgodsofappalachia.com. Fans can subscribe to their Patreon feed (patreon.com/oldgodsofappalachia) for $5 a month to listen ad-free. At $10 a month and up, they can also access bonus storylines exclusive to subscribers.

They can also catch the “Old Gods” holiday show live at the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, Dec. 16 and 17. Tickets for Saturday are sold out but are available for the Sunday show.

“Old Gods of Appalachia” has won awards since its inception.

New Jersey Web Fest

Outstanding Horror/Thriller (Narrative Fiction Podcast, 2022)

DiscoverPods Awards

Best Overall Podcast (2021)

Audio Drama or Fiction Podcast (2021)

Runner up, Audio Drama or Fiction Podcast (2020)

Audioverse Awards

Audioplay Production (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog)

Overall Storytelling Production (2021, NP 2020)

Writing in a Storytelling Production (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog, 2021, NP 2020)

Storytelling Performance (2021, NP 2020)

Vocal Direction (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog)

Actor/Performer (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog, NP 2020)

Guest Performer (NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog)

Music Direction (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog, 2021)

Environmental Sound Design (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog, 2021, NP 2020)

Action Sound Design (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog, 2021, NP 2020)

Original Music Composition (2022, NP 2022 for Black Mouthed Dog, 2021, NP 2020)

Cover Art (2022, 2021)

*NP = Audioverse’s New Production categories