Erik Larson has a scary story he’d like you to hear

By Alexandra Alter

Over the last three decades, Erik Larson has written books about a serial killer, a killer storm, a murderous homeopathic doctor, a teenage gunman and one of the most deadly maritime disasters in history.

“I love to be scared,” he said of his grisly subject matter.

So far, all of Larson’s terrifying stories have been based on historical records and facts. But with his latest project, he’s crossed over into the supernatural, and into a new narrative format. His new book, “No One Goes Alone,” which Penguin Random House Audio will release as a stand-alone audiobook in late September, is a historical novella that follows the ghost-hunting exploits of the 19th-century psychologist and philosopher William James. In the novella, Larson’s first published work of fiction, James and his contemporaries travel to investigate a haunted house on a fictional island off the coast of England, an expedition that takes a surprising and deadly turn when evil manifestations emerge.

“I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, and I decided to write a ghost story that I would want to read,” Larson said.

Larson first became interested in James’ obsession with the occult while working on his 2006 book “Thunderstruck,” which juxtaposed the story of a scandalous murder in London with the work of Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer in the development of long-distance radio transmission. While researching the era, Larson learned that James was a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research, which had a Committee on Haunted Houses, and that he had promised his brother, novelist Henry James, that he would make contact after his death.

For more than a decade, Larson tinkered with a draft, mostly to entertain himself. He was reluctant to publish it because he worried it would confuse fans of his nonfiction. Over the years, Larson has built a large audience for his intricately researched historical books, like “The Devil in the White City,” which detailed how a serial killer used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as a hunting ground, and “Dead Wake,” about the sinking of the Lusitania ocean liner. A ghost story felt like it might be too off brand.

“I stuck it, metaphorically, in a drawer, and once or twice a year I would pull it out and read portions of it and think, this isn’t bad,” he said.

Then, two years ago, Larson was with his publisher, planning the release of his book about Winston Churchill, “The Splendid and the Vile.” He mentioned he had written a ghost story and might post it on his website for free. His marketing team discouraged the idea but later proposed he release it as an audio original, with no print edition.

“It seemed like the perfect fit. It’s as though my story was waiting for the industry to evolve in this direction,” he said. “Ghost stories, I feel, are best listened to aloud.”

Larson worked with Crown, a Penguin Random House imprint, on the manuscript. Amanda Cook, vice president and editorial director of Crown, said that an audio release offered a way to set the project apart from Larson’s nonfiction.

“Part of that is publishing it in a different format, so that people are encountering him in a different way,” she said.

“No One Goes Alone,” which is narrated by British actor Julian Rhind-Tutt, also includes an author’s note written and narrated by Larson. In it, he describes the origins of the project and explains which characters he invented and which were based on historical figures like James, physicist Oliver Lodge and William Preece, chief electrician of the United Kingdom’s General Post Office.

It is a way to signal to readers that the story, while a departure from his nonfiction, has historical heft, even though Larson realized it could make the project “something less sexy, a ghost story with a source essay at the end.”

Larson is the latest bestselling author to experiment with a stand-alone audiobook, as sales of digital audio continue to rise. After a brief dip at the start of the pandemic, when many people were stuck at home and stopped listening to audiobooks during their commutes, the format has rebounded. Revenue from downloaded audiobooks grew more than 18% in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers. In 2020, publishers in the United States released a record number of audio titles — more than 71,000 titles, an increase of nearly 40% over 2019. Publishers’ revenues from audio rose 12% to $1.3 billion over the same period, the ninth straight year of double-digit growth, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

Much of the genre’s growth has been driven by Audible, audio producer and retailer owned by Amazon. In recent years, Audible has released audio originals by such bestselling novelists as Margaret Atwood, James Patterson, Curtis Sittenfeld, Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman, as well as works by nonfiction writers like Michael Lewis, Michael Pollan, Ada Calhoun and Anne Helen Petersen.

The growth of audio originals marks a shift in how authors and publishers view the form, which was once regarded as an appendage to print, rather than its own medium. But as audio sales have continued to grow year after year, publishing companies have found themselves scrambling to meet demand.

“Audio listeners are so voracious, they listen to so much, we have to keep supplying content for them,” said Lance Fitzgerald, vice president of content and business development at Penguin Random House Audio.

Publishers have also started to test the market for stand-alone audio. Penguin Random House, which Crown is an imprint of, has around a dozen original audiobooks in development. The company’s recent audio-only works include “All Rise,” Nick Offerman’s comedy special; “Getting Started With Sourdough,” by Chad Robertson and Jennifer Latham of Tartine Bakery; stories set in the Star Wars universe; and a project with Steven Rinella, host of the Netflix series “MeatEater.”

Another major publisher, Hachette, has produced several successful audio originals, including works by singer and songwriter Billie Eilish and leadership coach Roger Flax. Macmillan has been experimenting with its own podcasts and is developing an audio original with indie pop duo Tegan and Sara.

But the audio-only approach poses challenges, and most authors and publishers are proceeding cautiously. Without a print counterpart that’s displayed in stores, it can be hard to get such titles in front of consumers, unless the author has a large and loyal following.

“There is an advantage when there are multiple versions out at once. You’re going to get more people talking about it and evangelizing,” said Mary Beth Roche, president and publisher of Macmillan Audio. “In general, we feel like unless there’s something uniquely aural about the experience, if it deserves to be in audio, it deserves to be in print.”

For Larson, the audio format offered a way for him to break into new territory. He said he’s open to releasing “No One Goes Alone” as a book, though there are currently no plans for a print edition.

“Right now, it is what it is,” he said. “I’m very pleased to call it a day with an audio original.”

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