Lore Report: “Crooked” (Episode 110)

“Our cities, like the Tower of Pisa, are places that are built on some type of foundation. And in the chaos of building a community and all the infrastructure that will need to grow and thrive, mistakes can happen. Issues can be woven into the fabric of a location, and problems can become part of the DNA there, setting it up for a future of pain and misfortune. And while the United States is full of example of this idea in practice, we’d be hard pressed to find a city in our country with a more flawed beginning than its own epicenter of power and authority: our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.”

In “Crooked,” the 110th episode of the hit podcast Lore, Aaron Mahnke takes listeners straight to the geographical heart of American politics. Fear not, though, because our host does not address anything as prosaic as presidential underhandedness or congressional chicanery.

Admittedly, Mahnke does have a tendency to torture a metaphor, and his narrative here proves no exception. Starting with the idea of a literally faulty foundation (causing the famous lean of the Tower of Pisa), Mahnke broadens the discussion of crookedness to encompass aberrant/unexpected development and historical instances of skewing from the putative norm. Figurative turns such as these oftentimes feel forced (in the interest of creating a thematic tread), but Mahnke can be forgiven his flourishes, especially after he delivers these lines capturing the essence of American Gothic: “But the beautiful, elegant appearance [of the nation’s capital] is often little more than a facade. Just like the people who lived there, Washington, D.C., was a pretty shell with a rotten core.”

From here, Mahnke leads his audience on a ghost tour of notable residences around the Potomac. We visit the reputedly haunted Octagon House (whose staircase is said to have been the site of two separate, fatal falls by a pair of sisters) and the uncanny Halcyon House, an East Coast analogue of the Winchester House (the focus, incidentally, of episode 79, “Locked Away”). The tour is sure to stop at the White House, where a grieving (over the death of her child) Mary Todd Lincoln once hosted seances and was preyed upon by a spurious spiritualist (who, ironically, would also forewarn President Lincoln about a legitimately dire threat).

Following the sponsor break, Mahnke shares an engrossing story about Henry Adams, his suicidal wife Clover, and an illegal copy of the statue overlooking her grave. This memorial knockoff, dubbed “Black Aggie” (pictured above), has served as the locus of various college hazing rituals over the years, and has spawned a slew of legends (my personal favorite: anyone who dares to sleep in the figure’s lap overnight will be found dead there the next morning). The episode-concluding tale of Black Aggie is pure Lore: a soaring toward the ostensibly supernatural that is nonetheless grounded in historical detail.

All told, “Crooked” is a highly entertaining episode; my only real complaint is that I wish it had been longer. Given the scope of the subject here, Mahnke could have elected to extend the tour and furnished further examples of Washington, D.C.’s Gothic leanings.

 

Bly from the Other Side

In my last post, I noted how Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has strongly influenced various works of American Gothic (in both fiction and TV/film). No writer, though, has engaged more directly with James’s classic novella than Joyce Carol Oates, whose 1992 short story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (collected in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque) completely turns the screw on the source narrative.

Oates’s clever conceit is to revise the Jamesian precursor text by presenting the narrative from the point of view of Bly’s two deceased employees–former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint. By no means does Oates glamorize the postmortem existence of these two ghostly/quasi-physical figures lurking in the so-called “catacombs,” an “abandoned storage area in the cellar of the great ugly House of Bly.” Even to herself, Jessel is an object of “horror” and “disgust” as she washes “mud-muck” off her body and picks beetles out of the tangles of her hair (she has also developed some ghoulish appetites, and is prone to feral pouncing on vermin encountered on the estate). Nevertheless, by delving into the perspectives of Jessel and Quint, Oates endeavors to cast the ghosts abhorred by James’s governess in a more sympathetic light. While denounced as “depraved, degenerate sinners” by “all in the vicinity of Bly,” the couple is not depicted here as a pair of demonic figures intent on corrupting the innocent children Miles and Flora.

The title of Oates’s story is thus significant, as what at first sounds like a blunt denunciation is proven by the ensuing story to be not necessarily the case. “Accursed” works on a couple of levels, both natural and supernatural. The term references the slander by the seemingly decent Christians living in and around Bly, and also points to the question of whether Jessel and Quint have been damned by some higher power (Jessel is a suicide–a ruined woman summarily dismissed from Bly, she threw her pregnant body into the lake on the manor grounds–and the mourning Quint’s fatal, drunken tumble “was perhaps not accidental, either”). Either way, Jessel and Quint are not the only accursed inhabitants of Bly, as Oates’s title further encompasses the tragic existence of the orphans Miles and Flora. The relationship between all four characters–forced by circumstance into forming a strange, surrogate family–is indeed central to the story. Yes, the late Jessel and Quint might be “accursed by love” of one another, but it’s also their love for the children that keeps them haunting this house: “It was desire that held them at Bly, the reluctance of love to surrender the beloved.” Just as an affair between the two employees trapped in “the romantically sequestered countryside of Bly” was inevitable, the insinuation by the love-starved children into the adult couple’s trysting is (according to Oates’s interpretation) an understandable, not unnatural turn of events.

Oates executes a delicate balancing act, as her story gives name to the unspoken horrors of James’s Victorian narrative, and, like a depth charge, sends the sexual subtext of The Turn of the Screw surging to the surface. She tactfully handles difficult subject matter–sexual relations between adults and minors–touching on the taboo without ever resorting to inappropriate prurience. Of course, Oates has not scripted some curious endorsement of pedophilia here; her story works more in opposition to the facile demonizing of same-sex relationships. As the author herself remarked (in a letter to the New York Times in response to a review of her story), her aim was at “reimagining homoerotic ties as not ‘by nature’ repellent.” Quint’s own pondering in the story–“How is it evil, to give, as to receive, love’s comforts?”–is not a mere self-justification of illicit behavior bur rather poses a broader question to Oates’s audience. Presented as neither sexual nor supernatural predators, Oates’s versions of Quint and Jessel are not hellbent on luring Miles and Flora to their doom but desperately seek the solace of family reunion.

If Quint and Jessel are largely redeemed here, two other characters from James’s novella are overtly villainized in their place. The absentee Master of Bly is exposed as a spurious gentleman. Drunken and dissolute, he is an unloving uncle to the two unfortunate children left in his care. Worse still is his pronounced homophobia, as he says to Quint of Miles (ironically blind to the relationship that will subsequently bloom between valet and child): “I would rather see the poor little bugger dead, than unmanly.” Meanwhile, James’s narrator, the governess, is presented as repugnant in both her physical appearance (“homely as a pudding, and with a body flat, bosom and buttocks, as a board”) and fanatical personality (marked by “a Puritan’s prim, punitive zeal”). Recasting the either-or dilemma of James’s famously ambiguous narrative, Oates shows that revenants are in residence at Bly, yet the governess is nonetheless a “madwoman.”

Oates’s prose style here proves more accessible, but no less elegant, than James’s. Her story excises the more tedious elements of The Turn of the Screw (the governess’s ruminations and conversations with Mrs. Grose), zeroing in on the key scenes (the governess’s ghostly encounters) and reflecting them from a different angle of vision. The result is not some bloodless postmodernist exercise but an intriguing touchstone to the original novella. As new versions of The Turn of the Screw head to the big screen and streaming (Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor) next year, “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” surely warrants its own film adaptation. Perhaps the best part of such  cinematic translation, though, would be its leading more readers back to the short story, which testifies to Oates’s preeminent status as a writer of Gothic fiction.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

James’s 1896 novella is an undeniably canonical work of Gothic fiction. It exemplifies the genre in both form and content. The narrative is framed as the text of a manuscript that has been secreted “in a locked drawer” for many years, and which has at last been brought out to entertain those gathered fireside for the telling of ghost stories (an attempt to present the ultimate in the macabre reminiscent of the famous competition at the Villa Diodati that eventually produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The actual story that is read aloud to the group is set in an ancestral home (complete with castle-like towers) in the English countryside, an isolated abode that is seemingly haunted by the ghosts of two former employees of ill repute. “Seemingly” is the operative word here, as James haunts/taunts his own readers with ambiguity–the ongoing, nerve-wracking uncertainty of interpretation. Are the horrors at Bly manor sinisterly supernatural, or do the alleged ghosts simply reflect human madness (the dangerous visions of a deluded governess desperate to prove her own heroism)?

All this being said, I have no idea why The Turn of the Screw appears in Crow’s book. The novella qualifies as American Gothic in only the most facile sense: it is a Gothic work written by an American author. Set explicitly and strictly in England, the narrative has zero connection to the American scene (Crow’s claim in the headnote that James emulates Washington Irving in the use of the frame-story device makes for a weak argument for the inclusion of the novella here). The Turn of the Screw has exerted a strong influence on American Gothic works, from The Haunting of Hill House and Dark Shadows to Ghost Story and The Shining, but such legacy does nothing to establish retroactively its own American Gothicism. The fact that Crow did not choose to select “The Jolly Corner,” a much more representative (if less popular) James piece, is a real head-scratcher. The Turn of the Screw is the longest entry in this anthology, and unfortunately, also its wrongest.

 

Lore Report: “Assumption” (Episode 109)

[A review of the latest episode of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore]

When we assume, we write off all other possibilities, and throw ourselves completely behind an idea that we believe to be the full and complete truth. But assumption can lead us toward tragedy. And the sooner we catch it, the sooner the real truth can be pursued. And as history has shown us time and time again, innocent lives may depend upon it.

Episode 109 takes listeners back to 19th Century New England, and reminds us that the dark history of Salem, Massachusetts, did not conclude with the Witch Trials of the 1690’s. Mahnke’s narrative focuses on the sensational 1830 murder of Captain Joseph White, a retired shipmaster/trader and “insanely wealthy widower.” White’s grisly killing (while asleep in his bed, the 82-year-old had his skull cracked by a brutal bludgeoning, and he was also stabbed thirteen times in the torso) left the townspeople of Salem haunted with fear of the depraved killer(s) at large. The public panic following White’s murder is something I wished Mahnke had delved further into; he passingly mentions the local populace’s sudden demand for daggers and pistols.

“Assumption” traces out all the strange twists and turns of the White murder case. The exploration of the historic crime–which proves to have been motivated by the greedy desire to secure the victim’s immense fortune–exposes plentiful family intrigue. In keeping with the episode theme, various erroneous assumptions (made by the prosecutors and the perpetrators of the crime alike) are highlighted. With appropriately Gothic flair, Mahnke even likens assumptions to “a locked house in the dead of night…lull[ing] us into a false sense of security.”

In the midst of his narrative, Mahnke acknowledges that “on the surface, there’s nothing particularly special” about the murder of Joseph White. I have to admit, as I sat listening I found myself wondering what really made this case (its macabre violence notwithstanding) worthy of a Lore episode. Had the podcast played itself out after 100+ episodes? Just as I was beginning to doubt, though, Mahnke proceeded to draw the intriguing connections that Lore is noted for. First, he recounts how renowned attorney/orator Daniel Webster got involved in the murder trial. An impassioned speech by Webster in turn inspired “a particular [fiction] writer to spin his own tale of murder, guilt, and our inability to hide from our own shame” (somewhat surprisingly, Mahnke–unlike one of the sources he seems to borrow from–fails to cite a second writer influenced by the White case: Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne). I won’t spoil the surprise hear, but rest assured, this American writer identified is an exemplar of Gothic fiction, and his tale one of the most popular of all-time.

This closing connection (which Mahnke skillfully establishes through the reciting of parallel passages by Webster and the short-storyteller) alone makes for a remarkable episode. So as I have thankfully realized, thinking that Lore has somehow lost its podcasting knack is the most incorrect assumption of all.