History does hold the key to a number of secret chambers, and while it might be fun to explore all of them, there’s one place that takes the prize for one of the most elaborate and nefarious hidden worlds on record. But it’s more than a closet or a bunker or even a short tunnel to another part of the house. No, this one stands out because of its sweep and scale, and because of how it was used by the people who lived there. It’s a secret network that connects an entire town.
Aaron Mahnke’s opening tease to the latest episode of his podcast Lore works as a perfect hook; the listener can’t wait for this town with Gothic underpinnings to be identified. Fortunately, Mahnke isn’t inclined to withhold this information for very long, as he transports the audience to the seaside community of Rye in Sussex, England. The town served as a five-century epicenter for smuggling activities, most notoriously conducted during a fifteen-year stretch in the mid-1700’s by the Hawkhurst Gang (a mafia-like organization nearly 600 members strong). These brazen criminals did not hesitate to employ cutthroat tactics against anyone who interfered with their enterprise, but they also demonstrated some terrific craftiness. Using the ruins of a nearby castle as an illicit warehouse, the Gang engaged in what Mahnke gloriously dubs “Scooby-Dooing”: scaring off potential meddling snoops by making “spooky noises to give the place an unsavory reputation.” A primary base of operation for the Gang, though, was Rye’s Mermaid Inn, a no-less-Gothic building with its hidden staircases leading to a system of underground tunnels, and its secret dungeon located under a trapdoor in one of the guest rooms. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Mermaid Inn is regarded as quite a haunted site, and Mahnke devotes the second half of the episode to sharing the host of ghost stories associated with this place of business.
Sometimes Mahnke’s episode titles and content-organizing conceits come off as strained attempts at narrative coherence, but that certainly is not the case here in Episode 132. The “puzzle” concept–both in the sense of a labyrinthine structure/intricate mechanism (Mahnke references both Clue and the puzzle box in Hellraiser) and in the more verbal sense of confounding comprehension–proves most effective. After expertly demonstrates throughout the episode the ways in which history interfaces with mystery, Mahnke offers a strong conclusion by articulating the nature and cultural function of folklore. In the end, “Puzzled” forms a clear picture of what makes this podcast series so utterly captivating.