But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that whimsical stories are often just a costume wrapped around a darker core. And when it comes to one corner of folklore in particular, that core might be more than just a little frightening. It could very well be true.
Aaron Mahnke heads for the hills (and into the woods) in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, which is devoted to the subject of faerie lore. Countering the popular, innocuous image (think Disney’s Tinkerbell), Mahnke emphasizes the dark nature of faeries. These “creatures of bad behavior” are reportedly responsible for such nasty pranks as abduction of humans to the otherworld and the replacement of babies with changelings. Faerie mischief indeed is a rich topic, so it’s no surprise that Mahnke supplies several arresting tales (he also delves into the intriguing work of “faerie women”–well-versed humans for hire whose machinations counteract uncanny abductions). If lore functions to make the incredible comprehensible and perhaps even plausible, then “Taken” (the punning title references fascination as well as extraction) furnishes a quintessential example. This episode exploring the good folk is bound to leave Lore listeners more than a wee bit enchanted.
From dark dream sequences to Christopher’s comatose glimpse of hell and Paulie’s eerie vision of the Virgin Mary on the Bada Bing stage, The Sopranos repeatedly invoked the uncanny and the supernatural. So it’s no surprise that show also featured two prominent references to one of the greatest spook tales of all time, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
The first occurs in “Cold Cuts” (Season 5, Episode 10). On the drive upstate to Uncle Pat’s farm in Kinderhook (to exhume some murder victims from their graves), Tony Blundetto randomly admits to Christopher that “some very sorry people” (presumably kids who suffered for insulting him) used to call him Ichabod Crane. The line then gets a callback in a later scene in the episode. Tony Soprano joins his cousin Tony in ribbing Christopher and mocking his beak nose as they all eat dinner together, until the aggravated Christopher finally snaps at the relentlessly joking Blundetto, “You know I could have called you Ichabod Crane, but I didn’t!” A petulant retort, for sure, but also a pretty funny one, because if ever there was someone who could be cast as Ichabod, it’s Steve Buscemi’s Blundetto.
The second reference is in “Luxury Lounge” (Season 6, Episode 7). Phil Leotardo passes along to Tony Soprano Johnny Sack’s appreciation for his taking out Rusty Millio, but Tony acts coy and claims to have had nothing to do with the hit. Phil laughs off Tony’s cautiousness, and says, “Anyway, Rusty’s gone, and we’ll chalk it up to the Headless Horseman.” A strange name drop, although it does make geographic sense that a New York crime boss would reference Sleepy Hollow’s favorite specter. Phil’s line also has some sinister resonance, considering that Rusty was dispatched by a shot to the head (an assault of brain-scrambling impact, akin to a Horseman gourd toss).
More than just another mob story, The Sopranos was a pop cultural phenomenon. How apropos, then, that the series referenced a pair of legendary Irving characters that have been imprinted on American consciousness for over two centuries now.
For thousands of years, the things above us have altered the way we live our lives down below. It’s a realm of folklore that might seem boring and predictable, but in reality it’s one of the darkest homes of our weirdest behavior. And I promise you this: you’ll never look at the sky the same way again.
Aaron Mahnke talks about the weather in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, but the host’s discourse proves anything but banal. Sojourning back through world history, Mahnke discusses how the dependence on healthy crops led many cultures to adopt unusual measures to try to control the weather (ritualistic acts that make a Native American rain dance seem quaint by comparison). The central portion of the narrative is devoted to the Eastern European belief that the burial of decedents deemed “unclean” (contaminated by wickedness or awful misfortune) would spark a divine wrath that manifested in meteorological terms. When such a foolish burial occurred, and was superstitiously connected with drought conditions, the subsequent desperate and fear-driven act of disinterment could lead to a wild mob scene. The adjective of this episode’s title urns out to be the only negative here; superlative from beginning (an explanation of the mysterious phenomenon of crop marks) to end (an examination of lightning strikes), “Bad Seed” forecasts a sublime listening experience for Lore lovers.
[It’s been a couple of weeks since my last dispatch from the Macabre Republic, but it’s time to start posting again, and to resume the following feature…]
In this blog feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Tonight, I continue to work my way through the contents of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.
“The Landscape Chamber” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1887)
When her horse is injured while she is on a solitary journey, the female narrator seeks refuge at a dreary and decrepit “colonial mansion” in rural New England: “everything gave evidence of unhindered decline from thrift and competence to poverty and ruin.” The “dismal place” is occupied by an “uncanny father and daughter”; the “weird old man” exhibits a peculiar miserliness, while the lonely daughter hints at “some miserable doom” that haunts their bloodline. Jewett sounds the time-honored American Gothic themes of family degeneracy and a dark past impinging upon the present. In the story’s climax, the old man speaks of an ancestor “who sold his soul for wealth”; “he was greedy for gain, and now we cannot part with what we have, even for common comfort. His children and his children’s children have suffered for his fault.” Matching her father’s “malady of unreason,” the daughter speculates that “we shall all disappear some night in a winter storm, and the world will be rid of us–father and the house and I, all three.” Strong echoes here of “The Fall of the House of Usher” (“The Landscape Chamber” concludes with the narrator readily fleeing the “house of shadows and strange moods”), even if Jewett is too genteel a writer to ever reach the same terrifying heights that Poe so masterfully mapped.
“The Story of a Day” by Grace King (1893)
A journey by skiff through the waters of the Louisiana bayou prompts the anonymous narrator to reminisce about Adorine Mérionaux, an old maid of twenty-five who suffered a “calamity” over a decade earlier. The young girl’s courtship by a neighboring beau ended in death rather than a wedding. Zepherin went missing, and his corpse wasn’t uncovered until the following summer (the “inference”–in this quiet and oblique tale–is that he drowned in the swamp while seeking out a late night rendezvous with Adorine). King’s sparse story (the narrator makes the disclaimer in the opening line that there is “not much” to it) works more as a tragic romance. Its most gothic moment involves the death throes (transpiring beneath “a ghostly moon”) of a heifer, “buried alive” in the “black ooze” of the swamp. All told, “The Story of a Day” makes for a curious inclusion in the anthology, as surely there were other, more representative works of “bayou gothic” that might have been chosen instead.