Lore Report: “Heirloom” (Episode 139)

 

[…] There are few places in America with as much historical baggage as the City of Philadelphia. Whether it’s the events that led to the birth of the United States or the centuries of life and death that have played out there ever since, the City of Brotherly Love has become a reminder of a very powerful lesson: you can bury the pain and mistakes of the past and pretend it has all gone away, but you can never keep it from coming back.

From a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 to Revolutionary War battles and beyond, the historically-central and quite populous American city of Philadelphia has been no stranger to mortality. In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke establishes this prevalence of death (he notes that the city is crammed with an astounding 210 cemeteries) before proceeding to delve into some of the tales of haunting that unsurprisingly have amassed. Mahnke shares some terrific stories of ghostly occurrences at Philadelphia landmarks like Carpenters’ Hall (site of the First Continental Congress) and Fort Mifflin (pictured above). A good chunk of the episode is devoted to Byberry hospital, a mental facility marked by horrid living conditions and the tormenting practices of its staff. The listener senses where this is heading, but all the buildup results in a disappointing payoff: inevitable shutdown leads to the hospital growing rundown, yet the abandoned facility never develops any significant reputation as a haunted locale.

The closing segment (a discussion of a religious group called the Chapter of Perfection) relates an incident more “bizarre” than dark. Throughout the podcast, Mahnke seems reticent to venture too deep into creepiness (I wonder if consciousness of the current coronavirus pandemic caused him to modify the tone of his narrative). This is regrettable, considering that Philadelphia has long served as a quintessential Gothic setting (from the seminal novels of Charles Brockden Brown to the cinematic efforts of M. Night Shyamalan). A promising subject is not done complete justice here, and “Heirloom” ultimately fails to hand down an episode of especial value.

 

Missouri Macabre: A Review of Ozark (Season 3)

I was thrilled when the third season of Netflix’s drama series Ozark was first announced, and–I must admit–somewhat wary. Could the show possibly continue to develop its complex storyline and maintain its level of excellence? After a marathon bout of housebound bingeing (here in the time of the coronavirus pandemic), I am happy to report that Ozark has come back better than ever.

Part of my initial trepidation stemmed from the fact that a slew of characters, both heroic and villainous, did not survive last season’s bloodbath. Fortunately, plenty of viewer favorites return, starting with money-launderer extraordinaire Marty Byrde, a mostly understated figure whose pressure-cooker of a life leaves him prone to some explosive outbursts. Good as Jason Bateman is in the role, he is eclipsed by Laura Linney’s utterly brilliant turn as Marty’s cunning yet caring, formidable but vulnerable wife Wendy. Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore once again exhibits spunk in spades (dropping enough f-bombs to make George Carlin blush), but the tenderer side of her character is much more evident here in Season 3 as she is given a love interest. Local sociopath and hillbilly Lady Macbeth Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) remains unfailingly unnerving, while stone-cold cartel lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer, in a welcome extension of her role from last season) forms a no-less-chilling adversary. The real season-stealer, though, is cast newcomer Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s lovable but combustible brother Ben. Subsumed into the Byrde family drama, Pelphrey’s Ben transcends secondary-character status and proves integral to the story arc.

The action picks up six months after the events of Season 2, with the Byrdes working to keep their new riverboat-casino venture afloat, amidst an intensifying drug war in Mexico (whose violence spills over onto American soil) and the intrusive presence of Kansas City mobsters and F.B.I. agents alike. Ozark offers a master class in plot complication, as the web of deceit grows ever more tangled and the protagonists’ predicaments more dire. Forget Breaking Bad; this show could be called “Breaking Worse and Worse.” Thankfully, though, three seasons’ worth of relentlessly escalating stakes has not caused a loss of plausibility. This is prevented by a refreshing sense of self-awareness–Wendy even goes so far to admit a certain addiction to the perennial chaos swirling around the Byrdes. Also, Ozark takes pains to demonstrate the inescapable and soul-crushing toll of the road the characters have chosen to travel, of the regrettable, if necessary, decisions they have made all along the way.

Safe to say, Ozark is not for the faint of heart. Savage cartel attacks are dramatized here, and the season opens and closes with scenes of shocking violence. This third iteration of the series might not be quite as grisly as seasons past, but the show still furnishes a perfect example of how easily noir crime can shade over into the macabre.

Season 3 of Ozark is at once gut-wrenchingly tense, wickedly funny (its black humor is pitch perfect), and heart-breakingly tragic. There aren’t enough Emmys to be awarded to this amazing Netflix effort.

 

Lore Report: “Foresight” (Episode 138)

[…] Books can contain just as much evil as they do good. And few can hold a candle to the Malleus Maleficarum, a guidebook written in 1487 to help authorities identify and exterminate people accused of being witches. Instruction guides are meant to help us create , but when it comes to books like the Malleus Maleficarum, all they typically built was panic, fear, and superstition–superstition that we still cling to today. And if the historical record is any indication, it also managed to build something else, at least for a time: mass hysteria, hellbent on destruction.

Witchcraft is a topic Aaron Mahnke has covered before on Lore (as well as in the first season of its spin-off podcast, Unobscured), but episode 138, “Foresight,” provides one of his clearest looks into the demonized dark art. Mahnke begins by considering why people were targeted and outlines the most common traits of those accused of being witches. He also enlightens listeners about the various means for executing condemned witches, which extend beyond the hangings and burnings made familiar by countless pop cultural representations over the years. From here, our host hearkens back to 16th Century Scotland, a hotbed of witchcraft panic. A good portion of the episode is devoted to the hurly-burly surrounding Janet Boyman, a healer who brings significant heat on herself when she branches out into prophesying (a practice that would come to be considered tantamount to attacking with a curse).

“Foresight” satisfies not only with its informative content but also with its strong structuring. The narrative strands tie together perfectly, as Mahnke demonstrates that witchcraft is not merely some outre subject, but rather one (as in the case of Janet Boyman) deeply entangled in national political affairs. The episode builds toward a striking identification of a bitter irony (one which I won’t spoil here), and as an added bonus, links historical record with one of Shakespeare’s most famous, and fantastic, plays.

Along the way, Mahnke also sounds a clear theme, noting the human penchant historically for “burning what we don’t understand.” In our current age of the coronavirus pandemic, where the fear of others and of the threat posed by the invisible world grows daily, this episode of Lore proves terribly timely indeed.

 

Mob Scene: The Stand

Chapter 26 of Stephen King’s 1990 novel The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition might rank as the most horrifying chapter the author ever wrote. It presents a montage of scenes dramatizing the disintegration of American civilization as the “Captain Trips” superflu virus wreaks havoc on the populace and precipitates mass rioting and murderous rampaging across the nation. For instance:

TV newscasters held at gunpoint by army thugs and forced to feed misinformation about the outbreak manage a brief coup (before being “summarily executed on charges of treason” [213]), during which they air footage of a military vehicle dumping bodies onto a barge in Boston Harbor: “women, old men, children, police, nurses; they came in a cartwheeling flood that seemed never to end. At some point during the film-clip it became clear that the soldiers were using pitchforks to get them out” (213-14). In Duluth, Minnesota, a man walking the street wearing a sandwich board bearing such handwritten wisdom as “THE EVIL DAYS ARE AT HAND” learns the hard way the meaning of self-fulfilling prophecy: “Four young men in motorcycle jackets, all of them with bad coughs and runny noses, set upon the man in the khaki shorts and beat him unconscious with his own sandwich board. then they fled, one of them calling back hysterically over his shoulder: ‘Teach you to scare people! Teach you to scare people, you half-baked freak!'” (217)  At Kent State University, thousands of nonviolent protesters are mowed down by machine-gun fire; in the midst of this “turkey shoot” (224), the soldiers turn their weapons on one another. Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is “gutted” by widespread rioting and looting; “as daylight left this flat green land,” the city “looked like the aftermath of some monster New Year’s Eve party after sodden sleep had claimed the last of the revelers” (228).

Perhaps the most disturbing section of the chapter, though, details an episode of ultraviolent reality TV: “At 9:16 P.M., EST, those still well enough to watch television in the Portland, Maine, area, tuned in WCSH-TV and watched with numbed horror as a huge black man, naked except for a pink leather loincloth and a Marine officer’s cap, obviously, ill, performed a series of sixty-two public executions” (226). This hulking lunatic is the leader of a black “junta” of deserting soldiers that has taken over the set of the “Dialing for Dollars” game show and uses a large glass drum to draw the driver’s licenses of some unlucky winners: “‘Inthenameofthefathersonandholyghost,’ the big black man intoned, grinning, and pulled the trigger. There was a large smear of blood and brains behind the spot where PFC Stern was being forced to kneel, and now he added his own contribution.” Further pandemonium occurs when the regular army breaks into the studio and goes to war with the deserters:

The black man in the loincloth went down almost immediately, cursing, sweating, riddled with bullets, and firing his automatic pistol crazily into the floor. The renegade who had been operating the #2 camera was shot in the belly, and as he leaned forward to catch his spilling guts, his camera pivoted slowly around, giving his audience a leisurely pan shot of hell. The semi-naked guards were returning fire, and the soldiers in the respirators were spraying the entire audience area. The unarmed soldiers in the middle , instead of being rescued, found that their executions had only been speeded up. (227)

Underscoring the blackly comic absurdity of the scene, the bloody orgy is finally “replaced on home screens by a picture of a cartoon man who was staring glumly at a cartoon TV. On the cartoon TV was a sign that said: SORRY, WE’RE HAVING PROBLEMS!” (228).

King punctuates the chapter with a transcript of a State of the Union address that evening, in which the President’s claims about the virulence of this flu strain are belied by his own fits of coughing and sneezing. Likewise, the disingenuity of the President’s attempt to pass off occupying army forces as mere National Guardsmen “called out in some areas to protect the populace against hooligans, vandals, and scare-mongers” (230) is proven by the various preceding scenes of mayhem in the chapter.

Chapter 26 of The Stand is frighteningly plausible; readers in this present time of the coronavirus pan(dem)ic can only hope that it is not also terribly prescient. Let us pray that we can trust more in the truth of King’s recently-tweeted PSA than in the nightmare scenario of his fiction.

 

WORK CITED

King, Stephen. The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Ambiguity in Black and White

Admittedly, I am late to the party when it comes to The Lighthouse. I somehow missed the film in theaters, and then the DVD remained stuck at the top of my Netflix queue due to lack of availability.  Having finally seen this acclaimed sophomore effort (following The Witch) from director Robert Eggers, I now understand why there was such a long wait. Allow me to wax ecstatic about the film for a few paragraphs…

While written by Robert Eggers and his brother Max, The Lighthouse feels like a collaboration between Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. Broadly allusive, the film gives nods toward such classic texts as Moby-Dick, “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and The Shining. For all the homage it pays, though, The Lighthouse still manages to work its materials into a startlingly original mix.

The black-and-white film’s stark visuals are astounding; a sense of creepy and inhospitable place is clearly established. A storm-pounded, barren moonscape of an island (seemingly devoid of life save for the flocks of evil seagulls that torment with their pecks and squawks) furnishes the sinister setting. Wind howls spiritedly, a foghorn repeatedly bellows in the background with the tenor of an ancient saurian beast, and the towering light sweeps across the seascape like some revolving, cyclopean eye.

Sent to work (which might just be another way of saying “stranded”) on this rocky speck of a setting are a pair of lighthouse keepers whose enforced intimacy in such close and unhomely space breeds paranoia and deadly rivalry. Complexly drawn, these two characters carry the film. Both Willem Dafoe (as a crusty old sea dog prone to delivering speeches of Ahab-ian grandeur) and Robert Pattinson (as a taciturn assistant with a dark past, and a thoroughly unreliable viewpoint) give nothing short of career-defining performances.

It’s on the level of plot, however, that The Lighthouse most fully resonates. This is a film where the viewer is never quite knows where it is heading–and still isn’t sure where it arrived at when the closing credits start rolling. Making fine art of ambiguity, The Lighthouse encompasses multiple interpretations, and can be approached through a variety of explanatory frameworks: the natural (excessive alcohol abuse–ultimately including kerosene-and-honey cocktails–is bound to lead to derangement), the psychological (madness results from extended isolation from civilization, not to mention the churning guilt over past misdeed), the supernatural (Ancient-Mariner-type curses; cosmic wonders too awfully sublime to behold), the mythic (symbolically–and perhaps literally–the shapeshifting Greek god Proteus forms a key figure here), and the existential (the idea that hell is repetition isn’t limited to the Sisyphean drudgery of lighthouse-keeping labor).

Arguably not since Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has there been a work of horror that has made such masterful and captivating use of ambiguity. Yet this is no genteel ghost story, and brimming with earthy humor, the film proves not just artsy but (actually) fartsy. The Lighthouse haunts with its imagery and implications alike; it is a beacon to fans who enjoy smart evocations of the macabre (that don’t yield up easy answers), and a shining example of why the present-day horror film genre has entered into a golden age.

 

Lore Report: “Elusive” (Episode 137)

But not every mystery is safe. In fact, some unsolved events seem to hide a certain level of darkness. From a distance they are just as enticing as all the others, but the closer we get to them, the more troublesome they become. And in the process, they cause us to ask ourselves a very honest–a very dangerous–question, one that takes the tale out of mystery and into horror: What if our worst nightmares are real?

The latest episode of Lore concerns mysteries that remain puzzling and refuse to offer clear, satisfying solutions. Such subject matter might lead the listener to expect a survey of various examples, but the podcast devotes much of its run time to one singular tale. Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke transports the audience to the heart of Gothic America: a rural Kentucky farmhouse surrounded by woods, and besieged by strangeness on a memorable night in August 1955. Shortly after a round, metallic-looking object is spotted flying overhead, the people gathered at the Sutton farm are menaced by a group of glowing, goblin-like figures. The story of the Suttons’ desperate attempt to fend off a perceived home invasion by paranormal entities is utterly thrilling, and makes M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs seem like an episode of My Favorite Martian by comparison (at the start of the episode, Mahnke advertises that his media network will soon be branching out into the realm of audio drama, and Lore appears to channel a similar spirit of entertainment here). By narrative’s end, Mahnke’s citing of the Sutton farmhouse incident as “one of the most influential moments in the development of the folklore surrounding UFO’s” hardly sounds hyperbolic.

The moral Mahnke chooses to draw (“we attack the things we don’t understand”) isn’t terribly profound, and grows duller with insistent repetition throughout. But that’s the only quibble I have with this episode, which is worth the listen if only for learning the origin story of a certain alien-describing phrase that has since become part of our pop-culture lexicon. There’s no persistent mystery when it comes to the appeal of this podcast: “Elusive” furnishes indisputable proof of what makes Lore so gripping.