Lore Report: “Invention” (Episode 145)

But whether or not these rumors are true, they highlight an undeniable fact: we are obsessed with the idea that we can reinvent ourselves. That through the sheer power of our intellect, we might be able to put the past behind us and craft a new self and a new future, and that in the battle between who we are and who we wish we could be, we can actually win. And when we hear about it, it almost seems like magic, right up there with all the great tales of supernatural transformation. Except sometimes, it actually works.

Host Aaron Mahnke spends the first half of the latest episode of the Lore podcast presenting the biography of Eliza Jumel–a determined social climber who rose from an impoverished childhood to become (circa 1832) the richest woman in America. Eliza’s life story includes some interesting connections to Napoleon Bonaparte and Aaron Burr, and the suspicious death (involving that American Gothic icon, the pitchfork) of Eliza’s husband also grabs the listener’s attention, but still one wonders whether all this material could have been condensed. Mahnke’s mention of magic and the supernatural in the quoted introduction above seems like an over-hyping of his topic. Yes, there incidents of haunting related here, centered on the Mt. Morris mansion in Manhattan owned by Eliza, but these seem relatively short-changed in the episode’s overall narrative. It is highly surprising that Mahnke mentions the mansion-haunting ghost of a Hessian soldier yet never references the most famous ghost story in American Literature: Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Episode 145 ends where it probably should have begun; it’s concluding segment (concerning the mysterious disappearance at sea of Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia) constitutes the best part of the podcast. But Mahnke devotes too much time throughout to a topic–self-reinvention–that just isn’t that compelling (and seems more a quintessential American act than anything unusual). Regrettably, “Invention” is not an effort to be patented.

 

Lore Report: “Birds of Prey” (Episode 144)

 

At the end of the day, we can’t really claim to know the people around us. Most of the time, that’s just an accepted part of life. But every now and then, that mystery plants a seed that eventually grows into suspicion and fear. It’s one of our innate habits as human beings: if there’s a gap in our knowledge, we’ll invent anything to fill it. But that’s also the problem. Because while the vast majority of these whispers turn out to be nothing more than fiction, every now and then they are the shadow cast by something bigger than we could ever have imagined. Some rumors, it seems, just might be true.

Episode 144 of the Lore podcast pays a visit to a tavern (or “ordinary,” as such places were known in the late 1700’s) with an unsavory reputation. Host Aaron Mahnke focuses most of the narrative on the Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, establishment of a man named Matthias Schaumboch. Perennially distrusted by the locals for his grim demeanor and eccentric behavior, this improper proprietor also is alleged to have murdered many of the guests who sought respite at his tavern (the theft of their goods doesn’t cover the subsequent transgression, either). Mahnke associates Matthias with “the classic villains of folklore,” but in his horrid inhospitality he can also be seen to prefigure a real-life nemesis such as H.H. Holmes and the modern fictional psycho Norman Bates. No doubt, a central theme of the episode (“When we travel,” Mahnke warns, “we step out of the safety of the known, and put ourselves at the mercy and chaos of the unknown”) leads straight toward the territory of the American Gothic.

In a quintessential Lore maneuver, the closing segment offers a curious anecdote (concerning a con man’s putative “perpetual motion” machine) that ultimately involves a famous historical figure. All three parts of the episode–intro, main section, and conclusion–prove quite entertaining. Eschewing extensive exposition, Mahnke delves right into the telling of some gripping stories. Devoted listeners of the podcast will definitely want to target “Birds of Prey.”

 

Lore Report: “Inside Information” (Episode 143)

Sometimes, whether we want them to or not, the dead return.

Episode 143 of the Lore podcast goes ghostly, recounting stories of spectral haunting throughout history. Host Aaron Mahnke begins with a discussion of the nature and function of ghost stories in ancient cultures (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese). He also references classic works of literature (by the likes of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens) featuring ghosts. But it’s the real-life cases that Mahnke delves deepest into, and the episode grows the most interesting when it turns to ghosts that don’t work merely to terrorize–instead, they provide their witnesses with warnings about future events (the “inside information” of the title). My only critique is that the ghost stories recounted here are a little too Eurocentric; I wish some consideration had been given to American encounters. Overall, though, this episode is as fun (for those looking for a bit of frisson, that is) as it is informative.

 

Lore Report: “Stains” (Episode 141)

No matter where you live, beneath the city you know, there’s a whole other world. A world of hidden secrets and dangerous legends. And that even though we might carry out our normal lives in relative safety, the past is always lurking just below the surface, like the shadow of a monstrous creature. And what better place to dig for the lost and forgotten, than Paris, the City of Lights. Because where there’s light, there’s also a whole lot of shadow.

The crash course in Parisian history that host Aaron Mahnke gives at the start of Episode 141 of the Lore podcast drives home the point that from the bubonic plague to the Reign of Terror and beyond, the city has seen more than its fair share of fatality over the centuries. “A city can’t endure that much death,” Mahnke states, “without leaving a stain, a dark mark that can still be seen today.” The episode attends to some of the most prominent of these stains. After brief discussion of the ghosts of Pere Lachaise cemetery (including that of Jim Morrison, for whom death didn’t seem to be “The End”), Mahnke leads his audience down into the bone-stocked catacombs underlying the streets of Paris. He shares an effectively creepy tale about a subterranean disappearance, but even more interesting is the explanation of how the catacombs came to be created in the first place. From here, Mahnke relates a gory story of murder and meat pies, one that would become the source of a famous penny dreadful (and an even better Tim Burton film).

Admittedly, I am sometimes underwhelmed by the closing segments of Lore‘s episodes, but that certainly is not the case here. Mahnke concludes with a fascinating narrative about Catherine de’ Medici and a seemingly inescapable curse. Deeply enjoyable from start to finish, “Stains” forms a bright spot in the history of this long-running podcast.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Lore Report: “The Third Time” (Episode 136)

image from mythology.net/mythical-creatures/black-dog

But it was [accused witch Elizabeth Sawyer’s] familiar, Tom, who would be remembered the most. Because it sits at the edge of a modern belief and a much more ancient idea–an idea not represented by the behavior or powers she claimed it had, but by the very shape it had taken. A shape that continues to inhabit a terrifying place in folklore today: the black dog.

No, the latest episode of the podcast Lore isn’t devoted to a discussion of man’s best friend–more like his worst nightmare. Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke tackles the subject of an uncanny creature–a monstrous-sized, furry and fiery-eyed animal that is possibly a predatory, shapeshifting demon.

Mahnke performs his usual oratory feats here in “The Third Time.” He contextualizes the discussion with a return to ancient mythology (invoking such figures as Anubis and Cerberus). He makes passing reference to pop-cultural reflections, citing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakan (to this brief list I would add these works of genre fiction: Dan Simmons’s A Winter Haunting, Christopher Golden and Ford Lytle Gilmore’s Sleepy Hollow High, and two separate stories titled “Black Dog” by Neil Gaiman and Laird Barron). He recounts a series of illustrative tales that span centuries and range across continents, from the 16th Century English village of Bungay to the Hanging Hills of Connecticut in the 19th Century (as an aficionado of American Gothic, my favorite tale is the episode’s concluding one–of the black-dog-inspired panic that gripped the Massachusetts town of Abington in 1976). He also steps back to speculate on the origins, purposes, and remarkable persistence of folklore tales of the black dog.

The form of this Lore episode might be familiar, but its content is as original and compelling as ever. According to the portentous saying that Mahkne quotes here, the first time someone encounters the black dog is for joy, the second time for sorrow, and the third time means impending death. An initial listen of “The Third Time” promises to bring joy to the life of fans of the macabre.

 

Lore Report: “A Good Death” (Episode 135)

Even in a relatively new country like the United States, there are countless battlefields with a reputation for something darker, as if the past still waits for us behind a thin veil. And thanks to its pivotal role in American history, and the magnitude of suffering that took place, there is one battlefield that most people have heard of, even if they don’t know about the shadows it contains: Gettysburg.

The latest Lore podcast demonstrates how American history turns toward the American Gothic, as host/narrator Aaron Mahnke covers the ground of a site long haunted by its dark past. Mahnke quickly establishes the grim particulars of the Battle of Gettysburg, a three-day conflict at the start of July 1863 that resulted in a staggering 51,000 casualties. While the very notion of a battlefield suggests outdoor engagement, listeners might be surprised to learn how the carnage at Gettysburg carried over into local homes and inns (which were both the stages for shootouts and the retreats where triage transpired). Illustrating the horrors of the famous battle, Mahnke conveys images of bedroom walls painted in blood, and of amputated limbs piled high outside kitchen windows.

Episode 135 draws its title from the popular 19th Century notion that a “good death” was one that occurred at home, in the presence of family. Obviously, war represents the antithesis of such genteel termination, and with excruciating pain and gruesome death suffered on a massive scale, it is small wonder that a place like Gettysburg is reputed to be rife with lingering specters.

The general topic here naturally appeals to the lovers of our Macabre Republic, and Mahnke further captivates his audience with the specific ghost stories he shares. These are told with horripilating flair; their hauntingly-plausible details could cause the staunchest skeptic to reconsider the existence of the supernatural. A good death is hard to find at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, but the various afterlife campaigns chronicled here make for an all-time-great Lore episode.

 

Lore Report: “Disturbing the Peace” (Episode 134)

But there is a third group of people [along with archeologists and tomb raiders] who break that sacred boundary and disturb the peace of the dead, although we tend to forget about them. Partly because we honestly never expect to find them in the first place, but also because we have so much faith in humanity that we don’t expect them to exist. And yet for a very long time, they not only existed, but thrived. And they earned a name that has become synonymous with disrespect and violation. Because everyone feared the body snatchers.

This intro to the latest episode of the Lore podcast suggests that “Disturbing the Peace” is leading into another rehash of the by-now-familiar tale of the infamous corpse-stealers Burke and Hare (who are also the subjects of the lead episode of the second season of Lore‘s Amazon Prime series adaptation). To this listener’s pleasant surprise, though, host and narrator Aaron Mahnke quickly proceeds to recount American incidents of body snatching (i.e. the digging up of the recently deceased and selling the bodies to medical schools, where the cadavers would be used to teach anatomy and dissection to students). Mahnke provides a fascinating glimpse of such illicit profession; body snatching is revealed as the work not merely of marginal, criminal types but also of secret societies (“The Anatomical Club” formed at Harvard in the 18th Century) and city-wide conspiracies. Equally surprising, body snatching was not just a surreptitious act; its practitioners, Mahnke notes, could be downright brazen in announcing their trade.

“Disturbing the Peace” delves even deeper into American Gothic territory when covering an explosive outbreak of public outrage in New York City in April 1788. To say that it all started with a wave of a hand sounds innocent enough, until one learns that said appendage was severed and belonged to a snatched body. The incident sparked a riot in which an angry mob a few-thousand members strong stormed medical school buildings where dissections were taking place, dragged the cadavers out onto the street and tossed them onto a bonfire, and threatened to do the same to unscrupulous professors and their students.

Episode 134 is Lore at its finest, as Mahnke thrills his audience with a macabre topic (which is not just confined to the annals of yesteryear–Mahnke also touches on  modern-day “body brokers”). The narrator’s knack for digging up the dark treasures of history is evident not just in the discussion of the Doctors’ Riot of 1788; Alexander Hamilton, the son of Paul Revere, a doctor colleague who crossed the Delaware with George Washington in 1776, and President Benjamin Harrison are all invoked into the ghoulish story. The details of this piece might be disturbing, but the episode itself undoubtedly makes for a wonderful listen.

 

Lore Report: “Proof Positive” (Episode 133)

From the mundane to the groundbreaking, scientific notebooks have been used throughout history to keep a record of events and knowledge learned so that future generations might look back on them and remember. But for a period of time in the 17th Century, that process was used in an unlikely field–witchcraft. And while it’s easy to assume that combination found at the intersection of witches and science might not be the most logical, you’d be surprised to learn that more than a few professional skeptics tried to use rationale to test superstition. And what they discovered was beyond frightening.

Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke begins the latest episode of the Lore podcast with a discussion of Marie Curie’s research notebooks–uncanny items due to their incredible, unremitting radioactivity. From here, Mahnke transitions to the writings of George Sinclair, a 17th Century professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow who “believed witchcraft was a real and powerful threat.” Sinclair’s endeavor to document evidence of the supernatural led him to publish an account of “The Devil of Glenluce”–a 1654 case of a house (accursed by an atheistic beggar) plagued by seemingly demonic activity. Mahnke devotes the bulk of the episode to relating the details of the Devil of Glenluce story, and his narrative makes for a frightfully good listen. Images such as a forearm rising out of the floorboards and pounding on the floor (the malicious spirit haunting the house claims the appendage belongs to the devil himself) would be right at home in a James Wan Conjuring film.

If I have one critique of Episode 133, it’s that I wish Mahnke would have spent even a little more time on the Glenluce story, discussing the aftermath of the strange events (which have since been called into question as a hoax). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining episode with an intriguing topic–the learned’s earnest attempt to validate the existence of the spectral and sinister. Fans of the novel The Haunting of Hill House–which presents a classic case of paranormal investigation taking an unsettling turn–are sure to thrill at the subject matter here in “Proof Positive.”