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.”

 

Lore Report: “Puzzled” (Episode 132)

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.

 

Lore Report: “Sea of Change” (Episode 131)

Ships vanish. It’s one of the risks that humans accepted when they began to venture out into the dark, mysterious waters that separated them from the undiscovered. Because if we’re honest, there are simply too many opportunities for tragedy on the open waters. And sadly, some ships don’t make it home. But if you read enough of the stories about lost ocean liners and missing schooners, you’ll start to notice an exception to the rule. Yes, sometimes ships vanish from sight, but every now and then, the unthinkable happens: they return.

In its latest episode, the Lore podcast heads out to sea. Host/narrator Aaron Mahnke tackles the subject of “ghost ships,” derelict vessels discovered adrift and devoid of their human crew. The stories of ships both legendary (e.g. the Flying Dutchman) and actual (the Mary Celeste) are related, and lesser-known instances (the Resolven, the Baychimo) are discussed as well. Besides furnishing plentiful examples, Mahnke takes a step back to consider the why of such tales–the reason they arise and seize hold of the imagination. With his typical knack for supplying the informative tidbit, Mahnke also enlightens listeners with the origins of the name/business “Lloyd’s of London.”

My one disappointment with Episode 131 is that it didn’t delve deeper into the treatment of ghost ships in literature and pop culture. Mahnke makes passing mention of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the Doctor Who TV series, but fails to invoke classic cases such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Dan Simmons’s The Terror. Nevertheless, the macabre armada of maritime folklore that Mahnke gathers here is sure to float the boats of podcast’s devotees.

 

Lore Report: “In Plain Sight” (Episode 130)

[I’ve been negligent with these posts since Halloween season, but it’s time to get back on track…]

Today we know a lot more about our world than we used to, but if we were to go back in time and live through a less learned age, we would be amazed by the stories that await us. Tales of creatures that sit at the very edge of our imagination, living things that defy logic and monsters that inspire wonder. Our hearts want to believe while our heads are ready to move on. Instead what we tend to feel is a mixture of deep curiosity and primal fear. And if the tales of the past are any indication, there’s a good reason why.

In the latest episode of the hit podcast series Lore, Aaron Mahnke ventures back to early times, when technology was much less prevalent and the gaps in humanity’s knowledge of the surrounding world were much larger. Accordingly, volumes like Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic Natural History and medieval illuminated bestiaries were often filled not with verifiable classifications but instances of cryptozoological creativity. In such books, one would be able to find a menagerie of incredible specimens, from the basilisk and the dragon to the kraken and the mermaid. Lest we simply dismiss the ancient bestiary as “a time capsule of our gullibility” as a species, though, Mahnke regales us with tales of human encounter suggesting that these mythic creatures could have a basis in reality. He also reminds us that our state of knowledge in the modern age of Google might not be as complete as we would like to think, noting, in a mind-boggling example, how over 90% of ocean life is still a mystery to us.

Episode 130 epitomizes the nature of lore (and Lore): it arises in that liminal space between superstition and science, fancy and fact. The various anecdotes concerning shadowy, marvelous figures that Mahnke shares here clearly make “In Plain Sight” as entertaining an episode to listen to as paging through a bestiary proved for medieval readers.

 

Lore Report: “The Shortest Straw” (Episode 122)

 

“When faced with death, that will to live kicks in and gives people the courage to do what is necessary to survive. Whether it’s the strength to sever your own limb to escape a dangerous situation, or the stubborn refusal to give up hope of rescue, people are capable of extraordinary things. And when their very life is on the line, desperate people will do anything to survive.”

 

For its 122nd episode, Aaron Mahnke’s podcast Lore voyages to the land of ultimate taboo: cannibalism. Once again our intrepid narrator displays a knack for sketching historical context and supplying fascinating details. When tracing the origins of cannibalism, Mahnke notes that making provender of one’s fellows is not distinct to humanity: over 1500 species have been known to dine on their own kind. In terms of strictly interpersonal gourmandizing, such gruesome act (judging from the tooth-marked bones unearthed) dates back an incredible 600,000 years.

Mahnke narrows matters down to focus on the “custom of the sea” (sailor euphemism for the resort to cannibalism). The title of the episode refers to the practice of literally drawing straws to determine who among the group of desperately hungry seamen would be fed, and who would be converted into cuisine (drawing the second-shortest straw wasn’t very rewarding, either: to that person fell the dirty job of butchering the designated victim). A good chunk of the narration here is devoted to an 1884 maritime tragedy involving the English yacht “The Mignonette,” and the story does bog down a bit as Mahnke discusses the legal dilemma that stemmed from this cause célèbre (is cannibalism a justifiable survival effort or simply murder?). But the tale takes a turn toward the intriguing when Mahnke proceeds to identify a callback to the case by a recent Oscar-winning movie, and to point out a curious coincidence with Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

The episode clocks in at a considerable 38 minutes, yet I wish it had run even longer, and addressed other offbeat feats of survival besides those involving starving sailors in dire straits. For anyone, though, who is a fan of the subject of shipwreck and grim perseverance in American fiction–from Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” to Stephen King’s “Survivor Type” and Dan Simmons’s The Terror–“The Shortest Straw” will surely be a winning selection.