Lore Report: “By the Book” (Episode 151)

 

And while it’s hard to imagine one small subject having that much of an impact on the mental state of a person, the story of Peter Lias highlights a belief that was all too common for centuries: some books were more powerful than others. And when taken too far, the results could be deadly.

Episode 151 of the Lore podcast hooks the listener from the first minute, with a graphic recounting of a 1916 axe murder in Pennsylvania. Host Aaron Mahnke’s narrative, though, centers not on grim, naturalistic violence, but rather on magical grimoires. Ever informative, Mahnke goes beyond the generic sense of the grimoire as a book of spells (or as required reading material for aspiring demon-raisers). Variously stocked with charms, instructions (e.g., on getting rich; on improving one’s love life), and recipes, such a book served as “a household reference guide for when life got difficult.” This is not to say that Mahnke works to demystify grimoires; throughout the episode, he traces how these volumes gained their reputation as powerful and valuable works of writing. One traditional method for building the allure of grimoires in the eyes of common folk (the majority of whom would not even be able to read texts written in Latin) was to attribute legendary authorship to the writings, which included the crediting of a couple of famous Biblical figures.

My main critique is that I wish Mahnke had done more to connect the subject of grimoires with pop culture. To be fair, he does invoke the Harry Potter series (in describing Toledo, Spain–an ancient hotbed of sorcerous activity–as the Hogwarts of its day) and The Da Vinci Code. But it’s hard to believe that not even passing mention is made here of the most notorious fictional tome of all: H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. A minor quibble, perhaps, and one that does not ruin what is overall a strong installment. Ultimately, “By the Book” is an easy episode for listeners to invest interest in.

 

Lore Report: “Addition” (Episode 150)

Even the places we call home can evolve over time, transformed by the people who live there. And few cities in America demonstrate that as perfectly as New Orleans. But be careful, because history has made one truth abundantly clear: the more you dig, the more tragic things become.

The Crescent City is a quintessentially gothic American city, and thus forms a fitting subject for the latest episode of the Lore podcast, which takes as its theme the dark depths hidden beneath alluring surfaces. Host Aaron Mahnke presents a wealth of macabre material, including the stories of Louis Congo (an ex-slave who rose to the position of public executioner) and of the old Orleans Theater and Ballroom (the site of various hauntings). The bulk of the episode, though, is devoted to the chilling tale of Madame Marie LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite now notorious for her imprisonment and sadistic torture of her black slaves in the early 19th Century. LaLaurie no doubt is a familiar figure to fans of American Horror Story (the New-Orleans-set “Coven” season during which Kathy Bates portrayed LaLaurie is not referenced here, although one suspects that Mahnke had it in mind when discussing fictional embellishments of LaLaurie’s acts for horrific effect). The documented, real-life cruelties perpetrated by LaLaurie are nothing less than unsettling, but Mahnke also turns the screw further here by recounting reports of the woman’s posthumous assaults inside her restored mansion.

“Addition” is an apt title choice: it is a longer episode than recent offerings, and returns to furnish further bits of lore about a place Mahnke has visited previously on the podcast. Layered with dark detail, this 150th episode is itself a welcomed addition to the Lore archives.

 

Lore Report: “Off-Track” (Episode 149)

But not all advances are good for us. Every now and then, changes arrive on the scene that look shiny and new. They seem to solve a whole list of problems and become incredibly popular as a result. But in the process they build a brand new stage for history to be played out on, a stage where the most human characteristic of all–our desire to make and build and invent things–also unlocks our potential for something darker: tragedy, suffering, and death.

Episode 149 of the Lore podcast explores the dark side of a superficially bright development: the American railroad. Beginning with the legendary figure of John Henry, host Aaron Mahnke quickly moves to a discussion of an actual historical figure, Casey Jones. The story of the locomotive engineer’s heroic death is recounted with all of the grisly details left out of the popular ballads. The bulk of the episode, though, is devoted to the famous funeral train that conveyed the body of the assassinated President Lincoln home to Illinois (with several detours to accommodate American mourners along the way). This narrative makes for a great listen, not just to hear Mahnke wax poetic (“That dark metallic beast that seemed to be dragging Lincoln into the underworld, mile by mile”), but also to learn of the various supernatural occurrences that allegedly followed in the funeral train’s wake over the years.

My only issue with this latest offering is that I wish it were longer; Mahnke seems to use the episode mostly to promote the new podcast, American Shadows (in lieu of a concluding segment, he presents an excerpt from the just-launched show). Nevertheless, the content of this bit of Lore proves fantastically fascinating. When it comes to delivering tales of the macabre byproduct of American progress, “Off-Track” is right on the mark.

 

Lore Report: “Predictable” (Episode 148)

But if history is any indication, that pursuit of future knowledge hasn’t always been acceptable. In fact, it’s been seen by many over the centuries as a dark art with dangerous pitfalls. To play with the future is to play with fire, and the consequences could be tragic. Fortune telling, it seems, might just get you killed.

Sometimes the introductory teases to Lore podcast episodes seem misleading, as host Aaron Mahnke’s dramatic rhetoric raises expectations that the subsequent narrative doesn’t quite fulfill. That’s certainly not the case here, though; the lines cited above make for a perfect set-up to Episode 148. Mahnke delves into the curious world of astrology, and its entanglement in the lives of English royalty. While the practice of fortune telling was generally tolerated, there was one type of prediction that was forbidden: a 1351 English law deemed it treason for anyone to even imagine the death of a king. Such stern prohibition comes into play in a scandalous way when a social-climbing duchess asks her astrologer how long young King Henry VI will live, and is told that the king will become sick with a fatal illness. After news of the dire forecast spreads, several figures are arrested and subjected to spectacular punishment, including burning at the stake and drawing and quartering (a barbarous administering of justice that Mahnke describes in grim detail). Outre beliefs and practices might typically be considered the province of the common folk, but this Lore episode points listeners toward higher ground. “Wherever there has been power of the few over the many,” our narrator asserts, “fear and superstition have been wielded like weapons to defend it.”

English history and court affairs, magic and witchcraft: these seem to rank among Mahnke’s favorite topics (judging by their recurrence on the podcast). Mahnke never fails to do them justice, so it’s no surprise that “Predictable” proves to be a strong episode.

 

Lore Report: “Contained” (Episode 147)

Walls might protect, or divide, or even just serve as a reminder. But at the end of the day they’re a simple design meant to do one thing: to contain us. The trouble is, whenever you bring people into the picture, you get more than you bargained for. Because humans have an almost supernatural ability to leave a trail of pain and suffering behind them. Yes, walls can hold cities, or kingdoms, or objects we want to protect, but they can also hold something darker: the shadows of the past.

 

The latest installment of the Lore podcast goes heavy on historical (the Norman incursion into Ireland) and architectural (castles and tower-houses) detail, which weighs down the first half of the episode. “Contained” doesn’t really hit its stride until host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners on a tour of Loftus Hall in Ireland, a house with enough strange and unnerving incidents to stock a Gothic novel. Mahnke shares gripping tales involving a satanic visitor, madness and seclusion, a hidden skeleton, a female specter, and even a growling, invisible monster.

There is such a great body of lore that has built up around Loftus Hall that one wishes that the episode had focused in its entirety on this famously haunted residence (instead of spending fifteen tedious minutes establishing context). The “walls” conceit structuring the episode seemed a bit facile (every haunted house inevitably has them!), and a large blockage to the narrative’s progression. Unfortunately, “Contained” enabled me to do just that with my excitement.

 

Lore Report: “A Great Weight” (Episode 146)

 

In the realm of sleep and dreams and internal forces, sometimes the most frightening disturbances can come from within us: visions that startle us awake, or experiences that are too disturbing to allow us a good night’s rest. We’re told that it’s all a figment of our imagination, and most of us have wrestled with a horrifying question once or twice before: what happens if our nightmares become reality?

In Episode 146 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke is in top form as he delves below the surface of waking reality to focus on the phenomena of nightmares and sleep paralysis. Mahnke begins with a survey of the wildly off-the-mark explanations throughout history for the cause of nightmares. He also explains why we are prone to bad dreams at certain points of the night. Next he provides an overview of sleep paralysis–that sensation of a pressing, immobilizing weight upon the sleeper’s chest, accompanied by feelings of suffocation. As Mahnke demonstrates, such frightful experiences have been noted the world over long before the clinical term “sleep paralysis” came into use. Tracing the etymology of the word “nightmare” all the way to the start of the 14th Century, he elucidates the word’s roots in the idea of bedroom intrusion by a demonic force. Reaching the dark heart of the episode’s narrative, Mahnke shares a series of gripping stories involving seemingly otherworldly incitements of nightmares–by the likes of incubuses, witches, and ghosts.

I was very surprised that Mahnke never referenced the famous Fuseli painting, The Nightmare (pictured above), which is certainly relevant to the central discussion of “A Great Weight.” Also, I wish that Mahnke had delved a little further into the modern understanding of sleep paralysis, but these are mere quibbles. Appropriately stocked with chilling tales, this nightmarish episode is a dream come true for lovers of macabre lore (and Lore).

 

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.