Lore Report: “A Grain of Truth” (Episode 158)

Some journeys into history are more dangerous, because while legends might offer us a window into the past, we have no control over the things we might learn. Folklore might hold a new detail that could unlock our understanding of who our ancestors really were, but it could also reveal something else–our failures, our flaws, and the less savory aspects of human nature. Folklore contains powerful stories, for sure, but it also holds something darker: the truth about who we are.

 

In Episode 158 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke serves as our storytelling tour guide of Vancouver Island in British Columbia–a place sporting more than its fair share of strange tales. Mahnke narratively explores local ghost towns (the remnants of an era of gold fever), spectral ladies in white, even a haunted castle. Most extended coverage is given to “Caddy,” an ostensible sea serpent reputed to swim in the surrounding waters of Vancouver Island, and which seemed to transmute from the mythic to the grimly physical when a bizarre carcass (pictured above) was discovered inside a whale’s stomach in 1937 (intriguingly, Caddy is also connected here in “A Grain of Truth” to a certain legendary sea creature from Scotland). The true reward of this episode, though, comes from Mahnke’s thematic concern with stepping back from the specific examples and pondering the very purpose–and ongoing power–of folklore.

 

Lore Report: “Hanging On” (Episode 157)

 

It’s the one obstacle that we seem unable to overcome. We might be able to eliminate physical pain for a while, or broken social structures that hold us down. We’ve been able to cure diseases and send humans to the moon, but we’ve never been able to put a stopper to death. At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But the history books contain hints at an alternate answer, one that says  even something as  permanent and certain as death might be avoided. Death, some believe, can truly be beaten. And if the stories are true, there are some who have already succeeded.

Immortality is in the air in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, as host Aaron Mahnke covers “our undying obsession with living forever.” The first half of “Hanging On” is devoted to a broad survey of the Philosopher’s Stone, the Holy Grail, Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth–subjects with which the listener is likely familiar already (although it was interesting to learn how the myth of Sisyphus ties in). But the episode really hits its stride when Mahnke relates the incredible tale of William Cragh, a 13th-Century Welsh rebel who suffered capital punishment for his crimes (he was hung–twice) but somehow managed to make a full recovery from his grim execution and live on another eighteen years. Cragh’s miraculous resurrection ranks among the wildest stories in the history of Lore, but is soon matched by the episode’s closing segment, concerning a ritual of living burial in Vermont that served as a folksy, early rural version of cryogenics.

Apropos of its topic, the episode enjoys an extended runtime (44 minutes). “Hanging On” gets off to a bit of a slow start, but rewards the listener for hanging in with some astounding folklore in its latter half.

 

Lore Report: “Skin Deep” (Episode 155); “Bottled Up” (Episode 156)

 

“Skin Deep” (Episode 155)

 

There are stories and legends we’ve told ourselves for centuries, from tribal campfires to Hollywood blockbusters. But many of the details have been worn away or buried beneath the waves of time. They were once part of the larger picture, but now they are all but forgotten. So today I want to take you on a journey into the past, to explore one of our favorite corners of folklore, and see what the shadows might be hiding. But be warned, because while the core of this legend might be familiar to most of you, there’s a darkness just beneath the surface, waiting to break free. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, there are few creatures of folklore more terrifying than the werewolf.

Aaoooooo! Episode 155 of the Lore podcast goes heavy on the lycanthropy. Host Aaron Mahnke delves well beneath the surface here, delivering all the information the listener likely never knew before about werewolves. Mahnke unpacks the various ancient beliefs as to what a werewolf actually was (which included a connection to witches). He also covers the alleged causes of the hirsute condition, the various triggers of transformation, the personal traits of a werewolf when in human form, and the proposed (and often savage) “cures” for the afflicted. If such things as wound legends, backriders, werewolf trials, and the “Hounds of God” (a pack of benevolent werewolves) are unfamiliar to you, you will have a howling good time listening to “Skin Deep.”

 

“Bottled Up” (Episode 156)

Sometimes our guesswork prevents us from seeing the truth. We think we know something, but if we are given the chance to explore the true details, we can find ourselves surprised by what we discover. The lens through which we view the world is far from clear, so let’s spend some time trying to clean it up a bit. But be warned, because sometimes what lies within is entirely unexpected.

Episode 156 of the Lore podcast presents another subject quite germane to the Halloween season: witchcraft. Host Aaron Mahnke has dealt with witches in several previous episodes, but here he aims to surprise anyone who believes that he or she has heard the whole story already. Transporting listeners to the Essex County village of Canewdon in England (whose church tower–pictured above–sports an intriguing witch legend), Mahnke focuses on the objects and measures of “countermagic.” Prime among these is the fascinating, if disgusting, concoction known as a witch bottle–containing a hardly-potable brew (e.g., pins, nails, alcohol, human hair, fingernail clippings, urine) used to lure, trap, and even destroy witches. Mahnke momentarily invokes the notorious figure of Matthew Hopkins (portrayed by Vincent Price in the folk horror classic, Witchfinder General), but devotes more attention to the white witchery of “cunning folk” such as James Murrell. For those willing to cast aside their assumptions about the subject of witchcraft, “Bottled Up” serves as a terrific listen.

 

 

Lore Report: “Adding It Up” (Episode 154)

 

But while the folklore surrounding lucky coins is all about attracting good things, the vast majority of superstitions out there are different. They are beliefs designed to repel danger and suffering, either by watching for ominous signs or by actively tripping up the evil forces that might deliver the worst that life has to offer. Many of these superstitions have been with us for a very long time, and while they can be a bit divisive, splitting communities into those who believe and those who don’t, it’s undeniable that they hold a certain kind of power of us–a power that has driven some people to the very edge of madness. And if history is any indication, there’s a good reason why.

Knock on wood; never walk beneath a ladder; a broken mirror means seven years of bad luck; toss spilt salt over your left shoulder. Aaron Mahnke delves into the origins of these common superstitions in the latest episode of his Lore podcast. Somewhat surprisingly, many of these fears that still have lingering effect on people’s behavior today actually link back to ancient times. Mahnke lets the roots of such superstitions show, explaining in delightfully enlightening manner the various theories of their initial development. Along the way, he also ties cultural artifacts into the narrative, as when he invokes Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

The bulk of the episode, though, is devoted to the fear of numbers, and it is interesting to learn of the negative connotation that Asian cultures give to the numbers 4 and 9. Add those two digits, and you arrive at the most number of all: Mahnke unpacks the origins of the superstitious dread of the number 13 and the date Friday the 13th (with nary a mention of slasher movies). Turning to the world of classical music, he details how composer Arnold Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and how Gustav Mahler’s attempt to circumvent the “curse of the ninth” (the belief that a ninth symphony will be the last for a composer, who will die before completing the 10th) apparently backfired. In summation, “Adding It Up” equals another terrific episode of the podcast.

Note: not coincidentally, Episode 154 (with its discussion of the number 13) ties into a new project set to launch on the 19th: Aaron Mahnke’s 13 Days of Halloween. So there’s even more to look forward to this October than weekly Lore installments.

 

Lore Report: “Hold On” (Episode 153)

 

There are some things we’d all like to forget, yet they manage to hold on, like unwanted houseguests. And few places in American history have been more defined by the past than one east coast city. Whether serving as a stage for violent conflict or a deep well of creative expression, its legacy casts more than a few shadows along the way, and I want to take you there. But be warned, because in Baltimore that dark past has stayed remarkably close to the present.

Among the many things to appreciate about October is the fact that during this month, the Lore podcast shifts to a weekly schedule of releases. In this week’s episode, “Hold On,” our host and tour guide Aaron Mahnke leads us through the haunted history of the city of Baltimore. He starts with Fort McHenry, which is notable for more than the role it played in the composition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As a military prison during the Civil War, and a hospital during World War I and the subsequent influenza epidemic, Fort McHenry has seen more than its share of death, so it should be of no surprise that later visitors to the site have reported encounters with the paranormal. Mahnke shares a wealth of ghost stories about the fort, as well as about Hampton Manor, a country estate north of the city. In the final segment of the episode, Mahnke turns his attention to one of Baltimore’s favorite and most famous sons. None other than Edgar Allan Poe is spotlighted–his lifelong trials, his untimely demise on October 7, 1849 (a mystery that persists to this day), and his honoring by a strange visitor to his gravesite, the Poe Toaster.

October is the perfect time for ghost stories, as well as to invoke one of America’s founding fathers of macabre fiction and poetry.  For anyone with interests in such subjects, “Hold On” is an episode to cherish this Halloween season.

 

Lore Report: “Follow the Leader” (Episode 152)

But the woods are more than just a place to visit. They’re home to challenges, risks, and even dangers. Wild animals, difficult terrain, and the dark side of all that peace and quiet–the lack of human assistance–can all conspire to turn a pleasant afternoon into an unexpected tragedy. And it’s been that way for as long as humans have been around. But if the tales are true, the forest might also be home to something else, something that we mere mortals are woefully unprepared to deal with: dangers from another realm.

In Episode 152 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners deep into the woods. The dark forest, lying beyond civilization, is a locus classicus of American Gothic narrative, but Mahnke adopts a much more global approach here. He delves into the folklore of the Wild Hunt, tracing the origins of such mythic tales in Germany and their subsequent spread to other countries such as Great Britain, where “the tales changed to incorporate local legends and key historical figures.” Mahnke takes the time to ponder the significance of the Wild Hunt, which was popularly held as an omen of impending demise for hapless witnesses. Some fascinating details related to the Wild Hunt are shared along the way, such as the British positing of King Arthur as the doomed leader of the procession, and the historical instances of accusing people–by those wont to cry witch–as willing participants in the unworldly endeavor.

A critique I seem to rehearse on almost a biweekly basis is that Lore podcast fails to connect its subject matter to the realm of literature. Happily, that is not the case here, as Mahnke (when discussing the ghostly figure of Herne the Hunter) invokes William Shakespeare, William Harrison Ainsworth, and Jacob Grimm. And imagine my complete and utter delight when the narrative devotes several minutes to linking the Wild Hunt to one of the most famous stories in all of American Literature: Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Mahnke remains on native soil in the episode’s concluding segment, which concerns a piece of lore involving an uncanny horse-drawn carriage in antebellum East Texas.

“Follow the Leader” need not assume a subordinate position to any precursor. In my estimation, it ranks as the preeminent episode that Mahnke has recorded in the five-year-plus history of the podcast.

 

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.