Lore Report: “Inside Job” (Episode 111) and “Facets” (Episode 112)

Episode 111: “Inside Job”

“But just because [dreams] are powerful, doesn’t mean they are safe. Dreams are just too complex to nail down as purely good or entirely evil. And it’s that unpredictable aspect that gives dreams their mysterious aura. They can delight us with pure fantasy, or stab us with the knife of grief over a long-lost love done. They can reconnect us with sights and sounds from our youth, or they can paint a picture that is difficult to understand. And if you’ve ever had the sort of dream that stuck with you the entire day, like a ghost that was eager to haunt your mind, then you can understand how problematic they can be. A dream come true, it seems, might not be such a good thing.”

The subject of this Lore episode might be dreamy, but Aaron Mahnke makes a lucid exploration of it. He considers the function of dreams throughout history and across cultures, starting with the ancient Eqyptians (it’s interesting to learn that dream books–“collections of common dream images and their associated meanings”–aren’t just a New Age creation). Particular attention is given to the supposed power to heal through dreams; Mahnke recounts the story of the Greek physician Galen, who was visited in a dream by the god of medicine Asclepius and informed how to perform self-surgery to fix exactly what ailed him. From here, Mahnke moves on to the Mesmerism movement, and the claims of “clairvoyant physicians” to be able to use animal magnetism to draw disease out of the human body. A healthy portion of the podcast is focused on Vermont sensation “Sleeping” Lucy Ainsworth Cooke, who reportedly could diagnose, and recommend remedies for, illnesses while she was in a trance state. During her long career as a healer, Sleeping Lucy consulted over 200,000 people(!), and even numbered Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy among her followers.

The title of the episode stems from the fact that dreams can’t be put on display as external proof: when it comes to surreally-inspired healing, it’s a Ripleyesque case of “believe it, or not.” Here, though, is where Mahnke’s narrative itself falls short. Sleeping Lucy was either an incredible fraud or someone with a truly fantastic gift; I wish more documentation of her specific efforts had been provided, to help steer the listener toward one explanation or the other (Mahnke’s account, unfortunately, remains mired in the anecdotal). Also, the opening monologue (whose conclusion is quoted above) hints at a turn towards the darker, more nightmarish aspect of dreams that the ensuing episode never really takes. The coverage of some early cases of psychic investigators (whose dream visions help expose the secret sin of murderers) doesn’t prove terribly gripping because by this late date, such clairvoyant figures have become a pop cultural cliche. Overall, “Inside Job” tantalizes, but ultimately fails to satisfy.

 

Episode 112: “Facets”

“Death and grief are guaranteed parts of our life. Like taxes, they are something we can count on experiencing more than once. But despite that element of dependability, we never seem to be ready for it, do we? More often than not, we’re taken by surprise, and left gasping for relief. So it’s no wonder that cultures around the globe have put traditions and beliefs into practice that are meant to help–a balm for an aching soul, but also a grim reminder of the inevitable. Part of living is losing the ones we love, and we’ll take any help we can get to manage that–even if it fuels our nightmares.”

Acknowledging the inevitability of death and the universality of grief, this episode traces the practices (and resultant narratives) that have arisen from the attempt to cope with heartbreaking loss. “Facets” is studded with nuggets of intriguing information: noting that funerary traditions are nearly as old as civilization itself, Mahnke points to the Neanderthals as the “first culture to practice intentional burial.” Prior to listening to this podcast, I was not aware of the existence–from the time of ancient Egypt to modern China–of “professional mourners” (or, more technically, “moirologists”): actors hired by grieving decedents to perform ostentatious acts of lamentation. Mahnke also delves into the Gaelic “keening woman,” an actual bardic figure with a “vast collection of songs of lament” in her repertoire, who later mutates into a more sinister and supernatural entity: the banshee. The most extensive focus is on another hair-raising wailer, La Llorona, whom Mahnke dubs “one of the finest examples of global folklore.”

The various tales (with connecting traits) of the weeping-woman myth are compared here to the different facets of a gemstone. This episode-organizing analogy is an appropriate one, since “Facets” provides a treasure trove of dark stories. Starting with discussion of the sineater and closing with the Indonesian legend of the Pontianak (horrifically voracious vampiric ghosts of women who died while pregnant), Mahnke enriches the imagination of anyone invested with a fondness for the macabre and offbeat. Without a doubt, “Facets” is one of the most insightful and fright-fulled episodes of Lore ever produced, and the quintessence of what makes this podcast so utterly fascinating.

 

Lore Report: “Crooked” (Episode 110)

“Our cities, like the Tower of Pisa, are places that are built on some type of foundation. And in the chaos of building a community and all the infrastructure that will need to grow and thrive, mistakes can happen. Issues can be woven into the fabric of a location, and problems can become part of the DNA there, setting it up for a future of pain and misfortune. And while the United States is full of example of this idea in practice, we’d be hard pressed to find a city in our country with a more flawed beginning than its own epicenter of power and authority: our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.”

In “Crooked,” the 110th episode of the hit podcast Lore, Aaron Mahnke takes listeners straight to the geographical heart of American politics. Fear not, though, because our host does not address anything as prosaic as presidential underhandedness or congressional chicanery.

Admittedly, Mahnke does have a tendency to torture a metaphor, and his narrative here proves no exception. Starting with the idea of a literally faulty foundation (causing the famous lean of the Tower of Pisa), Mahnke broadens the discussion of crookedness to encompass aberrant/unexpected development and historical instances of skewing from the putative norm. Figurative turns such as these oftentimes feel forced (in the interest of creating a thematic tread), but Mahnke can be forgiven his flourishes, especially after he delivers these lines capturing the essence of American Gothic: “But the beautiful, elegant appearance [of the nation’s capital] is often little more than a facade. Just like the people who lived there, Washington, D.C., was a pretty shell with a rotten core.”

From here, Mahnke leads his audience on a ghost tour of notable residences around the Potomac. We visit the reputedly haunted Octagon House (whose staircase is said to have been the site of two separate, fatal falls by a pair of sisters) and the uncanny Halcyon House, an East Coast analogue of the Winchester House (the focus, incidentally, of episode 79, “Locked Away”). The tour is sure to stop at the White House, where a grieving (over the death of her child) Mary Todd Lincoln once hosted seances and was preyed upon by a spurious spiritualist (who, ironically, would also forewarn President Lincoln about a legitimately dire threat).

Following the sponsor break, Mahnke shares an engrossing story about Henry Adams, his suicidal wife Clover, and an illegal copy of the statue overlooking her grave. This memorial knockoff, dubbed “Black Aggie” (pictured above), has served as the locus of various college hazing rituals over the years, and has spawned a slew of legends (my personal favorite: anyone who dares to sleep in the figure’s lap overnight will be found dead there the next morning). The episode-concluding tale of Black Aggie is pure Lore: a soaring toward the ostensibly supernatural that is nonetheless grounded in historical detail.

All told, “Crooked” is a highly entertaining episode; my only real complaint is that I wish it had been longer. Given the scope of the subject here, Mahnke could have elected to extend the tour and furnished further examples of Washington, D.C.’s Gothic leanings.

 

Lore Report: “Assumption” (Episode 109)

[A review of the latest episode of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore]

When we assume, we write off all other possibilities, and throw ourselves completely behind an idea that we believe to be the full and complete truth. But assumption can lead us toward tragedy. And the sooner we catch it, the sooner the real truth can be pursued. And as history has shown us time and time again, innocent lives may depend upon it.

Episode 109 takes listeners back to 19th Century New England, and reminds us that the dark history of Salem, Massachusetts, did not conclude with the Witch Trials of the 1690’s. Mahnke’s narrative focuses on the sensational 1830 murder of Captain Joseph White, a retired shipmaster/trader and “insanely wealthy widower.” White’s grisly killing (while asleep in his bed, the 82-year-old had his skull cracked by a brutal bludgeoning, and he was also stabbed thirteen times in the torso) left the townspeople of Salem haunted with fear of the depraved killer(s) at large. The public panic following White’s murder is something I wished Mahnke had delved further into; he passingly mentions the local populace’s sudden demand for daggers and pistols.

“Assumption” traces out all the strange twists and turns of the White murder case. The exploration of the historic crime–which proves to have been motivated by the greedy desire to secure the victim’s immense fortune–exposes plentiful family intrigue. In keeping with the episode theme, various erroneous assumptions (made by the prosecutors and the perpetrators of the crime alike) are highlighted. With appropriately Gothic flair, Mahnke even likens assumptions to “a locked house in the dead of night…lull[ing] us into a false sense of security.”

In the midst of his narrative, Mahnke acknowledges that “on the surface, there’s nothing particularly special” about the murder of Joseph White. I have to admit, as I sat listening I found myself wondering what really made this case (its macabre violence notwithstanding) worthy of a Lore episode. Had the podcast played itself out after 100+ episodes? Just as I was beginning to doubt, though, Mahnke proceeded to draw the intriguing connections that Lore is noted for. First, he recounts how renowned attorney/orator Daniel Webster got involved in the murder trial. An impassioned speech by Webster in turn inspired “a particular [fiction] writer to spin his own tale of murder, guilt, and our inability to hide from our own shame” (somewhat surprisingly, Mahnke–unlike one of the sources he seems to borrow from–fails to cite a second writer influenced by the White case: Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne). I won’t spoil the surprise hear, but rest assured, this American writer identified is an exemplar of Gothic fiction, and his tale one of the most popular of all-time.

This closing connection (which Mahnke skillfully establishes through the reciting of parallel passages by Webster and the short-storyteller) alone makes for a remarkable episode. So as I have thankfully realized, thinking that Lore has somehow lost its podcasting knack is the most incorrect assumption of all.

 

Lore Report: “Debris” (Episode 108)

(The third installment of a new feature to this blog, which offers episode reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.)

“From the illustrations on ancient maps to Hollywood blockbusters, humans have always been obsessed with monsters of the deep. And while science has given us more clarity over the centuries, we still wrestle with the possibility that we might have missed something–something that’s still there beneath the cold black waves of the sea.”

Episode 108 delves into the ocean deeps, and the ostensible mysteries that have risen to the surface over the years. First enlightening listeners with established myths (e.g., the giant Japanese catfish Namazu; the Kraken), Mahnke then swims out into murkier waters. He traces various historical sightings of floating curiosities–the eponymous “debris” that blurs the line between dead matter and living, serpentine legend.

Mahnke’s assertion that “we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the depths of our own oceans” is arresting, and his recounted tales of maritime uncanniness are intriguing in and of themselves. Ultimately, though, the episode disappoints. The dearth of factual evidence accompanying the reported sightings renders them to fish stories. And when an attempt is made to resolve such longstanding mystery, the explanation proves somewhat prosaic, if grotesque (I did find it quite interesting, though, to learn what a “globster” was–not the phosphorescent crustacean the strange coinage might suggest).

I have to admit, the summarizing generalization here failed to grab me: “Even now in 2019,” Mahnke intones, “the existence of sea serpents is still lurking in the backs of the collective consciousness like debris floating on the sea. And some of us can’t help but wonder if it will eventually raise its head. And if it does, will any of us be ready?” As an unabashed landlubber, I can’t say I consider beasties from the deep any real cause for Lovecraftian concern.

“Debris” is by no means podcast garbage; Mahnke provides an entertaining listening experience, as always. Nevertheless, the overarching story told here isn’t the most impressive one in the vast Lore repertoire.

 

Lore Report: “Sight Unseen” (Episode 107)

(Here’s the second installment of a new feature to this blog, which offers episode reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.)

“While everyone is busy looking for death from the most obvious places, history is full of individuals who took the more invisible approach. Their ingenuity and creativity allowed them to slip under the radar and deliver pain and suffering in a way that few would have suspected.”

Episode 107 highlights the terrors of the invisible world. The focus, though, isn’t on ghosts or microbes, as Mahnke’s narration addresses something more sinister than (super)natural forces: the deliberate poisoning of a fellow human being.

“Sight Unseen” takes an extended look back at a American true crime case that gained national attention in the early 20th Century. The murder mystery recounted here is no doubt a harrowing one, as several members of a single family curiously perish over a period of years. At first, the podcast episode appears to be presenting a howdunit more than a whodunit, but while Herman Billik, an occult herbalist and adviser to the plagued Vrzal family, forms an obvious prime suspect, there proves to be much more to this shocking case than meets the eye. (For a book-length study of the sensational crime, listeners are encouraged by Mahnke to seek out Steve Shukis’s Poisoned.)

Mahnke does an excellent job of tying together the various threads of Episode 107, which opens with a discussion of alchemy (and an intriguing tidbit about what modern-day lab testing of one of Sir Isaac Newton’s hairs revealed). The closing segment points out how the Herman Billik trial helped lead to a governmental push for food safety standards. For me one of the most unforgettable parts of the podcast is the revelation of how unscrupulous businesses used to doctor milk–the surreptitiously added ingredients (e.g. plaster of Paris) surely didn’t do any body good.

If I had one critique of “Sight Unseen,” it’s that I wish Mahnke would have devoted more time analyzing the “toxic element” of the poisoner psyche. However arresting the specific details of the Billik case might be, they broach a larger concern–the disturbingly devious mindset a person must possess to commit murder via such stealthy and methodical malevolence.

 

Lore Report: “The Collection” (Episode 106)

Today marks the debut of a new blog feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The “Lore Report” will provide reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.

 

“And sometimes, the very act of hiding darkness away, only makes it stronger.”

Episode 106 of the Lore podcast isn’t concerned with cursed artwork, or the hoarding of macabre bric-a-brac. “The Collection” references the stashing away of criminals, at a prison that has become the locus of dark lore. Mahnke’s narration focuses on the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia–a place that makes the worst hellhole imaginable seem like a penthouse by comparison. Built in the Gothic Revival style, the castle-like facility was riddled with lice, rats, and roaches, and plagued by disease; the stench of sewage permeated its passageways. Inhumane guards committed heinous acts of torture there, and the inmates were not to be outdone when it came to brutality. The poorly-guarded basement rec area (dubbed “The Sugar Shack,” a misnomer if there ever was one) furnished a den of assault (sexual and otherwise) and manslaughter.

With its violent inmates, sadistic guards, and scenes of state-sanctioned execution, Moundsville formed a site of concentrated suffering, and to no surprise, various ghost stories have been attached to the prison. There are reports of a “Shadow Man” glimpsed lurking in the offing; no less haunting is the three-word message (I won’t spoil the frisson by revealing it here) a visitor allegedly captured on an audio recording. Such ostensible supernatural occurrences require a certain suspension of listener disbelief, but Moundsville also sports an indisputably sinister history. Mahnke recounts hangings gone horribly awry, and the stabbing, dismemberment, and disposal of one inmate (who’d been pegged a stool pigeon) that sounds like a Poe tale come to terrible life. Perhaps most poignant of all is Mahnke’s pre-commercial-break anecdote about a notorious murderer (attracted by the prison’s dubious reputation) who actually petitioned to be transferred to Moundsville.

As a storehouse of evil misdeed, Moundsville suggests the prison equivalent of Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel. From its first construction to the present day (the prison closed down in 1995), Moundsville supplied a quintessential American Gothic setting. It also has continued to evoke the central theme of the impingement on the present by an ignominious past. Darkness inevitably comes to light, as the ever-illuminating Mahnke reveals in this shining example of his podcast’s Gothic sensibilities.