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.

 

Lore Report: Uninvited Guest (Episode 121)

 

We are, in fact, constantly at risk, a heartbeat away from losing control, vulnerable to an encounter that could threaten our well-being, our comfort, or our very lives. It’s a threat that has taken the lives of countless people over the course of history. And while some have made it their lives’ work to study it, most have been woefully unprepared for just how insidious it could be. We’ll never see it coming, but the effects have the potential to be absolutely devastating.

 

In “Uninvited Guest,” the latest episode of the hit podcast Lore, host Aaron Mahnke reveals the horrors of the invisible world. He subjects his audience to parasites, beginning with an intriguing discussion of the origin of the term/concept in ancient Greece (referring to acolytes who “metaphorically ate at from another’s table in order to support themselves”). From there, Mahnke proceeds to test listeners’ intestinal fortitude, detailing a series of extreme experiments (including one by a freaky Japanese physician who willingly consumed thousands of roundworm eggs in the interest of scientific research!). There are images of body horror conveyed here that could make David Cronenberg squirm, and the names given to some of the infectious diseases treated (e.g. “The Creeping Eruption”) sound like they were ripped from a Lovecraft effort in the pulp pages of Weird Tales.

Devoted Lore listeners won’t be surprised to find that Mahnke ranges worldwide and throughout history when sharing his apropos anecdotes in episode 121. From an American Gothic perspective, the story about a terrible outbreak of hookworm (“the American Killer”) at the Civil War prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, proves especially intriguing. Mahnke also manages to tap into American pop culture and convey a sense of futuristic ickiness when describing a certain barnacle (that can latch onto a crab and take over its brain and reproductive system) as “the natural world’s version of the Alien from the Ridley Scott film franchise.”

Infinitesimal yet capable of massive impact, parasites, says Mahnke, “have the power to change lives, destroy communities, and transform cultures, and given the right circumstances, they can even alter the course of history.” He supplies a prime example in the Livingstone-searching journalist/explorer Henry Stanley, who formed the vanguard of a (literally disease-spreading) colonialist scourge that ravaged settlements across Africa. The harmful effect of Stanley and his contingent on the continent is proof that “not all parasites are microscopic.”

The samples I’ve handed out here are just a few from this absolutely bountiful episode. While not for the weak of stomach, “Uninvited Guest” is a welcomed addition to the Lore table of contents.

 

Lore Report: “Whistle While You Work” (Episode 120)

Note: I’ve fallen a bit behind with this feature, but it’s time for me to get back on track with my reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s acclaimed podcast…

Yes, caves and mines might hold the riches we seek, but they can also be dangerous and unpredictable. There might be mysteries to dust off, or superstitions to pay attention to, but they contain a powerful warning: be careful how deep you dig, because you never know what you might find.

The 120th episode of Lore strikes the mother lode of narrative ore. Mahnke focuses on the profession of mining, establishing such subterranean delving as a pre-Industrial Age endeavor. Even more surprisingly, he details how mining was a spiritual activity for ancient cultures, who revered the precious substances (e.g. red ocher) unearthed as something sacred. Given such a mindset, it is not hard to fathom that miners across the world would fill caverns and underground tunnels with guardian spirits. Once again demonstrating an impressive knowledge of global folklore, Mahnke cites mining tales of mythological figures such as the German kobolds and the Australian Mondongs.

As a lover of American Gothic, I was especially pleased when Mahnke shifted the episode’s sights to the New World. As we have learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, people carry their supernatural beliefs with them when traveling to distant lands; that proves precisely the case here, as Mahnke discusses how Cornish immigrants transported their folklore to America. Stephen King’s 1987 novel might have brought tommyknockers to pop cultural prominence as undead extraterrestrial menaces, but long before then such figures (an Americanized version of Welsh “knockers”) were regarded as the spirits of dead miners, who sometimes served as an uncanny warning system for living workers.

With mines forming recurrent sites of “unexpected disaster and horrifying death,” it is little wonder that many haunting tales of mining accidents have accrued. Mahnke regales listeners with a dark gem of a story (concerning a ghostly emergency whistle) that traces back to an incident at a Minnesotan mine in the 1920’s. Episode 120, though, is not simply geared toward fearmongering; tommyknockers are considered as protective spirits more than punitive forces, figure deserving of respect and not just dread. The closing discovery alone–that such a thing as the Pennsylvanian “Society for the Relief and Support of Displaced Tommyknockers” actually existed–makes “Whistle While You Work” quite a rewarding listen.

 

Lore Report: “Something Blue” (Episode 116)

 

“For thousands of years, cultures around the world have used fasting as a toll of religious devotion, mental focus, political protest, and as a folk remedy for illness and disease. Some view it as  the reset button for the human body, while others see it as a chance to elevate their consciousness. Whatever the goal, though, the means are always the same: the absence or reduction of food for a period of time. But history is filled with proof that desperate people will go to extraordinary lengths in order to find peace and relief. And in the process, some people have even died for it.”

 

Opening with the line “They mummified themselves” (in reference to the persistent ingestion of resin by Buddhist monks) and closing with “Even killers need to be efficient,” Episode 116 of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast Lore serves up a morbid smorgasbord for listeners.

“Something Blue” takes the questionable practice of therapeutic fasting as its subject. The episode deals mainly with the now-infamous “Starvation Doctor” Linda Hazzard (who had no real medical training). Running the (appropriately-named) Hazzard Institute in Seattle in the early-20th Century, Linda blurred the line between asceticism and sadism. She would prescribe “broth diets and marathon enemas,” and draw scalding hot baths for her patients. Her concept of “therapeutic massage” involved slapping people on the stomach and repeatedly shouting “eliminate!” at them. But Linda’s dubious efforts didn’t just turn “health care” into an ominous oxymoron. Making Annie Wilkes look like Florence Nightingale, Linda was actually a mass murderess in illness-fighting disguise. She would rob her gullible clientele of their savings and personal belongings while methodically stealing their most valuable possession of all: their very lives.

Mahnke’s narrative briefly steps away from Linda Hazzard’s story to note a couple of historical instances of fasting. We learn that such form of abstinence was an attempted defense against evil for the ancient Greeks (who believed that “demons could only enter a person’s body through the mouth”). Mahnke also remarks on Cotton Mather proposition of fasting as a possible “solution to Salem’s witchcraft panic.” These details are fascinating, and my only critique of this relatively short episode is that I wish Mahnke had incorporated more of them.

The charismatic yet dissembling Linda Hazzard, who managed to charm people into a state of starvation, is a quintessential hero-villainess from a Gothic tale. Her pseudo-sanitarium formed a locus classicus of entrapment, an ostensible prison that people had to be ransomed out of by loved ones rather than simply released. The image of emaciated patients wandering like the walking dead through the woods surrounding the institute could have been spliced from a horror film. Concluding with an account of supporting player Edgar Butterworth (a bison-bone collector turned undertaker, who entered into strategic alliance with Linda Hazard by disposing of the many bodies she provided), “Something Borrowed” undoubtedly has all the makings of a terrific American Gothic biopic.