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.”


Mob Scene: “The Shelter” (The Twilight Zone)

In this 1961 episode from season 3 of The Twilight Zone, a birthday party for a beloved doctor is interrupted by a sobering report on the radio: the government has detected unidentified objects rocketing towards the U.S. A state of yellow alert is promptly declared, and citizens are advised to take shelter. Soon thereafter, Doctor Stockton’s frantic friends and neighbors return, begging him to admit them into the bomb shelter in the cellar of his home (the very refuge they previously ridiculed him for building). Regretfully, the doctor cannot oblige them, since the shelter is designed for three people only (Stockton, his wife Grace, and son Paul). And thus the fallout begins before any bomb drops.

Turned away, the desperate neighbors quickly turn on each other. One of them, Frank, exhibits an ugly anti-Semitic streak, railing against “foreigners” like his friend Marty Weiss, “pushy, grabby semi-Americans.” The line between self and other gets sharply etched; when the idea of obtaining a pipe (to use as a battering ram) from a man on an adjacent street is raised, the group bristles at the thought of letting anyone else know about the existence of the shelter. “We’d have a whole mob to contend with,” one neighbor forewarns, “a whole bunch of strangers.” Ironically, these people don’t realize that they have already degenerated into a mob themselves, acting irrationally and violently amidst their fear. Knowing they all can’t fit inside the shelter doesn’t stop them from trying to bust it open (and ensuring that nobody ends up protected).

In a not-unexpected twist, a second news report (sounding just as the group savages its way into the bomb shelter) announces a false alarm: those were satellites, not nuclear warheads, that had been picked up by military radar. The tension diffused, the group recovers from its momentary lapse into lunacy. The neighbors offer to pay for the damages to the doctor’s property, and even propose throwing a block party the next night to celebrate the return to normalcy. The shell-shocked-looking Stockton, though, scoffs at the notion:

I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once. I don’t anymore. […] I wonder if any one of us has any idea of what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re “normal.” The kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us. A lot of naked, wild animals, who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder if we weren’t destroyed even without it.

“The Shelter” is certainly a period piece, addressing the dread manifested by the Cold War. But it also illustrates the timelessness of The Twilight Zone. The episode is just as relevant six decades later, in these chaotic–and sometimes seemingly apocalyptic–times. Right now, we need to take heed to Rod Serling’s concluding comments: “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”


A.G. Exemplary? Emma Dawson’s “Singed Moths” and Maxx Fidalgo’s “Graveyards Full”

In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Today, I return to Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.


“Singed Moths” by Emma Dawson

This 1896 tale reflects the overtly textual quality of the Gothic: the narrative is comprised mainly of the diary entries of three sisters. Katherine, Charlotte, and Elizabeth have fallen on hard times financially, but their fortunes seem to improve when a stranger shows up on their doorstep to let a room from them. Mr. Orne fits the mold of the Gothic hero-villain, seducing each sister with his gentlemanly charms that hide a more diabolical agenda (Dawson’s story might remind the modern reader of The Witches of Eastwick). The women of the house–all save the gossiping landlady Biddy–remain blind to Orne’s sinister threat, and the lovestruck sisters meet a dire fate on Allhallows Eve. This particular date, though, has nothing to do with the popular American holiday Halloween (which did not even exist yet), and draws its ominous significance from Old World superstition. While the story tours the San Francisco art scene, the cultural references (e.g. Faust) are predominantly European, limiting the sense of “Singed Moths” as an especially American Gothic piece.


“Graveyards Full” by Maxx Fidalgo

An anti-Catholic sensibility in Gothic literature is as old as the genre itself, and continues in this 2019 story (original to the anthology). The protagonist Teresa struggles to find anyone in the Church willing to help lay her deceased wife Kira’s soul to rest: “A married lesbian couple joining the parish? No problem. One of them committing suicide and the surviving partner asking for the priest to preside over her funeral?” Forget it. The hypocrisy and biases of the Church are further emphasized when Teresa meets up with a sin eater. This man, Duarte, had previously been kicked out of seminary school; the Church held that his sin eating ability did not align with its practices, but Duarte understands that the real reason for his dismissal is his transgender status. “Graveyards Full” is the author’s first story publication, but in it Fidalgo demonstrates a clear awareness that an American Gothic narrative does not have to devolve into horror. The action takes place mainly in a remote, run-down Massachusetts cemetery on “an eerie autumn day,” but the atmosphere and setting don’t work towards sinister effect. When Duarte performs the ritual, Teresa senses “an unmistakable inhuman energy around them, and it is not evil, but it is powerful.” The sin eating is a success, cleansing the stain from the suicide Kira’s soul, leaving Teresa thankful and at peace herself. Emphasizing salvation (achieved by moving beyond the strictures of the Catholic Church) over damnation, the story ultimately gives a positive spin to its religious themes.


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.


Del Toro Post Mortem

Don’t be alarmed by the post title: renowned filmmaker and author Guillermo del Toro is alive and well. He also recently did a terrific interview for the podcast Post Mortem with Mick Garris. Over the course of 79 minutes, del Toro delves into such topics as: how his Catholic upbringing spurred his monstrophilia; his early influence by legendary make-up artist Dick Smith; the challenges he faced in the industry as a Mexican filmmaker; the difficulties of shooting Mimic for Miramax; his upcoming remake of the carnival noir film Nightmare Alley. I find del Toro a fascinating speaker for his wonderful accent alone, but this interview also demonstrates the immense erudition he possesses when it comes to genre films in particular and the arts in general. A must-listen for fans of his work.


Beyond Iverson’s Pits: Six Other Great Works of American Gothic Short Fiction by Dan Simmons

In a previous post, I discussed at length Dan Simmons’s masterful story “Iverson Pits.” That Gettysburg-set shocker, though, does not represent the author’s sole foray into American Gothic territory in his short fiction (i.e. stories, novelettes, and novellas). Here are another half-dozen exemplary pieces:


“The River Styx Runs Upstream” (1982)

The text is as great as the title of Simmons’s first-published, award-winning story. A deceased mother is brought back to life-and back home to her family–by a quasi-religious/scientific group called the Resurrectionists. But Mother, mute and mentally blunted, proves a grim facsimile of her former self. The result, though, isn’t Pet Sematary-type carnage, but instead the more quiet horrors of the quotidian (e.g. Mother’s narrating son sees her “watering a plant that had died and been removed while she was at the hospital in April. The water ran across the top of the cabinet and dripped on the floor. Mother did not notice.”). The heartbreaking, not to mention American Gothic, aspects of the narrative are accentuated by the ongoing discrimination suffered by Resurrectionist families such as the narrator’s.


“Carrion Comfort” (1983)

The epic novel of the same title is a genre classic, but the source story furnishes no less rewarding a read. A trio of vampiric puppet-masters with a deadly mental Ability to direct the actions of others gather to compare their latest kills. But old rivalries and resentments rear their offensive head, and the game degenerates into macabre mayhem (occurring in both the narrator Melanie’s mansion and the Southern Gothic environs of Charleston). Simmons’s theme of the utter corruption resulting from absolute power makes for some hard-hitting horror, while also providing food for thought about people’s frightening penchant for inhumanity when dealing with one another.


“Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites” (1989)

A dingy barber shop in a quintessential Midwestern town becomes the scene of chilling horror. Two pre-teen protagonists suspect the place is a front for a pair of vampires, but these wannabe Hardy Boys get more than they bargained for when trailing surveillance of the barbers turns to late-night break-in of their shop. The story (which jumps back and forth in time between the protagonists’ youth and adulthood) is structured for maximal suspense, and the climactic twist is big and stunning, as Simmons shows it is not just Bram Stoker he’s channeling here. Paging Greg Nicotero: “Shave” would make a perfect script for an episode of Creepshow.


Elm Haven, Illinois” (1991)

Written specifically for the shared-world anthology of linked tales, Freak Show, this story serves as one piece of a larger narrative puzzle. In it, the lonely, extremely disfigured narrator Benjamin (inflicted with “Elephant Man’s disease”) gets caught up in the machinations of a shady traveling carnival. The plot is quite enjoyable in its own right, but the true delight for Simmons fans lies in the fact that this piece forms a postscript to Summer of Night. The small town of Elm Haven is in the midst of its death throes three decades after the events of the novel; decadence runs rampant. Benjamin tours the community’s darkest nooks, from the “charred ruin” of his own family mansion to the even more Gothic wreckage of the sinister Old Central School.


“This Year’s Class Picture” (1992)

Simmons breathes new life into the zombie subgenre in this tale of a veteran fourth-grade teacher determined to carry on after the collapse of civilization. Ms. Geiss still tends to and attempts to educate the students in her classroom, even if they are now undead and festering. A story that might have devolved into mere grotesquerie instead builds to a moving conclusion (in which Ms. Geiss’s efforts earn her a much better fate than landing on the lunch menu). Besides offering a portrait of post-apocalyptic survival, “This Year’s Class Picture” also presents a scathing critique of a pre-Tribulations society plagued by forces more insidious than zombie hordes: for thirty-eight years, “Ms. Geiss had, as well as she was able, protected her fourth graders from the tyrannies of too-early adulthood and the vulgarities of a society all too content with the vulgar. She had protected them–with all her faculties and force of will–from being beaten, kidnapped, emotionally abused or sexually molested by the monsters who had hidden in the form of parents, step-parents, uncles, and friendly strangers.”


“Sleeping with Teeth Women” (1993)

An impressive work of Native American Gothic, presented from an indigenous perspective and displaying a vast knowledge of the culture and mythology of the Lakota Sioux. In his foreword, Simmons writes that the novella is “my antidote to what I consider the saccharine condescension of such travesties as Dances with Wolves,” but his countering of the weak-and-whimpering-victims characterizations in the Costner film does not mean that Simmons in turn simply idealizes Native American strength (he does not gloss over instances of cruelty and savagery). The climax features a battle with some truly nightmarish creatures, yet here the vanquishing of monsters out of native mythology does not mark a conservative end point to the narrative but instead opens up the possibility of a more positive outcome: the eventual freedom from subjugation, and the reclaiming of the lands previously stolen from the Sioux by the greedy white “Fat Takers.”


A.G. Exemplary? E.E.W. Christman’s “The Dark Presser” and Ralph Adams Cram’s “The Dead Valley”

In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Today, I delve back into Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.


“The Dark Presser” by E.E.W. Christman

In Christman’s 2019 story (original to the volume), protagonist Margo is haunted by a “monstrous shadow creature” in her nightmares–and seemingly also in her waking life. Such persistent terrorizing turns her surroundings uncanny, unfamiliar and strange (the very first line of the piece reads: “There’s something wrong with my house”). Jason, Margo’s eager-to-help neighbor who harbors a sinister secret, clearly fits the Gothic hero-villain mold. But the sense of place here is vague: the setting could be anywhere, and not necessarily even in the U.S. “The Dark Presser”  is a traditional horror tale, yet not one that is distinctly American Gothic.


“The Dead Valley” by Ralph Adams Cram

Cram’s 1895 story elicits chills from the wilderness, presenting a scene of nature haunted by the supernatural. A mountainside black forest is unnervingly quiet, with not a bird or insect to be heard. The air is oppressively stagnant: “The atmosphere seemed to lie upon the body like the weight of sea on a diver who has ventured too far into its awful depths.” The epicenter of terribleness, though, is the titular stretch of land covered (only after dark) by a “sea of dead white mist”–“so ominous was it, so utterly unreal, so phantasmal, so impossible, as it lay there like a dead ocean under the steady stars.” Looming up from this valley is a “great dead tree” ringed by “a wilderness of little bones”:

Tiny skulls of rodents and of birds, thousands of them, rising about the dead tree and streaming off for several yards in all directions, until the dreadful pile ended in isolated skulls and scattered skeletons. Here and there a larger bone appeared–the thigh of a sheep, the hoofs of a horse, and to one side, grinning slowly, a human skull.

Such frightful errand into the wilderness might make for a quintessential American Gothic narrative except for one key fact: the protagonist, Olaf Ehrensvard, is relating an incident that happened during his childhood back in Sweden! A considerably creepy variant on a ghost story, “The Dead Valley” thus qualifies as American Gothic only in the facile sense that it is a Gothic tale written by an American.

A final aside: the biographical end note points out that Cram was not just an author but “also one of the foremost architects of the Gothic revival in the United States. His influence helped to establish Gothic as the standard style of the period for American college and university buildings.” No doubt Cram was an astute student of (American) Gothic form; one only wishes that a more representative composition was chosen for this anthology.