“I’m Aaron Mahnke. And this. Is Lore.”
If you’re a listener, you heard that in his voice, and with exactly that little hitch in the cadence in the second sentence, didn’t you?
Lore is this great little podcast that’s apparently gotten big enough to attract television money. Every other week in our podcast downloader thingies we get a half hour episode of tales of old myths and the supernatural and urban legend style weirdness. What makes it stick out is Aaron Mahnke’s approach, which is a soft-spoken earnestness straight off of NPR, and a somber thoughtfulness that tries to make deeper connections than just titillating with old stories. It’s a podcast geared less towards the talk radio or easy entertainment typified by others and tries instead to make you ponder. It is the podcast of staring out a rain-slicked window into the grey afternoon mists that could contain monsters and demons.
The podcast has got an adaptation up on Amazon now, which even as a fan of the podcast is sort of an odd choice. Something like Black Tapes or Limetown make sense as an adaptation: they’re stories after all, and changing up the medium wouldn’t necessarily rob them of anything essential. But Lore is basically a set of 30 minute oral meanderings, the slow cadence and almost stream of consciousness rambling is essential to the experience. It’s not the stories so much as how they are walked through by touching on disparate stories centuries apart and making connections between them, which makes it unique and makes it work. So turning such a show into an hour television series left me rather skeptical. What do you even put on the screen?
The answer is a show that is a mixed bag. Mahnke’s narration, which is either the reason you listen or the reason you don’t, is downplayed. It functions less as the backbone of the whole thing than just a traditional narrator’s role in a typical docuseries. And as to what they end up putting on the screen? Well, they take two routes, both right out of documentary 101. There are the pan and scans of old photos highlighted by narration, and the historical reenactments.
It ends up, for better or worse, feeling a lot like old school Unsolved Mysteries from the nineties. The documentary segments aren’t particularly compelling while the reenactments veer from the shockingly effective to the painfully cheesy. So the first episode is hands down the weakest episode of the entire series, feeling like some ultra low budget real crime series off of one of the lesser cable networks, while the second episode is amazing and feels absolutely like an ancient unaired original Twilight Zone in all its black and white glory.
It’s the lobotomy episode, and if Session 9 still echoes in the back of your head, you need to watch this episode. The duality of the cheerful doctor slamming ice picks into patients’ eye sockets while joking to the press in the room taking pictures … it’s dark and horrifying and manages a tragic poignancy in the doctor’s story all the same.
And that’s where the series really works, when you take it as a whole. While the individual episodes are hit or miss — I still can’t decide if the one with Robert Patrick as 19th century preacher is incredibly lame or staggeringly creepy — the underlying theme of the series is a fascinating thinking point.
From lobotomies to murder dolls to changelings to speaking with spirits to tuberculosis, what ties every story together is how scientists and doctors and priests tell people listening to charlatans that it’s all snake oil and bullshit. And the genius is that it’s not just the token scientist, it’s not just a series of cautionary tales about how the wonders of the rational age destroy old irrationality. Sometimes it’s the priest arguing that no, a changeling didn’t actually replace your wife. Sometimes it’s a pastor saying no, despite what the “science” of spiritualism says, you didn’t actually summon the spirit of a witch. Sometimes it’s the country doctor whose only medicine is a good bleeding and a balancing of the humours insisting that no, digging up your dead daughter and cutting her heart out will not stop consumption from devouring your son’s lungs.
But while the empiricists of these stories — whether they be scientists or preachers — are righter from our perspective, they’re hamstrung by the inability to actually do anything. And so the supernatural is tempting because at least it’s offering hope, even if it’s false. Over and over in these tales, the characters giving into the supernatural are tragic figures, who doubt it could be true but need it to be ever so badly. “Well, even if it’s bullshit, what harm can it do?” they ask over and over and then ten minutes later they’re burning their wife alive because she tears her bread into three pieces.
It’s the human condition in a nutshell, that awesome and heartbreaking capacity for believing the impossible. We refuse to admit that we cannot win, and no matter what the doctors say, we believe that if they can’t fix it, we’ll fix it ourselves. That by god, if all they can do is tell us what won’t work, we’ll Kobyashi Maru this thing. Because calling it Alzheimer’s, dementia, senility, a curse from witch Goody, or demon possession is just arguing semantics and labeling if you’ve got no cure to offer.
The heart of science isn’t in knowing, but in humility. It’s knowing that we don’t know. It’s professing that this is the best of our knowledge, but we might be wrong. This little series of episodes might not be perfect, but that theme throughout, the tension between hope and evidence, it’s a gorgeous thing. It makes you ponder and look deeply into the distance, the way the best episodes of the podcast do.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.