Aaron Mahnke makes no secret of the fact that he loves and revels in the horror of the world, his award-winning fortnightly Lore podcast having trapped five million listeners in its sinister web of shadows and haunting tales since launched in March 2015, a selection of which are now gathered together in prose form in the first hardback volume of The World of Lore, subtitled Monstrous Creatures.
An introduction to common myths and monsters of folklore and culture, as such it won’t have much to offer for those already steeped in the subject or who have already listened to the podcasts but it may be an appropriate seasonal gift for nieces and nephews already expressing a tendency towards an interest in things dark and ghoulish which howl and go bump in the night with appropriate caution expressed as to the contents.
Ticking off vampires, werewolves, sea serpents, the Mothman, gremlins, haunted houses, haunted shipwrecks, haunted railroads, spiritualists such as the Fox sisters and various other iterations of the supernatural, Mahnke recounts his tales in grim and salacious detail, invoking a world of mystery and menace where the monsters of myth might still lurk if only one knew where to look, but when arriving at possessed dolls the mention of Ed and Lorraine Warren is sufficient to abandon any hope of credibility.
Despite weaving a spell of moody prose, The World of Lore is for enjoyment rather than a balanced and carefully measured approach to the macabre, and while a list of sources is provided Mahnke neglects to examine them sceptically, many tracking to the notoriously ungoverned realm of the Internet. The quality of the evidence presented not high, he loves the phrase “what if;” a self-proclaimed fan of The X-Files, he most definitely leans towards Mulder while Scully silently rolls her eyes as she thumbs through his exuberant case notes.
“The easiest explanation might just be the most otherworldly,” he suggests, but while this twist on Occam’s Razor trips off the tongue but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and touching frequently but briefly on the psychology of belief in the unbelievable, our lonely place as the only sentient species trying to understand the world in which we live, immediately after he leaps with both feet into full-blown credulity despite some of the stories being little more than unsupported anecdotes.
He comments on the similarities between the various myths of “little people” the world over but never asks the question why this might be so; The World of Lore might best be read in conjunction with Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World where the way the brain interprets – and sometimes misinterprets – data is considered in relation to this very phenomenon and why the specific manifestations of elves, the Virgin Mary or extraterrestrials have shifted through the ages in keeping with the cultural vogue.
Polygraph tests are mentioned in relation to witnesses of alleged werewolf sightings in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, yet that doesn’t prove that they are reported accurately, only that the subjects may believe they are telling the truth, particularly when the tests are conducted twenty years after the fact, two decades of recitations to cement that belief into memory, a notoriously pliant recording medium. “Given enough time, story – like water – will leave its mark and transform a place.”
Undoubtedly an engaging read handsomely illustrated in pen and ink by M S Corley, Mahnke sees the lessons of history and expresses them informally, a cosy fireside chat on an autumn evening with an entertaining storyteller, the warnings of history as restless as wronged spirits: “Few things can unite a city like fear. Hysteria spreads, in much the same way the plague moved across Europe in the seventeenth century… Fear, even when it’s built on lies, can spread like fire.”
Where Mahnke excels is in capturing and illuminating the past, both big and small, the death of a single child as significant to that grieving family as the sinking of a ship with hundreds on board or a battle whose name is still remembered and dubiously celebrated. Equally fascinating, perhaps more so because the provenance is easier to trace, is the etymology of the terms he discusses, “berserker” from “bear skin” in Old Norse, “Fido,” from “fidelis,” Latin for faithful, a standard Mahnke should perhaps have applied more rigorously to his own work.
The World of Lore, Volume 1: Monstrous Creatures is available now from Wildfire