The second volume of sinister stories collected from his successful podcast series Lore, Aaron Mahnke follows up his exploration of Monstrous Creatures with a gathering of Wicked Mortals, among them the early American serial killer H H Holmes through familiar names of the “old country,” William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh and Deacon William Brodie from the same city forty years before, and further back still Elizabeth Báthory of Hungary.
Where the first collection focused on the supernatural, vampires, werewolves, gremlins and their ilk, here Mahnke has largely but not exclusively turned his attention to the evil that men and women do the world over, those born to privilege and paupers alike, those who have who claimed the piety and endorsement of the church such as “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, those who serve no master save their own greed such as Brynhild Størseth, those such as “Jolly” Jane Toppan, a nurse who poisoned her patients who simply enjoyed the thrill of the kill.
By shifting his hunting ground from the realm of myth and folklore to serial killers it has narrowed the palette he has to work with; the shades of the mystic unavailable to him the book is much more black and white, and inevitably red, but for all his condemnation of these individuals and their actions Mahnke takes untoward glee in describing their killings, spending more time considering their motivations and modus operandi than offering sympathy to the victims, of whom there are a great many.
Despite this, as before, Mahnke is a natural storyteller, engaging and on the whole easy to read, a comfortable prose stylist knowledgeable in his subject, but he cannot help but assign a great deal of credulity to his often questionable sources in the quest for a good tale, undeniably embellished accounts, often vicarious and unsupported by evidence after the passage of decades if not centuries, the telling of the tale more important than strict veracity.
In Covered Mirrors, the murders of the entire Moore family in Iowa in 1912, the killer departs the house under “the red morning sky;” dramatic, yes, but who witnessed this to record it? To say of Burke and Hare “it’s as if they were destined to meet and work together” is the loaded wording of a novelist, not a historian, nor would scientist describe a mortality rate of “about 26 percent;” either the estimate was precisely 26% or it was about a quarter of the population, but it cannot be some hybrid of the two.
His language is similarly biased when he recounts the killing of Nelson Rehmeyer in Pennsylvania in 1928 in Desperate Measures where he casually sets the scene by describing how America “welcomed” immigrants from the 1600s to the 1800s; it is doubtful that the natives soon to be driven off their ancestral lands would have used that phrase.
It is in moments such as these that it is apparent that these pieces were not conceived as written works but as podcasts, ephemeral words designed to create an impression rather than a printed text to be analysed, but nor has any effort been made to adapt the transcripts to their new medium even though a podcast to be listened to episodically over an extended period is a very different beast from a book to be read as a continuous work.
With little structure or flow to Wicked Mortals, it is not grouped chronologically or geographically, bouncing around the world and through time, the loose thematic links interrupted by inclusions which seem to have been placed thusly because there was nowhere better for them to go, changelings, spontaneous human combustion and doppelgängers popping up on several occasions but not grouped together effectively nor with the entries made sufficiently distinct and individual.
Often shaping his stories around a level of complexity which is unjustified, in Covered Mirrors the statement that “some of the oldest man-made tools that scientists have discovered are hand axes” does not suggest that “their form and function are part of our subconscious” so much as the more practical and demonstrable, that they are cheap and easy to craft with simple tools and materials and require little maintenance or skill, effective with nothing more than brute force.
More apparent now that he has stepped away from the supernatural, even where there is a clear open and shut case, be it a murder for specific gain or a witch hunt directly linked with the ignorance and superstition of those who made the accusation or were manipulated or coerced into doing so, in his summations Mahnke still feels he needs to forever fall back on the “woo” factor as though his accounts were not enough on their own.
Wisely he does not pretend to offer definitive answers or explanations, mystery being the realm he prefers to inhabit, but there are occasions when the insight and perspective he offers is genuinely revealing, as in his suggestion of the possible historical antecedents behind the children of Hamelin whom the piper led astray, familiar to schoolchildren but rarely examined more than superficially as a cautionary tale.
Once again illustrated by M S Corley, while Wicked Mortals will be enjoyed by those who practice the uncritical thinking encouraged by the media it is in passages like this where Mahnke’s lore is both at its most compelling and its most infuriating, demonstrating that when he applies the necessary rigour and discipline to his field it does not diminish the work but enhances it, stepping out of the shadows into the illumination of, if not provenance, at least strong possibility.
The World of Lore: Wicked Mortals is available now from Wildfire