Interview: Aaron Mahnke

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Aaron Mahnke is the writer, host, and producer of Lore, a podcast about true life scary stories. When he’s not working on Lore, Mahnke writes supernatural thrillers. He lives with his family in the historic Boston area, in the very heart of Lovecraft Country and the epicenter of the Salem witch trials. You can follow him here on Twitter, and learn more about him on his website.

I chatted with Mahnke about the similarities between fairy tales and horror, and the relationship between folklore and history.

Can you start by talking a bit about LORE? Why did you decide to make the podcast? What got you interested in the history behind folklore, horror and ghost stories?

Lore is a podcast that digs into the darker side of history, uncovering the roots of common folklore and superstition, and exposing some of the more unbelievable motivations and actions of people throughout history. It’s a storytelling podcast, sort of like a fire-side chat, where I tell stories about what happened, and then try to ponder why.

Lore began as a happy accident. In an effort to grow my book sales into something that could justify the time I spent actually writing them, I tried writing a series of non-fiction essays on my five favorite New England folktales and legends. My goal was to give that away as an incentive to people willing to sign up on my fiction email list. But the project got a bit too long, and so I decided to try converting it to audio.

Continue reading Interview: Aaron Mahnke

From the West

by Beth Steidle

I

That summer thirteen funnel clouds touch down in televised wheat fields. Like Japanese ghosts, pale and legless. At the diner, my mother murmurs doomsday. The waitress asks if we’re ready. Onscreen, the Doppler spreads fervent pixels. Birds ascend. Dogs grow feral and flee towards higher ground. A woman weeps, pulls her hair over herself and shuts it like a tent. One can always be closer. Louder, bolder. Referring to the endless salad bar, my mother says, make sure you get your money’s worth. Over a photograph of an open-faced turkey sandwich, my father, the Great Skeptic, admits he believes in ghosts. He says, just floating, and wiggles his fingers. There his grandfather hangs in the corner. There grey twisters sucker across the gray prairie, leaving gray gutters in the gray earth. My father is, at that moment, dying. We continue eating. White tumors silently expand within. Black lesions spot the torso. The afterimage begins its beamed course. Our ears peel for echo. The dead leave gray gutters in the gray earth. Meteorologists prep for more. Sirens, cellars, get down, stay down. We say, no, we need more time. Everything is gray, white or black. Everything is mapped. Isn’t it. We turn towards the television again, then again. By definition, to be this you must touch both the sky and the ground.

 

II

From the eye of the cyclone spring wild forms: forty wolves and forty crows and a black clot of bees. The phrase all hell breaks loose. Our hunger is singular, as though we have not eaten all our lives. Muzzles to the earth. So thin our bones perform a shadow play, black rabbits and black eels, skitter across the boney chest, ribbon through the hipbone, respectively. Huffing in strange sync. Eventually, one animal wears another. Snorting like a funnel cloud all through the night. Flush with release, we leap and leap. Poppies open their bloody mouths below, fluster vibrant pollen, mouth O O O.  O our blood sings its stupid loops. O our blood runs rampant through the jaw. Define sated. Here at the earth’s edge. Tangled in the devil’s antlers. Suspended in mid-air. What we hunger for should not be eaten. What we hunger for is lost to itself, is missing vital parts.

 

III

You should show greater respect, greater longing. You should visit more often. You should go home, come home. I choose British, I choose woman, every time I load the GPS. Still I fear that I will lose my way. Let’s be frank. I am not the one who is missing. Is it greener where you’ve gone, as they insist. Is your grandfather on display. What about the dogs we put down. Here I often sleep with the light on. I sleepwalk nightly. I sleep-eat breakfast and sleep-clean the countertops. Polished as an ax, I stand prepared. Call it pole star, lighthouse, beacon, lamp, flashlight, light organ, lure. Whether you come from above or below or through. How do I make myself known. You should find your way home. Others have come as far, if you still believe that sort of thing.


“From the West” originally appeared in the Emerald Issue of Fairy Tale Review.

Beth Steidle is a writer, illustrator, and book designer currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Drunken Boat, DIAGRAM, KGB Bar Lit Magazine, and several print anthologies. Her first book, The Static Herd, was published by Calamari Press in 2014. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was awarded a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

 

Editor’s Note: How to Give Readers the Shivers

wanda1by Kate Bernheimer

Popular culture reviews of new fairy-tale movies or television shows frequently note, with authority, that old fairy tales had a cruelty to them that has been “sanitized” since. I challenge that notion. Cruelty has been alive and well in American fairy tales for a long time.

Visit your local library and look for a copy of an illustrated version of “Hansel and Gretel.” In just about every variation you’ll find, the parents send their children out to the woods where the parents believe they are certain to perish. After some time wandering, the children stumble upon a witch’s cottage decorated with cookies and candy — perhaps they are hallucinating this, which starvation can incline one to do — but, whether it’s real or not, in their lightheaded condition (or perhaps desperation), they nibble the house, enter when they are invited to do so, and, drat — geez, these kids aren’t too bright, but they are super hungry and perhaps, good lord, altruistic — in any case, the boy Hansel is locked in a shed by a witch with absolutely no apparent supernatural powers at all. This red-eyed (hungover? sad?) witch proceeds to try to fatten Hansel up while verbally abusing Gretel, employed doing chores. Eventually, in just about every version under the sun, the “clever” children outsmart the witch: Hansel holds out a bone pretending it is his finger, and thus avoids being eaten; Gretel shoves the witch into the oven. They return home. The end!

Child abandonment, child abuse, murder — albeit self defense, but by a child, incinerating an old woman alive! — well this is just so, you know, sentimental and innocent. So sanitized. Thank goodness we’ve restored this stupid, light-hearted story to its dark ways.

Or have we?

Just under a hundred years ago — a blink of the eye — Wanda Gag’s 1920s version ends with this flourish:

Sing every one,
My story is done,
And look! round the house
There runs a little mouse
He that can catch her before she scamps in

May make himself a very very large cap out of her skin.

I don’t understand how anyone can read this as sanitized. I don’t understand when people fail to see the cruelty in life, or in art — which doesn’t mean there is not also beauty.

Look. There is serious charm and menace to the Grimm fairy-tale form. These are really small words; they have the aura of a nursery song; and this is a tiny tale of evil predation. A little mouse — a girl-mouse, of course the little mouse is a her — is to be caught and skinned! And this little mouse, well, she seems to have quite magical powers, or offer them to her predators, because whoever catches her can make — what? A very, very large cap from her skin.

I love Wanda Gag’s work. (She grew up in poverty in Minnesota, attended art school in New York City, and is author of one of the oddest, saddest, and most violent children’s books to have become wildly popular in America, Millions of Cats. Among other things that are haunting in this inky, strange story, millions of cats devour each other.)

Gag has terrific poetics. She ends her variation of “Hansel and Gretel” on the word skin — skin, that one-syllable word that starts with a hiss and ends on the word that begins the word “no.” This is how to give readers the shivers.

Growing up in a family haunted by genocide in Nazi times — in ways I would only discover in my 30s — Gag’s coda speaks volumes to me. I am not writing this essay about the aesthetics of cruelty. I am writing it about violence — in art and in life — that goes too often denied.

The Brothers Grimm stories, by my reading, resisted such ignorance and still resist ignorance in just about every retelling I’ve seen of “Hansel and Gretel,” even those that seek to remove details deemed overly dark for those littlest of eyes — and largest of feeling. These stories invite readers into a radical acceptance that human cruelty is a reality — and, thus, challenge readers to resist human cruelty at the same time. They also invite us to be open to beauty and to find peaceful homes.

Wanda gag056


Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and two story collections, including How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press) and the editor of four fairy-tale anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books). Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt and a joint commission of Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center, was a finalist for the  2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.