Podcast master Aaron Mahnke brings eerie tales of hauntings and curses and violent death to Lore podcast listeners throughout the year, but October 2017 gave scary story fans a new book—The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures—and a new television show—also called Lore—available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
We chatted with Aaron Mahnke at the beginning of his book and TV launch tour about the surprising start of the podcast, New England's inherent spookiness, and whether he believes in ghosts.
Amazon Book Review: How did your very popular podcast, Lore, begin?
Aaron Mahnke: Lore was actually a failed promotional attempt. I was a self-published fiction writer in my spare time. Supernatural thrillers, real-life stories with an odd or unusual bent to them. I live in New England and love the folklore and the stories of that area. I thought, “Well, let me add those elements into my books.” Little historical details that I could use. And I would find a lot and use few of them in the books. I had all these leftover [stories] and I thought, “Why don’t I give people something of value so that they can give me their email address? It’s a nice trade.” So I started writing what was I going to call my five favorite New England myths.
I wrote four of them. I looked at the word count. It was about 15,000 words, and I realized I was going to be delivering this as a PDF and expecting people to read this on their phone, pinching and zooming and all that. It was going to be horrible—a frustrating experience. When I realized I was going to give something that wasn’t valuable for their email address, I just dragged it to the trash can, and I was ready to walk away from writing entirely.
Before I let go, I remembered that I’m an audiobook guy. I’ve been an Audible member for years. I thought, “I have a microphone. Why don’t I record an audiobook version of these and put them in a folder and zip it up and let people download that?” That was the extent of my vision. I did one of them as a test. I sent it to a friend and I told him my plan, and he said, “Don’t do it.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because this is a podcast. You should put it out as a podcast.”
I fought him on it, but at the end of the day, I took his word for it, and I branded it, built a website, found out how to host an audio file for podcasting, how to connect it to the various podcast directories out there—Google and iTunes and all that—and I clicked Publish. It was March of 2015. That’s where it started.
It wasn’t a hit right away. There were nine downloads the first day. But in the last two and a half years, there’s been 91 million. So I’m pretty happy with that.
That’s really impressive. Especially as it wasn’t what your initial goal was.
So how did the Lore book and Lore TV show come about?
As the show grew, more people started to notice it just by the laws of probability. People in Hollywood were starting to listen to podcasts. I got emails from maybe two dozen production companies around August of 2015. And then I connected with Propagate. They just had all the right people and track record, and they are run by Ben Silverman, who used to run NBC. He helped create The Office. So at that point I was like, “All right, I think these guys are capable of doing this.” So then we went looking for a creative partner to help the show be a good-quality storytelling experience, and we partnered up with Gale Anne Hurd, who makes The Walking Dead, which is this tiny little show on TV that some people like. And then we just moved on from there. Pitched it around.
I wanted it to be on one of these next-generation networks, because this is where TV viewing is going, especially for a [series based on a] podcast, where people binge. You find your [podcast] show you want to listen to and you listen to all of them in two weeks. Being able to jump into Amazon Prime and watch all six episodes of the season makes sense. It fits the podcast model really well.
The Lore books were a little bit more of a frustrating experience because I was a little dumb. Coming from a self-publishing background, I went into it thinking I didn’t want to go through a publishing deal for anything. So when editors and literary agents started reaching out to me, I turned them all away and thought, “I can do this. I can put them all in a book and go to CreateSpace and sell paperbacks. That’s fine.” But then the show got so big that I realized, “Maybe I can do more than just package up things by myself and put it out there. Maybe I can actually build a publishing career out of this.” So that’s when the book project happened.
Nice! So you’re narrating the Lore TV show, right?
Was there anything that you learned from that experience that has changed how you do your podcast?
When I record the podcast, I’m by myself. I’ve got no producer, no director; I just make it up as I go along. It’s how I do a lot of things with Lore. But when I’m recording voiceover for the TV show, I have an earbud in one of my ears, my headphones are on crooked so I can hear myself on the mike, and I’m recording while they listen to me on the phone. My documentary producer will guide me through. He’ll say, “All right, let’s go back and do it again, and I’m going to underline words here. Those are the words I want you to emphasize when you say this sentence.” And so I had somebody else there guiding my tone and my emphasis. That was different. And I’ve brought a little bit of that into the podcast. But for the most part, they’re different entities.
I recorded the audiobook in my studio at home, just like I did the TV voiceover, and audiobook recording is different, too. Even though it was audiobooks that inspired me to start Lore, you still record them differently. There’s no music in the background. I’m not looking for huge dramatic pauses. It’s not oral storytelling; it’s more like, “Let me read you what this is really well.”
When you were doing the voiceover for the TV show and you were getting instruction to emphasize this and that, did it feel really awkward the first time? Like you were overemphasizing?
Oh, yeah. It felt awkward because I thought, “That doesn’t feel like the place that my gut tells me I should be emphasizing.” But if I stepped back and thought about it, Mark [the voice director] was right. The word my brain wants to emphasize is this word, but the word we really want to drive home is that one, because the next phrase has a word that’s contrasting with it, and it’s important that the listeners really make sure they hear that. There was a bit of awkwardness with the learning curve. Also, just having someone else tell me what to do. Not in the sense that I’m an arrogant guy, it’s just that I’ve worked alone so long doing this that to have somebody else on the other end of the line saying, “No, you need to do it this way,” was challenging for me.
You have to have the humility in a situation like that and say, “This is what you do for a living; you teach me.” Hopefully I’ll learn some things there.
My audiobook producer worked on the full-cast version of American Gods. That was her project, and that was probably one of the first full-cast audiobooks I ever listened to. Neil Gaiman is a hero of mine. She knew what she was doing, too, and I paid attention and learned from her, too.
To switch gears a little bit...When you were a kid, did you like spooky stories?
I did after a certain point. It was fifth grade for me. You remember the Scholastic readers club catalogs? I got sent home with one in fifth grade that had a book that was a collection of weird and unusual tales that were supposed to be true. A little bit of folklore, a little bit of legend, a little bit of history. I convinced my parents to buy it for me and fell in love immediately. And then our reading teacher wanted us to work on our handwriting—our cursive—which she called chicken scratch, and she said, “Why don’t you guys write a Halloween story?” And so that was my first writing experience. And that set the tone for the rest of my life. I’ve written ever since, and it’s always kind of veered toward the weird or unusual.
Do you ever give yourself nightmares?
Oddly enough no. My nightmares are about production. Like, did I forget to export that file? Did I forget to set up the webpage for tomorrow’s episode launch? Things like that—that’s what I worry about. Those things keep me at a distance from the gore or the horror-ficness of it all. So no nightmares for me yet.
Do people ever tell you that you give them nightmares?
Al the time. All the time. I’ve stopped apologizing and just kind of say, “You’re welcome.” [Laughs]
Do you believe in ghosts?
I walk into this with a really open mind. I firmly believe the people who have told these stories really believe they happen to them. And I think that, for me, that’s the important part to get across. The emotional part of it. Because that’s the heart of the story—there’s real conviction here by this person. Sometimes there’s a lot of witnesses. Sometimes there’s a few. I try to go in on the fence so that I can give both sides a fair shake.
How do you find the stories that you relate in Lore?
A lot of reading. I take a lot of notes when I’m researching a topic about ideas that pop up that don’t relate. Most of the topics I find in the middle of researching the current topic of the day. There’s an episode—episode 12—called “Half-Hanged” about Mary Webster, a woman accused of witchcraft and hanged outside of her home. I found her story completely by accident while researching a slightly different aligned topic. I found a dissertation, I think, that just explained her experiences there in Hadley [Massachusetts], and I fell in love with the story. I pushed the other one off to the side and immediately started writing Mary’s story. So sometimes that happens. Sometimes I find an idea and I say, “Well, let me just write down the pieces I need so I can pick back up on that next time,” and then I continue with what I’m doing. My list grows quite easily because of that.
Well, book one came out [October 10]. That’s Monstrous Creatures. The definition of a noun is a person, place or thing—and these three books fit those three branches. Monstrous Creatures is things; it’s the creatures, the unseen spirits, and such. Book two comes out at the end of May, and that’s called Wicked Mortals. Those are the people, people like H. H. Holmes, the serial killer from Chicago, and Kate Webster in London in the 1800s who chopped up her employer and boiled her body to get rid of the evidence. Offered a hot bowl of lard to some kids on the street.
And they ate it. A little creepy.
And then the last book will be next October, and that one is Dreadful Places—so there’s the places part of it. It’s the city episodes and the tales that are located in one particular place like the Stanley Hotel, where The Shining was kind of inspired by.
Great! I loved this book, and I’m looking forward to the next two.
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