I’ve been sitting here all day trying to figure out what a goth chick’s equivalent of “wishing on a star” is. Somehow “wishing on my voodoo doll” doesn’t sound right, “wishing on my crystal skull” makes me sound like some sort of twisted, California bunny-hugger, and wishing on my ankh makes me seem like a hopeless Hot Topics poser.
In any case, trust me when I say that wishes come true, whatever media you do it on.
A couple of weeks back I told you that my favorite New Orleans ghost story had finally been made the subject of a book, which I’d been wishing for so hard that during one Rum-drink soaked evening on Bourbon Street, I (think) I vowed to do it myself.
But earlier this year, along come authors and life-long partners-in-crime Victoria Cosner Love and Lorelei Shannon to finally give Madame Delphine LaLaurie and her sadistic house of horror the real literary treatment. I was already excited to finally get to the bottom of this oft-told-but-rarely-documented tale, but making the acquaintance of these two ladies was simply icing on the Death by Chocolate cake.
It is therefore my sincere pleasure to introduce you to two fellow Goth Chicks and the entirely entertaining historians behind the book Mad Madame LaLaurie…
An Interview with Victoria Cosner Love and Lorelei Shannon
Conducted and transcribed by Sue Granquist, May 2011
GC: For our readers who aren’t familiar with Madame LaLaurie’s story, can you give us a flavor of why this story is so compelling?
VCL: What isn’t compelling about this story? Pirates, torture, violent manifestations, Creole New Orleans, haunted house, current Hollywood stars, zombie drugs, a devil baby, medical experiments, spousal abuse, slaves, yellow journalism, boar goring’s, serial killings, French Musketeers, voodoo, ousted Irish nobility and a sadistic, rich spoiled woman. What more could you want? Oh, and a ton of historical, primary documents to feed the morbid souls of a history/goth-loving duo.
LS: The story really does sound like the script for a gruesome movie. Kind of a 19th century Saw. This woman, Delphine Lalaurie, was a socialite star in New Orleans in the 1830’s. When the news of the “atrocities” hit, it rocked the city. Imagine if somebody found a bunch of tortured and mutilated people in Kim Kardashian’s attic! We’d be all over that stuff! (And personally, I wouldn’t be that surprised.)
GC: How did you first become acquainted with the Lalauries and what made you decide to write a book about the famous New Orleans tale?
VCL: I went on one of French Quarter Phantoms tours three years ago. My husband and I then went to look for a book about Delphine Lalaurie and only found ghost stories. The tour guide had so many historical details that I started looking around and everything just fell into my lap (mostly in French, which was a problem.) The more I dug, the more I found and the less I saw that had been written. This story needed to be told.
LS: I first heard about the story on a ghost tour as well — 20 years ago, in New Orleans, on my honeymoon. The details the tour guide gave us were so over-the-top grotesque, I didn’t know whether to believe them or not. I decided to find more information on the LaLauries. Then I drank six Hurricanes and forgot, until Victoria came to me with this project.
What made you decide to tackle the story of, what the Travel Channel calls “the most haunted house in America” and do it together?
VCL: It needed to be told in a fun, non-academic way and it needed someone like Lorelei to make it a palatable read. No non-fiction/history, no movies, very few fictional tales, only ghost stories were on the market. With all the documentation literally in our hot little hands plus having a team of a horror writer and a history geek seemed to be very appealing to us.
LS: Victoria and I have been friends since we were teenagers. We’ve always shared a morbid streak. (Mine’s a bit more visible than hers, but she’s got a good one.) When she approached me with the idea of teaming up with her on this book, I was delighted. I’m a huge fan of historical true crime stories, and the chance of writing one, with one of my very best friends, was irresistible.
VCL: Check out the website Lorelei designed. www.mad-madame-lalaurie.com (plug, plug, plug)
You did significant research about the LaLauries. Where did you locate the best sources of information?
VCL: New Orleans Historical Collection, New Orleans Library, city records, the newspapers of the time, and a big surprise, a huge collection at the St. Louis History Museum’s archives with PRIMARY documents by Madame Lalaurie. (letters from her to her son-in-law, a tantalizing love note from Louis Lalaurie to Madame) Makes me drool.
LS: The historical research is aaalllll Victoria. I’m just the hired muscle.
This tale has been told to tourists, been featured on the Travel Channel and got a renewed life when Nicolas Cage bought the mansion. Amongst all this telling and retelling, did you uncovering any truly startling information that wasn’t widely known?
VCL: Tons. We found out the configuration of the house is not the original, it was only two stories in 1834; that Nicolas Cage never lived there (although there are differing opinions of that with folks who live in the quarter); that the Ghost Hunter type of paranormal shows had never had access to the inside (because they could not get permission from Cage). Also, the house has been bought (thus the men working on it). Rumors are flying about who bought it (hint, think pirates and hats). [GC: Ok, now I think I need to have a lie down.]
LS: Victoria also found some information that led us to strongly believe it was one Lalaurie and not the other who probably perpetrated the crimes. But you have to read the book to find out which one. Because we’re snotty like that.
After fleeing New Orleans no one is exactly sure where the LaLauries went or what became of them. Were you able to shed any additional light on this mystery?
VCL: Yes, this is the part where we ruined (I mean altered) much of the legend. We found the end of her story. We changed her death date, answered many questions that are part of the legend. We also narrowed her possible burial places (I have a small obsession with cemeteries). We are still looking for her squeeby husband, we lose him after 1842.
LS: I think Louis ran home to his family in France. They were evidently a real bunch of charmers. Delphine Lalaurie’s son-on-law called Louis’s relations a bunch of jackasses. See, this book is educational! Read it, and you’ll learn how to say “jackass” in French.
VCL: Heehee, she said “ass.”
After completing the book and spending so much time with her, can you tell us what each of you thought of Madame LaLaurie? Did your opinions going into the project change by the end of it?
VCL: I think Lorelei and I differ on this. I see an instant vilification of her in the historical record and I see a smarmy, abusive, medically trained husband lurking in the outskirts of the story. (Did I mention I don’t like Louis Lalaurie?) I’m not saying she didn’t know about it or even condone it, but I went in doubting her role in the story.
LS: I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly how guilty Delphine was or not. I personally don’t think she could have been ignorant of it—Creole women ran the household. The most interesting possibility to me is that Delphine and Louis were a sadistic team, like Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. But we have no proof of that.
I guess my opinion did change over the course of writing the book, though. I went in pretty convinced that Madame was guilty as sin. Now I have my doubts.
The LaLaurie mansion has been considered haunted almost since the LaLauries vacated it. Would you each share your favorite scary story about the house?
LS: I think the creepiest story about the house is one in which a poor Italian mother awakens in the middle of the night to see a woman standing over her baby’s crib. (The Lalaurie mansion was a home for indigent Italian immigrants for awhile.) When the mother got closer, she saw that the woman had her hand over the baby’s mouth and nose, trying to smother it. When she screamed, the woman disappeared.
Now, I have no idea why the ghost of Madame Lalaurie would want to kill random Italian babies. But it’s a pretty good story.
VCL: I’m sure there is some historical squabble between 19th century Creole women and 20th century Italian babies, just need to dig deeper. My favorite is the huge, bloody, black man with a metal collar, chains and torn clothes charging down the stairs into and through the viewer. Also the scrabbling sounds of the “crab woman” is super creepy.
LS: Crab people crab people! (Lame South Park reference.)
Have you ever been inside the Royal Street house, and if so, did you experience anything supernatural?
VCL: We were able to access the Lalaurie Mansion after we published the book. As we were sneaking in (uhhh, is this microphone on?), people were working on the house, it dawned on us to ask. They let us in, my only regret is that I didn’t take advantage and go upstairs. The construction dudes said they had no contact with Madame. Unfortunately, in all the sites and places I have worked or studied, I have never had a supernatural experience; unless you count my dead dog. (Is that a bummer or what? Every site I have worked at except two have ghost stories connected to them.)
LS: I was so excited about being in the house that I nearly peed my pants, but that wasn’t from fear, unfortunately. It was broad daylight, and noisy. One of the workers was using a power sander. If any ghosts were present, they were probably hiding in the walls holding their ears.
If I had the chance to stay in that house overnight, I’d jump on it in a hot second. I would be thrilled to see a real ghost!
VCL: There she goes, stereotyping ghosts again, why does it have to be quiet? Maybe they LOVE the sounds of 21st century restoration? (P.S. Lorelei got a rockin’ picture of Nic Cage’s toilet.)
LS. It’s true. I did. (GC: You two are my heroes, did you know?)
I’ve often wondered why Hollywood hasn’t discovered the story of the Lalauries. If a movie was made, who would you like to see cast in each of the major roles?
LS: Ha! We’ve been talking about that. We both like Catherine Zeta-Jones for Delphine, and Crispin Glover for Louis Lalaurie. Johnny Depp would make a fine Jean Blanque, Delphine’s charming, criminal (and verbose!) second husband. I like Lou Diamond Phillips for her first husband, Ramon Lopez, a Spanish Intendant of New Orleans.
VCL: We are hoping Nick Cage will make a guest appearance, say Montrieul?? (The second cousin of Delphine who keeps tattling on her.) And for some reason, Steve Martin as Judge Canago really tickles me.
LS: I can’t believe there hasn’t been a movie made either. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because the cost of creating a period piece is so high. There’s really no way to go low-budget, and it isn’t the most Hollywood-friendly story, despite the gore. I wish somebody would, though! Larry Fessenden, I’m talking to YOU! Or maybe John Landis—he just finished up “Burke and Hare.”
VCL: I think that the slave torture connection may have been one of the reasons for the omit, but Hollywood has taken on the Holocaust, why not this?
Lorelei, you’re also an author of gothic fiction as well as computer games. Can you tell us about your work Possum Kingdom? How did you get into computer games and where can the readers find you there?
LS: I’ve always loved Southern Gothic fiction. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams. I worship Harry Crews and Michael McDowell. It was pretty much inevitable that I’d write something in the Southern Gothic genre. I think Possum Kingdom is some of the best work I’ve ever done. Check it out if you like horror, magic realism, sex, violence, and badass grrrl anti-heroes. Hell, you can even get it on your Kindle-machine!
My computer games were made in the mid-90’s, so they’re mostly used for coasters and for shoring up rickety tables these days. But if you go to YouTube and type in Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, you can see pretty much every single scene in that game. It was full motion video — one of the last made before computer animation took over. (GC: This is my FAV game of all time, and here’s the post to prove it.)
I did almost all of my computer game work for Sierra On-Line. There are still Sierra fan sites out there, amazingly enough! Sierra stuff is still slowly trickling through Eastern Europe, evidently. I get an occasional fan email from some kid in Slovakia or some other far-flung place. That’s kind of awesome!
I got into computer games kind of sideways. My husband was hired by Sierra, and I started out writing for their in-house magazine, InterAction. After awhile they figured out I wrote pretty good stories, and bumped me up to game design. Story has been severely neglected in games over the past number of years. I’m delighted to see it coming back in games like Portal 2 and Red Dead Redemption.
VCL: www.psychenoir.com (Lorelei’s website) Someone had to do the blatant pitch. I am incredibly fond of Lorelei’s novel, Rags and Old Iron.
LS: Why thanks, punkin!
VCL: Same type of historic geekness, I was working at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Now that is a freaky, ghost filled building.) My mother went through the exhibit and asked, “Where are the women?” We found about forty incredible women (besides Anne Frank) who contributed significantly to both sides of World War II. Missing pieces of history bother me.
GC: Are the two of you collaborating on any future works we can look forward to? What is next for each of you individually?
VCL: Lord, I hope so. I am putting together a family history of Delphine Lalaurie (her Macarty family is incredible) and I hope to work with Lorelei on a couple of more history’s mysteries. (Perhaps, the Dogman of Missouri? Ohio River Pirates? Women gangs in Victorian London/New York?) We are looking for ideas, what are your readers’ favorite local stories??
LS: There’s a Dogman of Missouri? Really? Cool!
Absolutely, Victoria and I plan on collaborating on another book. We had a blast together. In the meantime, I’m finishing another novel. I am a Nocturnal Novelist. We all have our bad habits.
Alright Black Gate fans, this is where you come in and you lot are always good for ideas like this. Do you have a local folktale or scary story that would make a great book? Victoria and Lorelei are ready to make you immortal so post a comment or drop a note to email@example.com. And pick up a copy of Mad Madame LaLaurie at Amazon.com or at www.mad-madame-lalaurie.com.