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1.31.2011

Haunted Legends


I'm a huge fan of oral folklore and urban legends. I teach a short section on Florida's Cracker culture and some of the local oral folklore a couple of times every year here at FSCJ, and my students really seem to enjoy investigating the local legends. I've taken student groups to St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach for guided ghost tours. Northeast Florida is rich with haunted history, and it's been a neat learning experience to watch them unravelling some of that stuff through research and composition.
So it was with great anticipation that I got my copy of Haunted Legends, an anthology edited by Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow. The goal here was pretty simple: enlist some of the finest speculative authors in the field to interpret a "true" urban legend. It's this nebulous kernel of belief--that quasi-historical notion that fuels urban legends--that gives so many of these stories their charm. I found the afterwords, attached directly to the tales themselves, very illuminating and a nice touch in explication.
I read every story in the anthology and found them all enjoyable, though a few really did stand out as excellent. In no particular order, here were my favorites:
  • "The Folding Man" ~ Joe Lansdale. Pure horror fiction here. Lansdale plunges us ass-deep (there's a catalytic mooning in the first paragraphs that gets things going) into a tale of murderous "nuns" and their eponymous folding charge. A gory, chilling pulse pounder, this could only come from the imagination of Joe Lansdale.
  • "Down Atsion Road" ~ Jeff Ford's story is one of the best at really capturing the narrative aesthetic of an effective urban legend. Told in the first person, this story focuses on a community's visible eccentric--a local artist called Crackpop by the kids. Crackpop lives deep in the Pine Barrens, protected from New Jersey demons by a shallow moat and a well-kept secret. It's a legend within a legend, and the partially revealed story of Ginny Sanger provides the chills in the story's third act. I scoured the phone book, paid for an Internet trace, stopped and talked to old people when I'd see them out in their yards along Atsion Road. Nobody had ever heard of Ginny Sanger...Really interesting story.
  • "Oaks Park" ~ M.K. Hobson's story is one of the most emotionally riveting tales I've read in some time. This story is about personal grief and the dissolution of family. It's about renewal and cyclical sorrow. There is a watershed moment late in this story--a narrative set in Oaks Park, where I once attended a company picnic--that is really well written and very cathartic for the reader. Highly recommended.
  • "The Redfield Girls" ~ Laird Barron's take on The Lady of the Lake is keen. Like much of his fiction, there is a kinetic tension that just builds toward payoff. His fiction has a serious hum to it, and this one, a very sad piece, is entirely satisfying. The writing gets under the skin: The storm shook the house and lightning sizzled, lighting the bay windows so fiercely she shielded her eyes. Sleep was impossible and she remained curled in her chair, waiting for dawn. Around two o'clock in the morning, someone knocked on the door. Three loud raps. She almost had a heart attack from the spike of fear that shot through her heart.

There are many fine, emotionally resonant stories here. I think that's an important point to make in this discussion. Oral folklore is often dismissed as fluff, as inconsequential yarns designed merely to illicit a startled yelp around the campfire or at the sleepover. But these tales' cultural significance--as cautionary narratives and moralistic teaching tools--can't be overstated. They communicate important lessons on what it means to be human. Carolyn Turgeon's haunting "La Llorona" delves into the parental response to the loss of a child. It's a particularly hopeful interpretation of a chilling legend. John Mantooth's superb "Shoebox Train Wreck" is a journey of investigation, an examination of how guilt can scar us in perpetuity, remaking the core of personal identity until death becomes a welcome transition.

Overall, the anthology succeeds in its charge to reinvigorate a collection of world legends, making them bright and shiny for the next generation to investigate, disseminate, and enjoy...

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