Feature (October 2018)
URBAN MYTHS – A Horla Inquiry
Horla editor Matthew G. Rees reconsiders mythology he remembers from his youth. Dr Alan Gowing, author of the thesis ‘The Dog That Follows You Home: A Study of New Town Folklore’ offers his perspective
SINGING a Man to Death is the title of a story collection by Matthew Francis that perhaps isn’t that well known but one that’s very much worth reading, writes Horla editor MATTHEW G. REES.
It emerged via a small publishing house (Cinnamon) a few years ago and, for one reason and another, I recently got hold of a copy. I enjoyed nearly all of its dozen stories, which I found strange, teasing, intelligent and pleasingly wry.
One dark and enigmatic tale that people seem to have talked about is ‘The Vegetable Lamb’. I don’t propose to discuss it here. Let’s just say you could do far worse with fifteen minutes than read it. The story I want to highlight is the title one. Allow me to cut to the following passage in particular:
‘I EXPECT she’s from the Carpathians,’ Tobias said one evening after Jessie had left. ‘A lot of landladies are.’
‘You are so full of shit,’ Luke told him. ‘You know that?’
Tobias twiddled the ends of his beard. There was a Carpathian landlady in Mill Road,’ he said, ‘who sang one of her tenants to death. Caught him in bed with someone and after that she would stand outside his door every night and sing to him. As they do in the Carpathians.’
Apparently there was a musical phrase called the Devil’s Interval, which was considered unlucky in all musical traditions. But in the Carpathians, the Devil’s Interval was just one element of an ancient murdersong, somehow kept back from the notebooks and tape-recorders of the folklorists.
It could never be written down properly in any case, with its quartertones and nasal trills and the occasional noise generated deep inside the skull by an organ that most people don’t possess in working order. It was passed on by the village bard-shaman-healer who would whisper-sing it on the deathbed to the chosen apprentice…
‘You can only hear the song so many times before you die. It’s one of the Numbers of Power. Seventy-seven, I believe. Or even hundred and seventy-seven…. Reprises. Singings.’
‘So let me get this straight – you just sing to someone and it kills them?’
‘With your fingers in your ears, obviously,’ Tobias said. ‘Otherwise you would drop dead yourself.’
‘That is so cool,’ Luke said.
READING this (and I recommend you find the book and finish the story) set me thinking about some of the stories that had currency in my teens. I can’t recall anything Carpathian, but there was some odd stuff around, that’s for sure. Odder still was the fact that quite a few people seemed to believe them.
I’m talking, for example, about Satanic messages that could – allegedly – be found in rock albums when they were listened to at the wrong speed, or that were detectable on cassette tapes played backwards (however that was achieved)… ‘facts’ such as the matter of Paul McCartney’s death and Elvis Presley’s continued long and secret life… ‘truths’ about the personal lives of movie stars and celebrities… sworn oddities about figures such as the billionaire Howard Hughes. And, of course, the real identity of Jack the Ripper (one that just won’t lie down: do you not personally know someone who’s written a book on the subject?) UFOs and a looming new Ice Age also featured heavily.
The fact that all of this seemed to peak in the world of my mid to late teens – quite a long time ago, it should be said – is probably relevant. The founts of this ‘knowledge’ – nonsense for the most part – were, looking back, I suspect, boys older or mouthier than me in front of whom I didn’t want to appear naive – whose assertions I therefore let pass without public challenge (while privately uncertain).
For the brasher tale-tellers, the peddling of these myths has always, more than likely, been a prop to self-esteem familiar to clinicians: mouthy Micky’s guffaws of ‘Don’t you know that?’ invariably greeting any display of ignorance of his disclosed ‘facts’: the slightest doubt or puzzlement leapt on as an opportunity to announce some further piece of tat with which to embellish his first.
Creative figures of the time were caught up in all of this. I’m still not sure if they were creating the spirit that was abroad, or riding its coat-tails.
John (Halloween, The Fog and more) Carpenter, for example, was crafting films with legends and strange histories at their heart. And writers were in on it in a major way, of course. Clive Barker’s (left) story ‘The Forbidden’ inspired the movie Candyman (a word incanted, so it was claimed, at your serious peril).
And, of course, Stephen King was all the while working his dark magic with horrors of the likes of It.
Movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind were the icing on the cake in reinforcing a culture which, looking back at it now, seemed to reign from the mid-1970s to around about 1990. The allure of space was particularly strong (at what I think may have been a fairly fallow time in terms of actual exploration, between the Moon landings and the Shuttle). The fad machine game – Space Invaders – featured little green men in unstoppable ranks.
This myth-making was alive and well as I entered adulthood. I remember my first encounter with an American supermarket tabloid: my eye caught by a headline that a dead president – JFK, of course – was actually alive.
What’s more, the tabloid – I sensed again those teen snorts of ‘Don’t you know that?’ – had, lest I or anyone dared dissent, pictures to prove it. Fuzzy long-shots of a snowy-haired figure in a wheelchair, which I remember to this day.
I bought the paper, I confess.
A fair dose of the same was going on in the UK. ‘WORLD WAR 2 BOMBER FOUND ON MOON’ was the splash on one garish Sunday tabloid, whose contents included pages of small ads for sex ‘chat’ (highly fantastical also, I suspect). I didn’t dial, but for a sense of what may have gone on try a story from Horla contributor Jon Gower’s back catalogue, ‘Bessie Peak Rate’ (Big Fish, 2000).
If I’m honest the bomber on the moon story is a favourite of mine. I had no interest in the ‘details’ as given by the tabloid. The headline alone, suggestive of something sad, lonely and, in its way, beautiful, did it and still does it for me – connecting (as the writers may well have sensed) with the fascination that certainly used to exist for matters ‘Bermuda Triangle’.
I say ‘used to’ because that particular ship seems to have sailed. Oceanography and simple fact-checking seems to have debunked much of that ‘mystery’. During a stay on Bermuda in the early Nineties I never heard the matter discussed. Not for reasons of superstition, either. It just didn’t seem an issue.
Yet shouldn’t we pause a moment (particularly those of us who attempt to write fiction) before we disparage the urban myth too harshly?
Isn’t our business rather similar? Transplanting direct experience or something overheard – embroidered more than likely – into settings and situations of our conjuring?
We’re at it too, aren’t we?
Perhaps writers are now its foremost practitioners because – although I can bring nothing empirical to the table – my sense is that the urban myth – as we knew it, at least – is on the wane (rather like something else that did the rounds, in an often unpleasant way, in the last century – the chain letter).
Could it be that the world back then was just a more febrile place? (Tensions of the Cold War, power outages, the petroleum crisis, high-profile investigations into serial murders in the UK and the US, industrial disputes: during one winter garbage went uncollected and the dead went unburied in some British cities. England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup sparked the banner headline on one London tabloid: ‘END OF THE WORLD’.)
Technology has undoubtedly opened the door to a new variety of myth-making: ‘bot factories’ farming out fake facts, extremists launching poison with the click of a mouse.
This new myth culture seems a world away from the one nodded to by Matthew Francis, whose deadly Carpathian balladeers seem, in comparison, rather endearing.
Could it also be that the old-style urban myth has been supplanted by another unreality: TV ‘reality’ and the worlds of YouTube and Podcast stars, to which and whom young audiences, in particular, seem increasingly to be turning while ignoring the real and touchable world around them?
And, getting back to that question of the complicity of writers, what of readers? Deep in a fine novel don’t we think of the novel’s characters as real and continue to think of them that way long after we’ve finished the book? I seem to remember saying, probably more than once, in a fiction-writing class, ‘Yes, but when Anna Karenina… ‘ (not ‘the character Anna Karenina’).
So… urban myths. What’s the big deal?
Anyhow, there’s nothing in them really… is there? Nothing to be afraid of… no need to become alarmed?
Over to someone who may know better. Time for the thoughts (below) of Dr Alan Gowing.
MYTHOLOGY: A NEW ERA IN A NEW TOWN
LET me start with a story.
In 1999, during a drawn out and dry Autumn, as the world braced itself for overhyped disaster at the hands of the Y2K bug, a rumour began to do the rounds. Two children had been arrested for murdering a man.
They had watched him one night, staggering home drunk, collapse into a patch of grass. As he slept, the two boys dragged a wooden delivery pallet over his body, rested one corner of it on his head, and jumped on the wooden frame with enough force to split his skull open and kill him.
I heard it from my brother first, twelve years old at the time, insistent that he knew the boys personally, and that the murder had occurred just a short distance away near the local canal. Then I heard the story from one of my friends. He dismissed my brother’s story and added his own details.
The murder had happened across the street, in the bushes of a play-park. The pallet had been part of a shoddy children’s fort, made from wood scavenged from the back of the local shops. The murderers were young, barely ten years old, and as they crushed the man’s head their delighted squeals of ‘Look at him! I killed him, I killed him!’ pierced the quiet of the night.
I listened to these stories, and like every true story I heard from a friend, or a friend of a friend, I did my best to ignore them. I’d heard their like before, tall tales that the speaker insisted were true, indeed believed utterly to be true.
I’d heard about the old cottage near the orchard, where the elderly nurse had filled the walls with the bodies of dead babies that she had smuggled out of the hospital. I’d heard of Farmer Giles, the old man who’d refused to sell his land before my hometown was built, and whose murdered body now lay buried under the school field. I’d heard about the Hooded Men that roamed the woodland south of the town, escapees from one of the psychiatric homes or prisons based nearby. They had evidence of course, always just out of reach, in the library archives or in a schoolbook that they couldn’t find. It was always the same, death on the outskirts or in the parkland.
Milton Keynes was a new town, made of new buildings surrounded by old woods. We had no history, only stories, stories of the bad things that happen when you leave the path, and of all of the hiding places where the bodies might be buried. For ten years I forgot about that story. And then I found out that it was true.
Granted, there were differences in the real-life telling. The boys were fourteen, old enough to be mistaken for adults in the right light, and the murder happened in Bedford, which is close, but not so close as to hear the splintering of wood or the cracking of bone.
But still, the story had found its way here and had made a home for itself as a part of the local colour. It had been changed, made to fit the town better, and when last I checked was still shared around my old family home, miles and years away from the gruesome truth that inspired it.
This process of spurious authentication, coined by the writer and folklorist Rodney Dale in 1967 as Friend of a Friend (or FOAF) authentication, is a core feature in urban legends and folklore. Urban legends are predominantly cautionary tales, part of the greater body of urban folklore.
They are an attempt to share communal knowledge, filtered through many speakers that alter the content to reinforce a local context and ensure authority through narration.
The sincerity of belief on the part of the speaker, and their efforts to verify these anecdotes in truth, no matter how tangentially, are what separates urban folklore from a tall tale. In this way, for me at least, contemporary urban legends are not so different from classical myths and fairytales.
Regardless of whether the communal truth being shared is that rain is created by weeping giants, or that axe-murderers prowl the local park, the process of presumed truth adulterated by many iterations of imposed narrative remains similar.
The inclusion of urban legends as an expression of folk culture could appear counterintuitive, even contradictory to the classical interpretation of folklore as a fragmented retelling of existing myths and epics spread from “culturally higher” to “culturally lower” peoples.
In 1969 Alan Dundes sought to redefine the subject in his essay The Devolutionary Premise in Folklore Theory.
‘A folk or peasant society is but one example of a ‘folk’ in the folkloristic sense. Any group of people sharing a common linking factor, e.g., an urban group such as a labor union, can and does have folklore. ‘Folk’ is a flexible concept which can refer to a nation as in American folklore or to a single family. The critical issue in defining ‘folk’ is: what groups in fact have traditions?’
In this essay, Dundes not only rejects the pre-existing definition of folklore as a relic from a purely anthropological approach, but also challenges the notion that folklore is a degradation of older, more complete myths and epics. Folklore, he argues, is a universal trend, adaptive rather than fragmentary.
Rather than discouraging the creation of folklore, the urban landscape creates opportunities for folk groups to personify traditional fears of change and the Other, dressed up in a contemporary setting. Instead of the dark forest we have the burned out house, the trash-filled river, the low-income part of town.
People pick up on the adult anxieties surrounding these places and create monsters and threats to embody their fears, clutching at fragments of truths and half-truths to create an image of warning.
In the realm of children, “distinct and separate from the adult world” these stories are gruesome and far more fantastic, known but unverified. This lack of verification allows these legends to be challenged and rejected by the individual, disregarded and only dimly remembered as they reach adulthood, but it does not prevent them from spreading from one child to the next.
Many of these stories can be seen to share similar themes, changing the setting and characters of the story to evoke a connection to the local region.
One notable example was catalogued by Lynda Edwards in 1997, a clear retelling of the Mary Worth/Bloody Mary myth:
‘One demon is feared even by Satan. In Miami shelters, children know her by two names: Bloody Mary and La Llorona (the Crying Woman). She weeps blood or black tears from ghoulish empty sockets and feeds on children’s terror. When a child is killed accidentally in gang crossfire or is murdered, she croons with joy. “If you wake at night and see her,” a ten-year-old says softly, “her clothes be blowing back, even in a room where there is no wind. And you know she’s marked you for killing.” ‘
That these stories were not only shared, but believed and alleged to have been witnessed intrigues me, and has led to a personal distinction for myself between tall tales and urban folklore, one of intent on the part of the speaker. When the speaker disseminates a tall tale, their desire is to deceive the listener into believing them, a test of their own wit against that of their audience. When the speaker disseminates folklore (even if they have created the story themselves), it is an expression of knowledge, an attempt to exert control over the world by creating new parameters of reasoning.
There is an inherent dissonance then in the creation of folklore, the supposition that something we have imagined is in fact real. That these tales are often retellings should not be seen as a conscious effort of plagiarism: plagiarism implies the copying of a creative work, rather than the sharing of a cautionary tale. Simple schemas of the Other, of malicious ghosts and wild animals, are easy to comprehend and disseminate. Jorge Luis Borges, in his epilogue to the essay collection Other Inquisitions (1952) wrote:
‘The quantity of fables or metaphors of which man’s imagination is capable is limited, but that this small number of inventions can be everything to everyone.’
These stories then, should not be viewed in a vacuum solely as creative products, but as exercises for the young mind to learn how to question their world and create identity for themselves through the authority of narration, a process that remains with us our entire lives in one guise or another.
The stories become the lewd acts or criminal activity of a minority group, or underground military bunkers and secret societies, where the challenge in verification comes from shame or bureaucracy.