Strange Tales and Modern Legends

This semester I taught a seminar called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” (You can find links to the syllabus and course materials here.) A major element of this class was our study of how folkloric traditions have influenced literature. My specialty is contemporary fiction, so we spent a good amount of time talking about what urban legends are and how they work.

I believe that urban legends have the following three characteristics:

First, these stories are specific to a time and place, and they’re generally tied to a specific person as well. This person is someone known to the storyteller, and they’re either a reliable source of information or a direct witness to the event or phenomenon in question.

Second, the story is understood to be “real” and therefore nonfiction. In fact, it often isn’t much of a story at all. Unlike creepypasta, which is shortform fiction, the characters in an urban legend don’t have interiority, and they’re often not attributed with motivation. Rather, the story is stated as a simple fact. At the core of these stories is a statement like “you’ll die if you eat [a certain type of candy] mixed with soda” or “a child was once murdered in [a certain department store] bathroom.” The purpose of additional details is to add authenticity.

Third, urban legends almost always have a cautionary element, and the unfortunate events of the story are related to social and cultural anxieties. These fears tend to be politically sensitive and thus can’t be discussed openly, so urban legends function as a sort of pressure release valve. In the United States, for example, a lot of urban legends reflect racial tensions, while there are a lot of urban legends about bullying and social ostracization in Japan.  

This isn’t really a defining characteristic, but I find it interesting that an urban legend need not necessarily be untrue. Rather, the act of making something into a “story” adds an element of speculation. This means that, even though the story is stated as fact, both the teller and listener understand that the veracity of this fact is debatable. In other words, the story could be true, but both parties acknowledge that there’s no way to prove it.

Having provided the students with these criteria and a number of examples to use as potential templates, I asked them to write their own urban legends. I was absolutely blown away by the work they submitted. I promised that I wouldn’t spread their stories outside of class, but I decided to make a class zine so that they could share their work with each other. The image at the top of this post is the cover I created for the zine, which ended up being a 76-page book.

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell would be proud.

Quiet Haunting

I moved to South Philly toward the end of the pandemic. My landlord raised the rent, and it was cheaper to buy a house. Granted, it’s not a big house, nor is it particularly nice. The floors are uneven, and the ceiling sags. The kitchen is like a set from an old movie, and the basement is infested with house centipedes. But it’s affordable, and it’s quiet, especially since no one lives next door.

Recently, however, I’ve started to hear things moving on the other side of the townhouse wall. The noises aren’t loud or frequent. It’s mostly soft shuffling and light tapping, usually right before dawn and just after dusk. To make matters even more curious, someone has been watering the plants in the house’s back yard. Two leafy fig trees have grown from small sprouts to extraordinary heights over the summer.

Earlier this evening, I noticed that the house’s back door was open. It was just a crack, as if someone had forgotten to close it. The opossums that live in the alleyway that will come inside and eat your trash if you let them, so I figured I’d be doing someone a favor if I closed the door. I climbed over the crumbling cinderblock wall and maneuvered through the foliage. When I put my hand on the knob, the door surprised me by swinging open.  

The was nothing inside, just uneven floors and sagging ceilings like my own, but I could hear a beeping sound emerging from the basement. I peeked down the stairs, where I saw an older man in a colorless cardigan sweater sitting on a metal folding chair. He was flipping through an issue of National Geographic that he’d taken from a sagging cardboard box filled with old magazines.

I froze in alarm, but he looked up and met my eyes before I could back away. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I apologized. “I live next door, and I heard the beeping. I was worried something was going to explode.”

“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “It’s just an oven timer. I figured I’d give it a few more minutes, but I might as well turn it off.”

I felt awkward, like I couldn’t just leave, so I asked him why he was sitting in the basement with an oven timer.

“They pay me to look after the place,” he answered. “You know, rattle a few chains, make some thumping noises in the night. Feed the spiders, maybe put a bloody handprint on the window, that sort of thing. It keeps the property values down.”

I realized that I could see the back of the chair through the man’s sweater. This didn’t bother me as much as perhaps you’d think it would. I’d seen stranger things in the neighborhood, and the man seemed nice enough. “I haven’t really heard anything from next door,” I admitted. “Do you want me to be more scared?”

“Don’t sweat it. They’re not paying me much, and I haven’t gotten a raise in years. My heart’s just not in it these days.” With a sigh, he closed the magazine and tossed it back into the box before disappearing in a thin whisp of smoke.

I left the basement, closing and locking the door behind me before returning to my own house. I guess the post-pandemic economy has been tough for everyone. All things considered, I don’t mind living next to a haunted house. Like I said, it’s affordable, and it’s quiet.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This illustrated short story was originally published in the Philly Zine Fest 2022 Anthology. This year’s Philly Zine Fest was held at Temple University on Saturday, November 5. Despite a giant political rally happening right across the street that afternoon, it was a very chill and relaxed event with lots of good vibes and creative energy. It’s been my dream to table at the Philly Zine Fest for years, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. Here’s to many more celebrations of independent artists and writers in years to come! If you’re interested, you can find the Philly Zine Fest website (here), and it’s definitely worth checking out their parent organization, The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library.

Also, I should mention that I really do live next door to an abandoned funeral home. True story! I posted a photoset on Instagram (here).

The Museum of Hyrule

I was recently thinking about what a modern version of Hyrule would look like, and I was imagining how fun it would be for Link to encounter the Master Sword during a class trip to a museum. When I started sketching, however, what I ended up drawing is a reincarnation of Ganon seeing his crown from Ocarina of Time. The moment I wanted to capture is the calm immediately before a terrible storm.

Also, as someone who loves art and history, I tend to dislike museums, but that’s another story entirely.

The Best Witch of Her Generation

I’m excited to share another short story I wrote for Goddess Reborn, fanzine celebrating the female (and nonbinary!) characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can download a free digital copy of the zine on Itchio (here), and you can read my full story on AO3 (here).

A Link Between Worlds is one of my favorite games in the Zelda series, mainly because I find the characters so charming. I’m especially fascinated by the figure of “someone who wants to be a hero but isn’t the fated Chosen One,” a character trope the series plays with but never fully explores. Groose from Skyward Sword is a good example, as is Ganondorf from The Wind Waker. There are several such characters in A Link Between Worlds, and Irene is my favorite.

Irene is the granddaughter of the Potion Witch, and she serves as the game’s fast-travel mechanic by flying Link around on her broom. She seems to be modeled half on Hermione Granger – she calls proudly herself “the best witch of her generation,” a play on Hermione’s famous epithet – and half on Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like Hermione, Irene sees herself as a hero; but, like Kiki, her character arc involves her journey to understand and acknowledge her own specific set of talents.

What I wanted to capture was a moment of Irene’s life in which she’s happy and confident of herself as the protagonist of her own adventure. Irene understands that what she’s doing is just as important as Link’s quest, and she’s absolutely correct. Although the player may see Hyrule through Link’s eyes, the female characters who surround and support him are absolutely vital to Hyrule’s history.

While writing this short story, I wanted to get as close to the tone of “early-reader fiction” as I could. I’m not used to this style of writing, so it was a fun challenge. I was aided immensely by the story’s illustrator, Leh Latte. Leh helped me with the diction and rhythm, as well as with structure and balance. She also showed me what it means to work with page formatting in mind. Although the story itself is short and simple, it’s the product of a few good conversations during a collaboration between me, Leh, and Aven Wildsmith, the zine editor.

Leh and Aven are both fantastically talented and creative people who work in a variety of media. You can find links to all of Leh’s social media accounts on her Carrd (here). Aven’s website is (here), and you can find links to all their socials on Linktree (here). And again, Goddess Reborn is free to download on Itchio (here). There’s a lot of love on every page, and this zine is really something special.

The Potentate of Jarburg

About halfway through Elden Ring, I realized that the player’s character is the villain of the story.

At some point before the story begins, a manifest symbol of divine order called the “Elden Ring” was shattered by nefarious means, and the rulers of the land fought over its shards. Whether because of the battles or because of the nature of the shattering itself, everything is now in ruins.

As an outcast “Tarnished” warrior who has returned to the magical Lands Between, your job is to retrieve the shards of the Elden Ring from the fallen rulers and thereby restore the Golden Order of the once-great civilization. At least, that’s what you’re led to believe.

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the society enabled by the Golden Order wasn’t so great. The ruling class built its civilization by subjugating other cultures in fantastically horrific ways. This isn’t subtext, exactly, but neither is it surtext – it’s simply the story told by the environment of the game.

You may think that perhaps, if you repair the Elden Ring and become the new Elden Lord, you’ll do better. You’ll burn the ruined vestiges of the old order and create a more just and fair society. The game defies this hope at every turn, however. For every kindness you attempt, you cause only more suffering.     

In more prosaic terms, almost every sidequest in Elden Ring ends badly.

The kind and modest Sorcerer Thops, who has developed a brilliant form of defensive magic, asks you to spare a key to the Academy of Raya Lucaria if you happen to find one. Should you do so, he is unprepared to face the dangers of the battleground the school has become, and he is slaughtered at his desk.

The gentle and noble Irina has fled from the besieged Castle Morne, and she asks you to deliver a letter to her father, beseeching him to join her instead of perishing in a hopeless battle. When you find Irina’s father, you learn that the castle was overtaken by the slaves he abused. Irina is slaughtered in your absence. This drives her father mad, and you are forced to kill him.

Meanwhile, Preceptor Seluvis, a member of the only group of good guys you encounter in Elden Ring, asks you to deliver a healing potion to one of your former companions. What this potion does is to turn her into a mindless “puppet.” This is an act of revenge against the woman’s adoptive father, with whom Seluvis has a feud that he never bothers to explain. It’s strongly implied that Seluvis uses his puppets as sex dolls, but this unsavory magic is necessary is help another female character. In order to save her from endless torture, you must agree to collude with Seluvis.

The only pure and wholesome place in Elden Ring is Jarburg, an isolated village filled with flowers and animate Living Jars. Living Jars are magical war machines that were abandoned because they happen to be extraordinarily bad at fighting. Should you visit Jarburg, you will be greeted by Jar Bairn, a young Living Jar who asks if you will become the Potentate of Jarburg. Jar Bairn will happily chat with you, and he has more lines than almost anyone else in the game. Aside from enjoying a few rounds of idle conversation, there’s nothing to do in Jarburg. There are no battles or treasures or quests, just Living Jars lazing about in the grass and tending to the flowers.

So the player will leave Jarburg – if they ever bother to find the village at all – and probably never return.

Instead, you’ll continue through the game, murdering and pillaging and destroying everything you encounter. Elden Ring doesn’t give you much of a choice. If you don’t kill something, it’s only because it succeeded in killing you first. You have to survive by any means necessary, even if that means leaving a trail of blood in your wake. In order to become the new Elden Lord, you must be utterly ruthless.

Along the way, you’ll bear witness to the atrocities committed by the former rulers of the Lands Between. You’ll gradually understand why this violence was necessary, and you’ll begin to realize that your own choices are limited. There is no happy end to this story, not for you or for anyone else.

So why finish the game, then? The former rulers are no longer in any position to subjugate anyone, and the formerly enslaved peoples are now free. Castles will crumble, and ancient cities will be forgotten, but the dead will finally be allowed to rest. Why not simply lay down your sword and allow the Lands Between to heal?

I am very bad at Elden Ring, which is an extremely difficult and punishing game. To make matters worse, no one in the game offers you real or meaningful guidance. On top of that, all of the guides available online are fragmentary, disconnected, and clearly written in haste. The artist Frankiesbugs is a veteran of the Soulsborne games, and she’s been patiently helping me find my way forward as we slowly navigate the Lands Between. Mostly we’ve been making silly jokes about the game’s shitty wizards and their appalling sense of fashion, but we wanted to try to create something a bit more serious that reflects the deeper themes of Elden Ring.

This collaborative comic is a tribute to a masterpiece of the medium that forces you to ask difficult questions with no easy answers. I have to admit that I may not ever finish Elden Ring, but maybe that’s okay. It wouldn’t be so bad to be the Potentate of Jarburg.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

You can follow Frankiesbugs on Twitter (here), on Tumblr (here), and on Instagram (here). If you like this comic, you can leave Frankiesbugs a tip on Ko-fi (here) and browse her creepy-cute Plague Doctor merch on Redbubble (here). If you’re interested in stylish gothic horror with a heart, please check out Frankiesbugs’s ongoing comic Necrobirth, which you can read on Tapas (here), on Webtoon (here), or on Tumblr (here).  

What Should We Do With Your Body?

I contributed a story called “What Sadie Didn’t See” to What Should We Do With Your Body?, an original collaborative murder mystery zine that’s free to download on Itchio (here).

“What Sadie Didn’t See” is a story about the things people throw away. Sadie is the manager of a custodial agency in the isolated town of Rosewater, where the body of a young man named Gabriel has been discovered in an abandoned mining tunnel. Gabriel was the son of the wealthiest family in town, and Sadie’s agency services their manor, just as they handle many of the other notable buildings in town. It’s possible that Sadie may have an important clue concerning what happened to Gabriel, but she has a longstanding habit of remaining silent about what the town residents don’t want to be seen.

I worked for a custodial agency in Atlanta during my first two years of college, and Sadie is based on my manager, a cheerful but no-nonsense woman who liked to say that the most important element of the job is discretion. My manager was kind and supportive to everyone who worked with her, so it was important to me to establish Sadie as a respected member of her community with ties to just about everyone. Although Sadie’s decision at the end of the story may be questionable, I hope it makes sense to the reader why she values the wellbeing of the living and the dignity of the dead over the success of the ongoing police investigation into Gabriel’s disappearance and probable murder.

I’m honored that my story opens the zine, and I hope it provides an intriguing introduction to the town of Rosewater and the secrets of its inhabitants. I’m equally honored to have received a character illustration by ZombieGaby, as well as a story spot illustration by Taymets. The focus of the zine is on the stories told by the characters, but the pages are filled with gorgeous art and graphic design. If you’re a murder mystery fan, or perhaps a connoisseur of Stephen King style peculiar little towns, please consider checking out the What Should We Do With Your Body? zine.

🟠 You can download the zine for free on Itchio (here).
🟠 You can follow Vinegar Zines on Twitter (here).
🟠 You can follow ZombieGaby on Instagram (here).
🟠 You can follow Taymets on Twitter (here).

A Legend of Shadows, Part Three

This is the third and final section of a speculative comic about gods and mortals in Legend of Zelda lore and mythology. The first part is (here), and the second part is (here). This is a continuation of the ideas I expressed in a short collaboration comic called Hylia’s Chosen Knight.

The goddess Hylia is more than a little scary, and it’s interesting to think of Ganondorf as being the hero of another story. I’m fascinated by the theme of “the failed or corrupted hero,” and I think it would be interesting if Ganondorf went on a quest that paralleled Link’s journey. Maybe young Ganondorf saw Hylia as the villain, but the power he needed to stand against Hyrule ended up overwhelming him. To me, that’s much more compelling than the idea of power only being “good” when it’s wielded by the “chosen” person.

Be Green, Do Crime

Despite my interest in horror and dark fantasy, I’m very normcore in real life. Still, I am willing to engage in civil disobedience in order to touch grass. If I can’t afford to live in a neighborhood with flowers, then I’m just going to have to plant them myself.

This comic received a lot of support when I posted it on Tumblr, by the way. (This) is one of my favorite responses. Kudos to my fellow urban gardener for the addition!