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.

At the End of Everything: A Night in the Woods Fanzine

I’m excited to have a story in At the End of Everything, a fanzine celebrating Night in the Woods. My piece is a series of connected vignettes about the subtle uncanniness of daily (and nightly) life in Possum Springs, and the atmosphere is pure Rust Belt Gothic heavily based on my own experiences in rural West Pennsylvania. Preorders for the zine are open until November 30. In the meantime, please feel free to check out the free wallpapers available on the zine’s Carrd site. 

🍂 https://nitwzine.bigcartel.com/
🍂 https://nightinthewoodszine.carrd.co/

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).

Spooktober Fifteen Day Challenge

I’m thrilled that my work has been published in The Oracle‘s first issue, an anthology of horror-themed flash fiction and art. My piece, “Spooktober Fifteen Day Challenge,” is a creepy little story told in the form of a cursed social media game.

I recently read an article in Rolling Stone (this one right here) about the Momo Challenge, and this Halloween-themed story is inspired by the idea that a monster might prey on children through a series of social media challenge prompts. Although the format is nontraditional, my goal is for the reader to gradually get a sense of the loneliness and anxiety of the “you” to whom the prompts are addressed. 

The “Fright Flash” issue of the zine is very short, but it’s lovely to look at and quite spooky. If you’re interested, The Oracle is (here) on Twitter, and you can download a free digital copy of the “Fright Flash” issue via Google Drive (here).

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.

Decomposition: Tales of Botanical Horror

My newest short fiction zine, Decomposition, collects six short stories of botanical horror and dark fantasy. It features a number of guest artists and spot illustrations, as well as a gorgeous cover created by the botanical art wizard Frankiesbugs. I’ve listed the zine on Etsy (here) if you’re interested.

The past few years have been tough for me. It’s become somewhat taboo in American culture to admit that the pandemic wasn’t the best thing to ever happen to you, so the less said about this the better.

I have to admit that I’m a gremlin who doesn’t really care about germs, but for a while I found it very difficult to relate to other people. I didn’t want to see other human beings at all if I could help it. This is why, after I moved to Philadelphia, I started spending a lot of time wandering around abandoned spaces.

Philadelphia is a fun and interesting city with a steadily growing population and multiple vibrant local cultures, and I find it annoying when people take pictures of a normal street or an early-morning empty parking lot and tag their photos as “urban decay” on social media. That’s just rude. Still, I think it’s easier to get funding to build new construction than it is to repair existing structures, so there’s a surprising density of ruins and wild spaces in and around Philadelphia.

What surprised me while walking around the emptier areas of Philadelphia is just how quickly most architecture returns to nature. Maybe stone castles and granite walls and asphalt roads can last for centuries without maintenance, but a normal house or Burger King or whatever is going to last for one or two decades at most. It’s only going to take about five years before the roof goes; and then, once the water damage gets started, that building is finished. The shell of the walls becomes its own little ecosystem, with plants pushing up through the brick and concrete. In Philadelphia, fig trees and sumac shrubs grow wild just about everywhere, providing food and shelter for insects, birds, and larger animals like opossums and raccoons.

On one hand, it’s lovely to see these pockets of green in postindustrial urban areas. On the other hand, it’s a bit creepy how aggressive plants are in taking over space formerly occupied by people. If you think about it, plants have been on this earth for hundreds of millions of years, and they will remain here long after the last human draws its final breath. Their green dreams are beyond our comprehension as their roots silently feed on the soil of our bodies. Plants are forever growing and forever hungry, and they’ll take everything back from us eventually.

Fright! Horror Zine Preorders Open

Fright, a classic movie horror zine, has opened preorders!

I contributed a story called “The Girl in the Screen at the End of the World,” which is about Sadako from Ringu picking off the last humans to survive the collapse of society. The story gradually comes together through vignettes narrated from the perspectives of different characters, all of whom encounter Sadako’s curse in unexpected ways. Some of these characters actually seek her out, as it’s always good to have a friend to help you deal with the end of the world. If you’re interested, you can check out the zine through these links…

💀 Carrd: https://frightzine.carrd.co/
💀 Twitter: https://twitter.com/frightzine
💀 Bigcartel: https://frightzine.bigcartel.com/

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).

Watching from the Shadows

I contributed a story about Impa and Princess Zelda titled “Watching from the Shadows” to Goddess Reborn, a zine celebrating the female characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can check out the zine’s Twitter account (here), and you can read my story on AO3 (here). Here’s a short description of the story…

Impa prepares to train Princess Zelda as a Sheikah warrior during the year following the fall of Hyrule Castle. Zelda is tired of hiding and eager to fight, so Impa shares stories from the past to demonstrate that there is wisdom in waiting for the right moment to strike.

This spot illustration was created by the magical and marvelously skilled Frankiesbugs, whose sharp and deadly work can be found on Tumblr, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

Your Journey Awaits! Pokémon Fanzine

I’ve spent the past several years in the Legend of Zelda fandom, but I have a deep and enduring love for the Pokémon series. Although I’ve taught classes and given conference lectures about Pokémon, I haven’t written fanfic about the series in years. When a few fandom friends announced that they were putting together a zine about the small towns where your avatar characters begin their journeys in the games, I was onboard.

The story I contributed to the Your Journey Awaits! Pokémon Fanzine is “The New Kid in Postwick,” which is about Sonia and Leon from Pokémon Sword and Shield. It’s about Sonia’s childhood in the small rural town of Wedgehurst, her friendship and rivalry with Leon, and the ambitions underlying her decision to set out as a young Pokémon trainer. Here’s a short description of the story…

Sonia has lived in Wedgehurst her entire life. Despite the beautiful nature and rich history of the area, she’s started to feel isolated from the wider world. Her anxieties are exacerbated by the boy who just moved into an old farmhouse in Postwick along with an exotic Charmander. Although he seems confident and carefree, Leon has problems of his own, and he’s ambivalent about moving to the country from Wyndon. Sonia and Leon gradually come to understand one another as they train together, and they seal their friendship by making a promise to venture out into the Wild Area together.

You can read my story on AO3 (here), and you can check out previews of the work appearing in the zine on its Twitter profile (here). The zine itself can be downloaded for free on Itchio (here). Along with a PDF of the zine, the download includes all sorts of fun digital extras like icons and wallpapers. The illustrations and stories are accessible to readers of all ages, so please feel free to share the zine with any younger Pokémon fans in your life!