At the Edge of the Garden

When I was ten years old, all my friends had trampolines. I wanted a trampoline too, but my mother was opposed to the idea. One of my cousins decided to jump onto a trampoline from the roof of his house, breaking his arm and becoming a neighborhood hero in the process. My mother used my cousin’s behavior as a justification for keeping our yard trampoline-free, but I understood that she didn’t want her garden to be invaded.

My family lived on the outskirts of a pine forest bordering a small town. The property would later be sold, cleared, and incorporated into a subdivision, but our house was fairly isolated when we lived there. Since I had no one to play with and nothing better to do, I spent the summer roaming the forest with my dog while pretending to be a dinosaur. After a boy was shot in a hunting accident only a mile away from our house, my mother came to the reluctant conclusion that keeping me and the dog in the yard on a trampoline would probably be safer than letting us run wild in the woods.

The trampoline dominated my mother’s garden, as she had known it would, but this was more than likely a relief for her. She had neglected to do any weeding that summer, and the plants had gone feral. The trampoline blocked the view of the overgrown tangle of the rose bushes and ornamental shrubs that she used to keep meticulously maintained. My dog would sometimes disappear into the thistles and milkweed that grew as tall as my waist at the edge of the yard and emerge with his coat covered in burs, and my mother would pretend not to notice.

My parents’ marriage had turned sour. They fought after dinner, so I tried to be in the house as little as possible. I would go outside to jump on the trampoline every evening. It was soothing, almost hypnotic. I would position myself in the middle of the black canvas tarp and bounce in place as I watched the sun set over the pine trees standing just beyond the garden. I would hop off the trampoline and head back inside once the sky had gone completely dark, but twilight tends to linger in that part of the world, especially during summer. Sometimes I would be on the trampoline for more than an hour, letting my mind draft into various fantasies of prehistoric life while my dog barked at the rabbits that sniffed around the patch of soil where my mother used to grow carrots.

One evening, just as the sun had begun to sink below the tops of the pines, I saw a figure slink out of the dim forest underbrush. There wasn’t enough light to see clearly, but I was convinced it was a person. My dog was somewhere else, so I was alone with the shadow.

I was struck by a sense of terror, but I couldn’t stop jumping on the trampoline. My body moved mechanically as the blob of darkness made its way across the yard. Eventually it halted, raised the stalks of its arms, and slowly waved at me. I kept jumping, and it kept waving. It seemed as though it were trying to get my attention, but I refused to acknowledge its presence. If I looked at it directly, the stalemate would be broken, and I would be eaten. I was only a dinosaur in my mind, after all, and I knew that I was no match for whatever had come out of the trees.

As the sun disappeared, the shadow sank back into the forest. I hopped off the trampoline and ran inside as quickly as my shaking legs could carry me. 

The next day, when the sun was fully back in the sky, I ventured out to the line of trees beyond the garden, but I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The thick mat of pine needles covering the ground lay undisturbed.

Later that afternoon, my dog got hit by a speeding truck on the state highway that ran past the end of our driveway, but I don’t think there was any connection to what I’d seen the previous evening. How could there have been? Nothing made sense to me at the time – not the death of my dog, not the end of my parents’ marriage, and not the creeping realization that my mother and I would have to leave our home at the end of the summer. All things considered, a strange shadow lurking in the woods at the edge of the garden was the least of what was wrong with that house.

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

This story was originally published in Issue 7 of 3 Moon Magazine in April 2021. The issue’s theme was “Growing Malcontent,” and this story was my first foray into botanical horror. 3 Moon Magazine ceased publication and closed its website at the end of 2022, and I am reproducing this story with the kind permission of the editors.

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.

Fruiting Bodies Review on WWAC

I recently had the honor of writing a review of Ashley Robin Franklin’s graphic novella Fruiting Bodies for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Franklin joins Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Jeff Vandermeer in the pantheon of contemporary writers and artists who have celebrated the uncanny invisible world that stretches deep below our feet and proliferates in the warmth of our bodies. Classical botanical horror has its roots in concerns over cultural hybridization, but Fruiting Bodies resists the genre’s Victorian anxieties in favor of a probing exploration of the primal fears surrounding the collapse of bodily autonomy. In the end, Franklin suggests, human social distinctions of gender and sexuality are meaningless to a natural world that devours everyone equally.

You can read the full review (here), and you can find the book’s page on Silver Sprocket’s website (here). You can follow Ashley Robin Franklin on Instagram (here), and I also recommend checking out her other short comics on her Etsy store (here). As always, I want to acknowledge the good work of my patient and brilliant editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

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.

Flowerblight Ganon

I posted a short story on AO3 (here) about a minor character in Breath of the Wild named Magda, who is affectionately known by the fandom as “Flowerblight Ganon.”

In Breath of the Wild, Malice is a tangible substance that infests objects and locations controlled by Ganon, including the four Divine Beasts, Hyrule Castle, and the Akkala Citadel Ruins. It also infects the dragon spirit Lanayru who guards the Spring of Wisdom.

While writing this story, I wondered if it were possible for Malice to infect regular people. If so, the woman who zealously guards the garden of flowers surrounding Hila Rao Shrine is as good of a candidate as anyone.

The story illustration is by Clara Kay, whose gorgeously monstrous horror art can be found on Twitter (here) and on Instagram (here). I really enjoyed working with Clara, and I also want to give a shout-out to her store (here), which has all sorts of cool Legend of Zelda merch!

I’d like to share a bit of the artist’s description of this piece, because it’s fascinating:

There’s a lot of symbolism packed into the flowers here. The petunias (pink) represent anger and resentment, the devil’s trumpet (the tall white one) represents power and caution, the spider lily (big spiny red one) represents death and reincarnation, and the carnation (white with red ring) is considered the ‘flower of the gods’ and represents admiration, passion, and love.

Carnations represent “passion and love” because they’re thought to be white flowers dyed red with blood, which is entirely appropriate for this story. “Flowerblight Ganon” is my first foray into botanical horror, and I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with Breath of the Wild to understand what’s going on. Magda is a regular woman enjoying gardening, quiet living, and occasional tea with friends in a dying postapocalyptic world, and if she lives her best life by indulging in murder every once in a while, then at least her flowers are well fertilized.