A collection of supernatural tales drawn from cultures around the world, Haunted Legends is part horrifying, part skin-crawling, and part contemplative. Ellen Datlow has teamed up with Nick Mamatas to gather resurrections of urban legends, ghost stories, and local terrors derived from a variety of imaginations and reality-based nightmares to produce a solidly satisfying anthology. There are, of course, some stories that outshine the rest, but the overall quality and diverse contributions ensure a little something for every reader.
Not to be confused with ghost stories as the title may lead some to believe, Haunted Legends is all about the lingering tales told to us as children (or just a long time ago) and still remembered years later as adults. Sometimes the memory of fear holds a terrible power over the tale itself. Thus, these legends, these traditions passed down from neighbor to neighbor, cousin to cousin, best friend to best friend, still reverberate in the public consciousness. They have endured through the years, which invariably has a diluting effect, like grains of sand beating against a once coarse rock. But these twenty authors have brought new life to these stories and new apprehensions as readers continue to keep alive that which has unnerved us for many years.
Some of these stories are purely supernatural (Catherynne M. Valente’s “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of Baku and Jotai”). Others are a juxtaposition of personal, slice-of-life fiction and the otherworldly (Gary A. Braunbeck’s “Return to Mariabronn”). A few were simply too far-fetched or beyond my taste (Lily Hoang’s “The Foxes”; Kit Reed’s “Akbar”). What’s important to remember is the reminiscing quality of these tales, and the influential and personal milieu affecting each iteration that is less “re-telling” and more an evocation of the original—if one ever existed. Since there are so many tales included, and not all of them impressed me, I want to gush about those I enjoyed the most.
First, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I did not give Carolyn Turgeon’s “La Llorna” (pronounced “yo-rro-na”) a warm reception. This is the kind of ghost story (it is in fact THE ghost story) I grew up with as an American-born child of Mexican parents. I remember my aunt gathering all of us primos (cousins in Spanish) around her as the sun began to go down, after we’d tired ourselves out running around the court playing our own version of basketball, finding ways to entertain each other in my grandmother’s backyard, or chasing one another in adrenaline fueled games of hide-and-go-seek, to regale us with the tale of La Llorona, flashlight in hand by the back porch, in an attempt to cajole us back inside before we continued playing deep into the night. Turgeon’s version is by no means the story of my childhood, but it’s every bit as haunting. A divorced (or separated, I can’t quite remember) woman recently mourning the death of her child finds a strange comfort in the horrors of this legend: a wailing ghost who cries for the children murdered by her own hands. Turgeon has an unsettling way of disturbing the turn of events for her protagonist that I think my aunt would be proud of.
“That Girl” by Kaaron Waron actually gave me goosebumps; Steven Pirie’s “The Spring Heel” (a Spring-Heeled Jack tale) is a fascinating reclamation where the legendary figure once rumored to haunt the streets of Victorian-era England (romanticized in the extreme by Pirie’s desperate protagonist) turns savior for a woman eager to escape the reality of her world. Ekaterina Sedia is the only author I have any practical experience with. Her “Tin Cans” is a Stalin-era ghost story of regret, written with her signature sophistication and polished prose. “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of Baku and Jotai” is surreal, strange, and beautiful—a myth with its origins in Japan, crafted lovingly with Catherynne M. Valente’s dream-like prose.
Some of these tales are heart-breaking, like “Shoebox Train Wreck” (John Mantooth) and “Return to Mariabronn” (Gary. A. Braunbeck); some are allegorical—”Following Double-Faced Woman” (ErzebetYellowboy)—others, metaphorical, like “Oaks Park” (M. K. Hobson). A few are even cleverly original extrapolations, urban legends in the making, such as “The Folding Man” (Joe R. Lansdale) and “Between Heaven and Hull” (Pat Cadigan). Like the latter, many of these are traveling ghost stories about disappearing hitchhiker’s or phantom vehicles. Overall, I found myself trying to read more than one or two stories a night and paying for that in the morning.
While I find myself with a perverse disappointment that the tale of “bloody Mary” was not included, I’m pleased with Datlow and Mamatas’ effort. There is a wide range to choose from here. That’s what makes this collection successful, but it also has drawbacks. Anthologies seem to regularly attract mixed reactions with readers falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (then again, what book doesn’t do this?). It’s a rare reader who will enjoy all twenty stories in this case—even rarer, a reader who will not positively recommend even one. With concluding remarks after each tale explaining the original urban legend or ghost story to avoid confusion, I think there are enough eclectic writing styles, an encouraging international contributions, and a broad range of authors to choose from to satisfy a large audience. Don’t expect to be scared with every selection, though. This is not that kind of anthology.
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Reviewed Format: Trade paperback provided by Tor Books.