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Urban Legends: Strange Stories Behind Modern Myths
A.S. Mott
Ghost House Books, 232 pages

Art: Gerry Dotto
Urban Legends: Strange Stories Behind Modern Myths
A.S. Mott
Born with the nocturnal instincts of a vampire, A.S. Mott preferred the dark confines of his parents' basement. There, he fed on a steady diet of scary movies and the most frightening books he could find. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that he would choose to write about the supernatural.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

Check your e-mail. What sort of letters do you get? There will be the normal collage of friends sending well wishes (or otherwise), posters to your online journal, maybe a listserv message or two (or a hundred, if you're pathetic). There will, of course, be the endless reams of spam mail that clog every pore of electronic communications.

There will also be, maybe even once or twice a week, some wild story told by a friend of a friend. The story will have the addresses of multiple recipients, as well as those people who forwarded the messages to the next recipient. The urban legends that are passed both orally and now electronically are the focus of A.S. Mott's Urban Legends: Strange Stories Behind Modern Myths.

Here's an example of a well-known story: a young woman goes to her favorite fried chicken restaurant. She's starving, and she wolfs the first two bits of batter and chicken nugget. She grabs the third, and crunch. Fried rat. The woman wigs her stuff and tosses her cookies into the car.

"This story depends on our cynicism to be believed," Mott writes. "Our natural prejudice about the quality of fast-food service is what keeps us from questioning the story's many logical faults." One of the faults is that nuggets arrive at the fast food restaurant pre-battered. Therefore, not only would the battered rat have passed inspection at the meat market, it would have escaped the notice of the local store workers.

The core of Mott's work is common sense. An internet search will reveal the false and often ridiculous nature of many of these stories, but Mott saves us the trouble. Can't find the story on the web? Then Mott goes to court documents to verify whether a "lawsuit is pending." Still can't find it? She goes to police records. Even then? Well, if Mott hasn't found the story's origins, then that story does not exist in this reality.

With that said, Mott suggests that many of these stories come from true happenings in this admittedly weird world. A recent lawsuit against a chicken restaurant involved a battered chicken head. At least it was part of a chicken. "Compared to the urban legend involving the rat, the woman got off rather easily," Mott quips.

A second focus of Urban Legends is the transition of true stories into "legends." To people who ask how truth becomes legend, Mott reminds her readers of a kindergarten game in which one student whispers a sentence to another, who then whispers the same sentence to another student, and so on. "Almost inevitability, the phrase... bore little relation to what [was] originally said," she says. "This, in a nutshell, is how urban legends happen."

The spread of legends has become like wildfire on the internet. "That habit of sending amusing emails to one's friends and coworkers has resulted in a great number of famous legends, many of which are the result of the person who sent out the message not being totally clear in the body of their text." As the message is sent again and again, the new sender garbles the original point of the message in an effort to clear misunderstandings.

Motts' focus is varied, and she presents nearly fifty stories in six separate categories. This writer's particular favorites are "Chapter Four: A Strange Way to Go," and "Chapter Six: You're Not going to Believe This, But..." The former chapter deals with strange deaths and the truth behind the sad demises of the participants. The latter example includes those stories "that really happened." So yeah, that story you heard about Thomas Edison inventing the electric chair? It's true.

When Edison faced stiff opposition on the lighting of downtown New York, he sought to champion his system of running a direct current through the wires. Of course, we know (and he knew) this system was impractical for larger cities because of the awesome amount of current necessary it would take for Battery Park to glow as much as Central Park. Edison's competitor, George Westinghouse, developed a system of alternating currents.

Edison countered by saying that the alternating current system was too dangerous. He had his assistants run public displays of electrocuting stray animals in front of reporters. Soon, the New York government caught wind of the crispy critters. The governor, looking for more "humane" ways to kill prisoners (as opposed to hangings), asked Edison for his help. Edison refused, but then suggested "electricide" with alternating currents.

The state legislature pushed the newly developed electric chair into use. Edison even testified that the prisoner would feel no pain as he or she were the recipients of thousands of volts of electricity (from alternating currents). Edison hoped the public outcry against alternating currents would cause him to win the lucrative New York deal. No one cared, as long as the prisoners were killed in an efficient manner. Edison lost the contract. The story lives to this day.

Copyright © 2004 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.

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