Good morning, friends, and welcome to another Wednesday in ClarksonPunk Land. Despite my losing two weeks of posts to my own poor health, we’re still in my favorite month for holidays, October, at least until Friday. I’ve been indulging my taste for all things spooky by having a mini-marathon of Supernatural, plus reading all the Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Machen I can get my hands on (and that’s a lot, thank goodness!). Tomorrow I, my training wheels, and my family are going to the Halloween Block Party in my husband’s home town; there’ll be food and dancing and trick or treating for my grandsons (and hopefully the granddaughter, too, though I’ve not confirmed that yet). Friday is Horror Movie Day; I plan a serious marathon.
Until then, however, I still owe you a blog post. Let me start by telling you a story…..
Way back in the late 1800’s, there was this fellow named David Lang. He, his wife an his children lived on a farm in western Ohio (though I’ve also heard Tennessee and/or Alabama). One day, the family were outside on the front porch, drinking lemonade and enjoying a lovely summer afternoon, when they saw a horse and carriage approaching. David recognized the carriage as belonging to his neighbor. He had recently sold the man some horses, but had forgotten to tell the man something about the upkeep or health of the horses (versions vary as to what exactly he needed to convey). So David gets up out of his chair, says he’ll be right back, and starts walking across the hayfield to intercept the carriage as it went by.
So Mrs. Lang was breaking beans or knitting or some little chore that kept her attention on her lap instead of on her husband. So she was surprised when several of her children all started screaming at once. She looked up, and David was gone. He wasn’t at the road, he wasn’t at the house, and he wasn’t visible in the field where he’d been walking. This seemed a little odd, but not unbelievable. What was freaky, however, were her children’s reaction: they were screaming in terror, weeping, and shouting for their father. It took some doing, but finally she was able to get one of the kids to tell her why they were all so frightened.
According to the children, David Lang had vanished into thin air. He hadn’t fallen down. He hadn’t flown away. He hadn’t run off in a random direction. It was like turning off a light switch: one second he was there, walking through the field, and the next second, he just wasn’t.
Now Mrs. Lang was concerned. Maybe David had fallen down a well or sinkhole. Maybe he’d fainted, and was lying concealed in the high grass, needing help. So she and the children ran out into the field, following the trail David had left through the hay. And they found….
Nothing. No sinkhole. No well. And no David, living or dead. The trail of broken or disturbed hay just stopped.
Mrs. Lang, her children, and eventually her neighbors spent days searching for David. They even dug up where he’d last been seen, hoping (somewhat irrationally) that he had fallen down a sudden sinkhole and it had collapsed in on top of him, concealing him. But not even the massive manhunt, nor the authorities when they were summoned, ever found a trace of David Lang.
Except for a few odd things. For ever after, right in a 6-10 foot radius around where David’s last footprints were, the hay refused to grow; weeds wouldn’t, either, leaving bare, dead earth to mark his spot. Usually the children avoided that spot, feeling uneasy about it. But one day, on the anniversary of David’s disappearance, his eldest daughter walked out to the spot, and, driven by some bizarre compulsion, called out for her father.
“Help me!” was the answer she got. It was her father, David’s voice, in real distress. But it sounded as though it came from a great distance. The daughter searched the area, but in vain; her father still was not visible, though he continued calling to her as long as she stood in that circle. When she stepped out of the circle, the voice disappeared again.
For years after, the daughter and those of her siblings she told about it, went to the circle on the anniversary of their father’s disappearance. Every year, they could hear their father calling for help. Every year his voice grew weaker, more distant, and lasted less time. Until eventually, it vanished as well.
David Lang was never seen again.
Great story huh? I read it years and years ago, when I was, gosh, nine or ten. It scared the bejeezus out of me. You can still see it pop up on the Internet from time to time, usually as a true story. But it’s not true; it’s just another urban legend. It probably came from came from a short story called, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” by Ambrose Bierce, one of my all time favorite short story writers. How a short story got morphed into an urban legend is anybody’s guess.
Another example of Ambrose Bierce contributing to urban legend is the story of Oliver Larch. It follows a similar narrative to David Lang: young son steps outside his home one winter evening to fetch a bucket of water, and is never seen again. His footprints in the snow stop abruptly about halfway to the well, as though he’d been lifted out of his tracks by something airborne. Like David Lang, his voice can be heard for a few moments after his disappearance; but instead of coming from everywhere, Oliver’s voice is heard coming down from above. No trace is ever found. This urban legend — and I’ve seen it repeated over and over again as though it were fact — is based on Bierce short story, “Charles Ashmore’s Trail.”
So why trot this out now? Well, if you read the name of today’s post, you’ve got a pretty good idea. I have been fascinated by the phenomenon of urban legend since the day I first heard of the concept. I have been known to archive binge on The Urban Legend Reference Pages (lovingly known online as Snopes.com) and periodically browse the Interwebz in hopes of finding new sources of urban legend.
What fascinates me most is how subliminal many of them are; the best ones play on our fears, our hopes, our expectations, giving us just enough rope to hang ourselves with. We want to believe so much, we let ourselves be fooled. We want to believe that there’s such a thing as instant karma, we want our prejudices to be validated and confirmed, we want to think we’re savvy to the dangers of the world, no matter how far-fetched.
So why does my fascination with urban legend belong in a blog about Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp? Moreover, why does it qualify as Foundation Media for Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp? Well, boys and girls, you don’t think urban legends are a 20th century phenomenon, do you? Ever heard of Sawney Beane? Spring Heeled Jack? Urban legends have existed as long as there’s been an “urban” to have legends about. And they have held the same fascination, with the same credulity, as today.
I’ve counted four or five Steampunk stories where Spring Heeled Jack is at least mentioned, and often fills a major role. Myths and legends about the dangers of nuclear fallout turn up in every atompunk story, like, ever. If the belief in the veracity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion influenced the real world, how could it have not influenced our fictional worlds as well? What about the legend of the Philadelphia Project; it sounds like pure Dieselpunk to me.
I could throw out example after example of urban legends and modern mythology, and point back to where they can, do, or could influence our genres. Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp are populist genres, aimed at the masses. As such, they are influenced by their audience as much as they do the influencing. And for the masses, these urban legends are either true, should be true, could be true, or need to be true. And for that reason, they have to influence our genres.
Okay, that’s enough from me for the moment. I’ll be back on Friday with some spooky Fun Friday offerings. In the meantime, don’t forget to write, share, tweet and comment. And until Friday, be good! And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!