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Top 10 urban legends in literature

Writers from Clive Barker to China Miéville and Mariana Enriquez show how city settings for uncanny fiction create a new kind of horror

Virginia Madsen in Candyman (1992), based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden.
Virginia Madsen in Candyman (1992), based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Virginia Madsen in Candyman (1992), based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Gary Budden

Last modified on Wed 13 Oct 2021 15.08 BST

Here in the UK, most of us now live in an urban world and the stories we tell often reflect the anxieties and fears of these environments. Folk-horror, a sub-genre that has seen huge successes in recent years, focuses on town dwellers out of their depth in rural communities or in nature.

Uncanny fiction that engages with urban (and suburban) settings – what are commonly called “urban legends” – does something very different. Horror and strange events frequently occur in the places where the characters spend their day-to-day lives, or in parts of the city they inhabit but have not explored, where the occult or troubling events are not centuries-old pagan survivals, but fresh events formed by the human-built environment.

When I was asked to contribute to Writing the Uncanny: Essays on Crafting Strange Fiction, I wanted to explore how urban environments give birth to their own myths, legends and folklore, providing fertile ground for the writer of uncanny fiction. It’s a notion that forms the bedrock of my last book, London Incognita, where hauntings and uncanny events occur in lonely underpasses, motorway flyovers, shopping centres and car parks.

Choosing only 10 works to illustrate a point is always a difficult task, but here are some of the fictions that I think best illustrate how powerful the urban uncanny can be.

1. The Forbidden by Clive Barker
Barker’s Books of Blood are justifiably credited with reshaping and redefining horror in the 1980s. The fifth volume of the series begins with this short story, which inspired the Candyman film franchise. Barker’s original is set on a bleak decaying British council estate, an ill-thought-out attempt at utopian living that has quickly fallen into disrepair and abandonment. The Forbidden is one of the most atmospheric stories to deal with the legends that spring up in the ruins of our cities, and still feels bang up to date, nearly 35 years after it was written.

2. The Three Impostors by Arthur Machen
This episodic novel is a notable example of Machen’s signature merging of ancient pagan horrors with the teeming London of his day. Machen’s approach is similar to what would become known as psychogeography, and his work has influenced Iain Sinclair as well as Stephen King. In these streets we find tales of human sacrifice in the suburbs, strange disappearances, and atavistic fairy folk from pre-human times – horrors we thought gone with our rural past taking on new, urban form.

3. King Rat by China Miéville
Miéville’s first novel is an uneven but thrilling “weird London” novel set in the drum’n’bass party scene of the late 1990s. Introduced into this recognisable city grit is a very unpleasant Pied Piper, a young man called Saul who discovers his royal heritage and relation to the King Rat, Anansi, the spider god from Afro-Caribbean folklore, and a host of other weird beings. Similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but with a more memorable subcultural aspect, this is a truly modern piece of urban mythmaking.

4. Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane
Lane’s impeccable, interlinked story collection is the perfect fusion of the occult detective story with urban noir – imagine Derek Raymond bingeing on the work of Thomas Ligotti. Presented as the experiences of a police officer in the West Midlands in the late 1970s, Where Furnaces Burn shows us the Black Country and urban Birmingham as a nightmarish landscape that harbours an infinity of myths and bleak horrors: post-industrial blight presented as existential despair, and strangely beautiful despite all that.

Mariana Enriquez in Buenos Aires.
Haunted … Mariana Enriquez in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Leandro Teysseire/AP

5. Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)
The highlights of Enriquez’s short story collection are many, but Adela’s House, a chilling story about a girl who disappears through an impossible door in a derelict house, stays with you, gnawing and nagging at your thoughts. Elsewhere, stories focus on horrific acts of violence against children or the spectres of serial killers, all while dealing obliquely with the real haunting of Buenos Aires by its military junta.

6. Creatures of the Pool by Ramsey Campbell
This is horror legend Campbell’s attempt to write a definitive novel about his native city of Liverpool. Packed with folklore, history, ghost stories and strange morsels of information about the city, alongside the author’s own invented myths, Campbell uses a real, and baffling, feature of Liverpool to great effect: the Williamson Tunnels. Built by eccentric businessman Joseph Williamson between 1810–40, no one can agree why they exist. They become a perfect symbol of buried history – the blank spaces we populate with our own fears.

7. Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall
The standout story in Hall’s collection Madame Zero, Mrs Fox is about a married woman living a comfortable existence but yearning for her life to be transformed. Hall neatly sketches a perfectly pleasant and affluent middle-class English life, instantly recognisable though hardly exciting. It is in this everyday world that an extraordinary and poignant transformation takes place. There’s the feel of a medieval folktale, but this is squarely set in the commuter belt, and is all the more powerful for its apparently dull setting.

8. Candle Cove by Kris Straub
One of the oldest, most effective “creepypastas” (the internet’s version of an urban myth), this first appeared in 2009, telling the story of a fictional children’s television series. Candle Cove is a brilliant example of how to use the message-board structure to create a disturbing piece of fiction, and how myths, folklore and unsettling tales mutate and grow in whatever new settings they find themselves.

9. Hydra by Matt Wesolowski
Wesolowski’s Six Stories series makes the most out of a simple but powerful conceit: each novel is presented as the transcripts from a true crime podcast by investigative journalist Scott King. Hydra is the second book in the series, focusing on the “Macleod massacre”, in which a young woman bludgeoned her family to death. Things become increasingly strange and troubling as the interviews reveal a world of deadly games, the shocking extent of online trolling, and mysterious black-eyed children.

10. Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt
Rumfitt’s superlative new work of trans horror focuses on a notorious house on the outskirts of Brighton, rumoured to be haunted – which in a way, it is. But there’s fascism in this rotting House of Albion, and things are getting a lot worse. Taking conscious cues from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House but updating the haunted-house trope for a Britain riven by ideological division, Tell Me I’m Worthless identifies the poisonous face of modernity and attacks head-on.