Stories are as inescapable as other people. Such tales come from others, overheard as conversational snippets, discussed as party mingling, or broadcasted through misinformed media outlets. No matter where one goes, they cannot escape hearing these tales. In Phantom Hitchhikers and Other Urban Legends, author Albert Jack compiles over two hundred pages of these stories that haunt us as much as alleged specters do.
Those pages are well-organized, with the chapters arranged by subject so that readers should have no trouble remembering where they can find the tale that they most enjoy. Many of these chapters are creatively named, which lends all the more fun to the book. Urban legends involving animals are in the appropriately titled “Animal Crackers” chapter. The well-known similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy make their appearance in “The American Presidency,” and celebrity legends (some gossip, some not) are told in “Tall Tales of the Rich and Famous.” Of course, some tales defy easy categorization, and several of the chapters are an assorted hodgepodge of various stories.
Interestingly enough, while this randomness seems natural based upon the circumstances, the stories themselves are not confined entirely to the realm of fiction. Some of the tales are presented entirely in a narrative format, while at other times the story ends with Jack telling the reader outright if the story is true or not. Sometimes, Jack admits that he is uncertain of the truth, and often he does so with humor. Also, there are seemingly arbitrary times that Jack discusses a common myth or urban legend but then describes research he has done to either prove or disprove the stories. For instance, when discussing the figure of Robin Hood, Jack discusses potential origins of the figure and even proposes an interesting theory that seems a logical deduction based on the facts he presents. Jack also addresses societal issues that are constantly being debated as to whether they are fact or fiction. He clearly states his opinion on global warming and conspiracy theories like the alleged staging of the moon landing. Such an arrangement leads to an interesting blend of history, fact and fiction.
At times, regardless of which category they fall under, these stories are recognizable. Several familiar stories make an appearance: the tale of the creepy guy hiding in the backseat, the expensive luxury vehicle being sold cheap by the vengeful ex-wife, the poorly dressed couple who are actually wealthy benefactors. Youth is often where one first hears these tales, and reading Phantom Hitchhikers and Other Urban Legends kindles the memory and the imagination, taking the reader back to a time when the only stress they encountered was rooted in scary thrills that they knew would end in the laughter of disbelief, even when the story did not end so well for the babysitter who learned that the creepy call was coming from inside the house.
The childlike feeling induced by reading such fun, kitschy tales does not imply that this should be read by younger readers. There is a chapter entitled “Love is A Dangerous Business” that contains some adult material. While this material is not always blatantly described, throughout the book there is mention of urban legends involving sexual escapades—many of them taboo, such as incest and adultery. Parents should consider this before buying, especially if their son or daughter is enticed by tall tales or the cartoonish cover.
Much of the charm of Phantom Hitchhikers and Other Urban Legends is that the reader may encounter different variations on an old story that they have heard countless times. Sometimes, when this happens, Jack acknowledges these common variations by tracing their geographical origins, which is interesting for the cultural identity presented in these tales. Yet the most interesting part is the stories themselves, because even if one has heard the tale repeatedly and recognizes it a few sentences in, there is a compulsion to keep reading. The spell that these stories holds over us is a sort of magic, making them a “legend,” and having such tales compiled in one volume is quite fun.