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It Happened to a Friend of a Friend : CURSES! BROILED AGAIN! The Hottest Urban Legends Going <i> by Jan Harold Brunvand (W. W. Norton: $18.95; 355 pp.) </i>

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The way we told it, 30 years ago, it happened up on Mulholland Drive, where we all used to “park.” A guy and his girl are making out and the radio is on (though I never left it on when parking up there myself).

Suddenly the program is interrupted by a news bulletin to the effect that a maniac has escaped from Camarillo Hospital and made his way to the San Fernando Valley. This maniac--homicidal of course--is known to prey on parked couples; furthermore, one of his hands has been amputated and replaced by a hook.

You can guess what happens next: The girl gets scared and wants to go; her boyfriend slams the car into reverse, peels out of the hills and takes her home, but when he goes around to open the door for her, there’s a hook hanging from the handle. . . .

“The Hook,” as this classic urban legend often is called, was told--and perhaps, with subtle contemporary changes, still is--not as a fable or horror story but as something that “really happened” to that dependable and ubiquitous sib of The Man in the Street, “a friend of a friend,” or FOAF. Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of folklore at the University of Utah, has been collecting stories like these for years. The present collection of FOAF tales is his fourth, all in print, and all fascinating: For who among us is not fascinated by his own psychological manifestations and those of his peers?

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There are probably few of us who have not told, and fewer who have not heard, one or more of these urban legends, as Brunvand and other folklorists call them. They are most often told as true incidents whose verity is attested by attribution to a source that sounds verifiable (“It happened to a friend of my cousin’s,” or “I read it in the L.A. Times”) but that is just vague enough to be actually anonymous (what’s the friend’s name? Which edition of The Times?).

Prof. Brunvand’s earlier books, “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” “The Choking Doberman” and “The Mexican Pet,” as well as “Curses! Broiled Again!” contain a surprisingly large and apparently widely various collection of stories, recounted--perhaps “reproduced” would be a better term--with all the zest, anonymity and anomalous logic which characterize the oral versions. Brunvand is at present the principal collector, organizer, analyst and anthologist of these contemporary outpourings of urban and suburban “folk"--meaning contemporary Americans such as our neighbors and ourselves.

“Curses!” contains the latest rash of tales being told; “latest” does not mean “brand new,” however: Some of the “latest” are as old as the Romans, perhaps older, but sporting a veneer of techno-glitz or faddish references. The title story is about the doomed victim of tanning-salon zeal: Having caught too many rays, she (seldom he) is dying, having been broiled from the inside out by the tanning machine.

If that sounds familiar, consider the story, which appears in “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” of the poor poodle inadvertently roasted by its well-meaning FOAFish owner, who was just trying to dry the poor thing out, after a bath, in a microwave. . . . Or consider the story of the “neighbor of a friend” described in “Curses!” who rescued a rabbit from his dog’s mouth and “fluffed it up” with a hair dryer before sneaking it back into its cage at the home of a neighbor: To that neighbor’s consternation, since he had buried the rabbit that morning. . . .

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If you think you detect the thread of a common idea here, watch out! The urge to interpret is endemic to us all, but we must be wary. The most obvious linkages may conceal more subtle ones, and we may find ourselves discovering meanings as elaborate and as unreliable as the stories themselves, while overlooking far more revealing and interesting ones.

Perhaps such cautions as these are why Brunvand no longer offers interpretations as he once did (see “The Vanishing Hitchhiker”). The issue may be too complex: Should we look at public meanings or private ones? What does a given story tell us about the society we live in, the era, the person telling it, and those who hear it? What purpose is intended by the teller, and what motives are unintentionally revealed?

Gananath Obeyesekere and other anthropologists with psychological orientation use the phrase “operative context” to refer to the specific social and personal setting in which a folk custom is elaborated, the use to which rituals, practices--and stories--are put by the society as a whole and by the men and women in it. Urban legends are just as much an expression of our cultural configuration, though not as exalted, as the cave-paintings of Lascaux or the hieratic art of ancient Egypt.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that an anthology is only one way of presenting such material. Brunvand is concerned professionally with such matters as cataloguing, classification and comparison, with origins, distribution, underlying themes, the nature and rationale of variations, and with the fascinating question of why people tell these stories to one another.

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After the publication of “The Mexican Pet,” and after several appearances on various talk shows, including “Late Night With David Letterman,” Brunvand was asked if he would be interested in writing a column. As an ex-journalist, he was indeed, and his twice-weekly column, “Urban Legends,” now appears in newspapers across the country (though not yet, alas, in The Times). “Curses! Broiled Again!” was drawn from these columns, with extra material and supplementary observations.

As with his previous collections, “Curses!” is a page-turner for anyone interested in contemporary American folk tales in the true sense of the word (as opposed to the polished versions of traditional stories told by professional storytellers). Nor need one be a folklorist to find an interest here: The psychological and sociological implications of verbal expressions such as these--their operative context--undoubtedly are there for us to discover if we can.

Two questions linger, and some may regard their presence as flaws in Brunvand’s choice of presentation. The first has to do with the prevalence of a journalistic approach over the folkloristic: These are popular books, rather than professional studies, and so the concerns indicated above are present only in the barest outline.

The second question is related to this, for one of journalism’s own practices is the exposure of falsehood in our society (sometimes including those which it engenders), and it is clear that Brunvand takes on himself Mencken’s role as debunker of popular delusions. A folklorist might record and analyze, but would avoid passing judgment as much as possible (say the canons of scholarship). The journalist is a moralist of sorts, however immoral some journalistic practices may be, and here strict scholarship is subordinated to the revelations of “truth.”

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But truth reveals itself in other, more subtle ways than correspondence to mere fact; and if we would learn true things about ourselves, we must examine our lies as if they too could yield to our investigations as much as do “the facts.” Indeed, perhaps they reveal far more.


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