Book Review:

The Nail in the Skull and Other Victorian Urban Legends,

by Simon Young

Reviewed by Deborah M. Fratz

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Review of Simon Young's The Nail in the Skull and Other Victorian Urban Legends, University Press of Mississippi, 2022. 270 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1496839473). Paperback (ISBN: 978-1496839466). Kindle (ASIN:‎ B0B4F68SYH). 

You might have heard some of these before: a baby picnic after which distracted mothers bring the wrong child home; the ghastly discovery of a missing bride whose festivities included a deadly game of hide-n-seek; or a wife who mourns her lost wedding ring only to discover it in the fish served at dinner. Simon Young’s The Nail in the Skull and Other Victorian Urban Legends collects seventy of this variety of tales. Inclusion in this volume depended on the following criteria: at least three versions of the story or its type circulated orally or in print in the British Empire during the same era; they have parallels in folklore, reveal a wider historical context, and reflect the preoccupations of Victorian society. There is much terrain to cover, but Young’s volume is concise and tidy, due in part to his clean prose and careful choices of what to exclude. It offers a useful preface, an excellent introduction, and short chapters featuring a sensational tale, almost too zesty or bizarre to be believed.

What distinguishes Young’s work is the emphasis on era as well as location. Earlier folklorists collected largely supernatural legends that reflected the beliefs of earlier and sometimes pre-literate communities, and current folklore scholars study the urban legends circulating today. Instead, The Nail in the Skull centers on stories that were circulated during a particular era—the Victorian, from 1837 to 1901 in Great Britain and its territories. British newspapers were “the best connected in the world,” as they circulated in the largest empire, both in landmass and population (xxiii). The expansion of literacy among the population prompted a corresponding surge of print culture, producing an enormous amount of material, much of which can be mined from the British Newspaper Archives (BNA), which itself offers a number of advantages: a researcher can search one database instead of several; the scan quality is excellent; and the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) makes it easy to find information on a scanned page. In the BNA, Young searched for phrases that signal a likely urban legend, such as “strange story” or “story circulating,” then collected and sorted them according to legend types. Next, he used more specific keywords to search Victorian book and pamphlet archives, a more laborious process in print collections of nineteenth-century street literature, such broadsides. A close-set thirty-page bibliography attests to the range and depth of his research. For a general reader, the explanation of Young’s process demystifies the labor of folklorists and historians, whose tunneling through such resources also offers an important lesson for students pursuing archival research.

Despite the thrills I found in the chapter on the “Sewer Monsters,” I have the most praise for Young’s well-constructed introduction; here he shows why this era is worthy of folklorists’ scholarly attention. It describes the elastic quality of the Victorian urban legend, evolving out of an era of significant historical changes that proved to be the ideal incubator for the proliferation of these narratives. Acknowledging that “urban legend” is not a perfect term, Young notes that other folklorists will understand these are “explorations of belief: the reader or listener wonders about the truth of the story” (xxi). The meaning of “contemporary legend” is less desirable because its meaning shifted in scholarly and public arenas, “from stories told in the present to stories set in a present” (xxi). That present, the Victorian era, featured the crucial element in the nascence of urban legends: the explosion of print culture. British history had never seen so many readers, and they hungered for information, inspiration, and a good thrill. Those newsmongering ancestors of today’s papers competed to meet the public’s demand for cheap reading material, and Young points out just how scrappy that competition was. Publishers would recycle lurid stories from old penny dreadfuls, lift exotic oddities from foreign news sources, attribute the more egregious whoppers to other publications, report highly local and highly doubtful rumors or “flaps,” and sometimes hire penny-a-liner writers to just make stuff up.

And here is the heart of the urban legend: while everyone involved in their production and consumption sensed these stories were not true, the very fact of their appearing in print cast a glamour of veracity over them. These “explorations of belief” appealed to Victorian readers because they “entertained the belief,” as social psychologist Thomas Gilovich would say. Readers knew it probably wasn’t true that there were giant rats and loads of money found in London’s sewers but were thrilled with the possibility that under their feet could be monsters and treasure worthy of The Thousand Nights and a Night. And while Young reminds us that “truth was a carefully marketed commodity in the nineteenth century,” there was still money to be made in “truthiness” (xxxiii).  We struggle with a murky legion of stories and anecdotes today: if we “read it somewhere” then “it” will seem truer than if we heard it somewhere.

Selecting down from an abundance of material remains one of the perennial challenges of collecting legends. Few readers have the stamina to saw through James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Young admirably limits his work to representative samples of Victorian urban legends, some familiar to folklorists, and others “unfamiliar as they were not collected or studied in Victorian times; and they have not, for the most part been collected or studied since” (xxi). Casual readers will thumb through The Nail in the Skull to find legends that capture their fancy. These are numbered, appear in alphabetical order, and begin with a summary, the date of the earliest attestation, the identified motif, and coverage in secondary literature, as applicable. I’ve already commended Young for his diligent reduction of what to include, and what remains makes up an impressive range of tales that appeal to several disciplines. As a literature professor, I was interested to find that “The Chimney Boy” first appeared in 1807, long before Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist wrenched hearts with the return of the lost boy to a middle-class home, and that Robert Louis Stevenson might have found inspiration in circulating tales about a “Suicide Club,” while in turn, his story might have inspired the foundation of one in the US. An historian may see ghostly traces from the Island of Ulster in “The Red Hand!” while students in my fairy tale course will learn that Hansel and Gretel had real-life London counterparts in “Child Pie” and “Human Sausages.” As an avid cyclist, I turned to “Cycling Afflictions” to find out of if, like Victorian women, I was stricken with “Bicycle Face,” described as “a hard, set look … [and] a haggard, anxious expression to the eyes, which is quite painful to observe” (34). As most academics have a similar look, I’ll never know for sure. While I can’t say that the volume offers something for everyone, it offers plenty for readers of Supernatural Studies.

Initially I questioned Young’s aim to present phenomena rather than interpret the legends in The Nail in the Skull, but it quickly proved to be an excellent choice. Analysis would quadruple the length of the volume, and after all, interpretation is my job, and I found abundant opportunities for it. Young provides enough historical context to make sense of every tale, as in the chapter “Devil Take Me,” in which a casual curse invites the Prince of Darkness to show up and he does. “Middle-class Victorians had mixed feeling about Satan,” Young begins, and briefly explains how education and economic class divided the British people into those who saw the devil as an abstract agent of malice and those who thought he might come to the funeral (39). Every chapter reveals a peculiarly Victorian anxiety or three: alarms about new technologies—many of these legends take place on trains—and how they facilitate the mingling of strangers of all classes, sexes, and ulterior motives; anxieties about women leaving the house, duping men with hand muffs, and endangering everyone with their bicycles; panic over developments in medicine (chloroform and dissection!); fears about invasions and infiltrations of the “Other” in Great Britain (“Covert Catholics” and “Harem Prisoner”); and the universal fear over the loss of a loved one, gone missing in a world that seemed increasingly complicated and largely indifferent to individual loss. As I review my marginalia, I see how easily these legends lend themselves to analysis and am grateful that Young has presented us with so much to think about.

-9 July 2024