On Expanding a Short Story You Already Like

Years ago I wrote a short story called “Mr. Mac,”  about a strange guy who lives down the street. A boy sees him doing an odd dance, and it goes from there.

The kernel that started the story was a series of photos of a person dancing. You couldn’t see the dancer, just the shadows. That got the wheels turning. I didn’t know what any of that dancing meant, so I wrote the story from the point of view of someone who didn’t know, either. The story is written as excerpts from the journal of a boy, then later the boy grown to manhood.

I like the story. I wrote it by instinct, with no idea where it was going. That can be disastrous, leading to a mess that never coheres. In this case, with such dreamlike subject matter, it worked out.

I recommend this sort of experiment to any writer, but not all the time. Use it for something you want to come off as a dream or nightmare. There is an extended sequence in which the hero enters a house and explores. I had no idea what he would find. I just put on the headphones and described what he experienced. It led to a long, surreal sequence I did not plan on, but which is still one of the best things I’ve ever written.

Years later–2018–I decided to revisit the story, but I was afraid I would mess it up by trying to open it up. You can dilute a good thing by piling on needles Stuff. I approached the expansion with a goal: Keep all the good stuff, but make it scarier.

To Be Continued…

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This happened to my girlfriend’s cousin: THE VANISHING HITCHHIKER


Interested in the tales of the hook dangling from the car door handle? The kid put in the oven? How about “The call is coming from inside the house!” and the dead kids.

Death and kids are paired up in these stories a lot.

THE VANISHING HITCHHIKER: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings is the best place to start your investigation into the subject. It’s only 200 pages long but it introduces the reader to the golden hits of the urban legend hit parade. So many stories branch off from the stories Brunvand spent twenty years researching.

Many of these tales involve roads and travel. That’s no surprise, since cars were such a big part of American culture beyond just methods of getting around town. “The Death Car” is about my friend who picked up a Porche for $500 because it sat in the desert for a week with a dead body in it. I’m not sure if it’s the stench or ghosts that made the owner eager to sell.

“Every folklore class I have taught contained students who believed this story” says one folklorist. That’s surprising; it sounds like bullshit, doesn’t it?


“The Vanishing Hitchhiker” is “THE classic automobile legend.” It’s about  one of my girlfriend’s best friends and her father, who give a lift to a girl who lives down the road…and then she vanishes! And you won’t believe this (so why are you telling me?), but she was last seen hitchhiking on this very road before she disappeared…and today would’ve been her birthday!

I don’t believe it!

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Brunvand explores the common strains in these stories, namely horny kids letting their horniness lead them to doom ala FRIDAY THE 13th, escaped lunatics, and avarice leading to doom. The  subhead “Growing Up Scared” covers a lot of this stuff, with urban legends being horror stories for people who don’t read horror stories. Even if we don’t like horror movies or books, we still have a need to talk about or around What’s Out There In the Dark.

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The intersection of oral traditions and news media can lead to urban legends, the original fake news. Do you remember the one about the woman who liked the cake at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, asked for the recipe, and got the recipe AND  a bill for $350, so in revenge she shared the recipe with everyone she could find? What a dumb legend! But I definitely heard it, and read about it, too. Brunvand got his hands on a magazine article from the sixties where the story is published as truth. If ONE magazine believed it, another will assume it’s true, and so on.

The ones about foreign objects in food are the ones I’ve heard the most, and everyone insists the rat in the bucket of KFC happened to someone they know personally. Liars!

Not just a collection of urban myths, THE VANISHING HITCHHIKER shows how bullshit travels through society, thus making this a book for all times and all peoples.

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