As far as genres go, many people forget that horror is one often marketed to younger readers, and not just in its relatively safe Fear Street or Goosebumps forms. Plenty of authors also write genuinely frightening fiction for elementary and middle grade audiences, such as Mary Downing Hahn or Katherine Arden. Not every story written for those age groups is perfect, however, and while a really good horror story is scary even for an older reader, a mediocre or just bad one is somehow even worse when you can see the potential the author had. Secret Urban Legends by longtime shoujo creator Ryō Azuki falls somewhere in between those two statements.
Despite a lengthy career in shoujo and josei manga across a variety of genres, Secret Urban Legend is Azuki’s first English-language release, alongside her three-volume fantasy romance Anti-Gravity Boy, both brought over by MediBang. Secret Urban Legends is itself a younger-readers version of her Toshi Densetsu, originally published in Japan as Toshi Densetsu Jr.; the former ran in Margaret and the latter in Ribon. While the two books don’t share stories, they do share a sensibility, with this book being a little lighter in its treatment of the horror genre. That makes it a somewhat uneven volume, because there are a few stories where you can really tell that Azuki is holding herself back a bit in terms of how the tales are presented.
Hands-down the two most successful pieces are the second and third stories. Both use the power of implication to make things as scary as possible, striking a good balance between showing and telling, but also between terror and horror. They also use a basic human selfishness as the basis for their stories rather than anything supernatural, which really helps to not only drive home the creator’s points, but also to remind readers that humans can be more vicious than any ghost or demon. In fact, the third story barely relies on any supernatural contrivances at all. The story follows two high school girls who are coming up on the death anniversary of Manaka, the third in their friend group. Manaka died from a fall down a set of stairs at a nearby park, and because a piece of rusted railing was found near her, the assumption is that she had an accident. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the other two girls found Manaka vastly annoying, and on the day that she died, they’d blocked her on their phones. Kie assumes that Manaka simply died waiting for them, but her friend seems to know something different – a situation Kie begins to become aware of when she thinks she hears a mosquito buzzing her name in Manaka’s voice. She recalls that before Manaka’s death, she’d wondered if mosquitos could carry on the grudges or thoughts of the people they bit, or even of the dead. The other girl comments that mosquitos don’t feed on the dead, something that comes back to haunt her when Kie starts hearing Manaka’s voice. While the solution to the mystery isn’t all that hard to figure out, the use of the mosquito bites and buzzings is very effective (as is the art that goes with it; seriously, if you hated bug bites before, be prepared), and the conclusion of the tale has a definite sense that things are not over yet. It works both because of its basic simplicity (vengeance of the dead) and its different use of a common issue (mosquitos bite humans), bringing them together for a successful horror venture.
The second story is a bit more subtle in its build-up and denouement. This one focuses on an abandoned house in a small town where our group of hapless teens used to play as children. Legend now has it that a girl once went in with her friends to play hide-and-seek but never came out, and now if you go to the deepest room in the house…you can wish to see someone you lost. The kids think this is incongruously happy for a ghost story, and they decide to check it out. Along the way they all mention who they’d want to see and why, but we as readers can begin to notice some discrepancies in the art and what they’re saying. Again, it isn’t all that difficult to figure everything out (at least to a degree), but the way that everything is revealed is a beautiful piece of middle-grade horror storytelling, and there are a few absolutely horrific elements to the story. Again, the ending is ominous and hints that things are not quite finished for the house, leaving us to wonder just how long things have been happening there…and if maybe there’s something larger at play than horrible people. It’s inconclusive, but that’s really what makes it work.
Despite these two strong entries, there are some elements that don’t quite work throughout the book. At least two of the stories, most notably the first, carry unfortunate messages about female friendships, relying on the idea that girls will turn on each other when boys enter the equation. This trope is practically ancient at this point and really should be allowed to expire peacefully; it works in the third story to a degree, but with it as the entire basis for the first story, it just drags the piece down. The final story in the book treads into romantic comedy territory, but it also is a bit unsettling in that the heroine curses the hero and then has to save him from peril that she herself brought down upon him – which eventually leads to him falling for her. While it is nice to see a gender reversal to a degree (her saving him rather than the more typical version where he’d save her), the idea that he’s almost forced into the relationship is a bit uncomfortable.
Secret Urban Legends is very firmly a book for middle-grade readers. That’s not a bad thing, though it does mean that readers looking for true terror may not find it here. But Azuki uses her art well and even the fourth story, which is just a bit too short to be truly effective, has some very good horror imagery. As of this writing the book is digital only, but that also means that it isn’t all that pricey, so if you’re in the mood for some shoujo horror, you could do worse than to pick this up.