BOOK REVIEW / Hits, myths and stings in the tale: 'The Baby Train & Other Urban Legends' - Jan Harold Brunvald: Norton, 14.95 pounds

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THE MOST amazing thing happened the other day to the friend of someone I used to work with, a woman who lives in a quiet house in the country. She was in a supermarket with her six-month-old baby, and stupidly left her handbag in the trolley while she loaded up with fruit. She turned her back for just a minute, and the bag vanished. She alerted the manager, but it was too late. She had to borrow money from the shop to get home; the baby was hungry and screaming - the whole thing was a nightmare.

She got home eventually (a neighbour had the spare key), but 10 minutes later the phone rang. It was the supermarket manager, saying they'd found her bag. Everything seemed to be there except the cash from her purse. Great news] She hurried back to the shop. She had a quick glance inside the bag, and there didn't seem to be anything missing. So it was a shock when she returned home again to find that her house had been expertly and thoroughly burgled.

What is the modern world coming to? Jan Harold Brunvald is pretty sure he knows the answer to that one: he would probably be able to show us letters and newspaper clippings from all over the world, proof that the story above has been 'happening' to friends of friends all over the place for years. The Baby Train is his fifth collection of (mainly American) urban legends - too- good-to-be-true tales of mystery and suspense that always seem to happen to someone else - and it includes some real chestnuts.

Take the woman who booked a sleeping berth on a Pullman in Wyoming and spent an uncomfortable night being bitten by fleas. She complained to the railroad management, and was pleased to receive a charming and handsome apology from the president of the company. Clipped to the letter was a terse memo: 'Send this dame the bedbug letter.'

Or take the honeymoon couple in the Bahamas who returned to their room to find that everything had been stolen except for their camera and a couple of toothbrushes, which were still in the bathroom. They made the best of things, but back at home they found some odd holiday snaps in their camera. The thieves had taken photographs of themselves, including several showing a guy bending over with a couple of tooth brushes shoved up his - well, you get the picture (they certainly did).

And what about the impatient parents who organised a babysitter to look after their tiny child for the weekend? When the day came the babysitter was late, and the couple had a plane to catch; so they established that the sitter was on the way, left the baby in a highchair and made sure the back door was open. Well, the wind slammed the door shut, and the babysitter, finding the house locked, presumed there had been a change of plan. When the couple returned they found the baby still in the highchair, dead.

The best of the stories in The Baby Train resemble fairy tales: they wrap sharp narrative twists round nuggets of folk wisdom. They are - again, like fairy tales - quite reactionary: cautionary parables reminding us not to trust anybody, warning us to be on our guard. Some have a tacky, game-for-a-laugh urge to giggle at other people's foolishness. But urban myths are also a lively and fluent form of oral art, highly expressive of daily dreads and desires.

Brunvald is an eager and fastidious scholar, a professor of English and folklore at the University of Utah, and he has compiled an admirable catalogue of stories, with silly generic titles for easy cross-reference. I suppose we have to forgive him his superior, yeah-I've-heard-that- one-before manner, but there is something unsatisfying about the enthusiasm with which he dismisses the status of the legends he is handed. He listens, visits his files, and declares: 'Bingo]' Nothing excites him more than proving a story unoriginal; the zest he brings to the task reveals him to be a fun lover only in disguise. Underneath, he is a spoilsport.

He enjoys exposing people as gullible twits. 'Omigosh,' he says, 'here's that story about clowns abducting children again.' He seems to have forgotten that the stories themselves, and the magical speed with which they flash around the world, are far more interesting than the huffing and puffing of the story-gatherers.

Does it even matter whether the stories are true or not (they almost certainly have some oblique foundation in fact, even if the details have been polished and embroidered). The town with the astonishing birthrate because of a dawn express (the 'baby train' of the title); the hapless couple who hired a video, and accidentally sent back a film of their own bedroom antics . . . these and many other tales capture the strange quirks of modern life, and add a whiff of horror or an ironic joke to everyday coincidences. They are our way of telling stories round the camp fire.

We, of course, tell them round the microwave. And we often throw in the one about the short-sighted grandmother who, while babysitting for her daughter, put an infant in the oven instead of the chicken. It is quite possible to appreciate the dark comedy of a story like that while refusing to believe it ever happened, though it is important that the narrator sustains the illusion by swearing, honest, it was a friend of my mother's gardener. Our modern fairy stories need to masquerade as anecdotes; we would not believe them otherwise, would not pass them on.

But Brunvald wants to puncture the illusion. And he does not walk alone. His book is a compendium of letters from other folklorists, amateur and professional alike, all of whom write as if they were a merry fraternity dedicated to laughing at other people's follies.

The phrase, 'An amazing thing happened to a friend of mine', is a perfectly reasonable, indeed an essential, introduction to a tall story. It is as innocent a convention as 'Once upon a time . . .' Maybe it does say something about our materialist times that we judge a story on such petty grounds as its truthfulness, rather than enjoying the spring of the tale itself. If Brunvald had been around in ancient Greece, he would no doubt have noted, in his collection of Aegean Legends: 'Omigosh, the one- eyed monster hurling rocks again . . . Well, I never, how nice to see our old friend the warrior with the vulnerable heel still doing the rounds]' With a bit of luck, one of Zeus's thunderbolts would have nailed him in mid-scoff.