In the English seaside town I grew up in, there was an urban legend about a certain apple tree that grew on the edge of the town park, or the Recreation Grounds, as the place was known. The story went that a woman, a single mother with three young daughters, had brought her family to the park for a “midnight picnic”, and whilst there had strangled the children and thrown their bodies into the sea. She had then hanged herself from a branch of the tree, where she was discovered the next morning by a class of primary school children on a field trip.
The Recreation Grounds, as I recall them, were the perfect setting for this grisly story. It was situated behind a bus depot, near a low cliff overlooking the North Sea. In my memory, the playing fields were nothing more than a wasteland of mud and broken glass; the seascape beyond consisted of treacherous cliffs, black, jagged rocks, tidal pools teeming with spiny and squishy lifeforms, and perpetually angry, roiling, slate-grey ocean waves. It was the sort of coastline where one could easily imagine bodies washing ashore; the sort of sea more likely to breed monsters than mermaids.
The park’s playground consisted of a roundabout with rotten, splintered boards, a rusted, medieval-looking climbing structure, and a pair of swings with chains that gave forth an unearthly shrieking sound on the rare occasions that they were ever used.
And, of course, there was the apple tree—ancient, gnarled, producing mean and diseased-looking fruit. It was an article of faith amongst us kids that one bite of one of those apples could bring about all manner of misfortune, including (but not limited to) downturns in luck, parental divorce, broken limbs, bedroom hauntings, and even sudden death. Rumour had it, amongst us gossipy little twits, that a girl named Shirley Blake, a sixth former, had taken a bite of one on a dare. I remember it was source of unending speculation as to when—rather than if—some terrible fate would befall her. As far as I remember, the worst thing that ever did happen to her was that she got her forehead slashed during a field hockey game and had to get some stitches. Naturally, we took this as definitive confirmation.
According to the legend, if you went to the tree on the night of a full moon, you would be greeted by the sight of the dead mother swinging slowly from the creaking branch, whilst her children sat on a picnic blanket at the foot of it, silently eating a repast of earwigs, beetles, moths, and worms.
I remember very little of the things I learned in the dreary classrooms of that primary school: a few juicily bloody stories from history and the bible spring to mind. I remember some fumbling studies of human anatomy in the bushes behind the portables. Most clearly, though, I recall that weird piece of dark folklore and the images it etched into my imagination: the hanged woman, slowly turning in the breeze, and children sitting on the blanket, eating their midnight picnic, with the legs and wings of crawling and flying creatures hanging from their lips.
In a way, I have been drawn to permutations of that unsettling story throughout my life. I have looked for them, and found them, in the Nordic Noir, dark country songs, horror novels, and operas. I have seen and heard echoes of the ghost woman in the apple tree in the songs of Neko Case, Neil Young, The Handsome Family. I can find traces of the story in Black Swan, Macbeth, Blue Velvet, and The Shining. It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that there is some profound, symbolic truth contained in such stories of madness, strangeness, and misfortune. Perhaps there are some things that are essential for us to know about certain aspects of the mysterious universe that are best understood through story.