I'm going to update this one as I go, so I can remember all the stories the freshest and the best.
THE BIRDS OF AZALEA STREET by Nova Ren Suma 4.5 stars
II'm going to update this one as I go, so I can remember all the stories the freshest and the best.
THE BIRDS OF AZALEA STREET by Nova Ren Suma 4.5 stars
I will admit Nova Ren Suma and I tend not to see eye-to-eye, partly because i know I should love her. She writes the kind of books that I know should be exactly calibrated to my tastes - eerie, creepy, female-driven, suspense novels. Yet, despite my appreciation of all things sisterly and sinister, we've never quite agreed on what constitutes plot, as I personally don't think atmosphere is enough to sustain a novel. Nevertheless, this has forced me to concede quite how masterfully talented she is. Since I finished it twenty minutes ago, I have been plagued by delicious shivers ever since. It's an ominous and incredibly well-written, atmospheric tale about three girls against a predatory neighbour. The whole thing has such a phenomenally mounting sense of dread which has stayed with me.
I had to deduct a half-star because I personally found the ending underwhelming, simultaneously under-explained but too on-the-nose. It was done in the best horror movie tradition, but even so, as Suma has such a masterful way with imagery and dialogue, something more definitive and original would've gone across better with me, but this is very much a personal thing, and should not take away from how chilling and genuinely creepy this short was. To illustrate, I'll leave you with a couple of my favourite lines:
Paisley told us she could sense the hunger coming off him, like she was plump and roasting and he hadn't eaten for a week.
It was the saddest thing I've seen all year, even worse than the time Miranda from school showed us her suicide notes and asked us to pick the best-written one so she could impress her dad.
IN A FOREST, DARK AND DEEP by Carrie Ryan 2.5 stars
When I read before that this was based on Alice in Wonderland, I steeled myself a little. The world has had so many variations on Alice that I seriously doubted the need for another, especially when there are so many other things that could've inspired a story; did we really need a version of something which is essentially middle-grade horror? Obviously Ryan's writing suffered in comparison to the amazing Nova Ren Suma, but it was decent enough, with some genuine scares and jolts, and some creepy images. However, by and large, the structure was just far too disjointed. I felt like I was never 'getting' it, but I also couldn't really be bothered to flip back and clarify anything. There was also a large cast and fairly complicated story for such a short piece, but none of them ever grabbed or interested me; they felt flat and dull.
I bumped it up a half-star because, even though my brain couldn't help comparing them due to its closeness to the first, it was definitely creepy, interesting, and occasionally surprising, if underdeveloped, unoriginal, and lacking the incredibly strong, zippy voice of the first.
EMMELINE by Cat Winters 2 stars
Not really scary like the first and second, more sad and a little unsettling than really disturbing. It's hard to mess up World War creepfests, as the horror pretty much writes itself, but Winters is clearly a real pro: there's Lillian Gish, burning magazines, and a lot of nice period details, including a pitch-perfect mid-century tone of voice from both Emmeline and the mysterious American soldier who appears in her bombed-out home. However, the story isn't really distinctive and, in contrast to Carrie Ryan's story, it seems a little too long for the idea as is. Still, it gets major props for not ending as I was sure it would, but I can't really rate it any higher because, unlike Nova Ren Suma's, it just sort of fell off my radar after I finished it. It felt like a throwback, and not always in a good way - so built on other aesthetics that it didn't feel like there was an individual voice in there.
VERSE CHORUS VERSE by Leigh Bardugo 5 stars
FUCK. This is what I'm talking about. It's not without its problems, as a story - with the particular use of one very overused plot point, please no more - but what I loved the most about it was that, after all my bitching and moaning about how ambiguity felt like a cop-out, here was a story that pitches its own ambiguity exactly right. I didn't quite "get" it, but there was so much here to chew on and think about. Also, there was something so crystallising about what I love in YA horror about how Bardugo pitched the setting - a rehab joint where a teen singer, struggling with addiction, is forced to go, especially in the notion of being both on your own and terrifyingly at the mercy of other people. I felt like Bardugo's little talking doll, how I shivered at the nurse's teeth, or Louise assuring Jaycee that "no-one gets over that fence," among many other moments. It's terrifying, but with sympathetic, believable, and incredibly interesting characters at its centre, and so many interesting points swirling around its premise to unpick.
I particularly loved the mother-daughter relationship, even though I have no idea where it went on that last page. I can only say that I loved it nonetheless. "In that minute, Kara had hated Jaycee. She'd understood that she would always be standing in that parking lot. No matter how many tickets they sold, or how many charities they gave to, they'd always be trash."
My rating was originally 4.5, but after the night I had where I woke up thinking about the pop singer in the disturbing rehab clinic for teens, I decided it had to go up.
HIDE AND SEEK by Megan Shepard 4.5 stars
What this one lacks in character development, it makes up for threefold in visceral thrills and excitement. I'm not sure if I would call this horror - it certainly draws on ideas and scenes we would think of as being horror, it has a particular novel spin on fear - I was never really afraid when Annie raced through her North Carolina town looking for a way to cheat death, but I was afraid for her, of the consequences if she failed, because I desperately didn't want that to happen. The twist involving her friend, Suze, and the final challenge made me nearly yelp out a "Hail Mary" for brave Annie at the near end of her journey. I genuinely raced to the end, gasping for breath and, in a genre that always seems so intent on bleakness and misery, it was simply delightful, and surprisingly emotional, to read one that tacitly acknowledges the resilience, bravery, and strength of spirits both human and inhuman. "Death is not a person. Death cannot be reasoned with. As life, as in death, nothing is fair."
THE DARK, THE SCARY PARTS AND ALL by Danielle Page
1.5 stars This, strangely, was the one I was most anticipating, as my favourite horror film of all time is Rosemary's Baby, one of the very few film adaptations that are better than the books. The best part of this novel is the ingenious title. Other than that - seriously, I am BAFFLED. To call this an archetypal YA romance, especially circa 2010-2011, would be almost a joke because it's so much like every single trope from paranormal romance I have ever read, almost to parodic levels. I actually spent most of the story hoping that it would turn out to be some great self-aware joke, that Marnie had read too many Twilight knockoffs and thus felt compelled to brag about how much better she was than all the other stereotypical mean girls because she was the cleverest girl in class, compare her half-baked romance with the unbelievably handsome, chivalrous rich guy to Heathcliff (of course!), and he was also fulfilling her tweeny fantasies when he told her that she wasn't like other girls because she read books (oh my god!) except he was - gasp! - the Devil. If that's what Paige was going for, the other shoe never dropped.
It remained nonsensical. What could've been an atmospheric and intensely creepy YA horror about a girl tapping into the Devil within, intermingled with some Satanic kissing - don't judge me, okay - stayed so silly and stupid that I rolled my eyes continuously throughout it. Page's writing isn't bad so I kept desperately hoping she would elevate it, but nothing ever did. The mean girls are completely ripped from, well, Mean Girls, complete with some rather half-assed chanting and stupid nicknames. Whenever she mentioned Damian Thorne's special eyes, or his sense of intense empathy - hey, for the Devil's only son, he isn't all bad - I somewhere between shuddered and cringed, but not in the horror way. The unravelling of the plot was absurd at best, with absolutely no creep or surprise factor; it felt like the most routine plodding through what could've been an incredibly creepy plot, all the set pieces were moronic. I have never seen pentagrams or self-inflicted suicide look dumber. This short was so unoriginal that they literally had to borrow mutilated Barbie dolls from another murderous couple, Heathers.
There was one really good line, though: "But pretty wasn't always symmetry and flawless skin. Pretty was sometimes a verb. And Evelyn prettied better than anyone."
THE FLICKER, THE FINGERS, THE BEAT, THE SIGH by April Genevieve Tucholke 3.5 stars
Highly unoriginal and really quite sparse, I expected more from this one, simply because there's not much of a plot. Of all the others that have been mostly 'inspired' by their "sources," this one pretty much just takes the same idea - from "I Know What You Did Last Summer" - and repeats it, with a little bit of the climax of "Carrie" - the other inspiration, which gets bizarrely name checked in the beginning, in an unrelated incident - thrown in. It's pretty good, and has some truly creepy moments, especially during the "what happened next" epilogue but this, again, felt much shorter than some of the others, as it was basically one not-very-fresh idea at the centre. Still, it's a good piece of B-movie fun, and we must that April Genevieve Tucholke, our queen, for making this collection possible. Eerie and with a certain type of nice bluntness, if uninspired.
FAT GIRL WITH A KNIFE by Jonathan Maberry 3 stars
This one felt like the classic 3-star read. While the vast majority of these little stories I've rated in the region of 2-3 stars were more like bumpy experiences - some great moments, some less stellar moments - this is one of those that just feels straight-up 3 stars. It potters along at a perfectly fine pace: starting tense and suspenseful, before finally wrapping up in a satisfactory, if predictable, manner. Dahlia is an interesting character, but I must note something that slightly annoyed me about this story and the last. In both, it felt like the "stimulus" had ben somewhat misused. Yes, I know, these authors owe me nothing but, in contrast to, say, the Hitchcock mashup that Nova Ren Suma presented first, I found it not really stretching the phenomenal thing connecting these stories: the genius idea of using different areas of horror literature as inspiration for short stories of all kinds, when it felt like Maberry, obviously a zombie fanatic judging by his other books, basically picked the two stimuli he knew best (Zombieland and Night of the Living Dead), and made a short story out of it. That's fine, but it lacked the truly creative punch of many of these tales.
With all that said, there's a reason why the idea of the zombie apocalypse in a high school is so absolutely creepy and terrifying, and Maberry taps into that well. Although I loved the very last scene, I did find it somewhat contrary in comparison to what we know about Dahlia. Still: "Yeah. She was smiling as she said that." Shivers ran down my spine.
SLEEPLESS by Jay Kristoff 3 stars
Sigh, probably the other biggest disappointment in the collection aside from Page's The-Omen-meets-Twilight. When I realised this was a horror short about online relationships, I rubbed my hands together in glee (typo'd as flee the first time, that sounds about right for a horror collection). Speaking from personal experience, there's something so claustrophobic, important, and innately mysterious about online relationships that I couldn't wait to see Kristoff use. When I heard that there were several mind-boggling twists, I got even more excited. HOWEVER - I would seriously advise anyone who reads on Kindle not to click forwards on this story in particular. You will get the first source inspiration for this pretty easily, as it's one of those pop-culture must-knows that have been referenced and remade all over the place, but the second area of source inspiration is basically a total spoiler. I alternated between clicking and waiting till the end to find out, and I wish I'd waited for this one.
So, yeah, I got the twist, but luckily there is another - which, sadly, I also got, thanks to a massive hint that Krisotff drops early and pretty heavily. Though it does rip off the big twist from the big film it's based on, Kristoff livens things up with multiple twists, all of which, to his credit, fit together seamlessly but this is a story that relies, sadly, on its surprise value for the enjoyment factor. Once I knew everything, it felt flatter and dumber, like I was just waiting to get there. Also, one of the twists bothered me because I felt like it took me out of the premise of the anthology, and what it was "supposed" to be. Don't get me wrong, it's a well-written and atmospheric short story, and I spent most of the time hoping I was wrong about it, but I wasn't. Also, do kids still talk in the most abbreviated slang? I get they're supposed to be young, but it hurt my eyes and, from my brief frequenting of teen-dominated web spaces, like tumblr, kids now only abbreviate very infrequently, preferring full sentences. There was quite a lot of it and it was annoying and even, dare I say, unrealistic.
"Sometimes I wonder if the right girl is out there. Sometimes I wonder if Momma isn't right about all of them."
M by Stephen Bachmann 3 stars
Well, that was...strange. I definitely didn't think it was horror, to be honest. It seemed to be essentially an Agatha Christie mystery, not that there's anything wrong with that. There was the potential for creepiness and sometimes there was, such as Misha marking the maybe-murderer with ink, but, given it was in third-person, it seemed almost too focused on Misha. I liked the relationship that developed between Misha and Kerstin, the servant girl who helped her in her expedition but, for such a short story, too much of it felt like it was focused on Misha sitting down not doing very much, for its intensely abbreviated length. There were creepy moments, especially with the children, but much of it felt random and strange. Naturally, for a densely-populated short where only two characters really lead, the "revelation" meant it so I couldn't care less, as I'm pretty sure we never saw the doer before. Bachmann has a great eye for dialogue, though, and I did enjoy this one - I think it mostly threw me off balance because it just didn't seem like a horror story. Also, as the much more common way to spell the servant's name is Kirsten here in England, where the book is set, it kept giving me cross-eyes looking at it.
"That sounded nice. Being a secret. 'It's not like that at all,' Misha said. 'It's miserable here.'
'Isn't it everywhere,' Kerstin said matter-of-factly.