I’m not normally someone who seeks out short story collections. Often professional reviews will say of them something like “There’s not a bad story in the bunch,” and then I’ll read the anthology for myself and think “You, ma’am, were incorrect.” But this collection of mostly horror stories? There really isn’t a bad story in it. Each of them is inspired by one or more books or films (Frankenstein, Nosferatu, The Birds, Psycho, etc.), and it’s a lot of fun to spot these influences while reading. There were some stories I didn’t love, but they’re all worth reading, and some of them will make you want to sleep with the lights on. I listened to the audiobook version, which is really well-done, though some of the narrators (there are a handful, each gets 2-3 stories) are frustratingly slow talkers, so I actually sped them up to 1.25 times their normal speed and it sounded much more normal for me.
A few of the standouts for me were:
The Birds of Azalea Street by Nova Ren Suma
This is the first story, and it helps set the tone for the whole collection. It features Nova Ren Suma’s distinctive voice and atmospheric writing while tackling how teen girls are taken advantage of and gaslighted by the adults around them, a theme that will recur in later stories. It’s creepy and character-driven, the latter of which can be really tough to do in short stories and is therefore extra impressive to me when done well.
In the Forest Dark and Deep by Carrie Ryan
Ryan mines Alice in Wonderland, showing that it really should have been a horror story from the start. You won’t think about the white rabbit in the same way ever again. This is one of the creepiest of the lot (not gruesome, but very creepy), which is saying something.
Hide and Seek by Megan Shepherd
Shepherd’s story could be described as being the most “high concept.” A girl is murdered by her stepfather, then makes a deal with Death’s representative to win her life back: she’ll play a game of hide and seek with Death for 24 hours. If she wins, she lives, and all collateral damage is undone. If she loses, she remains dead, and all collateral damage remains. This makes for a really suspenseful tale, and Shepherd manages to infuse it with interesting characters who I’d like to get to know better in longer stories. The ending is perfect, too – clever and satisfying.
Sleepless by Jay Kristoff
Kristoff’s influence of the movie Psycho is obvious right off the bat, and intuitive readers will spot both twists in Kristoff’s tale, but it’s so well-told that it won’t matter. In fact, I expect many readers will race through the pages with bated breath, eager to be proven right and see how it all plays out. Along with Shepherd’s, this may be my favorite story of the whole collection: it plays with a number of pop culture influences in really fun ways, features a strong revenge plotline, and is just the right combination of creepy (we get inside the head of a really twisted individual, but just how twisted he is takes time to learn) and suspenseful. The beginning of the story includes a lot of online conversations, which are a bit odd to hear narrated (“smiley face”) and probably work better on the page.
Stitches by A. G. Howard
Howard gives us the most gruesome story, in my mind. I wasn’t wild about the narrator, who was a little too monotone for my taste, but Howard’s story – heavily influenced by Frankenstein, but in a really different way – still shines. Every few months, a girl slices off a part of her father’s body with his permission – an arm, an ear, and so on – and gives it to a collector, who provides them with an alternate piece from another body to reattach. The reason behind this is teased out over the course of the story, and it’s both shocking and makes perfect sense within the framework Howard has created. Howard doesn’t shy away from describing what it’s like for the girl to dismember her father, making this a story not for the faint of heart. If you can get past the gruesomeness (or seek it out!), this one should be a favorite.
Less impressive to me were Jonathan Maberry’s Fat Girl With a Knife, which was too similar to other zombie stories I’ve read before, and M by Stefan Bachmann, a murder mystery that’s serviceable but pales in comparison to the others in tone and atmosphere. Still, these two weaker stories are better than a great number of other short stories in similar collections, and everything else in the anthology is even better. Truly, there’s not a bad story here.
Audiobook borrowed from my local library.