The dedication page on Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, an enjoyable new collection of horror shorts, reads, “For everyone who read Stephen King when they were way too young.” It’s a funny inscription (proffered by anthology editor April Genevieve Tucholke), but it also slyly invites the potential young reader to read between the lines of the meaning. Hey kids, it suggests, like all proclamations by adults saying they did something at too early an age. You’re never too young to read Stephen King.
Horror still clings to the disreputable side of the library, especially the children’s library. Regardless of your thoughts on King (or V.C. Andrews, for that matter), the genre continues to carry an air of pulp trashiness, something to be consumed and discarded, the bubblegum of YA literature. The question of YA’s own snide dismissal among many bibliophiles is its own problem, but it’s one the authors collected here face head-on. By selecting an assemblage of explicitly YA-identified authors to contribute stories to a horror collection, Tucholke sets out to put the lie to expectations that scary stories for young people should pull some punches. These are no Goosebumps. They are flesh-rending tales of horrific ghouls, sadistic human monsters, and otherworldly creatures ready to pulverize organs and pop out eyeballs. Tucholke and her fellow authors are not dicking around.
The conceit is that each author has concocted a tale of terror inspired by some aspect of pop culture—be it movie, song, television, or other—that has provided the impetus for a yarn featuring a teen protagonist. At the end of each story, the authors’ catalysts are listed, meaning those who choose to do so can play a round of “what inspired this?” with each macabre fiction. Some of these are more obvious than others: Tucholke’s own contribution, a mashup of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Carrie, practically hands out copies of those screenplays at its outset. But others, like Leigh Bardugo’s superb offering “Verse Chorus Chorus,” draws clever inspiration from a Nirvana song, extending it into a nightmarish parable on stage moms and their media-sexualized progeny.
Like most compendiums, there’s good and bad here, but notably, the book’s back half is much more consistent than its first, as though it, too, was trying to ratchet up the tension, like one of its stories. The initial chapters toggle back and forth in quality, with well-written and unnerving contributions from Carrie Ryan (who turns Lewis Carroll’s cracked tea party into an indelibly gruesome ordeal) and Bardugo. But once Jonathan Maberry re-envisions a zombie apocalypse from the perspective of a sad and picked-on girl, the forward momentum builds. Jay Kristoff’s “Sleepless” and Kendare Blake’s “On The I-5” both pivot on the horror of all-too-real sexual violence, while selections from Stefan Bachmann and McCormick Templeman feel more like campfire fables, in the folklore tradition.
But the scariest stories here are the ones that have the style and tenor of timeless terror, haunting tales possessing a vitality that brings their monsters thrillingly to life. Marie Lu’s “The Girl Without A Face” takes a classic conceit—there’s something in the closet—and gives it vivid new life. Similarly, A.G. Howard’s “Stitches” makes the story of a motherless family, and the awful things they do to get by, into an evocative portrayal of just what it would take to redeem a bad parent. Like most anthology horror films, not everything you’ll see in these pages is worth your while. But it’s also likely that more than a few of these grisly narratives will linger in your mind, haunting you—as the best horror does—with an inescapable feeling of the uncanny.