Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: Slasher Girls and Monster Boys

While I was a huge fan of R. L. Stine's Goosebumps and Fear Street books growing up, my first real brush with Horror came courtesy of Stephen King's short story collections, like Skeleton Crew and Nightmares and Dreamscapes... so when I first saw this compendium of horror shorts, courtesy of notable YA authors, I knew I had to read it this October. 

When I finished, and saw that it had originally been published two years ago, I was absolutely shocked. Why hadn't I heard of this book before? 

Psycho, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Alice in Wonderland, Carrie. Marie Lu, Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, Danielle Paige.

Slasher Girls and Monster Boys, edited by April Genevieve Tucholke, is jam-packed with plenty of names and titles you'll recognize... and they're counting on it. Drafting some of Young Adult's most thrilling authors to pen their own horror shorts inspired by works of fiction - from movies, television, music, and more - this collection takes familiar fictional tropes and trends, and turns them on their heads. Now, it's up to you, to do your best not to lose yours...

While reading, even before I'd managed to get halfway into this collection, I said, out loud, "This is so much better than it has any right to be." You go in expecting some kind of watered-down YA version of Horror, but this is still straight-up the real deal. There were plot twists, there were genuinely creepy atmospheres, there were characters you didn't know whether to root for or not, and there were Final Girls galore... this book took its source material seriously.

And they were proud of it: each story - like I said, inspired by one or more musical, television, movie, etc. influences - takes those various forms of inspiration, flips the script, in more ways than one, and creates a completely new story, recognizable by a few key ingredients that you can latch onto throughout the course of the narrative. When you're done, it lists its foundational titles upside down at the end of each chapter, to check whether your hunch was correct, or in case you're wondering what your further reading should include if you happened to like it. Not only do they want you to recognize that the stories are re-imaginings, they wanted you to explore the original when you're done. 

Which is an important step, when the stories you're telling sometimes bear only tangential relationships to the original. They're never a complete rehashing of the original tale, it's more like a revisiting or a re-interpretation... or in the cases of those that come courtesy of multiple mythologies, it's not so much strict collaboration or a careful conversation of interlocking parts, but a mutation between them both. For instance, I went through one story absolutely sure that it was inspired by Carrie, only to come to the end and find that it was a variation on, among other things, The Omen and Frankenstein. Meanwhile, Carrie came up again later on in the collection, tucked in amid an I Know What You Did Last Summer retelling.

(For people who love metamedia, this collection might make for an interesting course study, due to the remediated relationship between these culturally-iconic movies and their inclusion in literary-formatted retellings, aimed at a similar audience. Just a thought!)

If there's anything the stories have in common, it's certain themes of reclamation, with young girls finding vengeance or making their own hatch marks on the genre, creepy older men and typical social predators - like Internet stalkers, leery-eyed truckers, and manipulative doctors - getting their comeuppance, and those that would want to ignore either party, being force to look on and understand. For a genre that only too frequently finds young women at the center of their gruesome games, many of these stories did a good job finding opportunities to turn over the power to the actions of the female protagonist.

While the stories held true to a familiar genre, and the theming felt similar, too, the tones within them varied significantly: some were almost uplifting, like zombie-uprising short "Fat Girl With A Knife," while others definitely knew the dark place to which they were carrying their readers, like when a victim of a sexual assault comes back to brutally haunt her rapist, in "The Girl Without a Face." Some, like Nirvana's "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"-retelling, "Verse Chorus Verse," leans towards teen celeb culture and bright city lights, while rural-based "Hide and Seek" comes complete with barren fields to run through, and a barn in which to take refuge. Eerie WWII-set "Emmeline" contrasts with Upstairs, Downstairs - riffing "M".

And that's only six of the fourteen stories contained in this collection.

Honestly? I hate pitting books or authors against each other, but there's really no other way to describe it: this is the kind of book that recently-hyped Because You Love to Hate Me collection wishes it was. Both collections of prominent authors traversing new ground, centering their retellings or prompt-adaptations on baddies you know not to root for, but can't help doing so. But unlike that collection, I absolutely love all of the directions these stories went. There weren't standout favorites, like I had with BYLtHM, because there weren't any that dragged or I had to skip through. Almost all of them had something unique and entertaining to offer, even when I could see where the plot was headed from a mile away. Even when you could easily identify the source of the stories, you enjoyed the way they were told. 

This is the kind of book I wish I had bought instead of just rented from the library, because I have a million people I want to recommend it to! Halfway through reading, I posted about it on Snapchat and reblogged photos of it on Tumblr, and my sister messaged me saying that I was required to bring it up for her the following weekend so she could read it, too. I had to tell her no, because it was only a rental, but I hope she takes the time to seek it out for herself, like I know I'll be doing this time again, next year.

Final Verdict: Pulling from a diverse variety of cultural inspiration, and featuring the talents of plenty of YA's finest, Slasher Girls and Monster Boys makes for a unique and entertaining creepy read, perfect for younger fans looking for an accessible entry into the genre. Not only am I still in shock that this book was so good, I've already picked out a few authors to explore later on in the year, because their short stories did so much to recommend them.

Have you read this collection before? What's your favorite horror short? Let me know, in the comments below!

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