Scary Out There is a collection of YA horror stories, edited by Jonathan Mayberry and presented by the Horror Writer’s Association. It features stories by such genre fiction notables as Cherie Priest, Tim Waggoner, and R.L. Stine, among others. It’s because of this prestigious pedigree that I decided to make this my first review for my blog. Overall, it’s a pretty solid collection, but, like any anthology, there are some magnificent standouts and some misses, so I’m here to break it down for you.
“The Doomsday Glass”-Brenna Yovanoff
“Doomsday Glass” kicks off the collection with a bang. This story of a female virtual reality gamer fighting both sexist harassment and (genuinely creepy) monsters in the fictional gaming world of Vertigo is both action packed and topical. It ends on a bit of a downbeat note, with our protagonist realizing that while she may have won one battle, she still has many more ahead of her. This is an unfortunately accurate portrayal of our current society, where women still have a long way to ago before we are treated equally, particularly in the tech and gaming worlds.
“What Happens to Girls That Disappear”-Carrie Ryan
“What Happens to Girls That Disappear” is the sad story of a lost and lonely high school girl who begins receiving texts one day from a dangerous, mysterious stranger. While she’s aware that getting involved with him will lead her to a bad end, she’s also afraid that this might be her one way out of her depressing life. This one was a bit of a downer and, while well-written, just didn’t stick out to me.
“The Mermaid Aquarium: Weeki Wachee Springs, 1951”-Cherie Priest
Perhaps my favorite story in the collection, “The Mermaid Aquarium” sees two sisters joining a mermaid show in a 1950s Florida roadside attraction. One day, during a show, one of the sisters attracts the unwanted attentions of a mysterious stranger, placing her and those around her in mortal danger. Cherie Priest is a fantastic writer, with a knack for historical settings and descriptions of the American South. This story is a great introduction to her work, which covers a wide variety of genres: horror, Southern Gothic, steampunk, urban fantasy, and more. I can honestly not recommend her, or this story, enough.
“Invisible Girl”-Rachel Tafoya
Casey wakes up one morning to discover she can’t see her toes anymore. She can feel them, but they’ve become invisible. As the story goes on, Casey discovers more and more body parts disappearing, and the reader discovers that this is less a horror story about a girl turning invisible and more an allegory for the dangers of self-harm. It’s not terrible, but it eventually feels a little too much like a somewhat fantastical After School Special, rather than horror.
“Death and Twinkies”-Zac Brewer
Though this story was well written, it was one of my least favorites. The real horror in the story wasn’t the protagonist meeting the personification of death, it was his miserable home life, where he was neglected and abused. Despite that heavy subject matter, this one’s tone was too light and breezy, which made it ultimately forgettable.
“Danny” is the story of a babysitter, Kelly, and the strange family she reluctantly babysits for one night. When the story begins, Kelly is excited for her first babysitting gig, but after arriving at the Donalds’ home, Kelly is informed that their son, Danny, is actually imaginary. Apparently after the couple realized they couldn’t have children, they decided just to invent a fake one (instead of I don’t know, maybe adopting?). Kelly agrees to “babysit” to help the Donalds’ keep up their charade, but their big house is creepy at night, and Kelly keeps hearing noises coming from upstairs, even though she’s supposedly alone. Is Danny maybe more real than she thought? This story ramps up the tension and suspense gradually, and the stinger at the end feels like something out of The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. Easily one of the best stories in the book.
“Make It Right”-Madeleine Roux
It’s unfortunate that the protagonist of this story came across as so obnoxious. I understand that she’s suppose to have had a rough life, but her snark and “bad girl” attitude wore on me a little bit. Otherwise, however, this is an interesting story, touching on violence born from rabid racism and the lengths a person will go to avenge someone they care about.
“Beyond the Sea”-Nancy Holder
In Nancy Holder’s “Beyond the Sea,” a teenage girl returns to the spot where her best friend drowned a year before, intending to end her life there as well. While this story of guilt, redemption, and second chances was well written and had a touching ending, for some reason I just couldn’t get into it. I normally really like Holder as a writer, and she has a strong background in YA horror fiction, so I guess I just expected more from her.
“The Whisper-Whisper Men”-Tim Waggoner
In Waggoner’s story a girl discovers one day that all of the people around her are gradually disappearing, and she’s the only one who notices. “The Whisper-Whisper Men” unfortunately suffers from a little too much tell and not quite enough show, and there’s some time wasted on detailed descriptions of characters that are not all that important to the story. However, Waggoner is a veteran horror writer who knows how to suck you in, and the plot is intriguing. Plus, it touched on two of my greatest fears (losing someone I love and being alone, in case you were wondering), so the themes really hit home for me. Not Waggoner’s best work, but a nice addition to the anthology.
“Non-Player Character”-Neal & Brendan Shusterman
Neal Shusterman is a great writer of sci-fi/fantasy stories that often dip into horror territory. “Character” starts out as a melancholy sci-fi tale of parental neglect caused by futuristic video gaming. I know that sounds a bit odd, but if you bear with the story, it packs a nice bloody punch at the end. Also, if you like this, you should definitely check out some of his novel length works.
“What Happens When the Heart Just Stops”-Christopher Golden
With his entry, Golden proves once again why he is one of the most underrated horror writers out there today. This story of a post apocalyptic world where vampiric monsters roam the skies at night seeking humans to “bleed” is grim and frightening. My only complaint is that I felt so much more could be done with the story and the world. I’d love for Golden to expand this story into a full length novel.
“Chlorine-Damaged Hair, and Other Pool Hazards”-Kendare Blake
“Chlorine-Damaged Hair” is likely the goriest tale in the collection. It’s a spin on the classic tale of a woman scorned who enacts a gruesome revenge on her shallow lover. I can’t really explain any more without spoiling the story, but, while more squeamish readers might want to sit this one out, those with the stomach will relish the gooey gore.
“The Old Radio”-R.L. Stine
With R.L. Stine, you know you’re always in for a good time, and “The Old Radio” is no exception. Stine’s books and stories are like the comfort food of horror. You kinda know what you’re going to get, but you go along for the ride anyway, because you can trust it’s going to be fun. In this story, a kid overhears a murder occur via an antique radio his stepdad gives him. He soon realizes that he knows who the killers are…and that they might know he heard them.
The Boyfriend-Steve Rasnic Tem
Clowns are creepy. I dare you to watch the original IT and tell me differently. This story concerns a teenage girl, Aria, and her mom’s boyfriend, who just happens to make a living as a party clown. He also has a habit of leaving the house in the middle of the night when he thinks everyone else is asleep. When he takes her little brother with him one night, Aria follows them, and what she witnesses is pretty grizzly. I wasn’t originally totally won over by this story, but I guess it really got under my skin, because I keep going back over it in my head. I’ve never read anything else by Tem, but he’s on my radar now.
“Corazon Oscuro”-Rachel Caine
I was surprised that the creepiest story in the collection came from Caine, whom I tend to associate more with urban fantasy than horror. Her tale revolves around a mother and daughter on a road trip and the deadly spirit they run while driving down a desolate desert highway late one night. However, nothing is quite as it seems in this one, where seemingly normal humans may pose even more of a threat than terrifying angry ghost girls covered in crawling scorpions.
“Bearwalker”-Ilsa J. Bick
Bick is fantastic writer, and “Bearwalker” is one of the best things I have read by her. It’s ultimately a tragic tale of parental neglect and abuse but with a vengeful spirit thrown into the mix as well. This is another one of the best stories in the collection, even if it ends the book on a somewhat melancholy note.
Before I conclude, I should also note that there’s also a few selections of poetry included Scary Out There, but I’m not going to cover them in depth here. Only one, Ellen Hopkin’s “As Good as Your Word” really told a full story, and while Hopkins is a talented poet, I just couldn’t get into her contribution. Some of the other loosely-linked collections of poetry are barely even horror, and the only ones I particularly enjoyed were one or two of Lucy Snyder’s entries.
Overall, Scary Out There is a pretty solid collection, with stories that cover a wide variety of creeps and ghouls. Every genre fan should find at least a couple of things to catch their interest. I’d love to see the Horror Writer’s Association put out another of these collections, or even a whole series of them.