REVIEW: Worst Laid Plans: An Anthology of Vacation Horror edited by Samantha Kolesnik
*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Edited collections are often a bit of a mixed bag, aren’t they? With so many styles and story types at play, it’s almost inevitable that some will hit home more than others.
Worst Laid Plans, fortunately, has no duds. And while I loved some of these stories of vacation horror more than others, my response was purely a matter of personal taste - and no reflection at all on the skill or imaginative capabilities of any of the writers. Every story is well-executed and interesting - my favourites will very likely not be yours.
Those caveats in place, let’s take the stories one by one:
You’ve Been Saved - SE Howard
A great opener, and for me one of the strongest stories in the collection, You’ve Been Saved begins as a road trip buddy-narrative interrupted by an archetypal Girl In Danger, and ends up in an entirely different and altogether more bizarre place that reminded me, unexpectedly, of nothing so much as a hybrid of Silence Of The Lambs and 1990’s bug-themed creature-feature Meet The Applegates. What with this and Doctor Sleep, I can’t help but think you’d be a fool these days to trust a pensioner in an RV.
Summers With Annie - Greg Sisco
Another very strong contribution. Maybe because of the isolated-but-quirky seaside setting, there was something a little Neil Gaiman-ish for me about the atmosphere of this one - while the story itself was just a little bit Eerie, Indiana. Great stuff.
Expertise - Asher Ellis
Though not one of my favourites, this was hugely atmospheric, and did a great job of building up tension around the central “divers meet flesh-eating barracuda” premise. I didn’t see the twist coming (which is surely the hallmark of a good twist), and there’s a fun Tales Of The Unexpected quality to the morality tale aspect of the story. Will definitely be seeking out Curse Of The Pigman after this.
Unkindly Girls - Hailey Piper
I love Hailey and basically everything she does, so it didn’t come as a massive surprise that I enjoyed this as much I did. It’s a fantastic piece of storytelling, spectacularly creepy, and it builds to an exceptionally well-crafted payoff. For me, it’s one of Hailey’s best, and competition is stiff.
Deep In The Heart - Waylon Jordan
A slightly Stephen King-ish entry (quite possibly because of the cave setting, which reminded me of The Outsider), this was short and spiky, and I really enjoyed it. I especially appreciated the queer male gaze of the story - not something you find in the genre as a matter of course.
Peelings - Kenzie Jennings
A little bit magic realist and leaving a lot of questions unanswered, this was a beautifully-written and at times slightly gut-wrenching account of an emotionally abusive marriage - one which frames the protagonist’s husband as by far the bigger villain than the putative (fairytale) monster. If you like Angela Carter, I suspect you’ll really like this.
The Difference Between Crocodiles & Alligators - Malcolm Mills
A great premise (furry-convention pseudo-crocodilian may or may not be actual prehistoric monster) that became, for me, a little confusing as the story went on. I suspect I’ll be revisiting this one later, to see if I can dig out more answers!
The Cucuy of Cancun - V. Castro
Utterly amazing - possibly, along with Unkindly Girls, my favourite of the stories here. I’m a sucker for a monster’s-eye-view, and for postcolonial revisiting of traditional (and often slightly or more than slightly racist) narrative tropes, so this ticked a lot of boxes for me. My first exposure to the very talented V. Castro, and enough to drive me to dive wholesale into her back catalogue.
Taylor Family Vacation ‘93 - Jeremy Herbert
Another one that didn’t quite hit the mark for me, this is nevertheless a really intriguing premise (maybe-haunted camcorder, maybe-missing child, possible descent into madness for protagonist) that warrants multiple readings. As with Crocodiles/Alligators - I’ll be revisiting it!
The Penanggalan - Scott Cole
Loved this one. A lovely departure from the standard Western creature-canon, and a fascinating glimpse of a genuinely unsettling monster I’d never heard of previously. A great jumping-off point for further exploration of Southeast Asian folklore, and a brilliant introduction to Scott Cole’s work.
Sex With Dolphins - Chad Stroup
I’m never going to say no to a story that reminds me of a Buffy episode, and without giving too much away about this one - it definitely had a few things in common with BtVS season 2’s Go Fish. Would love to read more of Chad Stroup (and the wider undersea universe he alludes to here) on the basis of this story alone.
Caught A Glimpse - Patrick Lacey
Weird and wonderful, this one is perhaps more bizarro fic than straight horror, but I really enjoyed it. Could easily be expanded into a larger, more complex story offering a little more insight into some of the things that go (deliberately) unexplored here.
In The Water - Mark Wheaton
Until the very last page, this was one of my favourite stories in the collection - but it ended that bit too abruptly, for me at least. It’s an incredible premise, and the parallel narratives and before/after storytelling structure work absolutely brilliantly. Could very easily have been a novella, I reckon - and a very, very good one.
Good Times In The Bad Lands - Laura Keating
Another bizarro-horror contribution, this was a breathlessly surreal conclusion to the collection, pitched somewhere between Mad Max and Skeleton Key’s Mrs Todd’s Shortcut. Hugely enjoyable - and left me hungry for more Badlands-set stories in a similar vein.
Overall: fantastic collection, thoroughly recommended, and a great way to get acquainted with some authors you may not have come across previously.