WORST LAID PLANS: An Anthology of Vacation Horror (Grindhouse Press)
Reviewed by Gabriel Hart for ECR. There's a special place in Hell for the ironic synch of a vacation horror anthology released during an international pandemic. Think about it: We are confined indoors, our spring/summer plans cancelled, as we stare out our windows with renewed fear and loathing for the future - assuming there is one. Yet, at times the lockdown resembles certain suffocating aspects of vacation - we are trapped with our families, bickering with our parents, lovers and/or children, drinking way too much, eating just because we are bored, while the outside world takes on the stuffy, detached nature of a museum we might one day visit: Don't fucking touch anything!
And let's not forget – those whose job it was to navigate have given us bad directions, and now we've found ourselves hopelessly lost.
So, we actually need horror right now more than ever - anything to remind us that it could always be worse. We need the catharsis that only the genre's most outrageous, terrifying scenarios can express for us when we are too exhausted to express ourselves. Because as you already know, we have officially entered the far side of the otherworldly; the new world where the news of each day brings new terror, uncertainty... and yes, higher body counts.
Still smoldering from 2020's release of her unforgettable rural-horror novella True Crime, author/filmmaker Samantha Kolesnik rounded up fourteen of horror's most eccentric writers (along with a foreword by Mother Horror herself, Sadie Hartmann), editing together an eclectic collection of this taunting yet relatable sub-genre - vacay-dismay, if you will.
“You've Been Saved” by Poison Information Specialist S.E. Howard starts off the stack – a slow-burning, erratic plot line containing a multitude of red herring drives this road trip to Hell, where sometimes the journey is deadlier than the destination. A seemingly benign gas station can often be a crossroads of fate, desperation, and curiosity - so anyone who's wondered what exactly that weird family is doing in their RV will rejoice in this permanent skin-popping pitstop.
Here, I'll take the liberty of gushing pause to say this next one might be the best short story I've ever read. “Summers With Annie” by author/screenwriter Greg Sisco is so epic you'll feel you lived many a lifetime within it's deceptive passages. There's times where this strange seaside coming-of-age tale feels inherently haunted beyond Sisco's clever plot devices. Perhaps it's the way he illustrates the beguiling, supernatural quality of cinema itself, as the movie in question (also called “Summers With Annie”) is its own sentient character the story orbits around. It's similar in the way director Bigas Luna handled his 1987 “film within a film” Anguish, proposing the terrifying glitch that one could get “trapped” in a movie. Sisco weaves a seductive tapestry here, using sleep disorientation, false memory, and the overwhelming melancholy of youth to communicate an occult quality to a movie that perhaps never was? It's convincing regardless, the way he wields an almost Borges-esque apocrypha to this halcyon-horror tale. A standing ovation, if I may say.
“Expertise” by Asher Ellis asks the eternal question: Who is the real predator here – the gold digging divorcees, the compulsively informed diving instructor, or the statistically harmless Barracuda?One of the book's various takes on the watery grave is also the most concise and well-researched.
“Unkindly Girls” by Haley Piper is another deep water dive, yet far more moody – reminiscent of a teenage version of Curtis Harrington's 1961 film Night Tide. But these sirens of the sea meet their maker through a land-bound girl's unkindly, repulsive father. Your eyes can almost smell the alcoholic-halitosis on that monster's breath.
“Deep In The Heart” by Waylon Jordan takes us on a subterranean crawl through a circuit of Texas caves, teaching us a horrifying lesson in nature's adaptability and insatiable appetites. If you weren't afraid of the dark, you will be now.
“Peelings” by Kenzie Jennings is a knockout, a left-field why didn't I think of that take on body horror with a feminine psycho-sexual twist at The Happiest Place On Earth, no less. You can really feel this one, somehow viscerally stimulating and repellently painful all at once. Extra points here for a very informed take on the doomed dysfunction of the Modern American Family.
“The Difference Between Crocodiles and Alligators” by Malcolm Mills might be the most perverse “tail” of the anthology. There's places you've always wanted to go on vacation, then there's places you'd never guess you'd be dragged into. Mills indoctrinates us into the deceiving world of reptilian cosplay. Imagine a group of grown adults dressed as opposing sects of alligators and crocodiles, on a safari while in town for a reptile lifestyle convention? Fetishistic hijinks attempt to simulate their natural habitats back at the hotel until the lizard instincts kick in, security just out of reach to save the night.
I howled with lycanthropic schadenfreude at V. Castros “The Cucuy of Cancun,” a brilliant first-creature perspective on Mexico's boogieman The Cucuy – only Castro constructs a more fluid, femme fatale strain of the elusive legend. Traditionally, The Cucuy is conjured as a warning for children, to discipline them for misbehaving. But Castro's take reminds us that even grown-ass college students never grow up, their naivete often overextending their search for the Fountain of Youth until they die younger than they planned.
“Taylor Family Vacation '93” by Jeremy Herbert is an obsessed, heart-stopping, pre-Black Mirror commentary on technology's mystification of false memory. “He's good with a VCR – he is a VCR!” says Amy, wife of Double-Digit Dan. Just as we are all addicted to our Iphones today, there was a time when a tourist Dad wouldn't put down his clunky VHS video camera for anything, the thought of losing the capture of a perfect moment being worse than death itself. We see Dan insist on catching every fleeting moment where something went bump in the night until he becomes his own worse enemy.
“The Penanggalan” by Scott Cole takes us on a surprise (and suspiciously cheap) trip to Pannang, where a couple uncovers some light regional folklore of a human-esque woman who bathes in vinegar in order to turn her largest organ inside out. Nothing is left to the imagination here, nor is anything left on the bone.
“Sex With Dolphins” by Chad Stroup is possibly the most fearless story in here, only for its sheer bravery of making its own title the spoiler. Here, we are reminded that nothing rots in the circular preservation of the ocean. It either becomes immediate sustenance for other creatures or else it adapts to the environment - even the overboard flotsam of our own flesh and blood. Stroup leads us to follow a woman's grief after her lover is swallowed by the tide, only to be reborn into another intrinsic form.
“Caught A Glimpse” by Patrick Lacey begins with what James Ellroy would call perv-noir. A man on a thinly veiled “business trip” can't seem to concentrate on getting any work done an account of his own compulsions. Or perhaps that's the real reason why he is in the rental – to spy on the girl in the window of an adjacent cottage. Temptation escalates when he sees her in her outdoor shower, as the iconography of her tattoo brings the horror element home, revealing her true form. While this story is the most noir of the bunch, it's also the most elusive.
“In The Water” by Mark Wheaton starts as a police procedural in the blurry aftermath of Thai tropical storm, then toggles between their search for clues and the flashbacks of the victims (or perpetrators?) of the blood-flecked crime scene. The stacking invigoration here recalled one of my favorite books, “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind, though this tale is clearly its own beast. Against a Thai-cum-Bollywood rave soundtrack, there is a mounting sensory overload of lust at first bite, ravishing as it graduates into cannibalism before revealing a biological sci-fi twist you'd never see coming.
“Good Time In The Badlands” by Laura Keating finishes us off in what might be the collection's most convincing story. Most of its power lies is in its pure mundane suffocation – the inherent horror of Great American Family Road Trip. There is no AC, the kids are complaining, the wife is thirsty, and the husband has fallen victim to his own defeated ego. The wind tears their map apart and now no one is in charge, until a certain something flies in. It's clear why Kolesnik chose this one for the anthology's climax. Its universal theme of “IT'S FINE, EVERYTHING IS FINE!” while the whole world has fallen apart is a timely yet counter-intuitive mantra we often scream into our abyss.
So, you're still stuck at home. But Samantha Kolesnik and her Fourteen Horsepeople of the Journey's Apocalypse are beckoning you to China, to Mexico, to Texas, to Florida, to Thailand, to Disneyland, and beyond - so you can shed a little skin and go a little insane. But you're still complaining you're bored?
Maybe you deserve your nowhere...
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR:
Gabriel Hart lives in Morongo Valley in California’s High Desert. His debut twin novel of surrealist-noir Virgins In Reverse / The Intrusion (Traveling Shoes Press) was released in 2019, with a foreword by Avant-rockabilly provocateur Tav Falco. His upcoming desert-themed speculative fiction novel Lies of Heaven will be published by Space Cowboy in late 2020. Other works have appeared in Cholla Needles, Luna Arcana, Black Hare Press (Australia), Crime Poetry Weekly, and Shotgun Honey (June 2020). He is a regular contributor to Space Cowboy’s Simultaneous Times podcast, as well as L.A. Record, a Los Angeles underground music publication. Hart also taught the writing workshop for Mil-Tree, a non-profit reach out program for Vets and Active Duty Military to heal the wounds of war.
His musical alter-ego sees him as the ringleader of the L.A. based punk Wall of Sound group Jail Weddings, who released their third album Wilted Eden in 2019. Their previous album Meltdown: A Declaration of Unpopular Emotion (2013) was voted Best Album of The Year by L.A. Weekly, followed by Best Band of the Year in 2014.