Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Applegate (ed.), It Was All a Dream (2022)

Brandon Applegate (ed.), It Was All a Dream: An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right. Hungry Shadow Press, 2020. Pp. 338. ISBN 979-8-986920-20-7. $16.98.

Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz

When Hungry Shadow Press announced It Was All a Dream, I was immediately curious and a bit puzzled. The foremost question in my mind: What does it mean to do a trope right? There are many possible answers to this question, and It Was All a Dream showcases all of them. The stories in this anthology fall into four categories: Parodies, metanarratives, inversions, and stories that are played straight. Quite an assortment!

Parodies are stories that play with the trope for humor value. An example is “Fuck This Shit Manor” by Laurel Hightower. There are only a couple of these, and while they’re spit-out-your-coffee funny, they occupy a somewhat awkward position in the anthology. It wasn’t a tonal dissonance problem, but rather the fact that the humor is winking and nudging at the very things that the other stories are trying to take seriously. There’s nothing wrong with the stories themselves, but I don’t feel that this was the right place for them.

Metanarratives encompass stories that emphasize the unreality of the trope in various ways, but not for humor value. An example is “A Maiden Will I Die” by LC von Hessen. These stories will undoubtedly be the highlight of the collection for most readers. Von Hessen’s exploration of the Final Girl is sharp, resonant, and scary. Hailey Piper’s “Hollywood Werewolf Conspiracy,” also in this category, turns genre awareness into tense, creeping paranoia. In both these stories, deliberately emphasizing the fictionality of the trope serves to heighten the terror, not lessen it—a monster not bound by logic is also not bound by anything you could do to defeat it. These are sure to be the breakout award winners from this collection.

Inversions reverse how the trope usually works for a twist ending. An example is “Pickle” by Die Booth. I was surprised at how few of these there were (“Pickle,” a super enjoyable take on the dead dog trope, might actually be the only example that fits squarely)—I went in expecting twist after twist. But in retrospect, I think the editors made the right choice. There are already tons of places you can go to find clever reversals; this collection is ultimately about celebrating tropes in all their warty glory, not switching them around.

Played-Straight Stories: Stories that don’t deconstruct the trope at all, but simply execute it as well as possible. An example is Angela Sylvaine’s “Playing Tricks.” These stories make up the majority of the collection. You name it, you’ll find it—evil clowns, creepy children, old ladies living in decrepit cabins in the woods, and werewolves, werewolves, and more werewolves. (Werewolves are having a moment. Since I’m working on a werewolf game myself, I’m not complaining. Surprisingly, though, there aren’t any vampires.)

And, you know, the more of these I read (and at 26 stories, it’s a quite long collection), the more I enjoyed this approach. Every story reminded me again that these tropes are so well-used because they work. Yes, children really are terrifying little gremlins! Yes, antique dolls really are spooky as hell!

Wisely, despite the “bad” in the title, the collection stays away from tropes that are genuinely offensive. You won’t find “teenagers die because they had sex” or “the black guy dies first” in here. Instead, it’s a celebration of the things that probably attracted you to horror in the first place—that Goosebumps book or tattered magazine or Dover Thrift edition of Frankenstein that you will still love even if TikTok labels it “cringe.”

I can’t end this review without mentioning the fabulously lurid, campy illustrations by Christopher Castillo Díaz. In an era when abstract, stylized, and minimalist are in vogue, his detailed graphic novel-style art is delightfully refreshing.

With such a broad range of ingredients, It Was All a Dream is a varied experience, and inevitably, not every story is going to work for every reader. If you’ve truly had it with tropey storytelling and never want to see another demon-possessed virgin birth again, I don’t know if this collection will change your mind. But if you really love horror with all its attendant cliches—or are interested in getting to know it for the first time—this is a rich trove that’s sure to contain something you’ll love.

No comments: