Book review: Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, April Genevieve Tucholke, Ed.

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered. 

When I pulled Slasher Girls & Monster Boys out of my mailbox, I gave an involuntary squeak of excitement. It features some of my favourite YA authors, spanning those who work in a variety of genres including, of course, horror, but also fantasy, contemporaries, and more. And while I haven’t been in a huge short story mood lately, I devoured it in about a day because it was just that good, and I’ve proceeded to go into transports of delight over it ever since. You need to read this book. If you like YA, if you like short stories, if you like horror — honestly, even if you’re a little iffy on horror — you should add this book to your to-read immediately and then treasure it forever and put it on your shelves and pet it and take it out and look at it and flip it open for a re-read and pet it again and put it back. It’s that good.

The concept tying all the stories in Slasher Girls & Monster Boys together isn’t just horror, although that would be enough. It’s also about retellings, with each story integrating one or more tales from pop culture, the classics, and more — including film, television, books, and other media. Some of these stories come from a horror background, but not all; in these cases, the authors twisted and explored the larger implications of these entries into the pop culture canon to totally upend familiar tales.

You’ve got your Hitchcock and your King, but you also have tales inspired by urban legends, by Japanese novels, and so much more. Each story integrates these elements and inspirations in different ways. Sometimes it’s a straight, crisp, elegant retelling. Sometimes it’s a play on themes in the inspiring text. Sometimes it’s just a nod to the base work. The authors work with their materials in so many different ways, and it’s a really fascinating display of how different retellings can be, in addition to a show of the dynamic range of many of the writers. I expect horror from Nova Ren Suma and Kendare Blake — from Leigh Bardugo and Jay Kristoff, not as much, but everyone’s stories were outstanding. Usually with anthologies I spot a few weak points or stories that leave me saying ‘meh,’ but not in this case; I was fully engaged with every single piece in the book.

I do wish that the collection of contributors had been a bit more diverse, and the same holds true for the stories within, but I’m a demanding reader with respect to that issue, and it’s clear that some care did go into the selection of contributors and the curation of their stories. While it definitely could have used some improvement in this area, and it’s important to acknowledge that, the stories and authors that were included were truly excellent.

One thing I really enjoyed about Slasher Girls & Monster Boys is that the book included a large number of complex female characters, almost all of whom upended the expected. There’s a familiar narrative with these kinds of texts and not a single story turned out the way a reader might expect, even when led around by the nose until the final twisting reveal. Girls are not victims here, and they refuse to let themselves be victims. In some cases, they are evil and horrifying, in others they are bent on revenge, in others they are pushing the boundaries of culture and society. In all cases, they behave unexpectedly and they force the reader’s hand. Think outside the box, they insist.

I particularly enjoyed ‘In the Forest Dark and Deep’ for its darkly creepy seriously disturbing nods to Alice in Wonderland and a very different take on an oft-retold classic. The source text is already kind of creepy if you read deeper, even if you don’t know about the complicated background behind the tale, and this just took it the next level up for a very twisted reading — people often play with horror takes on the subject but this is really the best I’ve found yet. Megan Shepherd’s ‘Hide and Seek’ was a callback to the rural folklore I love so much, and it was very well-played and excellently crafted. I love stories about Death as an entity, and about the notion of cheating Death, turning death into a complicated game of hide and seek instead of an inevitability, and this story took the subject very literally. ‘Stitches,’ by A.G. Howard, may actually have been my favourite piece in the anthology, in addition to being perhaps the most gory; if body horror is not your thing, definitely skip it, but otherwise, this really chilling, unsettling story is absolutely outstanding. Trust me when I say that you will never look at gingerbread men the same way after reading this story, but it’s totally worth it.

Overall, this is a really well balanced, well curated anthology. It can be tough to strike the right note with a collection of stories when it comes to showcasing each author’s voice, assembling a strong order for the stories, and keeping the reader engaged. Tucholke’s choices were really solid, and the collection reflects some really great YA authors — especially if you’re just starting to explore YA or you want a preview of some of these writers before taking the plunge, I highly recommend reading Slasher Girls & Monster Boys. Think of it as a flight of stories, a series of sips of fantastic writing.