Monday, April 9, 2018

Nerd Alert! Ghoulish Stories Vol. 1

Is there any art form more underrated than the short story horror compilation? Much like film anthologies, there's just something vastly entertaining about a good collection of 20-50 page tales, almost as if it was a medium specifically designed to create and complete a nightmare.

Hence it makes some pretty good sense that Greg Ansin and Michael Neel, creators of 2009's Drive-In Horror Show, would transfer their film skills to the page in that compact format. Ghoulish Stories (Volume 1) includes eight original horror stories ranging vastly in style from a modern tech-inspired tale to a delightfully demented romance. With a title like "Trampoline Chainsaw Lovers," the latter is easily the happiest piece, filled with some vivid characters and a genuinely sweet relationship at its core.

"iThink the App" starts things off with a quick-moving saga of technology run amuck as a hot new social app encourages users to do whatever it suggests. It doesn't take long before mass murder becomes one of those activities. While the subject matter feels a little common, the pacing is key, particularly for the anthology's introductory story.

In "The Crawlspace," a brother and sister discover some unsettling secrets lurking in their basement. Much like The Closet, Drive-In Horror Show's best segment, "The Crawlspace"'s strengths lie in its young characters. The same can be said of "The Freak", the story that's probably easiest to see filmed. A likable kid ends up with the worst possible summer when his pals decide to prank the town's legendary hermit. Naturally, this doesn't end with a Sandlot-esque resolution involving happy baseball mementos. 

Two of the more grounded stories, "Blackout" and "Two Drop Donuts," have a ready-made Tales From the Crypt tone in building sympathetic protagonists only to mix in some deep hues of moral shadiness. "Blackout" has some excellent atmosphere buildup, while "Two Drop Donuts" treads a somewhat predictable path. Still, if you don't finish the book craving a specially infused pastry, then I long for your willpower.

The most epic story is "Plastic Island." A trio of military divers takes their submarine deep below chartered territory only to discover the future is literally built on garbage. It's the longest piece in Ghoulish Stories, and suffers a little in its early pages with character buildup that feels like too much exposition. Once our team reaches the titular locale however, the action picks up quickly with some truly horrific post-apocalyptic tribal terror. Ultimately, it's a fresh take on a popular storytelling subject, going places that you don't quite expect.

My personal favorite is easily "Nightmare Cards", a high concept tale that feels like a passionate quickie marriage between Freddy Krueger and Pokeman. Ansin and Neel's imagination gets to go to extremes as a variety of monsters (ranging from a sack-wearing axeman to a well-coiffed gentleman) orchestrate creatively violent dreams for children. The visual possibilities leap off the page, making me as a reader long to see a comic book or animated adaptation.

Ghoulish Stories is available in hard copy or digital form, and includes a few illustrations in its appendix to match each story. While some stories are stronger than others, they're all well worth a read, creating gleefully horrible worlds where some considerably awful things can happen. As horror fans, is there anything we want more?

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