Horror Books A Vacation In DarkLit Press's Slice Of Paradise

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Ahhhh, a vacation. To get away from the crushing rat race of the workaday world, to trade the million-and-one soul-corroding frustrations of modern life for exotic shores, white sandy beaches, blue skies, surf, sun, good food and plenty of umbrella-accented cocktails. To bask on your lounge chair, relax, and let your troubles slip away, steadfast in the knowledge that the ravenous horde of brain-hungry undead devouring the other beach combers will never get to you.

Wait, what? A zombie apocalypse on this beautiful tropical isle wasn't highlighted in the brochure at the travel agency. Is it too late to consider a refund?

As every self-respecting horror aficionado already knows, getting away from it all, whether it be Jack Torrance's retreat to the isolated Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's classic novel, The Shining, or a group of rowdy Westerners seeking cheap Slovakian accommodations and even cheaper thrills in Eli Roth's Hostel films, isn't always the soothing, restorative enterprise it should be. As in real life, strange encounters and terrifying ordeals can twist the most pleasant of resort stays into nightmares from which one will never awaken, and tapping into that ever-lingering traveler's fear of the unknown is the first volume in DarkLit Press' dual set of themed, multi-author endeavors, Slice of Paradise, a collection of seventeen short stories, subtitled A Beach Vacation Horror Anthology, that's sure to unsettle anyone seeking to book that long-desired Caribbean cruise.

Doomsday looms as a father and his nine-year-old daughter slip through shallow waters to the edge of a deathly dimension in Mark Towse's perfectly ominous opening tale, 'Secret Beach'. Precise detail regarding scuba diving and its related equipment paired with a frightening monstrosity enhance 'Night Dive' by Drew Starling, while ravers fall prey to voracious, sentient 'Phosphorescence' in Denver Grenell's grisly tale. The gore continues in 'Paradise Lost' by Sherri White, when a businessman relays the skin-liquefying scenario that befalls his secluded hotel in a story reminiscent of the 1977 B-Movie The Incredible Melting Man, and Philip Fracassi's 'The Guardian', which details the plight a group of sun-worshipping Westerners encounter on a remote island beach infested with flesh-eating parasites.

The book's mid-section is framed by two flash fiction entries, 'Of Murder and Mermaids' by Kelly Brocklehurst, and Jack Harding's 'She Waits', that cleverly twist perspectives about undersea creatures both real and imagined. A beautiful Italian setting is devastated by (possibly) alien invaders who replicate the identities of the deceased in order to attack the living in Ashlei Johnson's gripping should-be film, 'Astorgos', while a couple entombed with a skeletal platoon of Revolutionary War-era soldiers fight to survive the 'Curse of the Cache' by Alyson Hasson.

'Shakespeare never wrote that love is just the label we give to not wanting to die alone' serves as the grimly ironic mantra to Craig Wallwork's 'Misery Guts', a quick shot of squirming body horror involving a cheating boyfriend who contracts the worst possible case of traveler's diarrhea, just as another philanderer unwittingly discovers the true nature of a curious native delicacy in 'Beach Snakes' by Aiden Merchant. Guilt haunts some protagonists: regret over a past inaction leads a man and his husband to a place of sacrifice in Spencer Hamilton's riveting 'Out of the Shadows, Into the Sun'; a pair of ghostly newlyweds attempt to enjoy their resort 'Honeymoon' in Simon J. Plant's subtly spectral story; and a siren's sinister call spells disaster for a family in turmoil in 'That Look When They're Leaving' by Scott J. Moses.

Slice of Paradise is a fast-paced tome; pages flip by with paper-cut inducing speed. Editors Ben Long and Andrew Robert smartly gathered stories short enough to be individually consumed in one comfortable sitting, and it's easy for readers to binge multiple yarns in a single smorgasbord literary feast. Yet if the collection has a weakness, it's one of repetition. The chosen tales, while each entertaining in and of themselves, share a similarity in structure and setting that dulls with monotony as one plows forward through the volume, and the over-reliance on blood-and-guts several authors utilize for shock effect only enhances the collection's overall feeling of sameness. This may be simply due to such a specifically narrow theme: there are, after all, places to vacation besides a beach (Disneyland and Alpine ski resort horror could offer new subgenres ripe for exploration), and a more balanced mix of setting, splatter and nuance would likely appeal to a broader reader base.

That being said, the heart of the book has nothing to do with location, but relationships; behind the bloodshed lie character-driven pieces focused on realistically illustrated couples of all types--straight couples, gay couples, squabbling couples, cheating couples, murderous couples, couples in love, couples on the brink, couples over the edge, couples fighting to stay alive, couples who lost that fight long ago--that enrapts an audience's attention more than any creature from the black lagoon. To that effect, three entries deserve special mention: A young thrill seeker mourning his late girlfriend struggles for life after an accident on a 'Zipline', Nick Kolakowski's enthralling and moving meditation on survival, loss and overcoming adversity. A local resort employee uncovers the true secret to staying young in Kay Hanifen's outstanding 'The Fons Juventutis', a story filled with local details, fine, dread-inducing prose and strangely beautiful poignancy. The standout story in Slice of Paradise, however, may be Rowan Hill's delightfully tense 'They Eat People, You Know?', a tale that basks in a sun-drenched Australian setting, cool 1980's retro nostalgia and an authentically blood-chilling role-reversal.

In the end, this is one anthology that offers more than the initial sum of its parts suggests, so the next time you need a book to pass the long flight to some gorgeous foreign locale for a few days of fun, reach out for Slice of Paradise, which earns a respectable 3.5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. And if you can't get enough vacation-themed horror, find satisfaction in the fact that DarkLit’s companion collection, Beach Bodies, is currently available as well.

3.5 / 5.0