Worst Laid Plans: An Anthology of Vacation Horror opens with “You’ve Been Saved” by S. E. Howard, in which friends Chris and Ethan take a trip to Las Vegas. When a girl in a diner hands them a napkin scrawled with the word “help” the boorish Ethan dismisses this as some sort of trick, but Chris – a heart surgeon and used to saving lives – makes it his mission to get to the bottom of the matter. A strong character-led narrative reaches a monstrous climax – and the anthology of strange holiday misadventures is just beginning.
“Sex with Dolphins” by Chad Stroup charts a Hawaiian honeymoon gone horribly wrong; it makes clear early on that the husband will drown, although exactly how – and the relevance of the title – become clear only at the very end. Patrick Lacey’s “Caught a Glimpse” is about a stressed-out man in a holiday cottage who spies upon an attractive woman next door, and then comes to suspect that she is violating his privacy in turn. Meanwile, “In the Water” by Mark Wheaton involves a police investigation of what appears to be a case of human trafficking in Thailand, the story developing into a weird saga of aromatic cannibalism.
A recurring premise in the anthology is that of a killer hidden amongst the vacationers. “Expertise” by Asher Ellis involves a swimmer, a tour guide, a barracuda and a twist ending in the EC Comics tradition. Also fitting into this mode is Hailey Piper’s “Unkindly Girls”; this is the story of Morgan, a 16-year-old on holiday with her prudish father who forces her to wear a figure-covering swimsuit (he considers women who wear revealing clothes to be “unkindly girls”). She meets two girls who buy her a sequined bikini, after which a story of temptation and obsession plays out against a folklore-drenched coastal backdrop.
Any holiday-themed horror anthology will have plenty of far-flung destinations to play with – and, by extension, creatures from world folklore, hence the healthy amount of monster-themed stories in this book. In “The Penanggalan” by Scott Cole a man on holiday in Malaysia with his wife becomes
obsessed with the gruesome vampiric creature of the story’s title. Waylon Jordan’s “Deep in the Heart”, a story framed as a childhood reminiscence, sees a 12-year-old boy having his first homosexual attraction when he encounters a young tour guide – but the cave that the group visits turns out to be home to a weird and deadly creature.
In Laura Keating‘s “Good Time in the Bad Lands” a father takes his squabbling kids and stressed-out wife on a trip to the wilderness, where the loss of their map and encounters with the local fauna push them all to the brink of madness. “The Cucuy of Cancun” by V. Castro is written from the perspective of the titular entity (a supernatural creature from Lusophone folklore), here portrayed as a beach-dwelling temptress with designs on the nearby mortals:
I want to nuzzle in their heart chambers and soak in their blood. I want to fill this grubby, over-chlorinated pool with their limbs. Their severed heads will float like abandoned inflatable toys. Some of them will have their flesh made into strips of jerky while I slurp on their chilled brain matter like a piña colada. In the morning I will moisturize my tan skin with their melted down fat because it prevents me from burning beneath the hot Mexican sun.
So far, Worst Laid Plans might be sounding a trifle repetitive. Certainly, it’s hard to deny that the bulk of the stories fit into two moulds: “holidaymakers find out that one of their number is a killer” and “holidaymakers run into monster”. This really doesn’t matter, though, as the stories manage to stand out from each other thanks to the strength in characterisation that runs through the volume.
For example, Jeremy Herbert’s “TAYLOR FAMILY VACATION ‘93” offers a lovely character-study of a holiday video-obsessed father. The story written in fast forward as the protagonist on holiday with his wife and son repeatedly rewatches his video footage until he finds something suspicious, and decides to investigate. “Peelings” by Kenzie Jennings, following a family trip to Disneyland, is driven less by its events and more by the characters’ personality traits: the father’s self-absorption and trust issues, the mother’s bitterness and resentment, and the preteen rebellion of the two daughters. All of this embodies an awkward reality that contrasts with the artificial perfection of Disney.
In “The Difference Between Crocodiles and Alligators”, Malcolm Mills takes us to an entire convention of eccentrics: the setting Is GatorCon, where attendees divide themselves into alligator enthusiasts and crocodile devotees (complete with appropriate costumes). Already a curious location, this grows still more surreal with a combination of drugs, sexual tension and a marauding masked stranger.
Also shaking things up is the occasional out-and-out oddity. “Summers with Annie” by Greg Sisco opens in 1933, when a five-year-old falls asleep at a cinema and wakes to find that his father has vanished. Years later, he and his partner chance to watch the same film – and he discovers something of the full, eerie history behind it. Slow and sombre in tone, this story is a long way from splatterpunk and makes for a welcome change of pace.
A worthy anthology that shows how good execution can transcend a familiar premise.