This review is spoiler-free!
In the spirit of this holiday, I thought I’d review a scary story. I chose Defy The Dark, a collection of YA short stories I’d heard about on Malinda Lo’s blog (dubbed by yours truly to be the Bestest Author Website Ever).
The foreword explains how the book came about, “I never gave up my fantasy of getting my favorite authors to tell me new tales. I loved Stephen King’s anthologies especially because [ . . . ] in them, he wrote letters. In Skeleton Crew, he said a short story is like ‘a kiss in the dark from a stranger.’ So I asked some of my favorite authors if they wanted to write about things that only happen in the dark – and they said yes.”
It sounded like a good choice for me: neither too much gory spookiness nor too much mushy romance.
“The seventeen original stories in Defy the Dark, an eerie, mind-bending YA anthology, could only take place in darkness.
Open the pages and discover: A creepy guy who stares too long. The secrets of the core of the earth. Dreams of other people’s lives. A girl who goes mad in the darkness. Monsters in Bavaria. A generational spaceship where night doesn’t exist. And other mysteries and oddities.”
Below, I’ve summarized each short story and listed my individual thoughts/rating for them. Enjoy!
“Steepstalk” by Courtney Summers (2/5)
A dead girl haunts her ex-boyfriend, following him when he sleepwalks. The backstory is believable, the voice of the narrator was realistic, and the writing style was fine. All in all, a decent story. Then why didn’t I enjoy it more?
“Nature” by Aprilynne Pike (4/5)
Why do all dystopian stories have characters with such similar voices? And why don’t I mind? The main character was kind of like Katniss living in the world of The Giver and for whatever reason, I actually liked that. It seems like it would be a ripoff, but it worked. I only wish it were longer – just as it was getting to a really great part it cut off and I would’ve liked to see it developed further. I feel that way about several other stories in this anthology, actually.
“The Dark Side of the Moon” by Dia Reeves (2.5/5)
The only way I can describe this is to say it was Terry Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell trilogy crossed with Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory crossed with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was very, very surreal, almost too much so for my tastes. A boy and a girl are in love but her parents don’t want them together because they’re not the same race, so he proves himself by riding a trolley into the night sky and coming back alive when no one else has done so. I came to realize that weird stories are divided into two groups: the zany and the surreal, and I don’t do surreal.
“Ghost Town” by Malinda Lo (4/5)
Happily, the story that led me to read this book was great! It portrayed teens very realistically, had an LGBTQ+ character, and was one of the few properly scary stories. I loved not knowing exactly what was in the dark; it made the story so much more suspenseful. Additionally, it was perhaps the only story that A) I loved and B) didn’t need to be longer, as was the case with “Nature” and a few others.
“Eyes in the Dark” by Rachel Hawkins (2.5/5)
A girl cheats on her boyfriend with a hot “bad boy”, while making out he notices a creature in the dark, and in true horror-movie form, they stupidly follow after it. Zero points for originality, but at least it scared me.
“Stillwater” by Valerie Kemp (2/5)
With its weird time loop and amnesia-filled plot, this reminded me of Doctor Who. A boy and girl forget there’s a world beyond their tiny town. The only problem was that, just as the characters were trying to escape the boredom, so was I. I just didn’t connect with the characters, you know?
“I Gave You My Love by the Light of the Moon” by Sarah Rees Brennan (4/5)
Yes, it’s a stereotypical romance-with-a-vampire, but it’s good. Berthe, a newly-made werewolf, is rescued from eating people by Stephen. My favorite part was the friendship between various characters. This story has less to do with love and more to do with friends looking out for one another, and that was very sweet.
“Night Swimming” by Beth Revis (2.5/5)
The Giver meets Star Trek in this short story set on a spaceship controlled by a dictator. I wanted some of its fellow stories to be longer because they were so good, but I want this one to be longer so it improves. Actually, I did some research just now and it turns out that it’s set in the same world as some other books by Revis. Figures. It felt like the romance (and the story in general) needed to develop more in order for the ending to have any impact.
“The Sunflower Murders” by Kate Espey (3/5)
The editor of Defy The Dark held a writing contest for teens: if they won, their story was published in the anthology. And this is the winning entry. It is about a girl whose best friend is murdered; it’s only a little scary but I didn’t mind that because Espey wrote the tragic part of the story so well. I only wish it were longer. If this is what she can do in high school, I look forward to seeing her later writing.
“Almost Normal” by Carrie Ryan (3/5)
Zombies! I didn’t think I’d like this story much because of them, but I enjoyed its focus on the mundane – a group of friends decide to hang out at an amusement park to distract themselves from an imminent attack by the undead. It’s hard to explain. It worked, somehow. “Almost Normal” wasn’t going for huge, dramatic plot twists. It’s just about people not giving up.
“There’s Nowhere Else” by Jon Skovron (2.5/5)
A teenage boy discovers he can dream himself into the bodies of anyone in the world. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? However, the writing was lackluster. Intriguing premise, realistic character, should have been written by someone else.
“Naughty Or Nice” by Myra McEntire (4/5)
Two best friends go on a school trip to Europe, intending to hang out at a parade where people dress as monsters. Instead they find a real one. “Naughty Or Nice” was dorky yet hilarious. Definitely recommended, and I’d love to read more about those main characters.
“Shadowed” by Christine Johnson (2.5/5)
I really wanted to enjoy this story. It is about a girl who must stay in the dark or else her shadow will kill her. As with “There’s Nowhere Else,” I thought the idea was nice but the execution was poor. It moved too slowly.
“Now Bid Time Return” by Saundra Mitchell (2/5)
As far as I can tell, this was about a girl who travels to Norway and falls in love with a ghost. The dreamlike style of writing was excellent, but I found the ending confusing and honestly the whole thing needed to be longer.
“The Moth and the Spider” by Sarah Ockler (2/5)
Cali, recovering from a suicide attempt, helps another girl. I liked the character as well as the hopeful ending of her story but as for the rest, I could take it or leave it. It was just confusing – was she reborn to the wrong family in the wrong time, or wasn’t she? Sometimes ambiguity isn’t clever, just frustrating. It also didn’t feature a kiss in the dark, even just the thought of one.
“Where The Light Is” by Jackson Pearce (2.5/5)
A young man working as a miner falls in love with some sort of underground-spirit-thing. As you can see, I wasn’t that attached to this story. The beginning was fine but the ending needed to be longer.
“This Was Ophelia” by Tessa Gratton (4/5)
I think this was a genderbent version of Hamlet but it reminded me more strongly of Twelfth Night, possibly because I’ve never read the former. Also, cross-dressing. Ophelia disguises herself as a boy when she sneaks out of the house and ends up falling in love with this guy she meets. It’s as far as one can possibly get from a scary story, but it was so brilliant I didn’t mind. It’s also yet another story from this anthology that I wanted more of.
On the whole, I was pleased with this anthology but I don’t think I liked it enough to recommend it. While there were no truly horrible stories, I consider only seven to be any better than average. If you’re looking for mildly scary stories and aren’t too picky, give Defy The Dark a go. Otherwise, I think you’re better off trying Past Perfect, Present Tense by Richard Peck – it has a section with short horror stories.