The Gathering Dark: An Anthology of Folk Horror by Tori Bovalino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Gathering Dark is probably one of the best contemporary horror anthologies I have read so far. While this book is marketed to teens and young adults, these stories are some of the creepiest I have read (which further goes to show that, often, middle grade, teen, and young adult books can be better reads than adult books). Although, unlike many adult horror stories, several of these stories have a happy or at least ambiguous ending – it gives the reader hope for the main character.
Each story features a young person, usually a teenager about to go to college, who is trying to live and fall in love or make strong friendships, but something in their lives goes wrong or prevents them from living a somewhat normal life. Usually that preventative thing is something of the supernatural, often with an evil presence. Each story definitely takes something from folklore, though it is sometimes difficult to know what aspects of folklore or cultures they come from (unless explicitly said by the author). What I love about most of these folkloric tales, though, is that all of them have something to do with death or with the dead. To me, there are no creepier stories, nor stories that tell more truths about the nature of humanity.
I loved the atmosphere in these stories, the feeling of being trapped while simultaneously seeing an escape just around the corner. I liked the sense of leaving something behind, whether it is the thing that creates the horror, or an old life traded for a new and improved one. I also love that several of these stories feature lgbt protagonists. Every story was so well-written, I want to check out more stories written by these authors. I recommend this anthology to anyone who wants a good and creepy atmosphere.
This is the end of my short review. In the next section, I will review individual stories, which means there might be spoilers.
Stay by Erica Waters
This is, in my opinion, the saddest story of the whole collection. A young woman, who takes care of her grandmother and cousin by herself, also has to tend to the spirits in their family’s graveyard, else they drag her down into her own grave. Our protagonist wants to leave this town, wants to have a relationship with the beautiful daughter of her boss. What she doesn’t realize, though, is that she has been tending to the dead more than she realized. This is a story about grief, and how memories and loved ones stay with us, long after they have departed. It is also a story about remembering to live, which, in times of grief, is hard to do. I loved the way this story was written and, though it was short, you could feel all the emotions put into it. Definitely my favorite story of this anthology. I am not sure what folklore this is based on, though I would guess it is based on Hispanic/Latino folklore (but please correct me if I’m wrong).
The Tallest Poppy by Chloe Gong
This story had so much potential to be the creepiest ever, but it feels like the author didn’t see it through. This story has the creepy, perhaps haunted house with a curse apparently on it. Our protagonist goes to work and live at this house as a nanny, and she knows that whoever lives there has died pretty quickly. No one, however, knew why. She starts to work there and you have the elements of a haunted house: sleepwalking family members, seemingly in a trance; haunted dolls; and perhaps a haunting connection with the sea. That last bit was what I wish the author had gone into more. The main character says over and over that the sounds of the sea drive her nuts, and then she starts having hallucinations of drowning. But then the author makes the villain, or haunting presence, the dolls and the house, with no real connection to the sea. The folklore isn’t really explained. Again, so much potential, but this story felt a bit messy.
Loved by All, Save One by Tori Bovalino
Now this is a story for long winter nights. This story has everything: a vengeful ghost, kids trapped in a house on their own in the middle of nowhere. There is so much suspense in this story because you can imagine being one of those kids, alone in the dark house, jumping at every little noise that could be a ghost or a burglar. And, speaking as someone who lives in one of the coldest places on earth, there is no worse feeling than being surrounded by a whiteout of snow. What I love about this story, though, is that instead of just a figure of malice and revenge, the vengeful ghost acts as a protector too. We need more stories where the vengeful spirit acts out of a desire to protect and prevent the past from repeating itself, rather than just being angry for the sake of being angry (although those stories can be very suspenseful too). Unfortunately, though, this is another one of those stories in which someone gets left behind in order for the others to live.
One-Lane Bridge by Hannah Whitten
This story reminded me of the Alton Bridge in Texas, you know, the one that Ryan and Shane stole from the demon? I do wonder if the bridge in this story is supposed to be based on Alton Bridge. It wouldn’t surprise me, though bridges are often sites of hauntings and demons, as they are somewhat liminal spaces – places for transition. We follow a group of highschoolers in their senior year. The protagonist of this group has been cheated on by her boyfriend, and feels resentful towards him and her friend group. They go to this bridge to make a deal with the demon who resides there. The protagonist, however, does not finish her deal in time, and the demon, who really feeds on fear and the blood of the living, plagues her friends to kill her and give the demon her blood. I sort of wish the story went more into the folklore aspects of the bridge, but I know that the purpose of this story is about the strength of friendships (or lack thereof). I thought the atmosphere around the bridge was very well-written. However, I think I just wasn’t as keen on the plot overall. I think this could be a better story if it were longer. But other than that, give me a spooky demon bridge any day.
Ghost on the Shore by Allison Saft
This ghost story reminds me of stories about the woman in the well, or the lady in the lake (not the Arthurian versions), wherein the dead come back from a watery grave to see to unfinished business they left behind. The protagonist knows such stories, and goes to the lake where her beloved has drowned, to tell her of her feelings. But the ghoulish entity of this beloved friend seems wrong to the protagonist, but that doesn’t stop the protagonist from giving the ghoul a lift and trying to talk things out. This is a story about moving on from grief, and a reminder that grief is best shared and experienced with someone who understands. This story has such a gloomy atmosphere, perfect for an undead presence who rises from the water. What I wasn’t thrilled by in this story was that it was a lot of just driving around with the ghoul, instead of getting more into the folklore. Totally relatable story (minus the driving the ghoul around), but I really wanted to know more about the folklore and the history behind the undead that come from the lake in this story.
Petrified by Olivia Chadha
I loved this story. It was atmospheric, it was about trees and a creepy forest! This story has themes of colonization, revenge, and nature. The main characters, who are either indigenous to the land or who settled there before the “bad” colonizers (it’s hard to tell), seek to avenge their stolen land and livelihood by killing those who have or who are related to the ones who have done so. To do this, they use their connection to the forest to help trap their victims. Stories that take place in seemingly haunted forests are some of my favorites. There’s always something ancient and foreboding about the trees that have been on the land forever, and that is, in my opinion, how it should be. This story, actually, would have been a good one for the anthology Weird Woods, if it took place in Britain and not (what I presume is) America. The way it is written, you get such a sense of the darkness in the story, of the possibility of getting lost in the woods and never finding your way out.
Third Burn by Courtney Gould
You could easily imagine that the town this story takes place in is Salem (though it is actually in Oregon, and not Oregon’s Salem). The main character is an outcast from her hometown, though she is back and met without much welcome. She knows she must get out of this town, but the price to do it might be too high. It is definitely dangerous; though, with the help from the ghosts of the witches who were burned in the town long ago, our protagonist might just be able to escape, and maybe become a witch (or a ghost) herself. This is a story about prejudice – prejudice against lower classes, prejudice against women, prejudice against anyone who is different. It is a story in which the Church, as a negative entity, plays a sort of villain or antagonist to our protagonist. It definitely recalls the days of the witch trials, but also reminds us that such prejudices still exist. I have to say, I really disliked everyone in this story, but for good reason. The other characters seemed relentless in their hatred of the protagonist, even though she did her time and was trying to get back to normal. I do wish, though, that there was more interaction with the protagonist and other characters – she only interacts with her former best friend/love interest, and the rest of the feeling from the town is implied. I definitely got VVitch vibes from this story.
It Stays With You by Aden Polydoros
This story is based on the classic Bloody Mary game we would all play as kids in front of a mirror in a dark bathroom. Except, this time, it is not just Bloody Mary who will get you from the mirror, but your own deepest fears. This story struck me as the Bloody Mary game meets Stephen King’s IT, in which the main characters are haunted by their worst fear that threatens to come out of the mirror and destroy them. I can’t say much more except that this story really does have Stephen King vibes, and there is the atmosphere of a creepy carnival that reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It wasn’t my favorite story of the bunch, as the paranormal elements were not as ghoulish as I usually like, but that’s just me. This is, essentially, a story about memories, trauma, and moving forward (in this case, the moving forward might include beating a monster up with a baseball bat).
Truth or Dare by Alex Brown
Not going to lie, this story reminds me so very much about a scary story my counselors told me at camp, about some tunnels under UCLA, and the people who went in there. One escaped, and one didn’t, supposedly killed and eaten by a man or creature who lived in the tunnels. This story has a similar premise: tunnels underneath a school, and when two people go in, only one comes back out. In this story, however, the tunnels only appear to someone who has to make a decision, and as a result leave the other person behind in the tunnels. There is some creature or entity in these tunnels that seems to make this possible, and it is implied that this entity does kill the person who is left behind. I really loved the atmosphere in this story. You could imagine the dark and damp of the tunnels, the urge to press on and get out. What I was less keen on – though it is super relatable – is the relationship between the protagonist and the boy she brings with her into the tunnels. They have a very toxic relationship, which is why the decision comes to the protagonist in the form of going into the tunnels. I think the biggest issue I had with the protagonist is that even when she leaves behind the boy in the tunnels, realizes she’s better off without him, she still doesn’t seem to have much agency. I have no doubt that that is done on purpose by the author, and I understand why: the protagonist is supposed to represent all who have to make a decision in the tunnels, and we don’t really know what happens to either party when one escapes with their decision. It makes sense, but I still wish she had more agency. This is just a personal feeling, and one that has no bearing on how good the story actually is.
The Burning One by Shakira Toussaint
This story can easily be summed up as: “girl in a toxic relationship goes feral”. I believe this story uses Caribbean folklore as its basis, which is utterly fascinating and a topic I would love to read more about. Themes in this story include colonization (always a true element of horror and terror), racism, and slavery. I won’t go into too much detail about these themes in relation to the story, but I think you can guess where it’s headed. What I thought was so interesting was the transformation of the protagonist from curious girl to a creature hungry for revenge (literally), was that it is sort of left open to interpretation. One could interpret the transformation as a sort of werewolf or vampiric transformation. Otherwise, the protagonist could simply have just become so overcome with her hunger for revenge that she literally eats those she wants to punish. I am sure there are stories in the folklore that refer to such a transformation or woman, but I am not versed enough yet to make the connection. I very much want to though! The language that Toussaint wrote this story in was very interesting as well. It was English, but a purposefully simple and/or broken English to illustrate the limited worldview of the protagonist. I’m not always a fan of this writing style – it’s a bit hard to read, and it is not always consistent. However, for the purposes of this story, it seems to work.
Thank you so much for reading!
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