Terror Is A Vacation Destination In DarkLit Press' Beach Bodies Anthology

FTC Statement: Reviewers are frequently provided by the publisher/production company with a copy of the material being reviewed.The opinions published are solely those of the respective reviewers and may not reflect the opinions of CriticalBlast.com or its management.

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. (This is a legal requirement, as apparently some sites advertise for Amazon for free. Yes, that's sarcasm.)

In ancient times, the concept of what we call a vacation--those rejuvenating get-away-from-it-all excursions to exotic locales--existed solely for the upper echelons of society. The equivalent of upper-middle-class Roman elites popularized the notion of visiting far-flung areas of their Mediterranean empire for relaxation, and during the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance the nobility retreated to faraway countryside estates for extended leisure stays. Only in the nineteenth century, however, with the ascendancy of the true, widespread middle class and fostered by new and easier modes of transportation--railroads, steamboats, stagecoaches, the horseless carriage--did vacationing become available to the masses. In America, Florida, then California, established the first resorts to attract mass-tourism, and by the 1890’s, company-abetted vacations became the norm, allowing those early Clark Griswolds to indulge their adventurous spirits. Yet as even the light-hearted National Lampoon films demonstrate, any excursion into the unknown, however well-intentioned, can be fraught with danger.

It’s with that in mind that DarkLit Press unveils Beach Bodies, an eighteen story, multi-author volume subtitled as A Beach Horror Vacation Anthology. Released simultaneously with its equally admirable sister tome, Slice of Paradise, Beach Bodies turns a wary eye to the risks involved when one strays too far into uncharted territory, and the result is an impressive collection of top-tier terror from a stable of on-the-rise authors.

Damien Casey’s ‘Aloha From Hell’ offers an early dose of devilish humor, when a man and his wife discover their beachside resort lies beside the lake of eternal fire and brimstone. The mood blackens as a woman fights for her life after wildlife on an oceanic isle revolts against humans in ‘The Dive’, Kelly Brocklehurst’s supremely tense nail-biter. Something witchy this way comes on the ‘Soucouyant Shore’ in Ronaldo Katwaroo’s enticing examination of Caribbean folklore. A spelunking group of treasure-hunting thrill-seekers find shiver-me-timbers torment in Julie Sevens’ ‘Île aux Forbans’, an exciting romp that puts one in mind of a deadly, adult version of the ‘80’s classic, The Goonies, while a criminal forensic scientist and her wife have their intended Mexican honeymoon turned into a ghoulish ‘Island Nightmare’ in Nat Whiston’s intensely chilling piece. A youth out for ‘A Walk on the Beach’ in John Durgin’s macabre tale similarly stumbles into a cave populated by grotesque, flesh-hungry creatures eager for a boy-sized midnight snack.

The second half of the book is framed by startling samples of flash fiction, ‘The Shell’, Bret Laurie’s twisting ode to M.C. Escher, and Grace R. Reynolds’ eye-popping ‘Sanguine Sunrise’. The recently betrothed take center-stage in both Wendy Dalrymple’s ‘Babe’, a bloody bout of body horror concerning a husband who ventures too close to the tide against the better warnings of his soon-to-be-widowed bride, and Chelsea Paravel’s examination of the spectral Hawaiian ‘Nightmarchers’ who unleash grisly retribution upon an intrusive wedding party. An assault survivor discovers a most unusual camera that takes beastly photos in Danielle Ramaekers’ vengeful ‘Memory Shots’, while characters unable to leave the shore star in Scott Cole’s postcard-perfect surrealist nightmare, ‘Greetings From Trammel Beach’ as well as ‘The Price of Paradise’, Jena Brown’s grim hallucinogenic account of demonic appeasement.

Unlike its companion volume, Beach Bodies seems less continuously focused on relationships; the story selection by editors Andrew Robert and Ben Long instead sternly emphasize the transgression and trespasses into regions hidden and forbidden and, perhaps most vividly, on survival--entrapment, escape, and excitement coils around the reader at every twist and tumultuous turn. Yet this anthology’s central weakness, like that of Slice of Paradise, is one of repetition. Taken independently, each entry is vivacious with craft, engrossing protagonists and perilous suspense, but when administered as a whole vacation fatigue inevitably sets in, due more to the narrowness of the book’s theme than to any lack of narrative variety: every feasible (and some hitherto unheard of) horror scenario arises--ghosts and demons and cannibals, oh my!

That (extremely) minor quibble aside, there’s an abundance of rich, fast-paced and lively yarns available within these pages, yet five distinguish themselves from the herd by their unnerving inventiveness, storytelling charm and unerring ability to entertain even the most jaded genre fan. A couple on the rocks, their savvy kids, a bartender and a drunkard are the dramatis personae in Jay Alexander’s astoundingly enjoyable ‘Red Sands’, a sharply clever undead apocalypse scenario buttressed by a shrewd non-linear plot and bitingly witty dialogue. A group of friends heading to an out-of-the-way beach become prey to a vicious, flamethrower-wielding madman in Leeroy Cross James’ ‘The Scorching’, a story that would be perfectly at home as a feature film sharing triple bill with like-minded slashers My Bloody Valentine and The Burning. Similarly, an expectant newlywed wife and her husband are given passes to a million-dollar retreat for ‘The Honeymoon’, Max Christmas’s distressing slow-burn love letter to old-school mondo grindhouse exploitation flicks such as Make Them Die Slowly, Mountain of the Cannibal God and Cannibal Holocaust. ‘The Cedar Haven Sun Werewolf’ by N.A. Battalgia offers a delightfully fun detective story that transposes a classic Universal monster to gorgeous island territory and conjures Kolchak, the Night Stalker vibes with its cryptid-chasing reporter leads. Yet by far the tale inducing the most palpable shivers is the very one that kicks off the volume: Fox Claret Hill’s outstandingly original ‘The Flesh of the Golden Dune Hotel’, a piece of label-defying bizarro shock that follows a couple discovering their resort is literally alive and ravenous for the meat of its guests. At once paranoid, frightful and heartbreaking, its plot seizes the audience’s throat and refuses to let go until the final, inescapable conclusion.

There’s little doubt that time spent lounging, whether on an unexplored foreign coast or poolside in your own back yard, can ease the mind and soothe the soul. But beware, brave travelers: terror can be a vacation destination, too, and for companionship on those more sinister journeys I readily recommend Beach Bodies and give it a respectable and well-deserved 3.5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. I’d also say DarkLit Press is off to a great start in this publishing gig.

3.5 / 5.0