When it comes to horror stories, we all have tropes we hate. But with the new short story anthology It Was All A Dream: An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right (hardcover, paperback, Kindle), editor Brandon Applegate gave writers the opportunity to explore and redeem their least favorite, and in creative ways. In the following email interview, Applegate discusses how this collection came together, as well as how some of the contributors turned some well-worn ideas into fresh horrors.
To start, what inspired you to put together a collection subtitled An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right?
It’s kind of a silly story. I have a Discord chat with a group of writer friends, a couple of whom have edited anthologies themselves, and we were jokingly coming up with ideas for the worst horror anthologies we could imagine. And there were some truly awful ones tossed around. But I threw out It Was All A Dream: An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes. We made fun of the idea for a few minutes, like we’d done with all of them, but it turned pretty quickly to discussing the possibilities. That’s when I knew it was an idea I wanted to pursue. There was a short period of time when I fought myself a little bit on whether I wanted to do it, or if I wanted to try and get someone else to do it, and in the end, I sort of selfishly decided that I wanted it to be me. I posted about it on Twitter, and called it It Was All A Dream: An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right, which is a little different, and maybe a little more inflammatory if I’m honest, but the response was huge — much bigger than I thought it would be. So that sealed the deal.
So did you start out with a list of bad horror tropes, and then reach out to writers and let them pick which they wanted to tackle, or did you start by asking writers to suggest a trope they wanted to take on?
I had some things I hoped to accomplish with this anthology, but I kept that mostly to myself. The indie horror community is overflowing with incredibly talented, creative people. I didn’t feel like I needed to hold anyone’s hand with the prompt. I wanted the stories to be expressive of each writer’s personalities and viewpoints. Tropes are such a personal thing to people. I watch horror movies with my daughter, and she loves jump scares, gets disappointed if there’s not enough of them in a movie, but it’s something I really don’t care for much most of the time. It’s just really personal, and I wanted writers to come at this from the heart. So I just put out the general call for submissions with the idea to pick a trope you hate and make it work. And they really did.
Were there any tropes that multiple people suggested?
Of course. I had a lot of werewolves, actually, which was surprising because I don’t see a lot of werewolf fiction these days, with some obvious exceptions like Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones. And that may just be a blind spot of mine. I didn’t see as many haunted houses as I expected. So it was really a mixed bag. I saw more than one story about cat jump scares, which I loved, but ultimately didn’t make it into the anthology.
Did anyone suggest a trope, and you were like, “That ain’t that bad,” only to have them be like, “Yes, it is…and I’ll show you,” and then they showed you?
Well, that’s kind of the tongue-in-cheek part of this anthology. I don’t actually think tropes are inherently bad. There are some that irk me, personally, sure, but I think the only thing that really counts to me as a bad trope are the ones that operate like cultural stereotypes or are hurtful and ignorant about people who are dealing with lived reality. There are a couple of stories that deal with these issues in the book, too, which is something I went in hoping for and ended up getting. Cormack Baldwin’s “Parting Gift” and Drew E. Huff’s “It Wasn’t A Wedding Cake” both deal with mental health and disability and how the people around us perceive us; the tendency to label people with mental illnesses or physical challenges as “monsters” or “cautionary tales.” And I think they did a brilliant job. Everyone did a phenomenal job with their tropes, and you can tell they’re having fun either playing in a space where they wouldn’t normally, or really picking something apart that irks them. I’m very proud of the result.
Are there any bad horror tropes that no one chose to take down, ones that you were really hoping someone would take on?
Funny enough, I didn’t have very many stories that went with the “it was all a dream” trope, and none of the ones I got ultimately made it in. So the title of the book is sort of orphaned. But that’s okay. The point of this for me was to get good stories that made really common tropes work in ways I hadn’t seen before, and I think we achieved that, even if I didn’t get every trope I specifically expected. The most important thing for me was to make the point that the old writing advice to avoid tropes at all costs is bull, that you can do it if you do it right.
Wendy N. Wagner
One of the contributors to It Was All A Dream is Wendy N. Wagner, who is the editor of Nightmare, an online magazine of horror and dark fantasy. When you talked to her about writing a story for Dream, did she offer any suggestions based on stories she’s gotten as Nightmare‘s editor?
No, not at all. I approached Wendy to contribute a story for a couple of reasons, and none of them really had anything to do with Nightmare, though I believe she is a phenomenal editor and someone I really look up to in that regard. The main reason I approached her is because she is a brilliant author. One of my favorites, honestly. I was first introduced to her work through her short story in “Places We Fear To Tread” and then I read The Deer Kings, which was just wonderful [and which you can read more about here]. Then, of course, Wendy had interacted with my tweets about the anthology quite a bit, and I had a feeling she might have a story to send, so I just bit the bullet and asked. And the story she submitted, “The Devil’s Morning,” is just this heart wrenching, beautiful, weird western that contends with the “they were dead the whole time” trope. Wendy has been nothing but encouraging and enthusiastic throughout the whole process, and I hope one day I am fortunate enough to work with her again.
Another contributor is named Die Booth. Be honest: If he had turned in a shitty story, would you have run it anyway just to get someone named Die Booth in the book? Because no one would fault you if you say “yes.” Well, except maybe Wendy N. Wagner.
It’s a great name, isn’t it? And luckily I didn’t have to contend at all with that question because Die’s story, “Pickle,” is one that I felt was such a perfect fit for the anthology. It’s just so good. And Die has been so great to work with as well.
Aside from having to fit the theme, or being written by someone with a cool name, what other parameters did these stories have to fit?
I asked for a word count range of 1500 to 4000 words because I think I like short stories best when they achieve a lot in a small space. I didn’t really think I wanted reprints for this one, but I left the door open a crack, and I ended up only accepting one reprint. It was Laurel Hightower’s brilliant contribution, “Fuck This Shit Manor,” which was previously published in a now-closed venue. But it was too good to turn down for that reason, and felt like it was tailor-made for this theme.
Horror has lots of subgenres, and can also be paired with other genres. What are some of the subgenres and genre mash-ups in It Was All A Dream?
Tom Coombe’s “Advent Of The Clown King” is a brilliant mashup of creepy clowns and social collapse apocalypse that was recently referred to in a review as “bug-fuck crazy in the best way,” which, to me, is so seriously high praise. Likewise, “The Thickest Soup You’ve Got” by Nikki R. Leigh mashes together a time loop and a cabin in the woods to devastating effect.
Did anyone come up with an interesting mash-up that surprised you?
There were so many surprising stories. But that was kind of the assignment, right?
I think the most surprising to me was the mashup of a creepy doll and mental health horror in “Playing Tricks” by Angela Sylvaine. I did not see that ending coming at all.
And how scary do these stories get? Like, did any freak you out?
It’s a pretty wide range of tones and levels of scariness, I think. It’s going to kind of depend on who you are. Since I’m a parent, parenting horror gets to me pretty good, so Gabino Iglesias’ “Gone In A Flash” hit me in the gut. The scene toward the beginning of Erin Keating’s “Everyone Has A Little Devil In Them,” where our main character, a young girl, has to hide from a drunk and dangerous mob, sets up the stakes so well, has such a perfect villain, and builds the tension to such a perfect payoff, that I found myself gasping out loud. J.V. Gachs’ “Hail Mary, Full Of Rage” dumps the idea of demon possession on its head in such a way that it takes the idea of losing your own body and autonomy to a whole new level. That was actually the first story I knew I would take. Wendy N. Wagner’s “The Devil’s Morning” damn near made me cry, and I am not a cryer.
I could go on, and I probably should because all of the stories in this book got to me in some way or another, whether it was the crawling under your skin type, or the laugh-out-loud, yell-at-the-characters type.
I could also see someone taking a more humorous approach in a collection like this. Did anyone do anything satirical or jokey?
There are several stories in this book that made me laugh. Laurel Hightower’s “Fuck This Shit Manor” is gloriously absurd. Helena O’Connor’s “The Pizza Curse” is about the goofiest curse you’ve ever heard of, and a gleefully bizarre way to tackle a werewolf trope. K.A. Wiggins writes just about the most ridiculous way to get out of a deal with the devil in “Castoffs.” Patrick Barb shows us a slasher movie from the unfamiliar perspective of a familiar character in “Don’t Go In The Woods…Or Do, See If I Care!” Madison McSweeney’s “Ghostwritten” takes a hard jab at the tortured writer in all of us. Even Die Booth’s “Pickle” gives us a fairly dark chuckle and some satisfying comeuppance. All of these stories made me laugh out loud in parts.
Not everyone likes their horror to be cut with humor. Especially when the humor undermines the horror. Why did you feel it was okay to include stories that weren’t totally serious in It Was All A Dream?
Horror and comedy are cousins. Close cousins, at that. It’s why they go so well together. And not just when it’s announced in big bold letters like it is in the Scary Movie franchise or other movies and books that slap the horror comedy label right on the tin. Even mainstream, iconic, classic horror movies dabble in laughs. In A Nightmare On Elm Street, on top of Freddy being one of the scariest villains in cinema, he’s also really funny. Robert Englund gives him a joyful goofball quality that makes the atrocities he commits that much more horrifying. Scream is funny. That movie goes out of its way to poke fun at its entire genre. It’s the goal of all art to make us feel something, and those feelings aren’t siloed. You don’t exclusively feel fear when reading or watching horror. Sure, that’s in there, and it’s prominent, but you also feel relief, heartbreak, victory, failure, love, disgust, and yes, joy and humor. As a matter of fact, I posit that you have to feel one to feel the other. Joy gives you something to fear losing.
Laird Barron, with Athena (Photo Credit: Jessica M)
It Was All A Dream opens with a forward by Laird Barron, who’s had stories in such anthologies as The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 17, 18, 19, 21, 2011, 2012, and 2013. So clearly he knows nothing about horror.
Why did you want Dream to have a forward, and why did you want Laird to write it?
I am a sucker for all the trappings of story collections and anthologies. When I was a kid and I’d get my hands on a new collection, I never ever skipped any of them. Forewords, afterwords, story notes, introductions, all of it. And it was always cool when they would give you some sort of insight into the process of writing, or coming up with story ideas, or just the author’s life. So I knew I’d have a foreword in this book because, honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever do a book without one. So when it came time to find someone to write it, I leaned on the ethos I’d employed through the entire process. Take moonshots. I’m nobody, but I’ve got nothing to lose by asking nicely. It’s how I got Wendy N. Wagner, Gabino Iglesias, Laurel Hightower, Gemma Files, and Hailey Piper to write stories for this book. I just asked. So I made a list of moonshots. People who were real heroes of mine. I didn’t think I’d get Laird. When he said yes, I was absolutely bowled over. I seriously think I yelled at my computer screen while I was reading the email. And he’s perfect for it, right? He’s someone who has explored the genre inside and out, knows all the tropes, all the bad advice, all the good advice. I’m just so damn lucky he was kind enough to do it.
It Was All A Dream also features illustrations for each story by Christopher Castillo Díaz. Why was he the best person to do these individual and very specific drawings, and what do you think they add to Dream?
Christopher did the cover of my own collection Those We Left Behind And Other Sacrifices, and he’s one of the most talented, reliable, versatile, rock-solid artists I have ever known. Artwork was incredibly important to me in this book. I was very much trying to make the kind of book that kid-Brandon would have liked, the kind that he’d hide in drawers and under pillows until the lights went out and read under the covers with a flashlight. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is a huge influence on me, partially because of the stories, but maybe even more so because of Stephen Gammell’s artwork. Those drawings stayed with me long after I forgot the stories.
I also had this collection of super old children’s books that my grandmother gave me. I still have them, actually, and the one I remember most is The Adventures Of Robin Hood, which has a pretty grizzly ending, by the way. But it was illustrated with this great old line art that really made those stories come alive.
Then, the third factor that really cemented what I wanted to do was my love of old horror comics: Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror, Haunt Of Fear, and the like. All those inspirations together gave me my idea for where to go with the book’s artwork. I wanted it to be pulpy, like a comic, and I wanted it to be per-story like Gammell. I asked Christopher if he could do it, and he said he could, and I trust him as an artist, so I let him run with it, and the result is terrific.
Those same influences guided what I looked for in the cover, too, and Evangeline Gallagher really delivered there. Again, I count myself incredibly fortunate to have worked with such amazing artists.
“Don’t Say Its Name” illustration by Christopher Castillo
It seems like It Was All A Dream: An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right could be the template for a series. I could see you doing It Was Just A Trick Of The Light: An Anthology Of Bad Science Fiction Tropes Done Right, It Was Just A Squid: An Anthology Of Bad Cosmic Horror Tropes Done Right, or It Was Just The Wind: An Anthology Of Bad Ghost Story Tropes Done Right. Has there been any talk of doing something like that, or even of doing It Was Also A Dream: Another Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right?
Those are some good ideas! Honestly, I’m very partial to the horror genre. I think I’d have trouble editing a book of sci-fi stories. But I like the ghost and cosmic horror ideas a lot. definitely stay tuned for some announcements coming up pretty quickly.
Hollywood loves turning horror stories into movies. Do you think any of the stories in It Was All A Dream would work particularly well as a movie?
There are a couple of them that I think are very cinematic in nature to the point where they would just naturally make a good movie. Tom Coombe’s “Advent Of The Clown King” has a real blockbuster quality to it that would lend itself to a big scope horror drama adaptation. J.V. Gachs’ “Hail Mary, Full Of Rage” would be a perfect Lake Mungo-style found footage mock-documentary. Madison McSweeney’s “Ghostwritten” is actually about a haunted screenplay, which would play well with the meta-horror-comedy subgenre. Erin Brown’s “I Unlock The Cage” would be a brilliant, claustrophobic werewolf drama that makes everyone question who the real monster is. I can just hear people saying “the whole thing takes place in one room!” Yeah, like Saw. There’s a bunch I’m not mentioning here. Can I just say that I love all of these stories?
By all means. So, is there anything else you think people need to know about It Was All A Dream: An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right?
Less about the anthology itself, and more about the message it’s trying to get across and what it has taught me. This is an anthology with a mission. I’ve always been circling around a desire to write, but I started writing in earnest around 2016, and in those six years, I have heard a lot of writing advice, like most of us do. Some of it is good advice, like read more, read wider. Some of it is okay, or at least just necessary for a young writer to learn in order to find out when and why not to follow it. But I think probably the most insidious piece of bad writing advice I have ever heard is that you should avoid tropes and strive for pure originality. Do you have any idea how many people are writing books and stories out there? It would be damn near impossible to write anything that was totally original, and in no way in conversation with tropes and themes that have come before. And nobody does. So one of the big things I wanted to achieve with this anthology is to make the case that you can take aim directly at a trope, whether you love it or hate it or never even noticed it, and still write interesting, entertaining fiction, because as long as you are being true to yourself, originality will come, regardless of the subject matter.
Finally, if someone enjoys It Was All A Dream: An Anthology Of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right, what horror anthology that someone else edited would you suggest they read and why that one?
There are so many! Here are a bunch of my current favorites:
Everything being put out by Cursed Morsels Press, but specifically Shredded: A Sports And Fitness Body Horror Anthology — full disclosure: I have a story in that one — and Antifa Splatterpunk, because this press has such a punk rock eye for anti-establishment horror and I love that.
The Split Scream dual novelette series from Dread Stone Press, because long live novelettes.
A Woman Built By Man from Cemetery Gates Media, because the voices in this book are perfect and so important.
Your Body is Not Your Body from Tenebrous Press (and pretty much everything else Tenebrous puts out). Body is a charity anthology that goes to support trans youth in Texas, my home state, and the stories force you out of your comfort zone and into total other perspectives.
I’ve just started Stories Of The Eye from Weirdpunk Books, and I’m digging that so far. Turns out Joe Koch’s super unique writing voice translates incredibly well into an ability to curate a wholly unique and brilliant batch of stories.
Found: An Anthology of Found Footage Horror Stories edited by Gabino Iglesias and Andy Cull, because it’s doing something a little similar to It Was All A Dream in that it’s examining a specific literary and cinematic trend.
And I’m pretty excited to start Mother: Tales Of Love And Terror from Weird Little Worlds. Parenting horror is a big deal to me, so I can’t wait to see what that one’s got in store.