Recently, Amazon got together six horror writers that you’ve likely heard of and tasked them with writing short stories about monsters. The collection is called “Creature Feature.” And, in anticipation of Halloween, I figured it would be fun to go over each of the books in the set individually throughout the month. Then, we’ll see which one is the best of the bunch.
We’ll be going over them in the order they’re presented, continuing with…
“It Waits in the Woods” by Josh Malerman
If there was an award for the most middle-of-the-road story in this collection, “It Waits in the Woods” would currently win. It has a typical monster idea and a good enough premise to introduce a monster, but the issues I (spoiler) also had with “In Bloom” are also here, dragging it down.
What I mean is “It Waits in the Woods” overplays its hand. There’s too much prose devoted to hashing out the same general pieces of information, and it’s not doing that for some spectacular payoff. It’s just filling pages.
The basic premise is a girl who lost her sister has had her life slowly dissolved by a combination of guilt, grief, and how her parents treat her. And even after she leaves them, she decides to do all she can to find out what really happened to her sister…and if a monster got her.
Through that idea, “It Waits in the Woods” explores a few things. Our main girl is heavily interested in filming, in making movies, in directing them especially, and there’s a clear love for the art form. “It Waits in the Woods” is basically about going into a forest alone—which is not a fresh concept for horror—but it being cliché barely registered because the story stays in her head, explores her motivation, how her art connects to the tragedy, and ponders how grief can affect an artist.
But, like I said, the prose of it is overbearing. We start with an extended backstory that could’ve been handled much quicker, and then, as we go through the woods, it doesn’t improve much. Not a lot happens—until everything happens.
Once “It Waits in the Woods” gets going, the prose does speed up, and the descriptions focus more on being scary. We even get some seriously disturbing implications about what the monster does to people before killing them. The story becomes an intersection between a true-crime story of missing people and straight-up folklore horror with fairy tale logic, and for the most part, it does succeed in establishing both tones simultaneously.
That said, the story also ends rather abruptly. I’m not going to spoil it, but there are a lot of loose ends here. Sometimes, yes, that’s not a bad thing for horror. Some stories leave things open-ended in an attempt to make the story stick with the audience, allow their own interpretations, and make them ponder the potential future of these characters. But that concept isn’t explored nearly as deeply as would’ve been expected with this setup. It plants seeds that get little water. It almost reads like the inciting incident for a different, longer story.
If I liked “It Waits in the Woods” more, I would say something akin to wanting a full book. There’s certainly enough material. But I don’t want that—and I can only mildly recommend this short story. I wish the monster fit the narrative better, that the metaphors, if there are any intentional ones, more cleanly connected. Maybe “It Waits in the Woods” is trying to say something deeper about identity and emotions than I caught, but it doesn’t give enough clues for me to suss out anything substantial. In the one way it might have been interesting, it seems to not info-dump about its themes. All it does is make us wait around for something spooky to happen.
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