Once Upon a Scream Soars Over The Previous Books
Once Upon a Scream completes the available Disney Chills books. The Circle of Ter-ROAR is the only one left, and it’s set to release later this year. And it’s been an interesting project to undertake reviewing all of these. Each book has similar aspects, often reusing plot beats and character archetypes, and the “be careful what you wish for” subtheme is baked into the whole process—and yet, the differences have been substantial. And, as you may have noticed, each book has, more or less, been better than the last.
And, shocker, that pattern holds true. Once Upon a Scream borders on being a Y.A. horror novel with an engaging plot and interesting stakes. It continues Liar, Liar Head on Fire’s trend toward more complex character work with the (almost now required) best friend character and has by far the most violent horror scenes yet, with the least reliance on stuff like dreams and fake outs to form the scares. The main character gets cut and bleeds in this book. The words “death,” “killed,” and even “hell” are used, and the now-expected brutal ending feels especially brutal here.
But let’s back up and cover what our newest subgenre is. This time it’s Dark Fantasy. But that’s not surprising, considering the villain is Maleficent. Once Upon a Scream plays out a lot of its third act like a classic fairy tale, with curses and evil magic. But that’s not the only thing that marks Once Upon a Scream as an outlier.
For one thing, it’s the first book to deal with some real-world consequences of crime. Technically, the characters in Second Star to the Fright and Be Careful What You Wish Fur also commit crimes, stealing a hook and a coat respectively, but this is the first one where the normal world is aware of it happening. Dawn is caught aiding her friends, Ronnie and Daniella, with shoplifting, and Dawn’s now been separated from them to live with her aunts out in the south. Her parents saying they want to separate her from “bad elements.”
And this isn’t just an initial premise to get the main character into the plot. Dawn faces persecution and stigma over it. The requisite bully characters level it against her, and people, including the principal, nigh-instantly distrust her. It makes for really upsetting scenes.
This Story Has Some Realistically Feeling Bullying
And, well, Dawn, Ronnie, and Daniella are all described as—or the book’s cover shows Dawn to be—BIPOC girls. I’m not the one to go into the nuances of the social commentary, problematic elements, and more that could be present here and could be unpacked, but I need to acknowledge it’s there. It’s never expressively pointed out, but it’s also not subtext.
Once Upon a Scream is also, as far as memory serves, the first time we’ve gotten any LGBTQ+ representation in Disney Chills books. Dawn’s aunts are a married couple and are acknowledged as such. They aren’t complex characters, and in most scenes, it’s hard to tell which one is speaking because they seem to have roughly the same personality (being inspired, presumably, by Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, down to wearing red and blue versions of basically the same outfit) but it’s still notable. In hindsight, I’m amazed it took this long—other Disney Chills books have at least tried to have representation for children of divorce, people facing economic hardships (which the aunts also have), and different cultural and racial backgrounds.
Finally, there’s how this book deals with Sleeping Beauty as an inspiration. We get a dragon, a castle, and a magical sword, and Once Upon a Scream plays out a lot like the movie—albeit the context is different. But where it deviates almost plays out like a The School for Good and Evil-level direct commentary on a trope, is the “true love’s kiss” part of the sleeping curse. Dawn makes a friend, and then her friend is put under. And how this trope subversion happens is done in an interesting way, though kind of rushed, with a solid setup and payoff from established plot points.
But would you believe there’s still much to discuss about Once Upon A Scream? This book almost ditches earlier books’ issues of constant repetition and irritatingly long general setup and uses that extra space to have way more story. We’ve got a well-set-up twist that doesn’t appear out of nowhere, multiple scenes where the adults become somewhat aware of the supernatural events, and different creative uses of the sleeping curse, even outside the subversion.
And, really, those last two made this book miles ahead of some of the others in terms of horror. Once the curse gets going, the story has an almost apocalyptic feel, with tons of adult characters being affected and the related threats being very active and directly targeting the main character. It’s one thing to have a character with parents who don’t believe them—and that happens a few times with the aunts—but it’s quite another thing when Maleficent’s attacks are so effective that it wouldn’t matter if the adults tried to help. It’s like what happened in Fiends on the Other Side, but far more personal to the main character. I didn’t expect to be reminded of What We Harvest, but this is another interesting take on zombies that doesn’t need to kill anyone for it to still be horrific. You get the feeling that the main character is fighting against an overwhelming force with everything she has—and that’s just good storytelling.
Once Upon a Scream Has Great Horror Set Pieces
I already expected this to be the best book out of the series, but seeing how far Disney Chills has evolved is still satisfying. Once Upon a Scream sets up plot points without being obvious, has a brisk pace without skipping anything, and the prose has dramatically improved if still suffering a little from the usual issues. Maleficent turns out to be one of the more interesting villains. She’s got a strong presence, a coherent evil scheme, and fun dialogue when she’s not stuck repeating the phrase “poor simple fool” ad infinitum. It even does new things paralleling the original movie. The wish is for revenge, which is a first. And Dawn recreates stuff related to Maleficent, Princess Aurora, and Prince Phillip throughout the adventure. It somehow takes one of the least complicated of Disney’s sprawling catalog and imbues it with fresh energy.
This isn’t the last in this review series, but it still feels like a crescendo. A mostly successful culmination of all that Disney Chills has set up for itself. And I’m curious to see if the next book somehow finds new ways to surprise me.
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