Sydney Bollinger says reading Don't Break the Oath is a refreshing break from the "boys club" of horror as writers tackle serious issues, such as body image, grief, and assault.
When co-editors Jill Girardi and Janine Pipe sat down to select short stories for The One That Got Away: Women in Horror Anthology, Volume 3 (2021), they were left with a dilemma. They wanted to publish more submissions than they had space for, but that was easily solved. The additional submissions became Don’t Break the Oath: Women in Horror Anthology, Volume 4. Featuring 23 stories from a collection of writers, the anthology is a diverse collection of horror written by women and centering on the feminine experience. Since horror has long been a “boys club,” reading this collection is refreshing. Many of the writers tackle serious issues, such as body image, grief, and assault.
The collection opens with a foreword from Meghan Arcuri, the current Vice President of the Horror Writers’ Association, and then dives right into the stories. Despite containing 23 short stories, the collection is a fairly fast read, perfect for a summer day on the beach or night inside during a thunderstorm. Additionally, with such a diverse set of stories, Don’t Break the Oath has something for every horror reader while serving as a great introduction for readers new to the genre.
Though the anthology’s contributors are seasoned writers, the collection will surely introduce readers to women horror authors who will become favorites, including standouts Alyson Faye, Jennifer Soucy, Anna Taborska, Angela Yuriko Smith, Melissa Ashley Hernandez, and R.A. Busby. Faye’s story, “The Silver Horn,” is the fourth in the collection and tells of a camping trip gone wrong. She is a master at building suspense over so few pages, all the while providing detailed characterization and weaving in supernatural elements. It’s a delight to read and will keep readers on the edge of their seats as they discover what happens to Jay and his friend Ethan on their fateful trip.
“Follow You Into the Dark” by Jennifer Soucy is perhaps one of the anthology's funniest and most damning stories. The writer’s sense of humor shines through the tale of Ray, a man on a quest to find his wife in Hell. Soucy references Dante’s Inferno in tone and action, adding to the layers of humor and social commentary she provides in the short story.
In “The Coachman’s Cottage,” writer Anna Taborska weaves together two stories: a young man stays in the Coachman’s Cottage during a large family get-together and a young bride’s experience in the cottage many years prior. The historical setting for both narratives works perfectly in this story, adding wisps of Gothic horror, making what could seem like a conventional horror tale completely new.
Angela Yuriko Smith’s “Perfect Girlfriend” is perhaps the most engaging of the stories in the collection. In it, a newly programmed sex robot collects DNA from men, forming a relationship with one of them. The brilliance of this story is in the robot’s first-person narration. Her voice sits on the cusp of human and android, allowing readers to cultivate a unique relationship with the character based on our experiences in contrast with the world of the robot. While this story may not be the scariest, it is filled with the distinct human flavor that makes many horror stories so great.
Lavinia Fisher, the first female serial killer, is danger wrapped up in Southern Charm. Melissa Ashley Hernandez’s “Lady Killer” brings new life to the classic South Carolina tale of the woman who partnered with her husband to kill travelers at their hotel, Six Mile Wayfarer House in Charleston. S.C. Hernandez takes this urban legend/true crime story and adds a ghastly spin by combining it with the well-known campfire story about the traveler who stays with an older couple only to find out the house was never really there, crafting a ghost story of her own.
The final story in Don’t Break the Oath, “Fluid” by R.A. Busby, is a body horror tale for the ages. Ana, a photo editor, excels at her work and makes everyone look their best—until one client thinks she has gone too far. Then, she mysteriously receives a widely sought-after photo editing software as a gift, and it proves too good to be true. It’s a gripping tale and the perfect end to the collection.
Some honorable mentions include “Black-Eyed Susan” by Ariel Dodson and “The Kinda True Story of Bloody Mary” by Tracy Cross. Tastes across audiences may differ, so the wide range of horror genres will also appeal to readers.
Despite these gems in the collection, Don’t Break the Oath suffers from several middling stories. Looking back at the foreword, this can easily be attributed to the lax editorial process. Instead of cutting the middling stories, they were added to a new anthology. While the efforts of the editors should be lauded, more editorial oversight would have been beneficial — or just adding the best of these extra stories to the third anthology.
Even still, Don’t Break the Oath was an incredibly enjoyable read, filled with unique takes on the horror genre. Readers would be remiss to pass on this volume, especially because the standout stories truly are standouts.
Don’t Break the Oath is available for purchase from Amazon and other retailers.