…and They All Lived Happily Ever After!: A Smorgashboard of Atrocities by Crystal Connor
My project, and who knows how long it will take, is to work my way through Sumiko Saulson’s list of 60 black women in horror writing. I’ve already read the greats—Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler—so I thought I would start out with someone lesser known. I found Crystal Connor’s And They All Lived Happily Ever After: A Smorgasbord of Atrocities on Audible. It looked interesting—a screaming woman takes up the entire cover art, and what’s horror without that? I used one of my two monthly tokens on it and gave it a listen.
Well, it was quite the soundtrack to doing dishes, putting away laundry, and crushing cardboard boxes at work.
Happily Ever After is a short story collection, but it plays with our expectations of that format. The first two stories are actually set before the table of contents. The table of contents itself (as I discovered while looking at the Amazon sample pages later) are written by hand on notebook paper, with clever little notes and doodles in the margins. Connor knows how to effectively play around with structure.
The themes, content, length of the stories are quite diverse. Some are dozens of pages (or about an hour and a half) while others take up maybe one or two pages at most (the two- to five-minute stories). Her range is impressive. This book has a little something for everyone, playing on horror tropes—zombie/vampire apocalypse, evil doll, haunted house, alien takeover, etc. These tropes are recontextualized within a black POV, something quite refreshing in a genre oversaturated with white heterosexual males. Some of these recontextualizations are tragically comedic—the reason why there isn’t a Jenkins family Amityville horror is because when a ghost tells a black family to get out, they get out. A “Magical Negro” doll takes the role of Chucky or a voodoo doll, causing gleeful havoc and destruction.
In general, though, this minority perspective is just a supplement to Connor’s talents in writing horror. While not always outright scary, unnerving, or terrifying, the creativity flowing here is amazing. Lots of playful exploration of horror cliches, blended with new ideas that bring freshness to the material. Connor’s writing is great, with some eclectic variations in her voice.
For all this insanity, though, it does become difficult to follow at times. This may in part be due to the structure of the collection, which lends itself better to reading than listening. One couldn’t even fathom an audio version of House of Leaves. A similar situation occurs here, albeit on a smaller scale.
But the greater flaw is pacing. A lot happens in Connor’s stories, but sometimes it feels as if she developed certain plotlines as she went along. Extreme events happen abruptly, without proper narrative prep, and occasionally there will be severe thematic turns at a point nearing the end of the story that seems to dilute what had been previously built up. One questions the build-up’s purpose, in other words, whether it was just fluff or whether it had something to do with what is to come. Imagine how betrayed the moviegoer feels with a character once thought trustworthy who turns out to be no longer trustworthy—they feel like that character’s whole development was a lie, just for the sake of a twist. It’s like that, only it’s the entire story this time around. “The Apple” in particular suffers from this, much as I did enjoy certain parts of it.
The writing is then about as varied as the themes—eloquent and engrossing at times, confused and jagged at others. Connor certainly has talent, yet many of these stories felt too long or too short, left me wondering what she had built up for and what the payoff was.
It’s flawed, but I did enjoy this collection. It was like a large-scale revitalization of genre cliches, the objective being a massive reinterpretation of the old horror trends into something inimitably Crystal Connor. As I can’t complain of any of these stories being cliched, dull, or tried, I must say the collection succeeded in that mission.