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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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The horror genre hasn’t quite rebounded to its 1980s heights, but today’s YA horror pulses with vibrancy and variety. We have zombies: Jonathan Maberry’s sprawling Rot & Ruin series and Charlie Higson’s equally sprawling Enemy series. We’ve got slashers: Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers series, Brenna Yovanoff’s Paper Valentine (2013), Stephanie Perkin’s There’s Someone inside Your House (2017). We’ve got gothic terror: Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor (2011), Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series, Lindsey Barraclough’s Long Lankin (2012). And we’ve got uncategorizable madness: Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens (2010), Jason Vanhee’s Engines of a Broken World (2013), Robin Wasserman’s The Waking Dark (2013).
The YA map, of course, used to be limited to a few small-town blocks. Horror genre, like other genres, was generally fixable upon a certain white middle-class reality: a kid, or group of kids, going about daily home and school routines, dragged just off the beaten path. Plenty of writers made their bones within these parameters, though it’s arguable that few had more influence than Lois Duncan, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine, who hit the YA scene, respectively, with I Know What You Did Last Summer (1978), Slumber Party (1985), and Blind Date (1986).
Of the three, I Know What You Did Last Summer stands tallest; Duncan is a true stylist and cognizant of teen’s interior thoughts in a way that Pike and Stine, in their debuts, were not. The story (vastly different than the 1997 film) involves four teenagers holding to a pact of silence a year after they struck and killed a 10-year-old boy with their car. Now teasing notes begin to show up. Someone knows.
The conservative bent of the era’s slasher films is reflected here: the teens were drinking and smoking pot when they hit the boy. Hence, they deserve destruction. (You’ll find the same pattern in Pike’s Slumber Party.) Duncan juggles multiple characters with finesse, weaving in memories and backstories with skill enough to make it look simple, when it is not, in any way, simple.
The character of Barry, the swaggering, impatient athlete, the least sympathetic of the bunch, ends up being Duncan’s finest creation. He’s shallow but aware that high school is the time for being shallow. The story forces him to get serious. For Duncan, her plot isn’t only a chance to torture teens. It’s a way to accelerate them through maturity. “Ray realized with a start how much her eyes had changed since that picture was taken,” she writes. “There was no hint of laughter in them now. They were eyes that had not laughed in a long time.”
Under almost every criteria, Pike’s Slumber Party is the weakest of these three books: prose, voice, character development, lucidity. Yet it excels in the most important category of all: it is genuinely upsetting. Like I Know What You Did Last Summer, it involves a group of teens responsible for an atrocity. Years ago, a group of girls at a slumber party accidentally burned a friend to death and scarred another. Now, the survivors are gathering for a reunion at a ski resort. Without supervision. During a blizzard.
Immediately, one girl vanishes, and tensions flare. It’s frankly difficult to tell one girl from another, but readers make the effort because the story is so deliciously icky. Pike (weirdly convinced that liquor is as flammable as gasoline) keeps the people-torching going, up to the big reveal (spoiler!) that new friend Celeste is the girl who supposedly burned to death. She removes her sweater: “Scars of a decade of constant surgery were there; swollen and convoluted red flesh stitched together. . . . Grotesque lumps were her breasts; a tight band of knotted tissue was her abdomen.”
Anyone conscious in the 1980s recalls the overall good-time vibe. Movies, TV shows, and commercials were filled with groups of teens hanging out as units (and, most likely, break dancing). Makes sense, then, that Duncan and Pike chose to infiltrate and corrode such cliques, sowing suspicion from the inside. In other words, let the geeky, ostracized loners exact revenge against the popular kids. So it was in horror movies aimed at teens, and so it was in books.
Pike uses pop-culture references to fortify his stylistic weaknesses, a self-aware trait predictive of everything from Gossip Girl to the Scream film franchise. The Twilight Zone, Stephen King’s Carrie, and “horror flicks” in general are all referenced—quick-and-dirty shorthand to establish, and in some cases defy, expectations. Like Duncan’s Barry, Pike’s loutish boor Cal, against all odds, ends up being the guy who saves the day. In an often black-and-white YA world, that’s an impressive splotch of gray.
Stine had cranked out oodles of kids’ books by 1986, but Blind Date marked his YA debut. You can feel his hesitance; periodic interjections about sex can’t surmount the writing’s adolescent tone. Stine’s background as a Scholastic magazine humorist shines through; the teens in this book are genuinely funny, though it often comes at the expense of generating fear.
In this story, the ostracized one is our protagonist, Kerry. This is a more easily digestible kind of horror. “It was scary to be disliked,” Stine writes, and who could disagree? After Kerry accidentally breaks the star quarterback’s leg, the whole school hates him. Thankfully, a sexy new girl, Mandy, keeps flirting. Is it a coincidence that she reminds him of Amanda, the girlfriend of his brother, who was killed in a car wreck? (It is not, in fact, a coincidence.)
Bowing in 1986, it’s the last published of this trio of books but also the least transgressive. A solid, readable novel, to be sure, but also a “cozy” horror that establishes, in the end, that everything is going to be OK. There is nothing wrong with that; YA lit is a more welcoming place for Stine’s gentle spookies. Duncan and Pike, by contrast, were out to worm their worrisome notions into teens’ skulls, forcing them to ponder their own propensity for misjudgment and culpability.
Put another way, they trusted teens to not only see themselves as the bad guys but also to see their entire world as a bad place. These kinds of books pointed directly to the future of YA—our present day—when authors of all genres feel the freedom to tell their often-dark stories, less concerned with how it makes a teen reader feel than the fact that they simply feel. A fine goal, even if it takes a long knife and a gallon of flammable liquor to get us there.
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