In any event, Peggy Sue--both the character and the series--is mercifully dead and buried.

By far the most popular books of the current thriller lot are those written by Christopher Pike, a pseudonymous scribe frequently hailed as the "young adults' answer to Stephen King." In a rare interview that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the publicity-shy writer explained that he was forced to move several years ago after a magazine printed his real name and teenage fans discovered where he lived. "It got weird," the former computer programmer said enigmatically. "I have very intense fans."

Little wonder. Author of such best-selling titles as Scavenger Hunt, Die Softly and Whisper of Death, Pike specializes in densely plotted tales of terror whose focus on pathology often rivals that of the late V.C. Andrews, creator of Gothic "sickie" novels like Flowers in the Attic that were all the rage a decade ago.

In the first couple of chapters of Pike's Bury Me Deep, for instance, the teenage heroine is off for an "awesome" vacation in Maui when the intriguing young dude sitting next to her on the plane suddenly suffers a horrific seizure; he collapses in a fatal spasm shortly after takeoff and, blood streaming from his mouth, is zipped into a body bag by a flight attendant. And in the twist ending of yet another Pike tale, a terminally ill teenage psycho devises a scheme to fake his own death: Crazed from the cancer that's eating away his brain, the boy robs a grave, stashes the cadaver in his sickbed and then torches the family house, leaving him free to commit mayhem on those who have written him off for dead.

In a genre overrun with hackneyed characters straight out of an early-Eighties slasher movie (the psycho geek, the vengeful cheerleader with an ax to grind), the quirkily complex storylines of Pike's page turners are comparatively fresh--particularly to anyone young enough to have never heard of Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock.

Regardless of the relative scare quotients of the various series, most of these teen thrillers share a couple of common elements--both largely conspicuous by their absence. Adults--especially those who make their livings in law enforcement--are all but unknown in the teen-thriller genre. In a latchkey La-La Land where virtually everyone over the age of 17 is either working double shifts, on vacation, away on a business trip, drunk, hospitalized or simply dead, youth rules big-time. Witness the climax from Fear Street's The Prom Queen, in which the knife-wielding villainess attempts to stab several classmates on the darkened set of the school production of The Sound of Music. "My parents never cared about me!" she rants during one of those final-chapter confessionals that are the hallmark of the teen thriller. "All they cared about were their golf scores and martinis!"

On those rare occasions when adults do dare to show their faces in this teenage tenderloin, they are almost always peripheral to the point of nonexistence or, more frequently, the object of scorn and derision.

Equally rare in teen thrillerdom is the suggestion that the spookiness is the work of anything but mortal means. With the possible exception of Christopher Pike (whose books are aimed at older readers), authors of teen cliffhangers seem loath to attribute anything to the supernatural--even though a book's plot, cover art and advertising copy often suggest the opposite. Cathi Dunn MacRae theorizes that some publishers may purposely be steering clear of supernatural plot lines to avoid potential brouhahas over Satanism and mysticism. "I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case," says the Colorado librarian, who reviews young-adult paperbacks for Wilson Library Bulletin, a periodical aimed at schools. "I do know that some of the kids feel cheated."

"No! Please--no!"
And then I was standing over the body.
It was a raccoon. A dead raccoon.
The middle of the raccoon's body was a mass of raw meat.
(excerpt from The Prom Queen by R.L. Stine)

Asked whether she reads any of the Fear Street entries, one eighth-grade Christopher Pike fan rolls her eyes in thinly veiled disdain. "Uh, no, not really," answers 13-year-old Erin Taber of Phoenix, who uses the same pointed tone of voice she might reserve for someone who wanted to know whether she still played with dolls. "Fear Street is a kid thing," she continues. "After you've read Christopher Pike, Fear Street is, like, a joke."

Pocket Books, for one, is laughing all the way to the bank.
Because it issues both the Pike titles and Fear Street series under its Archway Books division, the company appears to dominate this particular market. And while it refuses to divulge sales figures, a representative from the publishing house makes it quite clear that her company is making a killing off the teen murder mysteries.

During the past four years, the company has reportedly sold more than ten million teenybopper chillers, primarily to girls in the 9-to-14 age group. (Historically, few boys this age read anything except comic books, wrestling magazines and, if they're lucky, the occasional Playboy.) The thrillers, particularly those by Christopher Pike, continually appear on young-adult paperback best-seller lists compiled by both publishing trade magazines and national bookstore chains.

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