MURDERS IN THE URE MALL DEATH TAKES NO RECESS IN TERROR TOMES FOR TEENS
Tonight is the night, he told himself, inhaling the aroma of stale grease in her hair and feeling a little queasy.
He closed his eyes as he hugged her.
Tonight is the night, he thought.
Tonight is the night Chelsea dies.
(excerpt from First Date
by R.L. Stine)
Welcome, gentle reader, to the children's hour 92. Feeling a mite queasy? Take a deep breath of the aroma of stale grease and keep telling yourself, "It's only a teen-thriller paperback, it's only a teen-thriller paperback. . . ."
These days thrill-seeking young bookworms, most of them girls aged 9 to 14, giddily plunder the nation's bookstores and (gasp!) even public libraries for spooky page turners bearing titles such as Bury Me Deep, Die Softly and Mr. Popularity (Every girl would die to date him. . .).
Nancy Drew these ain't. Although the gal gumshoe was forever trawling for trouble, she never really got into scrapes any more dangerous than a capsized canoe, a chloroformed rag or maybe a little light bondage. In River Heights, thugs' criminal motives were never any more venal than wanting to swipe a missing map or locate a hidden staircase--and nobody, not even the bad guy, ever bit the dust.
Dirt naps in the local bone orchard are considerably more common in the new thrillers, where, more often than not, the culprit turns out to be a psychotic classmate. And while some of these juvenile ne'er-do-wells resort to such time-worn murder methods as pushing a victim off a cliff or slitting a throat, some of the more imaginative young killers opt for M.O.s that are strictly au courant--fatal doses of cocaine, frayed bungee cords, like that. Cutting-edge in more ways than one, these soft-cover spook houses are pumping lots of. . .well, new blood into the publishing industry. "Right now, these are the books that are paying our bills," confessed a representative of one major paperback publisher during a recent American Library Association conference in San Francisco. "These are the books that are keeping us alive while we go ahead with other projects."
Marketed under such ominous-sounding series titles as Fear Street, Horror High, Final Friends and, later this fall, Foul Play, the sensationalistic paperbacks promise young thrill-seekers the biggest jolt this side of the latest Friday the 13th saga. To a generation of near nonreaders who peruse nothing weightier than an issue of TV Guide or the back of a cereal box, these adolescent cliffhangers are apparently just what the coroner ordered.
Truth be told, the success of this new publishing genre appears to owe a very large debt of gratitude to the slasher-film industry. Aping slice n' dice movie-poster graphics, the cover art for the paperbacks generally runs to spooky imagery featuring flashing cutlery, skeletal hands, freshly dug graves and screaming teenage girls--or, ideally, some combination thereof. And, of course, no thriller is complete without the obligatory bombastic tag line: First Date--That's when he always kills them!" shrieks the cover of a Fear Street chiller whose artwork depicts a smitten teenybopper, blissfully unaware she's about to be strangled by her demented beau.
Yet despite the visual similarities between the various thriller series, the old axiom about judging books by their covers holds especially true in teen terrorland. Take Archway's highly popular Fear Street series, written by R.L. Stine, head writer for the cable-TV children's show Eureeka's Castle. One of the milder series on the market, the books aren't really any scarier than Freddy Krueger dropping by to see the Brady Bunch one night and hollering, "Boo!" True, residents of this deadly drive can hardly set foot outside their homes without tripping over a dead baby sitter or schlepping through a puddle of fresh teenage blood. But the young victim often turns out to be a minor character who dies off-page or, more frequently, a major character who--despite all that carnage in her bedroom--isn't really dead after all. If there is a homicidal equivalent to puppy love, it's alive and well on Fear Street.
Things are considerably more grim over in the fictional hellhole of Paradiso, setting for Puffin Books' soap operaish Who Killed Peggy Sue? series. So grim, in fact, that when the corpse of a pregnant teenager is found stuffed inside another student's locker in the series opener (Dying to Win), the reader can't help wondering whether the girl isn't really better off dead. This is, after all, a series in which one character's drunken father regularly beats her with a belt, another's baby sister succumbs to crib death and a third teen is institutionalized after attacking her mother with a barbecue fork.
Far more interesting as a marketing gimmick than as storytelling, the Peggy Sue series asked readers to plow through four books before revealing the killer's identity; in fact, it wasn't until the end of the first book that readers even learned who had been murdered. To keep readers interested during the interminable wait for the solution, the publishers staged a contest, offering a $600 shopping spree in Los Angeles to the first reader (age 12 or older) who could identify the killer. Although a Boston 16-year-old ultimately won the contest, the game reportedly drew more than a few entries from armchair detectives well into their 60s and one from a woman in her 80s. (Asked to hazard a guess as to why any adult not in the business would knowingly read one of these, Puffin publicist Peggy Guthart offered the flimsy rationale that in outlets like K mart, the teen paperbacks were routinely shelved alongside romance novels.)
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."
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.
"These books are just blasting out of the stores," reports Patricia MacDonald, executive editor for Archway Paperbacks. "It's really a phenomenon of the Nineties. And the wonderful thing is that it's mostly word of mouth--one kid telling another how exciting these books are to read. That's practically unheard of in young-adult publishing."
Of course, publishing-circle insiders were saying exactly the same sort of thing 15 years ago when a very different sort of teenage novel first reared its acne-riddled head.
"During the late Seventies, early Eighties, the 'problem' novels were very popular with teens," explains MacDonald. "You had your divorced parents, your premarital pregnancy, your suicide, your drugs--you know, disease-of-the-week. Then the teen romance novel came on the scene and from there it went to the teen soap opera.
"But 'problem novels' have had it," MacDonald continues. "Nobody wants to read about someone's parents divorcing because it's been done so often before. To some degree, the same thing's true with the romance-soap stuff. But I personally believe young-adult thrillers are the books of the decade. Just look at Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clarke. These books could go on forever."
Unlike MacDonald, however, young-adult-literature expert Alleen Nilsen has considerably less faith in the life span of a fictional dead teenager. So little, in fact, that when Nilsen and co-author Ken Donelson revised their 1980 textbook Literature for Today's Young Adults this summer, the pair made only passing mention of the thriller phenomenon.
"What do we think of these books?" asks Nilsen, an Arizona State University professor of English. "As little as possible," she laughs. "We try to pretend they don't exist."
But in view of the glut of adolescent mayhem rolling off the presses these days, that might take a considerable stretch of imagination.
"These books are a fad, just another phase before the kids move on to something else," Nilsen continues. "Or at least we hope they are. But right now, it's really an uphill battle. There's mountains of this stuff out there. Naturally, you'd like to see kids focusing on better books, but if they want to read this kind of stuff, there's little we can do to stop it."
One Phoenix mother faced that problem when her 9-year-old daughter showed up recently with a thriller about a young baby sitter terrorized while tending a neighbor's children. The mom reports that her daughter (who previously read little but Pocket Books' saccharine Sweet Valley High saga) became so involved in the thriller that the girl excitedly issued chapter-by-chapter progress reports to anyone who'd listen.
"At first it sort of bothered me that she was so engrossed in this type of book," confesses the mother, herself a well-read woman. "But as I listened to her chattering away about the various clues and who she thought had done it, I realized, 'What's the harm?' At least this book was getting her to use her imagination and causing her think. I suspect that wasn't the case with those teen romance books she was reading."
With varying degrees of acceptance, Valley librarians have come to the same conclusion.
Diane Tuccillo, youth librarian for Mesa Public Library, is positively charitable about the junior-grade chillers. "Kids like to be scared," she says. "They like to get a thrill, just like anybody else who enjoys watching scary movies or reading a scary book. These books are definitely a lot more low-key than some of the Stephen King-type of books published for adults. This is a way for the kids to get that thrill and still enjoy reading on a level that they can appreciate."
Tuccillo has a point. How many teenage bookworms have actually gone on murder sprees after reading the latest Fear Street epic? Although there's no research to back it up, probably no more than the number of readers who built electronic robots after reading a Tom Swift opus, the junk fiction of another generation.
Still, isn't there something slightly disconcerting about a junior high school girl fantasizing about being strangled by that cute guy who sits next to her in study hall, or dreaming about being chased through a morgue by a hunky psychopath brandishing a scalpel?
"These books, most of the ones I've seen, anyway, are not literature and no one's pretending they are," says Elaine Myers, children-youth librarian at the main branch of Phoenix Public Library. "It's formula fiction and it's certainly not great writing." Nevertheless, Myers stocks what she calls "potato chip books" because "that's what the kids want to read."
"It's a dilemma," concedes Meyers, who points out that the adult best-seller list isn't exactly a hotbed of highbrow literature, either. "But at least we're getting the kids in the door, and that's a start."
Myers says she takes some consolation in the fact that the junior slasher novels are so popular that they're never on the shelf anyway. As a result, she says, hopefully many young readers will wind up selecting something of greater substance.
Like, perhaps, Library Check-out--They'll read good books. . .if it kills them!
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.