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.)

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Dewey Webb