Horror Book Review: Road to Nowhere by Christopher Pike


To be honest, I ordered a copy of this 1993 YA novel from Half-Price Books strictly because of the cover.  I mean, there were several old Christopher Pike books to chose from but that image of the young woman driving her car with the skeleton sitting beside her just leaped out at me.  I think a lot of it had to do with the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror.  I’ve got a St. Patrick medal hanging from my mirror but if I wasn’t half-Irish and if I hadn’t been raised Catholic, I definitely would have the dice….

Well, actually, I probably wouldn’t have anything hanging from my mirror.  Seriously, those big dice look like they’re going to get in the way.  I mean, she’s already driving in the rain and she’s got a skeleton sitting next to her.  Does she need the distraction of giant dice?  No wonder death is coming along the ride….

Anyway, the book itself is about an 18 year-old named Teresa.  Teresa is an aspiring songwriter and singer.  She just broke up with her boyfriend Bill.  The book takes place on the night that she was planning to lose her virginity to Bill but now that she’s single and miserable, she figures that she might as well just drive to the Bay area.  Teresa also decides to pick up two hitchhikers because apparently, she’s never read a scary book or seen a horror movie before.

The hitchhikers are named — look, I’m not joking — Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn.  Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn are also heading to the Bay and they have all sorts of interesting stories to tell about yet another couple, John and Candy.  Now, to be honest, I wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers in the first place.  I don’t care how lonely I am.  I don’t care how much its raining.  I don’t care how late at night it is.  I’m not picking you if you’re standing on the side of the road.  But even if I did pick up a pair of hitchhikers, I would probably kick them out of the car as soon as they started telling me a story about a doomed couple who are obviously the hitchhikers in a past life.  Somehow, Teresa doesn’t immediately catch onto the fact that Freedom Jack and Poppy Fresh are actually John and Candy despite the fact that it’s incredibly obvious.  (John = Jack.  Candy = Poppy Corn.  I mean, come on….)  Then again, Teresa doesn’t seem to be the smart in general.

Anyway, Teresa’s journey with the two hitchhikers leads to her stopping off at both a castle and a church and losing her virginity.  The journey continues without anywhere seeming to get anywhere because they’re on a road to nowhere and this is one of those Christopher Pike books where nothing is what it actually seems to be.  There’s a lot of twists but they’re all somewhat predictable twists.  If you’ve read any of Christopher Pike’s other books, you’ll be able to guess what’s going on in The Road to Nowhere.  In the end, everyone has come to peace with their past and chosen their future.  While the stories of Teresa and Bill and John and Candy contain moments of deep darkness, Road to Nowhere , especially when compared to Pike books like The Immortal and Die Softly, is actually rather optimistic about the ability of people to move on and find some sort of peace.

Finally, let’s give the book some credit for coming up with names like Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn.  That, in itself, is an accomplishment worth celebrating.  Still, I wish the cover had more accurately reflected the content of the book.

Book Review: The Immortal by Christopher Pike


This 1993 novel tells the story of two friends on a Greek vacation.

Now, when I say “friends,” what I mean is that we’re told that they’re friends and they spend a lot of time hanging out with each other and the entire book is pretty much about the developments in their relationship.  However, for two lifelong friends, they really don’t seem to like each other that much.  I mean, when I was in high school, I had friends who I secretly disliked but I never went to Greece with them.

Our friends are named Helen and Josie.  Josie has a rich father, who is a screenwriter and who is accompanying the girls to Greece.  Helen has a less rich father because this is a Christopher Pike book and someone always has to come from a poor but honest family.  Both Helen and Josie are recovering from near-death experiences.  Helen attempted to commit suicide.  Josie had a heart problem of some sort.  You would think that, having come close to dying, Helen and Josie would be all about celebrating life but actually, they’re still fighting over Ralph.  Ralph used to date Helen and then he dated Josie and then he left town.

One thing that I quickly discovered while reading this book is that it’s not always easy to remember what happened to Helen and what happened to Josie.  Even while I was reading it, I kept mixing up who had which tragic backstory.  I probably should have kept better notes but, honestly, when you’re reading a 200-page YA novel from the early 90s, your first thought is not going to be, “I better go grab my notebook because these 200 pages might be too complicated for me to keep track of.”

Anyway, Josie hooks up with Tom, who is British and sensitive and who refuses to have sex on a nude beach without a condom.  Helen kind of hooks up with Pascal, who doesn’t speak English.  Josie steals an ancient artifact.  Helen serves Josie a hamburger that’s full of ground-up glass. There’s a big storm that overturns a boat and …. wait a minute, what?  Ground up glass in a hamburger!?  AGCK!

Anyway, it’s all because Helen and Josie were apparently possessed by two angry Greek goddesses during their last visit to Greece.  Apparently, these angry Greek spirits have been trying to kill each other for centuries or something like that.  I couldn’t really follow it and, to be honest, I think Christopher Pike just made it up as he was going along.

That said, I kind of enjoyed the book, just because of how silly it all was.  I mean, Helen and Josie seriously are the worst friends ever.  The book may not make sense but between all of the strange dreams, the deadly hamburgers, and all the passive aggressive insults, it was never boring.  If nothing else, it made me think about the vacation that I took the summer after I graduated from high school.  My sisters and I traveled all over Europe and we saw all sorts of ancient ruins and we managed to do it without stealing any artifacts or trying to kill each other.  I’m proud of what we accomplished!

Book Review: The Eternal Enemy by Christopher Pike


The 1993 YA novel, The Eternal Enemy, starts out with a typical Christopher Pike situation.

Rela is a teenager.  Rela is adopted.  Rela doesn’t know much about her past.  Rela has a crush on my boy whom she’s too shy to ask out but luckily she has a confident best friend who is willing to do it for her.  She also has another male admirer, who she just considers to be a friend.  It’s all standard Pike.

However, the twist of this particularly novel is that Rela has a VCR and apparently, the VCR can tell the future!  Whenever she tries to record an old horror movie, she instead ends up with a recording of a future news broadcast.  At first, Rela uses this to her advantage.  She makes money betting on a football game.  She heads to Vegas to make even more money and then she goes to San Francisco and saves the lives of a bunch of window washers!  Other than offering up a crisp picture, allowing viewers to easily skip around in a movie, and not eventually becoming an obsolete artifact of a past age, there’s absolutely nothing that this VCR can’t do.

However, even while Rela is having fun making money and saving lives, she’s also having disturbing dreams which seem to indicate that there are strange things hidden in her past.  (Well, of course.  It’s a Christopher Pike book.)  A mysterious and creepy older man appears to be stalking her.  Maybe she should stop messing with the VCR….

Then she sees a news report about her own death.

The Eternal Enemy is one of Pike’s more uneven books.  It starts out nicely, with the promise of YA horror, but then it turns into this sort of Looper/Terminator sci-fi thing.  As the story reveals more about the actual identities of Rela and the creepy old man, it gets bogged down trying to explain how everything works and, if you’re not already into science fiction, it becomes a bit of chore to read.  It’s hard not to get annoyed that the book starts with an interesting premise and then kind of waves it all way by using the “It’s science!” excuse.

Probably the most interesting thing about The Eternal Enemy is that the entire narrative revolves around the mystical and complex powers of a VCR.  If only Rela had been born a decade later, she wouldn’t have had to deal with any of this.

Horror Book Review: Whisper of Death by Christopher Pike


The 1991 YA horror novel, Whisper of Death, tells the story of Roxanne and …. Pepper.

That’s right, Roxanne’s boyfriend is named Pepper.  Actually, Pepper is just a nickname but still.  Personally, I don’t think I could have ever dated anyone with an nickname that bad.  I did once dated a frat boy who was nicknamed Smiley and my sisters have never let me live that down.  I will say that I steadfastly refused to call him “Smiley” which is one reason why we broke up.  (The other reason was that he was a member of a frat.  Drinking beer and smiling all the time is not a substitute for a personality.)

Anyway, Roxanne and Pepper are two teenagers in love.  Pepper’s a rebel.  Roxanne’s a hard-working seamstress who only has one night a week free.  When Roxanne loses her virginity to Pepper, she gets pregnant because this is a YA novel from the early 90s and no one loses their virginity without either getting pregnant and being stalked by a judgmental madman or both.  Though Roxanne wants to keep the baby, Pepper wants her to get an abortion.  In fact, he’s pretty adamant about her getting an abortion.  Reluctantly, Roxanne agrees.  Pepper and Roxanne drive out to another town and then, on the way back, refuse to pick up a redhead hitchhiker.  (Booo!  Anyone who would leave a redhead stranded in the desert deserves whatever karma does to them.)   When Roxanne and Pepper return to their hometown, they discover that the entire place is deserted!

Well, actually, it’s not totally deserted.  They search around the town for a while and they discover that a few of their classmates have apparently been left behind.  There’s the nerdy guy who may not be as good-looking as Pepper but who, at the very least, doesn’t have as stupid of a nickname.  And then there’s the beautiful quirky girl who rebellious Roxanne can’t help but like despite the fact that she shouldn’t because Roxanne is poor and has to work as a seamstress 6 night as week.  And finally, there’s a delinquent who has an even worse nickname than Pepper.  His name is …. seriously, I’m not making this up …. Helter Skater.

Anyway, it’s all connected to yet another classmate, Betty Sue.  Betty Sue killed herself at the gas station and it turns out that her diary is conveniently available for anyone who wants to read it.  Is it possible that the strange disappearance of the world is somehow connected to Betty Sue’s suicide?  And is it also possible that maybe Pepper has more of a connection to Betty Sue than he’s willing to admit?

Of course, it is!

Whisper of Death is an odd little book.  Since the entire plot, more or less, is set in motion by Roxanne getting an abortion, it’s interesting to witness the amount of effort that Pike puts into not coming down on either side of the issue.  Roxanne makes the point of saying that both the hardcore pro-lifers and the hardcore pro-choicers are too extreme for her tastes.  I actually agree with Roxanne but, as the story progresses, it feels more and more like Pike is trying too hard to keep both sides happy.  And, as we all know, that’s an impossible task.  Suggest that women have a right to choose and you get accused of being a baby killer.  Suggest that partial birth abortion is barbaric and you get accused of being Serena Joy Waterford.

That said, the story itself was effectively creepy and the fact that it featured a shadowy force of evil called Fat Freddy is definitely a point in the book’s favor.  Most of the characters were petty annoying but, then again, the majority of them were dead by the end of the book so it’s all good.  Whisper of Death held my attention and it made me think about issues of life, death, hitchhikers, and terrible nicknames.

Horror Book Review: The Grave by Christopher Pike


First published in 1999, this is a weird book.

It opens with a college student named Ted Lovett thinking that he’s going to meet a woman in the woods, just to instead get captured by a cult who strip him naked and then bury him alive.  We then jump over to the story of Kerri, who is a typical 90s YA heroine — she’s got a job at a record store, her sister is dead, her father abandoned the family, her mom is hooked on cocaine, and her boyfriend is clingy loser.  It’s the boyfriend part that bothers Kerri the most.  She’s totally bored with him but just can’t bring herself to sit down with him and tell him that it’s over.

Then, one day, the mysterious and handsome Oscar shows up in the record store and soon, Kerri is spend the night over at his place and kind of cheating on her boyfriend.  I say “kind of” because Kerri doesn’t really consider him to be a boyfriend, despite the fact that they’re dating and they’ve slept together a few times.  With her mother still abusing drugs and Oscar acting all mysterious, Kerri has a lot to deal with but all of that drama is nothing compared to what happens when Oscar tosses Kerri into a freezer.

So, is Oscar a part of the cult that buried poor Ted Lovett?  Or is he the ghost of Ted Lovett and this all a part of grand plan to turn Kerri into a half-dead, half-living zombie who is pregnant with the modern day equivalent of Pan, a hooved God who will maybe save the world but maybe not?

Yes, The Grave is an odd book.  There’s a lot going on in The Grave.  In fact, there’s probably a little bit too much going on.  The Grave is only a 194 pages long, which means that Kerri is often surprisingly quick to accept the strangest explanations for what’s going on.  If you learned that you had been selected to give birth to a satyr that’s going to save the world but, in order to do so, you have to basically die first, you’d probably demand a bit more of an explanation than Kerri does.  I know that I would.

Speaking of Kerri, how much drama can one person have in their life?  Abandoned by her father, haunted by her sister’s death, and forced to deal with her mom’s cocaine addiction, just one of those would have been enough but tossing all three in there just feels like overkill.  And that’s eve before she becomes pregnant with Pan.

With The Grave, you get the feeling that Christopher Pike just tossed a bunch of random stuff at the wall to see what would stick.  It’s a mess but occasionally, it’s entertaining in its messiness.  If nothing else, it has an important lesson to impart about not putting yourself in a situation where you can be buried alive.  That’s an important lesson to learn.

 

Horror Novel Review: The Wrong Number by R.L. Stine


The Wrong Number, an R.L. Stine novel that was first published way back in 1990, is a real artifact.

The plot itself is pretty simple and kind of ripped off from an old Joan Crawford called I Saw What You Did.  Basically, two teenage girls — Dina and Jade — are totally bored so they decided to pass the time by prank calling people.  They call up Jade’s sister.  They call up Rob, the boy whom Dina totally has a crush on.  It’s all pretty basic and, to be honest, kind of stupid.  I mean, if you’re going to prank call someone, don’t pretend like you’re calling on behalf of the mall or something.  Instead, you call them up and say something like, “You need to come home right away.  Everyone you love is dead.”

While Dina and Jade are making prank calls, some unidentified man is having a stream of consciousness discussion with himself, all about how his plan has nearly come to fruition and he just has to make sure that all the loose ends are tied up and how he’ll kill anyone who gets in his way.  Though the identity of this man is not immediately confirmed, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that that he’s eventually going to get an unwanted phone call from Dina and Jade.

Actually, it’s all Chuck’s fault.  Chuck is Dina’s half-brother and he’s got a history of fights and petty crimes.  He seems like kind of a punk but this being an R.L. Stine book, he’s actually just a misunderstood rebel who plays be his own rules.  It turns out that Chuck is an expert on prank calls.  Long story short, Dina and Jade eventually call up a man who is in the process of murdering his wife.  Somehow, this leads to them deciding that they need to investigate the murder themselves.  Myself, I’d probably just try to get on with my life but, on Fear Street, everyone’s curious.

The Wrong Number is pretty much typical Fear Street.  Solve the crime, get a boyfriend, try not to die.  It’s the type of book where Chuck gets into a knife fight after only being in town slightly less than day yet, instead of worrying that Chuck might have issues, it just makes him more attractive to Jade.  (Actually, speaking from my own long and sordid history of developing crushes on bad boys, that might be the most realistic part of the story.)

The most interesting thing about The Wrong Number is that it’s totally a product of its time.  This a book that literally could not take place today.  This plot is dependent upon everyone having a landline (and only a landline) and no one having caller ID or the ability to block annoying numbers.  It’s an artifact of a past time.  Thirty years ago, the world was a much different place.

Horror Novel Review: Die Softly by Christopher Pike


AGCK!

Seriously, that’s kind of my go-to reaction to almost any of Christopher Pike’s YA thrillers.  As an author, Pike has never allowed the fact that he was writing for a young audience get in the way of coming with some truly gruesome death scenes and some macabre scenarios.

Take the 1991 novel, Die Softly.  Now, technically, this is not a horror novel.  There aren’t any ghosts or vampires or anything like that.  Instead, this book centers on a bunch of murderous but nonparanormal high school hijinks.  Herb is an awkward 18 year-old who can take amazing pictures but who has no idea how to talk to people.  His best friend, Theo, is a drunk who spends his time shooting guns in the backyard.  (Admittedly, Theo only went downhill because of the death of his bother Roger in a mysterious car accident.)  Theo wonders if he and Herb will ever find love.  Herb imagines that they’ll both find someone to marry but they probably won’t ever have the courage to actually approach anyone that they actually love.  I mean, this is dark!

Anyway, Herb dreams of becoming a director in Los Angeles so he sets up a secret camera in the high school locker room so he can get a picture of the cheerleaders showering and …. wait a minute.  What?  Uhmmm …. what?  Techically, Herb does feel guily about it but …. agck!  Of course, the idea wasn’t originally Herb’s.  His childhood friend Sammie suggested it because of her own general hatred for cheerleaders.  Still, Herb didn’t necessarily have to go along with the idea.  Even he assumed Sammie was joking when she first suggested it.  But Herb, for all of his attempts to be a nice guy, is driven by crush on Alexa and his fear that he’ll never even get kissed, let alone see anyone naked.  (If this book had been written today, Herb would be an incel hanging out on Reddit.)

Anyway, long story short: when Herb develops his film, he thinks that he may have accidental photographed a murder.

And things get only crazier from there!  Die Softly is an enjoyably over-the-top little book, one that fully embraces the melodrama while taking a journey into the heart of high school darkness.  The plot has to do with cocaine and threesomes and Herb’s own rampaging insecurity, one that ultimately makes him something of a sympathetic character, even if he is someone whom most readers will have mixed feeling about.  It also ends on a far darker note than anything you’d expect to find in a book by R.L. Stine.

Die Softly is a teenage nightmare, a book about dreams that suggests that the best plan of action is abandon all hope, ye who enter here.  It’s also a lot of fun.  For the most part, Pike wisely eschews anything resembling subtlety.  Just because you’re taking a nihilistic journey into the heart of darkness, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be entertained.

Horror Book Review: Night of the Living Dummy by R.L. Stine


Let’s just state the obvious.

Ventriloquist dummies are creeping as Hell and no one sane should own one.  Seriously, I’ve seen enough movies and TV shows about living dummies that there’s no way I would ever allow myself to be near one.  They’re always talking about their wild sex lives (which, considering the state of the lower half of their body, I kind of suspect that they’re lying about) and complaining about someone having their clammy hand inside of them and, apparently, if you don’t keep them happy, they’ll try to kill you and everyone that you love.  Stay away from the dummies!

R.L. Stine obviously understands the inherent creepiness of the ventriloquist dummy as well.  The 1993 YA horror novel, Night of the Living Dummy, is about two sisters who get into a dummy-inspired rivalry.  When Lindy finds a ventriloquist dummy in the garbage, she names it Slappy and soon, she’s the most popular kid around, which …. seems kind of strange.  But who knows?  Maybe in 1993, ventriloquism was really cool instead of being ultra creepy.  Lindy’s sister, Kris, gets a dummy of her very own.  She names him Mr. Wood.  Now, there’s two ventriloquist dummies in the house!

And …. they appear to hate each other….

Once you get passed the idea of a young ventriloquist being popular as opposed to shunned by society, Night of the Living Dummy is a fun little book, featuring both a realistic portrait of sisterhood and a memorably nasty dummy.  Mr. Wood is a real instigator, insulting everyone he meets and mocking a teacher for being overweight.  And yet, is Mr. Wood doing this himself or is he just an extension of Kris’s anger and jealousy towards her sister?  It’s an interesting idea, though Stine is smart enough not to get bogged down in subtext.  He understands that his readers are reading the book because they want some demonic dummy action and he delivers a lot of that.

I can’t end this review with pointing out that today is R.L. Stine’s 77th birthday!  Happy birthday and thank you for the chills!

Horror Book Review: Amok by George Fox


First published in 1978, Amok tells the story of a gigantic Japanese soldier who, during the final days of World War II, was ordered to stay in The Philippines and not stop fighting until he got word that the war had ended.  Unfortunately, the soldier never found out about Hiroshima and Nagasaki so, decades after Japan’s surrender, he’s still living in the jungle, sneaking around at night with his sword and killing anyone who he comes across.

When he kills the brother of Mike Braden, Braden returns to his estranged family’s tobacco plantation, determined to get revenge.  Braden’s a Vietnam vet, a soldier much like the predator who killed his brother.  Mike is obsessed with ending the soldier’s reign of terror but no one else believes him when he claims that there’s a rampaging monster — The Amok, as the local villagers call it — in the jungle.  To the other Americans in The Philippines, the Amok is just a legend.  To Mike and its victims, the Amok is all too real.

Amok is one of those paperback that I always used to see in my aunt’s collection.  (She had a huge stack of paperbacks in her bedroom closet and I used to go through them whenever we were visiting, mostly so I could “borrow” the racier ones.)  I always found myself fascinated by the cover of Amok, which featured an unseen figure holding up a bloody sword. It looked really scary!

Having now finally read the novel, I can say that it is effectively scary.  Amok is a relentlessly-paced story, one that doesn’t take its time getting to the blood and the guts and which does a great job of leaving you to wonder when the Amok is going to strike next.  It touches on a lot of important themes — colonialism, war, racism — but it doesn’t really explore any of them in depth.  And that’s fine!  Ultimately, the job of a book like Amok is to generate suspense and to frighten the reader and Amok does a very good job of doing that!

It’s interesting to note that, when the book was first published, the cover announced that it was the scariest thing since Jaws.  To be honest, Amok has a lot in common with Jaws.  Like the giant shark, the Amok is a force of nature and one that many people refuse to believe exists despite the fact that he obviously does.  It’s easy to imagine Amok being adapted into a Jaws-like film but, strangely enough, it doesn’t appear that it ever happened.  Somehow, with the hundreds of slasher films that were made in the late 70s and 80s, no one ever got around to making a movie out of Amok, a book that seems like it was practically written so that someone would pick up the film rights.

Even if it never was turned into a movie, it’s still an effective page turner.  Those of you looking for a mix of blood, guts, sex, and manly man talk will enjoy it.

 

Horror Book Review: By Reason of Insanity by Shane Stevens


By Reason of Insanity, a novel from 1979, tells the story of a truly terrifying killer.

Institutionalized for murdering his own mother, Thomas Bishop manages to escape from the asylum and proceeds to travel across the United States, murdering almost every woman he meets.  For all of Bishop’s attempts to justify his homicidal impulses, it mostly appears that he kills because he enjoys it.  It’s what he’s good at.  It’s what comes naturally to him.  Bishop is a clever and meticulous killer but he’s hardly super human.  That’s what makes him so disturbing.  Unlike someone like Dr. Hannibal Lecter or any of the fictional killers that have been spawned by his popularity, Bishop isn’t some sort of erudite, witty genius with a gimmick and a tendency to only kill the unsympathetic.  He’s just someone who is very good at what he does.  He’s a believable killer and all the more frightening because of it.

The novel, however, isn’t just about Thomas Bishop.  Thank God for that because Bishop is such a nihilistic and misogynistic character that, if this rather lengthy novel took place entirely in his head, it would probably be almost impossible to actually get through it.  The novel also explores the lives of the people who are effected by Bishop’s crimes.  We meet the reporter that follows his crime spree and the detectives who want to stop him.  We meet the ambitious politician who thinks that he can use Bishop’s notoriety as a stepping stone to the White House.  New characters are constantly entering the narrative, some staying for the entire length of the novel and some ducking out almost as quickly as they arrived.  Sometimes, it can be difficult to keep track of everyone but their presence reminds us that the actions of someone like Thomas Bishop do not occur in a vacuum.  They create a ripple effect that eventually touches everyone.

Throughout the book, Bishop obsesses on the identity of his father.  He believes that his father was Caryl Chessman, a real-life criminal who, in the 50s, became a cause celebre for some when he was sentenced to death after being convicted on 17 counts of kidnapping and rape.  (Though Chessman confessed to being the infamous “Red Light Bandit,” he later said that he did so only after being beaten and tortured by the cops.)  From his cell in San Quentin, Chessman protested his innocence and wrote books about his life both outside and inside of prison.  Chessman was eventually executed in 1960.  Bishop, who has spent his entire life under the impression that Chessman was his father, feels that he’s continuing the family legacy.  However, the book’s brilliant final line leaves it to the reader to decide not only whether Bishop was correct in his belief but also as to whether it would have made any difference.  If Thomas Bishop had grown up believing that his father was Pat Brown, the governor who eventually oversaw Chessman’s execution, would he have still become a murderer or would he have instead felt he was destined for a career in politics?  It’s an interesting question.

By Reason of Insanity is a well-written and nightmare-inducing serial killer novel.  With its straight-ahead approach and refusal to try to turn Bishop into an antihero, it’s quite a contrast to the serial killer novels that would follow.  Read it but keep the lights on.