Horror Book Review: Killer’s Kiss by R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine’s 1997 YA novel, Killer’s Kiss, tells the story of Karina and Delia.

Karina and Delia have always been rivals.  If one gets a good grade, the other has to get a better grade.  If there’s a competition for a prestigious prize, you can bet that Karina and Delia will be at the center of it.  You can’t be friends with Karina if you’re going to be friends with Delia, that’s just a given.  And, since this is an R.L. Stine book, Karina and Delia are especially competitive when it comes to boys!

That’s where Vincent comes in.  When the book open, Vincent is making out with Delia and Delia mentions how happy she is that Vincent chose her over Karina.  Well, it turns out that Vincent is either totally wishy washy or just has a bad sense of humor because guess what?  He didn’t chose Delia over Karina.  Instead, he chose both of them!  Vincent is secretly seeing both girls but you know how it is on Fear Street.  You can’t keep a secret for long.

Soon, Delia and Karina are competing for more than the Conklin Award (which is one of those weird high school prizes that always end up leading to murderous drama on Fear Street).  They’re competing for Vincent, who really doesn’t seem like he deserves all the attention but again, it’s an R.L. Stine book.  When Vincent turns up dead, it not only means that prom night is going to have to be replanned.  It also means that either Delia or Karina is the murderer!  Karina accuses Delia!  Delia accuses Karina!  Who is the guilty party!?

As you may have guessed from my strained attempts to fake some enthusiasm while discussing the plot of this novel, Killer’s Kiss is not one of the better Fear Street entires.  Basically, it’s a book about two rivals competing for the chance to date a complete jerk.  It’s hard to get emotionally involved in something like that.  Beyond that, the whole rivalry between Delia and Karina just feels exaggerated and fake.  They’re both kind of annoying.  I wouldn’t want to know either one of them.  Finally, the mystery itself is pretty easy to figure out.  The novel does end with a bit of deus ex machina that simply has to be read to believed but, otherwise, this is lesser Stine.

Book Review: The Complete Jack The Ripper: A to Z by Paul Begg, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner

We will never actually know who Jack the Ripper actually was.

People will always be offering up theories, of course.  His crimes were so terrible and his nickname was so memorable and the fact that he was never caught is, to modern audiences spoiled by true crime shows and detective movies, so improbable that there’s a tendency to assume that Jack the Ripper must have been someone significant in his everyday life.  Everyone from Queen Victoria’s son to Lewis Carroll to Oscar Wilde has been accused over the years.

My personal theory is that Jack the Ripper was a nobody.  He didn’t have any medical training.  He wasn’t a part of a grand conspiracy.  He had no motive beyond his own hatred of women.  He stalked prostitutes because they were easy targets.  His murders were savage because he was a sadist who wanted to show off the power that he felt he had over his victims.  He got away with his crimes not because he was clever or protected but just because, in 1888, the police had no experience with a serial killer like Jack the Ripper.  In all probability, the killer was some anonymous loser, one of the many strange and angry men who could probably be spotted in Whitechapel on any foggy night.  

Unfortunately, after more than a 130 years of mystery, no one wants to admit that Jack the Ripper was probably some guy that no one’s ever heard of.  There’s a tendency to assume that he had to be someone important or, at the very least, someone who was at least mentioned in a handful of books about the Whitechapel murders.  Sadly, far too many people are under the impression that Patricia Cornwell solved the case in 2002.  In Portrait of a Killer, Cornwell accused the painter Walter Sickert of being the murderer.  Her main argument consisted of an inconclusive DNA test and an apparent inability to appreciate Victorian-era art.  Cornwell didn’t care much for Sickert’s paintings and therefore, Sickert had to be history’s most notorious murderer.  It’s a bit silly but a lot of people bought into it because it was Patricia Cornwell making the accusation.

To those people who insist that the murderer had to be a Victorian celebrity, I would point them to The Complete Jack the Ripper: A to Z.  Published in 2010, this book is the definitive guide to the Ripper murders.  It contains entries for every suspect, every victim, every policeman, every clue, and every theory.  There’s a lot of information to be found in this book.  In fact, there’s so much information that it’s easy to see how the actual killer could slip through the cracks and, unseen by the overwhelmed and underprepared legal authorities, disappear into the dark shadows of history.  Along with presenting a clear-eyed and nonbiased look at the suspects and the theories, the book is also to be commended for what it tells us about Jack the Ripper’s victims, who are too often forgotten when it comes to discussing the crimes.  So much time is spent on Jack’s identity that the women he murdered are often pushed to the side.  This book does not make that mistake.

This is the definitive book on Jack the Ripper, whoever he may have been.

Horror Novel Review: Witch by Christopher Pike

First published in 1990, Christopher Pike’s extremely weird YA novel Witch tells the story of Julia Florence and her friend Amy.

Basically, Julia is the latest in a long line of witches.  She has the power to see the future and to heal people, with the only problem being that, when she heals them, she takes their illnesses and injuries into her own body.  So, if she heals someone who is on the verge of death, that means that she’ll be the one who dies.  That’s what happened to Julia’s mother and Julia’s determined not to let the same thing happen to her.  It seems like the simple solution would be to just not heal anyone.

But then her friend Scott gets shot during a convenience store robbery.  Scott is in a coma and is going to die unless he gets some supernatural healing.  Julia can either heal him or she can buy a gun (?), use her abilities to see the future, and go all vigilante in an attempt to take out the robber who shot Scott.  Julia goes for the latter but then Amy discovers that the robber has a weird, kind of out-of-nowhere connection to a girl who was previously healed by Julia’s mother.  And, she also discovers that there’s a coven of witches searching for Julia because …. well, who knows?

Anyway, it all comes down to whether or not Julia will risk her life to save Scott.  Scott is an aspiring director and kind of an annoying guy, to be honest.  But everyone is charmed by how annoying he is and he has a great future ahead of him, unless he dies.

Whatever will Julia do!?

This is a weird one.  Between the witchcraft, the healing, the psychic visions, the high school drama, and the vigilante action scenes, one gets the feeling that Pike just threw random darts at a bunch of story points that he had taped to the wall and he pretty much just went wherever the darts led him.  And don’t get me wrong.  It is a little fun to see just how many different genres and plot elements that Pike could stuff into one book but the story itself is still a bit of a mess.  There’s a lot in here and not all of it really comes together.

Plus, this is yet another Pike novel to end on a downbeat note.  R.L. Stine wrote some pretty morbid books but he always ended with a joke.  Pike’s books, on the other hand, always seem to end with the message that there is no such thing as a completely happy ending.  Normally, I’m all for a book that ends on a down note but this time, after all the messiness that came before the ending, I really could have used a Stine-style one liner.  Sometimes, the best way to deal with an existential crisis is to laugh your way through it.

Book Review: Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea

This is a fun book that I came across at Half-Price Books two Decembers ago.  It went right on my Christmas list and, ever since then, it’s a book that I’ve found useful many times.

As you can probably tell, it’s an encyclopedia, one that is devoted to detectives.  You can’t have a good mystery without a good detective and this book proves that, with entries for fictional detectives, their creators, and the TV shows, movies, and books in which they appeared.  It’s all written in a concise and lively manner, which is another way of saying that it’s a fun read.  That’s especially true if you’re a fan of mysteries, as I am.

Now, I should mention that this book was originally published in 1994.  Another edition came out in 1997.  As far as I can tell, that was it.  As such, a lot of the information in the book is a bit of out-of-date.  Authors who have passed or who have retired are still listed as being very much alive and active.  More recent detectives are not mentioned.  (Sorry, Mr. Monk.)  The original Magnum P.I. and Hawaii 5-0 get entries but not the reboots.  There’s no mention of CSI and Thomas Harris’s entry is rather small, with no mention of the post-Silence of the Lamb Lecter films, largely because they hadn’t been made yet.  You get the idea.   But, even with that in mind, this book is still full of useful information, especially if you’re into the older, classic detectives or if you’re a history nerd like I am.  (Trust me, if you have to choose between Wikipedia and reading a book that was actually written during the period in which you’re interested, go with the book every time.)  What it doesn’t contain about recent detectives, it makes up for with information on Poirot, Holmes. Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, and many others.

If nothing else, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa is a good starting point for those looking for a good mystery!  And, if you’re looking for a little inspiration to maybe write a mystery of your own, this book may provie you with exactly the inspiration you need.  There are several copies for sale on Amazon, all reasonably priced.

Horror Novel Review: Final Grade by R.L. Stine

The 1995 YA thriller, Final Girl, tells the story of Lily. Lily is about to graduate high school and she is determined that she is going to beat out Graham for valedictorian. After all, Graham is just a rich boy who owns a green Porsche while Lily is working two jobs to help support her mother, who has had a stroke. Plus, both of Lily’s older sisters were valedictorians so of course Lily is going to continue the family tradition!

(At this point, let me just say that I’m glad that the only family-related high school pressure that I had came from people who wanted me to become a cheerleader like my sister. If I had people pressuring me to also do well in school, I don’t think I could have handled it. Don’t get me wrong, I did pretty well in school. But there was never any risk of me becoming valedictorian, not as long as I was required to take Algebra classes. I was very happy with academically being in the upper half but not at the top of my class.)

Anyway, Lily is determined to give the big speech at graduation but one of her teachers, Mr. Reiner, has given her a B on what Lily clearly feels was an A paper. When Reiner refuses to reconsider the grade, Lily says that she could kill him. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Reiner dies in a freak accident! AGCK!

Even with Mr. Reiner out of the way, it still seems like Graham might beat her to the top. But then Graham turns up dead, push head first into a — I’m being totally a serious here — printing press! Mr. Reiner’s death may have been a tragic accident but Graham was definitely murdered! And guess who everyone suspects!

Can Lily prove her innocence while maintaining her grade point average? And who is responsible for the latest deaths on Fear Street?

You’ll have to read the book to find out. If I told you any more details about the plot, you’d probably guess who the murderer is. It’s really not a shock at all. But still, Stine has some fun with the way this killer reacts to the truth beingd discovered. This is one Stine book where the killer is even more creepy than usual. Lily’s a bit difficult to sympathize with (because, seriously, it’s not like being the 2nd best student at the school is going to force her to settle for a fast food job or something) but the supporting cast is likable and the the whole printing press death is just strange enough to make the book a bit more memorable than the average Stine thriller.

I guess my grad for Final Grade would be a much deserved B+. There’s nothing wrong with a good, strong B.

Book Review: Catching The Big Fish by David Lynch

First published in 2007, Catching The Big Fish is a 177-book full of very short chapters in which David Lynch writes things that feel very David Lynchian.

The back of the book describes Catching The Big Fish as being the story of where David Lynch gets his ideas from. And it is true that, in a few chapters, Lynch does describe how a certain sight or sound inspired some of the scenes in his films. (For instance, he describes how he came to cast Frank Silva as KILLER BOB in Twin Peaks. It’s a story that you’ve probably heard before but, as with most things, it’s more charming when you read it in Lynch’s words.) Lynch describes capturing an idea as being like catching a big fish. It’s not easy and it requires you to heard for what Lynch calls the “deeper water” but you feel proud of yourself when you do it. (Or, at least, I assume that’s the case. I don’t actually fish myself.) Along with discussing his ideas, Lynch mentions the pain of Dune’s failure, his love of the French, his fascination with textures and Bob’s Big Boy, and the importance of not doing anything that could possibly compromise one’s creativity, whether it be therapy or drugs.

That said, the majority of the book is Lynch discussing meditation. Lynch is a notably apolitical filmmaker but he’s always been outspoken in his support of meditation to find peace and inspiration so it’s not surprising that a book about where he gets his ideas would center on meditation. Most of Lynch’s big ideas seem to come from catching details that others are too busy to spot and Lynch credits meditation with giving him the peace of mind and the insight necessary to do that.

So, it would seem that Lynch’s main lesson here would be that it’s a good idea to pay attention to what’s going on around you and to always take a closer look at things than the people around you. To be honest, it’s kind of an obvious lesson but again, the book is written by Lynch and the most obvious of things are more charming when Lynch points them out. As you might expect, Lynch comes across as being in his own world but he also seems like he genuinely hopes that you get something worthwhile out of the book. In the final chapter, he wishes you “peace” and you have no doubt that he means it.

To be honest, I’m not really into meditation. It works for some but it usually just makes me more anxious. But I do really like David Lynch and, if you’re a Lynch fan, you’ll find this book interesting. It’s enigmatic but earnest, much like Lynch’s best films.

Horror Novel Review: The Lost Mind by Christopher Pike

First published in 1995, this is an odd one.

The book opens with our main character waking up in middle of the wilderness. She has no idea who she is or where she is. She doesn’t know why she’s covered in blood. What she does know is that there’s another girl lying a few feet away from her and she’s been stabbed to death! Did the living girl kill the other girl? She knows that she didn’t but, at the same time, she also knows that everyone will assume that she did.

It’s only after our main character stumbles across her car that she discovers that her name is Jenny. It’s only when she drives to a nearby town that she discovers that she lives with her overworked mom and her little brother. Apparently she goes to school and she has a job but Jenny can’t remember the specifics of any of it. Also, Jenny has a best friend named Crystal and they’re so extremely close that people are shocked whenever they see that Jenny is by herself. In fact, no one has seen Crystal for a while. Where could she be …. uh-oh.

Now, if this was an R.L. Stine novel, this is where you would expect some sort of cutesy twist to kick in. This is where you would look up from the book and says, “Ah-ha! I bet Jenny actually is Crystal and Jenny is just some imaginary character that she created to help her deal with a past trauma!” However, this is not an R.L. Stine novel. This is a Christopher Pike novel and Christopher Pike was always a hundred times darker than R.L. Stine ever was. If Stine always ended his books with a return to normalcy and maybe a joke or two, Pike’s novels took his characters to Hell and usually abandoned them there.

Even as she tries to figure out what type of life she’s led up until losing her memory, Jenny finds herself having dreams and visions where she’s in another person’s body, watching as they smoke hash, commit murders, and perform occult ceremonies. Soon, Jenny is investigating just what exactly it means to have a soul and whether or not a soul can move from one body to another. And, as she discovers more about the circumstances of Crystal’s death, she’s forced to consider just how far she’ll go to get revenge….

AGCK! Seriously, this is pretty dark stuff for a YA novel. I would have had nightmares if I had read this when I was a child. But that’s the thing with Christopher Pike. When he told a horrific story, he didn’t hold back. Instead, he created a world where happy endings often did not exist. The Lost Mind is dark and morbid and, even reading it now as an snarky and sarcastic adult, the book’s mystery was still intriguing. The book started out with a murder and it ended with a bang. Someone needs to turn this one into a Lifetime film.

Book Review: Murder By Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento by Troy Howarth

Ah, Dario Argento.

That Argento is responsible for some of the greatest horror and suspense films of all time, everyone agrees. At the same time, there’s a tendency amongst critics to be unfairly dismissive of his post-Opera films. The claims that Argento either lost his touch or that he ceased to care about his films or that Asia Argento is somehow to blame for the uneveness of his later films have themselves become clichés, repeated by people who really should know better. Obviously, any director is going to struggle to follow-up the string of masterpieces that Argento directed early on in his career. And yet, the claim that Argento’s later films aren’t worth watching simply does not hold up under scrutiny. Unfortunately, these claims became even more widespread with the release of the unnecessary remake of Suspiria. When it become obvious that Luca Guadagnino’s film was a pretentious disaster, his online supporters responded by trying to destory the legacy of Argento’s masterpiece.

That’s why I’m grateful for Troy Howarth’s Murder By Design. Published in 2020, Murder By Design examines the life and the work of Dario Argento. It’s a combination of a biography and a critical analysis and it’s probably about as fair of an examination of Argento’s controversial legacy as I’ve ever read. Howarth, of course, writes about the films that everyone agrees are brilliant but, even more importantly, Howarth also gives the same amount of consideration to the films that are usually dismissed, like Phantom of the Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome. Though Howarth is hardly a blind Argento cheerleader — he’s critical of many of Argento’s later films — he also doesn’t give in to the temptation to lazily dismiss everything that Argento directed after 1985. He approaches Argento as both a fan and a scholar, critical but open-minded. As a result, he not only provides an interesting look at Argento but also a look at the development of post-World War II film industry and at the growth of horror as a genre.

Even better, Howarth explores all of Argento’s work. That includes the screenplays that he wrote before directing his first film. That includes the films that he produced and the television shows that he hosted. He makes the case for Argenton as an artist whose influence and vision goes far beyond just the films that he’s directed. Troy Howarth is one of the best writers about Italian cinema out there and Murder By Design is a must-read for anyone serious about Argento.

Horror Novel Review: The Hollow Skull by Christopher Pike

Reading a Christopher Pike book after spending a few days focused on R.L. Stine can be a jarring experience.

Even though Stine and Pike are often compared to each other, Pike’s books are usually a lot darker than Stine’s.  Whereas an R.L. Stine boo will, more often than not, end with the promise of a return to normalcy, Pike’s novels often seem to end on a down note.  The teenage heroes of Pike’s books are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed.  Whereas Stine usually only offers up one or two deaths over the course of his books, Pike has no fear of wiping nearly the entire cast by the final chapter.  The world of Christopher Pike is a dark disturbing place.

Consider 1998’s The Hollow Skull.  The Hollow Skull takes place in the small desert town of Madison, Nevada.  Cassie has just graduated high school and is desperate to get out of the town.  After all, California’s not that fear away.  Why couldn’t Cassie move out there and maybe go to college at UCLA?  The only problem is that all of her friends seem to be content with the idea of staying in Madison, including her boyfriend.  Plus, if Cassie leaves, that’ll mean leaving her little sister with their abusive, alcoholic father.

Still, because Cassie is determined to escape, her friends suggest that they all go on one last adventure.  Hey, why not go down the abandoned mine shaft!?  Of course, it turns out that there’s a weird pool of black goo at the bottom of the mine shaft and, after one Cassie’s friends falls in the goo, he starts to act strangely.

In fact, the entire town of Madison starts to act differently, as if they’ve been possessed and disturbing thoughts are now being put into their skulls.  Suddenly, everyone that Cassie knows is acting differently.  Cassie decides that it time for her and her sister to flee Madison but it turns out that escaping is not going to be as easy as going down an abandoned mine shaft….

Seriously, abandon all hope ye who enter here!  This is a dark, dark book. It owes more than a little debt to Invasion of the Body Snatchers but, even more than being a traditional YA horror novel, it’s also a look at just how difficult it is to start a new life.  No matter how hard she tries, Cassie cannot seem to make a clean break from Madison.  Even if she’s not possessed like everyone else in town, she’s still trapped.  At its best, the book captures the hopelessness of being trapped in one location or situation and feeling like you’ll never be able to figure out how to move forward.  

Of course, plotwise, it’s all a bit predictable.  If you’ve seen any of the versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you’ll be able to guess what’s going to happen.  For that matter, if you’ve read Christopher Pike’s Monster, you’ll also be able to predict much of what awaits Cassie.  Still, if you’re weary of R.L. Stine’s positivity, Christopher Pike provides a rather downbeat antidote.  

Book Review: You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora

I’m going to take a brief break from recommending books about the horror genre so that I might take some time to recommend a book about another underappreciated genre of film, the 80s teen film.

I read You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried back in September and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It definitely contributed to my later enjoyment of Andrew McCarthy’s autobiography, Brat. At the same time, reading Brat also caused me to think even more about You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried. So, as you can see, it’s all just a circle of good film books.

You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried takes a look at the classic teen films of the 80s — Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, and Say Anything. It also takes a look at two films that are a bit less interesting, St. Elmo’s Fire and Some Kind of Wonderful. (Sadly, Fast Times At Ridgemont High is pretty much left unexamined, except for a few references to it in the chapter about Say Anything.) The book explores how John Hughes revolutionized Hollywood by making films that took teenagers and their problems seriously, how he helped to launch a group of talented young actors to stardom while also inspiring directors like Cameron Crowe, and how one reporter managed to end it all by writing an article about the Brat Pack.

The film is full of not just reviews about and thoughts concerning the films but also the stories of how they came to be made. Did you know that Nicolas Cage and John Cusack both had a shot at being cast as Bender in The Breakfast Club? Did you know that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Anthony Michael Hall? Did you know that John Hughes came close to firing Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club and that it was Paul Gleason (who played Bender’s nemesis, Mr. Vernon) who talked him out of it? It’s all in there and it makes for an entertaining read. There’s something very sweet about discovering that the cast of the Breakfast Club were as close while filming as the characters were while serving detention. And, just as in Andrew McCarthy’s book, it’s very infuriating to learn how one reporter’s night out with Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, and Emilio Estevez led to not only the creation of the Brat Pack label but also the tarring of any actor who was associated with the Brat Pack.

At times, it’s a bit of sad book. Not only did the Brat Pack label unfairly derail several promising careers but John Hughes himself turned his back on Hollywood. Sadly, no one in the book seems to be quite sure what inspired Hughes to abandon directing and become something of a recluse later in life. There is a lot of talk about how he lost his two early muses, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, to adulthood. Sadly, it appears that he didn’t have as much fun directing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as one might assume, largely because Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck were already established actors and didn’t need his mentorship in the way that Hall and Ringwald had. Hughes comes across as being a talented and sensitive man who was most comfortable expressing himself through the movies he made. When he stopped making those movies, he closed himself off from the world. One wonders how he would have reacted to the outpouring of grief that was inspired by his untimely death. Would he be touched? Would be embarrassed? One hopes that he would realize that his films touched the souls of viewers of all ages and, when he passed, it was the end of an era.

You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried captures that era in poignant and entertaining detail.