Point Horror 1-5

It’s time to begin a new series of my retrospective reviews. Hooray! As I’ve now read through every single Animorphs and classic Goosebumps book, I think it’s time to now turn my attention to some classic horror stories for older teens. That’s right, it’s time to revisit Point Horror.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Point Horror is a anthology series that was published by Scholastic between 1991 and 2014. Early instalments were just re-prints of earlier Scholastic titles, but the series achieved massive popularity in the mid-nineties and was a staple favourite of every teen. The stories are somewhat darker than Goosebumps books, often focusing on older teens as they are targeted by stalkers and psychopaths. Please note that, as per all of my other retrospectives, this post will contain massive spoilers for the novels in question.

In Twisted (written by R.L. Stine), Abby is determined to become a Tri Gam as it is the most exclusive sorority on campus and the only accepts a chosen few each year. The thing that she was not prepared for was the hazing. To become a Tri Gam, the pledges need to commit a crime. However, when something goes horribly wrong and someone winds up dead, Abby and the new pledges are forced to band together to hide their shared secret…

In The Lifeguard (written by Ritchie Tankersley Cusick), Kelsey’s summer holiday on Beverly Island begins in disaster. She was supposed to be staying with her mum’s new boyfriend but his teenage daughter, Beth, has vanished. As Kelsey explores the island, she soon learns that Beth is not the first. A number of young women have mysteriously drowned off the coast of the Island. It’s almost like the local lifeguards aren’t doing a very good job…

In Party Line (written by A Bates), Mark is addicted to calling the Party Line as he finds it so much easier to talk anonymously to girls. It’s not long before he begins to recognise different voices, especially the sleazy and desperate “Ben”. However, when a girl goes missing shortly after agreeing to meet with Ben, Mark starts to realise that perhaps Party Line isn’t as harmless as it seems. But will he be able to track down Ben in real life without becoming one of his victims?

In The Baby-Sitter (written by R.L. Stine), Jenny is thrilled to be offered a regular baby-sitting gig after a chance meeting at the mall. However, when she first visits the Hagen house, she starts to have her doubts. It is really run-down and their neighbour is more than a little sinister, and there have also been those attacks on baby-sitters in the area. Then, the threatening phone calls start, promising her that “Company’s Coming”. Will Jenny manage to keep her wits about her and survive the night, or will she become another victim…

In Trick or Treat (written by Ritchie Tankersley Cusick), Martha isn’t happy to leave Chicago and move to the sticks to live with her new stepmother and her teenage son, Connor. However, she feels worse still when she sees the old, spooky house where they live. Then the practical jokes start, growing more dangerous and malicious by the day. She soon learns that something terrible once happened in the house, and she could very well be next!

Just so you know, I’m going to be working my way through this series in the order that they are listed on the Point Horror Wikipedia page. This is due to the fact that this is a massively long series and there seems to be some debate online about the order in which these books were released, and even which ones count as being part of the series at all.

It’s pretty strange reading through Point Horror stories again for the first time in a good 15 years, just because I had forgotten how different they are to Goosebumps books. The novels are clearly designed to appeal to horror fans that have outgrown Goosebumps, as the focus is always on older high school or college students. Due to this, the general attitudes of the protagonists are also very different. While the content of the novels is still mostly harmless, there is certainly a lot more focus on crushes and relationships, with spurned lovers often becoming the primary suspects when things start to get creepy.

I was also surprised just how tame these first few novels are. By modern standards, these books really don’t feel that scary anymore. Although Trick or Treat tries to make you think that there may be a supernatural explanation to the proceedings, the villains so far have always been entirely human. More surprisingly, there has also yet to be an actual death on page. Both The Lifeguard and Trick or Treat featured murders that occurred prior to the beginning of the novel, but in all other cases the victims are all either kidnapped or injured. This really surprised me, as even the mildest of mystery stories these days tends to involve at least one murder.

Anyhow, it’s probably easiest if we take a little look at each of these five novels in turn.

As the first Point Horror title on my list, I expected great things of Twisted. It was even penned by R.L. Stine, beloved children’s author and mastermind behind the Goosebumps series. Unfortunately, the entire novel was just a hot mess. The entire plot was just far too over-the-top to be believable. The reader is forced to accept that all Tri Gamma pledges willingly commit a major crime (in this case, the armed robbery of an antiques store), and then never speak of it again. Seriously, this is the best kept secret in the world as no one has any clue that this is the sorority’s hazing ritual.

This quickly goes sour in two ways. Firstly, a majority of the girls jump at the chance to accept this challenge, despite the thousand ways that this could backfire. Secondly, the death that occurs during the robbery is similarly planned and was a very elaborate hoax. Seriously, how is this supposed to draw the girls closer together? Would you really want to become the sister of someone who had led you to believe that you were a murderer?

However, this plot-line did at least get a lot more development than the weird love triangle between Abby, Leila and Gordon. The events that preceded this novel are only vaguely alluded to, but whatever did happen between the three was enough to give Abby a complete breakdown. The novel exposits that she was removed from school for a year due to this and even developed a multiple personality disorder. I could not make this up. I know that young love can be painful, but I don’t think that it’s enough to cause a teenage girl to have such a complete and utter nervous breakdown!

Twisted is very slow to find its feet and never really drew me in. The third person narrative drifted between three different protagonists – Abby, Leila and Nina – but did not really benefit from this as the split perspective never really offered any insight into the different girls. The twist regarding Abby’s alternate personality – “Gabriella” – is very easy to guess from the first chapter and, therefore, I never really felt that the novel held any true surprises.

Although the story does build to a climax (of sorts), it still did not have any real tension. After Abby finally snaps, she is apprehended with very little struggle and so the novel wraps up with surprising ease. However, this still isn’t my biggest issue with the tale. While the plot is memorable only because it is so ridiculous, it is the primary cast that truly irritated me.

The cast of Twisted are almost entirely female, and none of them are portrayed in a very good light. They are shallow, hysterical, back-stabbing and generally capable of murder. Given that every one of them are willing to cover up the fact that they have killed an old lady, there is no a likeable character in the bunch. The only male character – Gordon – is also problematic, as I could not see why Abby and Leila were so obsessed with him. The novel tells us that Gordon is lazy, unwashed and jobless. Why do these things combine to apparently make him a desirable catch?

While The Lifeguard is a stronger novel, that really isn’t saying much. Its plot is undeniably better structured than that of Twisted, but still felt utterly pointless on the whole. The story this time takes place on a small island that has been gripped by a spate of disappearances and drownings. The public seem to be concerned by this, but not enough to stop visiting beaches or suspect foul play. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these killings is flimsy at best. The villain this time is simply a psychopath and his targets are seemingly random, which becomes obvious fairly early on via his frequent monologues.

The thing that Cusick does excel at is building atmosphere. The scenes in which Kelsey finds herself alone on remote stretches of beach are intense and hold their tension well. Sadly, these are few and far between. There isn’t really a sense of escalation until late in the novel, which is very odd as Kelsey receives a concerning message from Beth very early on that infers that someone wanted her dead. While most people would have gone straight to the authorities with this, Kelsey never truly looks into it until the climax. By this point, the pay-off was weak at best.

The most disappointing aspect of The Lifeguard was its twist. Due to the title and tagline of this book – Don’t call for help. He may just kill you – it’s pretty obvious that the killer must be a lifeguard. This narrows it down to three characters. Brooding and sinister Neal, chauvinistic and lively Skip, or kind and unassuming Justin. If you have already assumed that the killer is Justin, you are absolutely correct.

Based on the Point Horror novels that I have read so far, this is a bit of a reoccurring issue. There frequently seems to be a couple of really obvious suspects and one who seems to be innocent. Always suspect the innocent party – they’re always lying. In the case of The Lifeguard, I’d already made this assumption within the first few chapters and the novel never did anything make me doubt this.

In terms of character, The Lifeguard was also very shallow. While Cusick tried to address some serious themes, including child abduction and suicide, a novel of this sort did not really feel like the correct platform to do this. These topics were frequently brushed aside to focus on the teenage characters – people who would frequently attend parties while their sister was missing and their father was hospitalised. They were slightly more sympathetic than the cast of Twisted, but only just.

Kelsey, as the protagonist, was also rather forgettable. While she was likeable enough, she did come across as being rather highly strung. Her only defining characteristic was her intense phobia of water. The reason for this was not revealed until very late in the tale, but was pretty obvious to guess from the frequent flashbacks she had to her father’s death. Yet, despite the personal connection she had to a drowning, this did not really play into the story as much as you would expect.

While I was losing the will to go on by the time I got to reading Party Line, I am pleased to say that this is where the series finally seemed to pick up. The biggest problem with Party Line is that it has not aged well. Chatlines were certainly around in the early nineties, but haven’t really survived into the internet age. Still, this did not change the fact that the novel carried its tension well and built up to an exciting climax.

Unlike The Lifeguard, Party Line is more of a slow-burner. Mark is more of an observer than a victim, as the violence in this novel is purely aimed at young women and so he never even looks like a target. Due to this, the horror of Party Line is the sort that feeds off discomfort. Its that creeping dread as Mark starts to join the dots and realises that the missing people are connected to a sleazy and persistent caller that he frequently encounters on the chatline.

From this point onward, Party Line felt like more of a mystery than a straight horror story. It’s pretty clear to the reader from early on that the “familiar” voice must be someone in Mark’s circle of male associates but this is not something that Mark hits on right away. Instead, we just follow him in his daily life as he gradually becomes drawn into the investigation and starts to look for a way to capture the villain himself.

The slow pacing may put off some horror fans, it did lead to some decent character development. While the protagonists of Twisted and The Lifeguard were incredibly shallow, Mark was a well-rounded narrative voice who truly felt like a teenage boy. The way that his relationships with Janine and Marcie slowly developed felt very natural, and I liked the way the story showed him relying on the chatline less and less and he found meaningful relationships away from it. While I would have liked for more time to have been spent fleshing out the female characters, they were still likeable enough and I certainly did not want anything bad to happen to them.

The only real disappointment that I had was the climax. When Ben was finally unmasked, the reveal that he was Mark’s karate instructor, Vince, came a bit out of the left field. I think that Vince had only appeared in the story twice before this point! While the final showdown, as Mark rushed to Janine’s rescue, was very exciting, the climax quickly became confusing after this. Bates’s writing style does not lend itself well to fast paced combat scenes, and so I found myself a little unsure about what was going on.

Still, on the whole, Party Line was a strong addition to the series and did at least make me feel more positive about pressing on. Luckily, from this point, the quality of the books does seem to noticeably improve.

I was wary of going into The Baby-Sitter, given just how bad Stine’s first contribution to this series was, but thankfully I was pleasantly surprised. Although the small cast made it very easy to guess who the villain was (hands up anyone whose first guess wasn’t the shady and over-paranoid patriarch of the Hagen family?). Unlike Party Line, this book is incredibly fast-paced and holds its tension very well, truly making the reader feel Jenny’s isolation is she is left in a strange house at night. Once the sinister phone calls begin, the reader can easily share in the protagonist’s paranoia towards every creaking step and mysterious visitor.

The plot, on the other hand, certainly has more than its fair share of flaws. It’s certainly a brain-in-the-box story as it does not really hold up to scrutiny. Jenny is hired by the Hagens after a chance meeting at the mall, despite the fact that neither party has ever met before that. She also quickly proves to not have a shred of a common-sense and to be quick to allow her imagination to run away within itself. These things combined do not really make her the kind of teenager that you would want to leave alone with your kids.

However, Mr Hagen does seem to have a bit more about him than most Point Horror villains as his brand of crazy is motivated by the death of a child which, in Friday the 13th style, was caused by a negligent baby-sitter. The climax, in which Jenny faces off with Mr Hagen at an abandoned quarry, is very dramatic, however the plot seemed to end very abruptly after this point. The novel did not even confirm whether or not Mr Hagen survived his fall, which is presumably where The Baby-Sitter II will pick up.

In terms of character, Jenny was a bit daft but still a likeable enough protagonist. She was a well-rounded character and you certainly felt her sanity begin to unravel as she started to suspect her potential boyfriend, Chuck, as being her tormentor. However, none of the other characters were as solid. It was unclear how Mr Hagen had gotten away with assaulting so many baby-sitters given that the police were on to him from the start, and I’m sure more questions would have been asked about why Inspector Ferris thought it was perfectly acceptable to us a teenage girl as bait.

Still, despite my grumbles, this book is one of the best-known Point Horror stories and I would say that its reputation is deserved. If nothing else, it’s certainly a bit of cheesy fun. Luckily, Trick or Treat was also enjoyable in the same way that a bad teen horror movie is good for a laugh. While its setting – a rickety and (possibly) haunted house – is very atmospheric, the lengths that the novel goes to maintain this level of tension felt shaky at best.

Martha’s new home is an old house with a surprise graveyard out back – one that every local knows about but the realtors failed to mention. Both of her parents immediately swan off on a business trip within a day of their move, leaving their teenage kids alone despite the fact that Martha is clearly terrified. Shortly after, Martha learns from another local that the house is filled with uncharted secret passages, including one that potentially gives people access to her bedroom from an unknown external location.

I think you’ll probably agree that this all sounds pretty creepy, but at the same time it was wholly unrealistic. It was almost as though Cusick was trying too hard to make the setting feel as threatening as possible. Added to this was the fact that it was sometimes difficult to tell if the plot was a simple murder mystery, or if something supernatural was actually afoot. The previous occupant of Martha’s bedroom – Elizabeth – was murdered there the year before, and Connor did keep finding himself inexplicably drawn to the mausoleum even before the passageway and Elizabeth’s boyfriend Dennis’s long-dead body were discovered.

The plot of Trick or Treat was good fun, but felt incredibly generic. Martha’s tormentor does not do much more than make creepy phone calls for a majority of the story, only truly revealing their sinister intentions for her during the climax. This time the killer was revealed to be Wynn, a teenage girl who murdered Elizabeth and Dennis in a fit of passion due to the fact that she wanted Dennis for herself. Her reason for targeting Martha was due to the fact that Martha and Elizabeth shared a superficial resemblance, triggering Wynn’s dormant crazy once again. As with The Lifeguard, I felt that the killer’s identity was hinted at too heavily early in the tale, so I did guess this long before the climatic reveal.

Martha also failed to grow on me as a protagonist, as she was incredibly annoying. While her paranoia is easy to empathise with given how creepy the house is, she still behaves like an utter brat. She takes an instant disliking to Connor despite openly admitting to making no effort to get to know him, and seems determined to be unhappy. I was a bit disappointed that Connor turned out to be a relatively minor character as he seemed to be much more agreeable than Martha.

However, the secondary cast of Trick or Treat did feel a lot stronger. Blake, Greg and Wynn all got a surprising amount of page time, especially in the second half of the story. Through this, Cusick was able to build their surprisingly deep backstory, including their complex relationship with the house and its previous inhabitants. This really helped to lend some structure to the tale. While it was still cheesy as all Hell, at least it made a lot more sense than the likes of Twisted and The Lifeguard.

Wow, this review has gotten really long so I think that I will leave on that note. While Twisted and The Lifeguard were both very weak novels, I am pleased to say that the other three instalments were a lot more enjoyable. I can’t wait to get stuck into the next five to see how they stack up – check back later next month to find out what I thought!

Twisted is currently out of print. If you are interested in read it, try Amazon Marketplace or your local library

The Lifeguard can be purchased as an eBook from Amazon.co.uk

Party Line is currently out of print. If you are interested in read it, try Amazon Marketplace or your local library

The Baby-Sitter can be purchased as an eBook from Amazon.co.uk

Trick or Treat can be purchased as an eBook or Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Point Horror 6-10 | Arkham Reviews
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