Jonathan Weir, a self-confessed diehard fan, tells us why he’s so hooked…
`The earth was looser than it had been when she arrived, as if it had just been dug up and shovelled back over a coffin.
“Mike,” she whispered. It looked so very fresh.
She stood and began to back up. “No, Mike.”
Fresh as a body that had just been buried. The brown soil on top of the plot began to stir.
“Stop it, Mike!”Jean cried.
Something poked up through the brown earth into the air…’
Scary? Teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic seem to think so. The passage comes from Bury Me Deep by one of the hottest writers around for young adults: Christopher Pike.
And Pike’s rise to stardom is almost as frightening as his books.
His first novel, Slumber Party, was released in America in 1984 with little ceremony, as were his next two books, Chain Letter and Weekend, but, due to word-of-mouth, made a strong impact on Young Adult bestseller lists. From then on, Pike has enjoyed success after success.
Before Pike’s arrival in Britain in the late 1980s, the teenage book scene was largely dominated by series such as ‘Sweet Valley High’ and stories aimed at the younger teenager. Such books were fine for their large readerships, but there was nothing that really delivered the type of stories older teens wanted. These were kids whose lives moved fast and as such they wanted books that were the same – they’d become hooked on action with films and video games satisfying their addiction; and, perhaps most importantly, they were intelligent and found a lot of the available fiction dull and patronising.
Then Chain Letter was published. This book, which is, without question, Pike’s most satisfying thriller to date, placed a group of normal teenagers in mortal danger from an adversary who wanted to punish them for a crime they’d committed a year earlier. The story is tense and gripping, the settings exciting and the story concludes with a furious ending that’s action-packed without becoming unrealistic. But the characters were normal; no different from the teenagers who read the book. They talked, moved and reacted like any young adult yet they were thrust into a hostile situation and forced to deal with it on their own.
It’s a trend that’s carried on through every Pike book published and seems to be a winning formula.
Pike explains, ‘You have to remember that the reader is intelligent and not try too hard to write for the teenage market.’
As well as gripping thrillers, Pike has written several young adult horror novels and it’s here that his skill excels. As with all teenage fiction, it’s generally agreed that horror fiction for young adults should not go ‘too far’, and there is an obvious limit. Pike knows this limit and never steps beyond it, taking his readers dangerously close to the edge instead of over it. The first line of Monster, one of Pike’s best books, reads ‘It began with blood. It would end the same way.’The book does feature blood, it begins to flow only a few paragraphs into the first chapter, yet is handled in such a way that it never degenerates into mindless gore, unlike the teenage ‘slasher’ movies that Pike’s work will inevitably be expected to live up to, by some, in terms of graphic violence.
‘Things like Freddie bore me – there’s no subtlety. You know what’s going to happen and it’s just grisly stuff with plenty of blood,’ Pike has commented. ‘I think it’s more scary when you don’t know what will happen. Horror is really about the fear of death, people’s vulnerability.’
If horror and thrillers aren’t enough to keep him busy, he’s also published some Science Fiction novels for teenagers. See You Later and The Eternal Enemy both centre on love and the end of the world, but from the viewpoints of a boy and girl respectively. Both are touching and humane, yet terrifying at the same time as they leave you wondering just how accurate Pike’s sometimes disturbing vision of the future really is. It was inevitable that Pike would branch into SF since his initial interests were in the adult Science Fiction and Mystery genres.
So what of the man himself? Is his dark, intense imagination fuelled by his own life experiences?
Pike was born in New York but raised in Los Angeles which may explain some of the horrors he writes about. Pike had several jobs before turning his hand to writing. He painted houses, worked in a factory and programmed computers before putting his pen to paper. His hobbies include running, meditating and astronomy – all quite peaceful pastimes for someone who enjoys scaring people, but Pike’s work is obviously enriched by his experiences. Computers and astronomy are an integral part of many of his books – just read See You Later and The Eternal Enemy and you’ll realise what I mean. Likewise his factory job proved useful when writing Road to Nowhere, a tense gripping thriller and worth a mention simply for the fact that almost all the book is dialogue – one long-running story as told by two characters.
So far Hodder and Stoughton, Pike’s British publishers, have released 24 of his books. Recently the books have been given ‘newlook’ jackets: jet black with an eerie illustration, an intriguing slogan above Pike’s large, embossed foil name, and the book’s title in a menacing font. They serve to give the book an adult look which emphasises that they are for the more mature teenager. In fact, many bookstores have placed Pike’s books in the adult Horror section alongside such authors as Stephen King and James Herbert whose work a lot of teenagers already enjoy. Pike himself rates King as one of his biggest influences (what new horror writer cannot claim to be influenced by him?) along with Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke, but it’s not possible to equate him with any writer. Christopher Pike really has no competition in the adult or teenage Horror genre. Series such as Scholastic’s ‘Point Horror’ and HarperCollins ‘Nightmares’ just don’t deliver the same punch and level of sophistication that Pike’s novels do, and as a consequence appeal to a lower age-group than his.
It’s impossible to suggest where to start if you haven’t read a Christopher Pike novel. With 24 of them available, you have plenty of choice and some are better than others. However, they don’t have to be read chronologically or in any special order. Each book is as individual as the characters within their pages. As a diehard fan of the man and his work, I hope I can recommend my own four favourites and say why I like them so much.
Last Act: one of his earlier novels. Melanie Martin is the new girl who suddenly becomes part of an established circle of friends and lands a main role in the school play. On the opening night, tragedy strikes when someone is killed on stage during the performance. Melanie is accused and sets about her own investigation to solve the killing and the mysterious secret that is being kept from her. The appeal of this book for me, was the fact that it’s set in an American school for most of the novel. I also sympathised with Melanie; I felt sorry for her being a loner. Yet all through the book I was desperately trying to work out whodunnit. I was surprised and the ending was perhaps the best part of the novel. Watch out for the subtle twist.
Monster: Angela’s best friend, Mary, walks into a crowded party and ‘blows away’ two people. She says they were monsters and, of course, Angela thinks she’s crazy. But soon Angela is wishing she’d listened to her friend. They were monsters and there are more of them now. Perhaps more than Angela can stop.
This is Pike’s scariest offering and perhaps the one most akin to an adult novel. It features a strong adult-male lead. From the very start Pike grabs the reader and pulls them along for the ride. The story may be considered far-fetched by some, but Pike injects realism that is his and his alone. A brilliant horror story and one of his best books.
Scavenger Hunt: a group of teenagers taking part in a scavenger hunt stumble across an ancient evil that threatens to destory them if they can’t find a way to defeat it. But the evil comes from a very unexpected place.
Another strong horror story, more disturbing than Monster in places. It keeps the reader engrossed to the very end and the revelations are shocking, as are some very unexpected parts of the tale. You have been warned.
Master of Murder: Marvin Summer, under a pen name, authors the most popular teenage fiction in America and nobody but himself and his younger sister know who he really is. Or so Marvin thought, but now he’s being threatened by an anonymous fan.
This is one of my favourite Pike books, simply because he’s obviously put a lot of himself into it, which is why it works so well. The mystery is strong and you really care for all the characters – even the bad ones. If I were forced to suggest one book to introduce a reader to Christopher Pike, it would probably be this.
What of Pike’s future? Will he continue with teenage thrillers and horrors? Hopefully, yes. But there is another area of fiction that Pike has entered which is worthy of a mention. His first adult novel, A Season of Passage, was published earlier this year and is one of the most striking Horror books I’ve ever read. It’s what his readers have come to expect, but on a scale ten times grander. Very intense, very enthralling and very frightening. It will certainly place him firmly on the adult fiction map.
Christopher Pike is probably one of the most original and exciting authors of teenage fiction this decade. His writing is flawless, his ideas breathtaking and there’s a mystique about him that’s hard to pinpoint. He knows what his readers want and never fails to deliver.
In short, Christopher Pike is going places fast – if you haven’t already, isn’t it time you joined him on the ride?
The following books mentioned in this article are published by Hodder Headline at £3.99 each:
Bury Me Deep, 0 340 58268 5
Slumber Party, 0 340 52925 3
Chain Letter, 0 340 49909 5
Weekend, 0 340 52927 X
Monster, 0 340 59020 3
See You Later, 0 340 58268 5
The Eternal Enemy, 0 340 60698 3
Road to Nowhere, 0 340 59021 1
Last Act, 0 340 50183 9
Scavenger Hunt, 0 340 53037 5
Master of Murder, 0 340 59020 3
His adult novel, A Season of Passage, is published by New English Library, 0 450 610217, at £4.99.
Jonathan Weir is 18 and lives in South Wirral. He started a BA Honours course in Journalism at the University of Teesside this October.