Steve Rosson sinks his fangs into a continuing phenomenon
It all started about three years ago with the doyen of the genre, and the one who doesn’t get packaged into a series – Christopher Pike. Since then they have spread remorselessly, insidiously across the nation’s bookshelves. The teen horror novel is here with a vengeance. With ‘Point Horror’, ‘Terror Academy’, ‘Horror High’ and ‘Nightmares’, publishers have not been slow to jump on the gravy train and writers like Caroline B Cooney, R L Stine, Richie Tankersley Cusack and Bebe Faas Rice (don’t you just love these American names?) are churning them out like there’s no tomorrow. Maybe they know something we don’t and this particular bubble is about to burst, but given the continued success in the adult market of the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, who these series so obviously attempt to emulate, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
The covers, of course, are the initial attraction. Black, black, lots of black with the title, which should be just one or two words, in some lurid metallic colour and in that spidery, jaggedy writing that shouts ‘Horror’ as soon as you look at it – and for the complete works the title should be slightly embossed. Most of the covers are, in fact, pretty tepid stuff but a few of the ‘Point Horror’ ones could easily pass muster as grotesque images, for Heavy Metal T-shirts.
So, what do you get when you start reading? Well, here I have to make a terrible admission because, try as I might and even with the knowledge that I was being paid to write something half-way sensible about these books, I found it next to impossible to get past about page 50 before flipping to the back to see how what passes for a plot was resolved and then tossing it over the side of the bath in dismay. Much of what I read was instantly forgettable but the bits that have stuck seem to have formed themselves into a jelly-like, amorphous mass which, with a bit of prodding, I can shape into ‘The Quick Guide to Teenage Horror Novels’.
We are in a high school in small-town America. This is a world of summer camps and clam bakes, of cheer-leaders and homecoming queens, of straight-A students and starting quarter-backs – but somewhere out there is a raving lunatic with a mission to kill, an old wrong to be avenged. Within the first two chapters we will have met the main character, her best friend (the main character usually is a 17year-old girl) and seven or eight of the rest of their group, most of whom are paired up. We’ll get plenty of flashbacks or nightmarish premonitions with heavy use of italics; and lots of dialogue to keep the story rushing forward. There’ll be some rivalry over boys, but any relationships will go no further than a few experimental kisses, and the girl-boy partnership will ultimately defeat the forces of evil in a climactic confrontation in the penultimate chapter, leaving the last few pages for any tidying-up of loose ends that needs to be done.
That’s it then. Cardboard characters (and that’s insulting cardboard) acting in banal plots that are riddled with implausibility. Which leaves us with the question: Why Are They So Popular?
The gruesome and macabre has always held a fascination for a large number of kids – I well remember all those years ago on teaching practice a fellow-student telling me the only thing he’d found to keep his classes interested was to do a project on ‘The History of Torture’. Ghosts and horror stories have always been high on the list of requests in libraries but the finely wrought and cleverly resolved psychological dramas that have been on offer in the past have usually been a let-down. They’ve had none of the blood and guts readers have been expecting – and these series seem to offer just that. Whether they deliver is another matter, as I can’t see too many kids having nightmares after reading them… the quality of the writing is so poor. The one thing that does give cause for concern though is just how many of the murder victims are young women.
These books are essentially undemanding reads; big print, short chapters, one central plot, little description and plenty of action plus, of course, the ‘comfort zone’ of the series imprint which guarantees that this one will be similar to the last; and surely group dynamics play a part, too, for as the books are passed around amongst friends it ‘really wouldn’t do to admit you didn’t actually like it very much.
Perhaps the publishers have pushed this one a little too far, though, for as I trawled the shelves of Dillons Bookshop in Birmingham I came across ‘Point Horror’ The Book and T-shirt Pack. For £12.99 you got one of the top-selling titles and the shirt with a reproduction of the cover. The assistant told me they weren’t selling very well. It’s reassuring to know our teenage readers haven’t abandoned all their critical faculties.
‘Point Horror’ are published by Scholastic, ‘Terror Academy’ are from Mammoth, ‘Horror High’ come from Boxtree and ‘Nightmares’ are available from HarperCollins.
Steve Rosson is a school librarian and a regular reviewer for BfK.