Inspired by Bookshelves of Doom’s first blog post for Kirkus on Lois Duncan, I’m going to engage in a little rewinding myself. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about young adult author Christopher Pike and considering the not-insignificant place his novels had in my life as a teen and, to a lesser degree, as an adult.
I was introduced to Pike as an elementary school reader in the 1980s and was joyously chilled and titillated by Weekend (Point, 1985), Chain Letter (Avon Flare, 1986) and Slumber Party (Point, 1986), three of Pike’s first teen thrillers. Unbeknownst to me, Pike and fellow thriller author R.L. Stine were raising adult eyebrows with their sometimes gruesome teen horror novels and, while teachers and librarians lamented these would-be Stephen Kings for YA readers, I was just psyched to read more Pike.
Unlike the today’s contemporary YA horror novels featuring vampires, werewolves and zombies, Pike’s novels dealt with real-life horror. In his early thrillers, the “bad guys” were all too human and only hid behind a façade of supernatural horror. Even more shocking, these antagonists were teenagers motivated to seek vengeance on those who had committed childhood crimes (Slumber Party), made drunken judgment calls (Chain Letter), or taken a fit of romantic jealousy a bit too far (Weekend). In these first masterworks, Pike forced us to sympathize with the characters that would be cast as the troublemakers in a traditional problem novel and played out the consequences of their sometimes thoughtless actions to dramatic conclusion.
Pike’s teen characters were independent and, to my young readers’ eyes, more adult-seeming than young adult. They existed in an exquisitely detailed high school social system where the consequences of social success and failure were clearly wrought.
In Chain Letter, probably my all-time favorite Pike piece, a group of friends who share a secret are blackmailed by an anonymous letter writer dubbed “The Caretaker.” The Caretaker asks each member of the group to commit a public act of humiliation as a means of atoning for a crime committed in the past. These embarrassing acts aren’t garden variety—each guilty person is asked to challenge his or her own public persona in a distinct way. Thus, the star of the school play is asked to flub her lines, the hero of track and field is told to throw a race, and the girl with the most badass reputation is ordered to come to school in a clown costume.
At this point, Chain Letter is probably sounding pretty weak—any reasonable adult would probably ask why these challenges would even be considered, if only we could access such easy get-out-of-jail free cards! What’s a couple of hours—or even a day—of embarrassment compared to the absolution the act would ensure? After all, it’s only a school play, only one track meet (and who goes to those, anyway?), only a bad reputation.
And therein lays the rub, what Christopher Pike does best. While looking back, the stakes associated with The Caretaker’s challenges seem small, but to the characters—and to the readers—they are universe-sized. Pike’s novels respect the adolescent world. Set in high schools that were true microcosms of adult society, Pike’s first thrillers may have slyly mocked the system, but never suggested that the stakes associated in that system were anything but high.
Supernaturally themed horror novels of the type currently in vogue address these same concerns metaphorically. In vampire novels, sexuality is both sublimated and rendered deadly. Werewolf stories of transformation rewrite the passage from child to adult and associate the process with a monstrous power. And zombie tales warn the healthy not to get too close to the ill (or ill appearing). Good genre novels can remove us from the arenas of our everyday concerns while they force us to re-examine our circumstances through a supernatural lens, and this can definitely be a scary process. To ask us, as Pike does, to take these glasses off, and bear witness to the real horrors that we have always suspected lurk in the halls of our supposedly protected high schools, is even more frightening. To admit that the potential for horror hovers about the teenage population is to acknowledge the power teens have always recognized among themselves and adults have always tried to ignore—we humans, even the young ones, don’t need vampire blood or a zombie virus to make ourselves terrifying. We are capable of horror on our own.
Amy Pattee is an associate professor of library and information science at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. She documents her reading on her blog, YA or STFU, at alanis.simmons.edu/blogs/yaorstfu/.