Point Horror 6-10

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my review of these novels [here].

I was not expecting to post another retrospective so soon, yet I’m bored of lockdown and certainly getting a lot of reading done!

Let’s take another look at Point Horror – a young adult anthology series that was published between 1991 and 2014. Please note that I’ve selected the reviewing order of these books based on a list that I pulled off Wikipedia, as there seems to be some debate regarding the publication order of these novels. This review is also intended to be more of a retrospective, and therefore contains massive spoilers for the novels in question.

In My Secret Admirer (written by Carol Ellis), Jenny has only just moved to town and her parents have already left her home alone. Luckily, some of the locals invite her to take part in a scavenger hunt in the mountain foothills. Jenny is nervous, but things go from bad to worse when Diana Benson has a terrible accident and falls off a cliff. The next day, Jenny starts to get calls and gifts from a secret admirer. Is someone really interested in her, or does some one think that she knows something about the accident. Someone who wants to be sure that Jenny keeps her mouth shut…

In April Fools (written by Ritchie Tankersley Cusick), Belinda is driving home from a party when she is involved in a terrible accident. The other car swerves off a cliff, but Belinda’s friends force her to leave it and run away. Two weeks later, the pranks start. Someone seems to know that Belinda was involved and is intent on making her suffer. Yet things get worse still when Belinda is asked to mentor a sick teenager named Adam. Especially when she learns that Adam was injured in a car accident two weeks prior…

In Final Exam (written by A Bates), Kelly’s biggest fear is of exams. No matter how hard she studies, she always freezes under pressure. Finals week gets off to a strange start when she discovers another student’s journal – one filled with intense self-help messages about being a “winner”. With other things on her mind, Kelly pockets the journal and goes on with her business. Yet it’s not long before things get strange. What start out as harmless pranks against Kelly grow more sinister, almost as though someone does not want her to graduate. What secrets could possibly hidden within the journal, and why would someone be prepared to kill to get it back?

In Funhouse (written by Diane Hoh), the Santa Luisa Boardwalk is a popular meeting place for teenagers. That is, until the day that the Devil’s Elbow roller coaster flies off the rails, leaving one dead and two seriously injured. Although everyone thinks that it was a tragic accident, Tess is sure that she saw a dark figure hanging around beneath the tracks just before the incident occurred. Now, it seems that someone is targeting her. Someone wants Tess silenced, and will hurt anyone who gets in their way.

In Beach Party (written by R.L. Stine), Karen’s father has let her stay alone in his beach-front apartment for the whole summer. What better chance for her and her best friend Ann-Marie to soak up the sun and party the night away? It’s not long before Karen meets two cute guys – handsome Jerry and bad-boy Vince – and struggles to pick who she likes best. But then the messages start. Someone is desperate to keep Karen away from Jerry at all costs. Although Karen dismisses this as being from a jealous ex-girlfriend at first, she soon starts to have her doubts when it becomes clear that the stranger is prepared to kill if she doesn’t obey…

Already, we are starting to see that Point Horror books do fit into a specific niche. These books were so unbelievably popular because they filled a gaping hole in the market – horror stories that were predominately targeted at teenage girls. Due to this, the stories largely focus on female characters in situations that girls will certainly recognise. High school settings, hanging out with friends, jealous ex-boyfriends and love triangles abound in these novels. They seem cheesy and stereotypical now because they are, but at the time they gave readers something that they could not get anywhere else: the literary equivalent of a bad slasher film.

While these books are still pretty tame, even by the standard of the likes of the original Halloween or Friday the 13th movies, in these five books the series really feels as though it is starting to find its feet. Funhouse finally gives the series its first on-page death, and the protagonists this time around largely do seem to do something to earn their fate. Except for poor Tess, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Anyhow, there is a lot to get through here so let’s take a brief look at each of these novels in turn.

My Secret Admirer has been one of the strongest instalments of this series so far. The isolated setting was incredibly effective for building tension, with Jenny left alone in an unfamiliar new house again the desolate mountainous backdrop of the Rimrocks. Ellis does a fantastic job of maintaining this oppressive atmosphere as Jenny receives both mysterious romantic phone calls and threats. However, it is unclear why the villain tries both of these tactics. The prospect of an unknown paramour does more to lure Jenny out into dangerous situations than dead snakes and dog endangerment ever do.

The story certainly kept my attention from start to finish and, while I did figure out the identity of the villain, I felt that he was disguised a lot better than those of previous instalments. This was helped by the fact that Jenny was the new girl in town, and therefore everyone that she met was essentially a stranger to her. Due to this, it was impossible to discount anyone as being her tormentor (although, naturally, it was ultimately the quiet and unassuming guy).

However, as much as I did enjoy My Secret Admirer, there was still something off about the pacing. As with Trick or Treat, Jenny’s parents ran out of the story remarkably quickly in order to isolate her, as much of the danger in this story could not have gone down if they had been present. It also takes Jenny a surprisingly long time to put the pieces together and figure out that the threats might be connected to the fact that she may have witnessed a murder attempt just nights before.

This really leads to my biggest issue with the story – Jenny. Jenny is not an especially bright protagonist. It takes her far too long to figure out that the stalker and admirer are one and the same, leading her to often put herself (and her dog) in great danger. Even though Jenny is surrounded by strangers, she is quick to jump to conclusions and rule out the people that she does not think are responsible. This, naturally, is largely based on her first impressions of them.

As the novel reaches its climax, Jenny shows some especially poor judgement. As it turns out, Diana’s fall was an accident, yet the one witness to this – Dean – flees the scene. He is targeting Jenny because he worried that Jenny heard him and could implicate him in the crime. This leads to Dean succeeding in luring Jenny alone to the same remote mountain location so that he can silence her. Naturally, Jenny is stupid enough to follow him. It’s a good job that one of the other teens is more on the ball, otherwise her foolishness would have led to a messy end.

However, as strong as My Secret Admirer was, it still wasn’t a patch on April Fools. The plot of April Fools is well-written and escalates quickly. There is no preamble to this novel as the car accident takes place within the first chapter, introducing us to Belinda, Hildy and Frank in their darkest hour. After this, it’s not long before the villain’s torment of Belinda begins to escalate. Belinda first has a strange encounter with the police, but this soon ramps up into gruesome packages and an attack by an unseen driver.

The plot of April Fools is dark and a little more complex than that of earlier instalments, as this marks the first point where the protagonists are undeniably connected to a crime. The fact that Belinda potentially witnessed the accident that maimed Adam and killed Mr Thorne is central to the story, and her guilt for not going straight to the police is certainly felt throughout the tale. However, Hildy and Frank are a lot less sympathetic. As Belinda’s two “friends” are the ones that were actually responsible for the accident, their dismissal of Belinda’s fears just made them both seem like utter monsters from start to finish.

The plot built steadily over the course of the novel as Belinda became more involved with the Thorne family and starts to uncover their dark secret. While it is still quite easy to spot one of the villains, the novel did a better job of concealing this than in some of the previous instalments. The fact that Adam was faking the worst of his injuries did come as quite a surprise, and made a nice twist in the final act. The climax of the novel was also very exciting, putting Belinda and her friends in a deadly situation over the last few gripping chapters.

Even the characters this time around were all rather memorable. Cusick spent a lot of time fleshing these out, making disfigured Adam, gentle Noel and loyal Cobbs all feel surprisingly well-rounded. While Hildy and Frank were both terrible human beings, Belinda was at least a sympathetic protagonist. Her guilt ate away at her, the reason for her silence made a lot of sense: If she went to police, she knew that Frank and Hildy would shift the blame onto her. Belinda’s devotion to making amends to the Thorpe family was certainly admirable, even though Adam went out of his way to make this difficult for her.

Unfortunately, the next few entries in the series where nowhere near as strong. While it is not the worst Point Horror novel to date, Final Exam is a particularly strange and unmemorable one. To begin with the positive, the novel did do a fantastic job of capturing a fear that every teenager can relate to – the fear of failure. Bates captures the intensity of Kelly’s phobia and the mania of Jeffrey – again, the quiet unassuming character – who became a villain in his  desperation to become a “winner”.

However, while intense, the stakes in Final Exam still felt relatively low. My Secret Admirer and April Fools both focused on villains who were involved in potentially fatal accidents, but Final Exam focuses on a bad guy who has cheated on his English exam and is worried that Kelly knows this. It takes a long time before the attacks on Kelly feel like anything more than mean-spirited pranks, and her life never truly felt to be in danger until the climax. Jeffrey’s motivation was also shaky at best. As with the likes of Twisted, it felt a bit like he was just dangerously unstable. For some reason, he was so obsessed with succeeding that he felt like failing exams was a just punishment for Kelly, all for her crime of “taking” his journal. Bizarre…

However, Bates does do a fantastic job with Kelly. Kelly is a rather unique Point Horror protagonist due to her interest in becoming a mechanic. This gives her something to talk about other than boys and school and nicely fleshes out her character. It’s unusual to see a female character in teen novels whose ambitions don’t involve going to university pr starting a family, but this was never presented as being a negative thing. While she does find herself drawn to a boy as the story progresses, she always advocates taking their relationship slowly and frequently chastises him for moving too fast. This certainly made a nice change of pace from some of the other female protagonists to date.

Funhouse is another strange addition to the series. Although it opened to the surprisingly grisly scene of a roller coaster crash – one that killed one teenager, tore the leg of another and destroyed the face of a third – the plot lost some of its momentum after this opening. This initial attack was shocking and brutal, making me wonder how the killer would up his game, yet he never attempts anything this flashy again. What follows is his largely his low-key tormenting of Tess. It’s unclear why he decides to take his time over of this, but his motivation is already shaky at best.

You see, the killer this time is Tess’s brother, Guy Joe Jr (yes, this is his real name). Guy Joe Jr has discovered the journal of his true mother, learning that the syndicate of men who own Santa Luisa’s boardwalk bankrupted his real parents, ultimately leading to his mother being forced to sell him as a baby before committing suicide. Due to this, Guy Joe Jr has decided to have his revenge by killing the children of all of the boardwalk owners. Not hurting the guilty parties. Killing their children. Does this make any sense to you? Perhaps we’ll also have to chalk this plot up to crazy killer logic.

While Funhouse had one of the largest casts of any Point Horror story to date, it was easy to forget this as 75% of them quickly faded into the background, making it incredibly easy to spot Guy Joe Jr. While the plot could be tense and dramatically written at times, this was largely due to the fact that Tess was about as bright as Jenny in My Secret Admirer. Despite being convinced of a conspiracy from early on, Tess spends a lot of time isolating herself in her apartment and walking alone in the woods at night. Most of the dramatic situations are entirely of her own making.

There was also a lack of logic shown by the adult characters in this novel. Much like the Mayor in Jaws, the owners of the boardwalk decide to continue with business as usual even after several kids are injured or killed in seemingly unconnected accidents. Even the police sexually harass Tess when she tries to report a threatening note that she has just received. While previous instalments have tried to isolate teenagers away from their parents, this one just proves that adults are still no use even when they are present.

And then there is Beach Party. After my review of Twisted, it must seem as though I am picking on R.L. Stine a bit. While Beach Party is not (quite) as stupid as Stine’s first addition to this series, it still remains one of the worst instalments to date.

Beach Party is a slow-burner, with the killer taking a surprisingly roundabout route when it comes to targeting poor Karen. Karen’s only crime is showing an interested in a teenage boy – Jerry – who she meets on the boardwalk. I suppose that we could argue that she does still pursue Jerry, despite knowing that he already has a girlfriend, but it does take two to tango.

What follows is an escalating series of threats which range from the mundane (spray painted messages on walls) to the utterly ludicrous (a bed full of jellyfish and acid mixed in sun cream). As characters are slowly whittled down, it soon becomes apparent who the villain must be. The twist turns this story into a gender-flipped version of Twisted, with Jerry this time being the character with a multiple personality disorder. Believing himself to be possessed by his deceased brother, Todd, he has been trying to warn Karen away. Because Jerry is a bad person and Todd believes that he needs to be punished. Yeah. That’s not a great twist. This reveal also only takes place a couple of pages before the end of the novel, leaving only half a page to wrap up the story.

More horrifying than Jerry / Todd’s mental disorder is the fact that he has been allowed to roam freely. Late in the novel, Karen encounters an unnamed person who claims to be Jerry’s sister. This turns out to be true – the sister has been following Jerry (who denies that she exists) to try and get him help. However, she has not bothered to alert the police to the fact that Jerry is dangerous. Even when Jerry kills his ex-girlfriend and badly injures Karen, the sister does nothing more than cryptically warning Karen to stay away. Personally, I think that Jerry’s whole family must have issues.

There was also a major problem with the other female characters in this novel. I’m seriously starting to doubt Stine’s ability to write believable teenage girls, as Karen does not behave like a normal human being. She falls madly in love with two boys at first sight – Vince the “gang leader” and nice-guy Jerry – despite having barely spoken to either of them. The love triangle between these three felt especially forced as none of them really did anything beyond talk. Karen had a couple of bland dates with Jerry and a motorcycle ride with Vince, and occasionally waxed lyrical about how attracted she was to both of them, but nothing really gave any weight to their relationships beyond this.

The other main characters were also lacklustre. Renee’s only personality trait was the fact that she was a mean girl, while Ann-Marie had no definable characteristics at all and frequently just wandered out of the plot. Even Vince’s gang failed to do much. They appeared once to harass the girls early on, but then never did anything again. Although it was noted that the police were always suspicious of them, they never once did anything to earn this bad reputation.

Anyhow, I think that about covers everything. The Point Horror series is certainly proving to be entertaining in the same way that I enjoy cheesy slasher films, and it’s nice to see that the series is starting to grow some teeth. If you are thinking of taking another look at these books, I would certainly recommend giving My Secret Admirer and April Fools a try. Don’t bother with Beach Party though, it’s really not worth your time.

My Secret Admirer is currently out of print. If you are interested in reading it, try Amazon Marketplace or your local library.

April Fools can be purchased as an eBook from Amazon.co.uk

Final Exam can be purchased as an eBook from Amazon.co.uk

Funhouse can be purchased as an eBook & Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk

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

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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