By A. Bates.
Linnie, Ming and Jackson are approaching the end of their time at high school and each has at least one score to settle. To that end, Linnie suggests an alternative version of The Dead Game, a game her sister taught her, whereby they publicly humiliate an allocated ‘victim’ to show them in their true light. But when the first three ‘hits’ go horribly (and in one case, fatally) wrong, they realise that someone is taking The Dead Game literally.
The three main characters are realistic and well-rounded. It is easy to empathise with Ming, who has been knocked from her ‘top of the class’ pedestal by the ‘transfer twins’ who relocated to the school just before graduation in order to improve their grade point average. Unfortunately, the Dead Game requires enough ‘victims’ to go around the participants, and as the list of unsuspecting targets grows, the reasons for their inclusion become more tenuous and pettier. So what if a girl gets a higher grade in art class by faking artistic temperament? And if the track team is doing badly because their star runner dropped out, surely that’s the team’s fault, not his? Also, the ‘hits’ when they happen, are more like pranks. There are pages and pages of build up to the first ‘hit’, building the tension effectively. But when it turns out that the masterplan is to get ketchup and custard down the target’s shirt, you wonder how unimaginative Ming was ever top of her class. Jackson’s plan is so convoluted and bizarre it lacks all believability, detracting from the horror of the subsequent ‘accident’ as you are still trying to work out why on earth he did what he did (what, he’s never heard of a camera?!)
The final problem The Dead Game suffers from, is that it is blatantly obvious who the perpetrator is from very early on in the book, meaning the reader is deprived of the usual Point Horror fun of guessing ‘whodunnit?’ and the overlong finale lacks tension, because we already know the who, the how and, more or less, the why.
The horror of The Dead Game mainly lies in the consequences of the main characters’ actions. When their innocent game leads to serious injury in one case and death in another, they encounter agonising guilt and police scrutiny, which could derail their lives.They begin to mistrust each other and become withdrawn and fearful. They are victims of their own making. Herein lies the effectiveness of the horror and the redeeming feature of an otherwise disappointing read.
Nothing physically happens to the main characters, apart from rocks being thrown through their windows. However, the fear lies in what they are doing to themselves by participating in the game. We feel for Ming when her minor, petty action spins horribly beyond her control, leaving her with the guilt-ridden aftermath. We fear for Jackson, lying to the police to cover up his role in a fatal accident. But these elements are undermined by the plot itself, which ploughs on towards the dull, dragged-out finale at the expense of exploring the more interesting personal crises the characters are going through. The Dead Game has unrealised potential, and I wish I could give it more than its dismal fear factor rating of…