By Caroline B. Cooney.
Nicoletta’s perfect life has been unravelling for a while – ever since her parents’ bad financial choices forced the family to relocate to a smaller home, meaning she has to share a bedroom with her younger sister. When we first meet her, she is experiencing the culmination of this downward spiral – there is no longer a place for her in the madrigal choir which her whole social life revolves around. Depressed and bereft of purpose, she sees a mysterious boy in her Art Appreciation class to whom she becomes instantly attracted. She follows the stranger, who introduces himself as Jethro, to an isolated part of town where he seems to disappear into a cave. When she enters, she encounters a terrifying being which appears to be formed from the cave itself. The thing saves her from falling into the cave’s deep shaft and, although repulsed by it, she is now indebted to whatever it is. As her obsession with Jethro and the cave-monster grows, Nicoletta distances herself further from her circle of friends, her sister and Christo, a fellow chorister who she has started dating. As the mystery of Jethro’s connection to the creature unravels, Nicoletta finds herself falling in love, and, in her desperation to save him, from Christo and from his fate, she faces the prospect of being abandoned by everyone she knows.
The Stranger is essentially a fairy tale, with the love triangle between Nicoletta, Christo and Jethro resembling the story of Beauty and the Beast – if Belle was borderline psychotic in her affections and Gaston was even less likeable (Christo is really, really annoying). It is both romantic and horrific. When Jethro reveals the truth about himself to Nicoletta, it is a beautiful moment and a terrible one, because from this point on we know that the fairy tale will have no happy ending. But it is a horror story too. The intensity of Nicoletta’s love for Jethro is scary. She falls for him deeply despite his emerging true nature. The monstrous imagery Caroline B. Cooney uses to describe the creature is highly effective. She appeals to all the senses – the thing’s rank smell, the rough sandiness of its ‘skin’, its rasping voice. But she saves the monstrosity of its appearance for quite late in the story. Previously, the creature has been described in vague terms: it is like ‘granite’ or ‘rock’, it is mistaken for a bear by the hunters. Nothing too disturbing. But when it visits Nicoletta in the hospital, and she sees the thing for what it truly is, in the cold light of day, it is truly horrific.
However, whilst we are disgusted by the creature’s ‘sand warts’ and ‘stalagmitic limbs’, we can still empathise with it, through Nicoletta. Even when the hunters fall into the shaft, the creature’s questionable morality can be forgiven; because Nicoletta forgives it, so can we. It helps that most of the action takes place in a setting which itself is other-worldly. The snowy path between two icy lakes, leading to the beautiful but dangerous cave, is poetic and unreal. It causes Nicoletta to act as if there are no consequences and, from entering the cave, to dancing on the ice, to throwing herself in front of a van, her actions become increasingly erratic. We don’t know where they may lead; anything might happen. She may sacrifice herself, but there are moments when you fear that she might be preparing to sacrifice Christo, or her madrigal-replacement, Anne-Louise, in order to protect her love. This uncertainty creates suspense, almost up to the final page, making The Stranger a fascinating and tense Point Horror entry.
Much of the horror in The Stranger lies in Jethro’s true appearance, and Nicoletta’s disturbing obsession with him in spite of it. The early glimpses of the creature are frustratingly vague, but pave the way for a great scene in the hospital where Nicoletta (and a nurse) see Jethro in all his horrific reality. Whilst the story could be considered more of a ‘romance’, it is a doomed one, therefore ‘tragedy’ may be a more accurate description. As it progresses towards its conclusion, we empathise with Jethro rather than fear him. Therefore, whilst there is some really effective horror imagery, for the majority of the novel we feel sad rather than scared, giving The Stranger a fear factor rating of…