By Richie Tankersley Cusick.
Martha’s widowed Dad has remarried and uprooted her to a new town, to live with her step-mother and odd step-brother, Conor. Even worse, their new house is a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere, complete with secret passages and its own cemetery. And as if this all wasn’t bad enough, a couple of days after moving in, the parents abandon their children to go on honeymoon, leaving Martha to face her first day in a new school with only her aloof step-brother for emotional support. But Martha has worse troubles than her father’s terrible parenting. As soon as she and Conor are alone in the house, Martha starts getting prank phone calls, from someone calling her ‘Elizabeth’. She hears odd noises in her bedroom and can feel someone watching her from the shadows. She makes friends with a trio of cousins: Wynn and Blake, who are fellow students at the high school, and Greg, her guidance counsellor. Through these friendships she discovers the terrible secret of her new home: that it was the scene not only of the murder of Elizabeth Bedford: Wynn’s best friend/Blake’s girlfriend, but also the apparent suicide of Elizabeth’s supposed murderer and ex-boyfriend, Dennis. Martha also learns that she bears a resemblance to the dead girl, and it becomes clear that whoever murdered Elizabeth thinks she is still alive, and intends to finish what they started by killing Martha too.
Trick or Treat contains relatively few scares in its first 120 pages or so. Prank phone calls, a pair of watching eyes from the shadows, it’s all standard Point Horror fare. There is a lot of narrative exposition at the expense of any real horror. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining read, mainly because of the strength of the main characters. Martha is more interesting and likeable than most Point Horror heroines; Conor has depth and mystery; Blake is a love-interest with an edge.
The first half is more of a mystery than a horror. However, it is an atmospheric mystery, which maintains our interest as we eagerly await the outcome. Clues are scattered like breadcrumbs for us to follow to the thrilling, and scary finale. And it is worth the wait! From the ‘replay’ of Wynn discovering Elizabeth’s bloody, lifeless body, the horror begins and continues with gusto through to the shock twist-ending. Richie Tankersley Cusick presents us with several potential candidates for the murderer, and it could feasibly be any one of them. But when the perpetrator is revealed, it is a genuine, scary surprise. The finale creates an atmosphere of fear, far more effectively than the standard Point Horror. Also, unusual for the franchise, you feel invested in Martha and her friends enough that you long for them to be safe, which creates tension and increases the sense of danger. It all makes for an entertaining, satisfying read, with a thrilling final section.
Much of the fear in the first three quarters of the story is channelled through Martha’s thoughts and emotions. She is scared of the new house, but also of the new situation she finds herself in. She is in a fragile state, sleeping poorly, getting bad grades, struggling to settle in. As she/we learn more about the house and what happened in it, the story takes on more ‘horror’ elements, but there is still relatively little to fear. It feels, at times, disproportionate that Martha is so scared. Nevertheless, as mentioned, the violent finale provides some excellent scares, and the revelation of the perpetrator is both shocking and terrifying. That the horror arrives a little late in the story can be easily forgiven, and Trick or Treat deserves a fear factor rating of…