By Lael Littke.
Catherine Belmont is obsessed with the soap opera, Lost River. She dreams of living the lifestyle of her favourite character, Cassandra Bly, with her mansion, great car and string of perfect boyfriends. They’re the same age; they look alike; they even have the same initials. But someone else has noticed the similarity, and when Cassandra starts being terrorised by an unknown tormentor, Catherine finds herself living the latest storyline of her favourite soap. Catherine’s best friend, Liz, and her neighbour, Kade, indulge her obsession, even accompanying her to Andersen’s Appliances during lunch-breaks to catch the day’s episode live. Others, like bitchy Britny Marsh, scorn her fangirl behaviour whereas newcomer to town, Travis, is a fellow Lost River fan and becomes a handsome distraction from Catherine’s problems.
The similarities between what’s going on in Cassandra’s soap world and Catherine’s real life are harmless at first. Both girls are left red roses by an unidentified person, which could be a coincidence; both receive anonymous phone calls where the same words are spoken, which could be a practical joke (literally everyone knows of Catherine’s obsession with Lost River). But as Cassandra finds herself in mortal danger on the soap, so Catherine’s tormentor ups their persecution of her, culminating in kidnapping and murderous machinations.
It’s an interesting idea and one which might well appeal to those with a fondness for Americana and 90’s nostalgia. Glossy US soap operas with their outrageous storylines and beautiful people are a far cry from the dreary cobbles of Coronation Street and the po-faced market traders of Albert Square. You can understand why a young person would rush home every day to watch the latest episode they have taped on VHS. Nowadays, with whole seasons of shows released in one go on streaming services, gone is the drip-fed pleasure of watching a storyline unfold. Cliffhangers no longer prompt week-long (or even summer-long) anticipation and water-cooler debates about “who shot JR” and “what happened after Ross said Rachel”. Instead, they lead to watching a season finale at 3 am when you’re too tired to fully appreciate what’s happening. It’s pleasant to be reminded of a time when TV didn’t need Hollywood A-listers and multi-million-dollar budgets to inspire a bit of mild obsession in its audience.
But there is another, parallel, and far more compelling plotline in The Watcher. That is, the arrival of sexy Travis Cavanaugh in Greenville, towards whom Catherine feels an instant attraction and an unplaceable sense of recognition. Travis seems perfect, despite Britny’s warning that he’s got a ‘problem’. Catherine is able to dismiss this as rivalry for an attractive boy’s affections from a girl who already dislikes her, but it is more difficult to ignore her mother’s bizarre reaction when she finds out Travis has been in their house. Weirder still is the fact that her mother has photos of him in an album hidden under her bed… This secondary storyline turns The Watcher into a real page-turner, for a little while… Unfortunately, it starts to reveal its mysteries about 30 pages too soon, making for a disappointing finale which follows an awkwardly executed twist. The explanation of how the perpetrator did what they did is particularly contrived and merely serves to stretch out a dull final section. Nevertheless, the duh-duh-DUH ending, which neatly brings together the soap opera and the real world one more time, is a nice touch. Whilst it’s not one of the best, there’s enough to make The Watcher a memorable and worthwhile read.
Predominantly in the mystery rather than the horror camp, The Watcher has few scary moments and most of these are reserved for the finale. The ‘pranks’ of which she is made victim throughout the story are uninspired and forgettable. Nevertheless, the mental state of the perpetrator, and the genuine danger Catherine finds herself in at the end, inspire a sense of threat which borders on frightening. The creepy cliffhanger on the last page also ensures it ends on a note more in-keeping with the horror genre, and earns The Watcher a reasonable fear factor rating of…