By Barbara Steiner.
Last year, Stony Bay High School’s star quarterback, Reggie Westerman, died after suffering a spinal injury during a game. His girlfriend, Jilly, is left devastated, forever changed by the experience. To her best friend Amelia’s dismay, when senior year begins, Jilly abandons cheerleading and joins the school drama department, shunning her old friends in favour of smarmy theatre major, Shelby. At a rally before the first football game of the new season, Amelia’s cheers are interrupted by the ghost of Reggie appearing on stage, stunning everyone in the bleachers. Few believe it is really his ghost. Rumours circulate that it was a stunt orchestrated by the Coach to inspire the football team, or just someone playing a prank. But then “Reggie” appears at a beach party and immediately afterwards Buddy Nichols, the new quarterback, falls (or is pushed) into the bonfire, sustaining serious burns.
When her boyfriend, Garth, takes over as quarterback, Amelia is scared. She starts to believe the position is jinxed, as Reggie’s sports journalist brother, Travis, has claimed. More worrying for Amelia, she notices Garth’s personality deteriorate, as he becomes arrogant and self-absorbed, like Reggie had been. When a series of ‘accidents’ befall the team, intended for Garth but missing their mark, it becomes clear that someone blames him for Reggie’s death, and they intend to make him pay for it.
It is obvious early on that The Phantom is not a ghost story, but a whodunit. And whilst it is fairly easy to guess who is behind the scares, it is an enjoyable experience getting to the ‘twist’. The Phantom offers up everything we know and love from decades of exposure to American culture: Friday night football games, cheerleaders, fast food diners and beach parties. It is far from being the scariest entry in the PH franchise, but it is certainly one of the most satisfying reads if you’re wanting a bit of nostalgia and the comforting reassurance of a completely familiar world you’ve never actually experienced.
The Phantom offers up relatively few shocks or scares. Amelia is a strong, brave character and we never get the sense she is in serious danger (also, frustratingly, there is always someone else around when any threat looms). Nevertheless, it is a very sad story and the horror lies in the irreparable damage done to several of the characters, by both the figurative, and literal, spectres of Reggie’s misfortune. The finale eschews the action-packed, happy-ever-after resolution of most PHs, in favour of a more ambiguous ending, and by doing so, The Phantom becomes one of the more memorable entries in the franchise. Its originality and pervading sense of tragedy merit a solid fear factor rating of…