Reluctant baby-sitter, Jenny Jeffers, deals with bratty kids, annoying boyfriends, psychopaths, shrinks and ghosts, as R. L. Stine subjects her to ordeal after ordeal across four instalments in this Point Horror series.
By R. L. Stine.
Jenny’s overactive imagination is making her nervous about starting her new baby-sitting job, looking after Mr and Mrs Hagen’s son, Donny for two evenings a week. That the Hagen house is very old, creepy and in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t help. Donny is fun and adorable, but he loves to scares his new baby-sitter, and it isn’t difficult for him to make her jump. Jenny is on edge and it becomes clear that she is right to be nervous. Disturbing phone calls from a mystery man calling her ‘babes’; noises outside the front door and a suspicious neighbour, Willers, lurking in the garden soon make Jenny wish she’d never taken the job. And the recent local news stories about attacks on baby-sitters make her even more fearful. Despite a strict warning from the Hagens to never allow anyone to join her when she’s baby-sitting Donny, Jenny invites best friend Laura and new boyfriend, Chuck, to keep her company. But Mr Hagen was serious about this rule, and Jenny may have made things even worse for herself by breaking it.
R. L. Stine offers us three convincing suspects: the annoying Chuck who seems clownish but is difficult to read; snooping Willers, the unpleasant neighbour with his slicked back hair, thick eyebrows and leery manner; and Mr Hagen: intense, odd and highly strung. He provides us with a creepy setting: a gloomy, damp Victorian house with plenty of dark corners and creaking floorboards, described so effectively we feel trapped in there with Jenny. And the horror elements – scary phone calls, raps on the door, a mystery attacker targeting only baby-sitters – might be cliched, but they are used to good effect. The finale creates a sense of danger but unfortunately does not quite deliver the excitement it should, as it peters out to a disappointingly flat last few pages.
Nevertheless, The Baby-Sitter is a classic of the PH franchise, and whilst not breaking any moulds, it is well told, and consistently entertains in a nostalgic and comforting way.
We know what it’s like to be alone in a strange place with odd noises, and be scared by them. R. L. Stine plays on those fears to strong effect. The Baby-Sitter never terrifies, but its pervading creepiness means we are constantly on edge, earning it a fear factor rating of…
The Baby-Sitter II
By R. L. Stine.
The action of The Baby-Sitter is neatly recapped at the outset, by having Jenny recount the trauma she suffered at the hands of Mr Hagen to her shrink, Dr Schindler. We are subtly reminded of her nervous personality and wild imagination, and that she had started a relationship with class clown Chuck Quinn, who we learn she is no longer dating. She bumps into a lovelorn Chuck after her appointment, who shows a more aggressive side to his personality, setting him up as a potential perpetrator… again! On a trip to the mall we encounter Jenny’s new friends, Claire and Rick, and Jenny meets a new love interest, tough-looking, just-arrived in town, Cal. And so, we have a fresh cast of possible suspects.
Despite her ordeal the previous winter, and the fact she is continuing to suffer from nightmares where Mr Hagen comes back from the grave to get her, Jenny decides to take on a new baby-sitting job for the Wexners. It involves looking after Eli, a 10-year old self-proclaimed mechanical genius who torments her from their first meeting by tricking her into putting her hand in a box with a tarantula. Jenny decides to persist with the job, despite the unpleasant child, because his disengaged, bickering parents are paying her $5 an hour. But then she gets a phone call from someone using Mr Hagen’s old catchphrases, “Hi babes, I’m back,” etc. and from here on, the story follows a similar structure to the original, with most of the horror being derived from the crank calls and Jenny’s own fears and paranoia.
We know Jenny, and her backstory, and already have some sympathy for her. But the plot still needs to engage us – we don’t want a repeat of the The Baby-Sitter – and unfortunately this is exactly what we’re served up. The new boyfriend is again set up as her potential tormentor. The friends come round to the house whilst she’s babysitting, getting her into trouble with Eli’s father, like Jenny’s old friends did with Mr Hagen. History is repeating itself. The finale even takes place at the same quarry. There is an attempt at a twist, but this falls flat due to a weak motive and rushed final set piece.
Unfortunately, although The Baby-Sitter II starts well, it doesn’t make effective use of the advantages it has as a sequel, and it fails to deliver a satisfying follow up to the original.
The Baby-Sitter II focuses far too much on Jenny, as the object of every boy’s desire, without exploring any of the suitors themselves, or putting any effort into making them scary. Cal is mysterious and cagey, but he’s not at all sinister. Rick is bland and gets so little attention, it’s difficult to see why he even exists. And Chuck should feature far more than he does – both as a way of anchoring this sequel to the original story, and because he’s an interesting character deserving of greater attention. The scariest character in the piece is creepy Eli, but as he cannot realistically be the perpetrator, he takes up too much ink. The Baby-Sitter II feels like it’s over before it has really begun… and way, way before your spine has even begun to tingle.
The Baby-Sitter III
By R. L. Stine.
Almost two years on from the action of The Baby-Sitter, Jenny Jeffers is still haunted by the memory of Mr Hagen. Deciding a change of scene is the answer, Jenny’s mum sends her to stay with her cousin Debra for the summer, to the disappointment of her boyfriend, Cal. When we first meet Debra, she is making a flirtatious anonymous phone call to her crush, Terry, when she is interrupted by ex-boyfriend, Don, who threatens to tell current boyfriend, Mark, what he overheard. Despite juggling so many beaus, Debra still has time to babysit for a stressed divorcee, Mrs Wagner. Jenny reluctantly accompanies her cousin to Mrs Wagner’s house on the first night of her visit, where Debra assures her they can spend some time catching up. They are interrupted, however, by recently fired housekeeper, Maggie, who turns up drunk and intimidates the girls, before staggering off to make way for the arrival of Debra’s boyfriend, Mark. Despite the fact his presence turns Jenny into a third wheel, he is polite and friendly to his girlfriend’s cousin, and offers to get her a summer job as a wrangler at a nearby stables, which she gratefully accepts.
With Jenny now occupied, Debra is alone next time she baby-sits. And whilst on the job, she gets a creepy phone call from someone claiming to be Mr Hagen, speaking in the same raspy voice and using the words with which he had once harassed Jenny. Then the girls find a life-like doll on Debra’s stoop, with a note from ‘Mr Hagen’, claiming to be back from the dead. Whilst Jenny is convinced of Mr Hagen’s return, Debra more pragmatically wonders whether it could be Mark, who has broken up with her after learning of her phone calls to Terry; or Terry, who heard about Jenny’s ordeal from Mark; or Cal, who has gone AWOL after a fight with his mum. Discovering the identity of the perpetrator becomes urgent when, whilst baby-sitting during a terrible storm, Debra discovers someone has kidnapped baby Peter from his crib.
Jenny’s appeal as a character diminishes in each instalment, and in this third book, it is a relief to be introduced to cousin Debra, who takes on the mantle of protagonist, and is a far more interesting, likeable heroine. The other new characters are welcome additions, and the plot of The Baby-Sitter III is entertaining and engaging.
On the downside, most of the horror is relegated to the second half, and the few scares are carbon copies of those Jenny experienced two years earlier. The twist, though predictable, is well-executed and makes for a dramatic final few pages. It is an enjoyable read; a marked improvement on The Baby-Sitter II, and it rounds off the R. L. Stine Baby-Sitter trilogy* neatly, if a little predictably.
A few prank calls and a doll in a bush constitute the only scares to which our new heroine, Debra, is subjected. The remainder of the horror comes from Jenny’s nightmares and her constant conviction that something terrible is afoot. Instead of exploiting the advantage of having a ready-made plot and characters, R. L. Stine simply delivers up the same material from his first two instalments, which is far from satisfying. Nevertheless, the tragedy and sense of peril evoked by the twist finale, and the terrible implication of what lies in store for an important character, contribute enough to earn The Baby-Sitter III a reasonable fear factor rating of…
The Baby-Sitter IV
By R. L. Stine.*
A year has passed since the conclusion of The Baby-Sitter III and Jenny has spent most of that time recuperating in a mental institute. Now she is back at home, trying to piece her old life together with the support of best friends Claire and Rick, and intense boyfriend, Cal. When new neighbour, Mrs Warsaw, persuades Jenny to look after her kids for 10 minutes while she pops to the shops, she’s apprehensive, but when nothing terrible befalls her, Jenny agrees to babysit the Warsaw kids next time she’s asked.
Blonde-haired Sean is a handful, constantly harassing his little sister Meredith, but his twin, Seth, is the opposite: sweet and helpful. When Jenny puts the boys to bed, she is startled to hear the sound of footsteps in the attic, but Seth dismisses it, ‘reassuring’ her they always hear noises at night. She cannot investigate anyway; he tells her their mother has locked the attic door because it is dangerous. But later that night, Jenny feels a cold, clammy sensation against the back of her neck, and hears a voice whisper, “Go away Jenny… Or you’ll die, too”.
Jenny starts to believe the Warsaw home is haunted, especially when, after a fun night of bowling with Claire and Rick, and kissing in Cal’s car, she returns home late to see the face of a girl in their attic window mouthing “Help me”. She also hears howling noises and sees a little blonde boy running across their lawn. Jenny tries to rationalise away her fears, but when she babysits again, she finds herself in mortal danger when invisible forces take control of her knife-wielding arm, and she almost loses a hand to a garbage disposal unit. Despite the danger, Jenny knows there is a mystery surrounding the Warsaw place, which must be solved, for the sake of her sanity if nothing else.
This fourth instalment of The Baby-Sitter series does something original with well-established characters. The move away from rehashing the same old Mr Hagen plotline, towards a supernatural mystery, is a welcome digression and makes for a fresh, compelling read. Jenny’s release from hospital and return to baby-sitting are treated in a convincing way, and the horror is introduced early and sustains the thrills until her terrifying and long-awaited confrontation with the entity that’s been haunting her. Unfortunately, this is undermined by subsequent pages of trite exposition and a bizarre finale which leaves Jenny on the sideline in favour of a confusing scuffle between two ghosts. Still, it is an entertaining read – much better than I had expected from a third sequel.
The ghost imagery is chilling, and tingles the spine more effectively than anything in the earlier Baby-Sitter books. When Jenny is subjected to the mercy of invisible forces – whether they’re stroking the back of her neck or trying to chop her hand into mincemeat – the threat feels significant. It is such a shame that the absurd finale neutralises the horror, and that from this point until the naff last sentence of the book, Jenny is reduced to the role of spectator. Still, the scares throughout this entry are on a par with The Baby-Sitter and it gets the same fear factor rating, of…
*Whilst R. L. Stine’s name is the only one to be found on this book, it is Louise Colligan who is credited as author on Amazon, Abe Books etc. I think The Baby-Sitter I, II and III can be approached as an R. L. Stine trilogy, and The Baby-Sitter IV as a closely-linked spin-off, ghost-written by Louise Colligan.