Trapped between the shutters of a creepy attic tower lives a vampire with spongy, mushroom-coloured skin, who can make teenage girls’ dreams come true, if they’ll do him the small favour of sacrificing their classmates. Caroline B. Cooney delivers three grim tales of yearning, wavering morality and bloodlust.
The Cheerleader (Caroline B. Cooney)
When Althea opens the shutters in the attic tower of her creepy house, she sets free a vampire. In exchange for delivering the most popular girl in school to him, the vampire offers to make Althea a cheerleader. It may not seem like a great offer, but Althea has zero friends and joining the cheerleading squad is her best shot at gaining the popularity she craves. So, she lures poor Celeste to her house, and the vampire holds up his end of the bargain. The cool kids treat her as if she were one of them; she gets invited to sit with them at lunch; to go to Maccas with them after school; to hang out with Becky, whom Althea admires most of all. And when Celeste comes to school exhausted, weak and dull, Althea is too distracted by handsome jock, Ryan, to care.
Althea breezes onto the cheerleading squad, taking Celeste’s place, and is a huge success at her first game. But at the party she throws the next day, the vampire insists on being given another victim. When she is tricked into giving up her old friend, Jennie, Althea resolves to lock him up inside the shutters, forever. But to do so, his powerful persuasiveness and her reluctance to lose her newfound popularity, must first be overcome.
The Cheerleader conveys loneliness, and the difficulty of fitting-in with high school cliques, very effectively. Althea isn’t likeable (her dullness and desperation are instantly off-putting) but we still pity her, meaning we cannot dismiss her actions as merely selfish and cruel. Her isolation comes through on every page. We never hear about her parents, she may as well live alone (and perhaps she does?). Even when the vampire gives her friends, she is still very lonely: no one knows the real Althea, or what she has done – she is alone in her guilt. The vampire exploits this, and the precariousness of her popularity (“I made you. I will unmake you”) to great effect. He is the closest companion she has, which is horrifying, because this is a particularly revolting vampire. He’s no Dracula, Spike, or Robert Pattinson. Whether she’s comparing his spongy, mushroom-coloured skin to bad fruit, describing his grey, detached foil fingernails, or evoking the rotten smell of decay that accompanies him, Caroline B. Cooney creates an oppressive, disgusting monster, whose passion for cruelty is even more disturbing than his insatiable appetite for blood.
One of the first Point Horrors I read – and one which I returned to frequently as a pre-teen – I have a personal affection for The Cheerleader. And as an adult… I maintain it is an absorbing, fascinating, gripping and memorable read, one of the absolute best in the franchise.
The vampire is abhorrent, but Althea’s own disintegrating humanity is just as scary. Her fight with him is a fight for her own soul. When she does occasionally entertain a moral doubt, the vampire compensates by becoming even more sadistic, naming, for his next choice of victim, a girl she really cares for. Althea’s first attempt to close the shutters is saturated with horror. The vampire lurks, ready to pounce, from every corner of the tower; in every shadow. The helplessness of the situation she has brought on herself is reminiscent of a gambling addict at the mercy of a loan shark – it gets to the point where it is obvious there is no chance of her getting out completely intact. A young girl in a vampire’s thrall is sometimes portrayed as romantic, or sexual, but in The Cheerleader, Althea’s relationship with her vampire is repugnant, desperate and soaked in horror. And the ultimate consequence; that by the last page Althea has ruined three lives without getting anything real or lasting in return, is worse than a couple of puncture marks in the neck. Grimly terrifying.
The Return of the Vampire (Caroline B. Cooney)
A new family – the Fountains – have moved into the house with a vampire in its creepy, shuttered tower. Plain Devnee Fountain has an intense desire to be beautiful, and when she makes her new bedroom in the vampire’s tower, he offers to grant her wish, with one proviso – she must pick his next victim. The dreaded first day at a new school gets off to a surprisingly terrific start when she is first buddied up with gorgeous teen royalty, Alyssa and Trey, and then taken under the wing of her intimidatingly brainy and confident classmate, Victoria. Devnee is convinced she has found the ideal circle of friends, who accept her, despite her average looks. But when she overhears Alyssa and Trey complaining about her, Devnee realises she is an unwanted burden on their time and patience. Her shame and resentment propel her towards making a fateful pact with the vampire: Devnee will get Alyssa’s beauty, if she gives him Alyssa. The next day, she opens a window in the Biology lab, and the vampire takes his victim. Overnight, Devnee becomes beautiful: adored and admired by her classmates, respected by her parents, and the object of Trey’s desire. But beauty is not enough, and when Devnee asks for more from her supernatural benefactor, he demands more from her. For it is not just blood the vampire wants; he is gradually devouring Devnee’s soul, making her a part of him, as he sows, and then feeds upon, the seeds of her discontent.
The Return of the Vampire is a continuation of his story. This time, alongside the usual grim depictions (mouldy skin, silver foil fingernails etc.) we are given a greater insight into his operations (we see him effectively drain Alyssa’s beauty, and transfer it to Devnee) and more disconcertingly, we see an increase in his power (whereas Althea had to deliver his first victim to the tower, here he can reach as far as the school from the start, suggesting he has retained some of his vigour from The Cheerleader). We learn that the vampire’s cape is made from the “victims of many centuries” and it gradually dawns on us throughout the narrative that his true victims are not the blood donors, but those with whom he makes his pacts, whose souls he consumes until they become a part of him, forever.
We get a couple of allusions to Althea from The Cheerleader (“I knew the girl who used to live there. Creepy? Whew!… I was at that house for a party once”) and whilst they are a welcome call-back, they also unintentionally remind us of that character’s superiority, in every respect, to Devnee. Althea was complex, and her decisions were often morally dubious, but they made her interesting, and occasionally sympathetic. In Devnee, we have a bland, superficial protagonist, who arouses hardly any pity. Whilst she betrays Alyssa in part because of her desire for beauty; she is equally motivated by revenge. She is cruel, not just to her victims, but to most people, including her mother. And even after she realises that deep, genuine love is more valuable than being admired for how she looks, Devnee goes on revelling in her beauty and popularity, always wanting more. Her completely undeserved moment of salvation, which comes too late, and far too easily, makes for a jarring conclusion to an otherwise very worthy sequel to The Cheerleader.
Following The Cheerleader, we are given an even more terrifying insight into the scope of the vampire’s intentions and power. The sadistic pleasure he gets, not just from feeding on his teenage victims, but from corrupting his chosen vassal, is where the horror lies. Devnee, who relinquishes her humanity more easily than Althea, is even given the chance to undo her crime, and chooses not to. The vampire’s risk pays off: the choice damns her, defiling her mind and making it more comfortable for him to inhabit. He is insidious, cruel, the “virus in her soul”. She wears someone else’s beauty, appropriates another’s intelligence, lets a vampire set up shop in her thoughts… and yet she had the opportunity to stop it. Her lack of sympathy as a character only detracts slightly from the chilling implications of The Return of the Vampire, which merits a fear factor rating of…
The Vampire’s Promise (Caroline B. Cooney)
Six teenagers break into the shuttered tower of a creepy, abandoned mansion, accidentally awakening a vampire who lives there. He will let the rest go free, he promises, if they leave one of their number behind to be his victim – and they must decide who that individual will be. Their initial attempts to escape prove futile, and almost fatal, until one of them finds the vampire’s coffin, and his oppressive presence is suddenly lifted. Making a futile dash for freedom, they are confronted with the full power of the vampire and the helplessness of their situation. Defeated, they give up one amongst them, but when morality gets the better of the other five, and they try to save her, they inadvertently make their situation drastically worse.
From the outset, the teens are in a grim and hopeless situation – they accept (albeit to varying degrees) the gravity of what they must do, and the implications are laid bare: terrible and thrilling. The horror implicit in previous instalments is escalated. The vampire feeds off the darkness created by the inhuman choices he encourages people to make, and here he is going for five simultaneous immoral decisions at once: a feast of evil. By making explicit the ultimate goal of the vampire, to stain his victims with their bad deed so it becomes part of them like a ‘scar on their heart’, The Vampire’s Promise brings Caroline B. Cooney’s trilogy to a neat and apt conclusion.
Whilst Althea and Devnee each get a cursory mention (to little purpose or effect) and the descriptions of the vampire and shuttered tower are by now, very familiar to us, there are also stark digressions from previous instalments. Some sense of isolation is still there – we are given an insight into the teens’ individual thought processes as they try to escape, give up their chosen victim, and then regret their decision – but they are physically together, and share in the experience, which unavoidably dials down the horror a little. The inclusion of a small cast of peripheral characters: various siblings of those in the tower, a policewoman, a car thief, is very welcome – they offer some variety and occasional relief from the tension, and the sporadic scene-changes allow for several thrilling cliff-hangers. There is also a twist, which, whilst initially surprising, is a wasted opportunity and is quickly abandoned for a slightly chaotic, but nail-biting finale. The happy ending – so often a grating annoyance at the end of an otherwise perfectly fine Point Horror – here satisfactorily concludes the trilogy, whilst leaving the coffin-lid open for future instalments.
As with the two previous instalments, the hints of the vampire’s true nature, and the implications of his past actions and future intentions, are what drive the horror. And in The Vampire’s Promise, the force keeping the teens in the tower: the vampire’s miasma, made from the agony and decay of centuries of victims, is more grotesque than anything we’ve encountered in the trilogy before. However, the other prime opportunity for horror: that five of them will have to sacrifice one of their friends, never really fulfils its potential. Especially once it is revealed that after they leave the tower, none of them will remember their crime, and even the victim won’t die – they’ll just have perennial glandular fever. Still, The Vampire’s Promise is claustrophobic, grim and unrelenting, earning the final entry in the trilogy a fear factor rating of…