By Diane Hoh.
Every year, the girls of Toomey High flock to Quartet to buy their prom gowns, designed by the boutique’s owner, Adrienne Dunne. But Adrienne’s only daughter, Margaret, has no need for a dress; she isn’t planning on attending her own senior prom. Throughout high school, Margaret has gone on the occasional date, but no boy has ever asked her to prom: why would this year be any different? She intends to spend that evening with fellow wallflowers: Caroline, Lacey and Jeanette, and experiences only slight pangs of envy when she’s forced to witness the most popular girls in her class (the “The Pops” as she’s named them) buying their dresses in her mother’s store. It’s only Queen Bee Stephanie whose custom she resents; who is mean and unpleasant, especially to Margaret and her friends. Liza and Beth are pleasant enough, and their friend Kiki is too rich to confine her shopping to their little New Jersey town, anyway.
Still, the prom is getting someone all riled up. On the senior picnic, Stephanie falls to her death from a lighthouse; an incident the police later determine was no accident. Margaret is disgusted when the very next day, her friends are musing over lunch about whom Stephanie’s boyfriend, Michael, will ask to the prom now she’s ‘unavailable’. They’re also far from supportive when Margaret reveals she’s been asked to the prom by Liza’s ex, Mitch. She shakes off their negativity, and tries to set aside the disturbing thoughts she’s been having (that her discovery of The Pops’ prom dresses, destroyed in a puddle beside Quartet, is somehow connected with Stephanie’s death). But Margaret’s hopes of a perfect prom are shattered, when she is locked in a burning dumpster and nearly dies. Shortly afterwards, Kiki is brutally attacked – a metal cash box smashed into her face, breaking her nose and leaving her disfigured. It’s clear someone desperately wants to go to prom, and they’re punishing those who have already snagged the most eligible dates. Margaret, as one of that lucky group, had better watch her back – or she won’t make it to prom night.
Even with its grandma-sized print, Prom Date, at 270 pages, is one of the longest entries in the Point Horror franchise. Yet far from outstaying its welcome, the extra length works to its advantage. It’s a consistently entertaining read, punctuated with several nail-biting, memorable set-pieces. The only way in which Prom Date fails to deliver is as a whodunit. We’re pretty much told who the perp is, with 120 pages still to go. It’s one of the maniac’s monologues (about half a dozen of which are scattered throughout the narrative) that gives the game away, and I wonder whether these first-person interludes were an afterthought; an unnecessary last-minute addition that does more harm than good. Still, the action hurtles thrillingly towards prom night, and the promise of a gripping final showdown is amply fulfilled. A chilling yet poignant ‘one last scare’ more than compensates for the unsurprising twist.
The early murder scene, to which we’re witness, is frightening not just because of the loss of life, but also the cold-heartedness and cruelty of the killer, as they nudge their victim towards her fatal fall. We’re also treated to a graphic description of the corpse’s, “boneless mass of sodden flesh,” and “glassy doll-like stare”. Similarly, later in the story, Kiki’s mangled face is depicted in full, gory detail. And for me, these aren’t even the scariest moments in Prom Date. When Margaret is violently forced into the stinking dumpster, it’s gross; when she’s locked in, it’s claustrophobia-inducing; when the rat scurries past her, it’s revolting; and when a lighted newspaper is shoved through a gap in the bin and the rubbish surrounding Margaret is set alight, it’s actually terrifying. This has to be the scariest set-piece I’ve come across in any Point Horror, and Prom Date accordingly merits an unbeatable fear factor rating of…