By Diane Hoh.
Learning to cohabit, peaceably, with strangers, has to be one of the hardest challenges of college life. And for the four new residents of Suite 2AB, Quad Dorm, Salem University, it’s going to be particularly tough-going. In two bedrooms, separated by a tiny WC, Lacey and Maureen, and Danni and Margot, are thrown together for their Freshman year. Danni, the most seemingly normal of the bunch, is our protagonist, and we mainly experience the others through her filter.
There’s Lacey, a party animal with an unpredictable wild streak, who shares her room with timid Maureen – quickly nicknamed Mouse – and gradually exerts a transformative influence on the quiet girl. Wealthy, worldly Danni has her room to herself for a few days, until Margot arrives. A strange and volatile addition to the suite, Margot is painfully eager to be friends with Danni, who offers to lend her expensive clothes to the new girl, until her missing trunk arrives. But a misunderstanding over a cashmere sweater causes Margot to reveal her temper, when she threatens an accusative Danni with a dangerously sharp letter opener.
And it’s not just Margot whose true colours come to the fore. Lacey’s game with Mouse, teasing her into changing everything about herself, Mouse’s own emergent split-personality, and Danni’s constant paranoia that someone is out to get her, all hint that something is not quite right with each of the group. Everyone has a secret, and when one girl becomes the target of dodgy phone calls and scrawled threats, it seems that someone’s secret is more sinister than the others… even, deadly.
The Roommate falls back, a little, on standard Point Horror shtick. The four main characters are somewhat less mature than the freshmen we met in the first Nightmare Hall instalment. Their personalities have a shiny, superficial distinctiveness: there’s the Party Animal; the Rich Girl; the Mouse… only Margot has any depth of character and that’s because she – as top suspect – is intentionally obscured behind a haze of contradictions. And whilst there’s frequent reference to knives and other pointy things, the pranks Danni is subjected to – whispered phone calls and lipstick-drawn messages – are pretty juvenile, R. L. Stine-fare.
Still, the element of mystery and the promise that everyone’s secret will, eventually, be revealed, manage to keep up the suspense. For those who take a chronological approach to the Nightmare Hall series, there are also a few fun call-backs to The Silent Scream. And the twist, whilst it’s not quite as clever as pre-teen me probably thought it was, is both ambitious and enjoyable.
After the ‘fear piled on top of terror’ approach of the first Nightmare Hall, I was disappointed by the lack of scares in this second instalment. It takes a long old time for anything sinister to happen, and when it does, we’re given childish pranks and giant topiary. Almost all the horror is saved for the finale, and whilst that does offer up some decent scares, it feels detached from the rest of the narrative.
Similarly, when the three non-lunatic roommates are sat around reflecting on their absent former friend in the final chapter, their newfound normality – the veil of suspicion having been suddenly lifted from each of them – is really difficult to accept. If anything, the extreme personality transformation each of them undergoes on page 176 is the most shocking thing that happens in The Roommate.