By Diane Hoh.
Johanna Donahue is one of Salem University’s ‘Beautiful People’; a nickname the group of friends earned by posing for a department store newspaper advert during fall semester. As the only singleton amongst couples (Nan and Reed, and Kelly and Carl) she is delighted when she hits it off with a strikingly handsome guy at Missy Stark’s party. Unfortunately, the night ends in tragedy rather than romance when a scuffle sends Johanna flying through a glass patio door. Waking up in the infirmary she nervously touches a face covered in cuts and bandages, and fears the worst. Despite the doctor’s assurances that she’ll be good as new once the stitches are out and her bruises have healed, Johanna can tell from her friends’ horrified reactions that the damage might be irreparable, and she starts to come to terms with the possibility she’s lost her stunning looks, forever.
But someone isn’t coping with Johanna’s transformation quite as well as she is. At first, they send subtle suggestions that she should spare the rest of the world the trauma of having to look at her – black shrouds over the mirrors; a tube of corrective make-up slipped into her bag. It’s only after she refuses to take the hint, and persists in parading her mangled face around campus, that they decide it’s better for everyone if Johanna disappears completely.
Most of us – and not least, the target PH audience – are pretty sensitive about our looks, and quick to overreact to the tiniest of blemishes or imperfections. In Pretty Please, Diane Hoh uses vanity as fertile ground for one of her finest horror stories. She begins with the disfigurement of a beautiful (and, it would seem, perfectly likeable) young woman and then ramps up the tension by subjecting her to the wrath of an aesthetics-obsessed lunatic, whilst having to deal with gaping classmates, an unsympathetic roommate and constantly peeling bandages.
The threat starts off slowly. After the accident, we’re given some breathing space to get to know Johanna, her friends, and new boyfriend, Evan, and whilst she adjusts to her injuries we settle back into the now familiar surroundings of Salem University for our second semester. Hoh never takes her foot completely off the pedal, though. The shrouded mirrors and messages to Johanna to hide her face, which attest to some malevolent foe on campus, also serve to build tension gradually, and to greater effect. This allows for the smooth introduction of other elements of the story alongside the main narrative, including references to a missing student who was disfigured in a car crash last semester, and flashbacks which give us insights into the perpetrator’s weird, isolated childhood.
The result is a cohesive, well-plotted and intriguing mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end.
A crazy person has murdered a girl, simply because she’s damaged her face in a car crash. And that’s not even the main focus of Pretty Please! It’s just something that’s alluded to, in-between the cruel messages and violent physical attacks Johanna is subjected to during her recovery. The graphic descriptions of the assaults (the plastic bag painfully fastened over her head and neck; the gauze slowly applied to her face, gradually cutting off her oxygen supply) actually made me stop breathing for a few pages, and are two of the scariest moments in the Nightmare Hall series so far.
The finale suffers a little from being overlong, and if I didn’t have an abiding memory of who the perp is from my repeated borrowings of this book from Bury library, I may have found the extremely protracted reveal frustrating. However, once everything’s out in the open, the utter creepiness of the beautiful person behind all the ugliness is well worth the wait!