By Diane Hoh.
When the Salem Chronicle starts featuring a personal column, aspiring reporter Demi senses an opportunity for a story. She places an ad, intending to write a feature on her dating experiences with Salem University’s lonely hearts. Basic bestie, Shannon, thinks it’s a terrible idea, even though it was she who dared Demi to place the ad in the first place. Her possessive ex, Jack, isn’t best pleased either. But her editor, Kevin, loves the idea – especially as he initiated the personal column in the first place. And it’s a great way to wind up Marge, Demi’s journalistic rival, and Kevin’s sort-of-girlfriend.
Demi’s first few dates don’t offer much hope of a Pulitzer, or true love. There’s the boring French major who superfluously translates the (subtitled) movie they go and see; there’s the creep she’s already had to reject in the past; and there’s the arrogant frat boy who becomes increasingly obnoxious throughout their date, before abandoning her outside a pool hall. But what happens to each of Demi’s dates after their disastrous rendezvous, is far more newsworthy. Boring Francophile, Lance, is seriously hurt in a hit and run; slimy loser, Phillip, is knocked unconscious and locked in a garage with his engine running in a staged attempted suicide; and arrogant tool, Andrew, disappears without a trace.
Despite this sequence of tragedies, and the fact Demi’s pretty high up on the police’s list of suspects, she decides to keep dating, justifying her reckless decision with the logic that it’s the only way to find out who is hurting the boys she goes out with. Besides, in Demi’s own words, she’s ‘not a quitter’. What a gal.
But date number four turns out to be a winner, in more ways than one. Not only is Brant someone that Demi actually fancies, he also manages to survive their date – despite being knocked unconscious by someone he assumes is a mugger. He’s even keen to see her again. But Brant’s luck runs out in round two, when their night-time picnic on the shore of the ‘bottomless lake’ is interrupted by the attacker. Both end up in the water, but only Demi is fished out safely.
Traumatised by the loss of Brant, and with her article finally abandoned, Demi starts to piece back together her life. But her stalker isn’t done with her yet, and a goading phone call is all it takes to prompt her into a final, dangerous confrontation with the villain, at the top of the clock tower.
Last Date has an interesting premise; one which allows for the systematic bumping-off of several characters in the gripping first sixty pages. The violence starts early and escalates quickly, hooking us in. There’s a slight credibility issue with Demi’s decision to persist in meeting boys after the first three encounters end so badly, but Brant is thankfully where it ends. He’s decent enough to merit a second date, and we therefore don’t have to dwell on our heroine’s lack of compassion for too long. The finale spins out the revelation of the perpetrator effectively, as we try to guess which of two characters is Demi’s antagonist, and which is her hero. Last Date is a short, snappy entry in the Nightmare Hall series which, whilst offering nothing particularly special, entertains without outstaying its welcome.
Usually in a Point Horror, it’s our female protagonist who’s being perpetually harassed. In Last Date however, the victims are her beaux, and for much of the narrative, the greatest danger Demi faces is the prospect of running out of dates for her newspaper article. Still, whilst it’s the boys who end up bloodied, broken, or dead, the unknown figure causing these ‘accidents’ and, more importantly, his/her shadowy motivations, are a constant reminder that Demi is far from safe. Whether the perpetrator loves her or hates her, they’re still a psychotic menace. When it’s revealed to the reader that Andrew’s yet-to-be-discovered corpse is floating in a watery quarry, we’re opened up to the possibility that anything might happen. It ramps up the horror significantly, and sets us on edge right up to the final, fraught confrontation in the clock tower. It might not be the scariest entry by Diane Hoh, but the pervasive suggestion of danger is enough to make Last Date pretty damn creepy.