By Diane Hoh.
The transition from high school to college can be tricky, and Molly really struggles when she arrives at Salem University. Drowning in those first few, desperately lonely weeks she is willing to cling to any bough, and unfortunately, the only low hanging branch to present itself is weird outsider, Norman. But Norman isn’t looking for a friend; he’s seeking recruits for his creepy group of maladjusted malcontents; freshmen who have failed to sustain the glory of their high school successes now they’re at university amongst more talented people. Calling themselves ‘the Others’, and with Norman at the helm, they talk of reclaiming their rightful place among the jocks; the artists; the performers; the popular ones.
It’s all too much for Molly, especially when she’s shanghaied into participating in a bizarre initiation ritual in the park. Besides, things are looking up at last: she’s made a nice, normal friend in skilled pianist, Phoebe, and she’s been handpicked by her English professor to be the new writer for the Odyssey, Salem’s prestigious literary magazine. She’s not on the fringes anymore, and she wastes no time in telling Norman she doesn’t want to belong to his club. Shaking off his angry reaction, she bounds into the offices of the Odyssey, only to discover Norman’s not the only one she’s ticked-off. Fellow freshmen, Ava, Donovan, Ken and Dana aren’t too happy that Molly’s waltzed straight into a writing position when they’re all being forced to pay their dues in menial admin roles. At least her Editor, Hank, is welcoming – and it’s soon clear he’s interested in more than just her literacy skills.
But as soon as things start going right for Molly, they go horribly wrong. First, her car is filled with stinky river mud. Then her laundry is splattered with ink. And it’s not just Molly being targeted – the Odyssey’s offices are trashed, and Salem’s star dancer, Stacey – recently featured in an article about the matriculating class’s ‘most talented’ – is pushed off a ledge at a party and breaks both her legs. When Molly discovers that Phoebe (whose musical prowess also landed her a mention in that article) is the next intended victim, she takes action to thwart Norman, or whichever ‘Other’ is behind the jealousy-driven attacks, to save her best friend and preserve the good life she’s forging for herself.
Freshmen struggling to adjust to university life and coming together to form a cult with the aim of taking down the talented, popular kids, is fertile ground for horror, and The Initiation is a notable entry in the Nightmare Hall series. Norman and his group are truly unsettling and trying to identify the secret ‘Others’ among our extended cast of characters, keeps up the intrigue. Okay, so Molly’s naivety and unwillingness to accuse Norman gets annoying after a while, but her humility and loyalty to her friends endear her to us all the same.
One thing to note about The Initiation is its departure from the chronology and characters of the series so far. It’s autumn again… so are we in a new school year where Jess and friends at Nightingale Hall are now sophomores, or have we travelled back to say, the timeframe of The Wish? One tiny reference to a ‘new video game’ at Vinnie’s Pizzeria suggests maybe that’s the case, but it’s never resolved. Also, as far as I can tell, there are none of those references to previously encountered characters which imbue other entries with a sense of familiarity. However, it’s a minor grumble, and one which didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment of this highly entertaining instalment.
The Initiation is scariest whenever it emphasises Molly’s isolation against the increasingly powerful and cult-like ‘Others’. As Norman’s influence over his acolytes increases, her situation becomes ever more precarious. It therefore loses some of its impetus when the threat is reduced to a solitary individual. This might be more in-keeping with the Point Horror MO, but I think a Wicker Man style finale would have done greater justice to what came before. As it is, the ending feels like an anti-climax and the much-anticipated scares aren’t there. An earlier set piece, when Molly stumbles into a night time meeting of the Others, is the horror-high-point of The Initiation, and should be credited for its decent fear factor rating.