Sarah and her friends are not part of the ‘in-crowd’, yet for some reason they’ve all received invitations to their classmate Cass Rockham’s exclusive annual fall party. Sarah is suspicious and reluctant to go, but the rest of her group cannot wait. After much persuasion, they eventually convince her by pointing out that Sarah’s crush, Riley, will definitely be in attendance at the social event of the year. But as the five friends look forward to the party, they are also dealing with their own individual dramas. Ellie is being bullied by her nasty sister, Ruth, who cannot accept the fact that her stocky, plain sibling has been invited instead of her. Donald is trying to break up with a deranged girl he dated over the summer in order to free himself up for Maggie, whose feelings are mutual, and for whom Cass’s party is an ideal opportunity to act on them. Shane has recently started at their school, and is harbouring a terrible secret which she fears, if made known to her new friends, would see her ostracized, as she was in her last school. And Sarah has an overbearing mother to contend with, whose attempts to prevent her from going to a party which will distract her from schoolwork and violin practice, ultimately strengthens Sarah’s resolve to attend, have fun and snag Riley.
They have been at the party for about five minutes, when it becomes evident Sarah’s misgivings were well placed. A game of musical chairs sees the friends lose in succession before being led, separately, to five remote corners of the vast estate, where they are locked in enclosed spaces – becoming unwilling participants in a human scavenger hunt Cass has designed for her snobby friends’ amusement. Thankfully, Riley is as decent as he is attractive, and, disgusted by Cass’s mean trick, he sets about trying to free the five ‘losers’. It’s just as well, because someone is using the game for their own violent ends, and what starts as a joke, soon becomes a matter of life and death for Sarah and her friends.
By the time we rock up at Cass’s mansion, we know the five friends pretty well, we can’t help but like them a little, and we’re definitely intrigued by some of their personal dramas. And, once we’re at the party, we’re taken on a rollercoaster ride through the remaining action, with barely a moment to catch our breath. Filled with action, tension, peril (and a dash of romance), The Invitation is gripping; keeping us constantly intrigued as to what is going on, and who is behind it all, until the truths behind the mysteries come to light in a very satisfying finale. The fast-paced action and lively dialogue seal the deal, making this entry one of the most entertaining in the Point Horror franchise.
Throughout The Invitation, Sarah and her friends spend much of their time isolated and in the dark – both literally and figuratively. And at one point or another, they all find themselves in very serious danger. There is an attempted carbon-monoxide poisoning – a prolonged, suspenseful section of the narrative, during which we genuinely fear for the character’s life. A race against time to save someone from a locked freezer is equally thrilling. Diane Hoh mercilessly dangles her characters between the jaws of death, and these terrifying situations, which culminate in a finale fraught with danger and violence, make for a hair-raising Point Horror experience.
Grayson was blind, but now – thanks to a donated pair of corneas – she can see. She has arrived in Brooklyn to live with her sister, Kara, and is happily spending her summer hanging out with new friend Mina, and flirting with sexy local construction worker, Jared. There is just one problem. Since her second eye operation, Grayson has had visions of a murder taking place on the balcony of a fancy apartment. When she recognises the scene of the crime in a news story about the recently murdered millionaire TV producer, Zeke Stuart, Grayson suspects it is Zeke’s right cornea she has inherited… and his final moments she is experiencing in her visions. Sneaking an illicit peak at her file during a routine check-up, however, Grayson discovers the donor was Aileen Mills, who died in a car accident. Chastened by the furious Dr Leeds, when he catches her snooping, and relieved her donor wasn’t murdered, Grayson decides to ignore the visions and move on with her life.
But when she gets her next vision, it is of a completely different murder. This time the location is a dockyard, and a warehouse watchman is the victim. She convinces an open-minded policeman – Detective Soames – that her visions are credible, and Soames reveals that he knew Aileen Mills, because she was a psychic who worked with the police. Grayson’s latest premonition saves the watchman, and she starts to believe she has inherited Aileen’s psychic abilities. But someone else believes it too, and starts leaving Grayson threatening messages warning her not to thwart their murderous plans again.
The first half of Second Sight offers everything you could want from a murder-mystery. There is an appropriately sized and varied cast of characters, all of whom could be the killer, which kept me guessing and switching my convictions most of the way through. Grayson is just likeable enough that we remain on her side throughout. And the Manhattan/Brooklyn backdrop, melting in the New York heat, is a refreshing change from the ambiguous small-town setting of most Point Horrors. But after the midway point, situations become increasingly unbelievable and the very late introduction of a new character breaks whodunit-etiquette, and leaves the reader feeling cheated out of a decent twist. Two unnecessary, awkward epilogues end the story on a sour note. Second Sight starts on a path to being one of the most entertaining entries in the Point Horror franchise, but when it loses its way, it does so irredeemably.
Even when it entertains, there is not much to fear in Second Sight. We are told Grayson’s visions are terrifying, but the brief descriptions offer little insight into her experiences. Any horror that might have been conjured up by the finale is overshadowed by the jarring grand reveal and its confusing fallout. An epilogue, which aims to suggest the threat is not yet over, falls flat due to it not making any sense. Still, whilst the killer’s identity remains a mystery, there is an element of danger in Grayson’s interactions with the other characters, creating a convincing feeling of unease and earning Second Sight a slightly less than dreadful fear factor rating of…
Rachel is one of a group of teen counsellors getting Camp Silverlake ready to welcome its summer guests. Whilst Rachel is a stranger to the camp, Stacey, Mark, Steve, Jordan and Paul know each other from attending as kids. Although they haven’t stayed in touch, Rachel notices a palpable tension between them.
Creating a display of photos from the 20 years the camp has been in operation, Rachel includes snaps of her fellow counsellors as children – prompting strangely negative reactions from them and from the shifty janitor, Mr Drummond. Rachel is baffled, until Paul tells her about a boy – Johnny – who died at the camp when they were kids: the boy in the photo which Rachel has placed in the middle of her display. Paul reveals that Johnny was teased mercilessly by Steve, Mark, Jordan and Stacey… until he was found one day with a broken neck.
Good-natured rivalry between the girls and boys turns sour when Steve finds a rattlesnake in his sleeping bag, triggering his crippling phobia, and on a trip to a nearby island, someone scuttles Stacey’s boat and she is narrowly saved from drowning. Rachel starts to wonder whether someone is seeking revenge on Johnny’s bullies, by using their worst fears against them. But when she is targeted too, Rachel realises no one is safe.
Camp Fear meanders around the characters and the mystery for a long time, before finally gathering pace towards the finale. The interactions between the teens are occasionally entertaining, though some of the characters are more interesting than others. Rachel herself has very little personality. Despite being the protagonist, she is mostly a witness to proceedings, and is frustratingly never in any real danger. Because of this, it is difficult to feel invested in, or scared by, what happens. We are introduced to the perpetrator early on, via anonymous, first person snippets interspersed throughout the chapters. As the story progresses, these reveal a plan which is coming to fruition, building the anticipation ahead of the finale. There is potential for suspense here, but at the end, too much remains unexplained and unresolved.
Camp Fear is a damp squib. The campsite setting is ideal for building tension and creating scares, but the isolated, tragedy-struck Camp Silverlake location is never used effectively. There is little sense of actual danger until the very end, and by that point, we have no investment in any of the characters, including Rachel. As it fails to deliver even a basic scare, Camp Fear gets a fear factor rating of…
Heather regularly fantasises about murdering her Uncle James, and you really can’t blame her. Ever since she was orphaned aged three, he has been a horrible guardian: mean and abusive; he steals from her trust fund and forces her to work in a greasy diner, leaving her no time to study, socialise or make out with her boyfriend, Ben. Waitressing one night, she meets a handsome boy with white hair who calls himself ‘Snowman’. New in town, he wastes no time in asking Heather out, and she eagerly accepts. Ben is kicked to the kerb as Heather escapes her dismal home life in a series of romantic dates with Snowman. Even her uncle’s persistent unpleasantness towards, and about, her new boyfriend does nothing to tarnish the gleam of their burgeoning love. But Snowman is not all that he seems to be, and when he reveals his true nature, Heather is not only in for a shock, she also finds herself in a desperate, and increasingly dangerous situation.
Heather’s interactions with her uncle are genuinely unpleasant. The implied threat and fear, bubbling under the surface, create a tension which I imagine quite accurately conveys the experience of living under the same roof as a bully such as James, and it makes for a gruelling read. For much of The Snowman, the romance between Heather and the titular character feels like a reprieve from the horror she endures at home. When the twist comes, and the romance evaporates, it is doubly upsetting, as our heroine is left to confront, alone, the terrible truth that is revealed. We are left, less with a horror story, but with a gripping thriller which culminates in an exciting final confrontation. The Snowman addresses some complicated issues with a light touch, without detracting from the seriousness of Heather’s situation. At the same time, it is a consistently interesting story which kept me engaged until the last page.
The Snowman teems with tension and terrifying possibilities, with the horror delivered mainly via the disturbing interactions between Heather and the abusive men in her life. Whilst The Snowman probably fits more comfortably into the ‘thriller’ genre, its brutally realistic approach to its subject matter and the unshakeable sense of unease this creates, make this entry far scarier than standard Point Horror fare, earning it a solid fear factor rating of…
Trapped between the shutters of a creepy attic tower lives a vampire with spongy, mushroom-coloured skin, who can make teenage girls’ dreams come true, if they’ll do him the small favour of sacrificing their classmates. Caroline B. Cooney delivers three grim tales of yearning, wavering morality and bloodlust.
The Cheerleader (Caroline B. Cooney)
When Althea opens the shutters in the attic tower of her creepy house, she sets free a vampire. In exchange for delivering the most popular girl in school to him, the vampire offers to make Althea a cheerleader. It may not seem like a great offer, but Althea has zero friends and joining the cheerleading squad is her best shot at gaining the popularity she craves. So, she lures poor Celeste to her house, and the vampire holds up his end of the bargain. The cool kids treat her as if she were one of them; she gets invited to sit with them at lunch; to go to Maccas with them after school; to hang out with Becky, whom Althea admires most of all. And when Celeste comes to school exhausted, weak and dull, Althea is too distracted by handsome jock, Ryan, to care.
Althea breezes onto the cheerleading squad, taking Celeste’s place, and is a huge success at her first game. But at the party she throws the next day, the vampire insists on being given another victim. When she is tricked into giving up her old friend, Jennie, Althea resolves to lock him up inside the shutters, forever. But to do so, his powerful persuasiveness and her reluctance to lose her newfound popularity, must first be overcome.
The Cheerleader conveys loneliness, and the difficulty of fitting-in with high school cliques, very effectively. Althea isn’t likeable (her dullness and desperation are instantly off-putting) but we still pity her, meaning we cannot dismiss her actions as merely selfish and cruel. Her isolation comes through on every page. We never hear about her parents, she may as well live alone (and perhaps she does?). Even when the vampire gives her friends, she is still very lonely: no one knows the real Althea, or what she has done – she is alone in her guilt. The vampire exploits this, and the precariousness of her popularity (“I made you. I will unmake you”) to great effect. He is the closest companion she has, which is horrifying, because this is a particularly revolting vampire. He’s no Dracula, Spike, or Robert Pattinson. Whether she’s comparing his spongy, mushroom-coloured skin to bad fruit, describing his grey, detached foil fingernails, or evoking the rotten smell of decay that accompanies him, Caroline B. Cooney creates an oppressive, disgusting monster, whose passion for cruelty is even more disturbing than his insatiable appetite for blood.
One of the first Point Horrors I read – and one which I returned to frequently as a pre-teen – I have a personal affection for The Cheerleader. And as an adult… I maintain it is an absorbing, fascinating, gripping and memorable read, one of the absolute best in the franchise.
The vampire is abhorrent, but Althea’s own disintegrating humanity is just as scary. Her fight with him is a fight for her own soul. When she does occasionally entertain a moral doubt, the vampire compensates by becoming even more sadistic, naming, for his next choice of victim, a girl she really cares for. Althea’s first attempt to close the shutters is saturated with horror. The vampire lurks, ready to pounce, from every corner of the tower; in every shadow. The helplessness of the situation she has brought on herself is reminiscent of a gambling addict at the mercy of a loan shark – it gets to the point where it is obvious there is no chance of her getting out completely intact. A young girl in a vampire’s thrall is sometimes portrayed as romantic, or sexual, but in The Cheerleader, Althea’s relationship with her vampire is repugnant, desperate and soaked in horror. And the ultimate consequence; that by the last page Althea has ruined three lives without getting anything real or lasting in return, is worse than a couple of puncture marks in the neck. Grimly terrifying.
The Return of the Vampire (Caroline B. Cooney)
A new family – the Fountains – have moved into the house with a vampire in its creepy, shuttered tower. Plain Devnee Fountain has an intense desire to be beautiful, and when she makes her new bedroom in the vampire’s tower, he offers to grant her wish, with one proviso – she must pick his next victim. The dreaded first day at a new school gets off to a surprisingly terrific start when she is first buddied up with gorgeous teen royalty, Alyssa and Trey, and then taken under the wing of her intimidatingly brainy and confident classmate, Victoria. Devnee is convinced she has found the ideal circle of friends, who accept her, despite her average looks. But when she overhears Alyssa and Trey complaining about her, Devnee realises she is an unwanted burden on their time and patience. Her shame and resentment propel her towards making a fateful pact with the vampire: Devnee will get Alyssa’s beauty, if she gives him Alyssa. The next day, she opens a window in the Biology lab, and the vampire takes his victim. Overnight, Devnee becomes beautiful: adored and admired by her classmates, respected by her parents, and the object of Trey’s desire. But beauty is not enough, and when Devnee asks for more from her supernatural benefactor, he demands more from her. For it is not just blood the vampire wants; he is gradually devouring Devnee’s soul, making her a part of him, as he sows, and then feeds upon, the seeds of her discontent.
The Return of the Vampire is a continuation of his story. This time, alongside the usual grim depictions (mouldy skin, silver foil fingernails etc.) we are given a greater insight into his operations (we see him effectively drain Alyssa’s beauty, and transfer it to Devnee) and more disconcertingly, we see an increase in his power (whereas Althea had to deliver his first victim to the tower, here he can reach as far as the school from the start, suggesting he has retained some of his vigour from The Cheerleader). We learn that the vampire’s cape is made from the “victims of many centuries” and it gradually dawns on us throughout the narrative that his true victims are not the blood donors, but those with whom he makes his pacts, whose souls he consumes until they become a part of him, forever.
We get a couple of allusions to Althea from The Cheerleader (“I knew the girl who used to live there. Creepy? Whew!… I was at that house for a party once”) and whilst they are a welcome call-back, they also unintentionally remind us of that character’s superiority, in every respect, to Devnee. Althea was complex, and her decisions were often morally dubious, but they made her interesting, and occasionally sympathetic. In Devnee, we have a bland, superficial protagonist, who arouses hardly any pity. Whilst she betrays Alyssa in part because of her desire for beauty; she is equally motivated by revenge. She is cruel, not just to her victims, but to most people, including her mother. And even after she realises that deep, genuine love is more valuable than being admired for how she looks, Devnee goes on revelling in her beauty and popularity, always wanting more. Her completely undeserved moment of salvation, which comes too late, and far too easily, makes for a jarring conclusion to an otherwise very worthy sequel to The Cheerleader.
Following The Cheerleader, we are given an even more terrifying insight into the scope of the vampire’s intentions and power. The sadistic pleasure he gets, not just from feeding on his teenage victims, but from corrupting his chosen vassal, is where the horror lies. Devnee, who relinquishes her humanity more easily than Althea, is even given the chance to undo her crime, and chooses not to. The vampire’s risk pays off: the choice damns her, defiling her mind and making it more comfortable for him to inhabit. He is insidious, cruel, the “virus in her soul”. She wears someone else’s beauty, appropriates another’s intelligence, lets a vampire set up shop in her thoughts… and yet she had the opportunity to stop it. Her lack of sympathy as a character only detracts slightly from the chilling implications of The Return of the Vampire, which merits a fear factor rating of…
The Vampire’s Promise (Caroline B. Cooney)
Six teenagers break into the shuttered tower of a creepy, abandoned mansion, accidentally awakening a vampire who lives there. He will let the rest go free, he promises, if they leave one of their number behind to be his victim – and they must decide who that individual will be. Their initial attempts to escape prove futile, and almost fatal, until one of them finds the vampire’s coffin, and his oppressive presence is suddenly lifted. Making a futile dash for freedom, they are confronted with the full power of the vampire and the helplessness of their situation. Defeated, they give up one amongst them, but when morality gets the better of the other five, and they try to save her, they inadvertently make their situation drastically worse.
From the outset, the teens are in a grim and hopeless situation – they accept (albeit to varying degrees) the gravity of what they must do, and the implications are laid bare: terrible and thrilling. The horror implicit in previous instalments is escalated. The vampire feeds off the darkness created by the inhuman choices he encourages people to make, and here he is going for five simultaneous immoral decisions at once: a feast of evil. By making explicit the ultimate goal of the vampire, to stain his victims with their bad deed so it becomes part of them like a ‘scar on their heart’, The Vampire’s Promise brings Caroline B. Cooney’s trilogy to a neat and apt conclusion.
Whilst Althea and Devnee each get a cursory mention (to little purpose or effect) and the descriptions of the vampire and shuttered tower are by now, very familiar to us, there are also stark digressions from previous instalments. Some sense of isolation is still there – we are given an insight into the teens’ individual thought processes as they try to escape, give up their chosen victim, and then regret their decision – but they are physically together, and share in the experience, which unavoidably dials down the horror a little. The inclusion of a small cast of peripheral characters: various siblings of those in the tower, a policewoman, a car thief, is very welcome – they offer some variety and occasional relief from the tension, and the sporadic scene-changes allow for several thrilling cliff-hangers. There is also a twist, which, whilst initially surprising, is a wasted opportunity and is quickly abandoned for a slightly chaotic, but nail-biting finale. The happy ending – so often a grating annoyance at the end of an otherwise perfectly fine Point Horror – here satisfactorily concludes the trilogy, whilst leaving the coffin-lid open for future instalments.
As with the two previous instalments, the hints of the vampire’s true nature, and the implications of his past actions and future intentions, are what drive the horror. And in The Vampire’s Promise, the force keeping the teens in the tower: the vampire’s miasma, made from the agony and decay of centuries of victims, is more grotesque than anything we’ve encountered in the trilogy before. However, the other prime opportunity for horror: that five of them will have to sacrifice one of their friends, never really fulfils its potential. Especially once it is revealed that after they leave the tower, none of them will remember their crime, and even the victim won’t die – they’ll just have perennial glandular fever. Still, The Vampire’s Promise is claustrophobic, grim and unrelenting, earning the final entry in the trilogy a fear factor rating of…
Jenny Fowler has just moved to Rimrock, a small town in the middle of a ring of menacing rocks which loom over her new house, making it difficult for her to feel settled. When Sally, her garrulous neighbour, invites her on a scavenger hunt, Jenny makes a bad first impression on bitchy-but-beautiful Diana. But her social speed-bump is forgotten when Jenny gets partnered with handsome David for the hunt. Romance blossoms rapidly, but ends in an argument when David abandons Jenny half way up a cliffside, during a storm. Whilst alone, Jenny hears a mysterious shout followed by a terrifying scream.
The next day Jenny gets an answer phone message from a shy admirer who tells her he’s crazy about her. She confides in Sally, who invites her to a get-together at the local diner. Jenny gets a frosty reception from David, but computer genius Dean is friendly and flirtatious. She is wondering whether Dean may be the secret admirer when hulking football player, Brad, arrives and tells them Diana is in a coma after falling from the cliffs during the scavenger hunt. When Jenny reveals she heard an altercation on the rimrocks that night, Brad reacts angrily, leaving her decidedly on-edge. It doesn’t help that her parents have gone on a trip, leaving her home alone. When her dog senses something outside in the middle of the night, and then she discovers a gift-wrapped, decapitated rattlesnake on her porch, Jenny realises her fear is justified.
Having survived the night, Jenny endures a day from hell: on a horse ride with Sally she is almost crushed by falling rocks; someone rolls the windows up on her car when she’s in the grocery store, giving her dog heat stroke; and then she is terrorised by a motorcyclist who tries to run her down. Exhausted and desperate, Jenny decides to head to the airport to wait for her parents, 24 hours early. But not before she goes to meet her secret admirer, who has left a message asking her to rendezvous with him… at the rimrocks.
By this point, we are solely focused on discovering who the perpetrator is, and this is revealed without much preamble or suspense. Afterwards, there is little to maintain our interest. Just a lot of Jenny crawling around on the rocks with a sprained ankle. The title, tagline and blurb all tell us that the secret admirer is also the perpetrator, so it is frustrating this ‘revelation’ is treated like a twist. It makes for a disappointing and dry finale. It lets down, at the final hurdle, a story which otherwise provides some great thrills.
There are some fabulous scary moments in My Secret Admirer. The discovery of the dead snake is both terrifying and disgusting, and the heart-pounding stand-off with the motorcyclist creates a sense of genuine peril. But it is the gradual persecution that Jenny faces which fosters our fear that she is moving irreversibly towards disaster. We anticipate a thrilling finale – and it is disappointing when this doesn’t materialise. Nevertheless, the story is more than just its ending, and for the infectious fear we feel when Jenny faces those long nights alone in her empty house, My Secret Admirer gets a fear factor rating of…
The action of Halloween Night is neatly recapped at the start by having Brenda and Traci apprise their new friend Angela, who has recently moved to town, of the goings-on the previous October. We also learn that Brenda’s attacker, Dina, was hospitalised; cousin Halley is still living with Brenda (and still a nuisance) and she’s now dating Brenda’s ex, Ted, whereas Brenda is seeing playboy, Jake.
Then Dina turns up at Brenda’s house out of the blue, released from the hospital into the custody of her parents, claiming to have no memory of what happened last Halloween Night and wanting to be friends again. Brenda is aghast and sends her packing. She is not fully over her ordeal and she is really not looking forward to this Halloween, despite Angela being a big fan of the holiday. Besides, a recent spate of brutal muggings means Halloween might be cancelled this year anyway. But Brenda is soon distracted from all of this when she catches Jake cheating on her with Halley, and, when she confronts her cousin, she is stunned when Halley tells Brenda she’s the one who will be sorry!
It is the beginning of Brenda’s Halloween Night II troubles. First, she ‘accidentally’ gets acid spilt on her hand (by Halley), then she receives a sick, anonymous Halloween card in the mail, and later someone leaves a rotten, maggoty pumpkin in her locker. When Jake ruins Brenda, Halley and Traci’s class project in a fit of temper, they plan a practical joke to humiliate him, by making him think they’re going to kill him. Although essentially a repeat of the original, with Jake the target rather than Halley, it adeptly gathers together all of the suspects at Angela’s weird house for the dramatic finale. The setting is creepy and as the tension begins to build, it has the potential to be very frightening. But the revelation of the perpetrator and the resolution of the danger all happen too quickly, meaning the finale feels rushed and we are given too little time to feel scared.
There are a couple of major issues that are difficult to overlook. Firstly, the bizarre lack of concern about Dina being back at school, supposedly ‘cured’ in less than a year. No one except Brenda seems bothered about this. It is also odd that Brenda’s mum dismisses the threatening card as a joke, given that her daughter was almost killed the previous Halloween. These elements undermine what happens in the first book, defusing the sense of danger, and hindering our ability to feel any genuine concern for Brenda this time around.
Nevertheless, and despite these flaws, Halloween Night II is, for the most part, an entertaining read. Particularly because of Halley’s excellent ‘queen bitch’ character. But it wastes its potential with an unforgivably disappointing ending.
Much of the horror is derived from the ‘pranks’ Brenda is subjected to, but these are too reminiscent of the original. With its creepy setting, and building sense of danger, the final set piece should be much scarier than it is. But as soon as we start to feel scared, the threat is nullified and we are just left wanting more.
Best friends, Kelly and Rachel, have landed summer internships at their local, rundown zoo. Aspiring vet, Rachel, is ecstatic, but Kelly secretly finds the zoo creepy and is afraid of any animal larger than her dog. It doesn’t help that she gets a crank call the night before starting the internship, warning her to stay away. Kelly’s parents are absorbed by their frantic search for her older sister, who ran away from home a few months earlier. Not wanting to cause them extra worry, she tries to put the creepy call out of her mind. The next day, the girls meet the zoo’s eccentric director, Dr Hoffstadter, and their fellow interns, pleasant Sandy, handsome Griffin (who catches Kelly’s eye and vice versa) and Jon and Melissa, whose respective parents are on the zoo board and have forced the internships on their reluctant kids. Kelly and Rachel are delighted to be assigned to the big cats, whose keeper, Lonnie Bucks, unnerves the girls with his own feline qualities and tendency to talk to the cats as if they were human. That evening, Luther, a black leopard, gets out of his cage (which has been mysteriously unlocked) and chases after the girls. They narrowly escape his claws, and Luther dashes out of the zoo gate, which has also been left open.
Having been comforted and driven home by Griffin, Kelly gets another crank call… from the leopard (or possibly someone playing a recording of his roar). The next day, Jon reveals he has also received an intimidating phone call, and Melissa was threatened by an unidentifiable stranger whilst out jogging. More worrying, Sandy is missing. They trace her route and find her in an underpass, having been mauled by the leopard, with a gash of five deep cuts across her arm. Kelly is convinced that the missing leopard, and the harassment of the interns, is somehow wrapped up in a larger mystery concerning the zoo itself (possibly linked to an audit of the zoo’s accounts which the hunt for the missing cat has put on hold). As she attempts to discover what is going on, Kelly finds herself getting into ever increasing danger.
There is very little mystery in The Claw. Clearly someone unlocked Luther’s cage, and someone wants to scare away the interns, but the narrative doesn’t do much to encourage us to wonder who it may be, or why they might be doing it. It is unusual for a Point Horror, as most tend to be whodunnits, but it wouldn’t be an issue if the story managed to satisfy our horror-yearnings in another way (for instance, by having the leopard actually pose a threat rather than disappear for pages on end). Following the attack on Sandy, however, a clue is dropped which not only finally makes it clear we should be trying to guess who the perpetrator is, but also makes their identity and their motive glaringly obvious. But we still have to plough through another hundred pages of wheel spinning and boring exposition, before what we already know is eventually confirmed.
It doesn’t help that Kelly is a particularly dull protagonist. All we are told about her is what she doesn’t like: animals, the zoo, Jon and Melissa (and rich kids in general), violent films, Rachel going to the movies without her… Kelly’s one positive ‘quality’ is her supposedly psychic sense of intuition, which only gets a mention when it helps the plot along. The one, mildly interesting aspect of The Claw is the mystery of Kelly’s runaway sister, Heather, which ends up being just another ropey plot device. It gets an extra point for having more ethnic diversity than probably any other Point Horror, but that is really the only thing going for this entry.
What is there to be scared of, aside from a couple of half-hearted prank calls and some fake claw marks? The actionless finale is dry and lacks any sense of threat or danger. Even the errant leopard only seems to be bothering sheep.
After colluding in a practical joke in eighth grade, Tracy snubs Travis’s affections, even though she likes him, because the popular clique think he’s weird. Travis leaves town soon afterwards and returns four years later, quite the hunk. Tracy’s old feelings resurface, and she is secretly pleased when her domineering boyfriend, Kyle, sets them up on a double date with Travis and his girlfriend, Christie. Travis promises them an evening they’ll never forget, which turns out to be true, for all the wrong reasons.
For Tracy, the date starts badly and gets worse. Travis plays one practical joke after another, each one more disturbing than the last. Christie is terrible company, talking constantly and flirting with Kyle; vacuous and dull one minute, throwing violent temper tantrums the next. The couples end up at an abandoned hunting lodge, which Travis’s brother is developing into a ski hotel. Tracy, initially impressed with the elaborate 1920s furnishings and hidden speakeasy, is on the verge of actually enjoying herself. But then Travis tells them about the mass murder that shut down the lodge in the 1940s, and the subsequent hauntings which have kept it closed ever since. When Travis disappears, and strange things start to happen, the others assume it’s another practical joke. But then Christie vanishes, and Kyle, and Tracy is left to face the ghost, alone.
Double Date is a story in three acts. In the first act, we meet the couples, quickly tire of Travis and Christie’s stupid jokes and share in Tracy’s frustration at Kyle’s sycophantism towards his new best mate. There’s no horror here, and the characters quickly start to grate, but it effectively sets up the second act in the abandoned lodge, which is the strongest section of the book. The dusty, archaic surroundings are perfect for a ghost story. There are some fine spooky moments and a creeping sense of dread which culminates in Tracy ending up alone, afraid and locked in a boiler room with a corpse. It has the makings of a solid supernatural mystery. But in the final act, we get a complete change of direction. An unexpected – but not very satisfying – twist takes this Point Horror down a path that is unusual for the franchise, but quite typical of the horror/thriller genre. I think with this PH entry, enjoyment of the final section is all down to personal preference. It isn’t to my taste, but it’s nevertheless well written, and delivers some thrilling moments.
Double Date offers up a villain whose threatening, maniacal presence dominates the last fifty pages. Teetering constantly between quiet intimidation and violent excess, he is a genuine threat and more than once gets the upper hand just as it seems the kids are in the clear. The problem is, I’m on his side most of the time, and rather than being afraid for Tracy and her annoying friends, I’d quite happily see them all freeze to death. The best scares are in the middle section, and a last-page attempt to recapture a hint of the second act ghostliness comes too late to improve its fear factor rating of…
Melissa Brady has had a transformation over the summer and, starting her senior year at Westdale High ‘hot’, she decides to run for Homecoming Queen. Despite having the full support of best friends Izzy and Celeste (and it being an ideal way to attract the attention of handsome jock, Seth Powell) there are two major problems. Firstly, she’s going up against Mean Girls, Betsy and Laurel (Seth’s ex), who hold nothing back in their attempts to ridicule and bully Melissa into submission. Secondly, there hasn’t been a Homecoming Queen at Westdale for 25 years; not since the last one, Brenda Sheldon, was decapitated in a car accident the night of the dance.
Melissa’s campaign gets off to a flying start and she’s soon dating Seth. But her sudden popularity, and new friendships with fellow nominees Tia and Faith, cause friction with Izzy and Celeste. Then strange things start happening. A malfunctioning tanning bed leaves Faith with third degree burns, Melissa gets threatening messages from the ghost of Brenda Sheldon, and a bee hive stuffed in her locker misses its mark but lands Tia in hospital. Supernatural being or a maniacally jealous cheerleader, as the danger escalates it becomes clear that someone wants to make sure no Homecoming Queen is ever crowned at Westdale High again.
The first half of Homecoming Queen focuses a lot on the social side of high school – the normal girls taking on the Plastics. But it’s fun hanging out with Melissa and her friends as they watch John Hughes movies, go dress shopping and plan elaborate campaign gimmicks. The moments of horror may be few and far between, but when they occur, they are gruesome, scary and memorable, and they escalate to a level few Point Horrors dare to go.
As with many PHs, we are presented with a protagonist who is vain, annoying and self-involved. But it is less of an issue here, as Melissa is surrounded by a cast of likeable friends and gloriously nasty villains in Betsy and Laurel. With strong characters, an engaging plot and plenty of references to 90s teen life, there is so much to enjoy in Homecoming Queen.
The violence, gore and murder in Homecoming Queen set it apart from most Point Horrors. The vagueness of detail in the more gruesome moments is perhaps the result of teen-friendly editing – frustrating for older readers, but forgivable, given the target audience. Still, with a slight effort of the imagination, the imagery conjures up some pretty nightmarish scenes. Homecoming Queen’s scares may be sprinkled sparingly, rather than generously dolloped, but what it serves up is very tasty.