Categories
Point Horror

Nightmare Hall #3: Deadly Attraction

By Diane Hoh.

When snobby, shallow Robert Q picks up a waitress at Burgers Etc. – a popular Salem University hangout – his friends think him dating a townie is a hilarious joke. Roommates Hailey and Nell look on in disgust and pity as Darlene is unsuspectingly swept off her feet by the egotistical idiot. Hailey, by going out of her way to be friendly, accidentally becomes Darlene’s confidante in all things Robert Q, though her warnings about his reputation and dodgy personality fall on deaf ears. However, it’s not long before Darlene sees for herself what a jerk he really is, when he dumps her at a party to go off with his ex, Gerrie. To make things worse, Darlene’s recently jilted boyfriend, Bo, humiliates her at the same party, by confronting her with the truth – that Robert Q is just using her – in front of them all.

Furious at everyone except Robert Q, Darlene raves about how much she still loves him, which makes her the prime suspect after Gerrie is seriously assaulted. But when Hailey and Nell’s room is trashed, Robert Q’s beloved car is torched, and his best friend Richard is killed in a hit and run, Darlene is nowhere to be seen. She’s out of town, looking after a sick grandmother. And the snow storms swirling around campus, preventing anyone driving in or out of Twin Falls, cement her alibi. With the help of Darlene’s co-worker, Finn, and his friend, Pete (both Salem students) Hailey hunts for any information that might lead to the psychopath who is tormenting them.

There are several issues with Deadly Attraction. Firstly, our heroine essentially brings all the trouble on her own head. On page one, Darlene is just a waitress who has taken Hailey’s order and Robert Q is a guy she vaguely knows and dislikes, by reputation. By the end of chapter two, she is Darlene’s new best friend and has annoyed Robert Q to the point where, when Hailey’s dorm gets trashed, even his own friends think he might have done it. Hailey involves herself in other people’s dramas and pays the price. I say, fair enough.

Another issue is the general unpleasantness of all concerned. If you want to read about arseholes getting their comeuppance, then this is the Point Horror for you. Darlene’s incredibly unhealthy attitude to men is never explored, and certainly not resolved. You can’t help but fear for her future far more than you fear for Hailey in her final showdown with the actual perp. Also, far too much story is given up to one plot point (Darlene’s mysterious, untraceable brother) and it is drawn out for so long, in such a heavy handed way, that it ceases to be a twist about eighty pages before the truth is ‘revealed’. A second twist is more skilfully crafted and takes us into the one redeeming quality of Deadly Attraction, its thrilling, perilous finale. Here, the story finally comes to life, though far too late to compensate for the dull preamble.

This is a clunky, unengaging, and sometimes confusing rare miss from Diane Hoh.

4/10

Fear Factor

There’s a lot of violence in Deadly Attraction: physical assaults; arson; murder. We should be more concerned for our protagonist and her friends. But horror is a double-edged sword: there’s the threat, and the fear. The threat is delivered in spades, but there’s definitely something lacking in the fear. I think it’s because Hailey brings so much of the trouble on herself. Not just because of her association with Darlene, or the fact that she’s trying to solve a mystery that is none of her business. But she is also repeatedly careless – leaving her door unlocked, her bag unguarded, walking around alone at night, insisting on confronting someone she believes to be a dangerous criminal rather than letting the police handle it. It’s impossible to feel afraid for someone when you just want to see them  get what’s coming to them.

4/10

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Uncategorized

Nightmare Hall #2: The Roommate

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.

7/10

Fear Factor

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.

5/10

Categories
Point Horror

Nightmare Hall #1: The Silent Scream

By Diane Hoh.

Salem University’s on-campus accommodation is pricey, so Jess is going to spend her freshman year living at Nightingale Hall – a creepy, six-bedroom co-ed dorm, nicknamed ‘Nightmare Hall’ by the college populace. On their first night, the residents are told that a student named Giselle committed suicide in their new home the previous semester. They’re naturally horrified, but no one more so than Jess, because it turns out she’s inherited the dead girl’s bedroom… the room she hung herself in.

Initially distracted by the chaos of freshers’ week, Jess soon becomes attuned to weird happenings at Nightmare Hall. It starts with their house mother being hospitalised after a fall down the stairs, leaving the six freshmen (plus handyman Trucker) to fend for themselves. Screams in the night; missing term papers; shredded clothes; mysterious footprints leading into Jess’s room and the discovery that one amongst them actually knew Giselle and kept it secret, leave the housemates on edge, afraid and distrustful of one another. Jess starts to wonder whether there’s more to Giselle’s ‘apparent suicide’ (as the coroner ruled it) than anyone realised. But as the strange occurrences take on a supernatural flavour, and turn increasingly violent, there’s a danger Jess won’t live long enough to solve the mystery.

The first in Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall series marks a definite departure from the standard Point Horror collection. We’re at university now, in more mature company. There’s no need to contrive our heroine’s isolation by having her parents out of town or working nights; Jess is in a dorm with six near-strangers, any of whom could be her antagonist. We’re launched into the horror at chapter one, with the grotesque discovery of a dead young girl, swinging by the neck from a light fitting. Diane Hoh often pushes the ‘pre-teen horror’ boundaries in her Point Horror entries, and gleefully ups the ante here, in what feels like an unleashing of her full, macabre imagination. Not that The Silent Scream is a complete departure from the tropes we know and love: the challenge of working out whodunit; the red herrings; the ‘pranks’ (though these are markedly more sinister than in a typical PH). But we’re on our guard – if Hoh is going to give us a dangling corpse on page one, who knows what else she has in store.

The scares come thick and fast, with the housemates subjected to one torment after another. The mystery is intriguing, with twists and turns aplenty; the finale is darkly satisfying. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Hoh also skilfully conveys what it’s like to arrive on campus, settle into a strange new home with other young people, start classes, make friends and experience the scalp-tingling sensation of independence that comes with starting university. The characters are well-drawn; their experiences realistic and interesting. There were times when I was enjoying reading about Jess’s new college branded sweater or the plans for the Fall Ball so much, I almost forgot about the dead girl haunting everyone because they mistook her murder for a suicide.

Entertaining from tits to teeth, and a highly auspicious start to the Nightmare Hall series.

9/10

Fear Factor

Various fictional hangings have left their indelible mark on whatever bit of my brain conjures up nightmares. The Satan-worshipping nanny in The Omen, Daisy in Girl, Interrupted, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, even the Sanderson Sisters in Hocus Pocus, have all come back to haunt me in cold-sweated fantasies of thudding trap doors, plummeting bodies, twitchy feet, lolling tongues and taut ropes. I was not prepared for the gruesome depiction of a supposed suicide on the first page of The Silent Scream. It set a tone, it gripped me, and I’ll freely admit, it gave me the heebie jeebies.

It doesn’t matter that nothing that happens in the subsequent 200 pages is quite as scary as the discovery of Giselle’s body, or that we never get a clear account of what happened in her final moments. The atmosphere of threat and possibility has been established. There’s been a death – a nasty, violent, inexplicable one – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen again.

In The Silent Scream, Diane Hoh serves up multi-faceted Point Horror, in which the brutally real actions of the killer occur alongside supernatural phenomena  in a creepy house haunted by a murdered girl. Something for everyone, and a double-helping for those of us with broad tastes.

9/10

Categories
Point Horror

The Witness

By R. L. Stine.

Roxie is forever losing bets against her best friend Ursula, so she’s determined to win their latest wager – over who can get darkly handsome Lee Blume to take them out – and she’s not going to let the fact she already has a boyfriend get in her way. What dopey Terry doesn’t know, can’t hurt him. However, when it becomes clear Lee only has eyes for Ursula, Roxie resorts to cheating. She plans to steal Lee’s favourite Sharks cap, the trophy that the girls agreed would be evidence of their success in snagging a date, whilst he’s out with his parents at an Elks’ meeting. Having broken into his house, her crime is thwarted when raised voices and a loud crash alert her to a couple’s fight in the living room. Making a dash for it, she catches a glimpse of an unknown blonde girl, but cannot identify the boy.

Still, it *was* the Blume house she was in, so when a blonde teenage girl turns up dead in the dunes the next day, Roxie tells the police that Lee is the murderer. She fudges the circumstances around her ‘witnessing’ the crime, telling the police chief, and her lawyer-father, that she heard the altercation through the open front door. Shaken, but relieved he’ll be brought to justice, Roxie is stunned when she bumps into the accused less than 24 hours later, at summer school. Released without charge due to an alibi from the Elks, Lee says nothing to suggest he knows who fingered him, but he immediately becomes a constant, sinister presence in Roxie’s life. She starts bumping into him everywhere, and he never misses an opportunity to say or do something that implies he knows what she did. Add some threatening messages, and a horrific turtle-homicide, and Roxie starts fearing for her own life. Because even if Lee didn’t kill the girl, someone did, and they know Roxie witnessed them do it.

As a whodunit The Witness perfunctorily ticks the right boxes, offering up a few red herrings and an acceptable twist. But there are too many occasions when the reader is asked to ignore plot chasms and inconsistencies. And despite the silliness, it’s instantly forgettable – I’ve got a feeling I read this a year ago, forgot to review it, and then lost all recollection of the plot. It was only the action of googling – for the second time in my life – the San José Sharks to find out what sport they play (ice hockey) that jogged my memory.

3/10

Fear Factor

The ‘horror’ of The Witness rests upon Lee’s harassment of Roxie after she accuses him of murder. But Lee Blume is no Max Cady. He’s a little creepy, sure, but constantly emphasising his height, and describing him as moody isn’t enough to create a terrifying menace. And Roxie’s never in much danger. Her family is clued up on the situation, she has plenty of friends around her, and a huge boyfriend to protect her (assuming he isn’t the actual murderer). She brings most of the trouble on herself, and her eagerness to accuse someone – anyone – of this murder is tacky, and wins her no sympathy. Snitches get stitches, Roxie.

2/10

Categories
Point Horror

Amnesia

By Sinclair Smith.

A girl wakes up in hospital with a sore ankle and no memory of who she is. Her sister, Marta, shows up, giving her a name – Alicia Taylor – and takes her home where she reveals that their parents died in the same car accident that caused Alicia’s amnesia. Back at home, nothing she sees or is told by Marta feels familiar. Her sister tends to her every need, but soon becomes overbearing, and even manic, in her efforts to keep Alicia safe and at home. The feeling that something is not right keeps Alicia in a near constant state of anxiety. Determined to regain her memory and rebuild her life, she sets about discovering the truth of her relationship to Marta, with the help of flirtatious Mark, who works in the video store down the street.

Amnesia often requires considerable suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part. Surely it cannot be that easy to poach an amnesiac from a county hospital, no matter how stressed and distracted her doctor is? The ludicrousness of the first few chapters sets the tone for most of Alicia’s thoughts and actions throughout the narrative. When the truth finally dawns on her, she asks herself, “how could I have been so gullible?” A question we had been wondering, repeatedly, from the outset.

However, Sinclair Smith distracts us from Alicia’s naivety, and lack of personality, by focusing on the far more interesting character of Marta and in doing so she turns a laughable premise into an entertaining page-turner. Amnesia clearly owes a debt to Misery, and Marta is a thinly veiled Annie Wilkes. She even uses similar hokey phrases like ‘fiddle faddle’ and ‘oopsy daisy’. But the transparency of Marta’s supposedly well-meaning actions does not detract from the tension. If anything, we know she is a ticking time bomb and we eagerly anticipate the explosion. Marta’s motivations remain tantalisingly obscure for much of the story whilst her irrational, aggressive behaviours gradually build towards a thrilling finale.

7/10

Fear Factor

Clearly a wrong ‘un from the start, Marta maintains an oppressively creepy presence throughout. The way she lurks, watching over Alicia and dictating all her actions, the transparency of her lies, her cruelty and the random bursts of rage are all terrifying. Like Misery, Amnesia is more thriller than horror, but also, like Annie Wilkes, Marta is a truly fearsome villain and she earns this PH entry a respectable fear factor rating of…

7/10

Categories
Point Horror

The Mall

By Richie Tankersley Cusick.

There are pros and cons to Trish’s new job at the mall. On the plus side, she’s working near her best friends, twins Nita and Imogene. And from her vantage point at the counter of Muffin-Mania, she can sneak glances at sexy Storm Reynolds working across the food court at Pizza Park. On the downside, her manager Bethany is really mean, and there are persistent rumours of weird happenings in the mall at night, such as things – and people – vanishing without trace. Plus, there are some peculiar characters hanging about the place: a customer with sunglasses and wispy grey hair, who orders muffins in the creepiest way imaginable; abrasive bus-boy Wyatt, who Trish catches hanging round her car; and a mystery someone who lures Trish into the parking lot so he can call her on a payphone and whisper sinister things at her.

Late at night, Trish finds herself stranded in the abandoned carpark. When a security guard lets her back into the mall via a service door, she discovers the corpse of a girl with an ice-pick through her throat. The guard bundles Trish into a taxi so he can call the police without her having to become involved, but when she tries to track him down the next day to thank him, she’s told by another guard, Roger, that there is no night-time security at the mall. And there’s nothing on the news about a murder. The mysterious guard has disappeared… and so has the body.

When Trish is humiliated by Bethany in front of the entire food court, she decides she’s had all she can take from the mall. But before she can hand in her notice, Trish takes a tumble down a faulty escalator and ends up in hospital. In the middle of the night, she’s visited by her mystery harasser. Calling himself Athan, he tells her they are destined for each other, and will be together very soon. He threatens to harm her friends if she tells anyone about him. Forced to confront the danger she’s in, Trish reverses her decision to quit Muffin-Mania. She needs to get back into the mall to find her tormentor and put an end to his delusions, once and for all.

The Mall is a gripping read. A tightly narrated, action-packed story which keeps its focus on the mystery and makes few digressions into the minutiae of American teen life. Normally I can’t get enough of the PH page-padding tropes of beach parties, fast-food dates and school-based shenanigans. But The Mall compensates for its lack of nostalgic Americana with a tough, likeable heroine, interesting cast of peripheral characters, and relentless sense of peril. Not really a whodunit, as there are only two suspects (and neither of these turns out to be the stalker – I’ll come back to this in a moment) it nevertheless satisfies as an intriguing mystery. The narrative unravels a little towards the end, getting caught up in an overlong set piece involving a freight elevator. But when Trish finally stumbles into her tormentor’s lair, things get scary very quickly. With two corpses that we know of, and allusions to other murdered girls, there’s no doubt this guy means business, and Trish is in mortal danger.

There’s also a genuinely surprising twist when the perpetrator is unmasked, though I’d have preferred the person in question to have featured in the narrative a little more, and earlier, than he did. Still, the clues were there, so perhaps I’m just annoyed with myself for failing to guess who it was. The two actual suspects have a significant role to play in the finale, though they morph into a slightly ridiculous double-act with questionable sexual morals, and their presence is incongruous with the tense and highly fraught showdown.

If it wasn’t for a couple of odd choices in the last few chapters, The Mall would be faultless. As it is, this highly enjoyable and memorable entry still gets an almost-perfect score.

9/10

Fear Factor

The Mall subjects its heroine to a frighteningly realistic ordeal, rather than relying on gross pranks or typical PH scare tactics. We follow Trish from the first encounter with her stalker – when he orders a honey muffin in his wispy-grey-beard disguise – through every threat and act of mental torture, until his nefarious intentions are revealed in the macabre finale. Along the way, there are some terrifying set pieces: the mutilated corpse in a bin; Athan’s visit to an incapacitated Trish in the hospital; and the discovery of his lair – complete with giant spiders, wedding cake and headless mannequins. Trish’s slapstick rescue, by the two characters she had pegged as villains, detracts a little from the horror in the finale, but we are nevertheless left with a delightfully sinister parting shot, and an unshakeable sense of unease.

9/10

Categories
Point Horror

Night School

By Caroline B. Cooney.

Mariah lives inside her own head: in a world where she’s adored by Andrew (who rarely speaks to her) and part of the teen-royalty clique of Julie-Brooke-Autumn-Danielle (who barely acknowledge she exists). When she sees Andrew sign up for an unidentified ‘Night Class’ it seems the ideal opportunity to finally get close to him and make her daydreams a reality. Autumn signs up to get some distance from her suffocating friendship group, and Ned adds his name to the list because, after years of being labelled a loser, he’s willing to try anything to cobble together a personality for himself. Andrew is drawn to the class for the simple reason that it is at night time, and, despite his huge ego, he loves watching others from the shadows, rather than being seen, and having to be perfect. And it turns out the class is all about the darkness: learning to control it, to become one with it, in order to create fear in the vulnerable and ‘Easy To Scare’. At the end of their disturbing orientation, the instructor gives his four students their first assignment: to pick an ETS so they might scare that person out of their wits.

Mariah is appalled, but she cannot drop out of the class. The instructor makes it very clear that if she tries to quit, her brother Bevin – a quiet, lonely boy who is being bullied towards suicide – will be designated an ETS for another Night Class. Each has their own reason for staying, and so the four students cling together, justifying each other’s actions, choosing their victims, and, in so doing, they discover the darkest, most unpleasant parts of themselves.

Unsurprisingly, for a story which revolves around darkness, Night School is a particularly dark entry in the Point Horror franchise. Caroline B. Cooney tends to revisit certain themes: the supernatural; the pain and loneliness of being an outsider; and the concept of choice and consequence. She explores all of these in considerable detail in Night School, and whilst it makes for a fascinating, unique and unsettling entry, there’s not much time for actual plot development. The last chapter feels like the midway point, and though it ends on a bone-chilling shock, I was left wanting – and expecting – more. There are strong parallels with Cooney’s Vampire trilogy, so it is possible further instalments were intended. I would happily revisit this group of characters, and the intriguing ideas Night School introduces.

8/10

Fear Factor

Whereas most PHs go for discrete shocks and scares scattered between classes, homework, dates, and trips to the mall or pizzerias, Night School never relieves the tension. Every page is saturated with darkness, fear, oppression and secrecy. It’s suffocating and yet, there’s another layer of horror on top of it all: an unspeakable suggestion which is hinted at throughout; the constant implication that a character is going to do something truly awful. Of course, they never do, but when the issue finally comes to a head towards the end, we feel a genuine sense of dread at what we might find behind a closed door. And that last sentence is so terrifying, it sent an actual shiver down my spine.

10/10

Categories
Point Horror

Hit and Run

By R. L. Stine.

Cassie has three best friends, and they’re all boys: there’s practical joker, Winks; Eddie, a frequent victim of practical jokes; and bulky jock, Scott, on whom she has a not-so-secret crush. Bored, one night, the four of them decide to take an illicit joyride to practise for their upcoming driving tests. Driven to distraction by Winks’s relentless japes, Eddie accidentally runs a man over. Certain that the guy – whose wallet reveals to be one Brandt Tinkers – is 100% dead, and that there were no witnesses, the friends commit a hit and run.

In the days that follow, they are plagued by guilt – especially Eddie, who is desperate to confess. The others convince him to keep it together: there’s nothing about their crime in the local paper; they’re almost in the clear. But the absence of any news story is disconcerting in itself – where is the body? They call Eddie’s cousin, Jerry, who works at the city morgue, and are almost relieved when he confirms a Brandt Tinkers was brought in. That is, until Jerry reveals that the corpse has since vanished without trace! Cassie and her friends are already freaked out, but then they start receiving creepy phone calls and notes – supposedly from their victim – and pretty soon, guilt turns to terror. When Winks is himself knocked down (by an unknown driver, who absconds) Cassie realises they’re all in danger, and sets about solving the mystery before she finds herself next on the hit (and run) list.

Polaroids of a corpse in a Volvo aside, much of Hit and Run is believable. The four teens act how you would imagine sixteen year old accidental killers to act. And just as guilt, remorse and the overwhelming need to confess kick in, they’re distracted from ‘doing the right thing’ by a new problem: their victim’s corpse vacating his mortuary slab and launching a campaign of vengeance against them. We know, of course, that the mischief-maker will ultimately be revealed to be an alive human being (and an easily guessable one, at that) but this doesn’t diminish the fun of getting there. Whilst for the sake of their souls, we wish the kids spent a little longer feeling bad about what they’ve done, their callous self-obsession means the plot moves along at a lively pace and there’s rarely a dull chapter. Okay, so the characters could do with a bit more depth, their actions and consequences lack complexity, and an extra scare or two in the second half wouldn’t go amiss… Hit and Run is nevertheless a fun read, and a textbook example of the PH genre.

7/10

Fear Factor

Whilst it offers up some solid scares, Hit and Run makes a wrong turn when it diminishes the angst its protagonists endure in the aftermath of their crime. There’s a rich cache of dread and terror in those fears: that they might be caught; that their parents and classmates will vilify them; that their futures are at stake; that they might go to jail… All of this is glossed over in a few paragraphs, in order to usher in the supposed ‘horror’ element of the story – that a definitely dead corpse is taking selfies in their cars and leaving them vaguely menacing messages. Surely there are few things scarier than the prospect of being banged up in the American penal system? The potential for a more complex, psychological instalment in the franchise is abandoned, due to R. L. Stine’s fervent allegiance to PH tropes.

5/10

Categories
Point Horror

The Boy Next Door

By Sinclair Smith.

Randy Bell’s life is just about perfect. She has an adoring boyfriend in Ted, a reliable best friend in Alice; she’s on the cheerleading squad; she’s ever so sensible, responsible… and boring. Which is why her father has no qualms about leaving her unsupervised for weeks on end, in their ramshackle old house, in a deserted part of town. But everything changes when sexy, sophisticated Julian moves into the long-abandoned house next door and sweeps Randy off her feet. She quits cheerleading, breaks up with Ted, and starts living recklessly. At Julian’s behest, she carries out cruel practical jokes on her obnoxious teachers and classmates. Randy can shake off the occasional slight tugs on her conscience, because the jokes give her a thrill, and, more importantly, she gets to laugh about them afterwards, with Julian.

But then his demands become sinister. He wants her to carry out pranks that could seriously hurt the target, and when Alice upbraids Randy for her recent behaviour, Julian insists she cut her best friend out of her life. Soon, Randy is terrified of her new boyfriend – fearful of what his next sick idea might be, and what harm she herself might be capable of causing.

A lot of The Boy Next Door feels like analogy for being in an abusive relationship. Julian overwhelms Randy with his charm, and then tries to change her personality and isolate her from her friends so he can gain complete control. It’s a strange choice for a PH entry whose register definitely aims towards the younger end of the YA market, with its simple language, massive font and overuse of capital letters (to signify shouting or any expression of emotion). You have to wonder whether the message isn’t going to fly over the heads of the eleven year old readers. Anyone older might get the point, but will also be frustrated by the childish storytelling.

Then the rug is pulled from beneath our feet! And The Boy Next Door suddenly ‘reveals’ something far more troubling is afoot. Ah-ha, we think, the tweenie-bopper-friendly preamble was a ruse to make the dark twist all the more shocking… Actually, no. We end up back on the original path – and all too quickly; potential wasted, ambition abandoned. Without that brief sojourn into psychological thriller, The Boy Next Door would be totally unremarkable. But those twenty-odd pages inject some genuine suspense into the story, and earn it a slightly less woeful rating.

4/10

Fear Factor

There’s little to fear in The Boy Next Door, other than in the aforementioned section, when our imaginations are led down a deceptively sinister garden path. Julian is supposed to be the antagonist of the piece, but he’s more of an arsehole than a villain; annoying, rather than scary. And Randy, our ‘heroine’, behaves so shadily at the start when she sabotages her entire life at other people’s expense and is rude and unpleasant to everyone, that she banks no sympathy. If she was more likeable, her suffering towards the end might have made the finale more thrilling. As it is, her redemption comes too late in the day and at too small a price, and had the worst happened, it would still have been better than Randy Bell deserves.

3/10

Categories
Point Horror

The Stalker

By Carol Ellis.

Janna is spending the summer before she starts college on a bi-state tour of Grease with a regional theatre company. Janna loves performing, but someone loves watching her even more. It starts with red roses and anonymous notes, then phone calls, and soon she feels like she’s being watched all the time. Roommates Toni and Gillian are worried, but fourth roomie, Liz, has zero sympathy: she’s too busy resenting Janna’s centre-stage position in the final dance number.

Janna is convinced that her stalker is possessive ex-boyfriend, Jimmy Dare, but when a lipstick scrawled message on her mirror doesn’t match his handwriting, she turns her attention further afield: first to her super-fan, Stan; then to Assistant Stage Manager Ryan, with whom she had a couple of great dates before she caught him making out with Liz. Adding fire to her suspicion, it turns out Ryan was working with the theatre company when Kathy Kramer was its main star – before she went to Broadway and got brutally murdered; her killer, never caught.  As the stalker’s actions become more violent, it is clear that whoever it is, they are determined to take the spotlight off Janna, forever.

A mystery predator harassing a young dancer whilst she experiences the highs and lows of being on tour for the first time is a sound premise, and there’s lots to enjoy in the descriptions of dance rehearsals, dressing rooms and motel-living. Janna, despite the name, is a likeable heroine; reasonable in her actions and concerns. But many of the peripheral characters lack fibre, which makes it difficult to feel fully invested in the mystery (we care about Janna, but can’t get enough of a foot-hold on any one character to care whether they might be the perpetrator). Toni and Gillian as the above-suspicion ‘friends’ are interchangeable (their only distinguishing characteristic is that one has red hair; I can’t remember which). And their presence does more harm than good: as her confidantes, they constantly reassure and sympathise with Janna, denying her that sense of isolation which is endured by many PH heroines, and which often contributes to the horror. Still, the triple-twist ending is enjoyably fraught and fast-paced, and the stalker’s unmasking is an unexpected treat – surprisingly surprising!

8/10

Fear Factor

The creepy notes and phone calls are standard PH, but the set pieces where Janna is alone with her stalker are often thrillingly tense, and the fact she somehow always ends up with blood all over her, adds a vivid splash of horror. But it’s the finale that packs the scariest punch – when Janna finally comes face-to-face with her psychotic, vicious, home-made-weapon-wielding tormentor. It delivers in spades the ending that the premise and preamble promise; an action-packed sequence of escalating dangers as Janna is chased round a deserted auditorium, culminating in a ‘fight to the almost-death’, dangling perilously above the stage on the catwalk: frantic, visually impactful, Point Horror hijinks!

8/10