You know when you run into a person that you haven’t seen in years? A person you kind of forgot even existed? You see them, and you have a little moment together. You remember why you liked the person, think fondly of the shenanigans you got into way back when, and acknowledge the role that they had in your past. But, despite those lovely memories, it is clear your time together has passed. You recognize who you once were together, but their purpose in your life has come and gone.
That’s what it was like for me to reread R.L. Stine’s classic Fear Street novels.
My love for the horror genre has deep roots. As a fourth and fifth grader, I would ride my bike to the local library to check out the “true” ghost stories. You know, the kind written by paranormal researchers that live in the non-fiction stacks. I loved Ed and Lorraine Warren way before The Conjuring and Annabelle made them a pop-culture phenomenon. Thinking back, it does seem a wee bit creepy. But now my own kid loves the Goosebumps novels, so it makes me think that reading preferences are partly related to the gene pool.
I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Kid Horror himself, R.L. Stine, at BookCon this year. I commented that I loved to see my kid read the Goosebumps books because I loved the Fear Street series as a young teen. He said he enjoyed that his novels are “becoming a generational thing.” The first Fear Street novel, The New Girl, was published in 1989, and the first Goosebumps book,Welcome to Dead House, in 1992. And guess what? The latest edition in the Goosebumps series just came out in Fall 2019. He’s a bit of an institution, and his spooky stories still have appeal, even in a world dominated by so much media screaming for our attention.
According to Mental Floss, Stine once explained that he intentionally does not flesh out his characters so readers can feel like the character. Brilliant move when your audience is filled with young people trying to figure out who they are. That’s one of the things that resonated with me as a young teen. I could imagine myself as the super-sleuthing girl who solved the mystery of her best friend’s murder.
So for Halloween this year, I decided to say hello to these old friends, fully understanding that I wasn’t about to start a new relationship with them. I started poring over Fear Street covers online. I had exactly zero memory of the plots, but some of the covers were unforgettable, with their pulpy illustrations and distinctive fonts. I selected five to reread: Cheerleader: the First Evil, Broken Hearts, Haunted, The Thrill Club, and The Prom Queen.
The plots are ridiculous yet fantastic, and full of all your favorite horror tropes. In The Thrill Club, kids become possessed after listening to audio tapes of chanting procured by one kid’s dad, who happens to be an anthropologist. The Prom Queen involves a series of murders of…gasp…all the girls nominated for prom queen. Say it isn’t so! But my favorite of the bunch, Cheerleader, starts with the cheer captain flying out the bus doors in a freak accident, landing directly on top of a grave in the Fear Street Cemetery. Hmmmmm…something told me this fact would be integral to the story later.
The books employ hilariously obvious “keep reading” cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. And I mean every single chapter. For example:
- “And what I remembered scared me to death.” (The Prom Queen).
- “Stared at a knife blade, covered with thick, sticky blood.” (The Thrill Club).
- “Staring back at her smiling twin, Josie felt a stab of cold fear.” (Broken Hearts).
The Thrill Club gets extra points for employing a version of the hackneyed “and then I woke up” literary device. Several passages kill main characters, only to be followed by the revelation that—gasp—it was only a story written by a Thrill Club member. I bet that one blew my preteen mind.
As much as I enjoyed my jaunt down book-memory lane, I have to mention something that I would rather have kept in my bookish past. The insensitivity in some of these books is nauseating. They made me uncomfortable in the same way that revisiting John Hughes movies makes me uncomfortable now.
Unfortunately for Fear Street, the problematic books lack the charm and innovation that compels me to love the John Hughes movies despite their issues. (For a really fabulous explanation of the complex feelings I have about those films, take a look at Molly Ringwald’s essay in Vanity Fair.) The Thrill Club is not just culturally insensitive, it is straight up offensive in its use of non-descript tribal culture as a one dimensional, cheap horror catalyst. But that was nothing compared to how Broken Hearts treated a character that seemingly had both mental and physical disabilities. My irritation with how awful and offensive that was made the book nearly unreadable.
Not every book shares these issues, and I doubt they would be written this way today. In fact, I should probably read some of the Fear Street series reboot that started around 2014 to see whether those books are guilty of similar misdeeds. Perhaps that’s next year’s Halloween post.
The bottom line is this—it can be fun to revisit these old friends, have a few laughs, reminisce about old times. But beware: some of them may have glaring personality issues you didn’t recognize in your youth.