Miscellaneous

[Book Review] Deadly Offer (The Vampire’s Promise, #1) by Caroline B. Cooney


Althea has always been a sweet, kind girl. In middle school, she had a group of friends to hang out with. She was on the softball team, took gymnastics, and won ribbons for horseback riding.

But high school is horrible for Althea. She doesn’t make the cheerleading squad. Her group of friends splits apart to form new cliques, and Althea is left to sit alone at lunch. That is, until she discovers a vampire living in the attic tower of her family home. A vampire who can make her dreams come true: a spot on the cheerleading squad; popularity; a boyfriend.

All the vampire wants in return is a small sacrifice, and Althea is in too deep to back out now.


Deadly Offer is the first book in Caroline B. Cooney’s The Vampire’s Promise trilogy. My first experience with this series–as far as I recall–was when I was in middle school; sometime between sixth and eighth grade, I read the third book in the series, Fatal Bargain, and was quite entertained by it. I was going through a bit of a vampire phase, I’ll admit (a phase which was all but over by the time Twilight appeared on the shelves of our school book fair), so I rather suspect the book won’t quite hold up to my memory of it when I go to reread it. But that’s later. Right now, we’re talking Deadly Offer.

When I rediscovered The Vampire’s Promise after finding a copy of the second book in the trilogy at a local thrift store, I wasn’t sure which book or books I’d read. I’m still not 100% sure if I read Deadly Offer (alternately titled The Cheerleader) or The Return of the Vampire (alternately titled Evil Returns) in middle school; if I did, they didn’t leave nearly as great an impression on me as Fatal Bargain (alternately titled The Vampire’s Promise) did. This time around, though, Deadly Offer did leave quite the impression on me.

The absolute best thing I can say about Deadly Offer is that Cooney is spectacular when it comes to tone. In all the books I’ve read, I don’t believe I’ve come across another author with Cooney’s talent for crafting her prose to complement her plot. In Fog, Cooney manages to create a genuinely eerie atmosphere; when she needs to portray the pressure and disassociation of a POV character’s psychotic break in The Perfume, she captures it perfectly; and in Deadly Offer, Cooney’s vampire successfully evokes a sense of both absolute disgust and G-rated seduction.

Which brings me to the other thing I particularly enjoyed about Deadly Offer. The vampire mythology here is quite creative and inventive (without getting into any of the silliness of, say, sparkling); Deadly Offer‘s monster is definitely a vampire–he’s got the fangs, he’s obviously undead, and he drinks blood (albeit offscreen)–but he also has elements of the djinn, the sylph, and the nymph. It’s a really interesting twist on the vampire mythology, and I definitely appreciate that. I also appreciate that this vampire, in spite of the ease at which he seduces Althea into a partnership of sorts, is not your typical YA vampire. He has no pretensions of being a Lestat, Edward, Damon, or Bill (or Spike, Angel, Mick, etcetera, etcetera); like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, he doesn’t need to be a heartthrob. In fact, he’s quite far from attractive; while his physical age and facial features are never revealed, Cooney paints an unflattering picture of a living corpse–described as having a mushroom-colored, bloodless complexion and spongy dead flesh–whose appearance, like Dracula’s, is revitalized after he begins to feed. And frankly, I’d much rather read about a vampire like that than another Cullen clone.

Now, on the other hand, there was one particular aspect of Deadly Offer that didn’t appeal to me. While the plot is an interesting idea, I feel Althea was too weak a protagonist to properly carry it; like Laura, the protagonist of Cooney’s The Terrorist, Althea is what I’d call a “lesson protagonist”, and it makes her somewhat frustrating to read about (though thankfully not to the extent of Laura). Althea is angsty, lazy, jealous, self-depreciating, judgmental, and downright cruel. These traits make the plot work–if she wasn’t jealous, Althea would have no motive to work with the vampire, for example–but they also make Althea a bit of a chore to read about. So in a book with such great imagery and hints of a really intriguing mythology in regards to the villain, I’m definitely a bit disappointed that Althea took the spotlight (and quite pleased that other girls star in the two sequels).

All that said, I’ll definitely be reading the rest of this series as soon as possible (I’m particularly looking forward to rereading the third book), and I’d recommend it to YA fans looking for a more old-fashioned, villainous vampire.

This book was provided to me via Netgalley.


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Miscellaneous

[Book Review] Haunted Animals: True Ghost Stories by Allan Zullo


A ghostly cat comforts its former owner. A mistreated bulldog returns to haunt its master. A mysterious horse leads a group of rescuers to an injured boy–then disappears.

Could animals really become ghosts? Read these and many more unexplained encounters with the supernatural and decide for yourself…


Haunted Animals: True Ghost Stories contains nine stories that are “true” the same way that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a true story. In other words, these are definitely not true stories, and the introduction admits as much:

Haunted Animals is a spooky collection of stories about kids who claim to have encountered spirits from the animal world–including pet dogs, a loving cat, a wild horse, and a vengeful wolf. You’ll read nine spine-tingling tales, inspired, in part, by the accounts of those who say they were haunted. The names and places in the stories have been changed to protect everyone’s privacy.

In other words, it’s nonsense, and the subtitle is there… because reasons? But it’s a good thing these stories are merely “inspired by” true events. There’s a lot of depressing shit from here on out.


Twister’s Farewell

In Twister’s Farewell, a dog visits his human companion in the hospital to say goodbye. While this could have been touching, the writing really made it more hokey than anything else. The story of how Twister got his name, however, nearly had me in tears. This is a theme throughout the book; while I don’t blink an eye at most fictional tragedies, I have a ludicrous weak spot for the suffering of cats and dogs… and a lot of animals die in this book.

Seriously, that’s Warning #1 about Haunted Animals. If you have any sympathy for children losing their furry best friends to accident and illness, you’re going to be crying before you’re done reading.

The Tell-Tale Bones

In The Tell-Tale Bones, a ghost and his dog appear to a boy and his father on the anniversary of the ghosts’ deaths. It’s a typical ghost story. Nothing fascinating, nothing too terribly heartbreaking or offensive.

The Spirit of Morgan’s Woods

In The Spirit of Morgan’s Woods, two young boys repeatedly see a ghostly white stallion in the woods near their ranch. But when one of them is injured while horseback riding in those very woods, the ghost horse becomes a hero. Again, it’s not groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a solid ghost story.

Bingo’s Secret

After a boy dies of leukemia, his dog refuses to eat until he eventually starves to death on top of the boy’s grave. The family is then haunted by the dog until he is finally buried in secret beside the child.

Obviously, this story has the double-whammy of a child dying of cancer and a dog dying from neglect. Meanwhile, the story acts like both of these occurrences was simply a matter of course, as if the family was somehow unable to, you know, feed their goddamn dog and prevent him from obsessively visiting the boy’s grave. But no, apparently the only appropriate course of action for a dog’s obvious state of depression is to permit the dog to literally starve to death in a cemetery.

In comparison, see these amazingly loyal dogs.

The Haunting Vengeance

The Haunting Vengeance is a story about a fucking moronic farmer who thought he could turn a wolf into a dog, only to kill his “friend” as revenge… for something a completely different wolf did. The wolf then haunted him for the next forty years.

As far as this story goes, let’s just say that I empathized with the wolf’s anger.

The Ghost of Walker’s Bay

In The Ghost of Walker’s Bay, a young girl is rescued from drowning by a mysterious German Shepherd, she and an acquaintance discover the story of a heroic dog who died in the 1800s and finally put to rest her unfinished business. It’s not a bad story, especially when compared to the previous two.

The Phantom Cat

In The Phantom Cat, a girl makes the wrong medical decision, and her cat dies in surgery. In spite of her heartbreak and guilt, she’s comforted when she begins to suspect that his ghost has returned to the house.

Again, it’s not a bad story, but I found it to be far more emotionally taxing than it had any right to be. If there’s one thing I don’t want to read about several months after my own kitty had breast cancer surgically removed, it’s a cat dying during surgery. That’s one panic attack I don’t need, thanks.

Spike’s Revenge

After a family’s neglect toward their dog (refusing to bathe or exercise him, leaving him alone and/or chained for long stretches, forgetting to feed him, allowing him to get into multiple near-fatal accidents,) results in his death by electrocution, he comes back to haunt them. They’re instantly forgiven when they begin taking care of other animals.

In other words, it’s a super disturbing story, and the criminal neglect is never punished in any way, shape, or form. And let’s all take a gander back at that subtitle, shall we?

Yeah, I don’t want this to be a “true story”, oddly enough.

Rescue from the Beyond

When a girl’s heroic Great Dane dies of cancer, he saves her one last time. Really, it’s just a terribly sad story. Again, I don’t need to read about animals being euthanized because of cancer. I’m kind of dealing with it, so… let’s not, yeah?

All in all, this was a big fail as far as Halloween reads goes. It was just sad, not spooky. If I’d read this as a member of the intended age group, I’d have probably cried myself to sleep. And frankly, I don’t get that. What’s the point of all the tears?

I mean, really. There are plenty of “true” stories of so-called ghost animals. The ones featured here, for instance, are animal ghost stories that aren’t specifically written to make children cry. Obviously, there are dead animals involved–that’s kind of implied with the whole “ghost” thing–but there are no long, drawn out descriptions of animals’ suffering over there.

Ultimately, I’m glad to put this book behind me, and I really don’t recommend giving it to your child(ren) for Halloween.


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Miscellaneous

[Book Review] Someone at the Door by Richie Tankersley Cusick


BEWARE THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

The phone and the radio were dead, but they’d already heard the news: a mass murderer was on the loose. Hannah and her younger sister Meg were miles from the nearest neighbor, trapped in a raging blizzard, home alone. Until the knock at the door. Two strangers burst into the house, wounded, bleeding and nearly frozen. Hannah couldn’t just turn Lance and Jonathon away, so she made them promise to leave in the morning. But they stayed, insisting the girls needed protection. Wary of Lance’s brooding good looks, Hannah was drawn to Jonathon’s reassuring presence. Until the dog, and the axe, disappeared–and the girls wondered “protection from whom?”


When the back cover blurb of a book includes the phrase, “the dog disappears”, I can say with a certain amount of confidence that I don’t expect to enjoy the story. With all due respect to fictional people, the misfortunes of fictional nonhumans–particularly domesticated animals like cats and dogs–are always far more distressing to me. There are at least a few reasons for this; first and most obvious is the simple fact that I adore cats and dogs and have no interest in reading about them coming to harm, especially if their fate is not even particularly essential to the plot.

Luckily, however, Someone at the Door exceeded my expectations, and–if you don’t mind the spoiler–it certainly helped that the canine character managed to survive. But of course that’s not the only reason.

Someone at the Door definitely has its share of flaws. Hannah, the main character, isn’t exactly the nicest character; she’s bossy, rude, and even cruel to her younger sister, Meg. And yet despite the fact that her behavior soured my opinion of her toward the beginning of the novel, I started thinking better of her as Meg got more screentime. Because Meg, I’m afraid, is a typical Bratty Little Sister character. She’s ridiculously naive and vaguely bratty, and after a certain point, I found that I could easily sympathize with Hannah’s treatment of her.

But the biggest problem with these two sisters is that they spend the majority of the book playing Hot Potato with the Idiot Ball.

See, Hannah has this ex-boyfriend. Like most of the females protagonists of these novels, Hannah’s a popular enough girl who was dating a pretty darn popular boy… who happens to be a violent, jealous psychopath. But when this ex-boyfriend, Kurt, calls to tell Hannah, “I’ll kill you before I’ll let anyone else have you,” Hannah decides not to call the police, confide in her parents, or even warn Meg of the potential (and later definite) danger.

Later, Meg and Hannah have caught the news to hear that an escaped murderer is on the loose and headed in their general direction and have been forced to allow two strange men to shelter in their home during a blizzard in which they have no electricity. And in spite of the fact that Hannah passes it several times, pointing out its presence by the wood pile, not once does she ever think to take and hide the goddamn axe. Instead, she leaves it sitting out in the open for any escaped killers, jealous exes, or enigmatic houseguests to pick it up and chop everyone to bits.

On the other hand, it’s an interesting thriller with a fairly satisfying conclusion. The dog lives, the killer is logical and properly foreshadowed, and the majority of the plot is an entertaining story. If you’re looking to try some of the 80s/90s YA horror/thriller subgenre–books like Fear Street and Point Horror, for example–this is a pretty good place to start, and I look forward to reading some of Cusick’s other works.


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Miscellaneous

[Movie Review] Quarantine




Quarantine was better the first time I watched it.

So… what was different between the first time I watched Quarantine and the latest? Well, when I first saw Quarantine, I hadn’t been spoiled by the recent explosion in the Found Footage genre. I don’t think I’d seen Paranormal Activity yet, and I certainly hadn’t seen its three–soon to be five–sequels. I hadn’t seen The Blair Witch Project, Apollo 18, The Bay, Chernobyl DiariesCloverfield, The Devil Inside, The Fourth Kind, The Last Exorcism, or VHS. Nowadays, though, I’m pretty well-versed in found footage films, or at least most of the recent and mainstream ones.

I also hadn’t seen this movie’s sequel, Quarantine 2: Terminal, which I hated. I hated it so much, in fact, that I fear I got a bit of a skewed perspective of the first movie. After watching Terminal, my memory of Quarantine seemed amazing by comparison.

But Quarantine is far from an amazing film. So here’s what it is instead.

Quarantine is the US remake of the Spanish film [REC], which I have not seen but intend to watch as soon as I can get my hands on a copy (I’ve been trying to do so for a while now, so… not particularly optimistic). It stars Jennifer Carpenter, who you may recognize from The Exorcism of Emily Rose or Dexter. Now, I have not seen Dexter and don’t have a very good recollection of Emily Rose… but Carpenter’s acting here leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s the first strike against Quarantine. Perhaps I’m being unfair and it’s the writing, directing, or editing that’s at fault, but Carpenter’s character, a young reporter tasked with interviewing a department of firefighters who finds herself in over her head when they lead her into a CDC quarantine, jumps around a lot in terms of emotions. She’ll be perfectly calm when she should be running in the opposite direction, and when she does become angry or frightened, it comes across as two-dimensional and overacted. Upon my most recent viewing of the film, I found myself laughing at such scenes, all of which were clearly intended to scare me.

Ultimately, the majority of the time I spent watching Quarantine involved me yelling instructions at the idiots involved in the titular quarantine. They are in ludicrously dire circumstances–the type of situation conspiracy theorists have nightmares about–and choose to bumble about wasting time and energy by yelling at each other, trying to find and care for the people who are clearly infected with whatever disease got the building shut down (hint: it’s always zombie!rabies), and misplacing their weapons. And, hell, it’s the main character who ends up getting some of the last surviving characters killed. She’s clearly only there because the movie needed a pretty woman; if the cameraman and the vet had just ditched her while they had the chance, they seemed smart and capable enough to actually have a chance to survive. Instead…

If you have any desire to lecture a bunch of movie morons after a Twenty Minutes with Jerks opening, Quarantine is the movie for you. Otherwise, if you just want to see some virus-zombies, get yourself a copy of 28 Days Later; if you’re looking for found footage instead, I really advise starting with Paranormal Activity instead.

Me, I’ll keep looking for a copy of [REC]. It’s got to be better than this.


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Miscellaneous

[Movie Review] Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark




Guillermo del Toro brings fairies back to the big screen with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a 2011 remake of a 1973 t.v. movie. Unfortunately, this is no Pan’s Labyrinth.

The movie tells the story of Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison), an apparently clinically depressed and certainly troubled eight-year-old girl. Her mother has shipped her off to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and her father’s girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), but failed to explain that it was a new living arrangement rather than a visit.

In a strange new home without any friends, Sally takes to exploring. When she stumbles across the purposefully forgotten basement of the Blackwood mansion, she is warned away by Harris, the elderly caretaker. But it isn’t enough to stop her, and before Sally realizes what she’s getting herself into, she’s unleashed a horde of dangerous, malicious fae.

While Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has an interesting premise, there was something about it that just didn’t work for me. Perhaps it was the vague time period in which the movie is set; with both cell phones and old Polaroid instant cameras being used in the movie. (While Polaroid apparently still makes these–I had no idea!–it seems highly out of place; I imagine most younger viewers won’t even remember/recognize these.) Perhaps it was the less than stellar CGI of the fairies. Perhaps it was the fairies’ ludicrous whispery little voices.

Or perhaps my biggest problem was with how ignorant all the characters acted, with the sole exception of Kim. Sally is willfully naive, going into the obviously dangerous basement after several different adults have warned her that she’s likely to get hurt there. And when she hears eerie voices coming out of the ash pit down there, that only seems to encourage her. She actually get a wrench and removes the bolts standing between her and the obviously lying creatures who claim to want to be her friends. Her father’s just as bad; Kim is a better parent than him by a very wide margin, as she at least pays attention to her fears and obvious depression. Alex, meanwhile, pays her about as much attention as a non-gardener would pay a houseplant.

By the end of the film, there are brief parts of the movie that I thought were really worthwhile. One is the final twist of the movie, so I won’t spoil it; the other is a scene that gets into fairy mythology and references Arthur Machen. Had the movie benefited from more overt references to lore, I’m sure I would have found it much more enjoyable.

All that said, I can definitely recommend Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark for Halloween viewing; it isn’t the best movie by far, but it’s not terrible, either. Just be aware before you watch it that it’s rated R (that’s ages 17+) and contains scenes that might be too frightening for some children.


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Miscellaneous

[Book Review] April Fools by Richie Tankersley Cusick


You can fool some of the people some of the time…

One the night of April 1st, Belinda, Frank, and Hildy are driving home from a party when they get involved in a gruesome car accident. The people in the other car never could have survived the wreck, so Frank insists they take off. After all, what happened wasn’t really their fault.

Two weeks later, Belinda is the only one who still feels guilty about the accident. Then the “pranks” begin. Someone sends her a bloody doll’s head. A car nearly runs her off the road.

Obviously someone witnessed… or survived that car accident. And they’re going to make her pay… slowly… for what happened.

April Fools’ Day is over. But these jokes are for real.


If there’s one thing Point Horror and Fear Street have taught me about the ’80s and early ’90s, it’s that the punishment for covering up manslaughter back then involved death by pranks. Very odd, if you ask me.

In Richie Tankersley Cusick’s April Fools, we have a plot that is essentially R.L. Stine’s Dead End with an April Fools’ Day gimmick. (Note that this comparison is based on which book I read first; April Fools was published five years before Dead End.) A group of idiot teenagers–Frank, King of the Fools; Hildy of the Skewed Priorities; and Belinda the Bland Everygirl–are on their way home from a party they were never supposed to be at when a drunken Frank grabs the wheel and starts ramming into the fender of a car that annoyed him; unsurprisingly, this ends badly. The other car careens off the road and explodes. Then, because they’re very clever, compassionate, and noble individuals, the teenagers promptly make a pact to pretend the whole thing never happened. Just like in Dead End… and every other 80s/90s YA horror novel in which a group of teens accidentally kill someone.

After this stellar display of unquestionable morality, Belinda is the only one of the group who still cares that they killed some people. And Hildy isn’t having Belinda’s negative attitude.

Snap out of it, will you? It’s over with. It’s been two weeks, and it’s over with. Besides, we made a pact and you can’t break it. […] For God’s sake, it was a stupid joke! You know Frank–it was April Fools’ Day, and he was the King of Fools! He doesn’t take anything seriously on normal days. […] You’re being really dramatic about this. Your mom’s gonna start asking dumb questions if you don’t watch it.

Yeah, Belinda! Stop being so dramatic! We only killed, what, two people? I mean, c’mon; how many people do you think fit in that car we ran off the road, anyway? Five, max! Just chill, man! We got this.

But the audience is meant to sympathize with Belinda, so she can’t move past her guilt that easily; Hildy’s next argument is–what else?–that it wasn’t really their fault and that they did everything they could to help.

How many times do I have to tell you, we didn’t do anything. And we stopped at the gas station, didn’t we? Well, didn’t we? It wasn’t our fault it was closed and the stupid pay phone was broken. Jeez, you’re driving me nuts. 

Poor widdle Hildy!

I have no words for how much this character frustrates me, and that’s before we’ve even gotten to page ten. Throughout the rest of the novel, she only gets worse; by the end of it, she’s threatening Belinda with physical violence and her boyfriend, Frank, has threatened to tell the police that Belinda was the driver during the crash. Clearly, these three are the best of friends.

Beyond that, the bulk of the plot is typical Point Horror nonsense. The idiot teenagers get into trouble and refuse to take responsibility. The male friend behaves like an obnoxious prat. The female friend is catty for no discernible reason. The love interest does love interest stuff. The Everygirl protagonist gets scared of stuff. The idiot teenagers nearly die. Same old, same old.

As for the final reveal, I won’t spoil it for you; I’ll just point out that when you can easily tell who the surprise villain is by simply picking the least suspicious suspect, “not suspicious” becomes a suspicious trait.

Kinda lame, really.


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Miscellaneous

[Book Review] The Invitation by Diane Hoh


An invitation to death.

It arrives on crisp, ivory paper, printed with elegant gold script.

Sarah has been invited to the social event of the year, Cass Rockham’s annual Fall Party.

But Sarah knows she isn’t popular or rich enough to be in Cass’s circle. To Cass, she’s a nobody. A loser.

So why was she invited?

Sarah hopes this will be a night she’ll never forget.

And it is. For unspeakable reasons…


In an absolutely groundbreaking plot for 80s and 90s teen fiction, a group of “losers” are invited to hang out with the popular kids, who proceed to pull a vicious prank on them. I’ve certainly never seen that before!

On a more serious note, The Invitation reminds me a bit of R.L. Stine’s The New Years Party… which is not a good thing, as I hated that book. (Having not written a review for it, I can’t remember exactly what was so terrible about Stine’s “deadly party” story, but I do recall rolling my eyes throughout the entire book.) In The Invitation, a group of high school kids–Sarah, Shane, Maggie, Ellie, and Donald–are unexpectedly invited to the party of the year, hosted by the richest and most popular girl in school. Save for Sarah, they’re excited to go and have a great time. As can be expected given that this is a Point Horror novel, their “great time” involves humiliation and mortal peril. It’s a bad party, is what I’m getting at.

See, Cass Rockham is a moron. She thinks that “It’s just a joke! We’re just having fun!” is an excuse that will successfully prevent the police from prosecuting a person on kidnapping and false imprisonment charges. She’s wrong, but then again, perhaps it doesn’t matter. This is one of those books in which the characters are too ignorant to call the police until long after the point at which the police will be able to arrive in time to help. Because everyone knows teenagers are far more useful in potentially deadly hostage situations than trained officers.

All in all, I’d say there were two elements to the story that ruined it for me. First and foremost, the supporting characters are ludicrously stereotypical and serve no purpose other than to provide red herring suspects. Each of the “losers” at the party has some cardboard-cutout version of a person in their lives to ruin it. Sarah, who would rather stay home and practice her violin than go to Cass’s party, has her mother, who expressly forbids her from going and demands that she stay home to study. As Sarah has already decided to go to the party by this point, this character and her scene could have been cut from the novel without the deletion having any effect on the plot whatsoever.

Ellie, the plain and awkward friend, has perhaps the most unnecessarily bitchy “evil older sister” I’ve ever read trying to ruin her life. She’s a fairly obvious reference to Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, up to and including destroying Ellie’s dress for the party (unfortunately for Ellie, she has no fairy godmother to repair or replace her destroyed gown and is forced to wear an ugly piece of crap her mom dug up instead). Again, since so little time is spent on actually building the sister up as a suspect, the character could have been completely cut from the novel without barely any changes.

Donald and Maggie share the misfortune of Donald’s (ex?)girlfriend, Dolly. She’s the extreme version of a clingy jealous girl, screaming at and threatening her partner when he tries to sever their relationship. She’s clearly supposed to be another suspect, but since she’s barely referenced after the party begins, she could also be removed to no detriment.

Then we have poor Shane, the new girl at school whose mysterious past is mentioned enough time to make it obvious that the mystery’s resolution is going to involve whatever circumstances or people forced her family to move from their old town. But in addition to the baggage of her past, she’s saddled with a mother who keeps trying to bully her into ditching her “loser” friends and becoming some kind of idealized social butterfly. While this character is actually fairly useful, if only for an extremely brief scene toward the end of the book, there’s no reason for her to act the way she does toward her daughter; all it’s doing is adding vague shades of subplot that never get any proper resolution.

The second element that left me dissatisfied was how the villain managed it all. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that it’s a story that one quickly realizes upon a few moments’ reflection is quite contrived; the villain had a laughably easy time getting to and into the busy home of a wealthy family she didn’t know and then enacting a malicious plot within another individual’s malicious plot without anyone involved in the first plot realizing that anything out of the ordinary was going on. In other words, it’s supposed to scare you… but it’s just too convoluted and convenient for it to make any actual sense.

If you’re looking to reminisce with some 80s/90s teen horror, I’d recommend giving this one a pass–unless, of course, “lame but nostalgic” is what you’re going for.


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Miscellaneous

[Book Review] The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney


Venom.

Dove doesn’t want to buy the perfume. She doesn’t like its scent. And its name frightens her.

But somehow she can’t help herself. It’s almost as if something–or someone–inside her is forcing her to try it.

Dove was always a nice person, a sweet and gentle girl on whom friends could rely.

Until now.

Because when Dove puts on the perfume, she unleashes a part of herself that has been locked away all her life.

It is a second life she never knew existed.

And it is Evil.


Yesterday I explained my dislike for DID (aka multiple personality) plot twists. Today, I have an example of a book that does DID right.

The blurb for The Perfume is a bit misleading. From the way it’s written, it implies that the plot of the book is a young woman who embraces her “dark” side–i.e., becomes less conformist, more sexually aggressive, and the like–to the point of frightening herself with how many boundaries she’s suddenly breaking

The Perfume is not about that a girl like that. The Perfume is about Dove, a girl who from the very first chapter proves to be in the middle of an identity crisis and on the verse of mentally unraveling. And it’s no surprise, given the way Dove’s friends and family treat her and the difficulty she has with reconciling her childish fears and innocent style with her desire to grow up. She is terrified of the name of a perfume (“Venom”) and a clothing store that she imagines is taunting her. She suffers from vaguely OCD symptoms and extremely macabre thinking. See, for example, the following passages:

Dove could not bear things that matched. Identical objects seemed to accuse her of some crime, because she could not distinguish between them.

And…

I’m the same color as the sky and buildings, though Dove. I might vaporize even as we stand here, diffuse like the perfume into all that gray.

And…

Spring had collapsed; had let winter pierce it like a balloon. There was no safety in spring. Spring could double back into winter and vanish without giving notice. I hate seasons, though Dove. You cannot trust a season.

And…

The raisins stared at her like eyes.

She put a spoonful to her mouth and thought, If I eat this, my stomach will be full of eyes.

She went to school hungry.

So it’s more than a little obvious that Dove’s going to end up having a breakdown before the book is over. This breakdown, however, comes very quickly; by page ten, after Dove feels compelled to buy the titular perfume, we have this:

She could not tell [her friends] apart anymore. Nor remember their names.

The store gloated. We knew we could get you, said the store. Didn’t we tell you it was only a matter of time?

Dove felt that her life has been a prelude to this moment.

Had never counted until this breath of perfume.

Venom.

Whose venom? though Dove. What bit me?

And she knew that tonight, at last, there would be something under the bed.

From here on out, we have an impressively authentic portrayal of a teenager sinking into what is likely either schizophrenia or Dissociative Identity Disorder. By page fourteen, she believes she’s hearing a second heart beating in her chest. By page twenty-four, she’s decided to keep quiet about her symptoms lest she be committed. By page twenty-five, she’s learned that she was part of a vanishing twin syndrome pregnancy, and it’s this revelation that she fixates on.

Throughout the rest of the book, it’s fascinating to watch as Dove assigns significance to various things in her environment (the Venom becomes the trigger that “unleashes” her evil vanished twin, Wing; when Timmy blows her a kiss, it allows Dove herself to “regain control”; when Dove smells a specific scent, she’s able to overpower Wing, etcetera.) and as the people in Dove’s life slowly come to terms with the fact that she’s sick.

Now, I feel that the first half of the book did a much better job than the second; in the first, most of the narrative was spent on establishing Dove’s disorder and building tension. The second half, unfortunately, spent a lot of time trying to build a “Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane” atmosphere so that readers could ultimately decide whether Dove was truly sick or simply the victim of a genuine, inhuman “vanished evil twin”. Me, I’m not fond of the inclusion of that trope in a book about DID… but I understand why it was included.

What amused me the most about The Perfume was the way Cooney used the Ancient History teacher to hint at the reality of Dove’s sickness; it’s he that first mentions schizophrenia when she alludes to her symptoms, and I was infinitely amused to find that right around the time I was beginning to suspect Dove might be afflicted by a brain tumor, he mentions the ancient Egyptians attempting to operate on brain tumors. (Wing and Venom’s connection to ancient Egypt is a theme throughout the book.) Frankly, I would have preferred Cooney to ditch the mystical mumbo-jumbo and focus on the medical diagnosis.

Instead, the second half of the book was rather rushed; not enough time is spent on each plot development, and things are resolved too quickly and too easily. So I’ll admit that the second half of the book was a bit of a letdown after the first. Still, it’s an interesting book that does a reasonably good job presenting authentic symptoms of mental illness (especially given its age), and it’s worth a read if you can get your hands on a copy.


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Miscellaneous

[Book Review] Teacher’s Pet by Richie Tankersley Cusick


Kate likes a little thrill. She likes a little scare. And she loves getting the chance to go to the exclusive week-long writing conference taught by the famous master of horror himself. He’s so good at being so bad.

With a teacher like that, you expect a little competition. With a teacher like that, you practically have to kill to get his attention.

Does Kate have what it takes to be teacher’s pet?


Let me start by saying that the above blurb, which appears on the a back of the ISBN 0590431145 edition of Teacher’s Pet, does a terrible job of describing what this book is about. So here’s one of my own creation:

When Kate arrives at her horror writing conference, she’s in for some disappointment: the genre master she came to see, William Drewe, never showed up. Instead, his brother Gideon will taking over the class and lecture schedule. But Kate doesn’t mind; Gideon is a handsome and talented young horror writer, and he really seems to like her.

But someone is going out of their way to scare Kate. William is still missing. People are getting hurt. And someone is definitely following her.

Is one of Kate’s new friends playing a practical joke on her? Or is someone really out for blood?

Much better. Now we can move on.

Ultimately, this story was entertaining. I had a bit of fun batting around various theories as I read, and it wasn’t quite the utter facepalm of some its contemporaries in the YA horror genre. But there was a lot to complain about.

First and foremost, what the hell is up with Tawney? The character, a girl in her late teens or early twenties who works at the conference, is one of the two (non-love interest) friends that Kate makes. And Tawney, though described as pretty and kind, is one of the dippiest dips that ever dipped.

Seriously, I spent the entire book wondering what the heck was up with her. When she’s introduced, her friend Denzil makes the circle-around-the-ear “she’s crazy!” hand motion to warn Katie about Tawney’s eccentricities. When she talks, it’s clear that Tawney is extremely naive and oblivious. She’s the kind of girl who can be ruthlessly mocked without her ever noticing, the kind of girl who feels no shame in skinny dipping with a near-stranger where anyone might stumble upon her, and the kind of girl who never seems to catch sarcasm or figurative speech.

In other words, it’s implied that Tawney might be slightly disabled… but the book never comes out and clarifies. Which rather annoyed me, I’ll admit; if she is meant to be disabled, it would have been nice for the story to explicitly state that. Tawney’s a very positive, helpful character, and it’d be great if I could point to her as a positive portrayal of the intellectually or socially disabled.

Or maybe Cusick just wanted to write a “dumb pretty girl” character. I have no idea.

My second complaint is something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen properly addressed in one of these 80s/90s YA horror stories: Why does no one ever call the police? Seriously, within the first few chapters, Kate finds what she thinks is a severed hand in the woods. Wouldn’t that be a great time to call the cops? And if it’s not, how about calling them when one of the characters gets their leg caught in a bear trap that they believe was deliberately set? Or how about when it becomes clear that William has not just drunkenly wandered off and is legitimately missing, possibly murdered?

All of these seem like very good reasons to call the police, and yet Kate never does so. Hell, Kate is encouraged by the adults at the conference to refrain from calling the police, in spite of the fact that she might be in mortal danger.

Which brings me to my next complain: Why are the teenage protagonist’s love interests both in their twenties?

First, we have Gideon, the hot horror author/teacher/lecturer in his twenties. Tawney’s practically head over heels for him, and Kate doesn’t take too long to join her. So when Gideon asks for a private conference with Kate, during which he takes her out into the woods and unexpectedly kisses her, she doesn’t complain.

Wait, wait, wait. Hold the hell up. Her teacher takes her into the woods and kisses her uninvited? I’m seeing quite a few problems with that, guys. Most importantly, she’s, what, fifteen to seventeen at the most, while he is explicitly mentioned to be in his early twenties.

The other one isn’t any better–in fact, it’s worse. The first character Kate and her teacher meet in the story is Pearce, a super creepy dude whose age is never specified (as he is stated to be the childhood friend of Gideon, he can be assumed to also be in his twenties) and who spends most of his scenes being really suspicious… and then Kate kisses him. Without any warning.

I literally did a double-take when I read that. My eyes skimmed over it, then flew back to the word “kiss”. My only note for that scene says, in all caps, “WTF? WHY ARE YOU KISSING THIS GUY?” They had no chemistry. There were no hints that any kind of relationship–hell, any kind of affection–was going to develop between these two characters (unless you count a joke from Denzil about how girls always fall in love with mysterious guys like Pearce) until suddenly they’d shoved their lips together. It was absolutely fucking baffling.

Speaking of something that wasn’t baffling, however: I figured out the super shocking plot twist on page 129. (There are 214 pages total.) From there on out, I knew whodunnit and how. I hoped, however, that I was wrong (more on that in a minute).

Now, 129 out of 214 isn’t that bad. It’s 60% of the book, which sounds kind of lame until you realize that when it comes to these Point Horror and Fear Street type books… you usually know how things are going to play out by, say, 40%. They’re just incredibly obvious, and there’s usually not much room for extra guessing. With Teacher’s Pet, there were at least enough clues that I could still entertain a few alternate theories until I got to the reveal.

Which brings me to the reveal itself. This is your spoiler warning. I am about to reveal the How (but not the Who).

I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate Dissociative Identity Disorder plots. I hate them with a fiery passion. I hate when horror writers pick a buzzword mental diagnosis, plop it into their story, and expect you to call them clever. And I especially hate when it’s DID.

See, this hatred has a history. In 2011, I went on a Fear Street binge. And one of the things you notice when you read a bunch of those books back-to-back is that the series looooves to have a “s/he’s got multiple personalities!” reveal at the end of their stories.

Let me just say that I can deal with a DID character. I can accept the fact that one particular character in one particular story suffers from or at least appears to suffer from what was in 1990 known as “multiple personality disorder”. What I cannot accept is that in the two decades after the release of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil, MPD/DID became a go-to plot twist for horror and thriller endings.

Here’s the thing. There is no doubt that there are individuals–many, many individuals–who at the very least claim to have multiple personalities. But DID was and is a very controversial medical condition, and there are plenty of medical professionals who will gladly inform you that DID cases are misidentified Munchhausen Syndrome patients, instances of therapist suggestion, iatrogenesis, misdiagnosis of other conditions, etcetera. In fact, this 1999 survey of 301 board-certified American psychiatrist found that “Only about one-quarter of respondents felt that diagnoses of dissociative amnesia and dissociative identity disorder were supported by strong evidence of scientific validity.”

So it’s clear that these twist endings are not in fact the result of the author’s research into a psychiatric disorder. They’re simply using an unproven diagnosis that the public thought was “cool” to write a story that the audience will hopefully also enjoy. No twist ending involving DID that I have ever read bothered to spare one word about the reality and controversy of the disorder; it’s just “such-and-such is now getting the care s/he needs”.

Yeah, whatever.

But, like I said, Teacher’s Pet was a sufficiently entertaining story. I’m never going to love it, but it was a reasonably fun way to spend two or so hours in spite of all its flaws. So I don’t highly recommend it, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it might be a fun way for a horror fan to spend an evening and get into the Halloween spirit.


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