By Katy Goodwin-Bates
The 1990s were a barren wasteland for the discerning teen reader. I recall many a trip to my local library spent scouring the shelves for something to read which didn’t say Sweet Valley High on the spine, as well as the epic row that took place when my dad had to intervene on my behalf to gain me access to the adult shelves, on the grounds that I’d read the seven YA books in stock. There was one constant in my reading in the mid-’90s, and that was the Point books: with separate series for horror, crime, and romance, these tomes dominated my summer holidays, whilst at the same time causing deep concern for my parents, as I appeared to be entirely devoted to reading about teenagers being murdered by local psychopaths. Little did they know, I was actually more scared of the romance books; to the preteen me, there was little in life more terrifying than whatever a love bite might have been.
When I decided to revisit the world of Point Horror for a Halloween treat, I was annoyed to remember that I was no longer in possession of my extensive collection, having traded them in at a second hand bookstore in 1999 for a copy of the complete works of Emily Dickinson. This acts as both a tremendous example of my precocious literary maturity and also my exceptional economic shortsightedness, as cheesy ’90s teen horror novels clearly sell really well on Ebay, which is where I was forced to turn in order to indulge in this particular nostalgia mission.
The sweet smile left the old man’s face, and his expression turned menacing. He came toward her, scissors raised high above his head.
He put a hand to his lips, index finger raised. “Shhh!” he whispered. “You won’t feel a thing.”
Then he brought the scissors slashing down. (Double Date, page 104)
My initial forays back into the world of Point Horror were underwhelming. Caroline B. Cooney’s Freeze Tag is about a childhood game made a little too real, thanks to the involvement of a player who can actually freeze people at will. In the 1990s, this may have seemed genuinely creepy; in 2016, it just made me wonder when she was going to run up a snowy mountain and sing Let It Go. Between this and Sinclair Smith’s Double Date, there are two key problems. Firstly, they’re not actually scary, unless I am just super-brave these days–a proposition contradicted by my inability to watch The Walking Dead without a cushion to hide behind. Secondly, they feature two of the most anodyne and boring protagonists in living memory; telling these stories from the point of view of their disturbed villains would have made the whole experience approximately 47 times more interesting. Worse than either of these was Cooney’s The Vampire’s Promise, which I didn’t even manage to get through, such was its sub-Twilight cheesiness.
Things picked up when I came to R.L. Stine’s The Hitchhiker. Stine is, of course, also the creator of the Goosebumps series, and I definitely remember those books freaking me out in my youth. The Hitchhiker begins with a savage attack on a motorist, followed by the introduction of a shady guy and some giggly girls on a road trip. In the spirit of all stories that make you jump, this one contains a decent plot twist, which is only slightly let down by the obligatory rushed ending. I’m not sure why all Point Horror books come in at under 200 pages, but it’s not particularly helpful in fully developing a plot and leading to a satisfying conclusion. The same applies to Carol Ellis’ My Secret Admirer, which features one of the most naïve teenage girls I’ve ever encountered (“oh, someone I don’t know is leaving me seductive answerphone messages and abandoning flowers on my doorstep without me actually having met them or told them my address. That’s so romantic.”), but also an appealing selection of teen horror tropes: the isolated setting, the absent parents, and the new-girl-in-town, to name but a few.
Oddly, having read these tremendous works of fiction, I became somewhat obsessed with acquiring more Point Horror books on Ebay: a happy situation which resulted in a repeat read of Richie Tankersley Cusick’s The Lifeguard, which is, by the standards of this series, quite brilliant, and the equally deranged Halloween Night, also by R.L. Stine. Should you find yourself with the desire to revisit the teen horror classics of the ’90s, I urge you to start with these two. The Lifeguard is really rather creepy, with a “whodunnit?” plot overflowing with red herrings, while Halloween Night features the kind of teen hysteria which is only made more hilarious by the inclusion of gorilla costumes and decapitated birds.
The wind was like the inside of his head, screaming and shrieking, like she had screamed. .. like she had screamed and screamed, the whole way down until she’d finally hit those rocks and lay still…
He caught his breath, his own scream choking him.
It was Kelsey’s fault, this terrible thing that had happened. (The Lifeguard, page 179)
What seems to unite the works of the different authors under the Point Horror imprint is the inexplicable psychopath. In each of the books I reread, safe, boring suburbia was disturbed only by the appearance of a largely motiveless maniac with a penchant for vengeance; Freeze Tag‘s antagonist is basically still pissed off about not being invited to sleepovers that happened 6 years ago, and both My Secret Admirer and The Lifeguard‘s final reveals are more likely to have the reader appealing for a little perspective than hiding behind the sofa.
I do have some other issues with the Point Horror oeuvre. For one, why are these books so suspiciously small? A reader wishing to conceal their passion for teen serial killers could easily hide a Point Horror in a not-particularly-large pocket; either they are weirdly tiny, or I’m a giant and it’s just a question of perspective. I also have to strongly question whether American teens have ever been called Brenda or Neale, or had conversations which in any way resembled the dialogue featured in many of these books. About 80% of everything that happens would be avoided in the age of internet and mobile phones, which could explain why the series died such a swift death at the dawn of the information age, and why none of my bookish pupils has ever excitedly regaled me with tales of reading Fun House or The Waitress (which are, incidentally, the next on my to-buy list).
Here’s my big confession: despite their flaws and inherent silliness, somewhere along the line, I started really enjoying rereading these books. I think it’s safe to say that tracking down tatty Point Horror paperbacks will occupy me for some time to come, and I’ve discovered that websites exist on which readers log the instances of overused tropes in Point Horror; I have a weird urge to join this crucial bit of literary research. I will not, however, extend the same nostalgic olive branch to the Point Romance series; those books did enough damage twenty years ago.