Let’s talk about this cover for a moment. While it’s extremely similar to the original edition in composition, it has some marked differences that make it more effective as a YA horror novel cover. First, the subject isn’t hiding his crow’s feet with aviators and he doesn’t have Miami Vice permastubble. Which, as I think we all knew then as well as we do now, isn’t a feature of seventeen-year-old boy face. Second, the silhouette not only looks younger, but projects an air of mystery–we know he’s a lifeguard, but we have no idea which lifeguard, and guess what? That’s the thrust of the entire book, summed up succinctly in one illustration. Well played, Open Road. Well played.
Now onto the meat of this retro roast dinner. The Lifeguard follows Kelsey and her mother, whose name is either not given or totally unimportant because I’ve already forgotten it, as they visit Beverly Island, home of mother’s playwright boyfriend Eric, his daughter Beth and his two lifeguard sons Neale and Justin. But lo! As soon as Kelsey and mother step off the ferry, they’re informed that Beth has gone missing (and is pretty much presumed dead by cold and unfeeling but also sexy and piercing Neale who spent time in a mental institution where murders happened but is totally okay now maybe but we just don’t talk about it). Kelsey, who is deathly afraid of water due to her father’s drowning two years prior, finds a note from Beth suggesting her disappearance isn’t an accident, and then super weird shit starts happening. Super weird murdery shit. (No spoilers!)
In the pregame commentary I mentioned that The Lifeguard wasn’t my favourite Richie book, and this reread has done nothing to change my opinion. Overall, I think it suffers from an overflowing kettle’s worth of red herrings–pretty much every male character except one has ample cause to be a murderous psycho, so guess who’s the murderer? Yeah. Kind of a rookie mistake when it comes to mysteries, but this was only Cusick’s first Point novel and her second overall, so I’m not going to judge her harshly. Also, while getting rid of the parents is a necessary trope of Point Horror (and one of my personal favourites), the manner in which the kids were separated from their primary caregivers made the parents seem neglectful and borderline dickish.
By the way, your mom took off for the mainland…. She said she forgot to tell you.
Kelsey’s mom took off and left Kelsey on a strange island with strange teenagers she literally only just met and no adults and she forgot to tell her? Seriously? I know I’m old and less excited by the prospect of parental neglect, but come on.
That said, the atmosphere of the story held strong, with all its isolated beaches and disused lighthouses and fogs and storms, so it was a pleasant ride if not a mindbending one. Kelsey’s friend Donna was as much of a joy of a character as I remember her to be–nuanced, naive, complicated and fun to be around. I just wish we could have seen more of her (especially as I liked her a lot more than Kelsey, who came off as a bit of a drip most of the time). There were a few amusing-in-the-wrong-way moments peppered through the story, mostly as a result of the book’s seemingly ancient milieu:
She wished she could just go down and ask him where the phone was, but if it was in the same room with him then he’d be able to hear everything she was saying. No, better to find an extension.
Remember when you had to find an actual phone to make a phone call and that phone could only stay in the room it was plugged into and other people could pick up a totally different phone and hear everything you were saying on your phone, the one you were standing right next to with no privacy because the cord only reached so far?! Me neither.
She paused on the steps and slid her arms into her purple windbreaker.
Thank you for dying young, windbreakers.
Kelsey averted her eyes, but not before noticing his thick black hair, the firm set of his jaw, the high cheekbones, the sinewy curve to his upper arms.
Ha! This genuinely made me laugh out loud. Ah, Richie, you tickle me.
Next up, 1989’s Trick or Treat. And ooooh, it’s a doozy.
Buy The Lifeguard ebook on Amazon here. (For the ebook editions, she’s listed as Richie T Cusick.)
Publishers Weekly review from 1988 here.