Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: Just a Little Prick, Part 1

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I’ve never really been a fan of the vampire as a horror genre construct. I’m not sure I can even explain why–vampires have always just left me a bit cold (geddit?!). Even when I went through my Anne Rice phase during university, I somehow managed to avoid reading almost all of her vampire novels, sticking to the fringe, Lestat-less stories like Violin and Cry to Heaven instead.

(I did enjoy the Interview with the Vampire film when it came out, though, which probably had more to do with my youthfully misguided crush on Christian Slater than the story. I say ‘misguided’, but man he is good in Mr. Robot, ain’t he? But let’s be honest–it’d be hard to be bad on a show like that.)

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. I’ve recently reread some of the old Stephen King classics, and I was surprised to find that ‘Salem’s Lot is actually one of my favourites of his. The follow-up short, ‘One for the Road’, is great, but I’m less enamoured with the prequel/origin story ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’, and yet I feel like the ‘Salem’s Lot universe is one that could be, and probably should be, revisited.

Knowing my bloodsucker aversion, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that when it came time to write about Vampire, Cusick’s own take on the icon (I guess?), I couldn’t remember a single damn thing about it. Not one. I wasn’t even convinced she’d written the book–I had to double-check to ensure my sources were correct for my own peace of mind. Total memory vacuum.

Luckily, during a fifteen-minute yoga session this morning that has left me crippled (this health kick is brought to you by my birthday next month–please kill me), one major detail jumped unbidden into my conscious mind: the killer leaves two dots of red lipstick on his victims’ necks. That’s why the book’s called Vampire.

And that’s all I know.

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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: The First Is the Worst, Part 2

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After two poor showings, I feel I can say that Open Road Media has out-covered the original edition with this one. Just. While the 1990 April Fools cover is more literal–there is an actual doll’s head in a mailbox in the story, and I don’t care how macho you think you are, but if you found a bloody, mutilated doll’s head in your mailbox I know you would drop a load in your shorts and then scream like a little girl at her first clown-themed birthday party–this one brings the horror to the fore, what with the knife and the blood and the doll’s cold dead eyes hidden beneath colder, deader lids.

‘You are so easy to scare…. Anybody could scare you–‘

Martha? Is that you?

A windblown leaf scraped across the pavement, and she jumped.

Oh no, it is you, except this time your name is Belinda and instead of screaming at light and shadows and everything in between you have a serious issue with seasonal foliage. What the fuck is your malfunction, Belinda?

Sorry, sorry…I shouldn’t be as hard on Belinda as I was on Martha. I mean, if I killed a man just to watch him die and then my best friend turned out to be a massive dickhead, I guess I’d be a bit jumpy too.

Here’s the 411, or the lowdown, or the deets–whatever the kids call it today: Belinda, her best ‘friend’ Hildy and Hildy’s personality-disordered boyfriend Frank are driving home from an April Fools’ Day party, because that’s a thing, when drunk Frank decides to play a prank by grabbing the steering wheel from Hildy and repeatedly ramming the back end of a passing vehicle while they’re on a twisty dark road and it’s raining. Haha funny! Just like The Hitcher, and that was a hilarious little prank, right?

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Even C. Thomas Howell thinks it’s funny.

So Belinda watches, helpless, as her psychopathic ‘friends’ (you’re going to see quotation marks around that word a lot) run this poor car off the road. Belinda gets out to help but her companions won’t let her; when the car bursts into flames, as cars always do, Hildy and Frank break out the marshmallows and form a Satanic prayer circle instead.

I’m kidding about that last bit…but seriously, close enough. Because Frank and Hildy are assholes.

Two weeks later everyone’s back at school and Belinda is the only one who seems to think there might be repercussions to the accident–possibly quite horrible repercussions of the You Literally Killed People kind. Get this conversation between Improbably Named Hildy and Belinda:

‘Car wrecks happen every day–‘

‘But they don’t have anything to do with us!’

‘And this doesn’t either. You’re acting like this is some huge tragedy or something….’

Oh. My. God. 

‘It is a tragedy! I just keep–keep feeling that somehow we’ll be…paid back for what we did.’

We can only hope.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews how much I tend to like the supporting characters in Cusick’s books–particularly the protagonist’s female friends, who are often far more brave and rounded than the stars of the show–but April Fools is a complete reversal. And it should have worked well: make our hero Belinda truly isolated, truly on her own as she dealt with the creeping horror of a car-wreck victim out for revenge. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Belinda particularly heroic, or even anti-heroic, for the same reasons Martha rubbed me the wrong goddamn way. I suppose that’s why her ‘friends’ are just beyond the frikkin’ pale, to provide some kind of meaningful foil, but they all end up being a bit of a shitshow and I found myself rooting for the bad guys instead. And they were, you know, pretty bad. (Which is, of course, meant to make the vehicular manslaughter thing at the beginning less terrible, but that’s total bullshit.)

After Teacher’s Pet, I can’t help but feel we’ve backslid here, particularly with the protagonist who’s once again let us down as readers, as women and as non-joyride-murderers. I’m starting to see why Point came under fire for the characterization of its female protagonists back in the day, but then again, I don’t remember feeling this way as a teenage reader. I’m going to think about why this might be and write a separate post on it at some point. Lucky you.

April Fools gets two out of Seven Psychopaths, for the attempt rather than the accomplishment. I swear had no idea my blog title would turn out to be prophetic.

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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: The First Is the Worst, Part 1

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Oh Chucky. If it weren’t for you, you murderous little shit, this cover probably wouldn’t be nearly as creepy as it is. So cast your mind back, dear reader–if you can–to a sad, sad world before Child’s Play was even a glimmer in Don Mancini’s eye and riddle me this: Would a doll in a mailbox have given you even the slightest pause?

Who are we trying to kid? Of course it would have. Because dolls are creepy.

Dolls have always been creepy.

I’m assuming the cover of Cusick’s April Fools–her fourth outing for Point Horror–is illustrating a holiday-appropriate prank that’s about half as disturbing as the creepy clown phenomenon currently sweeping the western world. But soft, what words through yonder cover break…

It’s no joke…it’s murder.

Because Point Horror is where the bad shit happens, and you’d better not forget it.

While I was in the shower the other day thinking about having to read April Fools, I realised that I remember quite a bit about the story, or at least the set up. I also remember that the boy I wasn’t supposed to like, the really obviously bad one with the big evil scar on his face, was the one I found most attractive.

‘Twas ever thus.

What I don’t remember is what exactly April Fools’ Day has to do with it. This and Trick or Treat are Cusick’s only holiday-themed books, as far as I know, and while Halloween is a no-brainer for a horror series, April Fools’ Day is a bit more of a head-scratcher. Or it would be, if we didn’t know that Cusick shares her birthday with that holiday.

And how do we know this? Because every Open Road Media reprint I’ve read of Cusick’s books so far features the same mini-photo biography at the back. It’s a somewhat lengthy written bio supplemented with captioned photos of Cusick at various stages in her writerly existence. The bio is repeated verbatim in every book, so don’t think that more books will offer more insight, but considering the lack of information about Cusick on the ‘net, even this small glimpse into her private life feels like a great boon. We’ve got photos of her as a child in Missouri (where she still lives), of her high school newspaper editor’s badge and of her hard at work at her ‘haunted’ desk. To be honest, I’m not sure I even knew what Cusick looked like before this rereading odyssey began, so well done, Open Road. I, for one, am pleased.

All right, kids, let’s meet back here on Monday, when I’ll post my scintillating review. To the Batkindle!

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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: School’s Out Forever, Part 2

 

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This cover is boring.

Let’s get the important bit out of the way first: CAT WATCH: Teacher’s Pet edition does indeed include a cat. A black cat. It’s name is Pet, and it belongs to the teacher.

Get it?!

I gotta be honest, that gave me a chuckle. In fact, a lot about this book gave me a chuckle in the best way, because there were some genuinely funny characters in this book who popped up to give us a little comic relief when it was most needed. Especially after the relentless doom and gloom of Trick or Treat, I heartily welcomed the playful tone of Teacher’s Pet. Or, you know, playful-er.

‘Shame.’ Denzil stood over her in his grease-stained apron, trying his best to look stern while Tawney waved from behind his back. ‘Think of those poor starving children.’

‘Oh’—Tawney’s eyes looked worried—’do you know some?’

Oh, Tawney. You are so stupid it’s hilarious and so sweet it’s endearing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s a little context to get us all in the mood:

Cusick’s third Point Horror offering, Teacher’s Pet, takes us to camp: High school student (obvs) Kate has written an award-winning short horror story, so her teacher–wannabe romance author Miss Bunceton–takes her to a writers’ camp/retreat given by bestselling horror author William Drewe. But William’s an unreliable drunk, so he disappears and his hot-as-balls younger brother Gideon teaches the seminar instead.

[I’m gonna take a moment here to add a few more entries to the Improbable Name Fetish wall: Gideon, Denzil, Pearce, Tawney, Rowena. There. Had to get that out.]

While Kate makes friends with fellow aspiring-writer teens Denzil and Tawney, Gideon takes a shine to his star pupil and Kate begins to attract attention from someone else at the camp–the ‘animal sacrificed in the shower and its blood smeared all over the bathroom’ kind of attention that no one wants. And what’s this? The same thing happened to a girl who had a crush on Gideon at the camp last year? Uh oh, sounds like Kate’s screwed.

Or is she?

As I mentioned in Part 1, Teacher’s Pet was my favourite Cusick Point book (as far as I remember), and I have to admit that I was a little worried about reading this one after my old person’s opinions of The Lifeguard and Trick or Treat. They just didn’t work for me, at least not the way I think they used to. But with Teacher’s Pet, I’m happy to report that I must have had pretty good taste in teen horror books back when I was actually their target audience. Sure, I had some issues with it, but overall it was far more enjoyable than the previous two books.

‘I LOVE TO BE scared,’ Kate insisted with a smile. ‘I’d love to write a book someday that would really terrify people.’

Well, would you look at that. In a complete turnabout from Trick or Treat‘s scared-of-her-own-shadow Martha and The Lifeguard‘s drippy Kelsey, the protagonist in this horror novel for girls is a Girl Who Likes Horror. Go figure.

I think my big issue with this book is the characterisation of our protag’s main love interest, Gideon Drewe. Putting aside the fact that he’s in his early twenties, is a teacher, and immediately starts macking on some high school girl in his writing class (I’m putting this aside because this is precisely the kind of thing I probably would have found desirable when I was thirteen and ignorant of the ways of this big bad world), this dude is a total fucking mess. Take this, from when he and Kate are trying to fix a time to go over her story:

‘Say…tomorrow morning? About eight?’

‘Sure. That’d be great.’

‘Eight…yes…eight would be great.’ A faint smile flickered across Gideon’s face, then slowly faded, his voice drifting off to a whisper.

For serious? I actually highlighted this on my Kindlemabob because this is our very first meeting with the guy we’re meant to be falling in love with and he’s basically wearing a sign that says, ‘I’m a nutjob. Shlobblypants.’ But once again, I have to make concessions: Did I find this creepy and crazy when I was a kid, or was it mysterious and intriguing? I hate to say it, but I’m pretty sure it was the latter.

‘Kate…. You’re really so extraordinary, you know…so extraordinary that…it frightens me–‘

Barf.

One last point and then I’ll shut up: This story is somewhat about writing, fear and the nature of horror, and I can’t help but think our Richie’s gone a little bit meta with what her characters say they want to accomplish in their writing and what Richie (arguably) does accomplish in this book.

‘He told me once that he’d love to write a mystery where he’d have everybody completely fooled and the ending would be totally unexpected.’

I can’t really comment on how surprising the book’s ending is because, as with all these books so far, I’ve remembered the ending while rereading the first chapter, but it’s certainly constructed and presented to be hella surprising. So nice work, girlfriend.

Denzil wiped his hands on his apron and handed Tawney a freshly stacked tray as she went by. ‘Bring the empty tray back this time, okay?’ he reminded her, and then sighed as she gave him a dazzling smile and ran into the wall.

Tawney, you slay me.

I’m giving Teacher’s Pet 4 our of 5 thieving black cats for the terrific supporting characters, the horror loving female protagonist, getting rid of our authority figure with a bum-full of poison ivy rather than criminal neglect, and the Touch of Chicken Meta.

Next time on Pointless Horror: it’s April Fools, bros.

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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: School’s Out for Summer, Part 1

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Guys, hey guys, guys, guys…I am so excited. Teacher’s Pet, published in 1990 and Cusick’s third novel for Point Horror, is my favourite. I mean, I think it was my favourite–as I sift through the sands of my constantly shifting memory, this, at least, is the one I have the fondest recollections of, mostly because it featured a ‘writers’ camp’, and when I was twelve or thereabouts, I had no idea such a wonderful place even existed. It was, like, a summer camp where kids could go to write. On their own. Whoa.

Now, I’ve never been to summer camp–not the sleepaway kind–or a writers’ retreat, but I imagine this combination would look something like Meatballs meets The Shining. But with hotter boys.

I don’t want to go too much into the plot so I don’t start remembering details and ruining it for myself, but the cover is confusing me a bit because…well, is there a cat? I mean, is the cat a feature of the plot? And the tagline: ‘Look what the cat dragged in…’ I could be wrong, you know. This might not be about a writers’ camp at all–maybe it’s about mutant cats with erasers for tails who terrorise school children by wiping their eraser butts all over the kids’ bubble answer sheets so the machines can’t read them and then everyone fails.

Could happen.

But either way, rest assured I will report back on CAT WATCH: Teacher’s Pet edition on Monday.

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Rawr!

 

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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: Smell My Feet, Part 2

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I don’t know, man. Compared to the original cover, this one seems pretty staid. I suppose gravestones could be considered generically Halloween-y, and this cover does evoke a certain mood, but it tells me nothing about the book, whose main feature is a house that’s kind-of sort-of haunted. Point definitely wins this round of cover wars, just by virtue of having an image that’s relevant to the story. Relevance is always a big plus.

Trick or Treat, Cusick’s second novel for Point, opens with sixteen-year-old Martha and her dad driving to their new house in the country town of Bedford (there’s one pizza place that stays open to 11pm sometimes, huzzah!), complete with Matha’s new stepmother Sally and her new stepbrother Conor. Sally and Conor weren’t exactly included with the house, but near enough as Martha doesn’t seem to know them very well–this new-style family must have resulted from a whirlwind romance between the parental units. They met, they canoodled, they introduced their kids (briefly) and then bang! They bought a decrepit old haunted house in the country.

The house looked strangely ghostlike, rising up through pale wisps of fog, its dark stone walls and chimneys interwoven with bare, twisted trees…its gables crawled with dead ivy, its tattered awnings drooping like eyelids hiding secrets. Like something in a dream, not quite real. Not quite safe….

Foreshadowing! But seriously, I love this house already. And so does Martha’s dad, who likes horror and writes ‘human interest stories’, which is pretty nondescript but in the book seems to mean weird stuff. Martha, sadly, disagrees with her dad and me; she thinks the house is weird. She thinks her hot-as-balls stepbrother is weird. She doesn’t think about her stepmother much at all. Because she’s kind of self-obsessed. And a total wimp.

She hated this house. Hated it. She’d never liked scary things. She’d never understood dad’s macabre sense of humor or his fascination with the unknown, or the articles he was always researching and writing for those dumb human interest magazines.

Sorry, Martha, but I don’t think we’re gonna get along. We’re just…too different.

And she hated herself–it was horrible being sixteen and such a baby.

Looks like there’s something we agree on after all.

In classic Point style, about a day or two after the happy family moves into their brand-new haunted house in the middle of a haunted forest outside of Hicksville, USA, dad and Sally fuck off to Hawaii for three weeks and never bother to call their kids even once.

Livin’ the dream.

As Conor and Martha acclimate to their new rural digs and small-town high school, Martha attracts some unwanted attention from the local welcoming committee in the form of scary prank phone calls, being followed…and did she really see someone standing in the closet last night? Is this all down to the ghost of a girl who was killed in Martha’s new house just a year before, or could the killer still be at large? The school Halloween dance is in just a few weeks, and it’s the anniversary of the murder…

I really wanted to enjoy this book. I think I liked it when I read it as a kid, but this time I just couldn’t get past Martha and her strange persecution complex. You wanna see weird, Martha? Look in the mirror. Weird is screaming your head off every time someone opens a door or speaks to you, even before actual weird stuff starts happening. Weird is being so self-obsessed you can’t see straight and yet everyone inexplicably wants to be your friend or boyfriend. Martha is the original Bella Swan, and she ruined the hell out of this Halloween-set horror novel for me. Thanks for crapping all over two of my favourite things, Martha. You gonna go kick some kittens, too? Or just scream in their tiny adorable confused faces?

‘Weird’ Conor, however, is not so much weird as smart and funny and caring. And all the girls at school lurve him.

‘Haven’t you noticed how everyone’s been lusting after him?’

I have to admit I almost felt for Martha here. This actually literally happened to me when my brother and I changed high schools in our senior year. One day some girl just casually mentioned how everyone was all in love with my mutant sibling (who, objectively speaking, is pretty good-looking), and I was like, ‘Has the world gone mad?!’ It’s kind of the worst thing ever when you’re a high-school girl with a brother in the same school.

But after almost feeling for her, I returned to my senses, because she’s a dick. I find it a bit odd that Cusick chose to give the main character in a horror novel for girls a hatred for all things horror and a spine made of a Jello pudding pops, but I suppose variety is a good thing. Or can be, if well handled. Maybe I’d be more amenable if she were a little more open-minded as well, not so quick to pronounce everything weird or stupid.

I’d have to give this book 2 out of 5 mouldy jack o’lanterns, mostly for the supporting characters and the trappings of Halloween. And, of course, for introducing me to my dream house. But overall, I think you could give it a pass and be no worse for its omission.

 

If you’re looking for a solid Halloween-based horror novel (for adults), I’d recommend Norman Partridge’s Dark Harvest. It’s not just set at Halloween, it’s about Halloween, and creates it’s own little rural mythos that’s terribly sinister and quite exciting.

 

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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: Smell My Feet, Part 1

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I look at this house, this clearly haunted-ass house with its creepy horror-novel font and mysterious glow in the background and a random but possibly dangerous man knocking on the door who we know can’t just be the Amazon Prime delivery guy because Jeff Bezos hasn’t invented it yet, and I think, Dream house. (Though I could do without the twee gingerbread gables.)

I have particular tastes.

Published in 1989, Trick or Treat is Richie Tankersley Cusick’s second novel in her prolific Point Horror career. How prolific? Try eleven Point-branded novels in six years (not including the two adult horror books she published with Pocket during same period). Overall, before taking what seems to have been a hiatus between 1997 and 2002, Cusick published seventeen YA and adult horror novels between 1988 and 1996. On average, that’s more than two books a year.

That’s a lot.

Open Road Media has limited itself to reprinting only the Point and adult books, but adult isn’t Point, so here’s the list we’re working from:

  • The Lifeguard (1988) [Part 1, Part 2]
  • Trick or Treat (1989)
  • Teacher’s Pet (1990)
  • April Fools (1990)
  • Vampire (1991)
  • The Mall (1992)
  • Fatal Secrets (1992)
  • Silent Stalker (1993)
  • Help Wanted (1993)
  • The Locker (1994)
  • The Drifter (1994)

When I do these introductions I try not to read even a synopsis of the current title, but rather conjure whatever I can from the depths of my memory so I might, perhaps, be surprised. Exceptions will have to be made, of course; for instance, it’s a good thing I accidentally read the first line of Trick or Treat’s synopsis, because all my memories of that book are actually April Fools in disguise. Oops.

I do remember a bit about this book, but not really what it has to do with Halloween. There’s probably a dance or something, maybe a haunted theme park–that tends to be popular with the YA crowd (and me). Mostly I remember the love interest’s name is Blake. Blake. Why do YA novel protags always have such unusual names? Blake, Neale, Kelsey, Skip–it’s like a Primrose Hill primary school roster.

Well. On the surface, Trick or Treat includes two of my favourite things–Halloween and haunted houses–and as luck would have it, I will be reading it at the beginning of October, so I think I can forgive Cusick her Improbable Names Fetish just this once.

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