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 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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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: Swimming with the Sharks, Part 2

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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.

All right all right. I’m giving The Lifeguard 2 1/2 bonfire beach parties out of 5–it’s quite flawed, but nascent Cusick is there, so if you’re a fan of beachy YA horror you could do a lot worse.

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.

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Pointless Horror series

Pointless Horror: Swimming with the Sharks, Part 1

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Look at those muscles. Seriously, look at them. This is a book for teenagers and that guy is at least 35. A chiseled, five-o’clock–shadowed, Top Gun–handsome 35 years old. This isn’t just any lifeguard, young ladies. This is The Lifeguard by Richie Tankersley Cusick.

I’ve decided to read through Cusick’s books chronologically, and while The Lifeguard is her first Point book, it isn’t her first novel. That distinction goes to 1984’s Evil on the Bayou, which was released as part of Dell’s Twilight: Where Darkness Begins series. Dell ceased publishing Twilight about four years before Point barged onto the scene like a brash young boxer with something to prove (sort of), but Twilight, with its twenty-six standalone young adult horror titles, very much blazed Point’s trail. Casting an eye over Twilight’s list of books, Evil on the Bayou is the only title I can definitely remember reading, but the series had a decent stable of authors so it might be worth a punt if you can find them.

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In the 1980s, women did the hokey pokey with snakes.

Evil on the Bayou wasn’t bad at all, very atmospheric, and I think it was the only novel Cusick set in her native Louisiana. It’s all sticky sexy heat, voodoo, and moss-dripped bayous–I was reminded of it when I watched The Skeleton Key. Like, really reminded of it. (Maybe someday soon I’ll read the book and then watch the film to see how similar they truly are–you know, make a night of it. A laaame night.) Sadly, since it’s not Point it’s out of scope for our purposes, so these brief reminiscences will have to suffice.

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This Laurel-Leaf reprint has the cover I remember.

On to The Lifeguard. Now, in my previous post I mentioned that Point Horror began in the early nineties, and some sources confirm that, but Cusick’s own website (does she know I’m stalking her?) states that The Lifeguard was published in 1988. So let’s take her word for it–in which case, this must have been one of the series’ launch titles. Now, I don’t think this was the first book of hers I read–that was probably Teacher’s Pet or Trick or Treat–but it was an early one. It wasn’t one of my favorites, but neither was it an unqualified stinker. I loved the remote, isolated beach location, which may or may not have influenced the establishment of my current abode by the sea. I technically lived by a body of water when I read this book as a kid, but it was a thirty-minute drive away and the ‘beaches’ were covered in industrial and medical waste, so sand and surf wasn’t really part of my childhood.

Anyhoo, lifeguards and beaches and sun and romance and murder and clean water and, crucially, no parents. That’s what I remember of The Lifeguard.

Hang on…did I just say MURDER?!

 

Note: All pre-reading Part 1 posts will henceforth be posted on Thursdays. Part 2 (The Reviewening) will be posted on Mondays.

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Pointless Horror series

Burnin’ Rubber on Nostalgia Road

…with a crate-load of Point Horror books in the passenger seat of my hot rod. Because there were still totally hot rods in the nineties. Leave it alone–this is my dream.

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Actually, hot rods never figured in my teenage daydreams (and still don’t in my late-thirties), but any number of Point Horror protagonists did. Would I choose Sexy but Dangerous or Sexy but Safe? Well, the only thing I could be sure of is that at least one of them was out to kill me, but that didn’t stop me from trying to outsmart them all…in my head. Unsuccessfully.

But I do still think about Point Horror, occasionally and fondly. Being a girl who loved horror and had pretty much devoured the full raft of Victorian, Edwardian and early (and many late) twentieth-century ghost stories by age fourteen, I found myself looking for something a bit closer to home. Of course I read all the Stephen King novels and Ann Rule true crime books on my mother’s shelf, but as an early teenager in the nineties, stories of single mothers in peril or real adult men committing heinous acts–along with the almost de rigueur sexual violence against women–didn’t satisfy my desire for inclusion. Those books were arguably less scary, less meaningful to me because I couldn’t see myself in the protagonists’ shoes.

Enter Point Horror. I can’t remember the exact moment I first found a Point Horror novel on the library or bookshop shelf and decided to give this unknown a go, but I can remember spending my summers plowing through volume after volume with absolute pleasure. (I will always and forever associate scary stories with lazy days and sunshine.) This was also the time I started getting seriously into music; the radio was constantly on (CFNY Toronto, anyone?), and I began buying tapes and CDs of my own choosing. Even now, when certain songs come on the radio or in the pub, I am instantly transported to a scene from a Point Horror book, and I may not recall the details with clarity, but I always remember the feeling. And it is good.

Point began life in the early nineties as a division of Scholastic and published paperback originals from a host of now-notable authors, including Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine (one of his first was a Point book). They were geared towards teenage girls–unusual in itself for anything horror-related–and were very popular with their target demographic. They are, it seems, well remembered for the most part, although some criticism has focused on the representation of their female characters and the dearth of practical problems. Point Horror stopped publishing in 2005, although there was a mini-revival in 2013.

Twenty-plus years later, I’m interested, mostly, in whether the shine of Point Horror has dulled. I’m no longer the target audience, of course, and though contemporary at the time, the nineties are long gone, long enough for clothes from that era to be deemed ‘vintage’ (gross). So Point may very well just not be for me anymore. But is it true, as Will Davis wrote in the Guardian, that as an adult I’ll feel embarrassed I ever read ‘this trash’? That Point Horror failed because ‘today’s kids [writing in 2008] have higher standards’, and that the books’ escapist nature prevented them from treating real-life issues that would appeal more to contemporary teenagers (just like Twilight…oh wait)? Davis was ambiguous on that last point, but I’m firmly opposed to it. Do thirteen-year-olds really need the drudgery and despair of everyday life shoved down their tender throats, and if that’s truly what they desire, why are they fleeing headlong into the arms of sparkling vampires and boy wizards? Is escapism such a bad thing? Is Point Horror, well, pointless? Let’s not be so hasty with our adult-shaped judgments in hindsight here.

The point to this Point is that I just found out Open Road Media has republished ebooks of a number of novels from my fave fave fave ever Point Horror author, Richie Tankersley Cusick (you won’t find much on her author website–technology doesn’t seem to be her strong point). I’m a bit late to the game on this one, but hey, it’s new to me. So I’m going to read my way through all of Cusick’s Point Horror books that are available in ebook–and try to source any that aren’t–giving my thoughts and memories beforehand, which might not be much (it has been a quarter of a century since I read them, after all), and then revisit my position after. Does the legacy persist untarnished? I don’t know. Will I emerge disillusioned and ashamed of my teenage self? I highly doubt it.

At least I was reading.

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