The Short Version: Brendan Fear is having a birthday party out on Fear Island. Rachel Martin’s friends warn her not to go – but she has a crush on Brendan and, heck, those old stories about the Fears are just stories, aren’t they? But when kids start dying, Rachel has to find a way off the island – before time runs out.
The Review: I have to admit, there are few better ways to kick off the month of October than spending a little time revisiting the world of a man who scared me so often as a kid: R.L. Stine. Now, I wasn’t a Fear Street kid so much as a Goosebumps one; I still have the entire 62-book first series of Goosebumps on the shelves of my childhood bedroom, but with Fear Street always seemed like I missed the boat. I wasn’t a teenager when they hit their peak and by the time I was a teenager, I’d moved on.
So I didn’t know quite what to expect. Would it be supernatural horror? Darker, more human horror? And regardless of what kind, would it still be effective? It’s hard, after all, to revisit something almost twenty years later and still see it match up with the person you’ve become (at least when those twenty intervening years include all of your schooling, a couple world-changing wars, etc). And on the one hand, from a critical perspective, Stine’s new book doesn’t quite deliver. For one thing, it’s written for teenagers – but for what teenagers used to be. Quite frankly, I’d be embarrassed to read this as a teenager not for the plot (which does a wonderful job, actually, at capturing some of the teenage struggle – more on that in a moment) but for the actual writing itself. It’s flat, it’s cliched, it’s predictable – and it’s funny how much you take those things for granted as a reader. Even in the recent YA boom, the writing has trusted that these kids will be able to handle a little more nuance and skill. Because while I read it as Stine doing, as he’s so often done, the tropes of horror specifically to mine the commensurate shocks – teenagers trapped on an island, of course there are going to be murders, haven’t we all seen classic slasher movies?…. except, wait, kids today actually probably haven’t. Who’s watching the original Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street at this point, when special effects and torture porn and satires like Cabin in the Woods have “revolutionized”, for better or worse, the horror genre? Even my friends would pick other, newer, “better-looking” films to watch when we were that age. So I worry that Stine’s audience won’t be where he left it 15 years ago when he stopped seriously writing these novels.
And, you know, that’s a shame. Because the thing that made Stine special hasn’t gone away: his empathy. Yes, he has a twisted mind and does some pretty awful things to his teenagers over the course of his multiple series – hell, I’d absolutely argue that I’m as weird of a person as I am because of the experience of those Goosebumps novels (especially the truly weird ones. What was it, The Beast from the East that had that weird meta twist at the end? I can’t remember. Anyone else?) – but he also empathizes with them. He puts them into terrifying situations but doesn’t ignore the basic parts of adolescence that are also terrifying. And that remains true here in Party Games. Oh sure the casual crushing and vague understanding of parental troubles, all of that is there as it ever was – but I sense a modern voice here. Rachel’s ex-boyfriend is troubled to the point of violence and the few moments that deal with her trying to shake him off are as scary as anything else in the novel – because how many stories have we heard in the last year (six months, six weeks, six days) of domestic abuse, rape culture, etc? This is something in the news and it’s no longer something that just gets a free pass – and seeing Stine drop it in there, a character pointedly/successfully/safely telling her messed-up and violent ex to back off, is a small positive reinforcement for any girls who might be in the same boat in real life.
And, without going into spoilers, the crux of the plot ends up relating to the modern middle-class pinch: we hit a recession and it really put the hurt on a lot of people. And while the analysts and other ne’er-do-wells say that we’re in recovery, it’s hard to tell that to the guy who got laid off, who has a family to support, who sees the rich families in town as undeserving. The class thing was an unexpected touch.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I mean, it was never going to knock my socks off: the writing quality just isn’t there as compared to what else I’m reading these days. But Stine has a surprisingly deft hand with teenage worries in the modern era (although he keeps them all in Capital Letters, not going too deep) and I was surprised by just how smart this update was.
But enough about the politics and all that. Is the book scary? And the answer is (by my jaded account): a little. It’s certainly a page-turner and I’ll bet kids are going to get a few really good scares out of this (and any ensuing) book. Those seeking a nostalgia trip, just remember: he’s not writing for you anymore. We grew up, whether we wanted to or not.
…still, doesn’t mean we can’t all go home and pull out our copies of The Haunted Mask or Night of the Living Dummy now and again, right? It’s good to see you back, Mr. Stine. Thanks for the scares – I hope you’ll keep going long enough to scare my kids, too.
(ed. note – I should just add that I got the chance to meet Mr. Stine at BEA this year [yes he signed my book] and it was absolutely one of the highlights of my literary life. A nicer man you could not meet and seeing the queues to meet him renewed my appreciation for how important he really was to all of us young readers and writers. Would genuinely love to hear folks’ stories of their childhood Stine memories as the month goes on, perhaps for a collected piece. Email me or leave them in the comments.)