Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fear Street Review: Cheerleaders: The First Evil

When the cheers turn to screams...
"Give me a D-I-E!"

So, here we are at our first R. L. Stine teenage book released in August 1992 called Cheerleaders: The First Evil. Unlike the Goosebumps books these really weren't for kids at all. Now, that didn't stop me from reading them when I was very young, but it is a fact. These are pretty creepy even for an adult to read. They are not baby books for babies, but I don't think any of these R. L. Stine books are. They all have that little special piece of horror that most books, especially those made and written for kids and teenagers, seem to be missing. And how ballsy must it have been for R. L. Stine to actually write these books for teenagers at all? I mean, look at the teenage books that are popular today- supernatural romance, vampires, werewolves, supernatural romance, fantasy romance, romance, and maybe a little fantasy for the adventurous. But that's about it. You don't get horror books written for teenage audiences anymore, and certainly not horror books for teenage girls starring teenage girls! That's insane! That's just crazy!

And yet here it is- a book that involves no romance elements written for teenagers- specifically teenage girls- that is good in every way. Well, saying this book is good is underplaying the quality. It is an excellent book, standing up to my memory in every single way. I remember this being one of the best R. L. Stine books and series around, and it certainly didn't disappoint me thus far.

I know that a story centered around cheerleaders seems like it would probably make a pretty uninteresting book, but it really works amazingly well. One can relate to the characters, the situation therein, and the emotions. The horror, very vague for most of the book- more similar to paranoia and regular high school drama than actual horror- really hits a stride that I haven't seen equaled in many other horror books at all.

"When you jump up, everyone can see your underpants."

The story begins in such an innocuous way and goes to very dark places. It begins in an almost typical Goosebumps fashion- a prank set upon a younger sibling. The lead character, Bobbi, and her sister, Corky, set up a prank on their younger brother. They plan to scare him with a fake rat, succeed, and enjoy the evil of their deed. This works so well at establishing their characters. They become strong from the get-go, each with her own personality, and each with her own establishing moment. Corky is the younger one, in Bobbi's shadow more than likely, but not caring all that much about it. Bobbi is the perfect one, the more mischievous one, and the one who the story follows around. They are both new to the town of Shadyside (where the Fear Street books take place) and are looking to try out for the cheerleading squad even though it's a bit late in the season for that. But they're good, and it shows. They're given a chance, and the story kicks off.

Is it about cheerleading though? No, not really. You could substitute any high school activity into here and get the same results. Drama club, football, chess club, etc. It doesn't really matter since high school kids will be themselves in the end. The cheerleading squad works well though because of what they have to do, because of the trust they need to have, and because of the utterly non-horrific imagery associated with cheerleaders.

"Jennifer's startled scream was drowned out by the squeal of the skidding tires.
By the crunch of metal.
By the shatter of glass." 

The sisters are allowed onto the squad to their elation because of their obvious talent. The problem is that things go wrong quickly. Kimmy, one of the cheerleaders, does not like the sisters at all and seems bent on turning the other girls against them. Jennifer, the captain, seems able to keep everybody together- but then an accident. The bus they are traveling on to get to a game crashes, Jennifer gets hurt, so much so that she is thought dead, fallen on top of the tombstone of "SARAH FEAR." She awakens, but is paralyzed, and a new captain is to be chosen.

The book has a limited third person narration. It follows around certain characters' thoughts. Though it mostly focuses on Bobbi's own thoughts, Corky's, Kimmy's, and Jennifer's are also seen. While Bobbi is the main character, it becomes very obvious that the whole plot is much larger than her. Corky is largely forgotten in the background, just another girl in the shadows as Bobbi's teenage life goes through its moments. A boy, Chip (the football quarterback himself no less!), asks Bobbi out, she is chosen as the new cheerleading captain, and everything seems to be going her way.

And yet...

And yet.

"Everyone is watching me, Kimmy thought, forcing back the loud sobs that pushed at her throat. Everyone is feeling sorry for me."

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how right it gets the teenage mentality. Everything is in the moment. Each thought is hectic and pumped up and ultra-emotional. Both Bobbi and Kimmy act in emotional manners, both lashing out because of jealousy or anger or a million other little emotions that they cannot hide. This book gets it so right though. It hits that pitch-perfect feel of teenage and high school life. I can remember going to high school football games with my girlfriend at the time, watching the cheerleaders, feeling the charged atmosphere, and hearing the noise throughout the bleachers. And R. L. Stine captures that atmosphere perfectly, right down to every little description. The teenage life reminds me of those teenagers I used to know and those that are left behind in my memory- and it works- it works so well that it's scary.

I think that's the point really.

"He's dead, she thought.
It was so silent in the stadium. So unearthly silent.
We're all dead. All."

The narrative keeps going as Bobbi's new "boyfriend" freezes during a game. This comes back as she later freezes as well while trying (unsuccessfully) to catch a girl during a routine. And this all happens as her relationship is straining with the other girls on the squad, even her own sister. It seems like only Jennifer seems to have any time for Bobbi, but even that is- strange. Bobbi keeps seeing and sensing odd things. First some lockers seem to shut on their own, then she freezes and is completely unable to move, and then, finally, she sees a paralyzed Jennifer, in silhouette, seem to stride across her window.

This seems impossible, but she feels the need to believe her own senses. She tell Corky who thinks she's cracking, and they leave each other to sleep, both angry at the other.

"'Help me! I can't- breathe!'
She closed her eyes and covered her ears.
The roar didn't go away.
The pain didn't go away.
The roar grew louder.
Then all was silence."

The twist in this tale is that Bobbi, our lead, is the one to die. She dies, or is killed, in an incredibly gruesome fashion, drowning and being scalded to death all at once in the girl's locker room. This has always stuck in my mind as one of the creepiest and most descriptive deaths I read about in my early life. I can't say I enjoyed it, but the artistry and the writing are just so incredibly well done. To write a death that has stuck with me for well over a decade has to mean something. I always remembered this scene, was even looking forward to it in a sick kind of way.

I can't seem to remember a single other death in an R. L. Stine book, but this one sticks out so vividly, perhaps because of the twist that Bobbi was never the main character, she was never the one we were supposed to be following, and she was nothing more than a false protagonist. And something about that shattered the illusions that I had always known in my young mind. I no longer could trust the narrative or the author. I was tricked into a false sense of security. Surely nothing could happen to the lead character, nothing bad could befall that character, that would be silly.

And when something bad did befall Bobbi, I found myself a little shattered. I was shocked and upset. I didn't understand how this could happen. And I realized it could never be any better. In many ways this book introduced me to an adult narrative, a gave me a huge distrust of horror that has continued to this day.

"'Fear Street,' one of the policemen had said grimly, shaking his head. 'Fear Street...'" 

See, Corky figures it all out after Bobbi's death. She first thinks that Kimmy killed her after she noticed that she found Kimmy's pendant on the floor with Bobbi's stuff when she found Bobbi's body. but Kimmy had given the pendant to Jennifer, but poor paralyzed Jennifer couldn't-

Well, she could actually. She wasn't paralyzed. She wasn't anything. She had died in that bus accident and was possessed by the spirit of Sarah Fear... or something, it seems. Corky sees Jennifer walking, then driving, then dancing near Sarah's tomb. Corky confronts Jennifer, and after a few chapter long struggle, defeats her, leaving only a body of bones and dust behind, much to the confusion of literally everybody, police included. Although, it seems everybody knows something is wrong with Fear Street, but they're unable to do anything about it... 

The First Evil

Well, here we are, again through another R. L. Stine book. And what a great book this one is. It stood in my mind as a high point of horror in my young life, and it didn't disappoint. It is an excellent book from beginning to end. The characters are brilliant, each fleshed out in turn. The setting of the high school works well, and it is incredibly surprising just how right the details seem, even to me, who went to high school a decade after this book was released.

It is a horrifying book, one with creepy and incredibly descriptions. The deaths are so well detailed, and yet still left ambiguous, not gory exactly, but leaving a great deal to imagination. It still is a teen book, but the terror is a much older and thicker terror than that. It works so well that it has to be one of the very best R. L. Stine books out there. And I wouldn't be surprised if it is the best teenage horror book as well. 

I don't think this book will ever leave my mind. I've thought about it a lot in the years since the last time I read it, which was well over a decade ago. It is one of the few R. L. Stine books that comes back to me from time-to-time, and I have no clue why. Maybe it was because this was the first Fear Street book I read and therefore the first teen horror book I read as well? Maybe the descriptions were brilliant even to my much younger mind- or maybe it did truly scare me, and maybe it still does even today.

I can't help but recommend this book. It works so well at everything it does. It is incredibly well-written, well-paced, and well thought out. I can't think of a single negative- unless I include the slightly too quick ending and the lack of characterization of Corky. Then again... well, I know what's coming, so neither seem like huge flaws because of that.

Well, now I have a choice. Monster Blood and Cheerleaders: The Second Evil were both released in September 1992. I'm going to choose Monster Blood to review next to shake stuff up a bit, but realize that very soon we'll be hitting the sequel to the first Cheerleaders book...

Anyway, see you next time, readers.

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