|Fight, fight, fight or die, die, die!|
Well, I guess R. L. Stine learned from his mistake of a second book of this series and hit a homerun with this one. I know it sounds a little odd for a grown man to be praising a teenage horror book, but you do have to remember that these are from my childhood and that I actually have really fond memories of them despite their corniness. And yes, this book is actually quite good all the way around. While it never quite hits the powerful moments that the first book in this series does, it still hits some great notes.
Unlike the second book which had no ultimate point except for killing off Chip, having the evil possess Kimmy, and telling the backstory of Sara Fear, this book has a greta deal more to say. First of all, it touches back on those social issues from the book. Yes, it does it in a very different way with completely different issues, but it still hits those points. And what are those points? Well, jealousy, friendship, trust, and teamwork just to name a few. See, the second book should have hit upon the emotional issues of loss, mourning, and dealing with grief for the teenager. Instead it failed at all of that, but we seem to get a decent amount of those issues in this book as well, which is a little crazy since this is a pretty short book to pack all of that into.
I think this is one of the most interesting R. L. Stine books I've reviewed so far (and may be one of the most interesting I review period). It twists both the story and reality to its own devices, so that you're never certain what's happening and what isn't happening until the reveal. Even moreso, the twist also involves emotional impact, something this series had been lacking throughout the second book and the first half of this one.
Anyway, there's a lot to say, and I want to get the ball rolling, so let's do this thing.
"Corky stared inside Bobbi's head. And gasped.
In the darkness the inside of Bobbi's skull appeared to pulsate and throb. But Corky's eyes adjusted quickly to the pale light, and she saw what was moving in there."
The story starts out yet again with Corky, this time part of the cheerleading squad and relatively happy. It's been a while since everything went down in the last book, and a new cheerleader, Hannah, has joined their ranks. The problem is that everybody thinks that Hannah is a showoff, so much so that most of the girls do not like her very much. At the same time, there is a cheerleading camp the girls are going to, and that promises to be interesting.
There's not much I can really say about the first half of this book. It's pretty dry, mostly there to set up things later in the book rather than to really be terrifying (or crazy interesting) right away. That being said, the story here is more interesting than the last book already. The writing is much better, and there are no mystery people or graveyard visitors or weird anti-mournings going on. Corky seems to have adjusted to her life in Shadyside pretty well, becoming fast friends with the girls on the cheerleading squad, especially Debra and Kimmy. I mean, that's what's basically established in the first half of the book, that and the fact that the girls don't like Hannah all that much.
The only real issue here is that Corky keeps dreaming of her sister opening her skull and showing her what's inside. These dreams are pretty well done and establish early on that something isn't quite right, although, we, as the readers, have no idea what's wrong yet.
"Hannah is doomed."
We see Corky become afraid of the other cheerleaders again, suspecting them of possibly being possessed. We see all the motions of what Corky was worrying about in the last book. Once the girls get to the cheerleading camp, the issues start cropping up again. Accidents and sick pranks start occurring. Hannah's braid is cut off, a girl on another team is tripped and breaks some teeth, and Corky and Kimmy are suspected of basically hazing Hannah because of jealousy or a dislike of her. Corky believes that Kimmy is to blame, that perhaps the evil never truly left.
And that's when the story gets interesting. The jealousy is an important part of the story. Corky feels alone. She's feels afraid of losing the small bonds of friendship that she has made over the course of the year. She is ultimately afraid of being alone again, without even a sister to fall back upon as a friend. I know this is a much more supernatural story than those explanations, but those explanations also still hold. Her fears as a teenage girl are important to her. She feels like she could be replaced with Hannah, forgotten about, thrown aside like trash. And she hates that feeling. She is afraid of that feeling. There doesn't need to be supernatural evil spirits to see the darkness and horror of what high school can be, and how fleeting friends sometimes feel.
"Red then black. Red then black.
She shut her eyes, but the flashing colors continued on her eyelids.
The roar in her ears grew louder.
She thought she heard laughter, evil laughter, somewhere far away."
The twist though, is that Kimmy, although she is acting odd and strangely suspicious, is not to blame for anything. Shockingly, Corky is to blame. It was the old unreliable narrator trick! Oh, man! But here it works. It's good. The jealousy and hatred she seems to be feeling, the dreams of Bobbi, and her odd thoughts and antics at times point to her own possession by an evil spirit. It could all be seen as a metaphorical possession. I could certainly work on that hypothesis. Mostly though, she is possessed by a murderous evil and has to find out how to control it or how to kill it.
I think this is when the story enters into its best territory. Corky leaves her companionship behind, distancing herself from her friends to save them. The evil goes after what she doesn't like, who she has issues with. It targets and tries to kill those people she is annoyed by. So, she becomes antisocial for the most part, taking away the very thing she certainly craved so much in the first half of this book and the other two books as well.
I have to say that the evil within plot here is done very well. Her conversations with the evil, her trying to find out how to defeat it using the past memories of its possessed victims, and her tenacity to fight it really drive home Corky's character that was barely defined at all in the first two books. She becomes both interesting and her own person through this book. Her fighting spirit, and sometimes even her cowardice as much as her courage, shape the reality of her character. I guess I find it really well done, especially for a glorified kid's book. There is meaning here in between the lines, and, to me, that makes the book and the series worth it.
"I'm going to vomit forever. Forever! Corky thought, her entire body trembling as the green gas spewed out."
There is some horrific imagery in the last third of the book, specifically Corky's inability to control herself. She spews forth "putrid smelling" green gas from inside of herself, becomes a bit unhinged with and without the evil spirit controlling her, and dives into her subconscious mind for a good long while trying to figure out what to do about the whole possession thing. It may not sound "scary," but to her it very much is. Losing control of one's body to a foreign entity is a terrifying prospect, and Corky's worst fears are realized. She can do nothing to save herself except (as she finds out) to die with the evil inside of her as Sara Fear did nearly a century ago.
To me the flashback is very well done. It's probably the only thing that the second book set up that actually is worth anything at all. Corky, for a time, is reliving Sara Fear's last moments alive, seeing her decision to kill herself and take the evil with her. Because, unlike what the last line of the second book stated, the evil can be drowned, but only if the person possessed is willing to die first. I like this a lot, and obviously so did R. L. Stine. He focuses on Corky's fear of death and her willingness to both die and balk at death very well. She doesn't want to die, but she has to die to save the others. But she doesn't want to die.
To me this shows the nature of not only a teenage girl, but of humanity as well. It is a very human response to fear death, to fear suicide, and to ultimately want to save others when you can prevent terrible things from happening. The problem is that Corky isn't strong enough to stop what the evil wants to do. She can't kill herself yet, and so the evil goes after Debra and fails because of bad timing. Then it goes after Kimmy, and we see something interesting. It isn't the scene with Kimmy that's interesting here, but rather the way the evil operates. We can imagine that in the previous books with Jennifer and then Kimmy being possessed, it probably acted very similarly, isolated victims and trying to make the deaths accidental rather than clearly murderous. It's interesting to see both intent and a modus operandi. I like that. And I also like that this is how it probably operated in the past as well.
"A grin spread over Corky's face as she stood, hands on hips, and watched Kimmy plunge to her death."
Corky is the worst killer by the way. She killed fewer people than Kimmy or a dead girl. Just remember that. It's kind of sad actually. I assume it's because the girls are more careful and because Corky is actually fighting pretty hard against the evil spirit. Sure, Corky tries to kill Kimmy, but she fails. Yes, despite that quotation up there, Kimmy actually survives being pushed off of a cliff to her death in the waters below. Kimmy is hardcore. The thing is that Corky isn't. She's the one that actually dies here.
"I'm choking. I'm going to die.
But I don't want to die.
I want to live!
I can't drown. I can't die!
I have to live. I have to!
But I can't. I have no choice.
I have made my choice.
Yes, believe it or not, R. L. Stine actually kills off the main character yet again! And in water again too! It's kind of crazy actually, but also incredibly well-written. Corky basically sacrifices herself to save those she cares about- her friends and her family. She wants to end the evil spirit once and for all, and if her death is the only way to do that than despite her conflict about death and life, she is willing and does sacrifice herself for the greater cause of killing something truly evil.
Corky drowning is actually quite poignant, written in a very high tone throughout. It works as a beautiful image of a strong girl doing what she needs to do. I like it a great deal. Believe it or not, this is how female empowerment is written. Sure, Corky is a cheerleader, but not once is there oversexualization or a reliance on a relationship. She doesn't need to be protected by some guy nor does she ever cry out for her crush to come and save her. She relies on herself to see this through to whatever bitter end there will be.
I know R. L. Stine was primarily writing for a female audience, but this is actually fantastic. This isn't Twlight with a girl being literally defined by who she wants to love. It's not a supernatural romance. It's not her running around and screaming and crying because she's frightened. I can't focus enough on how this is all about Corky coming into her own, being the hero of her own tale, a true hero of the ages, sacrificing herself against both evil and horror.
"And then Corky drowned. She felt as if she were shrinking.
Shrinking until she was nothing but a tiny acorn floating in the water. Then a dot. A lifeless dot. She knew the evil spirit had shrunk too.
And knowing this, she died."
Because of course, she has to die. She has to die to defeat the evil.
While this book is never truly horrific nor ever truly scary, it piques emotions that aren't often brought out in simple teenage stories. You want Corky to survive because she goes through so much hell. Her character has emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon only to see her drown and thus die before she can truly spread her wings. I know this is a horror review for an October Night, but the horror here, possession, is so far removed from what the horror of this story truly is. Corky's death doesn't matter as much as her emergence from possession by society and by the evil spirit. Dying shows that she has thrown off the shackles and finally learned what life truly is about.
In many ways the spirit could have been removed from this story entirely, showing more of a young woman coping with high school, expectations, jealousy, and hatred. The evil could easily be her own evil being intensified, and I'm sure that that was what was meant. it works too well to be a simple coincidence.
I'm probably saying too much and reading way too much into this, but there are such beautiful words and images in the last few chapters of this book that I have a hard time not speaking at length about it.
"The evil faded, then disappeared. Washed away forever in the rain-stirred brown river current."
And with that death, Corky's death, so too does the evil die.
Yes, Corky is saved by Kimmy (who didn't die), and with her being saved the world is a better place. Yes, people died because of the evil spirit, but with it gone somehow and (ha ha) finally, there is a brightness in the story despite the image of rain hanging over them. They have survived. They have persevered. And mostly, they have transcended the spirit world and become something more, if only for a moment.
The Third Evil
Well, R. L. Stine wrote an amazing "ending" to the trilogy here. While there are two other book in the series, this really does end this powerhouse of a horror trilogy. The book is a little lesser on its own, but as the final piece of a trilogy, it works incredibly well. It is effective in what it does and how it uses the set-ups from the previous books to make a payoff that works incredibly well.
This book doesn't have the iconic images that the other books do have though. There are no deaths here (besides Corky's temporary death), and while that works within the narrative, it does take away from the memorable moments. Besides the Bobbi dream I didn't remember anything about this book at all despite reading it quite a lot as a kid. See, the first book has Bobbi's death which is both tragic, hard-hitting, and tough to stomach. It comes out of nowhere and is iconic because of how abruptly it happens. The second book, although basically terrible has Chip's death, which, for me, is one of the most iconic deaths I read in my early life. Something about the saw cutting off his hand and him lying there bleeding to death in shock really hit me hard. It's something I remembered very well throughout my life. This book doesn't have those images, but what it does have is a great narrative about jealousy, anger, hatred, and perseverance.
Corky comes into her own character, becoming nearly as strong of a character as Bobbi was. She sacrifices herself, dies, and is reborn without evil. And the way it happens is so well-written that it's pretty spooky. The cheerleading camp is telling, showing a darker side of Corky than we had ever seen before, even before we knew she had the evil spirit inside of her. She isn't bland here, but amazingly resourceful even in her own weakness at times. I like that, her being both human and hero. It makes the whole story come together. Both sisters, the main characters of this trilogy, dying in water, and both being reborn in a way, Bobbi being a spirit of good, and Corky living in the end.
I really like this book. It has a lot to offer even if you have to read the second book to get a lot of it. The convenient characters are gone, replaced by Corky's own resourcefulness, and while the other cheerleaders don't factor in the story as much as previous books, the focus on Corky as a character (especially as a character I thought was bland and uninteresting before this book) really worked well. I'm glad it ended up working that way.
There is some horror to be had here, even if it is kind of heady horror. I think the book has a very psychological slant to it that makes it fascinating and not a slasher story so much as a possession story with a twist. I don't know. I think it's a fitting book for itself and for the series. I liked it quite a bit and recommend it completely for everybody to read even if it is a horror book and series for teenage girls. It's good and worthy of a look. This is one of my favorite horror series, and while the second book wasn't great, the series itself wasn't disappointing. I was glad to read through them all again.
Anyway, that will be the last Cheerleaders book for a while. We'll get to another eventually, but that seriously could be years from now. So, let's enjoy this decent little trilogy and see where we go from here...