Inspired by Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, this new series of blog posts will highlight the 90s teen horror explosion. Get ready for neon covers, insane plot twists, and plenty of nostalgia!
Before the 1990s, the YA landscape was a bleak array of teen romances like Sweet Valley High and “problem novels” about children of divorce and eating disorders. R.L. Stine published his first horror novel in 1986, and in 1989 Fear Street was born. Christopher Pike’s first horror novel was also published in 1986. Coincidence? I think not. These two bestsellers helped to usher in a new age of teen books that focus less on romance and social issues and more on murder.
Quite a few of those 80s teen romance authors turned to writing the new popular genre. When it came to writing horror for teens, these writers had to think beyond the sort of horror that appealed to adults. What did kids do, anyway?
The easy answer: kids play games.
Children’s games… but Deadly
Freeze tag, hide and seek, truth or dare… add a little murder and bam, you’ve got yourself a teen horror novel.
Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney (1992) harkens back to that childhood game. Except Lannie can literally freeze you with a touch of her finger – you know, like Elsa. You’d think Meghan and Wes might have remembered that, especially since the only way Meg could get Lannie to unfreeze Wes was to promise not to be Wes’s girlfriend, but then we wouldn’t have a book, would we?
When I was a teen, playing hide-and-seek at parties was all the rage… um, not really, but that’s what happens in D.E. Athkins’ The Ripper (UK title: The Cemetery). Okay, yeah, as a teenager I would’ve been psyched to play hide-and-seek in a cemetery. Sounds super creepy! Naturally, someone gets murdered. At first everyone thinks there must have been a killer hanging out in the cemetery, but even after they stop playing and partying, friends keep on getting murdered.
In yet another case of bored teens playing childhood games, I submit for the approval of the Midnight Society: Truth or Dare by R.L. Stine (1995). A blizzard has trapped these teens at a ski lodge (cue the tiny violin) and they start to play. When one truth uncovers a murder, people start dying.
Fun fact: the scene on the book cover portrays an event in the book, except one of these girls is a murderer — I’m not sure why they both look scared!
Surprised it wasn’t the “dare” part of Truth or Dare that led to murder? Don’t worry, Stine wrote an earlier Fear Street book, The Dare (1994), that does. And so did Diane Hoh, with Truth or Die (1994).
I suppose scavenger hunts were more fun for older kids, although the game played in Christopher Pike’s Scavenger Hunt (1989) led to plenty of murder and one of the weirdest plot twists I’ve ever encountered.
The first major plot hole in Scavenger Hunt is that the grand prize is a trip to Hawaii. In what universe???? We start out with our main character, Cal, having some trippy dreams about drowning in blood. Then we meet Cessy and Davy, a pair of siblings that have it going on like Cersei and Jaime Lannister. They want Cal on their team, like everyone else, I’m not sure why – Cal doesn’t exactly seem like the brightest bulb, as shown by the fact that he joins Team Incest hoping to get a piece of Cessy rather than choose the team with his actual friends.
Unfortunately, the scavenger hunt angle disappears about halfway through the book, but that plot twist is well worth the read.
L.J. Smith’s The Forbidden Game trilogy (1994) features an actual board game, albeit one in a plain white box bought from a hot dude with white hair named Julian. The directions tell the players to draw their nightmares on cards and place them in a cardboard house they assemble – nothing suspicious about that! Only one friend dies before they can escape the game in The Hunter, so why not come back for round 2?
The Chase has the friends playing Lambs and Monsters, which sounds a bit like Snakes and Ladders only with more Shadow Men and nightmares. This one isn’t a board game, and neither is the game Jenny & Co. play in book 3, The Kill, which is more of a treasure hunt at an abandoned amusement park.
Naturally, the creepiest board game ever created, the Ouija board, shows up in The Game (1983), the first in the Dark Forces series. In a predicable turn of events, a young girl plays with Ouija board and gets possessed. Dark Forces later takes on arcade games in Beat the Devil, in which a computer game tries to possess the player.
Or you could just make up a game…
When I was a young teen, I used to play what I called “The Dead Game” with my siblings when I had to baby-sit. The game involved me pretending to shoot them, and to win you had to be the one who stayed dead (e.g. quiet) the longest.
Imagine my surprise when A. Bates came out with The Dead Game (1993). In a move that would get them expelled today, Linnie, Ming, and Jackson come up with a hit list. They don’t want to really kill their victims – they just want to humiliate them. You know, by stealing their letter jackets and leaving them on gravestones. Because that’s REAL punishment. (????) The game is pretty boring until one of their “hits” is found dead.
I feel like, murder aside, my game was creepier.
The Fire Game by R.L. Stine (1991) shows that bored teens can turn anything into a game, even setting fires, which today would be diagnosed as pyromania. Literally, these kids are setting fires in the school because they’re bored (and kind of boring…) and then decide to set other stuff on fire, including a homeless man.
Want some more bored teenagers? Good ol’ R.L. has you covered. Night Games (1996) involves playing pranks. There aren’t even any rules. But there are a lot of bored teenagers running amok, murdering people and whatnot. Unfortunately for them, they’ve created one angry ghost. Game over!
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first in the Paperbacks from Heck series! How many of these do you remember reading as a teenager?