When I was growing up, I read a lot. I also watched a hell of a lot of television, but I spent a lot more of my time reading; at school when we did one of those reading trees, I was in a group by myself because I was at an advanced reading level – I’m not bragging, but also I’m totally bragging. It may have been that actually no-one else liked me because I was smug as hell about being a kick-ass reader and that’s why I was isolated, but YOU’RE WRONG, DAMMIT. My parents encouraged reading from a young age, getting my brother and me to take part in the summer reading programmes at the library and always listening enthusiastically to any stories we wrote or made up. My parents are awesome.
Anyway, one thing I realised over time was that my reading tastes were always a little ahead of my age – obviously this became irrelevant as I got older and became an adult, but I don’t know many 10/11 year olds were reading Robert Cormier and Stephen King, or 13 years old who have read American Psycho. Then again, I don’t currently know many 10-13 year olds, because I’m not desperate to be “down with the kids”.
But here’s what I want to tell you guys about. When I was about 9 years old, I discovered the teen section at my local library, in particular the Goosebumps and Point Horror books – and I was hooked. Relatively short and often unbelievably formulaic, these two series of books were perfect for teens (or ‘young adults’ as the book category tends to be called) and ambitious pre-teen readers like myself. Given that so many of the television shows and films aimed at children were (and still are) made in America, it’s not surprising that the dramas surrounding American teenagers would appeal to a spotty, overweight girl in cloudy, boring England. I loved it.
First up, Goosebumps.
Remember when Goosebumps was EVERYWHERE? That was awesome. Created by author R. L. Stine in 1992, the horror series was aimed at children with an interest in anything supernatural, scary or ghoulish. Looking back on them now, I think they’re actually still pretty frightening. I remember one moment in particular in “Say Cheese and Die – Again!” – the second of two stories about a camera that captures photos of the future with grim images of things to come – where one of the characters takes a photo of his friend and it comes out showing him with a metal nail poking out the top of his foot – then about 2 minutes later the poor bastard IMPALES HIS FOOT ON A NAIL.
There was a television series of Goosebumps too, which was along the same lines as “Are You Afraid of The Dark?” and was great for some after-school or Saturday morning scares. R. L. Stine (who has also written some of the Point Horror books) has said that he often thinks of the title first and builds his story around that, which is an unusual technique but I guess it worked for him. These books were never too graphic or gory, and had often featured children who were new to a town or considered to be an outsider; this is a common feature in fiction for children and teenagers, because at these stages in life it’s easy to feel like you don’t fit in and reading stories about people in similar situations can make those times easier. Even if those people encounter vampires, abominable snowmen and demonic ventriloquist dummies. Reading Goosebumps led me on to the television show ‘The Twilight Zone’, but there’ll be more on that in a future post…
On to Point Horror. These books were aimed at slightly older children, with story lines that were less supernatural and more realistic – and by realistic I mean dead people turning out to not actually be dead, teenagers with mysterious pasts arriving in new towns in every other book, and jocks and nerds are best friends.
The characters were painfully formulaic:
- The blonde, beautiful girl with green or blue eyes, tanned skin and an athletic but feminine physique; nine times out of ten she’s a cheerleader. She’s smart, funny, sporty…perfect. She’s normally the one who dies or is in peril throughout the story.
- The mousy-brunette, best friends with the cheerleader but often jealous of her too. Normally friends from a young age, she reluctantly goes along with her friend when she’s heading into a dangerous situation because despite being the archetypal nerd, she’s incredibly stupid.
- The tomboy; often with sandy blonde or reddish hair, she hangs around with the boys and acts like one, while always – without any deviation from this – harbouring feelings for her male best friend, who treats her like one of the lads but somehow at the end reveals that he loves her too.
- The jock – every American teen story needs one. Sometimes he’s incredibly handsome but stupid, other times he’s incredibly handsome and very smart too; he’s the male equivalent of our blonde beauty. Sometimes they will be together as a couple, but as I’ve pointed out, Point Horror was mostly targeted at young teenage girls and so to appeal to them the jock would often reveal his feelings for the marginalised girl (the tomboy or the mousy-brunette).
- The lonely joker. Perhaps the most complex character in any Point Horror story, he’s the comedian of the group, sometimes going too far with his jokes and often hiding his true feelings for the cheerleader for fear of humiliation. Occasionally, this joker turns out to be the creepy one sending people messages or stalking them, aka THE CULPRIT.
- The handsome mystery man, who is supposed to be both a love interest and a prime suspect. Because, you know, it’s important to teach girls at a young age that it’s okay to be attracted to potentially dangerous men.*
So, those are the characters that turn up in most of the books. As for the plots… well, let’s just say, those scary urban legends you used to tell one another at sleepovers? There’s a 99% chance that there’s a Point Horror book with one of those as a plot. Luckily for me, I bloody love urban legends, so this kind of “you know it could never really happen, right?” stories are right up my street. I’ll be honest, I think I must have read about 60% of the original PH books and if you were to tell me the name of a random book, I’d struggle to tell you the name of any of the characters and probably scrape around for the plot using the huge clue that the title normally has. This is because the plots are largely indistinguishable at times, which is probably why they fell out of print and have given way to longer, edgier books.
In the mid to late nineties, a few new Point Horrors were published in a series called “Point Horror Unleashed”, intended to be darker and scarier than the original run of PH books which were considered to be too formulaic and no longer appealing. I read one of these, a book called “The Hanging Tree”, and it was much more disturbing than any of the original PH books I’d read.
Amazingly, Goosebumps books are still available in some bookshops, but Point Horror has mostly been relegated to the internet. I bought a whole bunch from eBay a few months ago as people tend to sell them in boxes with several in them rather than individually, and I am in no way finished collecting them. I would love to one day have a complete collection, partly for the sake of nostalgia and partly so that I can read them all again. If you loved Goosebumps or Point Horror and had a favourite, or if you can think of another series of teen horror fiction from the 90’s, please let me know in the comments below, as I would love to check them out.