BY SHANNON C. WALSH
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
I loved all Christopher Pike novels when I was upping my bra sizes. From the ages of 10 to 14, I read every book he wrote or had written: a total of 29 young adult and 3 adult novels—though I am appalled to discover that I missed a Tatyana Ali / Jonathan Brandis TV movie based on Fall into Darkness, which is inexplicably billed as “A True Story.” (I admit I had JB on my wall during his SeaQuest 2032 days, right next to 21 Jump Street’s Johnny Depp. I liked boys with pretty faces, which, later in life, will make perfect sense.)
I distinctly remember my first Pike experience. I was home sick from school, sitting on the couch as my mom left for work. She’d made sure I had all of the necessities in reach: a can of Pepsi, the remote control, and two books she’d brought home for me (which I greeted with the customary aloofness of a preteen). The cover—by which I judge a book—of Remember Me pictured a girl’s body sprawled on the flagstones below a balcony railing where an ominous hand rests. Whisper of Death’s cover had the black-robed, skeletal figure of Death hitchhiking near a few scared teenagers on a deserted highway.
I chose to start with Remember Me because I thought that Whisper of Death would be scarier (even though now I think the cover is cheesy); I wasn’t sure I wanted to be home alone and petrified. After all, just a couple of years earlier I’d made my mother return a book about a rogue, school-project volcano that she had suggested might be too scary for me.* If I couldn’t sleep with The (unread) Volcano Disaster in my bedroom, how could I read a book that I (wrongly) assumed was about the character Death stalking and killing teenagers?
I devoured RM that afternoon and WoD the next morning. As it turns out, realistic murder is much scarier than gore and revenge spells, even if said realistic murder is then investigated by the ghost of the dead girl who (of course) can enter dreams and read minds. Yes, the plot of Remember Me is, true to teen-horror form, a bit fantastical. A girl wakes up in her bedroom after a night of partying—but wait, she’s dead! Everyone thinks it was suicide, but it can’t be; she knows she never would have killed herself. Someone must have done it. But who? Her jealous boyfriend? Her best friend? Her own brother?!?
My memory of most of Pike’s books read like twisted Friends episodes. Weekend: The one about the kids that accidentally murdered someone’s adopted sister in a horrible and gruesome way, but she never actually died and she stalks and kills them on their weekend vacation. Scavenger Hunt: The one about the high school sponsored scavenger hunt where teens are stalked and killed. Die Softly: The one where the killer kills people by tying them up, putting a straw in their noses, and forcing them to OD on cocaine. Witch: The one about the teenage witch with the ability to heal people, but it weakens her every time and could (read “does”) mean her death. I couldn’t tell you even one character’s name in any of these books.
I remember the covers better than the plot. Except his first two books (Weekend and Chain Letter) or his adult novels, Pike’s paperbacks were designed with the neon author signatures and titles stamped on so you could feel the raised letters—this was the era of the embossed cover. It was thrilling to stand in the bookstore tracing the bumps of a new text, which I had been just dying for since finishing Pike’s previous offering. These bumps made the book seem more tangible somehow, as if his worlds were physical places that I could enter (so I too could be stalked and murdered!).
But even more than the individual plots or the covers, it is the experience of reading these books that I best recall. I remember staying up past 1 a.m. reading Witch and sobbing because the heroine (who I’m sure has a name) was dying to save her long lost brother who would never even remember her sacrifice. I remember regularly talking to my boyfriend Vinnie on the phone and reading at the same time. Our conversations went something like this:
Shannon: Uh huh, yup, hold on.
Vinnie: Are you reading again?
Vinnie: Stop reading!
Vinnie: OK, I’m gonna go. . . .”
Shannon: No, wait, I’m not reading! Hold on just one second . . .
And I remember wanting so badly to be the heroine of any of Pike’s novels: self-sacrificing, strong (her strength gained, of course, through some terrible adversity, such as being stalked by a murder who has already killed all of her friends), and always victorious in the end, even if she dies in the process—something I recall frequently happening in Pike books. Pike’s protagonists were almost always beautiful, rich, and blonde. I remember really, really wanting to be blonde and thinking that it would just naturally happen by high school. (It didn’t.)
These days I think it’s a little creepy that I so willfully identified with these characters because it means, at a basic level, that I wanted to be a victim. (A blonde victim, please.) Through reading horror and watching soap operas with my mother, I learned to admire strength and poise. However, a character must go through a terrible experience to demonstrate those qualities. This happens in all drama, not just in melodrama. Happy characters just aren’t interesting so they are compelled by writers to search for love or lose love; they get hit by cars, raped, or beaten; they watch their fathers and their mothers fall off a cliff at the same time; or (of course) they are stalked and murdered. And we, as spectators, learn that such trauma serves to demonstrate who we are as people: good or bad, strong or weak. So the question that follows is: If we (as spectators) are not stalked by deranged killers, how will we know what sort of people we are?
About a year ago, feeling nostalgic, I reread Remember Me. I was shocked at its sex, drinking, and profanity. I almost feel like I got away with something—like I did when I hid a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle under my bed after my parents forbade me to read it. Mostly, I was sad that the writing and the story didn’t hold up for me (also true for RJ). Honestly, I’ve already reforgotten the plot twists and the characters’ names. I know I shouldn’t expect much from a mass market, young adult thriller, but I am a loyal and devoted fan. I will read anything Matt Ruff writes, though I’ve never liked any book as much as his first. I will defend the much maligned Faith and Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to all naysayers. I will force my girlfriend to rewatch D.E.B.S. and feel pure joy every time Lucy Diamond and Scud sing Erasure’s “A Little Respect” into a broom handle. None of these diversions are above criticism, but I will find you and kill you if you say anything mean to them. (I mean, “about them,” because they are not people and I am not crazy. . . .)
And I want to defend Christopher Pike’s oeuvre, too. I only stopped reading his books because it became too embarrassing to shop in the Young Adult section of the bookstore and my need to be accepted beat out my proclivity for teen horror. But I can’t find much to defend in Pike’s books. I can only offer the feeling I get when I think of them, which is a faint sadness. I’m nostalgic for a time when I believed that as long as I was strong everything would be okay. I could triumph over anything, even death. It was such a simple message and, if you ignore the prerequisite stalkings and murders needed to achieve such strength, a good message. Too bad in real life, rather than innate strength, it takes years of therapy to overcome such trauma. But that’s why it’s fiction. It lets you escape from real life and return unscathed. I guess that’s something worth defending.
*Side note: Upon further research, it turns out that is not the plot of this book! That cover is etched in my memory though: