The Bookworm: Party Games

Party Games, by R.L. Stine. 277 pages. Thomas Dunne Books. 2014.

In horror movies, victims always scream and shriek their heads off. But I was quickly learning that panic is a private thing. You don’t want to share it. You don’t want others to know how terrified you are. (p. 137)

After a hiatus of nearly twenty years, the Fear Street series returned at the end of September with the release of Party Games. And what a triumphant return it turned out to be.

Despite the fact that Rachel Martin has lived in Shadyside her whole life and knows the horrible stories about Fear Street, the Fear Street woods, and the Fear family, she gladly accepts an invitation to attend Brendan Fear’s all-night birthday party at the family’s summer mansion on Fear Island. Though her best friend and ex-boyfriend (who has “heard things”) advise her not to go, Rachel has had a crush on Brendan forever and we all know romantic interest trumps reason every time. As the description on the dust jacket says, “what’s the worst that could happen at a birthday party?”

The party games begin when Brendan’s guests arrive on the island, and the events that ensue make Party Games the freakiest, most realistic, and best written Fear Street novel I have read so far.

I have decided not to write a plot outline or provide spoilers, as I have with a number of my recent rereads. That’s boring, and it steals the fun others will hopefully have reading the book themselves. I want to challenge myself to write an actual review and not a plot summary.

Party Games breaks new ground in a very familiar place. We’re back in Shadyside and the story’s main characters are all students at Shadyside High. Though the events of the novel do not take place on Fear Street, they are set in the greater sphere of the Fear Street woods, which “stretch for hundreds of acres at the eastern end of the town of Shadyside” (p. 1). As I wrote in an earlier Bookworm post, I always thought Fear Street and its spooky woods were on the west side of Shadyside. I have always imagined it that way, with the sun setting toward the end of the street and behind the woods, and continued to do so despite Stine’s description of it being on the east side.

New to the series is a heightened sense of reality and believability — and horror. While some of the novels in the original Fear Street run were absurd and comical, their plots riddled with cheesy convenience, continuity gaps, and eye-rolling deus ex machina, Party Games presents a carefully calculated plan and commitment to believability. It does not give the impression that Stine and the publisher wanted to churn it out as quickly as possible, rationality and plausibility be damned! A maturity and attention that Stine may not have been able to give the earlier books is on display. Though the books in the original run were not thoughtless junk, I was sure Stine was capable of much more than the genre allowed or required at the time. In Party Games, his talent and writing prowess is on display. The depth of the characters and the richness of the writing puts Party Games on a different level.

That begs the question: Is this still young adult horror, or are these new books written with the series’ longtime fans — presumably younger Gen Xers and older Millennials — in mind? Are they grown up versions of the books we loved when we were younger, or have they changed to meet the demands of a different time? Perhaps it is a little bit of both. I assume the world of young adult fiction has changed a lot since the original Fear Street run ended sometime in the mid-nineties, and Stine dedicates Party Games to “all my Twitter friends who persuaded me to return to this street of horrors.” I am willing to bet, though, that it has more to do with how the genre has matured. Not only do I doubt that there are enough older fans out there — still interested and willing to drop nearly $20 on a new Fear Street novel — to justify a short revival, times have changed and young readers interested in horror want more — or at least that is the impression I get.

As for the heightened sense of horror, that has a lot to do with the increased believability. Sure, there are some aspects of the book that are questionable, and convenience does come into play. Convenience is, after all, an annoying yet endearing hallmark of the horror genre. (The electricity and system of backup generators seem suspiciously unreliable for a summer mansion owned by the wealthiest family in Shadyside. The phone lines have been disconnected for the winter, and there is no Internet access or cell phone reception on the island, meaning no one can call for help. Hmm…) But, for the most part, Party Games is carried by plausible situations, which make them that much freakier. Of course, not everyone has a crush on a member of their city’s richest family and is invited to their all-night birthday party where things go horribly wrong, but I think everyone could find themselves in a comparable situation. With that in mind, it is very easy to empathize with the fear and frustration felt by Rachel and company.

The increased plausibility, and the sense that Stine is able to let his talent and abilities truly shine, could also have had a lot to do with the fact that Party Games is the longest Fear Street book by far. As best as I know, none of the original paperback Fear Street novels were longer than 169 pages. This first, hardcover version of Party Games is 277 pages. At first I wondered if it was so long because it is a hardcover and the typesetting is relatively loose. (I assume “typesetting” is the right term. I should know that by now.) The text in the older, paperback Fear Street books is small and tight, so I assumed Party Games would fall under 170 pages if typeset in the same fashion. After having read it, I no longer think so. Party Games is definitely a longer story, and that length works in its favor. The pacing and plot development are so much more natural. By comparison, the older books are rushed; pivotal events happen one on top of another, a pace that does seem to lend a sense of implausibility.

I was, however, bummed that Party Games was released in hardcover. I am unsure whether or not there were any other Fear Street hardcover releases, but it definitely seems like a departure for the series — at least for me, who collected the mass market paperbacks. That is why I was hoping it would be available in paperback: tradition! I am not sure if Party Games will be released in paperback, but if it is I will probably buy a paperback copy just to have it. (Tradition!)

Speaking of tradition, Party Games features a female protagonist. So far, I have only read two Fear Street books with male main characters, and both shared that role with a female. It is not that I am not empathic toward female protagonists, or cannot relate to them in certain ways, especially those in Fear Street novels. We were all young and went to high school at some point, so everybody can identify with the main characters in the Fear Street series regardless of their gender. In that sense, Stine does a great job of developing characters everyone can relate to. However, I guess I just want him to shake things up a bit.

Party Games was a touch more risqué than the original books I have read. There are certain words and allusions that I never expected, especially since they are nonexistent in the older books. When describing her best friend, Rachel has this to say: “And she wears this bright red lipstick, called Wildfire, which her mother says makes her look like slut” (p. 16). Whoa! Later, when Brendan’s party guests are on a boat and about to set off for the island, the class clown asks, “does the orgy start on the boat, or do we have to keep our clothes on till we get to Brendan’s house?” (p. 60). When Rachel asks Kerry and Patti why they tell everyone they are just friends, when everyone knows they are a lot more, Patti says, “We’re friends. We’re just very close friends” (p. 84). Rachel’s best friend looks like a slut, the class clown jokes about an orgy, and two characters are friends with benefits.

Alcohol is also almost nonexistent in the original Fear Street run. In Party Games, however, beer is available at Brendan’s party like it is no big deal. Brendan even says, “There’s plenty of beer. Hey. I’m eighteen today. I’m legal in this state” (p. 78). What?! The fact that there is underage drinking in Party Games blew my mind. Nobody got drunk, though. All the characters that drink handle themselves very well. However, they do not get much time to drink…

One other odd quirk about Party Games was that Stine signed introduction. I’m not sure why, but I thought it was very weird and unnecessary.

Fittingly, since the book was released at the very end of September, Party Games is set in October. I thought I would share this paragraph, especially since it evokes those beautiful cool autumn nights: “It was a cold October night. The frosty air felt good against my hot face. I took some deep breaths, happy to be out of the steamy restaurant. A pale half-moon floated high in the sky above snakes of gray cloud” (p. 17). Stine always seems to include one or two similar descriptions in Fear Street books set in the fall.

Overall, Party Games was a great read and I am eager for the next, new Fear Street book to be released. (I am not sure when that will be, though.) In the meantime, I need to take a break from the series for a while. I have read nothing but Fear Street books since September and desperately want to read something else.

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