The First Horror is a really solid kick-off to the trilogy. It also works really well as a stand-alone novel, and I almost wish that it was. There were some genuinely creepy and brutal moments. It definitely scared me as a kid. I had forgotten the order of things, but I had very distinct memories of several of the scenes. I think this might be where my fear of rats originated from. The sibling rivalry between Cally and Kody worked really well. It played nicely into the strange things happening around them. For the most part, this was a pretty standard haunted house story. It had some really good moments that made it stand out (namely what happened to James) but it fell short of being something truly unique. One of the more frustrating things about Stine is that he rarely gives his villains compelling motives, and the house in 99 Fear Street is no different. It’s evil for the sake of being evil, but I want to know what it wants. This is forgivable to an extent since this is just the first of three books, but that means the next two need to raise the stakes and deliver. I have a sinking feeling that they won’t.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers
99 Fear Street opens with a short prologue set in the 1960s when the house was built. Two construction workers are killed in the basement as it gets overrun by rats. We then jump ahead 30 years to the modern-day (which is now almost 30 years in the past). The Frasier family is moving into their new house at 99 Fear Street. Dad is very excited about it because they got a great deal! The house was huge, had never been lived in, and would need a lot of work. All of these things should have been a red flag for anyone aspiring homeowner, but it was a fundamentally different housing market 30 years ago. The twins Cally and Kody have mixed feelings about the move and switching to a new school, but their little brother is pumped because he’s been promised a puppy. If you’ve spent any time on Fear Street, you know what this means. Someone is going to murder a puppy.
Accidents start happening right off the bat. Cally is almost crushed by a falling tree branch (a Stine favorite), Kode gets her fingers slammed in the window, and then Dad accidentally stabs himself with a knife at the dinner table. Kody is certain that the house is haunted, Cally is less convinced. Even has she personally experiences a few of the strange things, she dismisses them. This includes the knocking she hears on her bedroom door at night, even though no one is ever there when she opens the door. Someone also messes up her closet and paints a giant red 99 is blood-red paint on their front porch. As they settle into Shadyside, Cally and Kody’s twin sibling rivalry flairs up in all the usual ways. Cally easily lands a job working retail and meets a cute local boy at the pizza shop named Anthony. Kody has no such luck and ends up working for their Dad in fixing up the house. James gets a new labrador puppy and names him Cubby. Overall, things seem to be going really well for the Frasier family.
Things start to really go bad when Cubby disappears. James is devastated. They search the neighborhood for the puppy, but can’t find him. Then they begin to hear him inside the house, Barking as though he is trapped in the walls. Cally and Kody get the disturbing local legends about their house and why it stayed empty for 30 years. Apparently, when the house was being built, some old graves were discovered. The bodies were believed to be the victims of Simon and Angelica Fear from 100 years earlier. For those following along, I covered the escapades of Simon and Angelica Fear in my review of The Fear Street Saga #3: The Burning last year. There was never any mention of them torturing people and discarding their bodies, but there were significant gaps in time so who knows. Anyway, the original builder of the house decided to just ignore the fact that they were building on old burial grounds and build the house anyway. Then his wife and two kids were found decapitated in the house shortly after moving in; their heads were never found.
The idiot who built the house in spite of finding the graves was named Mr. Lurie. Legend has it that he later hung himself in the master bedroom. The story sounds outrageous, but Cally picks up on one important detail; the realtor who sold them the house was also named Mr. Lurie. Later that same night, Cally finds out that Kody was the one who had been knocking on her door. Kody was also the one who painted the big 99 and messed up Cally’s closet. She had grown frustrated that no one believed her about the house and took matters into her own hand. Later that same night, Cally goes to wash her face. Instead of water, chunky green slime starts rushing out of the pipes. It gets all over her, and the smell is so terrible she vomits. I have to say that I appreciate it when horror includes gross things and not just lots of gore and blood. This scene stands out for exactly that reason. I have to try hard not to imagine smelling the slime myself.
To make matters more bananas, the green slime commotion wakes everyone else up. Mrs. Frasier is inexplicably soaked in blood. There’s a giant red stain on their ceiling from where it dripped down on her. When Mr. Fraiser goes up to investigate, he finds three severed heads. They call the police, but the heads are gone again when they arrive. With everyone finally convinced that something is seriously wrong with the house, Cally tells her Dad about the history Anthony shared with them. She goes with her Dad to find Mr. Lurie, but they discover his office does not exist. When they go to the library, a local historian helps them dig up information on the Lurie family and their house. When they find the picture of the builder who lost his family, they see that it is the spitting image of the man who sold them their house! Cue dramatic revelation music!
Mr. Frasier begins to despair. The family had sunk every cent they had into that house, and now they are stuck with it. Cally tries to make the best of things and goes on a date with Anthony. For some contrived reason, she invites him over to their very haunted house for dinner first before they go to a movie. Anthony promptly loses his hand in the garbage disposal. I also have questions around whether an old house in such a state of disrepair would indeed have a functioning garbage disposal, but I’m not going to belabor that point. Perhaps the most contrived of the horrors to fall on the Frasier family, it was nonetheless quite visceral. And it turned out to be the final warning shot before things really went to shit.
A few nights after the garbage disposal incident, James finally finds Cubby. The only problem is, now no one can find James. The family can hear the boy and the dog in the walls, but can’t tell exactly where. Mr. Frasier takes a sledgehammer to the wall and rats begin pouring out. The family flees downstairs. Mrs. Fraiser falls and breaks her wrist on the stairs. They can hear James and Cubby in the ceiling, so Mr. Fraiser gets on a ladder and starts breaking the ceiling with his sledgehammer. There is still no sign of James, but a thick shadowy fog descends from the ceiling. It closes over Mr. Frasier’s head and he completely loses his sense of sight. Cally has to help him down from the ladder while their brother’s voice continues to scream from the void.
We cut to a few days later. The police had combed the house and can’t find any sign of James or Cubby. Mr. Frasier is now permanently blind. They have made arrangements to stay with their cousins for a while and get the hell out of the house. Cally and Kody return to the house with their mother. They only have to survive one more night at 99 Fear Street. Cally encounters a ghost with her own face, and the ghost leads Cally to her own diary. The latest entry was already scrawled in her own handwriting: I died tonight. The floor around Cally turns into hot black tar; she can feel herself burning alive as the house absorbs her. Kody tries to save her but can’t. 99 Fear Street claims another victim, and it used her own diary to taunt her first. I thought that was a particularly petty touch from the evil house.
We cut several days. The ghost of Cally watches as her family packs up the car and leaves her. Cally is evil now, having done a complete 180. Being burned alive by an evil house will do that to a girl, I suppose. James continues to get the raw deal and is never mentioned again. He’s just stuck in the void forever but at least he has his puppy. Cally projects her hate onto her sister and vows revenge. Kody had always been jealous of Cally, and now she was getting everything she ever wanted. If this logic seems faulty, that’s because it is. Kody, for her part, thinks she sees Cally’s ghost in the window. She vows to come back for her sister one day. Cally the ghost loses track of time, drifting in and out of ghost consciousness until she is finally reawakened by a new family moving in. She sets her sights on the cute teenaged son and starts making plans.
My biggest gripe with Stine is his tendency of not giving his “evil” characters’ motives. They are just evil for the sake of being evil. They decided they were evil, they liked it, and so they continue to be evil. Evil is just fun for them. I think this stems from a very dated notion of placing everything into a dichotomy of good vs evil. The idea that it’s always one or the other and never shades in between gets tiresome. I like nuance. I wanted the house to want things, not just be evil for the sake of causing misery, Maybe it feeds on souls. Maybe sadness is what keeps it growing. Maybe it has a master plan. There was no master plan here. But it’s just the first book, surely there will be more revealed about the history and nature of the house in those books, right? Right?!
For the first book in the series, Stine sets the bar high. It’s a solid book with some great scares and truly memorable moments. It’s way more deadly and gory than your average Fear Street book. Stine pulled off a similar fete with The First Evil launching the Cheerleaders Trilogy, only to have it peter out in the second and third installments. He did it again with The Betrayal, which launched the Fear Street Saga. While the middle book was the weakest of that trilogy, it came back strong with the third installment and worked really well as one solid story. So the question remains; will 99 Fear Street be more like The Cheerleaders and fizzle out? Or will it be like the Saga and keep the momentum going? Stay with me for the next two weeks to find out.
Fun side note: to those of you who enjoyed the Fear Street trilogy on Netflix this summer. If you looked closely at Martin’s business card, you would see that his address is 99 Fear Street.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each. I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are Concept (the overall idea), Execution (the mechanics of storytelling), Character (the protagonists, antagonists, and villains), Scare Factor (from a childhood standpoint), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes). Based on GoodReads aggregate ratings, 99 Fear Street: The First Horror is ranked 7th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series, and the 99 Fear Street: The House of Evil trilogy is ranked 3rd of 6 among the Fear Street Trilogies, placing the book itself in the middle-high tier overall. The trilogy, as a whole, lands in the bottom tier when compared to other trilogies. It should be noted that the series ranking for the Fear Street books is a bit skewed in favor of the later books in the series, most likely due to the drop in popularity in the late ’90s. The books in the latter half of the series have a significantly lower number of ratings, which (I’m hypothesizing) is due to super-fans being unchecked by more critical voices.
It’s a pretty straightforward concept: an evil haunted house preys on its inhabitants. Where it fails to elevate is in giving the house and its ghosts any hint of motive. It’s evil for the sake of evil. Again.
The book starts strong and puts some good scares early. It escalates steadily throughout. Good use of sibling rivalry as a mechanism. The ending was wild and brutal.
Cally and Kody’s rivalry was done well. It was believable. James and his dog were tragic. Dad was a bit of a buffoon but in a believable way. Overall this element was done really well.
Scare Factor: 2/2
James and his dog getting lost in the walls was super creepy. Dad finding severed heads in the attic was, too. The green smelly slime was scarier (and more disgusting) than Monster Blood ever could be. The ghosts taunting Cally with her own diary was also pretty fucked up.
It’s been compared to The Amityville Horror, which I have not actually seen. But I’ve seen a lot of haunted house movies. This doesn’t stray from the mold. It felt unique to Fear Street in its unrelenting brutality, but it wasn’t particularly original.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
99 Fear Street #2: The Second Horror
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #29: Monster Blood III