by Richie Tankersley Cusick
© 1990 by Richie Tankersley Cusick. Cover Art not credited.
April Fools features one of the best opening chapters I’ve read in my Point Horror reviews. It flies out of the gate with a very believable and terrifying car accident. I was immediately invested in Belinda’s anxiety around the horrible decisions her friends were making. The rest of the book didn’t quite live up to the promise of this scene, but it was still an enjoyable read. I didn’t predict the ending, so kudos to Cusick for that. I thought for sure I had figured it all out. For most of the book, I was struck by how badly Belinda needed to find better friends. Hildy and Frank sucked on a deep and fundamental level. This was by design and a part of the story arc, but I still think Cusick was way too kind to them. I wish the book had spent less time on pranks and fake scares, even though that was very much in line with the theme and title. What April Fools really needed was higher stakes, more dire consequences, and a better fleshed-out villain than the one we got at the end. I think it would have benefitted from being less of a mystery and more of a true horror story. The book bears some obvious comparisons to I Know What You Did Last Summer, but it was not a rip-off by any means. April Fools is my least favorite of Cusick’s books that I have read (see The Locker and Trick or Treat) but I still had fun with it.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers:
April Fools opens with Belinda, Hildy, and Frank driving home from an April Fools Day college party. All three of them had been forbidden from going. Frank got wasted and declared himself the King of Fools. Hildy had to wrestle the keys away from him to drive them home. Just to make matters worse, it’s pouring out and really hard to see. It’s not clear whether or not Hildy and Belinda were also drinking, but they do take a less-traveled back road to avoid getting caught. I would say it’s heavily implied that none of them would have passed a breathalyzer. All seems to be going as fine as it can be when a car pulls up behind them and blaring its horn. Hildy wanted to pull over and just let them pass, but Frank is determined to ruin everyone’s night. That’s because Frank is a piece of shit, and he will prove this multiple times throughout the book.
Hildy tried to pull over and let the car pass, but Frank grabbed the fucking wheel from the passenger seat and almost ran the other car off the road. Then when the other car got ahead of them, Frank laid on the horn and stepped on the gas pedal. I’m guessing this was one of those older-style cars with no center column in the front. Their car bumped up against the car in front of them. Hildy and Belinda begged Frank to stop and eventually had to fight him off the steering wheel. Mind you this whole time it’s pouring and they are on a dark, windy, road with no shoulder. That’s when the car in front of them disappears. Belinda gets out of the car and runs down the hill to see if anyone is still alive in the crash. Frank and Hildy chase after her, yelling for her to stop. The car explodes before she can get to it. She can hear someone screaming inside.
Belinda thinks she sees someone standing up by their car on the hill, but Hildy and Frank don’t believe her. They have to drag Belinda back to their car and promise they’ll report the accident from a payphone. Belinda finds foodprints up by their car, confirming that she did see someone standing and watching them. Belinda then grabs a wet rag from the side of the road to put it against her face, which is really gross but I guess she also wasn’t thinking clearly. The gas station payphone is broken so they never make the call. They would all be in a ton of trouble if they reported it to the police, so they make a pact not to tell anyone. There’s definitely no way that this decision comes back to haunt them.
Two weeks later, Belinda is still wracked with guilt over the accident. Hildy and Frank think it’s no big deal and she’s overreacting. They never saw any news reports about the accident and so they don’t really know one way or the other what happened. But there are still over 100 pages to go before Belinda finally realizes that she really needs better friends than these two asshats. Belinda works as a tutor and even has her own business cards. This is because she’s an ace student and her single mother is pulling double shifts at the ER to pay the bills. She is the sole reason Hildy passes anything. That’s because all Hildy cares about is the senior picnic and how popular her asshole boyfriend is. She’s not only shallow, but she’s selfish. It should come as no surprise that she would also take advantage of her best friend to work ethic.
The principal of Belinda’s school calls her in and introduces her to an old rich lady by the name of Mrs. Thorne. Mrs. Thorne isn’t exactly the warm and welcoming type. She’s rather stiff and emotionless from the jump. She also has several bruises that she explains are from a car accident she was in two weeks earlier. Belinda immediately starts to panic. Could it possibly be the same accident? What are the chances this woman would find her? Mrs. Thorne explains that she had come across one of Belinda’s business cards. She is looking for someone to tutor her stepson, Adam. Adam had been badly injured in the crash and would be missing school. Belinda wants to decline the job but she’s a people pleaser at heart. Hildy and Frank continue to be terrible friends, immediately dismiss Belinda’s concerns, and proceed to gaslight the shit out of her for being hysterical.
When Belinda goes home that day, the police are at her house looking for her. They say someone made a call about an accident. They figured it was a prank, but had to investigate. Belinda lets them in. They find nothing, but she is rattled by the experience. Later, Belinda agrees to go with Mrs. Thorne to meet Adam. Mrs. Thorne admits to not liking her stepson. She describes him as a very odd and mean young man. The only reason she is getting a tutor for him is to honor her husband’s wishes. Her husband was also in the crash and is still in a coma. He is unlikely to recover. The knife twists and Belinda’s guilt goes deeper. When they get to the house, Belinda can see that they are clearly very rich. Mr. Throne keeps pet snakes for some reason. They also have a cook named Cobbs. I think we can all agree that Cobbs is very much a butler’s name. It sounds very stuffy and British.
Cobbs doesn’t seem too fond of Mrs. Thorne or Adam. In fact, he is my chief suspect right off the bat. When Belinda meets Adam he turns out to be every bit as odd and creepy as Mrs. Thorne suggested. He tells Belinda that he doesn’t want a tutor and that she should leave. Instead, she gets anxious and faints. When she wakes up, she finally sees Adam’s scarred face up close. The fresh scars from the accident are bad. Adam seems to relish the fact that he makes Belinda feel uncomfortable and she ends up fleeing the room. Cobbs makes her tea with milk in it (gross) and drive her home. He seems really down about Mr. Thorne’s demise. When she gets home, She, Hildy, and Frank discover a package with a threatening note on her porch. It contains a calendar with April 1st circled on it! Someone knows what they did!
Belinda continues to go back and try to tutor Adam. He continues to be elusive, telling her he has no memory of the accident. When she is leaving his house she meets Adam’s stepbrother Noel. Noel couldn’t be more different than Adam. He’s just come home from boarding school and has a dog that Belinda takes an immediate liking to. He offers to take Belinda home and then come back and bring his mother, Mrs. Thorne, to the airport. He tells Belinda a little bit about Adam. The two are not close. When Belinda gets home, she finds a doll’s head and another threatening note in her mailbox. Hildy seems to be taking Belinda’s concerns more seriously, but Frank can’t be bothered. This is because Frank is terrible for ways I haven’t even tapped into yet. Just you wait.
Belinda goes back to tutor Adam again. This time she’s wearing the coat she wore the night of the accident. Remember the random piece of cloth she found on the side of the road and decided to wipe her face with on the night of the accident? Well, it falls out of her pocket and Adam sees it. She notices an embroidered letter A on it for the first time. Adam seems like he recognizes it. Belinda wonders if the A means that it’s his. Was he the one watching from the top of the hill that night? When she leaves that night she overhears Adam on the phone talking about how “this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.” While she is waiting at the bus stop to go home, someone drives up to her in a car and turns on their headlights. It freaks her out and she runs back to get help from Cobbs. Only Cobbs isn’t there. Adam is. Adam helps patch up Belinda’s cuts from falling. He’s being nice for a change but still makes it weird and uncomfortable for her.
Noel shows up and gives Belinda a ride home. Belinda finds out that Mrs. Thorne seems to be missing. She apparently never checked into her hotel in New York. Noel drops Belinda off at home, where she has the luxury of tutoring Hildy for free. Belinda and Hildy think they see someone outside; Belinda thinks it looks like Cobbs. Noel stops by again for some reason that I can’t remember, and Hildy asks him to be Belinda’s date to the senior picnic. Because in Hildy’s mind that is still somehow the most important thing happening. Noel sweetly agrees. Belinda is embarrassed but also grateful. She really likes Noel. After she goes to bed, a shadowy figure shows up in her window and calls her a murderer. After seeing Cobbs outside her house earlier? Now I’m convinced that Cobbs is behind all of this.
Belinda goes on to have a great time with Noel at the senior picnic, but on the way home someone almost runs them off the road. Belinda ends up telling Noel everything about the crash and how she thinks it was the one Adam was in. Noel is very understanding and assures her that she isn’t crazy. He insists that she not stay alone that night and brings her to the house. Belinda spends the night at Noel’s house but wakes up to a snake on top of her. Cobbs catches it and saves her. Cobbs tells Belinda the next morning about how Adam has been sent away to live with his aunt and uncle when he was little. He had hated it. Then the aunt and uncle died in a mysterious car accident, sending Adam to live with his mother. Belinda wonders if there might be some connection to the accident on April 1st.
The next day Belinda and Hildy finally have their blowout fight. Belinda was trying to tell Hildy about someone trying to run her and Noel off the road the night before, and this pissed Hildy off. She’s sick of Belinda harping on the accident and not being over it already. Hildy then reveals that the call to prank the police and the package on Belinda’s porch had been Frank’s doing. Hildy and Frank had literally been gaslighting Belinda the whole time while actively pouring fuel on the fire. I thought Frank sucked from page one but this makes him so much worse. Hildy thinks that Belinda is just jealous of her popular boyfriend, and says she doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Belinda questions whether or not they ever were friends. I can answer that for you Belinda; Hildy hasn’t been your friend in a long time. Let her go.
Belinda tells Noel everything that night, but they are interrupted by a random dude handing Belinda an envelope. Inside the envelope is Hildy’s hair. Noel picks Belinda up and leaves her at his house, he has to get to the hospital as it seems his stepfather is finally dying. She decides to poke around the study she had seen Adam in earlier. She finds a will from the late Mr. Throne leaving his considerable wealth to his son and stepson. Adam catches her and reveals the biggest truth bomb at all: Noel’s last name is Ashby. The A on the handkerchief was never for Adam. It had been Noel standing on the hill watching them that night. Belinda really can’t catch a break from the shitty people in her life. Noel returns and confirms what Adam said. They force Belinda into Noel’s car and Adam proceeds to explain/ruin everything.
Cue the eye roll, it’s time for the master plot to be explained just before they kill the protagonist! The whole original car crash has been planned and staged. Adam and Noel had planned it. They were to kill their parents and inherit all their money. Adam was driving. He knows just the right spot to jump out. But then Belinda and her friends had been in the way and ruined everything. Frank and Hildy had made it easy to find Belinda by repeatedly yelling her name as she rushed down the hill toward the crashed car. Adam revels in being every bit of the creep he had been made out to be up until that point. They drive out to an old abandoned road where Hildy and Frank are tied up and waiting for them. Mrs. Thorne’s body is there, too. Adam had killed her. Now the plan is to stage another car crash that will do away with all of Adam and Noel’s problems.
Adam starts things off for their attempted fake car crash, but Noel ends up having a change of heart. It turns out he really did fall for Belinda after all. But the real thing that saves Belinda and her friends from certain death is Cobbs. Cobbs had been putting the pieces together to Adam and Noel’s plan all along. He had been following Belinda to see how she fit into it. He shows up with the police just in the nick of time. Hildy apologizes for being a shitty friend to Belinda, and Belinda forgives her way too easily. They mention Frank having learned his lesson, too. The book ends with a really weird epilogue scene where Cobbs shows up at Belinda’s house and announces that he is going to start cooking for her and her mother, now. The End.
I’m mostly just annoyed that Frank lived. His death might have changed my whole rating. He certainly didn’t do enough to get redeemed, especially when you consider that none of the events in this book would have happened if he had never grabbed the wheel while Hildy was driving. There is no book without Frank being an asshole. He deserved a fool’s death. Preferably something humiliating. At the very least, there could have been an opportunity for him to earn some redemption and maybe die in the process. He and Hildy did nothing but make things hell for Belinda, and they did nothing to save Belinda or themselves in the end. I really wish Cusick had followed through on the setup for this, but instead, Frank was unconscious for the entire final scene. All we got was a vague reference to him “learning his lesson” in the last chapter.
Hildy’s apology was right and overdue, but she should have been groveling. This sort of situation would have changed their friendship forever. I don’t imagine their friendship survives into college. Plenty of good friendships don’t survive that jump, and that makes the shitty ones like this much easier to let go of. I still felt bad for Belinda in the end. Her only good relationship to survive this book was with Cobbs. I was also disappointed that Adam turned out to be exactly who his mother said he was. I wish he had been given a bit more depth. Maybe it’s because I was hoping for him to be misunderstood and eccentric. Cusick had me thinking it was Cobbs the whole time. She’s good at that sort of misdirection. And I guess that made it a bit of a letdown that he really was a monster.
April Fools has been my least favorite of Richie Tankersley Cusick’s books so far. Which is to say it was fine. It’s also one of her most popular for whatever reason. I don’t know what it says about taste and bestsellers, but my favorite of hers was the far less-known book The Locker. I’ll be checking out her book Fatal Secrets next, sometime in the future. Don’t hold me to date because I make no promises.
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 strength of the overall idea
Execution: the mechanics of storytelling
Character: the protagonists, antagonists, and villains
Intent: does it succeed in being the kind of book it wants to be?
Originality: subversion and reliance on genre tropes
I like the car accident setup, and how things weren’t what they appeared to be. The crime that Belinda and her friends thought had occurred that night was in fact something very different, and it was fun watching that unravel.
The plot was fine. It kept me guessing. I was convinced that it was Cobbs until Noel showed his hand. So clearly, it did something right. I think I just needed more than the practical jokes along the way. There was a lot of time wasted on fake scares.
I liked the dynamic of Belinda, Frank, and Hildy. They all felt like real high schoolers, especially the shittier parts. I almost wish we had a story focused on Noel and his internal struggle. Adam on the other hand felt too one-note and I still found Cobbs to be unintentionally creepy.
Car accidents are fucking terrifying. That opening scene reads like a nightmare scenario to me. All it takes is one drunk asshole to cause a whole lot of death and misery. That being said, I don’t think the rest of the book lived up to the potential of the first scene.
There are lots of similarities to I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the premise of practical jokes feels familiar because it is. It did a good job holding its own and even surprised me a few times, but I can’t say it was the most original book I’ve read in this series.
Don’t miss the latest post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Christopher Pike’s Midnight Club
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #32: The Barking Ghost