Broken Hearts was a twisted one, and that might be an understatement. It opens with a pretty brutal horseback riding accident, which sets a really somber tone for the rest of the book. I liked the way Stine used trauma, grief, and guilt as elements to weave the narrative. The story is jam-packed with characters who are completely incapable of seeing the world outside of their own narrow context. This worked well for a plot centered on death threats, but the end result relied on some really baffling character motives. I have some mixed feelings about the depictions of mental illness, which appear problematic at first but reveal themselves to be more positive through context. Overall, Broken Hearts was very middle-of-the-road for me.
Observations & Spoilers
There were two really useful PSAs to takeaway from Broken Hearts.
- Helmet hair is an acceptable trade-off for preventing a traumatic brain injury. This applies to horseback riding, biking, and any sport really where a helmet is recommended but not required.
- It is never OK to send someone a death threat under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter how aggrieved you might feel, it’s a shittier thing to do than you probably realize. Don’t threaten a stranger with a tweet, and don’t threaten an ex with a creepy Valentine. Write a metal song or complain to a therapist, but do not threaten to kill people.
You too can learn from the many failures of these teenagers at Shadyside High. Don’t do what they did.
Broken Heart is a complicated web of a story. It centers on the twins Josie and Rachel McClain, their younger sister Erika, and their best friend Melissa Davis. The prologue of the book tells the story of a gruesome horseback riding accident, in which Rachel is thrown from her horse after deciding not to wear a helmet. Part One picks up several months later, where we find that Rachel has survived but is no longer herself. She has the mind of a child and requires constant supervision, a task that falls primarily on Erika’s shoulders. Josie can’t handle the guilt she feels when she’s around her twin sister, and so she avoids being home altogether. Erika resents Josie for abandoning both of them, and Josie just keeps burning bridges left and right instead of dealing with her feelings.
Among Josie’s burned bridges is the former best friend and neighbor Melissa. Josie blames Melissa for not properly securing Rachel’s saddle ahead of the accident. Then there’s Melissa’s boyfriend Dave, an ex of Josie’s. Dave gets really mad at Josie when she reports him for copying off of her on a math test and gets him kicked off the wrestling team. There is also her other ex, Jenkman. Josie was known to date and dump lots of boys, but Jenkman never got over her. Even though she’s dating Steve now, Jenkman can’t take a hint. Finally, there is Luke, who was Rachel’s boyfriend before the accident. Luke is still devoted to Rachel, and deeply resents Josie for how selfish she’s been. Then the Valentine-themed death threats start.
The threats were “Roses are Red” A/B rhyme scheme poems warning Josie that she was going to die. No one took them seriously except for Josie, and she had pissed off so many people it was tough to figure out who the perpetrator could be. Then Josie is found dead on Valentine’s Day with an ice skate in her back. When the news breaks, Dave confesses to Melissa that he had been sending the threatening Valentines, but he is innocent of the murder. He attempts to break into the McClain house while the family is at Josie’s funeral to steal the incriminating Valentines. Instead, he ends up finding Erika McClain, freshly stabbed and bleeding, just as the cops come in and presume him to be the killer. If this seems convoluted, that’s because there’s lots of names and drama to keep track of. But we’re almost to the big reveal.
The story then jumps to one year later. Shit’s fucked up, Josie’s murder remains unsolved, and everyone is on edge. Melissa is now dating Luke (Rachel’s former boyfriend). Dave has moved out of town after not being found guilty, but not really proving his innocence either. Then Melissa starts getting threatening Valentine’s cards. The killer has returned, and it seems they want Melissa dead.
Dave shows up to try and warn Melissa; saying he thinks he has it all figured out. But then he’s murdered in Melissa’s driveway. Melissa thinks she sees Rachel fleeing the scene, whom she recognized from her bright red hair. But a quick check from the cops proves it couldn’t have been her. By the time Valentine’s Day rolls around, Melissa is pretty scared, but she agrees to go to the Shadyside High Ice Skating Party on Fear Lake with Luke. I mean, she should have known ice skates were a bad omen. Maybe she did and ignored it, I just can’t remember. While alone out on the lake and stumbling on her ice skates, Melissa is attacked by a knife-wielding ice skater. At first, she thinks it’s Rachel. But then it turns out to be… wait for it… Erika in a wig.
As Melissa fights for her life, Erik confesses everything (as villains do). The youngest of the McClain sisters used Dave’s Valentines cards as cover to kill her ungrateful older sister, then when Dave broke into the house she stabbed herself to make him look even more guilty. Then when Dave came back into town to warn Melissa, Erika had to kill him because he was getting too close. She dressed as Rachel to throw people off. Now she wants to kill Melissa for stealing Rachel’s boyfriend, Luke. The violent scuffle ends with both girls falling through the ice. Melissa is rescued by Luke, but Erika refuses help for some reason. She dies with her face pressed against the ice and the red wig floating away from her.
More than anything, I was struck by the fact that a lot of this could have been resolved with some family therapy. After Rachel’s accident, life in the McClain household is changed drastically, and yet no one was communicating or processing any of it. This isn’t a gripe about the book so much as an observation. This book is very much a product of its time in regards to its treatment of mental illness and wellness. Some of the creepiest scenes in the book were Rachel’s calls over the voice monitor. I initially found this problematic, but Stine turned out to be using the bias of the other characters (and presumably the reader) against them. Rachel turned out to be the most well adjusted of her sisters in the end.
Well, this blog turned out to be longer than I expected so I’ll keep the wrap-up brief. Murder on Ice and high school love trapezoids made for one of the more twisted Fear Street novels. I love holiday-themed horror stories, though. I’m honestly surprised there aren’t more Valentine’s Day ones in R.L. Stine’s body of work.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2-point each. I then split that number 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, Broken Hearts is ranked 27th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series and 3rd of 13 in the Super Chillers sub-series, placing it squarely in the middle tier for both. 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.
What happens when someone has so many disgruntled exes that it’s not clear who could be sending the death threats? The mystery in the “who did it” was complex and entertaining enough, but the resolution left plenty of questions of its own.
I appreciate the complexity of the plot, but the way the murders all happened off-screen felt cheap. I was also consistently baffled by the lack of therapy The McClain girls clearly needed following Rachel’s accident, but I guess that was also a sign of the times.
Josie sucked, but that was deliberate. All of the boys were problematic. Erika was confusing at best. I could see her being angry enough to kill her own sister, but stabbing via ice skate and using a wig to look like her other sister was a bit much. I feel like her killing style didn’t match her either her personality or her buried rage.
Scare Factor: 1/2
The accident was probably the scariest part. Death threats are really scary when for the person receiving them, but not so much for those who can’t empathize (as evidenced by all the male characters). There were some genuinely creepy scenes with Rachel, but they also felt problematic.
I’ll give it a point for its complexity and use of both grief and your typical high school drama leading to lots of murder.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #7: Haunted