Fear Street Saga #1: The Betrayal
The Fear Street Saga really leveled up the Fear Street franchise as a whole. It gave the town of Shadyside a depth that it didn’t have before, and used the historical setting of colonial America to its advantage. I remember The Betrayal better than most of the books I read as a kid, and I think that is because of how shockingly violent it is at turns. I really liked how Stine leaned into the grisly nature of life 300 years ago. There are horrifying aspects in that alone, but he played it to maximum effect with the witch trials and dark magic. My biggest criticism is that I wanted a more active role for the female characters. I wanted them to do more than fall in love and be at the mercy of the evil men around them. It didn’t get in the way of the story, but it felt like a missed opportunity. Overall, The Betrayal is a hell of a first book and set the bar really high for the rest of the trilogy.
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Observations & Spoilers
The Betrayal opens with the fire that burned down the infamous Fear Mansion in Shadyside. The year is 1900. The lone survivor of the fire is Nora Goode. Clutching the pendant that was given to her by Daniel Fear (and is pictured on the cover of the book), Nora commits herself to tell the story of two cursed families. The Goodes and the Fears had been at war for centuries, and it was time to quill it all down on paper. I thought this was an effective way to kick off the story; tying it to the familiar Shadyside landmark of the burned-down Fear mansion. Nora’s continued narration throughout the rest of the books gets repetitive, but the overall framing was effective. The real story begins in 1692, in the small Puritan settlement of Wickham Village.
Susannah Goode is in love with Edward Fier, the son of the town magistrate. When Edward’s father Benjamin catches wind of this, he uses his authority to plant evidence and accuse Susannah Goode and her mother of witchcraft. Benjamin’s brother Matthew runs a sham trial, and the two women are convicted. Even though the other settlements hang their witches, Benjamin Fier insists on burning them at the stake. Susannah’s father tries to save his family by making a deal with Matthew Fier. Matthew, adorned in the same pendant as Nora from the introduction, agrees to get the charges dropped if William pays him.
Willam ends up paying Matthew everything he owns. The next morning, he goes to see his wife and daughter’s charges formally dropped. But there he finds out that the Fier’s had looted Wickham of numerous resources and skipped out of town overnight. For some reason, the warden insists on continuing with the sentencing, and Susanah and her mother are burned. William Goode, now left alone with his infant son George, goes back to his house. Opening a secret compartment that only he knew about, William reveals that he was an actual practitioner of the dark arts. His family, however, was innocent. He proceeds to use his powers to place a curse on the Fier family.
Here’s where I do have a few questions. Why didn’t William Goode use his magic to stop his wife and daughter from being burned in the first place? There may have been a solid reason, but it was never addressed. My guess is that doing so would have killed the reveal of William’s true nature. I was also confused by the motives of the Fiers for skipping town. Obviously, they had been frauds, but there was no indication that they were about to be found out. It also muddies up Benjamin’s reasoning for framing Susanah and her mother. If they were all fleeing the town anyway, why not just wait? Lastly, the way that the warden carried out the witch burnings in spite of the revelations about the Fiers felt off. It should have at the very least been challenged, as the townspeople no longer had to fear the accusations of Benjamin Fier. I suppose in that sense it wasn’t unlike most systems of justice; they were set in their ways and resistant to change.
The story picks up again 18 years later on the western Pennsylvania frontier. Edward Fier has married Rebecca, who is extremely unhappy. They have a five-year-old boy named Ezra. An aging Benjamin Fier is still the head of the family estate. Matthew Fier has married Constance, and their daughter Mary is now a teenager. Things had been relatively quiet for the Fier family and they have a very prosperous farm. But all of that is about to change because William Goode has finally tracked them down.
First, Edward injures his arm falling off the roof. When an able-bodied young man named Jeremy comes to the farm looking for work to support his elderly father, they hire him. Mary quickly falls in love with Jeremy and there’s lots of secretive making out. Mary and Edward see a vision of burning in the woods; Edward recognizes Susanah in the fire. That’s when things really start to spiral out of control. Edward’s wife Rebecca hangs herself in front of their child and Benjamin is found crucified like a scarecrow out in the field. After the funerals, George confesses to Mary that he is George Goode and that his father has placed a curse on her family. The only way to break it is for them to get married.
Mary and Edward confront Matthew about what was done to the Goode family back in Wickham, and he confesses to everything. He gives his blessing to the marriage and agrees to invite Jeremy over for dinner. When Jeremy arrives, Matthew uses his pendant to make Jeremy’s head explode and reveals that he was actually William Goode magicked up to look young and sexy. Matthew then kills William with another curse from the pendant and loses himself in a fit of laughter. Edward, Mary, and Ezra escape the house while Matthew laughs uncontrollably and Constance begs him to stop.
Fifteen years later, a grown-up Ezra returns to the abandoned Fier estate. His father worked himself to death, his Aunt Mary drowned in a lake, and he has not a penny to his name. In the house he finds Matthew and Constance’s skeleton’s walled off in the study. From Matthew’s journal, Ezra finds out that his great uncle had walled himself into his study to hide from the curse. He killed Constance when she tried to escape. Ezra takes the Fier family pendant and vows revenge on the Goodes for destroying his family.
I rolled my eyes a little bit about the two leading women, Susanna and Mary, being given unrequited love storylines. It’s not that I thought this was out of place for teenage girls, but it would have been nice for them to be a little more active in their own stories. I get that there were restraints due to the patriarchal nature of the time period they were set in (not to mention the often excused sexism of the nineties), but I wanted them to have a bit more agency. I wanted them to be less at the mercy of the whims of the evil men around them. In spite of these complaints, the story works because it’s about a curse, which is by nature something beyond either girl’s control. It didn’t ruin the story for me, but it felt like a missed opportunity.
All in all, this is easily the deadliest book in the Fear Street series (at least so far). I counted nine deaths in total. In typical Fear Street fashion, most of the deaths are off-camera and thus we are spared the gore. And that is not a complaint. Typically I would scoff at this practice for tip-toeing around censors, but I felt like there were plenty of disturbing moments to go around without including every gruesome detail. I’d even argue that it even allowed the violent moments to really pack a punch and not feel like more of the same. So kudos to R.L. Stine for that. This book earns its status as one of the best-remembered and best-reviewed books in the series.
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, The Betrayal is ranked 2nd of 79 in the overall Fear Street series and The Fear Street Saga is ranked 2nd 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 90’s. 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.
The overall concept is great. Finally telling the true story of the infamous Fear family and giving some fresh context to the mysterious Fear Street.
I don’t know if Nora was needed as a narrator so much, but I know it was a smart move to open with the fire. The hollowed-out Fear mansion has been a staple setting for years of Fear Street books. Not too many fake scares, plenty of gruesome real ones. Sets the next two books up nicely.
I wish there were more interesting traits attributed to Susannah and Mary. Something more than them being pretty girls obsessed with boys. It was a missed opportunity. Plenty of complex and villainous male characters though.
Scare Factor: 2/2
Body Count is high, but there aren’t a lot of on-screen deaths. Still, the ones that are here are pretty brutal. I really liked how Stine leaned into the historical setting. There are horrifying aspects in that alone, and he used them to maximum effect.
These are a stark break from the Fear Street formula, and it works really well. It sets these books apart from the main series, while simultaneously expanding the creepy nature of Fear Street itself.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Saga #2: The Secret
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
R.L Stine’s The Babysitter