The Burning brought the epic Fear Street Saga to a fiery conclusion, and I was not disappointed. The Secret had started getting a bit repetitive with its “love at first sight” narratives and forgettable characters, but The Burning successfully shook up the formula. The characters felt more complex, and the love stories were more compelling. There were some truly gruesome and creative death scenes, and I really appreciated the ties to Sarah Fear and the Cheerleaders trilogy. The story sidestepped any mention of slavery in the pre-Civil War south, which was unnecessary but not entirely surprising. I hope they fixed this in the newer omnibus releases. I also found myself wanting to better understand the magic and dark arts being used, but it was kept vague all the way to the end. None of that stopped me from enjoying the book overall. Even though I knew how it was all going to end, the mystery of how it would get there kept the pages turning. The Burning was a really satisfying conclusion to the trilogy and a solid book in its own right.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers
The story opens up in the pre-Civil War era in New Orleans. Simon has changed the family name from Fier to Fear in hopes of escaping the fiery curse Old Aggie warned him of. He’s now broke but quite skilled at sneaking into parties. It is while doing this that he meets and falls in love with Angelica, the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat. It’s not clear how Simon lost his family fortune, or what happened to his sister. It’s another “love at first sight” (eye roll) but the way it plays out is far more satisfying than any of the previous examples of this. The story also sidesteps any mention of slavery despite the setting, going so far as to refer to “servants” at the party. I’m going to take a wild guess that it was the publisher’s call to just gloss over that detail. It’s not a surprising omission so much as an egregious one, and I fail to see who benefits. It’s whitewashing so that evil people can look less evil. It’s a blight on an otherwise good story.
After being mugged and using the family pendant to melt his attacker’s face, Simon realizes he can use his dark magic to kill Angelica’s would-be suitors. He does this by getting one man to jump to his death from a theater balcony, and the other gets ground up in the churning paddles of a steamboat. Simon forms a close relationship with Angelica while she is mourning their deaths. Finally, he confesses his love for Angelica and tells her about all the murders he committed for her. She responds by laughing and telling him that his magic was too weak to kill anyone. She had killed both suitors when she realized she was in love with Simon. Plot twist! Simon takes care of the last hurdle to their plan and murders Angelica’s father. The blissful young couple goes on to live evilly ever after. Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite villain couples.
The story jumps ahead to Shadyside Village in 1865. Simon and Angelica, having inherited her father’s wealth, now live in the infamous Fear Mansion. They have five kids; two daughters and three sons. Julia is the oldest, but she is very plain and socially awkward. Hannah is the second oldest; she’s the prettiest and the life of the party. Hannah also has a dog, so you know where that’s going. R.L. Stine loves killing dogs in his books. The three sons–Robert, Brandon, and Joseph–aren’t really major characters. The main story is centered around Julia and Hannah. That’s right, some good old fashion sibling rivalry. But will this be as dumb as the one in The Secret?
Simon is planning a fundraiser for a library he wants to build in Shadyside. Since his wife Angelica has largely retreated to their bedroom and lives her life dictated by what her cards tell her, he is forced to ask someone else to host it with him. He makes the decision to ask the charismatic Hannah to take over. By doing so, he unwittingly drives a wedge between her and Julia. Complicating this is the new maid who has joined the Fear Mansion staff; Lucy Goode. The head housekeeper Mrs. MacKenzie makes sure that Simon doesn’t find out about the new girl’s last name. But that doesn’t stop her from earning the family’s suspicion.
First, someone puts a snake in Hannah’s bed. Then someone puts shards of glass in her shoe. Evidence always points to Lucy. Finally, the kids are all on a picnic, when Hannah’s dog eats one of their sandwiches and dies from poisoning. A furious Hannah runs to the kitchen and confronts Mrs. Mackenzie about Lucy, and that’s when she finds out that Julia made all of the sandwiches for them. Hannah finds Julia, who confesses and nearly chokes Hannah to death. Hannah recovers and takes Julia out with a shovel. Thinking her sister is dead, Hannah dumps Julia’s body into the nearby coffin. The coffin was for the mansion gardener, whom they had held a funeral for earlier in the day. It was just waiting to be buried. Wanna guess what happens next?
Simon goes looking for Julia later that day and hears a strange sound coming from the ground. He frantically digs at the fresh grave but doesn’t get to Julia in time. There are scratch marks all over the lid of the coffin. In a blind rage, Simon goes back to the house and finds the name Lucy Goode on the maid’s ledger. He grabs his sword and sets out to kill the devious maid. He ends up accidentally killing Hannah before Angelica can stop him. Lucy, as it turned out, had quit earlier in the day because she was sick of the accusations. She hadn’t had anything to do with any of it.
All of this leads to the final chapter of the epic story; Shadyside 1900. Daniel Fear is visiting Shadyside for the first time to attend his grandfather Simon’s 90s birthday. He has never met his grandparents; his father Joseph had escaped the family and never returned. The fate of his two uncles is also revealed; Brandon disappeared in the woods with his son, and Robert was killed by his wife Sara who was possessed by The Evil from the Cheerleaders trilogy. Daniel knows nothing of the family curse, only that his father was estranged from his family. Right away, things are ominous. Daniel’s taxi refuses to take him farther than the mansion gates. The massive house is in disrepair, Simon is super creepy, and Angelica seems to live in her own world. The head maid Mrs. Mackenzie tries to warn Daniel away. Because we can’t have a good horror story without someone ignoring all the warning signs.
(I have a feeling I’m going to get lots of mileage out of this meme).
Daniel stays because he’s curious and because leaving would be its own complication. He meets a girl at a shop in town and the two start to fall in love. Her name is Nora Goode; the one who’s been narrating the Fear Street Saga from the start. I liked that this was less of love at first sight and more of a fondness that develops over several days. When Nora finds out Daniel is a Fear, she knows her father will not allow them to be together. Furthermore, Mrs. Mackenzie catches Daniel up on the history of the family curse. Nora and Daniel eventually steal away and get married; theoretically breaking the curse. But this is a horror novel, and shit is never that easy.
Daniel brings his new wife Nora to Simon’s 90s birthday party to surprise him. The family had brought in servants from out of town since no locals would go near the mansion. Simon meets Nora and realizing she’s a Goode, knocks over his birthday cake and starts a massive fire. Nora loses track of Daniel in the chaos. The whole mansion burns and only Nora escapes. At the asylum, where Nora has been quilling away the entire saga, one of the nurses reads it and tosses the papers into the fire. Because no one would let her leave if they read it. And thus the secret is kept, and the epic saga concludes.
As an overall trilogy, this was pretty solid. The two weakest arcs of the story landed in the second book, but it began and ended on strong notes. It was certainly a much better trilogy than The Cheerleaders, which started strong and then petered out. The shorter length of each story kept Stine from loading us up with fake scares and had enough threads to connect them while also allowing them to stand alone. I counted about 28 total deaths across the three books (9, 8, and 11 named characters respectively), which I’m fairly certain makes Saga the bloodiest books in the Fear Street franchise by a significant margin. It also easily deserves its place among the best-remembered and best-reviewed Fear Street books.
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 5th 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 ’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.
Keeps with the same concept, and the little glimpses into 3 separate time periods keep things from getting stale. I did start to get a little frustrated with the vague magic and dark arts used throughout; I wanted to understand it better by the third book.
Where The Secret suffered from repetition, The Burning thankfully shook up the formula. There were a few plot holes, but there was nothing glaring and unforgivable. This was really solid.
Even though he wasn’t always the POV character, this is the story of Simon Fear. I liked most of the characters this time around; the love stories and motives were more complex and rewarding. Most importantly, there wasn’t anyone I found incredibly frustrating!
Scare Factor: 2/2
There were plenty of gruesome and creative deaths, more so than the other two. I counted 11 total, and that’s not including all of the nameless servants who died in the house fire.
It’s hard to look at this book separately and not think of the trilogy as a whole, but on both counts, I think this approach was really creative and worked well.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #8: The Halloween Party
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #20: The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight