Fear Street #12: Lights Out
R.L. Stine has written some excellent mysteries with a slasher horror flair in this series, and Lights Out doesn’t stray far from the proven formula. Unfortunately, it felt stale as a result. I felt really bad for Holly throughout the book. Everyone was just so shitty to her. Even her one good friend Thea was OK at best, and not very supportive. Holly’s experience was more infuriating than it was scary. I suppose some of the pettiness among the camp councilors felt like real teenage drama, but it was way too one-sided. There wasn’t anything technically wrong with the plotting, but some of the character placements felt really contrived. The misdirected suspicion being cast on some of the councilors was a bit too heavy-handed. The villain at the end actually had a great motive, but their “plan” for vengeance was exceptionally stupid. I appreciated that Holly does show some growth by the end, but I really wanted her to reach a higher level of not giving a fuck. I will give the book some credit for containing the most gruesome Fear Street murder at the time of its publication. It upped the ante for the later books. Lights Out will likely now become most notable for giving us Camp Nightwing; the setting for the upcoming Fear Street: 1978 movie. Its influence did not extend far beyond that… and I am very OK with that. There wasn’t much else here worth taking.
Observations & Spoilers
Holly takes on a job at her Uncle Bill’s summer camp to help him out. She’s no the outdoorsy type, but she loves her uncle and the camp is in some dire straights. A camper drowned at the Camp Nightmoon the previous summer, and one more incident could be the end of the camp. Things get off to a bad start right away. Uncle Bill is almost crushed by a rack in the equipment room where someone deliberately removed the bolts. Next, on the first day of camp, someone sinks most of the canoes. Then one of the bunks collapses in Holly’s cabin, hurting one of the young campers. At each crime scene, Holly finds a red feather. She thinks someone is trying to sabotage the camp and Uncle Bill, but no one will listen to her. This becomes a frustrating theme throughout the entire book; Holly is the only person who isn’t a self-centered asshat caught up in her own shit.
On top of being the only person who is picking up on this red feather sabotage plot, Holly also has to deal with a ton of bullshit from the other councilors. Her ex-best friend Geri has turned a number of the councilors against her, all because Holly didn’t lie to cover for her years earlier. Geri is now best friends with Holly’s senior counselor, Debra. Debra is an uptight asshole to Holly from the jump. Holly can’t do anything right by Debra’s standards. Then there’s Kit, the practical joker. Kit is like a puppy following Geri’s every whim, even though she would never date him. Mick seems cool at first, but Mick has a crush on Holly and feels entitled to her affection. When she rejects him for moving too fast, he loses his cool and joins Geri’s click of mean girls. Sandy is the only counselor that doesn’t seem to have some kind of stank around him, which sets off all kinds of red flags in the world of Fear Street. At least Holly has Thea, her best friend. Only, Thea isn’t a very good friend. She’s mostly caught up in the fact that John, her crush from last summer, is no longer into her. She’s not a dick to Holly, but she never really stands up for her either. I really felt for Holly in all of this. She needed some good community support but everyone around her just sucked.
Of all the people that were shitty, I think I hated Uncle Bill the most. Holly was helping him out, but he invalidated her (very correct) theory that someone was trying to sabotage his camp, and he dismissed all of the bullshit other councilors were giving her. There was a bare minimum he could have done to make his “favorite niece” feel seen and heard, but he failed to reach that threshold. Holly continues her investigation in spite of all this, narrowing her list of suspects down to the camp’s councilors. Kit does a lot of practical jokes, which line up with some of the sabotage incidents. But Holly doesn’t find anything that sticks. There’s also John, who has been cold to Thea and is caught by Holly doing vaguely suspicious things in the woods. Things finally escalate to a whole new level when one of the councilors is murdered. Holly finds her senior counselor Debra dead at her pottery wheel in the craft cabin. It looks as though Debra’s necklace caught in the wheel and strangled her to death; The wheel is still spinning when Holly finds her, and Debra’s face has been ground to a pulp. There is another red feather at the scene.
This was easily one of the most gruesome deaths up until this point in the Fear Street canon. The police and Uncle Bill write off her death as a suicide, but Holly knows better because of the red feather. She later finds out that Debra was the counselor on duty when a camper had drowned the previous summer. This explains some of Debra’s uptight behavior towards Holly, but also lends some insight into why she was killed. Still, even after a murder has occurred, Holly’s concerns are dismissed. Instead, she is forced to go with a bunch of the councilors who hate her on an overnight camping trip with the kids. She feels defeated and alone. At least Sandy, the only one who hasn’t been shitty to her, is leading the whole expedition. He’s a nice guy. There couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with him, right? RIGHT?
Holly rules out John as a suspect on the first night of the overnight trip. Turns out he was secretly dating one of the older campers, and that explained all of his suspicious activity. She gets up early the next morning to scout out locations with Sandy, and wouldn’t you know. It turns out he’s been the culprit all along. It turns out that Sandy’s younger brother was the camper who died the previous summer. And so he devised a horrible plan to take down Camp Nightwing by first making some shelves fall, then sinking some canoes and making a bed collapse, before finally making the natural progression to murdering Debra. He called his brother Chief, and that’s why he left a feather at the scene of every crime. Holly was getting too close, so even though Sandy had no grudge against her–she got to go.
Holly is able to knock Sandy out with an oar but is thrown overboard because of the rapids. She is able to swim to shore because she’s a good swimmer. Sandy catches up to her on land and chases her up a hill. She’s about to hide in a cave when she realizes it’s a snake den. Overcoming her fear of the outdoors, Holly grabs a snake and throws it at Sandy. He’s caught off guard and falls back down the steep embankment. He survives but is hurt pretty badly. Mick shows up out of the woods; turns out he had followed Holly and Sandy when they went off on their own. He apologizes for being a dick, and Holly forgives him way too easily. The police come and Sandy is taken away. Uncle Bill also apologizes to Holly for not believing her, but the most important thing of all is that Holly has faced her fears and now she believes in herself.
In the end, I was less invested in the “who done it” narrative than I was in wanting to see Holly stand up for herself. I wanted to see Geri get called out and knocked down a few pegs. I didn’t really get that. Holly had so many opportunities to flip the script on Geri but played it way too nicely. I wanted a nice-person snap; those are always the scariest and most satisfying. She had been Gei’s best friend for years; she could have cut her deep with just a few biting lines and completely changed their dynamic, but that never happened and I just felt frustrated. Debra also could have been done much better and been less of a one-note character. I wish we had seen some PTSD from the previous summer’s drowning, or really just have her be anything other than mean to Holly out of loyalty to Geri. Instead, we got one gruesome murder, a terrible revenge plot, and a whole lot of shenanigans. Holly deserved better friends, and she deserved a better book than Lights Out.
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, Lights Out is ranked 68th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series and 39th of 49 Fear Street books in the main series, placing it in the middle-low and middle-high tiers respectively. 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.
Was it only a matter of time before these started to feel repetitive? It followed the same template as The Stepsister and Ski Weekend but it just didn’t deliver. This one didn’t tread on any new ground or bring anything unique to the table. Sandy had the motive but his plan was pretty stupid.
This was by-the-numbers and there wasn’t a whole lot technically wrong with it. It just felt stale. John and his secret dating bit were too obvious of a fake-out, and Sandy being completely unsuspicious made him also too obvious. There were also some pretty contrived reasons for characters being in certain places.
Holly was the only character I liked, and more than anything I wanted to give her a pep talk about not letting all the other assholes get to her. I did appreciate her developing some spine toward the end. All of the other characters sucked pretty hardcore; even Thea was just “meh.” I guess you could say they felt real, but the dynamics all felt too one-sided.
Scare Factor: 1/2
Less scary than infuriating. If I were in Holly’s shoes, I would just be furious this entire book. To the point that there wasn’t much room left for fear. I’ll give it one point is for having one of the most gruesome murder scenes this early in the Fear Street series.
Nothing original to take away from this one. Summer camp, a revenge/murder plot with a “who done it” theme. Stine has done it all before and better.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #6: The Dead Lifeguard
COMING IN JULY 2021
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
Lael Liittke’s Prom Dress.