by Lael Littke
© 1989 by Lael Littke. Cover Art not credited.
Prom Dress is easily one of the better Point Horror books I’ve read so far. I really enjoyed the way that the story followed the dress rather than a single character. I’m not typically a fan of that style of story, where I have to jump to a new character right as I’m starting to get invested. But that wasn’t the case here. Each of the girls felt real; the way that the dress played on their unique insecurities made for a great variety of horror. I liked the way that each girl experienced it differently. Figuring out what havoc the dress would cause next was exciting and unpredictable. I had some issues with the climactic ending, but not enough to ruin the overall experience for me. I couldn’t help but find myself wanting to write a present-day rendition where a cursed dress gets passed along to different drag queens. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Drag Race. Regardless, Prom Dress was a surprisingly fun read.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers:
The story opens with Robin. She’s a dancer in her senior year of high school. Her family doesn’t have a lot of money, but she is counting on a scholarship for dance and stands a good chance at getting it. She also works for Miss Cathrine, an eccentric old rich lady. After school, Robin helps her with things around the house. Miss Catherine has a bad scar on one side of her face from an accident when she was younger. She likes reminiscing about her glory days as a beautiful dancer. When Robin tells her about the upcoming dance concert, Miss Catherine tells her she has an old flapper dress that Robin can borrow. Robin goes to the attic to it, and it’s perfect for the dance number she in. But Robin also finds another dress while she’s up there; one that calls to her. The while lace dress captivates Robin, and it just so happens that she needs a dress for prom the following week. When she asks Miss Catherine to borrow it, her request is immediately rejected. Robin is disappointed, but of course, she’s not going to listen. It wouldn’t be a good novel if our main character made good decisions. Now here’s a gif of Robyn dancing on her own.
Robin is a hit in the flapper dress at her concert. She gets offered the scholarship she had been hoping for. Her boyfriend Tyler is incredibly proud and supportive of her. Robin is on top of the world. Now the one thing that’s missing in her life is a dress for prom. When she returns the flapper dress to Miss Catherine, she uses her dress bag to smuggle out the white lace prom dress. She’s not really stealing it if she plans to return it, right? She wears the dress for prom and blows everyone away. She looks and feels stunning. She and Tyler are elected Prom King and Queen. While they make their way up the Stairway to the Stars for the coronation, the dress snags on a nail, causing Robyn to lean on the poorly built railing and the whole stairway collapses. The heavy throne lands on her feet, crushing them. She loses consciousness from the pain. And so the dress begins its reign of terror.
Felicia is a nurse working in the ER when a young girl in a beautiful dress comes in with crushed feet. The girl is delirious but very clear that they need to save the dress. Felcia promises her that she will, and she does. She puts it in the closet of Robin’s hospital room. Robin comes and goes from consciousness; the depressing reality of never dancing again setting in. Felicia does what she can to comfort Robin and take care of her; she’s a good nurse. But also can’t stop thinking about that dress. Her boyfriend Mark is in seminary school, and she has to attend a big dinner with him hosted by the Dean. She really wants to make a good impression for Mark, and the dress hanging in Robin’s hospital closet would be perfect. Here’s my obvious side-eye about trying to impress judgy Christians, but this is Felica’s life and she makes the choices here. She resists the urge to take the dress at first, spending her entire Saturday dress shopping. But none of them is right. She finally gives in. She says yes to the dress.
The dinner starts out great. Everyone compliments her dress. The Dean loves that Felicia works as a nurse; a very pious profession. Halfway through the dinner, Robin feels the dress getting tighter. She resists the urge to do anything about it until it becomes hard to breathe. The Dean’s wife takes her to the upstairs bathroom, offering her meds to help her feel better. Felicia strips off the dress as soon as she’s alone, desperate to get out of it. As someone with intense claustrophobia, I felt for Felicia on this. I can’t even wear heavy coats on crowded trains without feeling like I might lose my mind. The only problem now is that Felicia has nothing to change into and the dinner is still going. So she makes herself a terrible plan. She borrows some clothes and a red hat from the Dean’s wife’s closet and throws the dress into a blue bag, and books it out the front door.
Of course, she’s spotted leaving. Mark and one of the other students run after her. She makes it to the bus and gets on before they can catch her. She opens the bag and finds that it is also stuffed with precious jewelry. It’s going to look like she not only fled the party but robbed the Dean and his wife. She loses the red hat and stuffs the bag under the seat and sits in shock. Several stops later Mark and the other student get on the bus, having driven to catch up. She makes up a story about being held at gunpoint and being forced to stop and flee. It very clearly doesn’t make a lot of sense, but her fear from the ordeal is real and they believe her. She leaves the bag on the bus, knowing that her story would unravel if they found her with it. She makes a report to the police, the Dean and his wife commend her on her strength in getting through the ordeal, and she actually pulls it off. But she loses the thing that she held most dear in the process; her honesty and integirty. The dress always takes what you hold most dear.
Nicole is on the bus with her teammates. They are heading to a big academic decathlon. She’s their team’s star brain, but she’s very insecure about her looks. She’s sitting in the back away from her team when she accidentally kicks a bag under the bus seat. She pulls out the blue bag and opens it. Just like all the other girls, she is captivated by it. When the bus driver comes back to check for the missing bag after the police notify him, Nicole hides it with her stuff. There is a big reception at the opening night of the decathlon, and Nicole is determined to blow everyone’s socks off with her new dress. And that’s exactly what she does. She even gets a dance with her crush; the academic decathlon coach Mr. Waring. But she struggles with the guilt of having taken the dress. Across the room she spots one of her teammates talking to someone. In her paranoia, she thinks it’s the police. Her teammate points her out among the crowd. She panics and runs. Anyone who’s ever smoked weed should be able to relate to this. That feeling that EVERYONE knows you did something bad and THE LAW is COMING FOR YOU.
Someone grabs her arm, causing her to trip on her heels and slam into the giant heavy Einstein bust on display. It topples over, hitting Nicole in the head. She hears people calling her name and wonders: who is Nicole? The next day at the hospital, Felica is gobsmacked to find that the dress has been returned after a girl with amnesia was brought in wearing it. Felicia feels awful about what she did and confesses the whole thing to Robin, who had reported the dress missing. Robin is sympathetic to Felicia’s story. She knows first-hand how the dress gets in your head and makes you do things you normally wouldn’t. It takes the things you cherish most. Nicole is left ignorant of the whole dilemma, but it’s arguable that she got the rawest deal of them all. The former super-brain academic decathlon star with a photographic memory doesn’t even remember her own name. Felicia and Robin are in agreement: this dress sucks and something needs to be done about it.
Felicia wants to destroy the dress, but Robin is afraid of what might happen if they do. Robin decides that it needs to go back to Miss Cathrine’s closet where it can remain in anonymity until the end of time. She seals the dress in a garment bag and has her sister, Gabrielle, come and take it back home. She instructs Gabrielle not to open it. Felicia thinks Robin should warn her sister about it, but Robin thinks that will just make her more curious. For the record, I’m with Felicia on this; Robin’s ideas are terrible. But Robin’s idea wins. Then Felicia goes off to tell Mark what really happened, knowing full well that it will forever tarnish the way he sees her. We don’t get to see that full conversation but I can imagine how that went down.
Of course Gabby opens the garment bag as soon as she takes it home. Gabby has a huge crush on Robin’s boyfriend Tyler, the two of them even play piano duets together. The dress gets in her head and tells her that she could win Tyler over. They’re playing a gig together the weekend that Robin gets out of the hospital, and it would be the perfect time to wear the dress. So when Robin returns home, still in a wheelchair and unable to put weight on her feet, Gabby sets her own plan in motion. Gabby brings Robin over to Miss Catherine’s with the garment bag; Robin is going to return it and confess everything to the old woman. While she does this, Gabby is going off with Tyler to their gig. The way Gabby rushed off was Robin’s first clue that something was wrong. Then Miss Catherine drops a bombshell: she had set the whole thing up. She had intended for Robin to take the dress from the start.
You see, Miss Catherine is not Miss Catherine. She is actually Miss Catherine’s “criminally insane” (actual problematic term used in the book) sister Rowena. Rowena had killed Miss Catherine years ago, staged a fire to cover it up, and then assumed her more respectable sister’s identity. Rowena had made the dress for her sister all those years ago and had cursed it. Now Rowena relishes in the misery that the dress brings. That’s when Robin realizes that the garment bag is empty. She looks out the window towards her own house to see Gabby step out in the dress. At first, she’s horrified, but Rowena gets into her head. She thinks to herself “good riddance.” The backstabbing Gabby will get what’s coming to her for trying to steal Tyler away from her. Rowena watches and marvels in the chaos she has sown. For her, playing out beautifully just like it did with her own sister.
Robin’s conscience returns to her when she takes one last look at Gabby. She knows she can’t let her sister go through with it. She fights her way up the stairs from Rowena’s foyer on her broken casted feet and manages to call out to her Gabby from the doorway just before she falls. Gabby and Tyler hear her and come running. It turned out that Tyler had tried to get Gabby to not wear the dress because of the bad memories about prom. In the end, Gabby was able to fight through the way the dress was getting into her head. They report Rowena to the police, who come and take her away. They put the dress back in the attic, hoping it will be torn down with the house eventually (because that’s a great idea). Robin decides she will find a way to dance again. Her family moves closer to a rehabilitation center (and away from Rowena’s home). A happy ending for all, right?
An antique shopper finds the dress when she buys all of Rowena’s old things. She puts it on sale in her store, knowing a great find when she sees one. An aspiring actor with a huge play audition coming up finds it in the store. She can’t afford it but knows it’ll be perfect. She shoplifts by sneaking it into her bag from another store and walks out. And that, my friends, is a damn near-perfect horror story ending. All of it could have been averted if Robin hadn’t been so committed to her bad ideas, but would it really be horror without our main characters making some bad decisions? I think it might have been better if Robin went to destroy the dress on her own, couldn’t bring herself to do it, and then lied about it to Gabby, Tyler, and Felicia. The dress still finding a way into her head, even after everything that happened, would have been just the right amount of subtle creepiness for me. It would have made the ending a little less cute and a little more ominous. And boy do I love an ominous ending!
My biggest beef with this story was that I didn’t quite buy Rowena’s motives. It mostly worked, but for a book that kept me guessing and really stood out from the pack, I wanted something better. I understood that she reveled in the chaos the dress caused, but why did she wait all those years for Robin to come along? Maybe if there were hints of her unleashing her cursed dress on the world in the past, knowing it always came back. The implication is that Robin was hardly the first girl to wear it since Miss Catherine would have gone a long way toward explaining Rowena.
I also have to admit my distaste for the shitty portrayals of mental illness that show up a lot in these 90s teen horror books. Prom Dress was hardly egregious on this account. It kept referring to Rowena as being criminally insane, which just doesn’t hold up today. Rowena was a sociopath. At the end of the day, she’s just plain evil. I kinda wish Littke just left out any mention of mental health. I’ve already stated that I liked this book. I also stated that I would love to do a present-day rendition of it with a story centered on drag queens. The more I think about it, the more I want to find out to whom I can send that pitch. I also have a pitch for a Fear Street comic book series I’d love to pitch. I know the chances of that happening are slim, but a girl can dream. I’m looking forward to reading some more of Lael Littke’s stuff!
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
This was a really fun concept and a stand-out when compared to its Point Horror and Fear Street contemporaries. It was simple enough, but the way we followed the dress rather than a single character made it something unique.
The book kept me guessing. Even after I had figured out how the dress was stealing what each girl held most important, I still wanted to know how it would happen. The only thing that fell apart for me at the end was Miss Catherine/Rowena’s motivation and confession. It mostly worked, but it didn’t completely sell the ending for me.
A story that deals with multiple characters the way that this one does can easily fall apart, but I thought this did a solid job of making each girl’s experience with the dress stand on its own.
The way the dress specifically fed into each girl’s insecurities, and how it took from them whatever they most cherished, was genuinely thrilling. It used guilt, body horror, and the perspective of its young protagonists to excellent effect.
The concept as explained by the cover doesn’t exactly scream “original.” It’s a haunted prom dress, what’s the big deal? The uniqueness here was in its execution and structure. Almost as though the dress is the main character. It was refreshing and made for an entertaining read.
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
D.E. Athkins’s Mirror, Mirror
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #10: Ski Weekend