Fear Street #19: Sunburn
I appreciated that RL Stine changed up the plot formula a little bit. Sunburn opens with a pretty intense scene right out of the gate, and then never really lets up. It made for some awkward transitions in places, but the slight variation in the Fear Street formula was a welcome change. I was hooked from page one. There was an over-reliance on rip tides as a plot device. I rolled my eyes several times during one particular scene that just became absurd. You’ll have to read my full review below the jump for the details on that. I think I may have had the ending spoiled for me because I figured out the twist fairly early on. It could have also just been predictable if you’ve read enough RL Stine. I was still entertained in spite of that because I couldn’t figure out how all of the pieces fit together. The plausibility of the whole premise was a bit of a stretch, but the overall solid characters made up the difference. The book could have been even stronger with a smarter and more competent villain, but at least this one delivered some hilariously incompetent gold. Overall, I think Sunburn managed to be better than your average book in the series, but it fell short of being one of the best.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers
Sunburn opens up strong with Claudia, our main character, waking up buried in the sand. She’s disoriented, badly sunburned, and all alone. Her friends had buried her in the sand in good fun, but she had fallen asleep and now they were nowhere to be found. Thankfully she’s rescued by Daniel, a cute boy who appears out of nowhere. He digs Claudia out and helps her up the steps to the Drexel’s beachside mansion. He then enters the security code into the gate and disappears before anyone else sees him. That means… he could be… a ghost! That seems worthy of an early chapter “Zoinks!”
Flashback: It turns out that Claudia is staying with her super rich friend Marla Drexel. Marla, Claudia, Joy, and Sophie had all been super close at camp the previous summer, but they hadn’t seen one another since the accident. What was the accident you ask? Well, you’ll just have to wait for that flashback. Marla had invited her three camp friends to spend the week at her family’s beach mansion. Claudia thought Marla’s letter was an unexpected surprise. Not as big of a surprise as waking up buried on the beach had been. When Claudia finds her friends, Marla apologizes profusely. She swears up and down that she thought Claudia had gone up to the house. She runs to get Claudia some cream for her burns. Claudia believes her. For now.
At dinner, Claudia tells the girls about Daniel. Marla seems really confused about who he could possibly be. She makes light of it by telling a story about him being a ghost. Then Joy finds a worm in her salad and dinner is RUINED. The next morning Claudia convinces Marla to play tennis with her. Marla had always been the better player, and Claudia is surprised when she beats her easily. Later that day, when they are on their way down to the beach for a picnic, Sophie gets electrocuted by the fence. She ends up being fine but is clearly shaken. Marla again apologies, not sure how the fence could have been left on. There’s something about Marla that in general seems off. Marla has also made it very clear she has no interest in talking about the accident.
Down on the beach, two local boys who were out surfing try to crash their little picnic. They introduce themselves as Carl and Dean. Marla is very rude to them for no clear reason, but Joy is thirsty and Sophie always wants whatever Joy wants. The boys stay and Marla sulks for a bit before apologizing. Her whole hostile little episode just seemed really out of character. Claudia is rightfully growing suspicious. That night, the girls go out on the boardwalk. They meet up with Carl and Dean. Claudia lets them go off on their own and ends up running into Daniel again. They flirt. He stays mysterious. They decide to ride the Ferris Wheel. Claudia imagines Daniel falling from it and BAM: time for another flashback.
Flashback to last summer. Claudia was playing truth or dare with Marla, Joy, and Sophie in their cabin. They were interrupted by Marla’s annoying little sister Alison. Alison insisted on being allowed to play, so Marla dared Alison to walk the gorge at midnight. Alison is terrified of heights, but even more desperate to fit in, so she agrees to do it. That night the girls sneak out to meet Alison at the gorge. Marla gets caught and sent back to her cabin, leaving the other three girls to meet Alison. They try to talk Alison out of it, but she goes through with it. Because there is no way anything can go wrong in a flashback. While Alson is out in the log in the middle of the gorge, the girls see flashlights of approaching councilors. They tell Alison to hurry back and then take off running. They thought she was right behind them, but she wasn’t. Alison fell to her death and her body was never found!
Back to the present. Claudia gets over her memory of Alison quickly enough to make out with Daniel on the Ferris wheel. The two of them have a great time, and even make jokes about him being a ghost. Claudia realizes he never talks about himself. Appropriately, he disappears again right before Claudia meets back up with her friends. That night some put leaches in Joy’s bed. They all remembered from camp that Joy hated leaches. Joy becomes convinced that Marla is torturing them. If you are like me, you’ve probably figured out what’s going on at this point. As soon as Alison was mentioned and believed to be dead, I had pretty much figured out the twist that we are still several plot points away from revealing. What I couldn’t figure out was how the hell Daniel the ghost boy fit into this.
The next day they all go water skiing. Sophie goes first even though she’s usually scared of swimming. She’s doing fine until she goes down and gets caught in a riptide. Just then Marla’s boat engine conveniently dies. Claudia jumps in after Sophie but also gets caught in the tide. She thinks they are both going to drown when they are both saved by Carl and Dean. The two boys happened to come by just in time on their dingy little motor boat. After they leave Marla says it’s strange that they showed up just in time, but Joy shuts that down because she had invited them. When they get back to the dock, Claudia finds the tow rope had been cut. Sophie had been set up to fall. Since I’ve already figured out the twist, and we’re talking about water skiing, this feels like as good of a place as any to make a joke about the book jumping the shark. I’m too tired to write something better, so here’s some Fanzi.
The cut rope turns out to be the final straw for the three girls. Claudia, Joy, and Sophie become convinced that Marla is trying to kill them. They know they need to leave, but Marla is their only ride out. Claudia calls her mother, who agrees to come to pick them all up the following night. That means they just have to make it through one more day. Claudia is worried that marla overheard them planning, but can’t be certain. That’s when we get our final flashback. Claudia finally admits to herself what I kind of assumed at the end of the last flashback. It’s a detail she had even lied to herself about, but now she can’t any longer. She, Joy, and Sophie had heard Alison cry out for help. They knew she wasn’t right behind them. They had run back to their cabins anyway, and Alison had fallen to her death… or did she?
The next day the girls all do their own thing while buying time. Claudia decides to go for a run on the beach, which kicks off the silliest scene in the entire book. At first, Claudia thinks she sees Marla off in the distance, but can’t be sure. Then she’s attacked by a dog. It looks just like the Irish wolfhound guard dog that the Drexels keep on their property. It bites Claudia on the leg. She escapes into the water. Suddenly there is also a shark! The shark was presumably drawn to Claudia’s bleeding leg. It ends up getting the dog instead. RL Stine loves killing dogs. But then Claudia gets caught on another riptide! Sorry I was late, girls. I was attacked by a dog that got eaten by a shark and then got stuck in a riptide! Ugh, traffic is the worst.
Claudia gets back to the house and tells Joy and Sophie what happened. They believe her and go to check on the dog. The dog’s cage is opened and the dog is nowhere to be found. Meaning she had seen marl in the distance, and Marla had sicked the dog on her. Marla interrupts the three girls and insists on dressing the wound on Claudia’s leg. The girls then pack in secret while Marla makes dinner because it’s Alfred’s night off. Then it starts storming because it’s almost the climax. Storms make for excellent climatic moments. The girls are packed and ready to make a go for it, but when they go to leave the fence is electrified. Claudia suggests they try the back. In the back, they discover a shed with a door ajar and a smell emanating from inside. They find Marla’s body inside. It’s clear from the decay that she’s been dead for weeks. So who was the girl they’d spent their whole week with? There can only be one answer!
The twist you probably figured out several paragraphs ago: Marla was really Alison the whole time. Alison catches them and pulls a gun on the three girls. They are up against the electric fence and have no escape. This is the perfect time for the villain to explain all of their perfectly villainous plans in detail. Are you really a villain if you don’t reveal your evil plan to your enemies right before you kill them? Alison does not disappoint. She had survived the fall last summer and was rescued by a family. She pretended to have amnesia because she hated her real family. She’s tried loving a new life but was overcome by the need for revenge.
Alison tells the girls that Marla had come back to the gorge to watch her fall. It’s not entirely clear if this was true or a delusional projection. Alison had come back to the summer home in time to hear that Marla had invited her friends for a little camp reunion. She had then killed Marla and assumed her identity. She relied on Alfred’s poor eyesight to avoid being found out. It’s definitely a bit of a stretch that she fooled all of the girls right up until that point. It’s hard to believe this could have been pulled off unless they were identical twins. Then Daniel the ghost boy interrupts Alison’s confessional and wrestles the gun away from her. Alison panics and runs to the electric fence. She doe not survive the electrocution. Grant wasn’t there to resuscitate.
Daniel explains to the girls that he is Alfred’s son. He had been living at the guest house in secret since the beginning of summer. The Drexels weren’t the most charitable family and Daniel needed a place to stay. So he kept a very low profile so his father wouldn’t get caught. Daniel and Claudia then hold hands while they go inside to call the police.
On the whole, the Drexels sound like they were a pretty awful family. From the use of a caged vicious guard dog to the poor treatment of their staff. It also seems like they didn’t really try that hard to find Alison. A lot of the small details in the plot don’t hold up under close scrutiny. A teenager with amnesia would have been national news. Unless the family that rescued Alison lived off the grid. The story could have been a lot stronger if that detail had been drilled into a bit. Maybe Alison got adopted by some crazy people who took her in and taught her how to survive. It would have set her up to be a more competent villain. As it was she only succeeded in killing one of her four marks. The story also would have benefitted from setting the stakes higher. I know I complain about that a lot in these books, but Stine has shown he can do it. It just didn’t happen here.
The reason why I would rate this better than average is the way it kept me engaged. The mystery of Daniel was a well-crafted B-plot then ended up saving all of the girls’ lives. I also liked the way Claudia and the girls were clearly struggling with the guilt of what happened to Alison. Claudia even lied to herself in her first flashback of the accident. Fear Street books aren’t known for their nuanced characters, but Sunburn did a better job than most at giving us exactly that. It’s what kept me engaged in spite of the plot holes. Alison was the one weak link in the chain, but the others were strong enough to carry the excess weight. This is a great example of how strong characters can carry a weak plot, but it doesn’t work the other way around. The plot got messy but it kept me engaged, and I can’t really complain too much about that.
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, Sunburn is ranked 32nd of 79 in the overall Fear Street series, and 12th of 49 Fear Street books in the main series, placing the book itself in the high and middle-high tiers 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.
The concept was solid. A good old-fashioned revenge story and a villain with money to burn. It had all the right pieces it needed to succeed.
I liked the quick pace and the way it jumped right into the action. But Allison fooling all 3 girls who knew and hated her seemed like a reach, and the dog/shark/riptide attack was just silly.
The strongest part of this book. I liked Claudia more than the typical Fear Street protagonist. It had the right balance of personalities and its villain had clear motives. No complaints here.
Scare Factor: 1/2
I mean, it was more of a thriller than a horror. Not a lot of things I find particularly scary. I wish it had leaned into the theme of guilt more than it did. It might have been a game changer.
As much as I enjoyed this, it’s not the freshest idea on the block. On the other hand, it didn’t feel overly derivative and uninspired. So I will split the difference.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #27: Wrong Number 2