The Cheater had a really solid beginning but it got lost in the weeds about halfway through. The premise was immediately relatable; the pressure to impress demanding parents can lead a kid to do some reckless shit. I think this might be the first Fear Street book I’ve read in which blackmail was a central part of the story. RL Stine came close to almost saying something profound about class, privilege, and power but never delivered. All of the right elements were there, but the nuance and execution were lacking. Given my present-day lens of racial disparities in our justice system, it is impossible not to read this book with that context in mind. But what this book really needed to do was get weirder, darker, or both. I know Stine can deliver on all of these elements so it’s a shame that it didn’t happen here. There’s an event midway through that killed the slow-building tension, and the story just never really recovered. The twist was underwhelming and relied on the main character leaving out important details in spite of being our narrator. I get the necessity of that plot device sometimes but it will always bug me. I also wanted way more dire consequences for certain characters that I won’t name here. The Cheater could have been one of the Fear Street greats, but it ended up being kinda forgettable.
Recap & Review
Carter’s dad expects her to get into Princeton but she struggles with her math scores. Her scores are fine but not Princeton fine. When you’re the daughter of a judge who lives in the affluent white suburb of North Hills, everything needs to be Princeton fine. From the outside, Carter’s life is great. Her boyfriend Dan is hot and nice. She plays tennis at a fancy exclusive country club every weekend. Her mom is on all these planning committees for galas that no one cares about but they keep her super busy. I actually loved that last detail. Spot on, RL Stine. We all know who that lady is. It all made me feel sorry for Carter in a way. She was stuck between a literal judge and a mom who was barely there. It’s easy to see why she made the choices she did.
When Adam Messner overhears Carter stressing about her test scores, he offers to take it for her. Carter having an androgynous name would make it easy to fool the proctors and apparently they didn’t check IDs back then? Adam’s price was easy enough: Carter had to go on a date with him that Friday night. They both had significant others, but what’s the harm in one date? Carter didn’t really know Adam that well. He lived on Fear Street and hung around with a rough crowd. And we definitely get a sense that Carter’s definition of “rough crowd” is anyone who doesn’t spend their weekends playing tennis at the country club. But for all his faults, Adam was really good at math. Carter also couldn’t help but find him attractive, too. There was a ruggedness to his bad-boy image that got her all hot and bothered. Especially compared to Dan’s bland, predictable, and “nice” demeanor. Can’t blame her on that one either. Everybody loves a bad boy.
Adam takes the test and does great. He gets Carter the score she needs. Her dad is so proud that he goes out and buys her fancy diamond earrings. The gift just makes her feel terrible but she can’t talk to anyone about it. Her date with Adam goes surprisingly well. They go dancing at a seedy club and make out. It doesn’t get weird until Adam invites himself to play tennis with her and her friends. Then when Carter gets home from her date with Adam she’s confronted by his girlfriend Sheila. Sheila threatens to figure out what is going on between Carter and Adam, and puts a cigarette out on Carter’s lawn. When Adam shows up at the country club and turns out to be really good. He helps Carter beat one of the stuck-up country club bros in a match, which was an added bonus. Then he tells Carter she needs to go on another date with him that Friday. When she protests, he reminds her that she should want to keep him happy.
Meanwhile, Carter’s dad is presiding over a case involving a notorious mobster that is getting a lot of press. It’s got him extra stressed. I bring that up because it will become important. Because foreshadowing. Carter goes to the movies with Adam on a second date. It goes fine until he brings her to his house after and tells her that she needs to go on a double date with her and her friend Jill and him and his friend Ray the following weekend. Ray of all people! He has tattoos! That means he’s really bad news. Carter awkwardly calls Jill from Adams’s house and begs her to go along with the double date. Jill questions what Carter is really up to, but agrees to help out her friend. And then, just when Adam doesn’t seem like he could get any scarier, Carter finds out that he’s packing. Heat, that is. He’s got a gun.
Things get worse when it turns out that Adam and Carter got spotted in the movie theater by a mutual friend who tells Dan. Dan questions Carter about it the next day at the country club. She comes up with an excuse to throw him off but can tell he doesn’t fully buy it. Jill tries to find out what is going on with Carter and Adam but Carter lies to cover her tracks. More and more she keeps having to lie to the people around her in order to keep anyone from finding out about her cheating on the math exam. Then Carter finds a pig heart in her bag and a note that says “careful or you’ll break daddy’s heart.” She can’t figure out how Adam would have snuck it into her bag, but she assumes it must have been him. And he’s even more twisted than she thought. Carter disposes of the pig heart discreetly and vows to end things after this double date.
She and Jill go on the date with Adam and Ray. It’s at a seedy club in the old part of town. Ray turns out to not only have tattoos but greasy unwashed hair. OK, Carter, you got me on that one. I might get judgy too. Then Ray starts forcing himself on Jill and things get really uncomfortable. I think this might be the first time sexual assault has really played a part in a Fear Street book? Don’t quote me on that. Jill starts crying hysterically. Carter drops all pretense of playing along to protect her friend. Then what started out as a really intense scene turns into the most ridiculous bar fight. Ray gets shoved into someone, who starts fighting with him, then the whole band stops playing in order to join the fight themselves. This reminded me of one time as a kid I was at a minor league hockey game and the fighting in the rink got so bad that even the opposing goalies fought each other.
Carter and Jill escape in the chaos. Carter apologizes to Jill profusely, but when faced with the chance to finally tell her friend the truth she chooses to lie again. This is some friendship-ending level bullshit from Carter, even though Jill seems willing to still give her the benefit of doubt. Carter tells Adam she is done after that incident, so he tells her she needs to pay him. And she can start by getting him one thousand dollars. She doesn’t have that kind of money herself, but he assures her that she’s got means and she’ll figure it out. Carter decides to sell her earrings at a pawnshop to get the money. She hoped that maybe things with Adam would be finished after that, but we know it can’t be that easy. A few days later he demands another thousand. Things are getting worse.
Now if you were hoping for a recap that put every bit of this in the correct order of events, then I want to apologize now. We are about at the point where things fell apart and I stopped caring. So here’s the order I remember them in. First, Carter is almost killed when another car runs her off the road. She thinks maybe it was Sheila. Her car is a little banged up but she is fine. Then Dan confronts Carter. He has finally figured out that Carter got Adam to cheat on the math exam for her. Carter opens up and tells him everything. Dan thinks that Carter shouldn’t pay Adam again, but she doesn’t see what other option she has. She’s in too deep at this point. So she pawns off the rest of her jewelry and stops by Adams’s house. Then we skip ahead to Carter being lost in a daze on her way home without knowing what happened.
Dan is waiting for Carter when she gets home. They are interrupted by the cops saying that Adam has been found dead. He was shot. Carter’s car had been spotted at Adam’s house earlier and they want to question her. Carter lies and says she wasn’t at Adam’s that night, and Dan goes along with it. Oh shit! did Carter kill Adam? We don’t know because that scene was conveniently left out of the book. Then Dan grows cold toward Carter as though he suspects that she killed him; she insists that he didn’t. We the reader can’t tell if she’s lying or not. Now, I love an unreliable narrator. I am very vocal about this. But I hate this particular plot device where the narrator just leaves out convenient bits of information. I can forgive it sometimes, and I can see it’s a necessity, but it feels cheap. In order for it to work, it needs to deliver a damn good payoff. And The Cheater did not deliver one.
A few nights later, Carter is alone in the house while her parents are out at one of her mother’s never-ending galas. Someone cuts the power and phone line to the house, and Carter realizes she isn’t alone. She tries to hide but is attached by a stranger in a ski mask. She is about to pass out from being strangled when the police show up. The guy turned out to be a thug working for the mobster whose trial her dad is overseeing. He was also responsible for the pig heart and running Carter off the road. They were going after her to get to him, which had nothing to do with Adam. Normally she would have reported those things to her father, but she couldn’t tell him that Adam was blackmailing her without having her whole lie unravel. This twist could have worked, but it felt clumsy and tacked on. It all played out as a sideshow rather than thrusting real consequences on our characters. And the lack of consequences was a big problem for this story overall.
Carter thinks its all over until she gets a call from Sheila, who calls to tell Carter that she can prove Carter killed Adam. She wants Carter to pay her to keep her quiet. Carter meets Sheila in the Fear Street woods where Sheila reveals to her the locket she found when she discovered Adam’s body. She took it for herself before calling the police. It has Carter’s name on it. The next day Carter tells Dan that she’s going to confess and tell her Dad everything. She asks him to be there when she does for moral support. Dan agrees. They go into her Dad’s home office and she tells him the whole thing from the beginning. She tells him about the blackmail and how it got out of hand, and then she confesses to killing Adam. Og shit, she really did do it? Not so fast.
Carter’s dad takes it all in stride and tells her that they need to do the right thing and go to the police next. That’s when Dan interjects and confesses that he actually killed Adam. Carter obviously knew this. She had told her dad everything the night before. She figured it out because of the locket. Dan had bought it for her but hadn’t given it to her yet. It was the one she picked out when they were window shopping. Dan’s rich and has a self-defense strategy, so in all likelihood, he’ll be fine. We don’t get to find out for sure, but this is America. White privilege and money will save the day for these two lawbreakers in the end. And Stine used my least favorite plot device twice by having Carter conveniently leave out relevant details in order to deliver a twist. And it wasn’t a good enough twist to warrant that.
One thing I did like about the ending was that Carter’s dad apologized for all the pressure he put on her. Parents apologizing to their children is something we really need to normalize. The pressure put on kids to meet their parent’s idea of who they should be can cause tons of unintended harm. This whole book was a great example of that, even if it missed the opportunity to really make the most of its themes. I want to stress that I do primarily judge these books against themselves. These are not prize-winning literary works and that’s not what I signed up for anyhow. I have given high marks to several Fear Street books and hope to give the same honor to several more (my opinion is an HONOR). All of that is to say I know not to expect profound commentary on race, class, and privilege in these paperback classics. I know this, and yet…
I still get frustrated when a book, like this one, comes so close to taking that plunge. The Cheater was set up perfectly to challenge Carter’s worldview. If Adam had been fleshed out more as a character and been given better motives, there would have been a great push and pull around his and Carter’s relationship. Stine had some of that with Carter’s professed attraction to Adam, but there was nothing close to revelatory when it came to her rich and sheltered worldview. If the B-plot with the mobster threats had been more than a false flag, maybe she and Adam could have gotten caught up in something with much higher stakes and far more dire consequences. I almost get more frustrated with the books that are almost great than I do with the ones that never stood a chance.
This concludes my book report on The Cheater. In fourth grade, this would have added 148 pages to my total page count for the year, which we tracked with rainbow stickers on the reading chart on the wall, and it would have earned me a tootsie roll to boot. Look at me doing the same thing for my tens of fans more than twenty years later.
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 Cheater is ranked 70th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series, and 41st of 49 Fear Street books in the main series, placing the book itself in the lowest 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.
This was a solid concept, and at times it was really successful in its execution. I wish it played more with its themes of class and power, but on a purely conceptual level; it worked.
I kinda hate the plot device of the narrator leaving out important information in order to couch a twist, even when I see its benefits. I did like the way tension was built throughout, but the ending felt a bit cheap.
By and large, these characters felt believable to me. I wish there was more of Carter learning about her own privilege. Which is to say, I wanted more nuance than is probably fair to expect from a Fear Street book.
Scare Factor: 1/2
Adam’s unpredictability and the antics of his gross friend Ray represent the legit fears that women face all the time. So this book had its moments. But I felt like it ran out of steam towards the end.
I can’t say this is the most original concept, even if it was solidly put together. But it felt fresh among its contemporaries and avoided most of the pitfalls of tired tropes.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #7: Cheerleaders: The New Evil
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
Riche Tankersley Cusick’s Trick or Treat