Fear Street Super Chiller #6: The Dead Lifeguard
The Dead Lifeguard was a fun, twisted affair. It reminded me of the movie Clue. It wasn’t plainly obvious who Mouse was and I enjoyed guessing who it might be. The multiple points of view were handled well; I had been worried it would be too much for such a short book but I was proven wrong. There was a great cast of characters. I was immediately engaged in Lindsay’s story and could not have guessed how that ended up shaking out. That being said, I also didn’t exactly buy the twist regarding her character at the end. Maybe I had built up enough expectations that I was going to be let down no matter what, but still. It was such a strong setup and the ending just felt rushed. The reveal of Mouse’s identity was much more satisfying. I almost wish there were multiple endings, like in the movie Clue. That would have really broken the mold and elevated the book, or it could have been disastrous. Regardless it would have been interesting and memorable. Overall, The Dead Lifeguard is flawed but it kept things interesting. I enjoyed reading it and that’s what counts.
Observations & Spoilers
One of the strongest points of The Dead Lifeguard is the multiple points of view. The book opens with the perspective of Mouse. Mouse talks in a stream-of-consciousness through a dial tone on the phone to their dead friend Terry. We find out that Mouse got a job as a lifeguard at Northwood Country Club and plans on killing all of his colleagues to avenge Terry. I have to note here that I went to school with a kid who went by Mouse and I could not stop thinking about it with these chapters. I am in no way implying the characters were similar, just something that was in the back of my mind. Trying to figure out who Mouse might be was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. The character was clearly unhinged and on a mission.
We also get the point-of-view of Lindsay. Lindsay is a returning lifeguard, having worked at Northwood the year prior. But when she shows up her ID card won’t work, she thinks she sees a dead lifeguard floating in the pool, and her name isn’t on the roster for that summer’s lifeguards. Her ID turned out to be legit, but it was two tears old. Pete, the manager of the lifeguards, allows her to stay on as an alternate. Lindsay is confused but determined to have a good summer in spite of it. There’s only one returning lifeguard along with her that she recognizes, and that’s Spencer. Spencer is nervous to see her at first but warms up after. That’s when Lindsay realizes she can’t remember anything specific about Spencer or the previous summer. She starts having serious doubts about her own memories. I was immediately pulled in by this premise. This was way more fun than the potential murder plot. Something weird was happening and I was all about it.
The other point-of-view character is the least interesting of the three, but the most reliable. Danny is the head lifeguard, and he is tasked with keeping the peace amongst the squabbling lifeguards throughout the book. As a narrator, he’s like the control group of the experiment. When shit starts getting really crazy, his job becomes increasingly unappealing. There’s lots of drama and murder in this book. He mostly wants to be noticed for his rockin’ bod but doesn’t have too much luck in that department. Lindsay meanwhile gets roomed with May-Ann. May-Ann believes the Country Club is haunted. She’s also got a pet mouse and tons of mouse figurines all over her side of the room. This makes her a prime suspect for Mouse’s identity. But we all know it’s not gonna be that easy to unravel the mysteries of this story. Especially before any murders happen!
Drama starts to unfold among the lifeguards. Cassie and Dierdre both want to date Pug, who is about as bland as bros get. Cassie wins out. Cassie also likes to tease May-Ann for her obsession with ghosts. She plays a few cruel pranks. Then Lindsay wakes up one night and May-Ann is gone. She hears someone whisper her name. She gets up and she follows it. She finds the common area woodstove going at full blast. The door is open and Cassie’s head is sitting in the flames. As you might suspect at this point, she is dead. Lindsay is treated as a suspect by the police since she heard a voice and found the body, but Lindsay suspects May-Ann. May-Ann hated being teased by Cassie and had vowed to get her back, and May-Ann had been missing from their room when Lindsay woke up. Couple that with the pet mouse and mouse figurines, and it sounds like we solved our mystery. Just kidding. That was me channeling my inner Lindsay and being an unreliable narrator. We still have a lot more book to go.
Lindsay tries to ask Spencer what he remembers of their last summer working together, but Spencer isn’t too interested in talking about it. He just says that she wasn’t there for very long so they didn’t get to know one another. Then Lindsay realizes she hasn’t called her parents, and when she does she finds that their line has been disconnected. She barrows Danny’s car to drive home and check on them. When she gets to her house on Fear Street, she finds that her parents no longer live there. When she tells the new owner who she is, the new owner informs her that Lindsay died two years ago. She drives around in a daze after hearing that news. She goes to Pete’s office to look at her file and finds a newspaper clipping about her own drowning from two summers prior. She knows she isn’t really dead, but she has no idea what’s going on. I loved this mystery. Memory loss is such a terrifying thing, and Stine uses it very effectively here. What would you do if you could no longer trust your own memories?
Then there’s the matter of Arnie. Arnie is another one of the lifeguards. He’s really short but he works extra hard to compensate for it by being fit. He has a complex about it, though. He very much seems like he could be nicknamed Mouse. Pug teases him relentlessly, and there is obvious bad blood between them. Pug is an all-around asshole named after a cute dog. Lindsay also spots May-Ann arguing with Pug outside the gym. Later that night she is awoken by the same whispering voice. It leads her to the gym where she finds Pug dead. He is laying on the bench press and his throat has been crushed by the barbell. Lindsay is again a suspect because she has now found both bodies. Somehow no one is investigating the fact that she is clearly not who she says she is, but that point is never really addressed. The point is we have two lead suspects for the identity of Mouse: May-Ann and Arnie.
Arnie furthers his suspicion by trying to aggressively kiss Lindsay even though she says no. Spencer breaks it up. Arnie apologizes later but then sneaks into the back of Danny’s car when Lindsay is taking it out for a drive. He begs her to give him a second chance but she leaves him on the side of the road. Arnie may or may not be the murderer, but he is most definitely a creep with boundary issues. When Lindsay gets back to the Country Club, the other lifeguards are having fun playing around in the pool. Lindsay joins them. When Danny throws Dierdre into the water, Lindsay is suddenly remembers anything. It turns out she isn’t really Lindsay. She is Marissa.
Marissa had worked with Lindsay two summers prior as a lifeguard. They had gotten into an argument and Marissa pushed Lindsay. Lindsay fell and hit her head on the side of the pool and died. Marissa was so caught up in her grief and guilt over it, she began to take on Lindsay’s personality as her own. She spent some time in a psychiatric facility and had been doing better, but then that summer she suffered a relapse. She slipped back into Lindsay’s personality and headed to Northwood Country Club to work for the summer as a lifeguard. If you’re scratching your head, I’m right there with you. One, I’m not a fan of this depiction of mental health. I don’t think it works like that. I also think Lindsay/Marissa should have already set off all kinds of red flags that would have prevented her from ever working at the Country Club. The cops who suspected her of the two murders that occurred wouldn’t have to do much digging to figure out that she wasn’t who she said she was. I was so invested in her story and this just isn’t the twist that I wanted.
Marissa goes to call her parents, figuring they must be worried sick about her. One would assume they already know about her condition and the Northwood Country Club might have been one of the first places they’d have gone to look for her. But I’ve already established that this twist doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. We still have another mystery to solve. Marissa is in Pete’s office with Spencer when the phone rings. The answering machine gets it before they can get it. It’s a woman claiming to be Spencer’s mother. She apologizes she never notified the club that Spencer wouldn’t be showing up for work that summer because he had been murdered. Spencer runs. I was beginning to suspect him because Stine often goes with the least obvious of the suspects as the actual guilty party. Still, I had fun unraveling this one and was never completely sure who Mouse was before it was revealed.
Marissa suddenly (conveniently) remembers why she recognized Spencer. He was Jack Mouser, one of the kitchen staff. He and his friend Terry had been the butt of a cruel joke by the other lifeguards the summer she had worked there. They had told Mouse and Terry that they could become lifeguards themselves if they completed all these made-up tests. Terry killed himself later that year, and Mouse vowed to get revenge on the lifeguards. Marissa apologizes for taking part in the joke and admits that it was mean. But she also points out that Pug and Cassie weren’t a part of it. None of the lifeguards aside from her had been there that summer. Mouse doesn’t care. He was going to save her for last but now he’s going to kill her next.
Marissa runs and ends up in the pool. May-Ann, Dierdre, and Danny get smart to what’s happening and pin Mouse down. Marissa explains who he really is. The cops are called. May-Ann apologizes for suspecting Marissa. Marissa apologizes for suspecting May-Anny; turns out May-Ann and Pete were secretly dating, hence the sneaking out. Pug had found out and was gonna get them both fired which was why she was fighting with him. Arnie was just a creep. Marissa goes to finally call her parents to tell them that she’s OK. Now, I thought the twist on Mouse was pretty cool. He was a twisted individual but he had a real motive. The fact that he killed the real Spencer to assume his identity was extra unsettling. As far as the two mysteries go, this was the better resolution of the two. By a long shot. Because it doesn’t rely on everyone ignoring obvious red flags.
I made an earlier allusion to Clue, and here’s where I wish we just got 3 different endings. One with Arnie, one with May-Ann, and one with Spencer being the killer. Hell, maybe even one with Lindsay/Marissa as the killer. The setup was strong enough that it could have supported multiple outcomes like that. I think it would have made the book something special and helped it stand out from the pack. I also would have loved some more interesting and plausible resolutions for Lindsay’s storyline. It was such an interesting setup! I wanted it to go further than it did, and I wish it hadn’t all felt so contrived in the end. One trigger and Marissa just unravels the entire plot from her own memory. It felt cheap how quickly it was resolved after such an elaborate setup. The Dead Lifeguard came close to really standing out from the pack, but it fell short in the end. I still enjoyed it, but I wish it had been better.
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 Dead Lifeguard is ranked 41st of 79 in the overall Fear Street series and 8th of 13 among the Fear Street Super Chillers, placing it in the middle tiers of both series. 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.
I really liked this one. It reminded me a lot of the movie CLue, and I say that endearingly. But its big reveal at the end for Lindsay was a head-scratcher that felt cheap. I didn’t buy it.
I loved the multiple point-of-views and trying to figure out who Mouse was. May-Ann and Arnie were a little too obvious, which made me think Spencer was the one to watch. I’m not mad that I was right. I just wanted a better twist for Lindsay’s character.
The multiple point-of-view characters juggled here was a lot for a book that was under 200 pages. But it worked. It had me invested in Lindsay from the jump, empathizing with Danny’s impossible task of peacekeeping, and I could hear Mouse’s voice reading those chapters. Easily the best thing about this book.
Scare Factor: 2/2
Lindsay’s story was freaky; not trusting your own memories and having your sense of reality questioned through her point of view was a trip. Even if I was disappointed by the ending, it was a scary premise that kept me engaged.
I think what really doesn’t work for me is the use of mental illness to explain utterly bizarre behavior. Maybe there are cases in real life that mirror what happened to Marissa/Lindsay, but I doubt it. Otherwise, the setup felt fresh compared to the other books in this series. I’m only docking points for the uninspired ending.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #13: The Secret Bedroom
COMING IN JULY 2021
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
D.E. Athkins’ Mirror, Mirror.