The Cataluna Chrinicles #3:
The Deadly Fire
© 1995 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Don Brautigam.
The Deadly Fire surprised me in that it was much more enjoyable than The Deadly Secret. It suffered from some of the same logic problems as each of the previous two books, but it managed to avoid repetition and kept things entertaining. Drag racing was the natural next step for the trilogy to take, and I think that aspect of the book worked really well. The book also features the highest body count of the trilogy, with a particularly brutal opener. I was also very relieved not to have another 1698 storyline of Catherine and William. We do finally get Catherine’s perspective for the first time since her car embodiment. Her logic and reasoning for all the murdering are threadbare at best, and so I have concluded that she’s just really stupid. The time travel mechanics are another weak point that I will elaborate on in the Spoilers. There was also a genderqueer element that I really appreciated. I would have enjoyed seeing a deeper take on that, but I don’t think a 1995 audience would have been ready for it. In the end, The Deadly Fire served its purpose in wrapping the trilogy up, and it managed to keep things interesting in doing so. It’s hard to be mad about that.
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Observations & Spoilers
The Deadly Fire opens with a prologue just like each of its predecessors. A group of teenagers find the Cataluna in the Division Street Mall parking lot. It is unattended and the keys are still in the ignition. The two boys convince the two girls to join them for a quick joy ride. Things start off normal, but then the radio switches itself on and starts blasting incredibly loud music. They try to turn it down, but it just gets louder. All four of them start to bleed from the ears as their eardrums rupture. The exact cause of their subsequent deaths was never made clear, we only know that it happened in silence. Then we finally get Catherine’s perspective about her life as a sentient car.
If you were expecting sound reasoning for all of the murders, you would be disappointed. Her primary reason is just that she likes killing. Her second reason is that she presumes William Parker also survived their crash and that any person she meets might be a possessed reincarnation of him. It strikes me as counterintuitive to murder so many people that you earn a reputation as the “Doom Car” when you are trying to not be found by the guy who is hunting you. Flying under the radar is clearly not part of her strategy.
The latest owners of the Cataluna are the McCloy family. Buddy is the youngest of three boys. His Dad is a retired racecar driver. Mom died some time ago and now Dad runs a repair shop. His oldest brother Stan is his hero and follows in their Dad’s footsteps. Buddy does not like his middle brother, Sean. Dad recently acquired the Cataluna and they have plans to race it. They don’t believe the rumors about its reputation as the “Doom Car.” They get an opening when a driver cancels on a race, and Stan takes to the driver’s seat. Things are going well, and he’s even winning, when Catherine decides it’s time to fuck shit up. He ends up crashing into the stands, which causes powerlines to fall. Stan and several members of the crowd are electrocuted. The care is left undamaged.
Weeks later, Buddy is still reeling from the death of his favorite brother. Their Dad has forbidden Sean and Buddy from using the Cataluna. Buddy’s girlfriend Sara ditches him for the second time in a single week. She seems a lot less interested in him now that he’s sad about his dead brother. Buddy meets his really pretty new neighbor Merisol, her brother died recently too. She wants to take a ride in the Cataluna, because why wouldn’t Buddy want to take a spin in the car that electrocuted his bother a few weeks ago? They are interrupted by Buddy’s bro squad arriving to take Buddy to a party.
Buddy finds Sara at the party flirting with a new guy named Will. Will turns out to be a car guy as well, and Sara clearly has a type. Will ends up challenging Buddy to a drag race; his Chevelle to Buddy’s Cataluna. Sara implies that Buddy needs to win the race if he intends to stay her boyfriend. No one seems to think twice about pressuring a kid to race in the car that just killed his brother two weeks earlier. So a few nights later, Buddy sneaks out to race the Cataluna along Old Mill Road.
When Catherine sees Will, she knows immediately that it must be the reincarnation of William Parker. The giveaways were his name and his pasty white skin. She resolves to kill him immediately. The drag race starts even though there are no drag queens in sight. Buddy starts hearing Catherine and feeling her voice in his head. She urges him to nudge Will’s car off the road and cause him to crash. It would certainly help him get Sara back. Buddy’s about to do it when the cops show up. He gets pulled over and it turns out one of them is his Dad’s friend. They let Buddy off with a warning because his brother just died. Will and his Chevelle is nowhere to be seen.
A few days later, Buddy ends up spending an afternoon with Marisol. They walk around the mall and really bond. It feels nice for Buddy to actually feel listened to. Then they run into Sara on a date with Will at Pete’s Pizza. Buddy smashes the glass window with his fist and creates a cringeworthy scene. He challenges Will to a rematch race on the notoriously twisted River Road before storming off. Buddy’s brother Sean finds out about the first race and tells Buddy to never take the car again. Sean then goes the extra step of hiding the Cataluna. When finds out, he ends up beating the shit out of Sean until he hands over the keys. Sean relents and tells him where the car is hidden.
Buddy becomes aware of how crazy he had been acting and apologizes to Sean. He even considers not going to the race, but then decides that winning Sara back is worth risking death (it’s not). He drives to the spot on River Road. Marisol is there and tries to get Buddy not to go through with the race. She knows that something bad is going to happen. Buddy shrugs her off. Will proposes they flip a coin to see who should drive which car. Buddy agrees to it. Sara taunts Buddy obnoxiously. Will wins the coin toss to drive the Cataluna, so Buddy climbs into the Chevelle and the race is off.
As you might expect, Catherine sees this as her opportunity to kill her pasty white seventeenth-century nemesis. The race starts and Catherine does her murder thing. First, she taunts Will because she finally has him where she can kill him. Will plays confused and claims to not know what she is talking about, but Catherine will have none of it. She causes Will to clip Buddy in the Chevelle on a hairpin turn, which causes both cars to lose control. Buddy is thrown clear from the Chevelle and relatively uninjured. He runs to the Cataluna to try and pull Will from the wreck, even though he can see that Will is already dead.
Sara arrives with the other spectators and helps Buddy get Will out of the Cataluna. She apologizes for how crazy she’d been. Buddy tries to tell her it was the car, and that they were all acting crazy. He encourages her to leave before the police arrive, but she chooses to stay with him. As they are having their tender moment, Marisol emerges from the crowd and jumps into the driver’s seat of the Cataluna. Then we shift to Marisol’s perspective.
It takes Catherine a really long time to figure out that she fucked up. The Will she killed was just a random kid named Will who drove a sports car. When the real William Parker died, he was reincarnated as a 16-year-old girl named Marisol. Or maybe he came to possess the already-existing girl’s body? Did she just materialize one day in teenage form? None of this will ever be explained, but we can conclude that William Parker has been living in a teenage girl’s body for several years at this point. And Marisol has a plan to finally defeat Catherine.
You see, back when Will had gone to Gwendoline’s cottage, he had found the owner’s manual for the Cataluna and taken it. Even though he did not understand it at the time, he had read over it many times and memorized it. What a convenient thing to have happened! Anyway, Marisol keeps the evil and stupid Catherine talking while getting the car’s speed up to over 100 miles per hour. Marisol then slams the car into reverse. This has the effect of simultaneously throwing them back to the seventeenth century and into their old bodies. Because science.
Catherine is happy to have a body again, and so rushes to flee from William. But William has more plans. He grabs an axe or something (I don’t remember specifically) and starts destroying the car. All of the ghosts of the Cataluna’s victims begin to emerge. We see Stan and Will. We can presume the kids whose eardrums exploded are in there too, along with the hit-and-run victims from The Dark Secret and the eternally obsessed Bryan from The Evil Moon. They surround Catherine and hold her down while William continues chopping away at the car.
Finally, William destroys the blood-red crescent moon insignia on the car, and Catherine disintegrates. You see, William had reasoned out that if he destroyed the Cataluna in the past, then it would never have existed in the first place. The math on this does not hold up since the car is originally from the future and was brought to the past. He would have to destroy the car before Gwendoline took it into the past to accomplish this. But whatever I’m tired and I wasn’t that bothered by it. We’re talking about the scientific implausibilities of a plot involving a time-traveling car that’s possessed by a seventeenth-century witch. I’m willing to let things slide here and there.
William wakes up in a field. His brother and father are still alive. They give him the news that his mother just gave birth to a new sister. He goes to meet her and sees something that looks like a little red crescent moon on her forehead. And they all lived happily ever after.
What I wouldn’t give to read the story about a Puritan boy from 1698 waking up in a teenage girl’s body circa 1995. The greatest sin of this trilogy is that it implied but did not give us that narrative. I could also go for a sequel where seventeenth-century William vaguely recollects how much more fulfilled he felt living as a woman in his alternate timeline. All of this is to say that I get so little queer subtext in these books that I will latch onto the smallest hints when they show up. I think I am also grateful that Stine did not explore this particular narrative, as I do not think it would have aged well.
William having found and read the owner’s manual for the Cataluna in Gwendoline’s cabin was incredibly contrived, but it didn’t need to be. Actually, this could have fixed a major Book Two problem, too. Instead of Marisol randomly dropping this knowledge on us in the last few pages of the third book, we could have had Will reading and puzzling over the manual throughout book two. It would have read like and alien artifact to him, and it could have given us better insight into how the car itself was made. More importantly, it would have given the 1698 storyline something interesting instead of the snoozefest that it was.
In the end, the biggest letdown of the whole trilogy for me was the one-dimensional portrayal of Catherine. She had the origin story of a complex villain but went full Rita Repulsa instead. It was the same problem I had with the Evil in the Cheerleaders books. Both are just hellbent on being evil for the sake of being evil to the point where it just gets silly. Stine could have made it so that Catherine’s early victims were accidental. It would be perfectly reasonable for Catherine to be terrified and confused about suddenly having a car for a body. The whole trilogy would have been so much better if Catherine simply had more nuance.
Well, that’s a wrap. I’m tired and need to go to bed. These have been fun to revisit. Now I only have one more of the original Fear Street trilogies to go before I’ve read them all. Fear Park will be the final one.
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
The drag racing was a natural course to take with this story. It doesn’t hold up to any sort of science, but it was consistently engaging. It was a much-needed improvement on the second book. The actual conclusion left a bit to be desired, though.
William showed up as Marisol mostly worked. It was the instruction manual that felt contrived. That and Catherine being a bit of an idiot lead to all of her moves being predictable.
I almost gave this full credit because I liked Buddy, and William was given much more depth. I even loved hating Sara for being toxic as fuck to Buddy. But Catherine being so one-dimensional and bad a planning was pretty egregious for a titular villain character.
I think the book delivers a mostly satisfying ending while giving us some of the trilogy’s most brutal kills. I particularly appreciated that the ending didn’t feel sudden and rushed, as Stine is prone to doing.
Not the most original, but it still felt fresh compared to the other books in the trilogy. It benefited from having a more straightforward storyline.
Based on GoodReads aggregate ratings, The Deadly Fire is ranked
23rd of 79 in the overall Fear Street series
& The Cataluna Chronicles is ranked 6th of 6 among the Fear Street Trilogies.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #21: The Dare
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
RL Stine’s The Beast 2