The Midnight Club
by Christopher Pike
The Midnight Club marks the first time I’ve cried while reading a Christopher Pike book. I was expecting it to be sad based on the premise, but I didn’t expect to be so moved by it. It reminded me of the best parts of Road to Nowhere. The whole concept of Rotterham House seemed a bit fantastical, but not in a bad way. It was fantastical in a way that elevated the story and fit the underlying spiritual themes. I am sure similar places exist, but I don’t think they’re in castles by the sea where dying teenagers live apart from their families. I’m hardly familiar enough with hospice care for young people to know one way or the other, but I don’t think it matters in the context of this story. Ilonka was a strong central character in a cast of strong characters. I appreciated the journey she was on. The spiritual elements of the book had a similar ring to what Pike espoused in Remember Me 2, but this time they were far more subtle. Where the latter was sanctimonious and preachy, The Midnight Club felt understated and inviting. The stories that the kids told each other at their midnight meetings by the fireplace spoke to the various ways each of them was confronting death. Pike has a reputation for writing some pretty twisted shit, and I honestly love that about his books. That’s why I was genuinely surprised by the sweet moments in this one. I bumped this up on my list because of the coming Mike Flanagan adaptation, and I’m glad that I did. I’m excited to see what one of my favorite directors does with one of my now-favorite author’s books.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Recap & Observations:
Ilonka is a patient at Rotterham Home, which is a hospice for young people. Rotterham is an old mansion along the coast in the Pacific Northwest. Young people who have no chance of surviving their illness go there to die in peace and comfort. Ilonka shares a room with Anya, who is wheelchair-bound and dying of bone cancer. Then there’s Kevin, Ilonka’s crush. He’s dying of leukemia. Ilonka’s cheerful and talkative friend Spencer is dying of a brain tumor. He’s the only one of them who doesn’t look sick. Then there’s Sandra, she’s kinda basic and just along for the ride. Every night at midnight, the five of them get together and tell stories by the fireplace. They call themselves the Midnight Club.
In contrast with his playful demeanor, Spencer always tells violent rage-filled stories. They are the sort of stories that would have been huge red flags in a high school English class. They read differently in the context of the Midnight Club. The stories aren’t meant for anyone except for the five of them. They begin each meeting with a simple ritual in which they say: I belong to you, and you belong to me. It had been Ilonka’s added touch to their gathering. On our first night with the club, Spencer tells a story about a sniper on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the actual Paris shootings of 2017. Anya interrupts him several times to question the plausibility of the scenario. We get the sense that this is how it typically goes. There’s an endearing element to their bickering that feels familial. Those who we love most often throw the harshest shade.
Anya is the sort of person who sees through most people’s bullshit. She can come across as cold and harsh, but Ilonka recognizes there is way more to her than that. Anya also figures out that Ilonka has a crush on Kevin even before Ilonka does, and she is the only one who knows that Ilonka wears a wig. Anya’s stories are always the darkest. She follows Spencer’s story with one about a girl who lived in a conservative religious household and meets the devil one night. The devil grants her wish to have it all; to be both the bad and good versions of herself. She is split in two. Each of them sees and feels all of the experiences of the other. The good girl stays home and goes to church while her other half goes to Hollywood in pursuit of sex, drugs, and vice. The setup is fun at first until the party half develops an addiction and things get messy. It ends with the girls trying to kill one another and only one of them surviving. I found the story to be trippy and satisfying.
Ilonka goes next. She lets it slip that her stories are memories of her past lives. This story takes place before recorded time, many thousands of years ago. Her name had been Delius and she had a best friend named Shradha. Delius had become close with Shradha’s daughter, Mage. Mage was to spend the weekend with Delius when she had a big fight with her mother. She ran away and was murdered on the road. While Shradha was out looking for her daughter, Delius had come by to pack up Mage’s belongings for the coming weekend. She was completely unaware of what had gone down between Mage and Shradha. When Shradha came come after learning of her daughter’s death and saw that her daughter’s things were missing, she took it as a sign that her daughter’s spirit had come and taken them. She was later devastated when Delius told her the truth and their friendship never recovered. Ilonka doesn’t know how she knows this for sure, but she is certain that Kevin had been Shradha in this past life. Which means her crush is much deeper than your typical crush.
Kevin goes next. Kevin is a former athlete, a brilliant painter, and everyone’s favorite storyteller. He also has a girlfriend from back home who comes to visit, which becomes a source of resentment for Ilonka. Kevin’s story is called “The Magic Mirror.” It also takes place in Paris. It’s about a muse named Herme who inspired some of the greatest painters of the Renaissance who now roams the halls of the Lourve dreaming of his glory days. Herme meets and falls in love with an American tourist named Theresa. After days of avoiding her questions, Herme prays to be freed from the museum so that he might see the world. He is willing to forsake his eternal life for this. His prayer is granted. Leaving the museum, Herme is filled with love and hope for the future. Kevin stops the story there because his medication dries him out. He will continue at the next night’s meeting. Before closing things off for the night, the four young adults make a pact; the first one of them who dies needs to send a message to the rest of them.
The next day Ilonka goes to the hospital for new scans. She has been taking new herbal supplements and can feel that her tumors are shrinking. Dr. White, the man who runs the hospice, is reluctant but accommodates Ilonka’s wishes. He tries to caution her that there is very little hope for someone with her diagnosis, but she can’t be convinced. Driving to the hospital is very painful and it takes a lot out of her. Dr. White tells her that she reminds him of his daughter, who had died when she was eighteen. Ilonka isn’t sure how to take it. She’s in pain and feeling irritable when she returns to the hospice after her scans; she won’t know her results for at least another day. When she sees Kevin’s girlfriend Kathy waiting in the lobby, Ilonka informs the girl that Kevin is dying just like the rest of them. Ilonka realizes immediately how mean this was and immediately regrets it, but she couldn’t stop herself.
Back in their room, Ilonka interrupts Spencer and Anya having a conversation. Spencer excuses himself and leaves. Anya tells Ilonka about how she fucked things up with her one good boyfriend, Bill. She cheated on him with someone she didn’t even like or find attractive, and she had done it in a manner that she knew would get her caught. It hadn’t been because she wanted to hurt Bill, but Anya had hated herself and didn’t think she deserved him. Ilonka tries in vain to convince Anya to call Bill and clear her conscience. Anya is not receptive to the idea. Ilonka then sleeps the rest of the day and barely wakes in time for Midnight Club. Spencer has wine that he bought through the mail. He switches Ilnoka’s glass at the last minute. Sandra, the one girl in the midnight club gets drunk enough to want to tell a story for the first time. It turns out to be a dull account about the first time she had sex. I guess every crew’s got someone basic.
Anya decides not to tell a story because she doesn’t have the energy. Spencer tells another violent story about a formerly popular girl who killed some people in a car crash. With her reputation ruined, she sets her sights on a social outcast who wants to be a magician. She helps him prepare his magic act for the talent show, then sabotages him. He is humiliated in front of the school. She then talks him into following through with her plan to get revenge on the school that made her an outcast. Together they trap everyone inside the school gymnasium and burn it down. Realizing he had been played all along, the boy keeps the girl in his magician stage act until one day saws her in half on stage. Again, if Spencer were a student in anyone’s high school English class and turned in something like this, there would be a serious cause for concern. He is someone with a lot of pent-up rage, but the reason for this remains to be seen.
Ilonka tells another past life story. This one is about two lovers from different castes in ancient India who were forbidden from seeing each other. They go their separate ways but reunite once more when they are much older and realize the error of their ways. The same thing happens to their daughter, and the father allows her to take a husband from a lower caste and train him in all the proper rituals. But then the father dies before he can show the boy the ropes. As a result, when the young couple gets pregnant, their secret is revealed. Their child goes on to become the one known as The Master, who Ilonka encounters many times throughout her various lives. She seems to have an important lesson to learn, one that will take her many lives before she finally does. If you have read Remember Me 2, there is a whole lot of this Master character. The whole thing was very sanctimonious and preachy. I was grateful that the character was very subdued in this book. Even if I did roll my eyes once or twice.
Kevin continues his story of Veronica and Herme. They get successful with Herme working as a portrait artist, but he feels his passion for it slipping away. They move to New York, but they did not like the people they were becoming. Veronica ends up cheating. Herme leaves and almost commits suicide but then decides not to. Kevin once again cannot finish and promises to finish the following night. Anya nearly begs Kevin to finish it, but he simply can’t. Ilonka finds herself struggling to stay awake, even though she had slept most of the day. The Midnight Club adjourns, and Kevin walks Anya to her room. Even though she is falling asleep on her feet, she makes a point to apologize to Kevin for what she did to Kathy earlier. Kevin forgives her and says that he should have told Kathy the truth of it much sooner. Ilonka says she doesn’t deserve his kindness.
When they get to Ilonka’s room, Anya and Spencer are there and acting strangely. Ilonka is too tired to say anything about it. She falls asleep immediately, though she remembers Anya kissing her on the cheek and whispering to her: she knows that Kevin is a part of Anya’s past life memories. When Ilonka wakes up the next morning, Anya is dead. She had died sometime in the night. She suspects that Anya killed herself, but Dr. White says a drug overdose wouldn’t have fit the timeframe. Since this is a hospice, they’re going to investigate. But Ilonka notices that someone came and took all of Anya’s things from the room. Just like in Ilonka’s story. Was it Anya’s spirit? Was she giving them all a sign from beyond the grave?
Later that day, word gets around that someone at the hospice had been misdiagnosed. Ilonka was expecting results from her scan that day, and she knows that it must be her. She and Kevin take a walk by the ocean and profess their love for one another. And they each have picked up on the fact that the stories they tell are really about each other. When they go back inside, they find out that the misdiagnosis was for Sandra. This makes sense given that Sandra never really seemed to belong in the Midnight Club. But Ilonka is devastated by the news. She confronts Dr. White who tells her that her scans revealed the tumors had grown. Ilonka wanders until she finds herself in the morgue looking down at Anya’s body. Kevin finds her and brings her back to her room. Dr. White gives her a shot and she sleeps.
Kevin is there with her when she wakes up. They are finally completely honest with one another. She asks him to tell her the end of his story, and so he does. Herme moved out west and found work as a forest ranger. He suffered a bad fall when helping rescue a family during a fire, and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. So he decided to become a doctor. Even though he was growing older, he pushed himself through it. He was working at a free clinic in LA when an old homeless woman is brought in. She is a washed-up alcoholic dying of pneumonia. Herme recognizes immediately that it is Veronica. She doesn’t recognize Herme until he feels inspired to paint again for the first time since they lived in New York. He goes home and paints her exactly as he remembered her. When she sees the portrait, the titular “magic mirror,” she is moved to tears. She dies later that night finally being able to see herself the way Herme saw her. Kevin wants Ilonka to see herself the way he sees her.
Ilonka and Kevin though they are both weak and in pain, they make love. They spend the night sleeping next to each other. They wake up together and it’s beautiful. Kevin dies later that day. Ilonka spreads his ashes according to his wishes to return to the sea. Ilonka seeks out Spencer, who is now bedridden and looking sicker than he ever had before. He confesses to helping Anya die. Her pain from the bone cancer had grown too great. She had Spencer drug Ilonka so that he could smother Anya while she slept. Anya had asked Spencer to do it because she knew he was the only one who could. Spencer opens up more and tells Anya he’s not dying of a brain tumor. He’s dying of AIDS. He feels guilty for getting the disease and killing his boyfriend. He and Ilonka have a really sweet conversation. Ilonka promises Spencer that she will go to hell with him if that’s where they send him. Because they belong to each other.
Spencer dies shortly after the conversation, and by that point, Ilnoka is too weak to go see him. She wakes up one morning and hears a bird singing and accepts that it’s finally her time as well. We get an epilogue of a woman and man in space getting ready to leave earth. It’s Ilonka and Kevin in a new life, having finally learned the lesson of the last one. Ilonka had to learn that she couldn’t fix everything; that some things were beyond her control; that the world was bigger than her and her present circumstances; that she is a person worthy of love and forgiveness. I appreciated the complexity and heartfelt sentiment in this. More than anything, The Midnight Club made me appreciate Christopher Pike’s versatility. I love that he can turn out a fucked-all-the-way-up book like Monster but can still write something as touching as this.
I wasn’t expecting to be as moved by this story as I was. I think what gave it an edge for me was Spencer’s story. I just hadn’t expected it. I’m so used to gay characters just not existing in these books. Not only did Spencer exist, but he was done surprisingly well. Yes, he died, but that’s hardly a stand-out in a book where every one of the main four characters dies. It gave a whole different context to his rage. Here he was dying from an incurable disease and he still had to silence who he was. Ilonka telling him that she would go to hell with him is what allyship looks like. It was such an unexpected touch included at the end. And that’s no small part of what made The Midnight Club one of my favorite Christopher Pike books to date.
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), Intent (does it succeed at what it’s trying to be?), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes).
The concept of this was solid and, in the end, very beautiful. This was Pike at his best.
I felt like I was on a journey with Ilonka, and I felt and understood her each step of the way. I appreciated that it was never too heavy-handed, and avoided the pitfalls of other books with similar themes.
The characters all felt alive and unique. Each of them surprised me in different ways. Spencer’s storyline surprised me the most, in part because of how well it was handled for the time it was written in.
It’s not horror in the way that Pike’s books typically are, but its death-centric theme is gutting. The fear of death on these pages, and the attempts to cope, are palpable. I also think the book fully succeeds at being what Pike intended to be, which is something more than horror.
It sounds like a simple premise, and it is, but it’s also thematically complex. I don’t know if I’ve seen or read anything else quite like it.
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