The Stepsister was a twisted one. I figured out the big plot twist about a third of the way in, but I still enjoyed seeing it unravel. I think part of that is just me getting better at Stine’s particular use of misdirection in these books. Regardless, this was a solid psychological horror story. Emily was made to feel like she was losing her mind piece by piece. Looking back after finishing the book, this was probably the most unsettling bit of the whole book. There’s also a lot of high school drama and some believable (but also frustrating) clueless parenting. Even when I didn’t like the characters, they were all (mostly) very believable. I had a few issues with how the actual ending unfolded, but overall this was one of the better Fear Street books. I’m very curious to see how this will be brought back as a sequel.
Observations & Spoilers
The Stepsister opens with Emily and Nancy getting ready to welcome their new stepsister and stepbrother into their house. Their own father died several years earlier in a freak boating accident. They aren’t thrilled about their new stepfather, who is the 90s dad equivalent of a basic bro, but Emily is excited about sharing a room with her new stepsister, Jessie. Only things don’t get off to a good start. Jessie hates Emily’s dog (R.L. Stine’s way of saying “this dog will be dead before the book ends”) and accidentally tears the head off of Emily’s stuffed bear. Then it all goes downhill from there.
What I did really like about this book is that it could be re-written from Jesse’s perspective and still be a horror story in its own right. Jessie gets blamed for all kinds of things going wrong in Emily’s life. Emily’s term paper getting deleted, putting peroxide in Emily’s shampoo, and murdering Emily’s dog… just to name a few. All of it becomes even more believable when Nancy tells Emily that Jessie sees a psychiatrist twice a week! I mean, we would all be better adjusted if we went to therapy, but this is the 90s and the stigma on seeking care for mental health is unfortunately still true. So when Emily sneaks a peek into Jessie’s journal, she is disturbed to find out that Jessie was a suspect in her best friend’s death back at her old school. She becomes convinced that Jessie is crazy and may even want to kill her.
I first suspected that it was the older sister Nancy when she kept dropping subtle observations that implicated Jessie. While Nancy was careful to never overplay her hand, she began playing Jessie and Emily off one another like a mad conductor from the second chapter. You see, Emily had been with their father when he died in the boating accident. Then years later, Emily started dating Nancy’s old boyfriend Josh. Nancy had played it cool through all of this, but secretly she blamed her sister Emily for all of this. Emily had taken from her the only men she had ever loved. When Jessie moved in, Nancy exploited the natural friction between the two girls to exact her revenge. And she would have gotten away with it, too, if she hadn’t snapped and tried to murder Emily outright on their family camping trip.
Emily and Nancy’s mother was the most frustrating kind of peacekeeper. She just wanted everyone to get along but didn’t want to do any of the hard work to make that happen. Their new stepdad was equal parts strict and clueless. I loved how he bragged about never reading books. As frustrating as they were, they were very believable in this 90s suburban setting. As tensions start boiling over, the parents decide to force a family camping trip. This seems especially clueless given how Emily and Nancy’s father died while on a similar trip. But the kids have no choice but to go. It’s in this setting that Nancy finally loses her cool. She knocks Emily into a ditch, breaks her arm, and confesses to everything. You’ve gotta love those bad guy “here’s how I did it” info dumps.
Emily did not catch on until it was almost too late. She found herself trapped with a broken arm in a grave Nancy had dug for her. Luckily Jessie saw what was happening and took Nancy out. In a twist of fate, Emily ends up being rescued by the stepsister she thought was trying to murder her. I had issues with how Nancy went from a cool, calculated manipulator to blowing her own cover. I can see how the camping trip might have been a trigger to put her over the edge, but it didn’t seem like enough by itself to cause her to lose her cool. That being said, this is more of a nit-picking critique because I wasn’t that bothered by it. Nancy’s cool demeanor was clearly an act from the jump. What we were seeing at the end was closer to who she really was than anything we had seen prior.
As convoluted as Nancy’s logic might have been, her motives were very clear. That is ultimately what made this work for me in the end. My biggest critique of Stine’s work is that his antagonists too often have very vague and confusing motives. What Nancy hoped to gain from killing her sister isn’t important. What matters is that she projected the blame for all of her grief onto Emily. Emily was the sole cause of everything bad that had ever happened to her. Therefore, Emily needed to be taken care of by any means necessary. Her detachment from reality seems to have been gradual. It started as payback that gave Nancy a satisfying rush, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to calm her rage towards her younger sister. I just wish there was a clearer thing that Emily had done that finally pushed Nancy to go in for the kill.
I really appreciated the psychological horror aspects of The Stepsister. The way that Nancy gaslit Emily, and made her think that she was the only one who believed her about Jessie. The way that Jessie was actually living a horror story of her own, that Emily was the villain of, gave it a depth I wasn’t expecting. There’s also a lot of parallels between this and the Broken Hearts. Comparing Nancy to Rachel, the unhinged sister from that book, Nancy is a far more impressive villain. Rachel may have killed more people, but she was messier and descended into a desperate parody by the end. Nancy’s methodical patience, the way she manipulates and plays the long game, makes her more believable and unsettling. Which I guess is my way of saying; the body count isn’t everything.
There were a lot of characters in this book. I didn’t even talk about the stepbrother Rich, who was an occasional but ultimately non-threatening suspect. I guess I had figured out it was Nancy by the time light was cast on him as a possibility. I did find it odd that he was a frequent Stephen King reader throughout the book but makes a switch to Hardy Boys books after that. Who goes from Stephen King to the Hardy Boys? Is that a thing? I guess a blog writer in his mid-thirties who reads Goosebumps books shouldn’t be one to talk, so I won’t belabor the point. All in all, aside from the occasional odd choice, The Stepsister was one of the better Fear Street books.
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 Stepsister is ranked 25th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series and 8th of 49 Fear Street books in the main series, placing it in the middle-high and top tiers respectively. 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.
Solid concept. Stine uses natural suspicions to weave a complex psychological thriller.
Nancy went from full control to full unhinged, and it felt like her final plan was rushed after everything else was so methodically planned. It’s the one blight on an otherwise solidly executed book.
There was a good range of characters. Even the ones I didn’t like (looking at you, stepdad) felt very true. We all know that person who brags about not reading books.
Scare Factor: 2/2
Living with someone who is unhinged can be really unsettling. The psychological terror that Nancy unleashed was pretty intense when you step back and think about it.
This is a solid psychological horror story, but it was nothing strikingly original (even among other Fear Street books)
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #10: Ski Weekend
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
Richie Tankersley Cusick’s The Locker.