I had initially planned on skipping The Surprise Party and just sticking to the paranormal-themed Fear Street books for reading, but I changed my mind. I’m gonna read them, even if it won’t be in order. I thought The Surprise Party was really good. It was certainly would have made for a better launch to the series than The New Girl had been. I would consider it more of a crime thriller than a horror story, but it kept me engaged and guessing right up until the end. There was a large cast of characters, but Stine did a good job at making them feel distinct and believable. I appreciated the complexity and layering of the plot, as well as the themes of guilt and trauma. The ultimate villain had a clear and disturbing motive, which is often not the case with these books. All of this made some of the more convoluted parts forgivable. There were definitely a few moments where certain characters made choices that did not add up, even after the big mystery was resolved. I also liked how the early books in this series had lots of character crossover. Even though I hated The New Girl, I liked the sense of all these isolated mysteries happening around one another. The books definitely didn’t maintain too much of this beyond the early entries. All of this is to say that The Surprise Party surprised me. I enjoyed reading it, and I thought it was one of the better Fear Street books I’ve read.
Observations & Spoilers
The Surprise Party opens up with a cryptic chapter where an unnamed narrator describes killing somebody in order to get a girl. We don’t know who he is, but he appears to show no remorse. Cut to one year later, Meg is out riding her bike with her boyfriend Tony and best friend Shannon. They find out that their friend Ellen is coming back to town to visit. Meg decides they need to throw her a surprise party. Ellen had moved away after her boyfriend Evan was killed in the Fear Street woods. Evan was Shanon’s older brother and Tony’s best friend. Shannon doesn’t like to talk about her brother’s death, and Tony has been incredibly moody ever since the incident. Neither of them seems enthused about Meg’s party idea, but Meg is stubborn and sets her mind on it. She wants to welcome back their friend and feels strongly that this is the best way to do it.
That night Meg gets a threatening phone call warning her that she can’t have her party. Word had already spread around school apparently. Tony got a threatening call, too. Tony seems shaken by this, and questions if it’s still a good idea to have the party. Meg doubles down; she’s now determined to have it in spite of the threats. And they keep coming. Someone cut up all of the invitations she made during study hall. She suspects it might be Shannon, who was sitting right behind her. Shannon claims she had been in the library but Tony never saw her leave. Then she and Tony both get threatening letters in their lockers. She knows it has to be someone in school, who could get that close. This was where I made a very accurate guess as to who it was making the threats, and I’m grateful that the twists in this story went much deeper than that.
Meg made a suspect list and put down three names. The first is Brian, Meg’s weird cousin. Brian had been the one to find Evan’s body in the woods that day. On top of that, Brian is socially awkward and super into Wizards & Dungeons, which is the Shadyside version of D&D. Way to show your prejudice, Meg. Next on the list is Shannon. Shannon had not been enthusiastic about the party, and she’d had the opportunity to destroy the invites and place the letters. What Meg can’t figure out is why Shannon would do it. Last on the suspect list is Ellen herself. Meg can’t help but wonder if Ellen got wind of the surprise party on her behalf and decided to shut it down. She decides to give Ellen a call and catch up, but she feels like Ellen is putting on a front about things being all well and good. So it has to be one of those three, right?
Tony thinks he was followed home from work the next night, and he thinks its related to the party. He wants Meg to call it off, no party is worth the risk. Meg sees a mystery that needs to be unraveled. Someone is trying really hard to get her to cancel the party. Now she wants to see it through to figure it all out. Tony mocks her for being a regular Nancy Drew and breaks up with her over the phone. Meg is hurt but writes it off as Tony being Tony. He usually cools off after af ew days. After getting advice from Lisa, she decides to really awkwardly confront Shannon so that she can eliminate her as a suspect. Shannon takes it really badly and storms out of the cafeteria. Meg goes over to her house that night and begs forgiveness. I just want to say here that I appreciated Meg for doing this. It was a small thing that showed Meg was more than just her primary “stubborn” personality trait. In a series that isn’t known for character complexity, this was a standout.
It turns out Shanon had weird feelings about the party because her murdered brother had been dating Ellen. There’s no ill will, but Shanon has successfully avoided talking about anything related to her brother for a whole year. The two girls comment on the picture of Even that his parents put out, one of him with slicked-back hair wearing a suit and a fake smile. It’s not the wild Evan they remember. He once gave his best friend Tony several stitches when they got into an argument. Shannon and Meg make up and fill each other in all the shit that’s been happening. She mentions that her half-brother Mike, who looks freakishly like Evan, would be in town that weekend too. Shanon agrees to help Meg plan the party and even lends her thoughts on who might be the caller. Of course, she suspects Brian, too. If you’ve read any of these books, you know that it’s never the obvious suspect. We wouldn’t read them if it was.
Meg is almost run down by a car after leaving Shanon’s house. We get a brief point-of-view chapter from the driver and we learn a few new things about the one who is trying to stop the party. It’s definitely a dude, he only wanted to scare Meg but not kill her, and he had been borrowing his cousin’s car. Meg was rattled by the near-miss, but not enough to call the party off. She tries to work things out with Tony, but when she goes to his house she only finds his alcoholic father there. Tony had left the house earlier with Brian to go play Wizards and Dungeons in the Fear Street woods. Meg finds this odd since Tony has never played the game or been friends with Brian. Clearly is something is going on here, but I’m gonna be gay about it and assume they were hooking up. What better place to be gay than in the woods?
Meg is awakened that night by a phone call from Tony’s dad. Apparently Tony and Brian had not come back yet. Meg and her father go to the woods to help search. The police are there, as are Meg’s aunt and uncle. She leads the way because she had been to Brian’s Wizards & Dungeons hangout spot once. Of course, Meg gets separated from the group and attacked by a shadowy stranger who warns her about the party. She escapes but falls down a ravine where she finds Brian. Brian is still alive but looks like he’s been beaten up. Tony finds her shortly after, and the rest of the search party is close behind. The story is that Brian and Tony got lost and separated leaving the woods, and Brian had fallen down the ravine. Brian isn’t coherent enough to corroborate or dispute this account. Meg and Tony make up for the argument earlier, but now it is apparent to everyone except Meg that Tony is the one who’s been making the threats.
Meg goes to see Brian the next day. He looks terrible, but he tells her that he is almost a level four wizard. He wants to say more, but he can’t until he has the powers. He tells her he was the one who called her, but then says he hung up before she answered. He tells Meg to be careful of the warrior. Meg takes his cryptic warning as a confusing threat. She runs into Ellen as she is leaving, and the two exchange awkward pleasantries. This continues a few days later when Ellen, Meg, and Shanon get together and it turns out to be incredibly awkward for all parties involved. Meg starts to wonder if the party is a terrible idea. Ellen has clearly changed, and she might hate it. But they end up sticking with the plan. I mean, if you haven’t let death threats stop you, the potential for embarrassing your former best friend probably isn’t going to deter you.
We get a point of view chapter from Tony that reveals he is the one who made the threats. He is also the one who killed Evan, but no one can ever know that. Even was his best friend, and he didn’t mean to do it. But maybe he did mean to do it? Tony seems like a man in desperate need of therapy, but this was 1989 and going to therapy was more of a threat than an asset. Tony thinks that Meg may have figured it out after talking with Brian. He had been Brian up in the woods in order to keep him from talking, which is some wildly flawed logic. Why would you stage an event that gets the police involved when you are trying to evade attention? I get that Tony isn’t in the best headspace, but that whole scene just doesn’t make any sense in retrospect.
Anyway, Tony is now worried he’ll have to kill Meg. He even comes really close to doing it. But then he finds that Meg still does not suspect him. Nancy Drew she is not. So they end up going through with the surprise party. They got to have it in an old mansion on Fear Street that Meg’s dad had access to. It was all newly renovated. Tony goes but he’s being weird. Ellen looks mortified at first but then thanks Meg for putting it all together. Things are going pretty normal until Brian shows up and declares he is now a level four wizard. He uses his magic and suddenly Evan walks through the door. Tony freaks out. He pulls the gun he stole from his Dad and basically confesses to Evan’s murder in front of everyone. Then the lights go out and a gunshot is heard. When the lights come back on, Evan has been shot and Dwayne is trying to sneak away from the scene.
Did I forget to mention Dwayne before now? I suppose I did. Whatever, I’m not going back and fixing it. Dwayne had been a creep who had a big crush on Shanon and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Seriously, he seemed to really hat consent. He was the embodiment of rape culture. He sucked before he shot Tony. Now that he’s been caught, he takes Ellen hostage. Meg tries to save the day but just ends up getting taken hostage, too. He takes them into the unfinished basement where he thinks they can hide out from the cops. Ellen tells Meg what really happened with Evan one year ago, and how she worked with Brian and Mike to make Tony confess.
It turns out that Tony and Ellen had fallen for each other, even though Tony was with Meg and Ellen was with Evan. They decided to tell Evan who took it really badly. He went off into the Fear Street woods with a gun. Evan and Tony had fought over it. The gun went off and Evan was killed. Brian had been nearby playing Wizards & Dungeons with Dwayne. Brian went to go help. Tony was wracked with guilt and he made Ellen and Brian swear to secrecy. No one could know that he had been there. It would just look like an accident or a suicide. Ellen and Brian had had enough of living with the guilt and wanted out with it. But then Dwayne corrects Ellen; Tony didn’t kill Evan after all. Even had just been unconscious. He was still alive when they left the woods.
Dwayne had been playing Wizards and Dungeons with Brian, but hung back after hearing the gunshot. He witnessed the whole kerfuffle with Tony, and then saw that Evan was still breathing. Dwayne had never liked Evan because Evan had never liked Dwayne. We already knew that Dwayne has really wanted to bang Evan’s sister Shanon for a long time in spite of repeated explicit rejections. Now we find out that Evan had made it clear that he would never let Dwayne anywhere near Shanon. Dwayne saw his opportunity to get Evan out of the way and shot him again. A horrified Meg and Ellen manage to distract Dwayne and knock him unconscious with a loos pipe and getaway. There’s a somber epilogue after that about Tony surviving his wounds and getting the help he needs, and Meg swears off having any more parties.
Was it a perfect book? Absolutely not. But when the good outweighs the bad, the bad becomes a lot easier to forgive. I can forgive things like plausibility and that night scene with the ravine in the woods because The Surprise Party also gave me several things that I really appreciated. It gave us several complex and often-messy characters. It had twists within its twists and gave just the right amount of information so that it wasn’t obvious but also didn’t feel like it was made up on the spot. Lastly, it had a villain with a solid motive. It was a disgusting motive, but one that made sense. Hell, he made my skin crawl even before I knew he was the villain. Dwayne was a very believable monster. We’ve all met dudes like him who feel entitled to sex from women. He’d be a real hit on the incel message boards. Of course, I rolled my eyes at Dwayne having confessed his whole scheme at the eleventh hour. I hate that tactic. But I was almost sold on Dwayne being the right combination of arrogant and stupid enough to do just that.
It’s also not easy to pull off a plot with this many characters and make it all work as well as it did here. The Surprise Party succeeded where The Halloween Party and Cheerleaders: The New Evil completely failed. The different characters felt distinct and nuanced. They all had purpose. A lot of this was done with minor details. I want to say that Stine was maybe putting more time into these books before Fear Street and Goosebumps blew up, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. The New Girl was the first book in the series and it did a horrible job with characters and motives. I think a better way to describe Stine would be wildly inconsistent. He strikes out as often as he hits home runs, and he’s also just as likely to walk the bases with some mediocre and predictable slog. Most people never finish writing one book, let alone hundreds. At least he gives us peaks and valleys.
I have to say it was a nice change going back to one of the early books after largely reading things in some kind of numerical order. The early books did have a different feel to them. I’m not sure I can perfectly describe how. But I will be reflecting on that thought a bit more as I bounce around the different eras of Shadyside in the years to come.
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 Surprise Party is ranked 64th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series, and 37th 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 fairly complex as far as Fear Street books go, and I thought the mistaken murder/driven by guilt storyline angle was solid.
This was really well-plotted. I want to give it a perfect score. But the whole scene with Tony in the woods with Brian was a head-scratcher. Not to mention the end relying on Dwayne’s confession.
I thought the large cast worked well here. They were all distinct enough for me to not get confused. Well except for Mike because I kept forgetting who the hell Mike was.
Scare Factor: 1/2
This wasn’t particularly scary, but it was thrilling and it kept me engaged. I would just consider it more of a mystery than horror.
I felt like this avoided a lot of the common tropes and that it felt fresh. It was a stronger opening to Fear Street than The New Girl was, that’s for damn sure.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #8: Bad Moonlight
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
Christopher Pike’s Midnight Club