Fear Street #24: The Thrill Club
It is worth noting right off the bat that this is the one book in the main Fear Street series that is confirmed to have been ghostwritten. I’m no forensic expert in writing styles, but the narrative voice definitely felt different than the plethora of Stine’s books that I have read. All of that aside, The Thrill Club was a mixed bag. There were a few too many characters for how short the book was; which makes me think it would have been a better fit for the Super Chiller spin-offs. The best parts of it reminded me of Christopher Pike’s stronger books. There was an interesting idea at its core, but it was ultimately bogged down by its very dated notions around race. The othering of indigenous cultures in American media is hardly a rare phenomenon, and this was especially true in 1994. Hell, that was pretty much the entire basis of the beloved Indiana Jones franchise. The Thrill Club might not be as egregious as Temple of Doom, but it was still a bad look and it did not age well. Even worse was the book’s treatment of the first black character to grace the cover of a Fear Street book. I’ll save the spoilers for below the jump, but I doubt it will surprise anyone who pays even the tiniest bit of attention to these things. All of this clouded what was an otherwise creepy concept with a complex villain. With more pages to tell the story and a few small but very significant changes, The Thrill Club could have been a really good book.
Observations & Spoilers
Tom Perrotta has claimed that he was in fact the ghostwriter for The Thrill Club. R.L Stine has maintained that he has never used ghostwriters for the primary Fear Street and Goosebumps books but relied on a team of writers to help with outlines. I imagine this functioned something like a writer’s room for a TV series, and Stine was a television writer before he started writing books. On the other hand, it is well-known and documented that the Fear Street Sagas and Ghost of Fear Street spin-offs were in fact ghostwritten at the very least. Having read and reviewed 28 Fear Street and 31 Goosebumps books over the last four years. I would like to believe I could spot a ghostwritten book. I think the writing style and voice of The Thrill Club reads differently than the stuff I know that Stine wrote, but I can’t be sure that’s just some kind of confirmation bias since I knew of Tom Perrotta’s claims before reading it. Does that mean The Thrill Club was the only book in the main series to be ghostwritten, or is it reasonable to assume there are others? As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on that one, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.
The Thrill Club opens with Shandel getting murdered in the Fear Street cemetery. She had just had a big fight with her friend Nessa. Someone slits her throat from behind, she dies grasping for something to fight with but can only find the pencil. But that didn’t really happen. That was just Talia’s latest story for the Thrill Club. Only Talia didn’t write it, her boyfriend Seth did. She hadn’t had time to write any new stories, but she had to keep up her reputation as the writer of their group. It feels very intentional that the one main series Fear Street book we can confirm was ghostwritten centers on a girl using her boyfriend to ghostwrite her stories. It honestly feels like the sort of self-aware humor Stine would approve of. It makes me wonder if there was an existing relationship between Stine and Perrotta, and what that might have looked like. But back to the story. Not everyone was a fan of Talia’s latest story, which was really Seth’s story.
Seth had insisted on using the names of their friends in his story. Talia had been uneasy about it but ultimately went along with it. Maura seemed to really like the touch, even as she dropped subtle jabs suggesting that she knew Seth had written it. Maura had dated Seth before Talia, so there was some tension there. Shandel meanwhile was not a fan of being murdered in the story. Shandel calls out Talia for how creepy and wrong it was to use her name. Underneath this is the context that Shandel is the one black person in the group, and horror movies have a long racist history of killing their lone black characters first. Talia gets tired of the attention being placed on her, and so she pulls out a trick knife and “stabs” Shandel with it to break the tension. This only serves to reinforce how fucked up Talia’s story was in the first place. Shandel doesn’t find the joke funny and vows to get even. Talia tells her she needs to calm down, because of course she does.
The Thrill Club departs without ever really telling us what the Thrill Club does since Talia is the only one who actually tells stories. They are basically a group of friends that hang out at a specific time every week. Talia stays after to do homework with Seth. Seth has been acting weird since his dad died suddenly a few weeks earlier, and honestly who could blame him. Talia had been thinking about breaking up with him but doesn’t feel like she can. Seth tells her about how his dad had been listening to a tape when he died, and he insists on playing it for Talia. Seth’s dad had been an anthropologist studying tribes in New Guinea. The tape consists of weird chanting. The tape makes Talia really uncomfortable in a way she can’t explain. She begs him to turn it off. After a while, he does. On Talia’s walk home through the cemetery, she hears someone following her. She starts to run and wipes out on the sidewalk. Shandel reveals herself; she got even as she had promised. The two girls make up and call a truce.
At the next Thrill Club, everyone is late aside from Nessa and Rudy. Maura had said she’d be a few minutes late. Seth comes in 10 minutes later with no excuse. Talia shows up almost a half-hour late, feeling confused and looking like a mess. She doesn’t know what happened. When Shandel still hasn’t shown, Nessa calls and finds out that she left almost an hour ago. Nessa starts to get really worried. They pile into Seth’s car to search for her. Maura notices a bloodstain on Talia’s sweatshirt. They find Shandel dead in the cemetery, murdered. Her throat has been slit just like in Talia’s story from the week before. The kids are questioned by the police. All of them are devastated. Talia is questioned longer than the rest of them because she doesn’t recall why she was late. So, if you are following along, the book’s only black character was not only killed first but she was killed twice. It’s frustrating to think about how the optics of this were ever so widely accepted.
Read this full article on BlackHorrorMovies.com
Rumors get around at school that Talia is a suspect. She reacts to this by making out with Rudy in the gym. Someone sees them but they don’t know who. Seth writes another story for Talia to read at the next Thrill Club where Rudy accidentally hangs himself while trying to hang a dummy from the ceiling. Talia thinks it’s poor taste to read it, but Seth insists that she should. When they show up at Rudy’s the next day, no one is answering the door. They find him hanging in the basement. Talia is also there, dazed and confused in the dark. Talia is checked into a mental hospital after that. Only Seth comes to visit her. He says he still believes her. Talia doesn’t know what to think. She’s missing time and memories, and now two of her friends are dead, and they died in the ways that she had written in her stories. Only she hadn’t written her stories, Seth had. Something isn’t adding up.
When she gets out of the hospital, Seth gives Talia another story that he wrote for her to read. In this one, Talia herself is a character and she presents Seth with her trophies, which are the severed heads of their recently dead friends Rudy and Shandel. She then pulls out a hack saw and tells him she needs another trophy. Talia flat out refuses to read it, she doesn’t even think the surviving members of the Thrill Club want to see her. But Seth sets up an ambush meeting. Nessa and Maura show up and things get awkward.
Seth immediately tells the girls that Talia has a new story. Talia tries to protest, but she’s in a trap. Either she admits that Seth has been writing the stories and proves she’s been a liar, or she reads the really upsetting story to her still-grieving friends. She decides she will read it but change the ending. While she reads, she notices Seth putting on headphones, not even listening. When she tries to change the story, she can’t. She reads the words as they are. Maura and Nessa are appropriately horrified. Talia continues to have no control over her actions. She pulls out a hack saw and tells her friends she is going to need more trophies. The girls fight her off and pin her down. When Talia comes back to herself, she has no idea what’s going on. This is when Seth goes full Bond villain and explains what he has been doing this whole time.
The “transfer tape” his dad had been listening to was a mind transfer ceremony. This means that Seth’s dad didn’t really die. Instead, Seth’s dad started a new life and left his family behind. That’s a whole layer of fucked up I wasn’t expecting. It gave Seth a complexity in his motives that we don’t often see in these books. Seth started playing the tape himself, and that’s how he found out that Talia was thinking of dumping him. Even after all the stories he had written for her, and all the homework he had done in her name, she still was thinking of leaving him. Just like his father had. He had loved her and would have done anything for her, but he wasn’t enough. He had just meant to play a prank on Shandel when he took over Talia’s body, but he grabbed a real knife instead of the trick knife Talia had used earlier. Then he saw Talia make out with Rudy and decided that Rudy needed to die. He had been taking over Talia’s body to do all of this, to frame her for it. He had used her the way she used him.
The girls try to talk Seth down after he grabs a knife, but he starts chanting. His body drops dead, and he “escapes,” just like his dad did to who knows where. Maybe even into one of the girls. That would have been an interesting twist with some queer undertones, but there is no indication given that anything of the sort had happened. There is a brief epilogue where Talia and Maura have a nice little moment after the craziness, and then that’s it. Story over. Clocking in at 148 pages, The Thrill Club was one on the shorter side of books in the series. With the size of the cast and the complexity of the story, it would have really benefitted from a longer format. This would have been a great setup for a Super Chiller. I appreciated that Seth had more layers and better motives than the typical Stine villain. Talia was as unreliable as narrators come, so that made for some good scares. There were a lot of things that I liked about this book, and that’s what makes its glaring flaws even more unfortunate.
The first Fear Street book with a black character on the cover and… she’s dead at the end of the first chapter. Only not really, but then she really does die a few chapters later. This has been an all-too-common trend in horror for decades. It’s a familiar frustration for many people in marginalized communities. I can speak from firsthand experience how disheartening it is to find out a character is gay just to have them immediately die. The Thrill Club was hardly an outlier for its time, but it’s impossible to read this book today without that in mind. Compounding the treatment of Shandel was the source of the mind transfer magic; it came from the tribes of New Guinea. The othering of indigenous culture in American entertainment is also a familiar trend, and it’s one that probably isn’t called out nearly as much as it should. The thing is, the book didn’t even need that element. The people of New Guinea played no part in the narrative. The source of the magic could have been anything without changing any plot points. Add that to the fact that this was a Fear Street book, the story would have been better served if the magic had come from somewhere in the cursed town of Shadyside.
I have to hand it to The Thrill Club for being an enjoyable book to write about. After being bored to sleep with Bad Dreams last month, it was refreshing to have a messy book with major problems, interesting concepts, and some ghostwriting drama to analyze. Bad Dreams had me questioning why I bother writing these, but The Thrill Club reminded me that it can be worthwhile.
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 Thrill Club is ranked 49th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series, and 23rd 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.
It’s hard to ignore the racism regarding the people of New Guinea. I wish the source of the mind-transfer stuff had been something else entirely because there were some fresh concepts here with themes of control and body autonomy.
Killing the only black character first was poor taste. How was it ever not seen as poor taste? On top of that, it felt like the book was rushed for a deadline (and it probably was). This story would have been better if it were teased out over a longer book. It might have made for a great super chiller.
There were too many characters and too little time for any of them to have much of an impact beyond Talia and Seth. I did like the layer of complexity added by Seth’s dad leaving as opposed to dying.
Scare Factor: 2/2
The idea of someone else taking over your body and killing someone is pretty wild, and scary on a deeper level than a lot of these books. The intent of this book was to scare its audience, and I think it succeeded in that task.
The concept of this felt original, at least among the plethora of 90s teen horror books I’ve read. But it was very unoriginal and severely lacking in its treatment of black characters and foreign cultures.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #2: The Surprise Party
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
Christopher Pike’s The Midnight Club