Mar 19, 2024 | Pulp Horror

The Wicked Heart
by Christopher Pike

© 1993 by Christopher Pike. Cover Art by Dru Blair.


Spoiler-Free Review:

The Wicked Heart read like a promising rough draft. I can see how that would make it an ideal candidate for The Midnight Club Netflix series. Some cool ideas are swimming around in this book, but the plotting and characters leave a lot to be desired. Pike is known for methodical and twisted plots with complex and engaging characters. This book comes close but ultimately misses the mark on both counts. The plot was kept moving at a steady clip, but the characters felt rushed and ill-defined. I know I am being a tad harsh here. The characterizations were not all that bad. I have just come to expect better from Pike because I have seen him do better multiple times. The Wicked Heart also features some pretty gruesome kills. The violence stands out even among Pike’s other books, in part because of how personal it is. There are way more deaths in The Last Vampire books for example, but the brutality of the murders here is uniquely intense. I don’t think this was a bad thing, but it’s the sort of violence that deserves a deft touch. The fast-paced action style of the writing did not suit the nature of Dusty’s crimes. This, in turn, exposed the thin characters and shoddy plotting which might have worked well in a different book, but they felt out of place here. Despite all of this, I’m excited to see how they adapt this one for the show. The right elements are all there to make The Wicked Heart a solid and compelling story.


Score: 2.5


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Recap & Observations:

The book opens with Dusty Shame, a high school prodigy turned serial killer who hears a voice that compels him to kill. To quiet the voice he must kill six young women, the more innocent the better. He’s on his way to murder his classmate Nancy, whom he overheard saying that her parents were out of town. He breaks in through a window, quietly covers her face with a cloth while she’s sleeping, and smashes her face in with a hammer. He sees this method as quick and clean. He sneaks her body out to his car and drives off, leaving behind only his calling card. It’s important to the voice that he leaves no biological trace, but the calling card is a must. He buries her body with the others in the remote California desert. He then goes to school the next morning just like it’s any other day.


At school, Sheila Hardholt just got dumped by her boyfriend Matt, and she’s mad about it. She and Matt had seemed like the perfect couple before he just up and ended things. This is what she’s thinking about while sitting next to her Chemistry lab partner, Dusty. She then becomes concerned when her best friend Nancy doesn’t show up to school. Sheila makes her ex drive her to Nancy’s house after school lets out. They find Nancy’s car still in the garage, so they break in. That’s when they find Dusty’s calling card: a little business card with a swastika. Then they call the police.


The police initially brush off Sheila’s concerns because Nancy hasn’t been missing for long enough. But when she mentions the swastika calling card, it gets the attention of an LAPD lieutenant. From this point forward, the very determined Sheila gets involved with the case in a way that is very implausible for a teenager, but this is teen horror fiction. We’re not here for plausible storytelling. We’re here for wild escapism from our boring suburban lives. 


Dusty meanwhile plots his next murder. He lives alone with his invalid mother and her caretaker, so he’s able to come and go as he pleases. The voice usually stays quiet for longer after a kill, but this time it’s back with a vengeance. Nancy was his third and so he needs to kill three more. For this, he uses an internet subscription service to scope girls out. He does this under his AMAZING pseudonym: William Wand. He uses the internet because only nerds know about the internet at this point in the early nineties. He also can’t only rely on finding classmates because that would get too suspicious. He has been chatting with this girl Wendy for a few weeks now, and he thinks he’s got her all figured out. She’s a big horror fan and loves Stephen King. He knows she talks a big game, but she’s innocent underneath her professed love of horrific things. It just so happens that Wendy’s parents are going to be out late, so Dusty Shame AKA William Wand decides to make his move.


Dusty shows up at Wendy’s house. He does the same thing he did with Nancy, quietly breaking in and sneaking into the bedroom. He covers her with the towel and does his thing with his hammer. Then Wendy walks into the room. It turns out that her friend had been staying over. Wendy screams and runs. She makes it to the front door and is about to get away when Dusty drops some knowledge that only William Wand would know. This makes Wendy pause just long enough for Dusty to catch her and slit her throat. There was no time to take the bodies with him; Wendy had screamed and he had to assume neighbors had heard. He leaves his calling card and sneaks out. As Wendy’s parents arrive home to discover the carnage, he watches from his car. After a while, he leaves and the voice compels him to go to a strange place in the cemetery.


While Dusty is left to find a new victim, Sheila takes it upon herself to talk to the families of the first two victims. That’s because she had been able to use her teen detective magic to badger information out of Lieutenant Black. She discovers something the police have missed. The two girls both had links to the internet message board Einstein. The detectives had missed it because they had no idea what the internet was yet (I find this very believable). It’s an interesting lead, but Nancy has no ties to it. So Sheila turns to her friend and lab mate, Dusty, to enlighten her on what Einstein is.


First Sheila gets a very nervous and reluctant Dusty to explain what Einstein is to the computer-illiterate Lieutenant Black. This was the age before digital forensics, so the cops had never even thought about computers as a point of interest. Dusty has his arm in a sling to disguise the nasty bite on his hand that Wendy had given him the night before. It’s at Lieutenant Black’s house that he meets the detective’s young daughter, Dixie. The voice immediately recognizes the girl as a perfect candidate for the next victim. Sheila remains oblivious to this development and instead gets more information from Lieutenant Black about a case from decades earlier that bore striking resemblances to this one. 


Lieutenant Black tells Sheila she needs to talk to Gossick. He’s the guy who seemed to have cracked the case back then but lost his job when he killed the woman. This had been thirty years prior, back in the 1950s. Sheila convinces her ex-boyfriend Matt to drive her out to meet with the retired Gossick. Matt reluctantly agrees. They meet Gossick and tell him their story, which begins during the Second World War.


Himmler had been one of Hitler’s chief propagandists. Himler’s wife was a woman named Scheimer. Both were evil. Gossick confirms this because he met them. He said that Scheimer was like a hollow shell of a person. She was said to have found joy in the death of innocence. Himmler killed himself while in the custody of the Allied forces, but Scheimer had no official role and was let go. Then she disappeared. Years later she ended up in LA and started killing young innocent women. Gossick believes that she came to LA for him after their brief encounter, but he offers no evidence to prove this. Once he traced the killings back to her, he confronted her. Scheimer had him sit down for tea, her daughter was there in the kitchen. Then Scheimer made a move to kill him, but he managed to shoot her first. He lost his job, but the murders stopped. Her daughter was put up for adoption.


Sheila mediates for a bit and then Sherlock’s the fuck out of the whole mystery. All of the pieces fall into place. Her best friend Nancy wasn’t tied to Einstein because she knew the killer personally from school. That meant Dusty was the killer, hiding a bite mark on his hand. Dusty’s mother had been Scheimer’s daughter. The monster that had consumed Scheimer now inhabits the body of Dusty’s mother and will soon take over Dusty as well. Never underestimate the power of meditation, I guess. Sheila takes Matt’s car and leaves him at Gossick’s. She knows immediately that she needs to save Dixie Black from being Dusty Shame’s next victim.


Meanwhile, Dusty wakes up from a dream about a giant cockroach speaking in The Voice, which has just threatened to rip off his ears if he doesn’t get back to murdering ASAP. When he comes to, his mother is chewing on his ear. He then accidentally smothers her with a pillow before leaving to go kill Dixie. He gets Dixie into his car in part because she met him earlier. He’s also a cute senior and she’s a freshman. By the time she realizes her mistake, Dusty hits her and takes off driving toward his special place in the desert. Thankfully the teen maverick Sheila caught up to him in time to see Dixie get into the car, but not enough time to stop them. She keeps on Dusty’s tail into the desert. 


Matt and Gossick had gone to Dusty’s house after Sheila had driven off. They find his dead mother. The terrified housekeeper tells them she has been suspicious of Dusty and follows him one night. She was able to guide them to the spot in the desert. They had shown up just in time to see Sheila’s car follow Dusty in. Gotta love it when the timing works out perfectly like that. Sheila convinces Dusty to let Dixie go and take her instead. When Dusty agrees, Sheila thinks she’s getting through to him. Unfortunately, he’s too far gone for saving. So it’s a good thing that Matt and Gossick came along and shot Dusty instead. The wicked heart (by which I mean the cockroach beast that had been controlling Dusty, his mother, and Scheimer) is killed once again. But who knows how long it will stay dead this time?


Anyway, that’s how this ridiculous book ends. I want to close this out by showing my appreciation for the utterly ridiculous character names throughout this book. Dusty Shame, William Wand, Dixie Black, Stacy Domino, and Sheila Hardholt. There were probably a couple of others I missed. I can’t tell if this was intentionally campy, phoned in, or if they were maybe put in as placeholders but didn’t get changed due to deadlines. The latter would make sense given the rough draft feel that this whole book had. Either way, I love a good ridiculous name so I was entertained regardless of the intent. Sometimes it’s the small joys in life that get us through.


Score Card:

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


Concept: 1/2
The concept itself is cool. I’m not sure that the insect aspect made a ton of sense other than it was some ancient pre-human evil. It left some important questions unanswered.

Execution: 1/2
Messy by Pike’s standards. He manages to keep it well-paced, but the end result was more like a promising rough draft than a solid finished novel. 

Character: 0/2
Between the teen detective, the nice serial killer, and the hapless good guy cop… These were some of the least complex characters that Pike has done. Maybe I wouldn’t be so harsh here if I hadn’t seen him do better multiple times over.

Intent: 1/2
This book was certainly twisted and unsettling. The shoddy execution held it back from being a far better version of both. I don’t think the high-camp elements were intentional.

Originality: 2/2
It’s unique among its 90s YA contemporaries in both its origin story and its brutality. I’m a little bored with Nazis being the epitome of all evil (they were evil, but there are plenty of other less common examples) so I appreciated that the “wicked heart” used the Nazis as a vehicle to its ends rather than having them be its source.



Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Christopher Pike’s See You Later


Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #9: The New Year’s Party


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