I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would. It’s one of those plots that wouldn’t really work in the present, which is part of the nostalgic charm in re-reading this series. The cover is iconic. The characters were dynamic. While the plot wasn’t terribly original, the teenage perspective of it kept things interesting. It has some really fun moments and kept things campy. All in all, one of the more solid entries into the series.
Observations & Spoilers
My biggest pet peeve in horror is when the plot relies on the characters doing really stupid things in order to advance the story. This one definitely had elements of that, but I think they worked here. For starters, it was Chuck who was being stupid when he insisted they go visit the house and investigate after their prank phone call took a dark turn. Deena’s quick insistence that they should not do that was ignored, but it was there. Chuck’s logic made sense in the way that many teenagers logic often does; there’s little to no consideration of consequences. The “prank phone calls gone wrong” plot ultimately worked really well in that context.
The thing that made this story work for me was the characters. Jade had a very ‘Jade from Daria’ vibe. Maybe it was just the name association, but I think the personality fit, too. She was edgy in contrast to Deena’s prudish nature. I also liked her quick thinking when they lied to get an interview at Farberson’s restaurant so they could poke around and look for clues. I also appreciated that there wasn’t any conflict between the two female leads.
Chuck was also pretty interesting. His recklessness also contrasted Deena’s caution. The same quality that drove him to save a kid from a burning car is the same one that lead him to call a fake bomb threat into the Shadyside bowling alley. He was driven by the thrill of things, which his how his true character was revealed. When he became the perfect scapegoat for Mr. Farberson’s murder plot, Chuck’s brave face gave way to the fact that he was just a scared kid when things got serious.
Mr. Farberson turned out to be a good villain. He was a grimy, failed businessman having an affair with his secretary, and his independently wealthy wife was about to cut off his cash flow. Chuck, Deena, and Jade just happened to call his house and get his dying wife on the phone on the night of the murder. They had found the number in the phone book, wanting to find a house on Fear Street to prank call. When they showed up at the house after the unsettling exchange, they unwittingly became the perfect people to frame for the murder. It wasn’t the most original plot, and wasn’t terribly scary, but it was well-executed and the characters were dynamic enough to keep the story moving. White mediocrity made for a perfect villain.
R. L. Stine has said that cell phones have ruined most horror plots. He’s right in a sense, but only if you don’t consider the Brave New World knock-off that is our present-day news cycle to be something other than an endless succession of existential horror stories. Stine, however, was referring to is the isolation imposed by not being able to readily call for help or google something. Isolation is key to good horror. In The Wrong Number, we get plenty of it. The way that Chuck is framed and imprisoned, and the way that Deena and Jade are ignored but the police, Stine makes excellent use of each character’s relative isolation. The fancy new phone in Deena’s room can’t help them when they really need it.
This book really got me thinking that the Fear Street series could be nicely adapted into a comic book or television series. R.L. Stine even liked my tweet suggesting it! So consider this my pitch for Shadyside: a comic book series about a sleepy Ohio town in the early 90s where teenagers get murdered frequently, but no one ever seems to notice, remember, or give a shit. It’ll be like Stranger Things meets Riverdale meets American Horror Story. Is Shadyside just built on cursed land? Does it have something to do with the mysterious Fear family? What happens to the people that do notice and remember the horror? Solicit me to draft and submit a genuine pitch for this to find out more. R. L. Stine, I’ll be waiting for your call.
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 Wrong Number is ranked 53rd of 79 in the overall Fear Street series and 30th of X in the 49 Fear Street books in the main series, placing it squarely in the middle-low tier for both. 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 was a simple concept, but it worked. It’s a premise that wouldn’t really work modern-day; I see R.L Stine’s point about cell phones ruining every plot.
Kept the tension going right up until the end, even if the mystery part was fairly obvious. Did a pretty good job of keeping the girls isolated even though the cops got involved.
Jade and Chuck made for more dynamic and interesting characters, even if Deena was deliberately kinda dull. All of them showed growth by the end of it, too. Deena gained some confidence, and Chuck revealed himself to be deeper than the persona he projected. Farberson was a pretty good, grimy villain, too.
Scare Factor: 1/2
I’ll give it half credit here because it did build and hold tension, but it was hard for me to call it scary. The stories without the paranormal element always feel more Thriller than Horror to me.
The fact that you wouldn’t see a plot like this today made it refreshing. The 90s nostalgia helped give it a certain feel that I really liked, but I can’t say it’s a wholly original murder plot.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Cheerleaders #1: The First Evil
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my the Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #11: The Haunted Mask