Trick or Treat
by Richie Tankersley Cusick
Trick or Treat does a lot of things well. I enjoyed the way that Cucsick created a creepy atmosphere and played with the idea of houses holding on to trauma. There was a sense of foreboding from the first page that only built as the story went on. That is exactly the sort of thing I look for in these books. The main character Martha was annoying but in a very believable way. I could see where it would be too much for some people, but I like that she got called out on it and showed growth throughout the book. I didn’t see the exact twist at the end coming, but I knew a twist was coming. Cusick does a good job at muddying the waters but I think I’m starting to pick up on her tells. In other words, when someone seems like an obvious suspect, it’s probably not them. The biggest issue I had with this book involves a different character whom I will not name for spoiler reasons. You’ve gotta go to my blog and read my whole post for that. To put it vaguely; I wasn’t sold on this particular character’s motivations. It’s par for the course in these books that we find some pretty dated depictions of mental health. This one was far from the worst but still cringy in that respect. There were a lot of parallels here to Cusick’s book The Locker, which is less popular but far superior in my humble opinion. So if you liked Trick or Treat, go check that one out. Overall, this was an imperfect but still fun Halloween read.
Recap & Observations:
Trick or Treat opens up with Martha moving from Chicago to a creepy old house in the middle of nowhere. Her father has just married Sally, and that means Martha is going to have to get used to sharing a house with her new stepbrother, Connor. Martha is trying to be happy that her father found someone new after her mother died, but she really didn’t want to leave her old home. To top that off she finds Connor incredibly frustrating. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that this is mainly due to the fact that Connor actually knows who he is and doesn’t give much credence to what other people think. Martha hates this because she’s insecure, selfish, and has no idea what she wants out of life. Does that make her an annoying character? At times, but I also knew this kid in high school. Most of us have been this kid at one point or another. It is the universal experience that brought us emo music and nu-metal.
The house is old, creepy, and huge. It’s got all kinds of hidden stairways and it looks dark no matter how many lights are on. Connor picked out the room that he thought Martha would like best, and she immediately feels some negative energy when she walks in. Something bad happened there; Connor had felt it too and wanted to see if it was just him. Still kinda fucked up that he picked the room for Martha. It also plays into the conversation Martha was having with her father in the opening pages of the book about physical places can hold onto memories of trauma like imprints on time. I love this whole approach to ghosts and the paranormal, and Cusick used the idea to build a creepy atmosphere right from the start. The house felt foreboding in a way that was palpable. I was able to picture it vividly. As a former teenager and current horror fan, I totally get the “why the fuck would anyone live here?” As a current adult living in 2021, I also can’t help thinking that this place sounds amazing. The housing market is a real nightmare.
The new family of four is only living in their new house for a few weeks before Martha’s dad gets a freelance writing gig in Hawaii. He and Sally take the opportunity to turn the work trip into their honeymoon and conveniently leave their kids alone in the creepy old mansion. This felt a little contrived, but not so much that it bugged me. And it had the positive effect of decluttering the story. Parents have a way of being really inconvenient when it comes to horror plots. Martha quickly makes friends with Wynn and Blake in town. Wynn and Blake are cousins and their other cousin is Martha’s guidance counselor, Greg. Cusick was really playing up that ‘everyone in small towns is related’ trope. It’s good for Martha that she is finding new friends that validate her rather than infuriate her the way that Connor does. Which is to say he calls her out on being selfish and bratty while having the audacity to be happy for their parents finding love again. The new cousin-friends also validate Martha’s feelings about their new house. Something did happen there.
Martha has some genuinely creepy experiences. Someone keeps calling the house and speaking in a low gravely voice and making death threats. The voice calls her Elizabeth and ends with an ominous “trick or treat” before hanging up. For some reason, Connor is never around when she gets these calls. She also feels someone watching her from the woods, though she can’t explain why or how. She wakes up to what she thinks is someone standing in her room and finds a secret passageway in her closet that she didn’t know was there. Connor helps her cover it up and block it off. Martha also follows Connor into the woods one afternoon and they find a creepy old cemetery. Connor explains that something had compelled him to come and find it. Martha gets a very ominous feeling about the mausoleum that stands above the graves. Is that foreshadowing I sense?
Martha and Blake start getting closer, and through him, she finds out about the tragedy that happened at her house. On Halloween, exactly one year ago, a girl was murdered there. Her name was Elizabeth. She and Wynn had been close friends. Blake had been dating her, but she also had a really overbearing ex-boyfriend named Dennis. Dennis had disappeared the night that Elizabeth was found murdered; all they ever found was his abandoned car by the river. Blake is convinced that Dennis killed her and ran away; he was exactly the sort of controlling and jealous type to do that. It also didn’t help that Blake and Dennis were arch-rivals to be the best high school athlete. This leaves Martha to wonder: is Dennis still alive? Is he the one making those phone calls and watching her from the woods? Or could it have been Blake, who had the clear motive for wanting to get Dennis out of the picture?
When Martha finally sees a picture of Elizabeth, she is struck by how much they look alike. When she and Blake start making out and getting romantic, she can’t help but wonder if it’s because she looks like his dead girlfriend. She also has a hard time fathoming why such a hottie all-star athlete would be interested in plain old her. As we established earlier in this recap, Martha has a lot of insecurities and is painfully unaware of her own worth. So many questions, so many hormones. She also finds out that Wynn had been the one to discover Elizabeth’s body that night. Wynn doesn’t remember many of the details; just darkness. Wynn doesn’t share Blake’s theory about Dennis. She thinks he loved Elizabeth too much to kill her. After Wynn tells her version of the story to Connor and Martha, Blake begins to emerge as the prime suspect. Having read enough of these books, it was at this point in the story where I started to feel like it was too obvious to be Blake.
The murder happened the night of the big Halloween dance, which is the equivalent of Homecoming in this town. Everyone turns way up for it. Wynn had seen Elizabeth leave the dance with Dennis, and she had later seen Blake come back looking drenched. When she finally got worried about Elizabeth not coming back, she told Greg and Blake about it and the three of them drove out to Elizabeth’s house. That’s when they had found her dead. Flash forward to this year’s dance, Martha is Blakes’s date in spite of all the suspicion. He’s wearing a grim reaper cloaked sorta costume that Wynn made for him. Things are going great at the dance, Martha finds herself having a great time for the first time since she moved. She’s a little worried about Connor who is alone at the house with a cold. Then everything goes to shit when Martha gets another threatening call, and immediately afterward Wynn informs the crew that she just saw Dennis! He’s still alive!
If Dennis is still alive, then he must be the one who was making those calls and watching from the woods. And if it’s Dennis, then he definitely knows the secret passageways around the house because of all the time he spent there. Martha immediately thinks of Connor, alone and sick back at the house. She tries to call him but can’t get ahold of him. Fearing for his life, she piles into the car with Blake, Greg, and Wynn as things ramp up to our epic climax. It turns out Conner is fine, but then Wynn is attacked. The attack is heard rather than seen. All Marthan and Connor see are what looks like Blake’s death costume. The two stepsiblings escape through the secret passageway in the bedroom and find themselves in the basement. But they are not alone and they are trapped in a small room. On the other side of the door, Martha hears that same threatening voice from the phone calls. Still calling her Elizabeth. Their unknown attacker sets the door on fire and blocks their only escape.
Connor and Martha find yet another secret passage behind a shelf in the room. It leads them down a long tunnel that goes all the way to the mausoleum in the cemetery. There they find Dennis’s corpse, which has clearly been dead for a year. Martha and Connor are once again attacked in the dark by the hooded figure that we have been lead to believe is Blake. It turns out to be Wynn. Wynn stabs Connor in the shoulder and is about to kill Martha when Greg and Blake show up just in time to stop her. Greg calls for an ambulance for Connor while Blake restrains Wynn. It turns out that Wynn had been in love with Dennis, but Dennis was hopelessly in love with Elizabeth. When she failed to keep Dennis and Elizabeth apart, she ended up killing both of them. Wynn is taken away by authorities and the mystery is solved. The End.
Well, mostly. We never really get a sense of what was paranormal and what was just Wynn being creepy. I get that Wynn was likely the one who made Dennis out to be crazy. She was the one who was calling Elizabeth and leaving threatening messages pretending to be him. Just like she was clearly the one making threatening calls to Martha. Wynn was sneaking around the house and doing all the weird shit to Connor and Martha, watching from the woods, starting fires, and being an all-around creep. I buy Wynn’s story up until a point. Her being the murderer from the year prior due to a twisted crush she’d taken too far is unhinged but it makes a degree of sense. Where it loses me is with all of the actions against Martha. All our girl had to do was nothing and she’d have gotten away with murder, but she had to go and play ghost for no clear reason other than she’s crazy. That’s that point where I roll my eyes.
This book is over thirty years old, and it’s far from the worst depiction I’ve seen of mental health in these books. Wynn wasn’t as bad as Justine in Fear Street’s The Halloween Party, for instance. Her motives for the murders she had gotten away with were clear, but her motive for wanting to kill Martha was convoluted at best. In this way, she had some serious Sarabeth from Monster Blood vibes. A better sell would have been Martha’s guilty conscience and fear of getting caught making her do shit that lead to suspicion. But then she would have been the obvious suspect and we wouldn’t have had the twist. Sometimes the need for a twist can get in the way of a good story. There was a well-crafted and concerted effort to drive all suspicion to Blake, which struck me as too obvious to be true. But suffice to say, I didn’t like the explanation that Wynn had just lost her mind and thought Martha was Elizabeth. Or the idea that she was stuck in a kind of time loop and replaying old memories. It took an otherwise solid explanation and made it cartoonish, which is a shame because I liked the rest of the book.
There were a lot of similarities between Trick or Treat and Cusick’s other book The Locker. From the concept right down to the twist. Trick or Treat may have all the glory of being Cusick’s most widely read book, but I prefer The Locker. The twist made a lot more sense and the finale was way more explosive. But I can’t argue the fact that both books make for excellent Halloween reading.
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).
I enjoyed the overall concept about how places can hold memories of trauma. The blend of paranormal with a murder mystery was nicely done. Overall, I have no complaints regarding the ideas.
I want to give this full credit because I respect the way Blake was made to be the chief suspect, but it relied too much on a contrived plot twist for Wynn’s character. It either needed to lean more into the paranormal to explain Wynn’s change in character, or it needed to be a completely different story.
I liked Connor and Blake. Martha was annoying but felt true. Greg was a little weird but I could maybe forgive it. But I did not buy Wynn’s unhinged behavior and it was the weakest selling point of this book.
Scare Factor: 2/2
Good use of atmosphere and isolation. The cemetery in the woods, the creepy old house, the very subtle paranormal. All of it was done really well.
I liked the way the book opened by talking about ghosts returning to the places of their trauma. But all that being said, the murder mystery and the haunted house were hardly fresh and original ideas here. I just think they were executed effectively (for the most part)
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Sinclair Smith’s Dream Date