Whisper of Death
by Christopher Pike
© 1991 by Christopher Pike. Cover Art by Brian Kotzky.
This was a twisted one, even by Christopher Pike’s standards. Overall, I liked it more than I didn’t. It was a good use of real-life trauma as a means of framing a horror story. There were some truly gruesome and unsettling scenes, which is what I’ve come to expect from Christopher Pike. There were also a few really strong characters and a few that were confusing. My main issue stems from the book wanting to be an allegorical account on the issue of abortion but falling short of a fully coherent take. It comes close; I think Pike wanted it to come across as an unresolvable paradox. It could also be my own firmly pro-choice views that I found the ending really frustrating. It’s really hard to articulate how I felt about Whisper of Death as a whole.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers:
Roxanne and Pepper have sex, and Roxanne gets pregnant. She thinks she wants to keep it, but Pepper does not. So they decide to drive to a clinic outside of their small town where she can have an abortion. During the procedure, Roxanne has a vision of Betty Sue, a strange girl from their school who committed suicide months earlier. She tells the doctor she wants to stop the procedure, which he does. When driving back to Salem, she sees a strange red-haired woman hitchhiking in the middle of the desert, but the woman disappears before she can stop. When Roxanne and Pepper get back to Salem, they find that the entire town is empty.
They find three other kids from their school who are also still around: Stan, Helter, and Leslie. The five of them figure out their one common link is Betty Sue; everyone has a story about her except Roxanne. When they get to Betty Sue’s house, they find she has stories written about each of them–only they aren’t stories so much as spells. One by one, they start dying some gruesome deaths, starting with Leslie. Leslie had been Betty Sue’s best friend as a kid but they had drifted apart after Leslie became more popular. Her sentence: she gets blown to bits while smoking a cigarette and filling her gas tank.
The next death is Helter. Helter is all kinds of problematic. He runs off after an apparition of Betty and ends up accidentally shooting himself in the dick. Betty Sue’s diary revealed that he raped her, though it also implies that she made him do it? Like she wanted him to do it but was caught off guard when it actually happened? Really not clear what Pike’s intention was there. But in the end, Helter begs Roxanne to kill him because he can’t go on without a penis. And then she does. No, I did not make any of that up. There’s so much to unpack there and I’m not even sure where to begin.
After that is Stan, the smart one who had been closest to Betty Sue. He told a story about how she liked to catch butterflies in jars and trap them. She would sing a song to lure them in and then seal the lid. It’s his theory for what’s happening to them; they are stuck in a metaphorical jar of her making. Stan ends up slitting his own wrists without Roxanne knowing and tells her about the night Betty Sue died while he bleeds out. Betty had attempted to give herself an abortion and was bleeding out. She asked Stan to collect photos of the five of them so she could cast some kind of spell. Stan, who was infatuated with Betty and unable to resist her powers of influence, complied.
Then it’s down to Roxanne and Pepper. Roxanne finally finds out that Betty Sue was also pregnant with Pepper’s child. She had used her powers to coerce him into it, but that doesn’t make the sting for Roxanne any less. In a moment of anger, she shoves him. He falls from the ledge and gets impaled on a pitchfork. They confess their love for one another as he lay dying, both feeling like pawns in Betty Sue’s butterfly jar.
Here we finally catch up to Roxanne, who is sitting at Betty Sue’s desk writing the story. Here, Betty Sue finally confronts her. Betty reveals that she is actually Roxanne’s aborted child. Does this mean that she somehow traveled back in time and seduced her own father all in some kind of long con to trap five teenagers in a butterfly jar? We’re given the sense that Betty Sue is something other than human, so this could be explained by some very alien motives. But this one was pretty twisted even by Pike’s standards. Betty tells Rox that she did not end the abortion procedure in time, and is really back at the clinic bleeding out. Then she then stabs Roxanne in the abdomen with large knitting needles.
Roxanne wakes up back at the clinic. Something in her procedure has gone terribly wrong and she is bleeding out. She realizes she has a choice; she can go out to Pepper in the waiting room and relive the butterfly jar nightmare over and over again, or she can let herself die. She chooses the latter. The story ends with a distraught Pepper having just watched Roxanne die while getting an abortion he had talked her into. He has no memory of the butterfly jar. He picks up a hitchhiker with red hair on his way back to Salem.
Whisper of Death was a doozy. Pike’s views on abortion (as expressed by Roxanne) aren’t exactly black and white, but he clearly sees it as a paradox of some sort. I suppose the ending reflects that, but I found it really frustrating. I wanted some representation of body autonomy and did not see that. I would have liked to better understand Betty Sue’s reasons for trapping them. She is presented as an embodiment of revenge and regret, but she’s also some kind of all-powerful witch. I wanted to see her fail at something and lose control of the butterfly jar, even if it was for just a moment.
It’s hard for me to separate my own staunchly pro-choice views on abortion from what Pike was trying to do here. Even recognizing that, I still think he fell short of creating a comprehensive allegory. Betty Sue was too powerful, too unrelenting, and it was hard to fathom any kind of purpose to her actions that weren’t rooted in bitterness. It made her one-dimensional. I wanted women supporting women to be more of a thing, but it wasn’t. There was also a missed opportunity for Betty Sue and Roxanne to empathize and connect with one another which I think could have made the story more powerful. But that wasn’t the story we got.
Fun sidenote: I woke up convinced that my bedroom floor was covered in blood one night while reading this book. That was fun. I might need to stop reading these before bed.
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
I loved the butterfly jar concept and imagery. I got the message that Roxanne should have listened to herself from the beginning. But it was ultimately a cool concept that didn’t have enough thematic clarity.
There was an emotion to make this story allegorical that wasn’t fully realized. Pike presented this as a paradox, but I don’t think he represented autonomy as an important part of that paradox. If anything, having an all-powerful villain like Betty Sue made any agency the characters had null and void.
I did like Roxanne and Pepper. I liked Stan, too. Helter’s purpose was confusing, and Betty was too powerful and one-dimensional in the end. So it was a mixed bag.
Scare Factor: 2/2
This one’s twisted enough to warrant some nightmares. Good use of real-life trauma as a means of framing a scary story.
I have opinions on the politics and the execution of themes here, but I’ve gotta give it to this one for being original.
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Caroline B. Cooney’s Flight 116 is Down!
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #4: Broken Hearts