There’s an odd juxtaposition between the world of YA literature pre-JK Rowling and everything that has come after. Harry Potter truly broke down the gates, allowing novels for teens to expand both in length and subject matter. Topics that were once taboo suddenly became commonplace, and themes once deemed too adult were now on the page for every reader who wanted to explore them.
Recently I yanked down a number of old battered paperbacks by an old favorite of mine: Christopher Pike. His garish covers and macabre plots haunted many of my afternoons as an adolescent, and though I hadn’t read his work in years I found the books oddly familiar, like old friends at a high school reunion.
And what stood out most of all: Pike’s envelope-pushing gusto. This guy didn’t pull punches. In fact, Pike makes most modern YA writers read like a churlish bunch of namby-pambies. Stephanie Meyer, exit stage left.
Let me start by saying that Pike was well-ahead of his time. Consider the following excerpt from his novel Master of Murder. The story revolves around Marvin Summer, a teenager who writes bestselling YA mystery novels under a pseudonym. Remarking upon how he got his start publishing books for teens, Marvin recalls:
The editors of teen fiction didn’t like it, they said, because it was too sophisticated. That very word was in five rejection slips Ben [Marvin’s agent] received. Marvin could not believe it, nor could Ben. In essence the editors were saying that teenagers were not smart enough to read an intelligent plot. And it was true that, as far as complexity was concerned, his book was more akin to an adult novel. But it was Marvin’s belief that most teen books were written down to kids, and that was why most of his friends had gone from reading young adult stuff to adult stuff.
This is in 1992. It would take another decade to fully prove Pike right, but he was way ahead of the curve. Pike knew that teens could handle the adult-level material, if given the chance, as well as enjoy books written in adult-level language.
Pike’s own novels, though written in the kind of workmanlike prose common to YA novels of the 90s, were chock-full of grisly plots, wicked deaths, and a healthy dose of teenage sex.
It’s interesting to note that Pike’s competition, RL Stine, wrote books far more proper and prim and yet somehow enjoyed not only greater sales but a scarier reputation.
Take a rundown of Pike’s 1991 thriller Die Softly:
The novel centers upon Herb Trasker, a high school senior and talented amateur photographer who settles (albeit guiltily) on the idea of photographing the cheerleading squad. Naked. In the showers.
Which he manages to do. Unfortunately for Herb, he also happens to snap a picture of a murder in progress.
Die Softly includes a number of events and topics hard to imagine in today’s YA field, including: two murderous cheerleaders who enjoy hooking their boy-toys on cocaine and then using them for athletic threesomes; the fiery death of one teen in an off-the-edge-of-a-cliff car wreck; the execution of poor Herb by cocaine overdose.
Yeah, poor Herb bites it. Which in many ways I find more surprising than the coke-fiend-threesome-loving cheerleaders. Modern YA, for all of its kid-on-kid-murdering-arenas and post-apocalyptic mayhem nearly always ends with the main character alive and well. Most likely they’ve even learned a lesson or two along the way. But not in Pike’s novels. Not poor Herb, who lets himself be tied down (to his bed) by the very cheerleader he knows is a murderer. Why? Because he is still hoping to get laid. There’s no homespun lesson in that one, mi amigos.
Pike’s 1992 horror masterpiece Monster opens in territory few modern writers would even attempt: a young woman walks into a high school party with a shotgun and blows two of her friends away. She stalks after a third but is stopped by the police before she can kill again.
Post-Columbine, this kind of set-up has been more or less removed from modern literature. Few writers have tackled it (Jodi Picoult and Lionel Shriver being worthwhile exceptions). The ones who have certainly haven’t done so with Pike’s straightforward approach. He wastes little (really, a sentence or two) time on the emotional reactions of the characters to this event. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
Why did Mary Carlson gun down two of her friends anyway?
“Because they were no longer human,” she says. They’re monsters.
Turns out she’s right. The entire football team and cheerleading squad have turned into cannibalistic monsters. This may strike some as totally B-grade schlock, but I think there might be a deeper thematic level going on. Perhaps Pike is saying something about how the popular jocks and cheerleaders really are monsters willing to consume the rest of us to maintain the status quo.
Spoiler alert: once again, Pike’s hero bites it. This time literally, as the protagonist is seduced by the Hot Jock, turns into a monster herself, kills and eats her best friend, and ends the novel as a winged bat-like beast. Bummer.
Whisper of Death starts and ends with a teenage abortion. Certainly abortion is tackled elsewhere in YA lit today, but rarely. Modern writers seem overly aware of how things like abortion are Hot Button Issues. Not wanting to offend, they often go out of their way to present Both Sides of the Issue.
Pike doesn’t let such teeth-gnashing slow him down. Roxanne Wells is in love. She has sex with her boyfriend, Pepper, and she gets pregnant. They go to another town for an abortion, but during the operation she changes her mind. They drive back home and discover that everyone in town has disappeared.
In fact, everyone in the whole world has disappeared.
Well, mostly. They come across three others. All kids they know from school. And, as it turns out, all five of them have something in common. In one way or another, they all wronged another student, Betty Sue McCormick, who recently committed suicide.
Or maybe not. As it turns out, Betty Sue is very much alive, and far more powerful than anyone had imagined. In fact, she’s the one responsible for the teens’ current situation. And she has more in store for them. Namely wicked ways to meet their maker.
Again, the setup sounds purely second-rate drive-in horror. But is Pike making a thematic connection between Roxanne’s abortion and the barren world she returns to? Sometimes I think Pike is far craftier than he seems at first glance.
And, yeah, Roxanne bites it too.
It’s hard to say precisely how Pike managed to write (and his publishers managed to release) such mature and unrelenting novels aimed at teen readers. Any one novel might be waved away as an exception, but Pike wrote work after work in this mode. I haven’t even mentioned his Last Vampire saga–his true masterpiece–which is bloody and violent enough to make Jason Bourne look asleep at the wheel.
Bury Me Deep, Scavenger Hunt, The Wicked Heart, Remember Me, Chain Letter, Weekend, Spellbound…
But it isn’t merely the violence or the sex that makes Pike stand out. Pike understood that reaching teen readers was about treating them with respect, about writing in a way that didn’t talk down to them. When his characters are faced with major adult decisions–sex, abortion, death, whether or not to cannibalize your best friend–they make up their minds in adult ways. And because he wrote in an era that refused to publish a teen novel longer than 200 pages, his books don’t waste any ink on all the hemming and hawing and beating around the bush that plague so many YA books today.
It is interesting to compare eras and ask what we have gained and what we have lost. Author choices that were par for the course in the 90’s–killing your hero, the good guys losing, deciding to have an abortion without asking your parents–seem like outlier options today. Perhaps, in spite of all the walls broken down post-JKR, we have not come as far as we believe. Or perhaps the rising PC-culture has allowed advancement in certain areas but has lessened advancement in others. Or maybe Pike is simply a better writer.
What seems certain, at least to me, is that no other horror maestro has come along to replace him. Not him, nor RL Stine either. Oddly enough, in an era that seemingly allows “anything and everything” in YA literature, we are living through a serious drought when it comes to creepy literature for young readers (and no, I don’t really think the Gothic/Paranormal Romance lit counts…sorry).