The Wrong Number (Spine #5, Originally Published March 1, 1990)
You could start your own personal Fear Street journey with Fear Street #1 (The New Girl), if you’re an OCD completest like me. To be completely honest, the first four books are somewhat dull. That’s not to say they’re completely without merit. The journey to Fear Island (yes, Shadyside has an island campground à la a Mario Bava picture) in The Overnight (Spine #3) is super creepy. However, like any series, it took Stine a few installments to find his footing, and The Wrong Number is the first story to nail that “stalk ‘n slash put to paper” vibe that the Fear Street series would become famous for.
The premise is as basic bitch as one gets (again, a Stine staple) – two girls and an annoying twerp begin prank-calling houses at random. Only once the dweeb calls down to Fear Street, he finds himself on the other end of a telephoned murder. Now the killer wants to silence his witnesses (despite the fact that they never saw his face or really know anything about him), bringing every tool he’s got handy in order to dispatch the brats (including a chainsaw, which is featured in the book’s coolest sequence). This is tween pulp at its finest, and a great indicator of whether or not the series will work for you at all. It’d be easy to rip Stine’s sparse prose to shreds, especially when it comes to describing the boy toys the girls are into (“His hair was thick and sandy above startlingly blue eyes.”), but his economy is incredibly effective and plays to his audience well. Plus, one boy has an attraction to Burton Batman-era Kim Basinger, so the author at least nails 90s male gaze.
Lights Out (Spine #12, Originally Published July 1, 1991)
Summer Camp Horror is a cornerstone of the genre (see: Matt Serafini’s recent list for a solid starter’s guide), and Stine nails our trip to Camp Nightwing (which will be known as “Camp Nightmare” by the book’s final chapter). Junior Counselor Holly Flynn is the perfect Final Girl protag, sporting garb from a forgotten Sleepaway Camp sequel (her relationship with her uncle even echoes Angela’s in the second film), all while trying to figure out who the heck is knocking off her fellow supervisors. Stine gets the ambiance of Upstate NY wilderness treks just right (bats and spiders are quite the worry), while also capturing the mythic elements that seem fit for campfire stories (one summer at Nightwing there was a measles outbreak; another saw a kid die in a boating accident). The finale is almost a direct lift from the Mrs. Voorhees playbook, but the referential elements of these books are what make them so much fun. Stine is playing in a horror hound sandbox, prepping you to go down to the video store and rent his inspirations. After flipping through the last chapter of Lights Out (which does have a weirdly corny ending that misses the grim “gotcha” reveals of the movies it’s playing fast and loose with), it’d be hard not to imagine every kid who just ingested the text riding their bike down to the local video store and raiding the horror rack for every entry into the subgenre they can find.
Silent Night (Fear Street Super Chiller #2, Originally Published November 1, 1991)
Super Chillers were the best. It always felt like they were a little longer, had a few more violent murders, and generally brought the horror fiction goods much harder than the regular spine numbers. Whether this is true or not seems hardly quantifiable (though if someone wants to crunch those blood-spattered numbers and get back to me, have at it), and might’ve all been quite the marketing plot, but dammit if the Silent Night trilogy of murder mysteries weren’t some of the more thrilling books contained in the Fear Street canon. Spoiled rich girl Reva Dalby (whose father owns the local chain of Dalby Department stores) finds herself stalked by someone not too keen on holiday cheer. The first novel plays like a solid Scooby Doo mystery, while the second and third up the stakes, involving kidnapping and Silent Night, Deadly Night-style killer Santas. Keeping with the slasher tradition that any holiday can be exploited for few good scares, Stine proves himself capable at translating a time-honored tradition into tween text.
The Prom Queen (Spine #15, Originally Published March 1, 1992)
Speaking of time-honored horror traditions: PROM! More Jamie Lee Curtis than Lisa Schrage, The Prom Queen is a body count story where almost all of the victims are wearing their best dress for the big night. You can practically hear the bad disco and synth rock echo through a gymnasium turned dance hall, as Lizzie (our latest Final Girl) scrambles to keep all of her friends out of the murderous reach of the latest madman to terrorize Shadyside’s teen population (you’d think they’d invest in more cops or something by the fifteenth incident). Filled with some of the weirder nightmare imagery contained in the series (Lizzie’s dream of zombie queens is unnerving whether you’re thirteen or thirty-two), and paced better than any novel Stine’s ever written, The Prom Queen is formula to the core and clichéd as hell, but these elements come together to create quite the diverting slice of poppy PG-13 horror.
The Cheerleaders Saga (First Evil: August 1, 1992; Second Evil: September 1, 1992; Third Evil: October 1, 1992)
Epic in scope and vaguely reminiscent of Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show (dressed up in a pleated skirt sporting pom poms, of course), the first three Cheerleaders books form a trilogy that would mark a first in Fear Street history: introducing genuine mythology. No longer content with making his teen reaper some semblance of a scorned human being, Stine’s Cheerleaders (which would continue past the original trilogy with the inferior The New Evil and The Evil Lives) introduce an unknowable entity, hellbent on collecting the blood of the innocent. There’s a mean streak to the original Cheerleaders saga that was somewhat absent in previous Fear Street stories; graphic gore and a feeling that anyone could die at any moment. These three novels feel like a turning point in the series, where Stine became unafraid to broach R-rated territory. These were the stories you hoped your mom wouldn’t pick up and peruse while you were at school, as you might not find out if newcomers Bobbi and Corky made it to the end.
The Fear Street Saga (The Betrayal: August 1, 1993; The Secret: September 1, 1993; October 1, 1993)
It’s time to take a brief pause in order to point out how different the Fear Street novels are from modern day YA literature. While we certainly have ongoing series now (The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight), Fear Street was a “serial” in the truest sense. At the first of almost every month, you could show up at your local bookstore and grab the newest novel, hot off the presses. That’s something of a lost art in 2015, and Stine knew how to capitalize on this format. While there were certainly sequels peppered into the regular spine runs, the Cheerleaders books were unique in that they told a self-contained narrative, complete with cliff-hangers that left you impatient for next month’s story to drop. The Fear Street Saga series took that idea a step further and actually used a monthly run to build a legend around the town of Shadyside itself.
Reading like a haunted Romeo & Juliet, Nora Goode runs down the horrible history of the feud between original Shadyside pillars, the Fiers, and her family. Beginning in 1692, Susannah Goode is accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake by Benjamin Fier, thus resulting in a curse that would follow the Fier family for the next 300 years. What’s incredible is that Stine is able to saturate the story with an incredible amount of pathos and sadness, forever changing the way you look at the rest of the series. It’s a genius stroke that is evidence of how much more these books were than simple teen dilutions of dime store horror riffs. Stine wanted to give his audience a sense of history to go along with these grisly tales, and succeeds in spades. Much how Stephen King built up the mythologies of his New England stomping grounds, Castle Rock and Derry, Stine suddenly transformed Shadyside into a sleepily terrifying suburb you never wanted to step foot in.
Bad Dreams (Spine #22, Originally Published March 1, 1994)
More Fulci’s The Psychic than Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, Maggie and her family move to Fear Street, only so that the girl can begin having terrible nightmares of teenage women being murdered. Instead of seeking any kind of treatment, Maggie starts trying to decipher who the killer is, all while being visited by the ghost of a dead girl. Bad Dreams is the loosest narrative of perhaps the entire Fear Street canon, playing more like an Italian cinema rip off of a Fear Street book than an actual story Stine would’ve told when the series began. Bad Dreams moves at an incredible clip, but also feels formless; the author playing with his own structure by integrating supernatural elements that don’t necessarily seem to fit. However, repetition is boring, after all, and this is Stine somewhat flexing outside of his established comfort zone.
The Dead Lifeguard (Super Chiller #6, Originally Published June 1, 1994)
Hunks! I love ‘em. While Stine’s Fear Street stories were obviously accessible to both sexes, there’s no real denying they catered to a female gaze. Most of the protagonists were young women, and the covers (when they didn’t feature gorgeous girls wide-eyed in fear) were often slathered with washboard ab-sporting beefcakes. That’s pretty cool, as Stine not only knows how to write horror, but can also do so from a distinctly feminine perspective. Now, whether or not he was wholly successful is another story (sometimes his budding princess protags felt just a little stilted, especially when it came to dialogue), but the attempt was always admirable. Often, these dreamboats turned out to be maniacs in disguise, but that didn’t stop certain volumes of Fear Street from having a truly bizzaro world take on the infamous pulp romance cover. A nice aesthetic touch that ensured many teen girls had to hide certain volumes from their mom and dad.
The Cataluna Chronicles (The Evil Moon: August 1, 1995; The Dark Secret: September 1, 1995; The Deadly Fire: October 1, 1995)
Cataluna is the Christine of Fear Street. It’s the car that somehow is able to drive any and all who come across it to perform evil deeds, just to ensure she becomes theirs. Ancient evils are what fuel this engine, starting again in the late 1600s, as we alternate back and forth between poor Catherine and her scheming family in the West Hampshire Colony, and Bryan Folger and his pursuit of the titular haunted motor vehicle. Echoing the mythic structure of both the Cheerleaders and Saga series, the Cataluna Chronicles are again instilling a sense of history in Shadyside. There’s a bit of overlapping supernatural silliness going on (the backstory behind Cataluna isn’t too far off from Susannah Goode’s horrible fate), and you can sense Stine running out of gas with the series. Thankfully, there’s enough super weird vehicular mayhem to keep the trilogy speeding along, as this short run would mark the last of Stine’s solid serials (we don’t count Fear Park or Fear Street Nights – ugh). All good things must come to an end, but The Cataluna Chronicles are a hell of a fun way for the author to put a period at this particular format’s sentence.