Located off Peachtree Road in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, Oxford Books was one of the great bookstores of yore—shelves of books straight up to the ceiling, and built-in, rolling wooden ladders to help customers to the top of the stacks. It was a destination bookstore. We didn’t pop in; we went to hang out. Many of my childhood memories are caught up in those aisles: weaving through legs, looking for my siblings and parents, carrying giant stacks of books I wanted to show them. To call the children’s section a corner was misleading—the section was huge, covering books for babies through young-adult literature, and there was even a small play structure in the middle. Parents used to dump their kids there while they browsed elsewhere. We’d lay splayed out on the floor, pass books back and forth, and then beg to take some home.
I grew up in that bookstore, moving from illustrated books to those that once looked impossibly long and plain. It’s easy to see my bookish roots in these early memories, as well as my love for trash—because there among the great YA books were the pulpy ones, my first real introduction to sex and violence: the Point Horror collection and R.L. Stine.
For me and for a number of kids who frequented those aisles, Oxford dealt in more than just literature. It dealt in adolescence. Sure, when it went under, and the elegies poured in, the bookstore was remembered for its “cosmopolitan and erudite nature” as “Atlanta’s contribution to the highbrow world of retail literature.” The Oxford we knew was different. This was the place whose adult-content section was right next to the checkout, prompting us to consider it each time we visited. (Or consider sneaking things off the shelves into other parts of the store.) Oxford wasn’t just about the highbrow. It housed sections for fantasy and sci-fi, comics (the last part of Oxford still standing), romance, mystery—and all of these were seeded in the children’s section with their watered-down versions.
Most of the junky books were quarantined into two rotating carousels right next to the play structure, making their perusal a game in itself. One carousel held most of the Point Horror series, where children’s horror writer R.L. Stine got his start. These book covers blew Sweet Valley—and really most of the other children’s books—out of the water. Fluorescent text seared across some foreboding image: a corsage stained with blood, a dangling telephone, a sinister lifeguard, and the ones that depicted teenagers depicted awesome teenagers. They wore cool clothes even while being stalked.
Stine’s contributions to Point Horror might surprise anyone who just knows him from Goosebumps, or from his job writing for Nickelodeon’s Eureeka’s Castle. Point Horror threw him in with a bunch of other similar writers—including A. Bates, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and Lael Littke—and together they neatly filled out my nightmares for a few years. Point Horror sails on trashy teenage make-out sessions and blood and guts. It’s the harder-core predecessor to Goosebumps, which hinges more on ghosts than it does on murder. It takes all the romance of high school and wraps it around a psycho-killer. For a while, I thought high school would be just as exciting: alternately talking on the phone with my BFF, making out with Chuck/Dex/one-syllable-awesome-name, and maybe running for my life. Divide those activities into chapters, repeat until you hit page 150, plant an obvious twist by page 10, and you’re ready to write for the Point Horror series, circa 1990. Of course, I was reading these for the first time back then, and I never saw any of it coming.
The first book I read was The Babysitter, a 1989 R. L. Stine thriller. I remember the terror more clearly than the book itself, but here’s the gist of it: Jenny accepts a new job babysitting across town. Reports in the news say babysitters are going missing, and meanwhile, she begins receiving creepy phone calls suggesting she won’t be all alone in that big house for long. Then one night when the dad’s driving her home, he takes her out to the quarry (there’s always a quarry), smacks her around a bit, almost pushes her off the cliff, and then dies himself when the crazy man we all suspected to be the murderer shows up and turns out to be law enforcement. Plus, lots of making out and talking on the phone.
I was 11 when I read this. It was 1992, I’d just started babysitting kids around the neighborhood, and the possibility of being attacked while doing this was the single most terrifying thought that someone had caused me to imagine. This was fear for the sake of fear—whispered threats on the phone, intended for the sole effect of scaring the hell out of someone before killing them—and this was cognitively very different from anything else I really knew at the time. Up to this point, death seemed more random, an unhappy accident. I suppose I knew conceptually about murder, and about things like car accidents or tornados. But I’d not been allowed to watch even PG-13 movies, Google didn’t exist yet, and my parents had successfully shielded me from, say, the inner workings of a killer who enjoys stalking girls and killing them. (It’s worth noting I have no older siblings who would have probably enjoyed terrifying me with things like this.)
The reason Stine succeeds is because he knows exactly what goes on when girls are babysitting and exploits every detail of it. They’re alone in the house and in charge, they’re talking on the phone with their friends, they’re rummaging through the family’s pantry to find junk food. What they’re not doing is thinking about how someone might murder them. This is what made my 11-year-old brain freak out—it was so obvious that we were such easy targets!
I read the book late into the night. It was summer, and the window was open in my room, a converted walk-in closet. Until reading the book, it hadn’t occurred to me that this was the farthest possible point in the house from my parents’ room, but I was sure this fact would be obvious to a murderer. I’d never wanted so desperately to go down to their room, nor been so paralyzed by fear. So I closed the window as fast as possible, hunkered down, and tried to get control over that type of fear that makes you wig out, almost to the point of an adrenaline-induced seizure.
It’s reliving that kind of fear that made rereading these books so much fun. I didn’t scare once while going back through them, but when I was writing the previous paragraph, someone slammed shut the office door next to mine and I nearly jumped out of my skin. It’s so easy to see why these books were terrifying: They take stock high-school characters every middle-schooler wants to become, encourage readers to empathize with their daily, run-of-the-mill problems, and then set them as the target of a psychopath. It’s like a Sweet Valley High where Todd comes after Elizabeth with a knife and comes back from the dead a few times over. They know their audience so well—one that’s imagining what high school is going to be like, or even what being older is like.
At 11, I should have been reading Goosebumps, Stine’s series for younger kids that came out in 1992. I tried a few of them, but once I’d found this older, more sophisticated stuff, I was hooked. And Scholastic knew I and others like me would be, too, including checklists and order forms in the back of the book to keep us reading the series. Point Horror felt more sophisticated, too, because the characters dated nonstop and talked about “jumping” each other all the time. This was totally foreign to me at the time, and why I kept reading. I thought these books would explain everything.
Reading them again, it’s nearly impossible to truly get sucked in. The murderer is usually obvious by page 10, and the long conversations on the phone, typically used for analysis, are a bit of a slough to get through. Plus, cultural details from the mid-’80s often get in the way; it’s impossible not to be distracted by a character who spends a few paragraphs marveling at a microwave. Moreover, the books vary wildly in quality, and many border on sloppy. My vote for the lowest of the early Point Horror books is Littke’s Prom Dress, in which an evil prom dress causes accidents to those who wear it. During one of the book’s more climactic scenes, the resident nerd, temporarily rendered beautiful and popular by the magical dress, runs into a podium and is maimed by a bust of Einstein falling on her head and busting her skull open. The structure of the plot is that the dress keeps changing hands, and keeps causing accidents; it’s ridiculously repetitive. It’s also the only one of the books that borders on preachy. The lesson here is to be honest and don’t steal, or you will lose what’s dearest to you: your brains if you’re a brainiac or your feet if you’re a dancer. I remember thinking the moral over-the-top even as an 11-year-old, and the premise is among most implausible of the series’, which generally relies on revenge and murder more than enchantments and hauntings. Plus, check out the prom dress that was supposed to be the envy of the world:
The better Point Horror books are self-aware, playing joyfully with the gory tropes of the series—every character who falls to any depth always sounds like eggs smashing, for example—and several of the books have characters who mention Stephen King or other thriller writers. A. Bates’ Party Line takes this a step further, though, with the most stunning of openers:
The locker still wouldn’t open. Scott looked at the piece of paper they’d given him in the office.
“Must be jammed,” he muttered. “This is the right locker, and I’m trying the right combination.”
He spun the dial again, stopping carefully at the numbers listed on the paper. Then he glanced quickly up and down the hall. The coast was clear. In one quick move he took a step back and kicked the center of the lock, smashing the latch upward. The door flew open and something red sprang from the locker towards his face. He ducked automatically.
For a second Scott couldn’t breathe. Panic clogged his throat. His heart seemed to stop. Oh, no, he thought. For a second I could have sworn that was a bloody arm.
Then he screamed.
It WAS a bloody arm.
By the most stunning of openers, of course, I mean the most terribly written of openers. It was so bad I made anyone nearby listen to me read it aloud. But when I turned the page, the words actually belonged to the main character, Scott, who was trying his hand at horror-writing for the first time. Bates mocks her genre and then bests it: What followed in Party Line was some of the best writing of the series, lively and lacking many of the cheap thrills of the others. It’s the only one I found I was reading slowly, actually involved in Scott, one of the series’ most empathetic characters, and one of the few male protagonists—he doesn’t just want to bang girls, he wants to understand them. Easy to sell to an 11-year-old girl, as well as her 31-year-old counterpart.
Pre-Internet chat room, Scott turns to another haven for anonymity: He develops a habit of calling the teen party line to connect with girls and comes to realize that many of the missing girls in town have also been on the party line. He and his girlfriend Janine set out to find the culprit, and when they do, Bates is the only one of the series who attempts to deal with the aftermath in any remotely realistic way. She spends a few pages with an explanation about the particular psychosis affects the kidnapper. It’s a somewhat lame explanation (he was just lonely), but the kid’s seeing a therapist by the end of the book and he tries to understand why someone might have been kidnapping girls to start with. Compared with the other books in the series, this is an admirable job.
That’s one of the most disturbing elements about these books as an adult reader—how quickly the ending chapters gloss over the serious trauma the characters have suffered. The worst offender here is The Babysitter. After Jenny’s near-death and severe bruising at the hands of her babysitting client, she returns to her house to tell her mother about it in a chapter that could be best summed up by, “Well that sure was awkward almost getting killed! Hahaha!” In The Lifeguard, Richie Tankersley Cusick’s book about a maniacal lifeguard who kills beachgoers left and right, the killer turns out to be the sweetest, meekest character in the whole book and our girl’s principal love interest. No explanation goes into his motivation—the characters just assume (and sadly at that) it’s always the one you least suspect. Bates’ book at least gives a nod to what might happen to a kid who followed a madman into the woods and was beat senseless, then narrowly escaped by driving away with broken bones and the killer dangling from the roof of the car.
There’s no clear coda for me as a reader. I don’t remember abandoning the books formally or realizing I’d outgrown them. I latched onto these books when they promised something exciting ahead—a more adult world of trysts and drama and suspense. Once that world arrived, unceremoniously and unannounced, the books were no longer promises; they were lies. Teenagers don’t talk like that. There isn’t danger around every turn. It’s fairly easy to see from here that the terror and fear isn’t what kept me reading—I was hooked to the romance of growing up.
A cliché only seems that way once you’ve encountered it a million times; these books felt daring and original to me as I discovered a world of sex and violence for the first time. Here, the original pleasure I felt when reading these was replaced by nostalgia, with more curiosity and marvel than irony or humor. Reading what’s sometimes hilariously bad and knowing it scares the hell out of kids shares that same pleasure of telling a good ghost story: It’s hooking into an innocence and gullibility we no longer fully understand. I thought reading these would be hilarious at first and then tedious; I didn’t expect I’d enjoy reflecting on the girl who found all of this so scintillating. R. L. Stine is on Twitter, and tweeted a while ago that it was a perfect day for scaring a child. At the time I thought it was creepy, but now I’m no longer sure.