If you grew up in the 1980s with access to Scholastic Book Fairs you know the cover: A stern looking teenage hunk in sunglasses, sitting on a lifeguard stand. Next to the picture is the caption, “Don’t call for help. He may kill you.” Not clever or catchy in any way, but it drives the point home. The Lifeguard was an entry in an odd but very popular genre of pre-YA horror novels for girls aged 10-14 or so. Why horror? I honestly don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it should have existed. This title came out in 1988, so my older sister fit that demographic, and she had several of them. The authors who thrived in this genre were people like Christopher Pike, RL Stine, and Richie Tankersley Cusick, the author of Trick or Treat and the aforementioned Lifeguard.
A copy of The Lifeguard sat on the shelf at my parents’ house for nearly 30 years until I insisted that my wife Amy bring it back with us to Brooklyn a couple of Christmases ago. Written on the inside of the front cover is “Sarah” in cursive indicating that it belongs to my sister, so if she decides she wants it back she can let me know. I encouraged Amy to read it knowing full well it had to be awful. It was, but the other day I decided I needed to find out just how awful. I read it in a day, not because it was engrossing in any way but because I wanted to get started on this article. I hope my sacrifice was worth it.
The very first page tells you everything you need to know about Richie Tankersley Cusick’s writing style; the book should have been entitled Ellipses and Italics. In a way she was ahead of her time and would have felt right at home writing for the Internet, where a lot of authors like to emphasize words using italics or CAPS because they don’t have enough faith that their readers will be able to figure out how the sentences should be read in the absence of context clues. It’s incredibly annoying. Apart from having an itchy italics finger, Tankersley Cusick ends nearly every piece of quoted dialogue one of two ways: either with ellipses or a hyphen. This creates the impression for the reader that in every conversation the characters are either trailing off or interrupting one another. Perhaps the habit of trailing off is a reaction to being interrupted every time you try to tell your friend something. You assume he or she is going to interrupt you, so you never finish a thought.
I’m promise I’ll trash the writing some more, but first I’ll summarize the plot for you: Kelsey and her mom go to an island to stay with Kelsey’s mom’s boyfriend and his children. The boyfriend’s daughter goes missing shortly before they arrive. The boyfriend’s two sons and the younger son’s best friend are lifeguards. Teenage girls have been disappearing and turning up dead on the island. Unbeknownst to the characters except for the one who is doing it, the killer is a lifeguard. The reader knows this as well because the book tells us, plus the title of the dang book is The Lifeguard. These three dudes are the only lifeguards so one of them is the killer. I wonder if it’s the one you least expect? Oh look it turns out it is, and he’s coincidentally the one person who Kelsey does not suspect at one point. Kelsey never actually figured out he’s the killer, he revealed himself by trying to kill her. He fails, she lives, oh by the way her friend who we thought was dead after falling from a cliff wasn’t (although nobody in the story even knew she was missing, only the reader and the killer thought she was dead) and also the sister wasn’t dead either(?) just left injured for several days in a lighthouse.
Stretch all that out to 200 pages, throw in a red herring Sea Captain from The Simpsons character to possibly be the killer, and you’ve got yourself another entry in the Point Horror series.
I promised more book gripes so here are a couple more that stood out:
- The book remains fairly chaste because it’s written for adolescent girls, but this description of one of the brothers stood out as especially horny “That thick black hair, the firm set of his jaw, the high cheekbones, the sinewy curve of his upper arms.” Maybe I feel this way because my sisters and I were advanced readers and tackled things slightly above our reading level so Sarah might have been reading this at a slightly younger age than she should have been, but this seemed too sexy. The word “sinewy” should never appear in a book for children.
- Every door in the book either flies open or is slammed shut. None of the doors merely operate as designed.
- A lot of girls were disappearing and turning up dead in this book and it’s treated so nonchalantly. At one point somebody in the book says that two girls showed up dead already this season (two more end up getting attacked and a third thought to be dead shows up alive) but that they didn’t make a big deal out of it so as not to scare the tourists. Maybe make a big deal out of multiple deaths in a tiny community over a couple months? Also the cops never once appear in the book. Dead bodies, no cops, everybody’s chill.
- None of the adverbs in the book sound like they’re being used in the correct context or even placed at the correct spot in the sentence. When it comes to adverbs (and a lot of verbs, nouns, etc.) it’s as if every single word choice she made was the wrong one.
- Richie Tankersley Cusick appears to have been a fairly successful author. She published more than 25 books. While she doesn’t seem to know how to write she made it work somehow, and I commend her for it.
I appreciate that this genre of books existed (and still does. RL Stine is going strong and that list of Point Horror titles stretched into 2014), but I’m also very happy that my sister and I started reading Stephen King around this age and I didn’t spend much time on these.
Were you a kids horror book reader? What were some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
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