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The author’s Point Horror collection (Photo: Erin Harrington / Design: Tina Tiller)
The author’s Point Horror collection (Photo: Erin Harrington / Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksJanuary 22, 2023

Pleasure in the pulp: The tweenage thrills of early-90s Point Horror novels

The author’s Point Horror collection (Photo: Erin Harrington / Design: Tina Tiller)
The author’s Point Horror collection (Photo: Erin Harrington / Design: Tina Tiller)

A look back at the horror stories Erin Harrington devoured as a tween reveals some unsettling truths.

A while ago I was digging through the musty outdoor book fridge on Kilmore Street – take one, leave one, don’t be messy – when I felt something like a snag, a little hook to the back of my brain. In the back corner there was a stack of battered, yellowing Point Horror novels, waiting just for me.

If this were a Point Horror novel, I would cut my finger on one of their pages, leaving a little apostrophe of blood. I’d recognise the books as forbidden but coveted objects and steal them home, only to end up in some terrible accident (in a car, at the prom), where another kind but weak-willed girl would nick them, race off and continue the cycle. Or they’d be evidence that the high school in the town I’d just moved to because something something divorce, full of handsome but frightening boys with tawny hair and eyes like rain on slate and suspiciously overfriendly girls, had a history of violent girl-murders and I looked like the last murdered girl so was probably NEXT. Probably at prom. Or they’d help me realise that the man I was babysitting for was a serial killer, or that all our parents were complicit in some heinous historic crime and someone or something was out for revenge, or that the figure I half-saw in the snow last night was actually a murderer, or maybe (the twist) it was me all along?

The horror, the hysteria – oh, oh, oh, pass me another. I snatched the books and took them home and gobbled them all down. Mine.

During the Covid years we’ve all cycled through strange sources of comfort, but these books struck a particularly potent seam of nostalgia. In the early 1990s, which for me was Standard four through Form two, Point Horrors were a sensation. Scholastic launched the imprint in 1991, folding in some earlier titles like RL Stine’s 1986 debut horror novel Blind Date. They were nastier and pitched older than Stine’s goofball Goosebumps series, which would arrive in 1992, sometimes exhibiting a shocking misanthropy. They were also – importantly – aimed explicitly at girls. 

Scholastic published close to a hundred titles, including subsidiary series like Nightmare Hall, before rebranding as Point Horror: Unleashed in late 1996, but by then they were done. During this five-year period more than six million units were sold in the UK alone. Other publishers started similar series that capitalised on Point’s success. And yet, these books have been largely forgotten, except for a devoted clutch of super fans who host snarky readathons on Instagram, and elder millennials like me who see them as formative cult classics. I suspect it’s because the category of “things girls like” is easily discarded. 

At my school, paperbacks with evocative titles like My Secret Admirer, Twisted, The Accident and The Dead Girlfriend were passed surreptitiously from girl to girl, like prisoners trying to keep their gear away from the eyes of the screws (i.e. teachers, parents, boys). They were like an alt-Sweet Valley High, in which the everyday turned rancid. Someone in marketing was having a good time, as their covers and titles recalled vividly VHS cases from the slasher horror boom and revival of the 80s; some books even ripped off slasher storylines. Their back matter and taglines (It’s a dress to die for!” “Surf’s up – you’re dead!”) oversold the contents significantly.

You could order these tween penny dreadfuls from the Ashton Scholastic book club, if your parents were cool, but they were also sold at bookshops at pocket money-friendly price points. They would be stacked thick on those spinning metal book racks that usually housed cheap romance novels and other works culturally coded as “mass-produced female trash”. I was a monster kid from a very young age, who’d already been told off for reading Stephen King and fixating on various Elm Street goings on, so these sanctioned King-lite horrors (“you know, for kids!”) became an obsession.

In the world of the books, as well as the reading, the familiar becomes dangerous, but normalcy is (almost) always restored. While some books embrace supernatural horrors (read: sexy vampires, haunted perfume), they mostly feature whodunnit plots in which the everyday life of a teen protagonist is ruptured by senseless violence. Antagonists often turn out to be friends, cousins, or even strangers who have lost their minds over (honestly relatable) transgressions like failed friendships or broken promises. They enact vengeance through acts frequently described as pranks but which better resemble arson, grievous bodily harm and attempted murder. Many storylines riff on the oral tradition of urban legends – so many babysitters in peril! – then allow for their recirculation. Very meta. We’d swap books with careful whispers about which ones were tryhard and boring (Party Line), which were predictable (The Lifeguard, of course it was Justin) and which were almost too scary to finish (April Fools). Some have a very un-PC verdict: anyone can be a psycho, including you. 

Re-reading these books has been a strange, often unsettling exercise in double-vision. My middling recollections of the plots, and a sort of emotionally raw literary sense memory, is now all tangled up with my adult view of horror, and genre, and girlhood. Perhaps that’s fitting though. My work as an academic is in horror studies. Horror’s appeal for me is its fascination with bodies, its blurring of boundaries, and the way the world and our own selves are revealed to be fragile, contingent. Horror can be oppressive and liberatory all at once. It can be nasty, but also capacious and joyful, revealing possibilities denied to us by rules and reason.  

I shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find that a few books are skilfully written. I nearly weep over the yearning determination of the heroine in Caroline B Cooney’s The Fog. Diane Hoh, who would go on to write the Nightmare Hall series, is great at pulling together authentic ensemble casts of uncertain teens who hover at the social margins. Others are far more wobbly, but there’s some pleasure in the pulp. Richie Tankersley Cusick pulls off a masterful stalker scene in an empty high school in Trick or Treat, but only between egregious … crimes … against … ellipsis. First-person chapters narrated by villains in Funhouse and Camp Fear are uncomfortably bad. DA Athkins’ mean-spirited Dorian Grey pastiche Mirror, Mirror feels like it was spat out in a weekend. Most are fast-paced, some unabashedly trashy, and a lot are frankly boring. But the skipping pulse of the books’ short chapters – and, in some, their frequent fake outs – is the run-on sentence of early adolescence, when everything is both promising and threatening, a stuttering heartbeat of he loves me, he loves me not, she’s mad, she’s sane, he’s hurt, he’s alive, she’s dead, she’s alive, I’m alone, I’m saved, the end.

As a girl, I was fascinated by the books’ strange, numbing indeterminacy, and this is all the more prominent reading them again as an adult. Boyfriends, girlfriends, funhouses and fogs. Most hover in an oddly indistinct Americana of beige suburbs or oppressive holiday towns full of white people, of endless roads, of generic high schools and too many proms for a regular calendar year. It’s all boy-girl stuff, longing glances at Chad or Teddy or Dex, the hope of being seen – really seen! (What is tweenhood, at least in the 90s, but a brutally heteronormative exercise in sorting the boys from the girls?)

Many of the girls, our points of identification, are both aspirational and uncomfortably vain. I’m a little appalled at many books’ punitive streak of misogyny, which asks readers to both identify with these teen girls but also give them a good kick. Materialism is in, in, in, and people have too much stuff, although I do like a scene in Party Line where two teens marvel at a flash new microwave. We’re just past the Wall Street crash yet there’s an awful lot of mansions, hot mean rich girls with sports cars and servants. “Poor” is a dirty word, as are “dumpy”, “homely’” “chubby” and “plain”. To a non-American reader brought up on a slurry of American pop culture, it feels both hyper-familiar and utterly foreign.

But Everytown, USA is also an isolated, lonely place that speaks to the isolated, lonely nature of early adolescence. Strangely, for all the implied violence, there are no natural deaths, no illness, no old age. There are only crimes and accidents and the suffocation of small-town ambitions. Loads of parents and siblings die off-camera in dramatic car crashes; in fact, adults are effectively non-existent. Those parents not smooshed by head-ons are always in the office, or out working their third job. Some disappear on trips with new partners for months at a time – honestly, they just fuck off to Hawai’i – leaving their latchkey teens with food money and a smiley face note. Teachers are background blurs. Through persistent abandonment, the books probe young people’s contradictory desire for independence and protection, while turning death, the reality of death, into a caricature.

I’ve always thought it strange that the dominant narrative of 20th century horror consumption was that horror – like, real horror, not that girly gothic stuff – is for boys and men (NO GRILS ALOUD). The evidence, across media forms, says otherwise. To wit: for a few short years in the early 90s, a group of adult editors and writers knelt down to the eye-level of tween girls specifically and whispered: “We know what you like. We know why you like what you like. And we’ve made something for you”.

Here is what we liked: pleasurable fear. Stories shared at slumber parties. Stories where the story could be happening to us. Stories about girls in danger. Stories about girls, a bit older than us, who were starting to date and desire and be desired, to explore the adult world. Stories in which girls felt lonely, unattractive, abandoned, misunderstood, unseen. Stories about bodies and shock. Stories that took seriously our everyday fears about school, friends and family. Stories that made your lips cold and your hands tingle. 

Because it can be fearful, shameful being a girl. My memory of being a girl in a girls’ body was one of constant policing, uncertainty and surveillance, as well as a yawning sense of isolation and inadequacy that’s never quite dissipated. Ages 10 through 12 was a time of puberty classes and emergent harassment in the form of catch me, kiss me. Men started to wolf whistle as you walked from the bus, and boys poked at your chest, pinged your new bra and asked you for blowjobs without knowing what they were. Being called girly was an insult. In my class, a vicious culture of food restriction was already entrenched, modelled by yo-yo dieting mothers, and dance teachers and sports coaches who taught girls to pinch an inch and suck in their guts. Fairweather friends would be kind one day, then kick and spit and try to rip your hair out the next.

High school seemed like an appalling threat. One of my classmates was nearly bundled into a van by a man with lollies a block from school, and other kids were facing true horror at home. And, for me, thirty years’ worth of menstrual problems began. I’d hand-scrub dirty sheets in the dark in the morning as if paying penance, crying through the cramps because the water was so cold and the stains so stubborn. In comparison, there’s something comforting about ridiculous sensationalist horrors in which order is restored and the end is the end.

I have read more of these books in the last year or so than I think I ever did as a kid. With my adult eyes, I can see the seams in their construction as well as their ugly biases, but I also recognise what my younger self found so entrancing. I snoop around for treasures in op shops, and friends grab me strays at book fairs. Nice Trade Me women (all women) from Dunedin to Kaitaia send me sun-damaged bulk lots. Most books are inscribed with the names of previous owners – Alex, Gina, Vanessa, Nicola – the dots of the letter i’s drawn as hearts or bubbles. I feel connected to these girls and their purple gel pens.

These books are battered catalogues of hopes and fears, of desires. They are clumsy and a bit shit, but so are we. They are once-loved, pre-loved, always-loved, and like our younger selves, still deserving of that love.    

Keep going!