Title: The Haunted House
Tagline: Will a witch’s spell come between Elizabeth and Jessica? [Dove: Not until Super Chiller #9, and it’s more of a curse than a spell…]
Summary: Everyone at Sweet Valley Middle School has always said the Mercandy mansion is haunted. Strange lights flicker in the windows at night, and no one ever sees the owners come and go. So when Nora Mercandy moves into the run-down house, rumours spread fast. Jessica Wakefield and her friends are convinced Nora is a witch.
But Elizabeth, Jessica’s twin, is certain that Nora is just an ordinary girl. She’s determined to stick up for her new friend. She’ll get to the bottom of the mystery of the Mercandy mansion – even if it might mean losing her sister’s friendship!
Scary witches at Halloween. Sounds fun! As my pseudonym implies, I’m a sucker for a Halloween Special. I’m sure this will be no different. Of course, Nora won’t actually be a witch. If she is, I’ll eat my (large and pointy) hat.
The Front Cover: Blonde Girls Encounter Brunette Outside A Place. How exciting! The brunette is at a jaunty angle, with arms crossed to convey maximum sass. Also, it’s getting dark, so this is the closest I’ll ever get to reading Twilight.
(By the way, I’m Raven. I’m new. Hello!)
[Dove: This was the first ever Sweet Valley book I read. I picked it up in a charity shop during a particularly boring visit with my grandfather. So the moral of this story is: don’t visit your relatives, or you’ll get hooked on awful books filled with hateful characters.]
[Wing: I blame your family for everything. Also, we should recap the Twilight series with Raven.]
[Raven: Not happening.]
[2 Feb 2017 update: Wing: For another take on this book, check out the Super Serials podcast episode.]
We start proceedings with our protagonists discussing their anticipated Social Studies report grade. Their teacher, christened “The Hairnet” as she wears a hairnet [Wing: Such funny. Much clever.], is cause for much merriment. Presumably this literal approach to nicknames is why the girls often call Mr Nydick “The Mankini”.
Next up, obligatory paragraphs that discuss the Wakefield Twins and their particular outlooks. I’m sensing variations of these will be in every book…
“Jessica and Elizabeth are identical twins. They look the same. However, they are also not the same. In fact, they are very different!”
“Jessica wears makeup. Elizabeth has slightly different hair.”
“Elizabeth thinks, reads and writes. Elizabeth is a genius. Jessica is distracted by colours, shapes and sounds. Jessica is a mollusc.”
“Jessica likes the mall, boys and giggling. Jessica is twelve. Elizabeth thinks that Jessica’s interests are pointless, and that Jessica’s friends should be loaded into catapults and fired into the sun. Elizabeth is an asshat.”
[Dove: Words cannot express how much I would read the hell out of a Sweet Valley book written by you.]
[Wing: I would pay so, so, so much money for that.]
[Raven: Side project!]
The girls turn their bicycles onto Camden Drive. Upon first reading, I thought they’d turned their bicycles into Camden Drive. Bam! That’s some high-level witchcraft right there. Bikes to buildings… take that, Hermione!
Camden Drive houses the Mercandy Mansion, and we learn the rumours pertaining to that particular location and family. The building is run-down, and looks haunted. It houses the creepy old Mrs Mercandy, a supposed witch that holds her “crazy” husband in thrall. Apparently, these facts are proven because there are strange lights and shadows sporadically flickering in the attic windows. I mean, god forbid that the Mercandys should ever switch a fucking light on in their own fucking house. My living room light is on right now, does that make me Gandalf? [Dove: Our living room light is rarely off. It’s more likely you’d be mistaken for Old Gregg.]
[Wing: Someday, all the “crazy” characters should rise up and destroy the world.]
These spurious claims are not all. A week past, both Jessica and Elizabeth (hereafter known as “Jessibeth” when operating as a team) witnessed the house devour a visiting preteen girl with brown hair. She arrived in a taxi, walked up the path, and vanished! Jessibeth had discussed little else since, and the girl had not reappeared. Had Old Lady Mercandy done something terrible to the visitor?
Suddenly, eyes! The brown-haired girl is alive, and walking around the garden!
Jessibeth watch while the strange girl calls for a supposed hellhound called Boris (a great name for a witch’s pet, to be fair). Jessibeth mime shoelace emergencies and paper scatterage to legitimise their lurking. Boris is revealed to be a four-legged cliché (a black cat), and, after glimpsing a shadowy witch-like figure through an open doorway, Jessibeth cycle home to mine the superior brain of their older sibling, Steven, for more rumours about the Mercandy Mansion and its spooky inhabitants.
Back home, Stephen and the Elder Wakefields discuss the Mercandy menace. Steven is typically fourteen: full of bravado and utter bullshit. Attic shadows are a sign of witchcraft, he says. So are pink eyes. Jessica is convinced house is rife with evil, but Elizabeth shows the first sign of doubt:
Jessica took over. “She has this long black hair that goes all the way down to her waist. We think that old Mrs Mercandy has cast a spell on her or something.”
“We do?” asked Elizabeth.
“Of course,” Jessica declared.
So there we have it. Evil Twin declares it’s witchcraft. Good Twin casts doubt. Therefore, it’s not witchcraft. We can all stop reading. See you next time!
The Elder Wakefields showcase their erratic parenting skills here. On one hand, they admonish Steven for name-calling. On the other hand, they humour the rumours, and if you humour the rumours, what do you get? That’s right… Tumours.
Another positive note sees Daddy Wakefield instilling a sense of scepticism into his progeny with the following:
Mr Wakefield groaned. “I don’t want to kids to believe everything you see or hear or read. I hope all of you will use your own good intelligence before jumping to conclusions like the ones I’ve just heard.”
Good work, Daddy W. Sadly, his wife brings their collective performance down a few notches by being in the kitchen preparing dinner before going out for dinner. [Dove: Ned also lets things down by assuming anyone in the Wakefield clan has intelligence, good or otherwise.]
Once the ‘rents depart, and Elizabeth and Steven remove themselves from the narrative, Jessica calls the Overlord of the Unicorn Club (Overlady?), Lila Surname.
NOTE: Thus far, if there’s one thing about this series that’s flicked my nipple more than anything, it’s the CONSTANT PEBBLE-DASHING OF THE TEXT WITH SUPERFLUOUS SURNAMES. So, like the brave little soldier I am, I refuse to submit to the authorship’s reindeer games. The Wakefields get a pass, as do the Mercandys is this book, and as do new and exciting additions to the Sweet Valley Alumni if and when they occur. But the Unicorns? The Teachers? The boys, the classmates, the neighbours we see in every other book? They are, and shall forever be, the collective “Surnames.” And they are LEGION.
[Dove: While I support any of your endeavours on this site, I feel it’s a little aggressive to penalise the teachers for having surnames, what with them being known exclusively as $title $surname.] [Raven: Fair point well made.]
(I also reserve the right to drop this at the drop of my aforementioned large and pointy hat for the purposes of humour. Should a joke require it, all bets are off.)
Jessica tells Lila Surname all about their exciting encounter with the Mercandy Clan earlier that day (and of course, I use the word ‘exciting’ here quite wrongly). Lila Surname is confounded, and steals Jessica’s thunder by assuming the role of Gossip Commando. Lila herself will spread the news to Janet Surname and all the other Unicorns. Way to be a dick, Lila Surname.
Jessica then goes swimming. Obviously.
Elizabeth warns against it, as pneumonia is a constant threat to those blighted with a Californian climate. Nevertheless, Jessica is suitably gung-ho about the whole thing, realising it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission (an axiom with which Mr Nydick opened the arguments for his defence).
Despite this mini rebellion, the Younger Wakefields are all in bed by ten. Jessica drifts off to slumberland to the dulcet tones of a Johnny Buck tape. (You sent a twelve-year-old girl to sleep with your tape, Johnny Buck. Your music is bad and you should feel bad.) Then, in a classic chapter-ending cliff-hanger, she is awoken by a set of glowing red witchy eyes… it’s the Mercandy Witch!
Nope, it’s Steven being a jeb-end.
[Wing: Okay, no. NO NO NO. Dove finally got me using “bellend” and now you’re throwing out an entirely different term? I CAN’T ART UNDER THESE CONDITIONS. He means dickhead. DICKHEAD. /dramatic] [Raven: It’s your basic First Principle from the Universal British Swearyword Generator. Take any syllable, add “-end,” offend!] [Wing: Okay, that made me laugh hard enough I’m now accepting jeb-end as a word.]
True to form, the next morning sees Jessica plagued with “pneumonia” from her evening swimming shenanigans. With J conveniently removed from the equation, Elizabeth heads to school after promising her sister she’ll pick up the latest news from Lila and Janet, especially anything extra about the mysterious girl of Mercandy Mansion. However, this proves pointless, as it turns out the Strange Girl is also the New Girl in Class!
Ms Pauley (nee Surname) introduces the Strange Girl as Nora Mercandy, and the Mercandy name causes much consternation. Predictably, no one offers to buddy Nora until golden girl Elizabeth steps into the breach (but not before the pause between the question and offer became noticeable and upsetting). After class, a Duocorn (a.k.a. the two Unicorns Lila Surname and Ellen Surname) pours scorn on Elizabeth for her choice, and on Nora for being a fucking witch lol obv. Lila Surname and Ellen Surname team up with Notorious B.U.L.L.Y. Charlie Surname to add more fuel to the fire.
By this point, it’s clear that Nora is Normal and that Elizabeth is firmly on the side of ‘Not-A-Witch’. The Befriending begins. Sadly, their class timetables don’t overlap, and Nora is thrust to the metaphorical wolves in Social Studies. When they catch up at lunch, Nora is distraught.
“Everyone treats me as if… as if I have some kind of disease.”
Elizabeth explains that the students making Nora’s day a nightmare are members of the Unicorn Club, a vapid cabal of unparalleled shitgibbons. The Unicorns continue their harassment with origami aviation, which prompts the Blessed Elizabeth to confront the ne’er-do-wells (with disappointing results). However, this encounter provides the first opportunity for Lovely Lizzy to nip the whole thing in the bud with the following simple sentences:
“Sorry Nora, but the entire town thinks you and your family are witches. I know, ridiculous, right? Fuck these no-mark haters, girl. You rock!”
Instead, they talk about gym. Because as well as being a bit witchy, Nora is also poor, which in Sweet Valley is arguably much worse. [Dove: It’s so bad that in book #9 we have to deal with it, like it’s a Very Special Episode topic.]
Elizabeth offers to loan her some gym clothes the following day, clothes that aren’t rags and dishcloths. She then takes a deep breath and asks some clam-popping personal questions.
For a second, Elizabeth was afraid Nora was going to cry. “My father died when I was a baby… my mother died last month.”
Well, that escalated quickly.
After gym, Nora’s day gets worse, at the hands of the Unicorn Shitgibbons. Lila Surname, Ellen Surname, Charlie Surname, Jerry Surname and Bruce Patman [Wing: Why the hell does Bruce get an actual surname? I SENSE BIAS, RAVEN. YOU’RE SUCCUMBING TO HIS CHARMS.] [Dove: Also, behold his sexism. Boys get surnames. (Raven, that’s for siding with Wing over the pink/red cover of book 1.)] chase her home, demanding that Nora goes back to Transylvania. The last thing she hears as she closes the door are the Unicorn Shitgibbons demanding the Mercandys pay for a wall that cordons off Camden Drive, in order to Make Sweet Valley Great Again.
Elizabeth is eager to tell the diseased Jessica the news about Nora. First, she talks to Mummy Wakefield. Apparently, Jessica is “well enough to watch” a string of soap operas, which causes much merriment. Surely, when you’re down with the sickness, lying on the sofa and binging TV shows is exactly what you do…? [Dove: I build websites. It soothes my addled brain.]
Jessica knows the score RE: Nora, thanks to Big Mouth Prissy-Boots Unicorn Shitgibbon Caroline Surname (BMP-BUSCS). Cue a page of She’s-A-Witch-No-She-Isn’t back and forth… [Dove: Sorry to be pedantic, but Caroline Pearce is not a Unicorn. She’s a ginger, and I think it’s written into the Unicorn Constitution that you can only be blonde or brunette.] [Raven: She might not be a Unicorn, but she’s definitely a shitgibbon.]
The night ends with both twins firmly unconvinced of the other’s point of view.
Next morning, the narrative dictates that Elizabeth be removed from the picture, so she’s stricken with a sore throat as a Deus Ex Machina. [Wing: But she didn’t swim! However can the text justify this?] Jessica is tasked with delivering the non-dishcloth gym gear to Nora, which she immediately forgets. And Nora? Nora sees “Elizabeth” sat with the Unigibbons. She is upset at this apparent heel turn. To me, the real heel turn happened when Elizabeth asked Nora personal questions, to which Nora shared the traumatic death of her parents, and Precious Little Lizzie didn’t even spill that she had an identical fucking twin. It’s all take-take-take with some people.
Ms Pauley (nee Surname) announces details of the school’s Halloween Party, including the categories for the Costume Competition (one of which is “Ugliest Costume,” basically a charter for bullying). The “slightly overweight” Jerry Surname wants to know if food will be provided, for no discernible reason other than to fat shame. I hope Ms Pauley (nee Surname) dresses as a pumpkin, and Jerry eats her. [Dove: Maybe Lois was out with “pneumonia” that day too, so chubby Jerry had to fill in for fat Lois?]
[Wing: I hate everyone in Sweet Valley except maybe Nora’s family.]
Amy Surname (Elizabeth’s buddy on the school paper Sweet Valley Sixers) chimes in with a question. Nora perks up. Amy is Elizabeth’s friend! Elizabeth had mentioned the three of them would meet that day for lunch. Sadly, as Elizabeth was conveniently coughing up a lung back home, this doesn’t happen. And the twin confusion continues unabated.
At gym, Jessica remembers her promise to deliver rags to the witch, and breaks the Twin Magic by introducing herself to Nora. There’s the usual new-to-twin-news exchange (“You look so alike!”… “That’s what ‘identical’ means, you cleft.”), and gym begins. Nora can play in her street clothes for now, and ends up facing down Lila Surname in a set of tennis.
Before they play, Lila Surname offers a bet. As she is fabulously rich and supremely talented, she wagers an “expensive cloisonné pen” against whatever mucky tat Nora can dredge from her swampy schoolbag. Nora isn’t keen on the idea, but accepts the bet anyway. She offers up a silver-plated compact. No one else in the class overhears the bet.
THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR THE PLOT.
Turns out that Nora? Tennis machine. She’s a Robotic Agassi, a Steffi (van der) Graf, a Bjorn (cy)Borg. She unassumingly trounces Lila Surname 6-1. And later, in the empty locker room, Lila makes good on the wager by handing over the pen.
NO ONE ELSE WAS LOOKING. IS THAT IMPORTANT? YES.
Also, what the hell is a cloisonné pen?
[Wing: Really fancy pen. Cloisonné is a decorating style, using gems, glass, enamel, etc. on metalwork, which now includes really fancy pens. I have a couple. They look pretty, but the pen itself has to have a good nib and ink flow to really make it nice, and even then, not worth the cost. Mine were all gifts. And in case it hasn’t become clear yet, I mostly exist in this recap threesome to provide random bits of information.] [Raven: Thanks, Wing!]
Next day, Elizabeth and Amy corner Nora early. Amy meets Nora, and Elizabeth hands over the long-delayed gym gear. They talk tennis, and Nora mentions (but does not elaborate upon) the bet. They happily discuss Nora’s skill level and the opportunity for more trouncing.
Unfortunately, Lila Surname overhears everything! She’s still fuming – you can literally see the fume – and she has already enacted Step One of Lila’s Sweet Revenge: she had told Ms Pauley (nee Surname) that she was missing one “expensive cloisonné pen”…!
Sure enough, Nora reveals the pen from her bag when required to fill out a survey. Lila screams, Nora simpers, and Teach asks our plucky orphan to step outside for a discussion.
While blame is assigned remotely, Lila Surname wastes no time in trashing Nora’s reputation as a non-witch. According to the Sweet Valley Hive Mind, the Mercandy Witch has been responsible for everything from a dead cat to a superfluous coffin purchase. Caroline Surname even claims that Nora casts no reflection! Nora is truly the Beast of Craggy Island.
Lila and Nora are summoned to the vice-principal’s office, a scenario in which Lila Surname knows she can shine. True enough, once the dust has settled, the useless sack of skin in charge admonishes Nora for the entire debacle, and both are sent from the room.
While Nora bemoans her predicament to a sympathetic Elizabeth and Amy, she is interrupted by Rick Hunter, a good-looking boy who’s also a tennis machine. He asks Nora for a tennis match, and Nora stutteringly accepts. All three girls are giggly and squealing with delight; like, Rick Hunter is one of the cutest boys in school, omg!
Yeah, and Jessica is the shallow one. [Dove: TEAM JESSICA!]
[Wing: FUCK TEAM JESSICA! She’s a fat-shaming, ableist jackass. #teamextinctionlevelcomet]
[Dove: It’s like voting. You’ve got a choice between two truly awful humans with utterly horrific ideas. Pick the less despicable of the two.]
[Wing: Because that always works, as you can tell from recent politics around the world.]
Unsatisfied with merely branding Nora as a thief, Lila Surname continues her terrible vengeance in grand fashion. During a math test, she notices Nora has finished her paper in record time. Apparently, the youngest Mercandy Witch is also a wizard with numbers. In an outrageous move, she switches her underwhelming paper with Nora’s completed masterpiece, taking the time to swap names under the very nose of Ms Wyler (nee Surname) the math teacher.
Are any teachers in Sweet Valley good at their job? In three books, we’ve had a teacher fired for sexual misconduct, a ballet teacher with an irrational hatred of a student, a vice-principal who can’t see through a blatant preteen fabrication, and now a math teacher with the attention span of Dug, the dog from Up. Seriously, Sweet Valley Middle School, vet your job applicants. Maybe decline those whose resumes are supplied on the back of a cereal box, written in faeces.
Back at the Wakefield Compound, the arguments over Nora continue. Elizabeth finally convinces Jessica to be a little nicer to Nora. Of course, next day, when the Unigibbons are crowing over Lila Surname’s latest masterstroke, Jessica drops all thoughts of Nora Niceness faster than Skrillex drops the bass.
When the test results arrive, Nora receives a D, while Lila Surname receives an A. The clueless Ms Wyler (nee Surname) asks Nora why she’s so shit, and Nora sees through Lila’s ruse immediately, but doesn’t dare point it out to the “teacher.” C’mon Nora, don’t be a doormat. You have other examples of your handwriting, and Lila’s writing will also be available for comparison. You literally have proof of wrongdoing… point fingers and name names!
After class, Nora confides in Amy and Elizabeth. Apparently, she doesn’t want “any more trouble.” At first, Elizabeth is full of good advice. However, when Nora complains of the student body’s harsh treatment of her, and Amy tries to console her with the truth, Elizabeth intervenes:
“You see, Nora,” Amy began slowly, “a lot of people in town think your grandmother is a-”
“Is sort of weird,” Elizabeth interrupted.
Way to go, Liz. Another ball dropped. Seriously, just tell the New Girl that the town thinks her family is from Salem.
Armed with this false information, Nora has an idea. She’ll invite the Unigibbons over for tea and crumpets, or the American equivalent (bourbon and guns?). [Wing: Obviously, y’all. MURICA.] Elizabeth promises to help, determined that her friend acclimatise to her new environment. Because all plans based on a foundation of lies are sure to succeed. Yeah, that’s bound to work! You should’ve just told her, Elizabeth. You’re a coward.
That Saturday, Elizabeth lurches into action. She coerces Jessica into ensuring the Unigibbons are in Mercandy Mansion’s backyard at 2pm sharp. Although Lizzie insists it’s to meet the Mercandy Matriarch, Jess is suspicious. However, always the pragmatist, she agrees to this after a healthy bout of blackmail. (One of the conditions was that Elizabeth let Jessica wear her New Yellow Sweater, because apparently spending twelve years dressing like your sibling just isn’t enough.) [Dove: This is a thing I find confusing. The text tells us the twins have different clothing taste, so why is Jessica always stealing Liz’s clothes? Does Liz doormat so hard she constantly buys clothes that she hates, just so Jessica will have something new to wear?]
[Wing: Also, none of this is actually blackmail. It’s more like bribery. Or since Daddy Wakefield is a lawyer, a negotiation where one side is much better than the other. Do I see Daddy’s favourite?]
Lunchtime, at the home of Lila Surname, sees a meeting of the Unigibbons. The highbrow discourse flows like cheap wine. We learn of Lila Surname’s poor-lonely-rich-girl lifestyle: her mother is absent and her father is always away on business. Lila shares her idea of forming a Booster club – apparently some form of Uber Cheerleader Force, and only mentioned to seed Book Four – and agrees to discuss it with Ms Langberg (nee Surname).
Talk turns to Lila’s upcoming Halloween party, at which she demands the Unigibbons help her humiliate Nora the Hexplorer even further. The usual Halloween TP-centric prank suggestions abound, and Jessica takes this as a cue to pass on Elizabeth’s message. At first, the group is largely horrified, but Jessica is at her cunning best and cajoles them into attendance.
One issue I have here is that it seems that every single Unigibbon actually believes that Nora and her Grandmother are bona-fide witches. Not one offers a sceptical view of the supernatural. Come to think of it, even characters that declare Nora is a normal girl do not questioned that actual magic-spell-casting, broomstick-riding, cackling, green-faced, cat stroking, hat-wearing witches are 100% real and walking around California. I’m sure if such entities were confirmed as real, I wouldn’t be discovering this fact in the pages of a Sweet Valley Twins book.
On their way to the Mercandy Mansion, the Unigibbons hook up with Bruce Patman. However, even when bolstered with his teenage bravado, they decline to enter the property and opt instead to lurk in the bushes at the perimeter fencing to evaluate proceedings from afar.
Through the railings, the Unigibbons see Nora, Elizabeth and Amy setting up the punch and nibbles. When Nora disappears inside for cookies, the group makes itself known. They creep up the garden, confirming with Elizabeth that they are safe from evil.
Nora emerges with cookies, and reaches out to the sceptical Lila Surname. After the cookies are taste-tested for poison by Elizabeth (who totally should have feigned a poisoning to troll everyone), it appears that the ice has been tentatively broken. Lila and Bruce reach for a cookie…
The screen door bursts wide. Standing tall in the frame, a gaunt figure in black with a shock of white hair! Reaching out a wizened hand, his menacing voice mumbles a single syllable; “Nor… Nor… Nor…”
Lila and Bruce flee in terror, trailed by the remaining Unigibbons. Elizabeth and Amy are transfixed in horror. Nora, sobbing at the scene, breaks the tension with a strangled cry. Elizabeth and Amy turn and run.
First, while I dislike the lead-up to this scene, I actually quite like the Zombie plot point. It feels like an authentic reaction from a bunch of hyper preteens actively seeking a scare.
However, I don’t like that Elizabeth and Amy flee from their new friend.
It’s obvious to any onlooker that Nora’s life is a raging shitstorm. Her parents are dead, and she’s been relocated to a new school. The town in which her new guardians live believes her entire family to be “weird”. The Cool Kids in Class all seem to hate her, and, when she reaches out to mend fences, things go horribly wrong. It makes me sad that Elizabeth, the supposed Good Twin, can’t hang back and offer the girl a modicum of support. [Dove: Hi, you must be new. The reason Elizabeth is the “good” twin is because literally nobody in Sweet Valley is worse than Jessica. With only that blood-spattered yardstick available, Elizabeth is practically a saint.]
At school on Monday, the student body knows of the weekend’s horror-fest at Mercandy Mansion. Elizabeth and Amy are AWOL, and what was merely a botched garden party morphs into a tall tale of monsters, menace and mayhem.
[Wing: And yet no werewolves.]
At lunch, the Unigibbons hatch a plan. Lila sets the wheels turning by demanding Nora meet them after class. Sure enough, Nora complies like a downtrodden puppy, and is set an errand as payback for Zombiegate: fetch delicious cookies from a faraway place, or suffer more fabricated allegations of theft!
Nora is in a pickle. The Unigibbons are numerous, and she believes that any attempt to expose the scheme to the staff would result in her story being drowned out by a sea of lies. Considering the track record of teachers in Sweet Valley Middle School, her concerns are not without foundation.
So what does she do? She fetches goddamn cookies, that’s what.
The Unigibbons are delighted, and Lila is specific with her scorn. Now effectively their slave, Nora ends the day bereft of options, derided from all sides, and abandoned by everyone she holds dear.
[Wing: They call Nora their slave a lot in this book, but that’s not actually what it means to be a slave, and I hate to see it tossed about as such a lighthearted, low impact bit of trolling. Fucking Unigibbons.]
Poor Nora. Your life is bleak, and you deserve better friends.
That evening, we see Jessibeth preparing their costumes for the school Halloween party. Jessica preens herself as a hula girl [Wing: Jessica needs to check out the We’re a Culture, Not a Costume campaign.], while Elizabeth fashions a clown outfit.
I feel this is a missed opportunity, as coordinated costumes should be mandatory for identical twins at Halloween. Why not rock it old school?
[Wing: This makes me want to find some twins and have them dress like this for Halloween, then escort them around and terrify people. Without actually being as predatory as that statement made me sound.]
It soon transpires that ditzy ol’ Jessica has neglected to pass on an important message from Elizabeth to Nora, concerning Liz’s absence from Nora’s life. Apparently, Monday was deadline day at the Sweet Valley Sixers student paper, and neither Amy nor Elizabeth could spare five seconds to speak to the obviously traumatised Beleaguered New Girl.
I’m sorry Elizabeth, but go fuck yourself.
You and Amy physically fled from a sobbing Nora two days earlier, and you’ve offered no contact since? Nora is being mentally and physically tortured by the Unigibbons, and you can’t find the time to go say hello? Fine, so you stick up for her at home when Jessica hollers about witches, but when it really matters? When Nora needs your support? You’re nowhere to be found.
At this point, I’m seriously wondering if this book will end with Nora’s suicide.
Next day at school, Amy and Elizabeth hook up with Nora and explain the situation. The three of them agree that Jessica is an awful person, but Elizabeth is still unwilling to pull the trigger on Jessica’s premeditated ambivalence. Jessica is Jessica, and thus she gets a pass on being evil because she refuses to back down.
But what of Nora’s tormentors? Instead of curing the disease, Elizabeth decides to ignore the symptoms. Her solution to the problem? Nora should keep her head down. Nora should act like a slave. Nora should know her role and shut her mouth.
Stellar advice there, Liz. Top fucking marks. [Dove: Behold Liz’s sexism. If it’s a boy, buck up, stand up for yourself, let me help you. If it’s a girl, suck it up, buttercup. That’s your lot in life. More books will prove this theory.] [Wing: This is Dove’s version of the charming foreshadowing in these early books.]
As Nora’s week continues, things go from bad to worse. Suddenly, lacking rhyme and reason, the Unigibbons display a 180-degree change of heart. Gone are the barbed comments, the barked commands, the side-glares and finger-points. Instead, Nora is treated like an old friend!
Elizabeth and Amy can’t believe it. Even Nora is suspicious of the all-new Shiny Happy Unigibbons, although she does appreciate their efforts. She even notices just how pretty Lila Surname can look, when she isn’t sneering.
Don’t succumb to evil, folks. You’ll get wrinkles. Verily, virtue is karma’s botox.
At the Dairi Burger that evening, laughter and apologies abound. Lila Surname holds court with grace and élan, and even Bruce Patman is full of joy. Nora is invited to Lila’s upcoming Halloween Bash, after school the following day. She politely accepts.
Then, slipped silently between the ribs like a honed stiletto dagger, Lila Surname’s ruse insinuates itself into the narrative:
“Why don’t you come as a witch? That would show everybody you didn’t take all the teasing seriously.”
To her credit, Nora isn’t totally convinced, but she indicates acquiescence before visiting the bathroom. True to form, the Unigibbons start flinging faeces before the last note of Nora’s courtesy flush.
Lila’s invite is designed to accomplish two things:
- To lure Nora away from the Mercandy Mansion, and
- To make a fool of her for dressing as her true witchy self.
Frankly, that seems a little tame, unless the Unigibbons plan to torch the Mansion with the Elder Mercandys inside. And if that’s the plan, I know of a ballet school that requires some attention.
Next morning, Jessibeth don their respective costumes for the day’s festivities. The Elder Wakefields offer their fatuous praise, following which there’s a period of breathless hilarity regarding a non-adhesive false eyelash. Seriously, I laughed for about a week. My sides still hurt. Eyelash in the jelly, people! Eyelash. In. The. Jelly.
Jessica meets up with Lila Surname and Ellen Surname, forming an Unholy Trinity of Hula Unigibbons. Meanwhile, Elizabeth collects Amy Surname and discovers her friend has fashioned an almost identical clown costume to her own! How very Single White Female. Deluded Amy wants to be a Wakefield Triplet.
Predictably, Nora does take Lila Surname’s costume advice, and her witchification is comprehensive. Pointy hat, buckled shoes, grey hair, long black dress…
It was the makeup that made her truly grotesque. Her face was pure white with black paint around her eyes.
So… Goth Panda.
Other costumes of note include King Kong, a Tramp, and Charlie Surname dressed as a pirate. And if Bruce Patman isn’t prowling the school halls in a cape and cowl, growling “I’m Patman” at everyone he sees, then he’s doing Halloween wrong. He’s the Unigibbon that Sweet Valley deserves.
At her Halloween party that evening, Lila Surname is the perfect hostess. Everyone who is anyone is in attendance, including Male Tennisbot 1.0 Rick Hunter. Lila Surname flirts up a storm, but Rick is impenetrable. He only has thoughts for Nora and her backhand stroke, which annoys HulaLila no end.
Talk amongst the Unigibbons turns to their now-approved Booster Club (the topic of Book Four, which promises to be a nepotistic catastrophe), before they turn their scorn to Ken Matthews, one of their schoolmates who is cute but small. For no reason I can fathom, he’s branded a loser and a midget by Jessica before the entire exchange is discarded. Literally no clue what that served, to be honest. [Dove: You know how in the last two books you thought the foreshadowing was charming? I guess you’re over that now?] [Raven: Having started Book Four, I concede that this was for foreshadowing purposes, and it gets a posthumous pass.]
Finally, talk progresses to the meat of the evening’s entertainment: the trashing of Mercandy Mansion, and the humiliation of Nora the Hexplorer! Lila and the Unigibbons are to keep Nora busy for thirty minutes, while The Dark Bruce and Captain Charlie Sparrow (a.k.a. Patman and Robbin’) work their Prank Magic.
As if by magic, Nora appears.
After a depressing amount of sweet small talk, the boys leave to commence the Mercandy Mansion Mayhem. Their departure ushers in Phase Two of Operation Shitgibbon: Humiliating The Witch. Pretences are dropped at an alarming speed, and Lila’s crew round on their prey with a barrage of withering sarcasm.
Nora, tears welling, now understand the reason for her invite. She looks for a friendly face, but finds none. In her search for a smile, she overhears a Quadrigibbon (four Unigibbons) discussing that evening’s prank agenda at Nora’s abode. Toilet paper, spray paint, rotten eggs and more.
Nora wasn’t the target. It was the Elder Mercandys!
Suddenly Nora could stand no more. She marched into the dining room. Trembling with rage, her cries could be heard throughout the Fowler house.
“I hate you, Lila! I hate all of you!
She whirled around and dashed out the front door.
As far as explosions go, this was more damp squib than dynamite. I mean, I’m not expecting Carrie, but I was underwhelmed.
Note: It’s such a shame that Nora isn’t actually a witch. If the book had built to this point, and Nora had actually been a fucking witch, raining carnage on Sweet Valley by killing everyone who wronged her before turning the wand on herself, I’d mark out SO hard and dish out high fives for days. [Dove: Hands up who wants to see Raven write his version of this book?]
[Wing: ME ME ME ME ME]
[Raven: Another side project!]
Elizabeth watches as Nora storms off. She confronts Jessica, who to her is little more than Unigibbon Ambassador at this point. Jessica toes the party line and hits Nora’s reputation with the Witch Stick once more. Elizabeth reaches deep into her purse, and finally, finally, pulls out a spine. She runs after her departing friend.
Then, in a move I did not expect, Jessica flies in the face of Lila Surname and follows her sister with a snarl. She is legit concerned for the safety of her “best friend”, a noble sentiment despite it springing from a place of ignorance and intolerance, thus proving you can be an Angel and an Asshat in one Aryan package. Go Jessica!
The party decides that, on reflection, it’s much more thrilling to chase after a visibly distressed would-be witch disguised as an emo zoo exhibit than it is to drink warm soft drinks and dance to boybands in a spoilt little rich girl’s powderpuff palace bedroom. They troop after the action en masse.
At the Mercandy Mansion, a trio of boys are fucking shit up good. Nora barrels in, screaming and swinging. She hurls a nearby bag of prank equipment at Bruce before lurching into the crumbling building. Elizabeth, seconds behind, follows suit.
Jessica, witnessing the house swallow up her identical twin, pleads with Lila and the assembled partygoers for help. Amy Surname and Rick Hunter step to her aid, but the collected Unigibbons turn an uncomfortable blind eye. [Wing: Really, they chicken out because they are all a bunch of jackass punk bullies who can’t deal with anything they don’t control. No need for an ableist phrase. And see, even the best of us fuck up sometimes.] [Raven: Noted.] Cursing her so-called “friend” Lila, Jessica darts to her sister’s rescue. More proof of her redeemable nature, which is nice, but I suspect she’ll be back to her usual belligerent self by the start of Book Four. [Wing: Is it “redeemable character” or is it “lack of continuity”?]
The gathering crowd faces a quandary. Eventually, led by Amy Surname and Rick Hunter, they tentatively enter the house in piecemeal groups. The stragglers hanging back succumb to their curiosity; The Unigibbons bring up the rear.
Following the sound of a Wakefield scream, the group makes its way to the mansion’s attic. There, they find Elizabeth comforting a distraught Nora, and Jessica reconciling with her sister.
And thus we approach the final act.
Posters adorn every wall, depicting a grand illusionist named Marvellous Marvin promising fine performances in lavish locales: London, Paris, New York. Miscellaneous partygoers murmur in wonderment. They’d heard of Marvellous Marvin. He was once world famous.
“He’s my grandfather!” Nora spoke these words shyly, but her head was raised in pride. “When he was a boy, he worked with Houdini.”
Now that gets their attention.
From the doorway, Granny Mercandy joins the conversation. While still displaying some outward signs of witchiness, her eyes are sparkling and her words are kind. She welcomes them to her home, and offers to introduce everyone to Marvellous Marvin himself!
While Granny Mercandy fetches the ageing magician, Nora monologues the backstory. Marvin, her grandfather, fell victim to a stroke some ten years back, and his loving wife had been caring for him ever since. The crowd settle, finally convinced of Nora’s amiable nature, as the Definitely-Not-A-Witch Nora explains the symptoms of her grandfather’s stroke: the partial paralysis, the slurred speech, the stiff movement. Everyone listens intently.
Marvellous Marvin enters, wheelchair bound, waving a warm greeting. Nora explains that, while he can’t perform the tricks himself, she has been learning the craft under his expert tutelage (at night, in the flickering light of the attic). [Wing: No, really, someone explain the flickering light to me like I’m five, because I don’t understand why it wouldn’t make more sense to practice in steady, bright light that let you see what the hell you were doing!] [Raven: I took this as the light being reasonably bright and solid, perhaps from a hanging bulb not out of place in an attic or basement. Nora practices showmanship and tricks under the tutelage of Marvellous Marvin, stood between the light and the attic window. Her moving shadow causes the apparent flickering.] [Wing: … that makes so much sense. Thanks.] She offers to perform a trick, to the delight of all present, and, with a healthy dose of self-awareness, asks Lila Surname if she wants to be sawn in half.
After a pretty adept display of PT Barnum style showmanship, Elizabeth becomes the willing magician’s assistant, and Nora deftly performs the illusion backed by her grandparents’ admiring smiles. The crowd goes wild, finally convinced of the New Girl’s amiable nature.
Note: I do wish, however, that in response to Elizabeth being sawn in half, one of the crowd had shouted “We’re being conned, it’s all a trick, I’ll bet she’s got an identical twin in there with her!” Alas, the series seems to lack that particular brand of self-referential meta humour. Maybe they’ll be happier to poke fun at themselves later in the run.
[Wing: TWIN MAGIC. I would also accept Jessica collapsing to the floor shrieking because she can feel Elizabeth’s pain.] [Raven: Nice!]
As the applause fades, the height of Ken Matthews is mocked once more. Bruce asks if Nora knows any tricks to make a person taller.
Everyone began to laugh. Even Ken laughed nervously. Deep down it hurt him, but he was used to people making mean jokes about his height.
What the hell?
Again, this is straight from left field. I hope it’s more than a throwaway gag, because if it is, that’s horrible. If it’s seeding a future book, that’s fine: I look forward to reading Sweet Valley Twins #103: Ken Matthews MURDERS EVERYONE.
Poor Ken. Little guy, big heart.
[Wing: What a weird time to hop into his head momentarily, too.]
Lila Surname reluctantly apologises for everything, and Nora accepts with a little grace and the vaguest hint of a veiled threat… “I hope we don’t have to be enemies any more. Because if we do, I might saw you in half for realz.”
Elizabeth and Amy sigh happily, concluding that Nora will be fine, and that the Elder Mercandys are in fact awesome and not evil. All is well in the Valley once more.
In the wrapup chapter, we have more talk of the upcoming Booster Club book, and Elizabeth predicts the nefarious nepotism in store from the unrepentant Unigibbons. In a shocking twist, Amy, the girl with no skill for the rhythmic dance that is ballet, is keen to try out for the rhythmic dance that is cheerleading. Will Elizabeth lose her friend to the All-New Superbooster Unigibbons?
Despite my initial misgivings, I enjoyed this book. I bonded with Nora, whose life was portrayed as legitimately awful, and much bleaker that I expected given the target market.
There was still a lot to hate, of course. The twins were their usual incomprehensible selves, and the supporting cast were typically ludicrous, but for once, I actually believed that Jessica and Elizabeth share genuine affection. At its core, I feel this book hit the mark. Result!
Great. Now I have a bloody benchmark.
[Dove: And the moral of the story is: It gets better. Providing you’ve got a famous relative. If you don’t, then it won’t get better. Ever.]
[Wing: The other moral of the story is: Sweet Valley deserves to burn. #teamburneverything]