Title: The Secret of the Magic Pen
Summary: A pen that tells the future?
The summer holidays are here, and Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield and their friends have just arrived at sleep-away camp! On a hike through a dark, eerie cave, Elizabeth finds something incredible—a glowing pen! She can’t wait to use it to write an article for the camp newspaper.
But as she writes, Elizabeth is astonished to find herself composing a mystery full of scary twists and turns. And to her horror, little by little the mystery seems to be coming true! This isn’t just an ordinary pen. Could it be haunted?
On the one hand, I love some of the Super Chillers and enjoy the ideas behind almost all of them. On the other hand, Elizabeth. Unless a ghost is around to try to kill her, I’m not really feeling a book about her right now.
On the other other hand, the weather turned again, and I am once more cold enough that a story set in the summer is a pleasure.
Also, I don’t hate the USA cover, but damn, that other one is terrible.
[Note from the future: Y’ALL. THIS BOOK.]
[Dove: I saw no need for me to make a cover, since we have the USA one. Which is good, because my ideas were absent. The first time I read this, it immediately slipped out of my brain – I blame The Carnival Ghost, it just set the bar damned high – but this time around I enjoyed it a bit more. I do love the summer camp trope, and I’d completely forgotten that was the setting for this book.]
[Raven: Ooooh, a magic pen. Spooky! How very Stephen King…
Elizabeth finishes another Amanda Howard mystery (and pretty much every few books we have a new one from her; she’s basically a Nancy Drew author, isn’t she), completely satisfied by the consistent structure of her books: the beginning was always intriguing, the middle was frightening, and the end was unpredictable.
So the complete opposite of a Sweet Valley book where the beginning is repetitious, the middle is slow and repetitious, and the end is Wakefields Always Win. And repetitious.
Then we get the same but different: Elizabeth loves books about killers, Jessica loves actual killing, Elizabeth wants to write a murder mystery, Jessica wants to star in one, Elizabeth has a new bff every week, Jessica a new hobby. Plus murder.
I’m shocked to learn that Elizabeth isn’t doing the prestigious summer school program that her current bff, for the moment at least, Amy is doing. In fact, she and Jessica have pretty much been abandoned by all their friends.
Elizabeth: Amy is studying all the time and Todd is at sports camp. That’s — that’s it? Nothing on any of your other friends? No Maria? No Julie? No anyone? [Raven: This is one of the reasons why I dislike the specials. They’re not about the characters we love.]
Jessica: Lila is in Europe with her father, maybe even “licking a gigantic gelato in Italy.” Well that’s one way to refer to it. And she didn’t even invite Jessica, how very dare. [Dove: Lila always goes off to Europe in the summer.] Ellen is off to visit her grandmother in Wyoming. Why is her grandmother in Wyoming? That doesn’t seem like a very Ellen-family thing to do. Plus there are horses in Wyoming and you know how Dove feels about Ellen + horses. So, uh, that’s two Unicorns. Two. What about the rest?
They whine about being bored. I do not understand being bored, especially in the summer. Use some of those fucking hobbies, kids. At least you’re allowed outdoors and don’t have to stay six feet away from other people and never touch. [Dove: I think their problem is that they’re both social and have hobbies that rely on other people. Also, they’re twins, so they’ve always had someone to hang out with. As an only child who didn’t always have a bunch of friends, I had to rely on amusing myself. And I did not get bored during the summer. These two? Of course they’re bored. Their one option “socialising with a very specific group of individuals as per usual, and if one or two of them are missing, then it’s all bollocks” has been ruled out.]
(So basically my life hasn’t actually changed during this pandemic. Ostrich is not handling being away from work very well, nor having to stay home. I wish I could stay home all day every day.)
Anyway, they whine, Jessica goes off to sunbathe by the pool, and Elizabeth sits down to write a mystery. She daydreams about being famous and successful, and I can’t even mock her here. Those are believable dreams for her, and kind of adorable, right down to her wanting Amanda Howard to be flattered that she had inspired Elizabeth. [Dove: Wing and I have had many conversations about how one day Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate will read our epic YA series, and be like, “We inspired this.” If that happens, we’re inviting them on the podcast, right?] [Raven: Yeah, we should really record some more podcasts…]
And then Elizabeth learns how hard it is to write, or at least to write a mystery. She can’t decide what she wants it to be about or where it should be set or what should happen or or or or or. This is my least favourite part of writing, deciding on what specific project to write next. I love brainstorming, outlining, drafting, editing, rewriting, polishing, all of that, but god do I hate that initial decision. There are too many stories I want to tell.
Three hours later, Jessica comes to check on her and Elizabeth still hasn’t written anything. They talk about writer’s block and how Amanda Howard goes to a remote cabin in northern California when she gets writer’s block. I would like to do that too, Amanda Howard. Hook me up. [Dove: I couldn’t sympathise here, I was too busy gloating. Elizabeth has no imagination. She frequently says she wants to be a writer, but never manages fiction at all. Her stories are all news articles or nostalgic memories of growing up with Jessica.] [Raven: They say write what you know…]
Jessica is grumpy at dinner because they’re having tuna casserole while Lila is probably eating caviar with a gorgeous guy in Switzerland. I am shocked she didn’t say France. She even knows that caviar is fish eggs and is usually eaten on a plain, thin cracker, thanks to Lila.
Steven doesn’t even want to eat caviar, though, which is saying something.
I’ve never had caviar before, so I don’t know personally. It’s on my list of things to try at least once.
Speaking of Steven, he’s working the absolute best job for him and the worst for his employer, at a concession stand by the beach. It sells burgers, fries, hot dogs, cotton candy, and shakes, and he can eat whatever he wants for free. So that stand will close in approximately 48 hours, if not sooner. [Raven: I’m surprised he got that job, especially with any references from his first foray into the fast food operative job market, which led to a huge food fight with Cathy that likely got him fired. Nice hiring policy, concession stand owner!]
And now I want cotton candy.
Steven teases the twins about not being old enough to work and especially to be stuck at home while he serves shakes to gorgeous girls on the beach. I sincerely hope Cathy wised up and dumped you, because you continue to be obnoxious. Not here, actually, this reads like regular sibling teasing, but you know, just on principle.
Ned and Alice surprise the girls with the chance to go to a two-week camp session at Camp Faraway.
Ghostie, you ain’t even trying. [Dove: Brits be like, “Dude, the Wakefields and the Faraway Tree? Sign me up.”]
Jessica’s always dreamed about going away to camp. Uh, you mean like that all-girl sleep-away camp you went to awhile back for two weeks where you hide Grace and try to have shenanigans with the boys’ camp across the lake? Like that one?
Come the fuck on, ghostie and editors. That book was called The Big Camp Secret. All you had to do was either not make Jessica say she’s always dreamed about going to camp or have her excited to go to one again. WTF.
Elizabeth’s excited about the writing workshops, Jessica’s excited about dance classes and acting lessons and the play they put on at the end. There’s also horseback riding and swimming and arts and crafts and, no lie, it sounds pretty damn great. I love summer camp stories. I loved summer camp. [Dove: Same. Add that to our list of settings for upcoming projects.] [Raven: Not my favourite, I’m sorry to say. I prefer straightforward school stories.]
They’re leaving in two days, and Jessica has about a week of prep to do, so this’ll be fun. From clothes to cute travel bottles of things to new swimsuit and leotard to new luggage to — god, she’s so true to herself, and ridiculous, and adorable.
For all that Elizabeth gives her shit about needing to take her entire wardrobe, Elizabeth herself tries to take every single mystery book she owns. Fucking hypocrite. When Jessica does something, or the Unicorns, it’s shallow, but when Elizabeth does the same thing for her hobbies, it’s perfectly logical.
When they get on the bus for camp, they find Mandy Miller, one of their few mutual friends. Aww, yay, I love Mandy. [Raven: She’s credited with having waist-length hair, which after the chemo is pretty good going when they’re in the same school year. HEr wig wasn’t waist length, that’s for sure.] Right away, they also meet Miranda Page, a pretty white girl (well, I’m assuming a white girl based on the fact the ghostie didn’t actually mention a race) who is going for the acting program. Mandy’s excited about that, too, though she’s looking for a comic sidekick role. So fucking adorable. I love you, Mandy.
When Elizabeth starts talking about how excited she is for the writing side of things, they meet Starr Johnson, a stunning Black girl (see? If a character isn’t white, ghostie mentions their race. White is default, which is fucked up, and is also true in a lot of media.) Starr quotes a bunch of Shakespeare at them, and Elizabeth doesn’t seem to recognise any of it. Of course, she also goes all shy around gorgeous Starr, and I’m here for Elizabeth’s First Gay Crush. (Since we just abandon all continuity anyway, I’m ignoring all those other times I talked about her crushes on girls.)
Starr gets scared by mysteries pretty easily, and she also writes on the school paper back home. Elizabeth is thrilled to have so much in common with her. [Raven: Sorry, but Starr can get in the fucking sea. That whole Shakespeare-quotings bollocks is so annoying.]
So, both twins have potential book-long BFFs set up, who will also be their rivals. Good times, good times. [Note from the future: PLEASANTLY SURPRISED HERE.]
Camp is adorable, and Elizabeth and Jessica love it immediately. They are both in Cabin Windelwisp —
Windelwisp? You went for Camp Faraway, why not just call it will-o-wisp and be done with it? (GHOST LIGHTS.)
— and I’m actually surprised they left the twins together. I don’t remember if I talked about it last camp book or not, and I sure as shit am not rereading the recap. If the ghostie doesn’t have to do the work, neither do I, but it makes a lot more sense to split them up so they have to socialise with the other girls.
Their cabin looks over Emerald Lake, and it really does sound delightful with its four sets of wooden bunk beds and colourful rug and great views.
Miranda’s in their cabin, too, and she asks Jessica to share a bunk with her. Jessica wants to be on top. Of course she does. Elizabeth was hoping to share with Jessica, but decides it will be fun to share with a new friend instead.
Conveniently, Starr’s in their cabin too, and happy to share a bunk with Elizabeth. She keeps quoting Shakespeare, Elizabeth keeps not recognising it, I keep calling shenanigans on that just like I did back in their Romeo & Juliet retelling.
Their counselor is Holly Stanton, and while she’s trying to figure out if she can tell Jessica and Elizabeth apart, Mandy comes to join their cabin, because of course she does. Why wouldn’t everyone we know at camp be in one cabin? The other girls are Danielle Bruiz, Nicole Goldner, and Melinda Henderson. [Raven: Why should be give a toss about these people?]
Also, Mandy says there’s no way to tell the twins apart. She’s known them forever and still gets them mixed up. Okay, (a) you have barely socialised with them before sixth grade, I swear, and (b) they dress completely different now and wear their hair different and have different interests and — come the fuck on. [Dove: I always assumed Mandy moved there, but the text doesn’t confirm either way. But defnitely she only popped up on their radars just before she got cancer.]
Holly’s a senior in high school in San Diego and was a camper at Camp Faraway for five years before becoming a counselor. I love that summer camp trope, the camper growing up and coming back and loving it always.
On their way to the welcome campfire, Holly gives them the rules. Lights out means lights out; they can’t leave the campgrounds without a counselor; they can never go out on the lake alone; and they can’t swim or canoe on the lake after dark. Starr doesn’t understand why anyone would want to, but canoeing in the dark is a fantastic thing to do, as is swimming under the stars.
God, I love the dark and water.
The twins, Miranda, and Starr commiserate over obnoxious brothers while they eat burgers and chips around the campfire, or at least they do until Mandy calls Steven gorgeous. MANDY. NO. YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT. [Raven: By extension, if Steven is the spitting image of Papa Ned, then she also fancies the twins’ father. Once Alice’s liver packs in, Mandy Miller could end up being Liz and Jess’s stepmother.]
After dinner, the campers make s’mores (YUM) and Gunnie Mapleman, the owner, welcomes them. She traveled the world and believes in knowing the history of places, so she’ll tell them a little about Camp Faraway’s history that night and leave some of it for them to discover. It’s the place of legends and famous people spent time there. Famous people like Roland Barge, a novelist from the 1940s, one of the greatest mystery writers of all time. Um, excuse me, if you’re going to talk about classic mystery and make up an author, go in the vein of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. Why you gotta default to a dude, ghostie? Why?
Anyway, Gunnie’s favourite thing about the camp is the network of caves that extend underground. Legend has it that murders were committed on the campgrounds a long time ago; Starr’s already freaked out by the thought of the caves, but the murders get to everyone, even Elizabeth. In this creepy moment, loons start crying out and frighten the girls half to death. D E L I G H T F U L.
Elizabeth hopes that Gunnie knows more about the murders than she let on, because Elizabeth wants to write a story about it.
The next morning, a bugle wakes them at seven a.m., which is fucking ridiculous. They have breakfast in 10 minutes and then will spend the day checking out the camp, including breaking into groups for cave expeditions. [Raven: TEN MINUTES from wake-up to breakfast? Ludicrous.]
I love the hell out of Camp Faraway, minus that early morning thing. I don’t even get up that early for work.
After breakfast, Cabin Windelwisp joins up with Cabin Snapdragon for the cave expedition. They meet more people (Tracy from San Francisco and her best friend Christy; Priscilla from the south who calls her parents Mommy and Daddy still and worries about going on a dangerous cave expedition and threatens a lawsuit if anything happens), and then head out to Hangman’s Cave. Priscilla whines the entire time, and Elizabeth works hard to remain cheerful and counter her negativity.
The cave is named after Barge’s novel Death of a Hangman. Elizabeth always thought it was too scary to read; he wrote a lot of dark thrillers. But I thought you loved all mysteries, Wakefield. [Dove: Except in that book where she literally hates any book that’s not by Amanda Howard.] Elizabeth and Jessica buddy up and end up at the back of the group as they walk down into the cave.
I love cave tours like this. Will I ever be the kind of person who squeezes through tiny spaces and goes off into the dark and tries new areas? No. Too claustrophobic for that. (Goddamn did The Descent get to me in one scene in particular.) Will I happily walk through a cave on a tour and enjoy the beauty and weirdness and even the dark? Hell yes. [Raven: This Cave Tour Guide scene from League of Gentlemen is my favourite monologue of all time. Filmed on location for the TV show, shared below from the live show. SO GOOD.
The cave is delightful, damp walls and textured surfaces and cool air, stalactites (the ones coming down from the roof) and stalagmites (the ones coming up from the floor). Priscilla continues to whine, the girls keep trying to ignore her, and everyone keeps exploring. They go along a narrow path with a railing, and Elizabeth looks out over a large dark pool of water that seems bottomless. Holly tells them that though it looks bottomless, it isn’t. No one’s ever measured it, but it does end not too far below.
Now wait a fucking minute here, Holly. Yes, it’s not bottomless, but you can’t say in one breath that no one has ever measured it and in the next that it’s not very deep at all. Come the fuck on.
Beyond where they are, the caves extend for miles and it would be very easy to get lost in them, so they are going to head back. Before they can, though, a bat swoops down near them, and Priscilla in particular freaks. the fuck. out. She runs away and knocks Elizabeth over.
It turns out to be kind of a good thing, though, because this is how Elizabeth finds the titular pen, an ornate antique fountain pen made of shiny red stone that is carved so thin it is almost translucent. She hides it away without showing anyone else because this is her My Precious moment, clearly.
Later, Elizabeth does tell Jessica about the pen, and though Jessica at first doesn’t understand all the excitement over a pen of all things, she does find it absolutely beautiful, like a piece of jewellery. She doesn’t believe it when Elizabeth tells her that she found the pen in the cave because it was glowing, though.
Really? R E A L L Y? All the supernatural shit that has happened to you both this school year and you can’t believe in a glowing pen? I HATE THIS.
Then the pen lights up, and Jessica finally has to believe her. She doesn’t understand why Elizabeth wants to hide it from all their friends, though, and even says that taking it from the cave is kind of like stealing because it might belong to someone. Uh, you’re the last person I expect to consider that, Jessica. Who are you and what have you done with our delightful little serial killer?
They’re up early the next morning, too, and get their activities for the day.
Jessica: swimming and horseback riding [Dove: I’m pretty sure Jessica is scared of horses usually?] before lunch, dance and acting in the afternoon. Elizabeth: same for the morning, journalism and pottery in the afternoon. What happened to creative writing, huh? [Raven: Also, why doesn’t Elizabeth at least MENTION the damn horses? She’s supposed to love the horsecocks off them, and also be so gifted at riding she makes the Riders of Rohan shit out uncut crabapples.]
Starr’s in every activity with Elizabeth, and Mandy and Miranda with Jessica. I’ll actually give this a pass because it doesn’t seem like a very large camp and with similar interests, it’s highly likely they’d end up doing the same things at the same times.
The girls are awed by the theater with its dark brown stage floor and maroon velvet curtain and seat covers. Gunnie conducts the acting workshops and she takes them very seriously. Jessica thinks she’ll be a great acting coach because her voice and manner are elegant.
Not what I’d be looking for in an acting coach, but cool.
They’re doing The Royal Switch for the play, a “charming farce” per Gunnie. Miranda says it’s awesome, but her school put it on last year, and she’s kind of disappointed to not get to do something new. She, of course, was Penelope, the lead role.
Auditions begin the next day and Gunnie will give them a list of the scenes to prepare, but during the workshop they are going to do improv. Priscilla begs to go first, and she has to introduce herself (her accent gets thicker and more pronounced than ever) and pantomime her favourite hobbies, which is basically just ballroom dancing as far as we get to see.
Jessica goes next, and puts on make-up and watches a movie. Gunnie doesn’t smile at all, which worries Jessica a little; Miranda tells her what a good job she did. This surprises Jessica because when she competes with Lila and the other Unicorns, they never admit she’s done a good job. She wonders if Miranda can do it because she’s super confident.
Maybe. Or, just a thought, maybe she’s not a complete dick to her friends the way you purple petunias are so often. [Dove: Bit awkward that they lampshade what a bunch of harpies our lead and her best friends are, isn’t it?]
Miranda goes third and Jessca is awed by how good she is, how natural and effective. She’s going to be tough competition, but Jessica is determined to fight for the starring role. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? And though she doesn’t have the Mercandy backyard, she does have miles and miles and miles of underground caves.
Over to the writing side, we meet teacher Lisa Newman. She’s going to teach them both creative and journalistic writing, and Elizabeth thinks she has a secret advantage because of the red pen. Why does she feel this way? Who knows, she’s already under the spell, I guess.
They’re going to put out an end-of-camp newspaper, though Lisa calls it a sort of yearbook that captures Camp Faraway past and present. Now, a newspaper and a yearbook are two different things, Lisa. I’m questioning your credentials already.
She wants to start with a feature article about Holly Stanton because it’s her last year at camp. Starr offers to take that assignment because Holly’s her counselor. And no one else’s, clearly. Tracy takes on the drama group and their play prep, and Elizabeth volunteers to write about Roland Barge.
They’re supposed to go play bingo in the main lodge after dinner (and the girls have no interest in bingo, which is (a) wrong because bingo is amazing — you get to stab a marker at pages, it’s great — and (b) completely believable. Who thinks of bingo for a bunch of preteen girls?). They’re happier about the idea of prizes and learning camp songs.
Elizabeth says that she’s feeling awful and maybe she should go back to the cabin instead of going to the activities, even though she thinks they sound like fun. She’d much rather go write with her new pen. Holly lets her go back to the cabin on her own when Elizabeth claims a bad headache.
Back at the cabin, she’s shocked about how she acted, which is far more like Jessica, but she has to have time alone, it’s like the pen is calling for her.
She’s already had time to check out a Roland Barge biography from the camp library. She spends a little time thinking about where to start her article, what would make the readers interested in reading —
— and then feels her hand pulled toward the paper. She writes an entire page so quickly her hand hurts after. She doesn’t recognise the writing after; she prints in neat block letters but this is written in slanted cursive. She didn’t write about Roland Barge but about a girl named Amelia Champlain.
Elizabeth feels weird about this, but before she can question it much, she’s writing even more of the story. She doesn’t understand how a story can take shape that quickly, but maybe that’s how inspiration goes, a burst of writing. Which can be true, but IT’S NOT USUALLY IN SOMEONE ELSE’S HANDWRITING WHEN YOU’RE NOT CONSCIOUSLY CONTROLLING THE PEN JESUS FUCKING CHRIST YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE SMART. [Raven: Nonsense! Or maybe possession making her mind cloudy?]
She’s not even writing a mystery but a love story that took place more than 70 years before. The land had O’Neil Manor instead of the camp, but the story’s not about the O’Neils, it’s about two young servants: Amelia Champlain, a pretty kitchen made, and Richard Bittle, a dashing stablehand. Amelia falls in love with him and even shares her greatest dream, which is to become a famous mystery writer. She even shows him her handwritten novels, and he encourages her to write in her spare time.
- Roland Barge stole all those stories from Amelia, did he? That’s my current guess.
Richard advises her not to share her writing with any of the other servants because they will either make fun of her or see her talent and try to sabotage her success.
At first Elizabeth doesn’t understand why she’s writing anything like this, but then she begins to justify it to herself: Amelia’s like her, dreaming of being a mystery writer, and Richard is the necessary love interest. Is he? Is he really? Stories aren’t required to have a love interest, Elizabeth. [Dove: It’s the 80s/90s, they kind of are. Celluloid Closet covered how writers would start to shoehorn in hetero romance in order to prove to the non-straights that the leading man was straight. See him kiss that girl. He’s not for you.]
She can’t explain how she knows all the details, though, and admits that it’s more like something is controlling her mind, or at least her writing hand.
Well, I’m glad she’s at least come around to this faster. It’s terribly frustrating when the twins refuse to believe in anything supernatural after the many, many, MANY times they’ve dealt with exactly that. I know that continuity isn’t great and the Super Chillers, etc., tend to be their own little worlds, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying as a reader.
Elizabeth gets a little freaked out, especially since she’s sitting in the dark at this point, but before she can even turn on the lights, she goes back to writing. Amelia finishes her best manuscript yet, shares it with Richard who absolutely adores it, and then he takes off. When she goes looking for her manuscript after finishing her work, it’s missing.
It’s not just missing. It’s in the kitchen fire, and it’s a total loss. She thinks the wind must have blown the pages into the fire when she opened the door for Richard, and she is absolutely heartbroken.
Elizabeth is actually crying when she finishes the passage because it’s a tragic story unlike anything she’s ever read before. So you’re telling me that Elizabeth has never read Little Women’s manuscript burning scene? Bullshit. And that’s just to start with far more tragic scenes in stories.
Over with the others, Priscilla wins the final game of bingo; it’s her second win for the night and she’s so proud that “she’s acting like she just won a vacation to Hawaii,” Jessica says.
Well look at that continuity about someone winning a Hawaiian vacation. Jessica would know how to act, after all. [Dove: That was over Christmas. Maybe it’s not happened yet if we’re still in summer? #SweetValleyTime]
Miranda and Mandy go back to Windelwisp to rehearse for the audition, and Jessica stays where she is. She loves the story, which is about Penelope, a young peasant girl who is actually a princess who was switched at birth. When people figure that out at last, she’s taken off to be groomed to be the next in line for the throne of England, but she struggles to adjust and finally talks the former fake princess into switching places again. And that does sound absolutely charming.
Before she actually starts rehearsing, she goes to get some juice, and when she comes back the script is missing. She immediately accuses Priscilla of sabotaging her, but Starr has to admit that she was sitting there with Priscilla who hasn’t moved the whole time.
Nicole suggests they hold a trial with Holly as the judge, but Holly thinks that’s taking it a little far and instead she and Jessica retrace Jessica’s steps. Shockingly, Holly finds the script in the fireplace. Jessica is aghast at this, and Holly says she’ll let Jessica rehearse in the morning instead of going to swimming and horseback.
Jessica finds Elizabeth asleep when she gets back to the cabin and Elizabeth tells her a little about the dream she had about Amelia and Richard. Jessica says that sounds more like a book, and Elizabeth realises that it wasn’t a dream, she magically wrote the story herself — or something wrote it through her.
She tells Jessica that, too, and Jessica is skeptical. Jessica. Is the skeptic. Good grief, ghostie, have you switched up the twins? Or are you forcing personalities to do whatever you need to make this plot happen? Because Jessica is often the first to figure this sort of supernatural thing out, and Elizabeth is the obnoxious skeptic.
Jessica tells her about the script issue, and Elizabeth is freaked out because of how it echoes the story she’s been writing. Elizabeth immediately wonders if the pen was trying to warn her about what was going to happen to Jessica. Jessica doesn’t think it’s the pen, there’s no way it could have supernatural powers, it must be their psychic twin ability to communicate with each other.
And then Elizabeth is skeptical; it has to be the supernatural pen because the twins don’t have psychic twin abilities.
W H A T.
Oh good lord.
I just threw my hands in the air and gave up on both of them.
Miranda checks on Elizabeth because she never woke up when they came in, not even when Mandy tripped over things. She also tells Jessica that whatever Jessica did to Priscilla has made her even more determined to win the role of Penelope. Miranda herself isn’t auditioning for that role, which shocks the hell out of Jessica; she’s trying for Eleanor, the fake princess who ends up with the crown. She’s excited to try to do an English accent and has already memorised all her lines.
Mandy, meanwhile, is trying for Prince Joseph. I love you, Mandy.
And then Miranda offers her script up to Jessica because she heard what happened. Jessica is completely shocked over how different Miranda is from Lila who will always compete with Jessica no matter what. And y’all, you know I love Lila, but I am here for Miranda 100%. I’m loving her so far, and I will be annoyed as hell if she ends up being terrible and all this awesome is just a false front. [Raven: Sorry, but I still miss Lila.]
The next afternoon, Priscilla and Mandy read together for Penelope and Prince Joseph. Priscilla gets hit with terrible stage fright (or overconfidence snapping, I’m not sure which) and flubs everything.
Gunnie then has Mandy read Joseph with Jessica as Penelope, too. Jessica thinks she does a great job, even managing to cry when necessary. Gunnie is completely blank after, though, and calls up Nicole without hesitation.
Later, the cast list is posted. Miranda got Eleanor and Mandy Joseph (though she points out she was the only one to try out, which is adorable). Priscilla gets the maid, and Jessica gets Penelope. Tracy and Nicole praise her audition and how she was funny and emotional at the same time.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth gets permission to go back to the library for more research materials. She finds and photocopies (oh god, photocopies, I am so old) a bunch of newspaper articles about Roland Barge. She’s excited at first, but then the more she reads about him, the more disappointed she gets. He comes across as “a conceited dilettante” and refuses to talk about his past or his personal life, only his novels.
The next article talks about him as a man with a violent temper, and says he’s missing an eye, but doesn’t give a reason for it.
Elizabeth reminds herself that it’s really his writing that matters, nothing says that a famous writer can’t be a jerk, too, so she turns to literary reviews instead. His early books received rave reviews. Only the last one was negative; Death on a Mountain Top was as if he lost his talent overnight, with incompetent writing, an implausible ending, and an uncompelling hero, per one reviewer.
GEE I WONDER WHY.
Starr comes to check on Elizabeth because she looks so upset, and Elizabeth vents a little about what she’s learning about him. He was a grouchy recluse (nothing wrong with that) who would never talk about what influenced him to become a writer (also nothing wrong with that) and never hung out with other big writers of his time (still nothing wrong here). He was a millionaire and his early books were translated into almost every language (which was one of Amelia’s dreams) but he hardly spent any of the money and then after he lost all respect as an author and people started hating him, he disappeared.
Starr thinks something’s wrong with it all, but good grief, no. No it’s not. All of those things are fine on their own and together. The weirdest part is how his talent seems to disappear overnight, but even then, a good author can have a bad book. [Dove: May I point to the outstanding Room 13 by Robert Swindells, and then its sequel, which is probably the worst thing he’s ever written. Also behold a significant chunk of Stephen King fans who won’t read past IT because they think he’s lost it. (They’re wrong, and they’re missing out on Tom Gordon, Duma Key, Rose Madder… the list goes on.)] Obviously readers here have an idea of where this is going, which means Elizabeth might, too, but Starr certainly shouldn’t already be assuming something’s wrong.
Elizabeth jumps to murder, even. Now look, Elizabeth, not everyone is like Jessica. But he had a lot of enemies and maybe someone came for him. How, exactly, did he have so many enemies? He wrote a shit book. Why did everyone start hating him after? Hating him as the author, maybe, because reader disappointment can twist like that, but he never went anywhere or did anything. Why hate that even if he was a pompous jerk when he gave interviews?
Elizabeth stays behind after class to do more writing because her rough draft is due the next day. She sets out to outline her article, but keeps drifting back to Amelia and Richard because Barge’s life seems dull and trivial in comparison.
…really? Because you were just theorising that he was murdered, so … okay then. Jessica’s serial killing certainly has made you blasé about murder.
But when Elizabeth tries to write more of Amelia’s story, she can’t think of a single thing to write. Of course, she’s using a pencil instead of her precious pen. (God, why write in pencil? It feels terrible, smudges so easily, and makes weird scratching noises. Ugh. That sound is my nails on a chalkboard sound.)
Pretty quickly she realises that all the power is in the pen. She’s not the one writing the story, it is. [Dove: Ergo, Liz has no talent for fiction. A theory I’ve raised multiple times.]
Excellent, moving right along.
She can’t sleep that night, gets out the pen, and starts writing again.
[Dove: I can’t believe you skipped the masturbation line — you’re forever saying “dirty” after stuff and you skip right past this:]
Elizabeth squirmed in her bed all night long as thoughts of Amelia and Richard filtered through her mind. Finally, she felt an electric force dragging her hand toward the edge of her bed.
Richard leaves a letter asking Amelia to meet him at the lake at night. A storm seems to be coming, but though she’s worried about going out in such weather, she wants to see Richard so much that she takes her rowboat out onto the lake to get to their meeting spot in the middle of the lake. He’s not there, though, and she decides that he must have thought she wouldn’t come in the storm and so he stayed away, too. She’s about to head back to shore when her boat starts filling with water and the torrential storm hits, knocking her overboard.
Elizabeth is horrified that her love story has turned into a gruesome thriller, but she can’t stop writing.
Damn, this rings so true for how it feels for me when I become manic. I write fast and furious, I can’t stop — I don’t want to stop, I keep pushing to the detriment of everything else. I’ve written 100,000 words and more in a few weeks through these periods. Mostly I don’t have them anymore, my medication is well balanced and I have a great psychiatrist, but the possibility is always there. People think that mania is worth the depression; I’ve actually had someone say that they’d love to be bipolar because they’d get so much done during the mania. But in my experience, I’m more likely to do real harm to myself and my life during mania than depression. I’m untouchable during mania, I don’t sleep, I don’t stop, no one can keep up with my thoughts, everything is golden and wonderful — and then the crash comes and I see the way I’ve destroyed things around me.
(In a fun bit of coincidence, “Kill This Love” by Social Repose came on while I was writing the above. I’ve never heard it before, Spotify recommended it to me, but this line struck me just now: After every crazy high you are bound to pay the price.)
Moving on from that little personal aside, Amelia sees a searchlight nearby and she calls for Richard to help her. The boat that appears doesn’t hold Richard, though, but a young fisherman. It’s a dangerous rescue, but at last he gets her into his boat. She continues to call him Richard and then collapses. He puts her in the cabin of his boat.
Wait wait wait. She’s on this lake in a rowboat and you have a fucking cabin?! I know you’re a fisherman, but how the fuck big is this goddamn lake?
Anyway, he checks out her boat to see what happened. When she wakes up, he tells her the story of her rescue, including the fact that someone cut into the side of the boat. Someone tried to kill her.
G E E I W O N D ER W H O C O U L D H A V E D O N E T H A T
The next evening, the Lakeside Serenade is going to happen. It is Holly’s second-favourite thing at camp after the tour of Hangman’s Cave. Everyone gets a candle and they sing camp songs on the docks of Emerald Lake. It’s supposed to be the most beautiful night of the summer, too. Everyone but Elizabeth is excited about it; she’s too tired to be excited about anything and decides to take a nap during their free time later. The others talk her into learning the camp songs instead.
Jessica and Priscilla have a terrible rehearsal that afternoon, but everyone is struggling with the play. I mean, less than two weeks is a pretty short amount of time to put on a play when they have a billion other activities too. I’m sympathetic.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Starr are hanging out by the fire. Starr is supposed to be teaching Elizabeth camp songs, but Elizabeth can’t think of anything but Amelia’s story. She admits she hasn’t even written the first paragraph of her article — wait a fucking minute here. Their rough drafts were due today and it certainly looks like they’ve already had their afternoon class if they’re sitting by the fire, so what the hell happened there? Why didn’t Elizabeth get taken to task for not having it done?
Elizabeth starts to tell Starr about what’s going on but then decides she shouldn’t because Starr’s so nervous about everything already.
Then Starr gets distracted because it suddenly looks like it’s going to rain even though Holly said they were supposed to have good weather. This freaks Elizabeth right out (so much for Starr being the jumpy one) because the fire burns Amelia’s manuscript and then Jessica’s script burned. Amelia nearly dies in a storm and now it’s going to storm for them too, what if Jessica…she doesn’t even want to think about it.
The serenade has been postponed until the next day, but Elizabeth is panicked and rushes off to the lake. Fog is rolling in and she just makes out Jessica in the middle of the lake struggling to row back to the docks. [Raven: This bit confused me. Unless I missed something, JEssica didn’t mention that she was going out on the lake. But lo, here she fucking is. I thought it was Elizabeth being possessed by the pen or something, and confusing, I dunno, a cormorant for her sister. Weak.] Elizabeth hates herself for missing the pen’s warning and dives into the lake to go save Jessica. She’s driven down to the lakebed, but manages to kick her way to the surface again. All her energy is gone, though. She sees a boat heading toward the middle of the lake and is relieved that Jessica will be saved, at least, but no one seems to have noticed her and she’s too far from shore to save herself.
But finally the boat gets to Elizabeth and the fisherman rescues her too. Apparently Jessica headed out onto the lake to rehearse her lines somewhere quiet and then the storm came on. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky when she headed out. Then she noticed a hole in the side of the boat and she ended up in the water.
Jessica is shocked that Elizabeth was in the water coming to save her (why? It’s not the first time Elizabeth has put herself in danger to save someone from the water), and Elizabeth feels too tired to fight about the pen and its powers, so she goes with Jessica’s belief that they have special twin powers.
The next morning, Mandy and Miranda are going to serve Jessica and Elizabeth their food to show how glad they are that the twins survived the night before. They are basically celebrities at camp now, and Elizabeth is not thrilled about it, especially when Starr wants to write a piece for the camp paper about them.
Elizabeth’s telling Jessica about how she’s struggling with her article on Barge when Gunnie comes up and says he was an absolutely charming young man. She knew him when she was a little girl because her uncle owned the property there. She knew Barge before he changed his name, even; he was previously Richard Bittle.
S H O C K I N G
Further, he never let anyone know Barge wasn’t his real name. Only people who knew him as a servant at the manor ever knew his original name. Elizabeth asks to interview Gunnie about this, and Gunnie is pleased because no one ever seems interested in the olden days. Sure enough, she confirms that her uncle was Patrick O’Neil and the estate was called the O’Neil Manor. He never had children, so he left the property to Gunnie. She was only able to keep the original stables and the theater.
Richard was friendly with a kitchen girl who was just beautiful. It takes her a moment, but she remembers it was Amelia Champlain, a mysterious woman in her own right who nearly broke Richard’s heart. They seemed deeply in love until one day she left a note that she was running off with another man. It was cold and cruel, and Richard was broken up over it. Gunnie thinks that’s why he was a bitter old man. No one ever heard from her again after it, either. Murder was always a possibility when someone disappears, Gunnie admits, and Elizabeth is terrified this means that Jessica might be in danger too.
They get to skip swimming that morning — smart! The adults here a billion times better than back in Sweet Valley — and Elizabeth makes Jessica sit down with her so she can explain the entire story and her theory about Jessica being in danger. Jessica is skeptical at first but then starts to come around the more Elizabeth tells her. However, she doesn’t go to the murder theory; instead she hopes two men will fight over her and then she’ll run off with the gardener.
Dove, no real spoilers, but, uh, did they actually foreshadow (from the future since this was written later) any of SVH? [Dove: If they did, it was only by accident. I think our Q&A with Michael Grant showed there was almost no overlap between Twins and High; and Sweet Valley Confidential proves that Francine Pascal, the author of the bible and the person coming up with the plots, has no clue about the cannon of Sweet Valley, given that her notes at the end of that book don’t just contradict SVH cannon, but events in the book she just finished writing!]
Elizabeth wants them to leave camp early, but Jessica refuses because she’s starring in the play in a few days, and she decides she’s not going to believe Elizabeth about the pen afterall.
Later that day, Mandy and Jessica are going through dress rehearsal with no few mishaps due to costumes: Jessica’s earring falls off, Mandy’s moustache sticks to a glass and then her wig falls off, Jessica’s dress gets caught under the leg of a chair and in tugging it free she shakes the table and all the glasses shatter. Why are they using real glass anyway?
Everyone ends up laughing, even Gunnie, who is in a much better mood about their work.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, keeps wanting to do more research. Lisa points out that she needs to write the freaking article at some point, but is pretty gentle about it considering how many days Elizabeth is already past the initial deadline. Elizabeth decides she needs to read one of his books, and tracks down Death of Hangman in the library. Even though she’s always been too creeped out to read it, she forces herself to go through it. In the end, the murderer is found hanging in the cave because of the spirits of the people he murdered. Elizabeth finds it gripping and chilling, but can’t work out what it has to do with Amelia or Roland.
Oh boy. [Dove: Liz is smart.]
Everyone else goes off to rehearsal that night (or hanging out in the social room), giving Elizabeth time to go back to Amelia’s story. Amelia gets another letter from Richard inviting her to go on a stroll through the cave since they should clearly stay away from the lake. She doesn’t want to go to the cave, but she does want to see him, so off she goes. Aaaand, of course, Richard tries to strangle her there.
Elizabeth breaks out of writing, absolutely terrified, and knows that she can’t write anything else without Jessica at her side both because she’s worried about Jessica being in trouble and because she’s too afraid of being alone.
Jessica’s not at rehearsal when Elizabeth gets there, though, and Elizabeth freaks. the fuck. out. She begs Gunnie to go with her to Hangman’s Cave, she’s that worried about Jessica, and on the way she tells Gunnie all about Richard and Amelia and the pen. Gunnie, shockingly, does believe her, at least somewhat, and they end up going all the way back into the maze of caverns following Jessica’s terrified screams and moans and sobs.
When they find her, Jessica says she felt like she was being choked and she couldn’t get away. This time, when she asks how Elizabeth possibly knew she was there, she believes it when Elizabeth says it was the pen.
Jessica was called into the cave, she’s not even sure why she’s there and she can’t explain that pull. Elizabeth feels something similar, though, and the pen is glowing. It uses her to write on the wall [Dove: A fountain pen used on rock??] [Raven: MAybe it morphed into a Sharpie when no one was looking.]: Richard killed her by drowning her in the bottomless pool so he could steal her writing. She must have dropped the pen during that final struggle (…why was she carrying a pen to a romantic assignation?) and her soul stayed in it so she could tell the truth.
Elizabeth wants to tell the truth about Barge, but Gunnie points out that they need the original manuscripts to prove it. They use the pen to find out that they are under the old stable, and immediately everyone heads out to check. Sure enough, they find the manuscripts under a loose board. They also find some of Barge’s terrible attempts at drafts and his journal which details every step of his plot.
No fucking way. Why the fuck wouldn’t he have burned all of this once he was done with it? Why would he have kept any of it? WHY?
He’s been tormented by Amelia’s spirit the entire time, and he made plans to drown himself in the bottomless pool so that their spirits can be together again. I hope Amelia’s spirit tore his to shreds, that fucker.
Gunnie pushes the pen on Elizabeth, who finally agrees to keep it. She thanks Gunnie profusely for believing her, and all is well.
Elizabeth writes an article exposing the truth about Barge and Amelia and O’Neil Manor. Jessica reads it and loves it. Lisa reads it and calls it a groundbreaking piece. Good lord, of course she does.
The play goes off to a standing ovation, an absolutely flawless production, and Jessica is absolutely brilliant. Of course.
Jessica wishes Miranda would move to Sweet Valley and become a Unicorn; Elizabeth plans to write to Starr. Both twins will miss almost everything about camp, and they daydream about coming back as campers and eventually as counselors.
Back at home, Lila calls and talks about her trip using a ridiculous French accent and Elizabeth and Jessica both end up in the newspaper. Elizabeth’s article is reprinted and the review of the play says that Jessica’s next stop will probably be Broadway.
What the ever loving fuck is this ending. It was so good, end it at camp, but noooooooooo, we had to end with this ridiculous bullshit. [Raven: Why the hell wasn’t this NATIONAL FUCKING NEWS? A millionaire recluse author with a mysterious disappearence, outed as a plagarist and murderer who committed suicide through guilt years later? If this was Stephen King, it’s be ALL OVER EVERY PAPER AND TV CHANNEL EVERYWHERE. In Sweet Valley? It makes the local paper alongside a review of a summer camp play. Also, that cave pool whould have been dredged to fuck to find the bodies.]
I loved the hell out of most of this book. It was fun and entertaining, the mystery was easy to solve but still interesting to read about, I loved their new camp friends, and even the camp ending where they were super successful was fine enough as a Wakefields Must Win ending. Some of the waffling about belief in the supernatural was annoying but not nearly as much as we’ve seen elsewhere, and the plot hole of why the fuck he kept the original manuscripts and wrote out his entire plan was ridiculous, but overall, I had a blast writing this recap.
But then that fucking final bit. Oh hell to the no. What the fuck, ghostie. What. the. Fuck. It is overexaggerated and obnoxious and just plain wrong. I hate it, thanks.
[Dove: I’m on the fence about this one. It was fine. I do love the summer camp trope, but we didn’t get to see much of that because of all the supernatural. Which was fine. I always hope that these books will be spooky, hopefully even threatening, but after The Carnival Ghost they’re less about threatening hauntings and more like, “This one time, I met a ghost and solved a mystery, and it was cool.”]
[Raven: I largely disliked this one. There were fun bits, but as I’ve mentioend before, the spooky stuff just passes me by. I want to read about the characters we love, not odd new ones that appear for a single book then disappear. Miranda was nice, Starr was a bellend, and that’s the last we’ll see of either of them (I’m guessing). The ending was odd, and Elizabeth should have won a Pulitzer for her article, because the story was huge.
I’m also pretty sure we’ll never hear another word about “Elizabeth’s special pen from that time at Camp”. I’m sure if I had a pen that once had a fucking soul in it, I’d use it every damn day.]