Title: Steven Gets Even
Tagline: It’s a boy-girl scare war!
Summary: Jessica and Elizabeth are about to get the scare of their lives…
Steven Wakefield has had it up to here with his twin sisters, Jessica and Elizabeth. Ever since the boys in their class at Sweet Valley Middle School challenged the girls to a Scare War, the twins have been driving him crazy: they’re busy coming up with schemes to scare the boys—and they’re testing them all on Steven!
So when the twins and their friends have a slumber party, Steven figures he’s really in for it—who knows what kind of stunts the girls will pull? But Steven’s got some spooky plans of his own. One way or another, he’s going to out-scare them all!
I am so close to rage-quitting this series. I swear Wing and Raven are scheming behind my back. Yes, it is gone 5am and I haven’t slept for days, why do you ask?
I’m so “ugh” about this whole situation that, at the time of writing this, I haven’t made a cover. I will at some point, but perhaps not when I’m so anxious that I can only sleep in two hour blocks.
This is not hyperbole, I cannot sleep. I’ve had insomnia for decades, but not like this. I’m getting a couple of hours each night and that’s it, which is a long way of explaining why I’m going to be so irritable throughout this book.
[Raven: Hi, I’m Raven, and I’m sleeping fine.]
[Wing: I’m not sleeping as well as Raven, I’ve also had insomnia for decades, but I am currently sleeping far more than Dove. We’re like Goldilocks up in here, but terrible. Also: I found this book charming as hell.]
Tuesday, Mr Bowman’s class. We open which a scene so irritatingly smug that I want to punch everyone in the face. Mr Bowman asks what Frankenstein looks like. After about six billion pages where literally every named character ever mentioned finds a different way to word “big dude with a screw in his neck and a bit of a lumbering walk”, finally Elizabeth answers that Frankenstein was just a regular dude and his monster is the one that everyone’s describing.
Mr Bowman congratulates her and says that most adults don’t know that, so she’s a super clever girl. Of course he thinks that, he’s only met other adults in Sweet Valley. The combined intelligence of all the adults in Sweet Valley wouldn’t be enough to figure out how to use a pencil sharpener. [Raven: Such a lazy trope, these days. Maybe it wasn’t such a cliche back in the day. Also, I hate that Liz was the one to crack it.] [Wing: …and yet realistic, based on my experience with the general population. Though I also like the point that Frankenstein really was the monster, in that he was the monstrous character doing terrible things.]
Mr Bowman continues that over the next few weeks, they’ll be studying his favourite thing – scary books. Elizabeth and Amy are delighted about this. Which is fucking out of character of them, Elizabeth especially, given that I can think of multiple times Elizabeth has disdainfully regarded horror as something that contains buckets of blood but no artistic merit.
When Elizabeth learns that Frankenstein was written by a woman she is both surprised and proud. Fuck off, Elizabeth. [Wing: She knows enough to know that Frankenstein is the monster but not that it was written by a woman? Bullshit. This is that whole Shakespeare thing all over again. Twice.] Brian Boyd comments that it can’t be any good then. You know Brian. The asshat that proved that littering was exactly like the holocaust. Elizabeth, in keeping with her constant assertions from that book that Brian was “sinister” and “evil”, pulls a face at him and thinks “Boys!”
The continuity is strong in this one.
Mr Bowman tells the story of the story of Frankenstein, how Mary Shelly and her mates were all hanging out one night, telling some awesome ghost stories, when someone challenged her to make up her own scary story. Apparently the idea found her, by way of a nightmare.
Elizabeth is entranced by this, but not because just last week she found a ghost pen that wrote the story of its previous owner’s death, but instead because she loves scary stories!
Say it with me: The continuity is strong in this one.
[Wing: Also, we went from summer camp to well into the school year. The sixth grade school year. Again. And if we assume this book is set in the year it was published, January and October had Friday the 13ths in them, so this is most likely set in October, considering the theme. So we went from June/July to the following October of the same school year that would have come before June/July. Such continuity. Much logic.]
Mr Bowman lowers his voice and everyone leans forward to listen, and Elizabeth thinks she hears thunder. Same, Elizabeth (well, it’s footsteps for me). Except I’m hearing things because I’ve been up for weeks. You’re hearing things because you’re an idiot.
And really? Brian’s just going to let Mr Bowman create a spooky atmosphere to tell the story of how a girl wrote a story? I mean, I know sexism wasn’t his thing in the last book, but it seems to be now.
The continuity is strong in this one.
Mr Bowman gives them an assignment to read a spooky story over the next two weeks and do some kind of report on it, the only caveat is that the book must be more than 20 years old. Suggestion: choose The Carnival Ghost and watch the universe divide by zero. [Raven: Proper phoning this one in, Bowman. “Homework? Erm… I dunno, read a book, do a thing?”]
Immediately, everyone snorts derisively. As if they’re going to find something so ancient scary. They’re far too now to be suckered into olde worlde fiction.
“Yeah! What about one of those books with vampires that chew off people’s heads?” Brian asked. “Now that’s scary!”
No, Brian, that’s just gore. Gore is the opposite of scary. And I was just about to point out that no vampire in the history of vampires has ever chewed a person’s head off. Then I remembered David.
But still not scary.
[Wing: I still have so many questions about that choice both in-universe of him as a vampire and meta-level of the movie director.]
Jessica adds that there’s not much blood in it, and fuck me I am so tired of this assumption from the Jamies that horror is just splatter. Sure, I know they were written in the slasher era, and the icons of horror are Michael, Jason, Freddy and Chucky, and despite the latter being known as the Lakeshore Strangler (this is a bone of contention for me and JC), all of them favour knives and splatter. Still, since the kids hate contemporary references (how many times are we going to reference Gone With The Wind?), you might hope that they’d heard of The Exorcist, Prince of Darkness, The Lady in White, The Omen, When a Stranger Calls, heck, I’d even take Audrey Rose.
tl;dr: Dove is pissy that no Jamie Suzanne has the faintest clue that the Saw franchise is not the sole definition of the horror genre.
And for context, I’ve no beef with the fact that the kids can’t respect older media. I knew someone who will never watch anything that was made more than ten years ago. He’s a fucking idiot, he can barely carry a conversation (but he’s quite pretty, so there’s that), but still, he’s hardly an isolated case.
Except for, y’know, the fact that kids (including the boys) love classic movies, so it’s hard to understand why they can’t at least try a classic horror story.
Oh, and there’s also the fact that in The Christmas Ghost, Jessica thinks to herself that she really loves A Christmas Carol, which is hardly the most recent of books.
The continuity is strong in this one.
Mr Bowman doesn’t bother to correct the class’s assumption about horror and instead says that they may find the stories scarier than they expect. [Raven: I hate this “we are too refined to be scared by such old stories” schtick. I mean, sure, “kids”, but even so.]
Tuesday afternoon, Wakefield kitchen. Jessica tries the Frankenstein question on Alice, who obviously fails, because she’s off her tits on gin. She then tries it on her father, but Steven interrupts with the correct answer before he can answer. This irritates Jessica, which causes Alice to ask in genuine wonderment, “How did you know about that?” because while she is aware the kids do leave the house most days, she has no idea she sends them to an institute of learning. Just wait until she figures out that Elizabeth learns for fun. Alice’s mind will be blown!
Elizabeth explains that they’re supposed to be reading scary stories. Once again, Jessica decides it can’t be that scary because it’s so old. Ned asks if she’s read the part where the monster awakes, and actually that was the part Mr Bowman read to the class, and it was a bit scary in all honesty. (Not that she says this aloud.)
What? How? How is a chapter without context scary? Would the scene where Scrooge pleads with the Ghost of Christmas Future be so alarming without understanding everything leading up to it? Would the exorcism scene in The Exorcist be so scary if you missed all the chilling lead-up and went straight to pea-soup vomit? An argument could definitely be made that if you skipped all the exposition, the part where the vat of liquid opens in Prince of Darkness is just laughably incomprehensible.
I don’t doubt that a good storyteller can make something come to life (Sanjeev Bhaskar kicked me in the feels all the way through Life of Pi), but if you don’t have all the information to hand, it’s very difficult to react to the scene emotionally if you walk in halfway through.
And here’s a chunk of space for Wing, who has undoubtedly read Frankenstein, to point out that actually that scene is so brilliantly well-written that you need no context, it just rocks.
[Wing: I mean yes, I’ve read Frankenstein more than a few times, and yes, I do disagree with the premise that you can’t have a scene separate from what comes before and after that can still be packed full of emotion, especially when performed by a wonderful storyteller, but I actually wouldn’t say that any part of Frankenstein would work like that. The writing itself isn’t all that frightening, it’s the context that brings the true horror of it all, Dr Frankenstein’s obsession, etc. Now if he’d read some Poe or Lovecraft, to stick with the kind of work he’s focused on, I might give him that credit.]
Ned dares Jessica to read some of Poe’s work before writing off classic horror. [Raven: I’d love it if they did Lovecraft. I’d be all over The Sweet Valley Cthulhu.] [Wing: Ha, I made my Lovecraft reference above before I saw this line. Obviously, hard agree with Raven.] Oh, and throughout Steven and Jessica bicker back and forth in a way that’s completely normal for two siblings, but I’m tired and I hate him. Long story short, Steven asserts that Jessica is over-compensating, and actually she found the book scary. Jessica vows that nothing will scare her for the next two weeks.
Wednesday, Mr Bowman’s class. Team Boring (minus Julie, plus Maria – this will be the setup of the team for the rest of the book) talk about their book choices. Amy has Sleepy Hollow, Maria’s gone for Frankenstein, and Elizabeth is wetting her pants over how scary everything is and cannot believe the nonchalance of her friends.
Am I the only one around here with imagination? Elizabeth asked herself as Mr. Bowman walked by, preparing for the start of class.
Elizabeth, it has been long established that you have literally no imagination. Jessica is the one with the wild ideas, schemes and fantasies. You just endlessly churn out articles about what you think or what you have experienced. There is no fiction in you. You are beige fucking paint. And, as of this book, you are wimpy beige paint.
(Not all non-writers are beige paint. Just the ones with superiority complexes who dream of being writers but who have never once in 104 books, managed to write a single fictional sentence when not under the power of a dead author.)
Because Elizabeth is too busy faffing around, Mr Bowman assigns her a book – which, actually, I think is bullshit. You can’t let 29 kids choose their own book and have one get no choice. She ends up with Hound of the Baskervilles. Which I also have not read.
I’m very much a contemporary person. I’d hate to be forced to read/watch anything set before 1950. [Raven: Wait, so you’re just as bad as the kids bemoaning having to read “old” stuff? For shame!] [Dove: Two completely different things. The kids are avoiding books of a certain age, I avoid media where the story is set any earlier than the 1950s because I don’t like older settings, particularly wars, or eras where women just do cross-stitch. That kind of thing is not something I want to read about/watch/whatever.] [Wing: I think he more recommended it than assigned it, though considering how often she says he’s her favourite teacher, she probably would take a recommendation as an assignment. I’m not sure I see a huge difference between the kids not wanting to read things written before a certain time and Dove not wanting to read things set before a certain time. My problem with the kids having their moan is that they think nothing written before can possibly be scary/good/whatever. That’s a different reason than not wanting to read something set before a certain time because of things baked into the setting itself. So the difference to me is not so much the refusal to consume, but the reason behind that refusal.
I also disagree that older settings automatically have to include things like women only doing cross-stitch or that, say, people of colour couldn’t possibly be in Europe at the time, or whatever (which is not what Dove’s saying, really, just general conversations I hear about why historical fiction has to be this certain way because of bullshit reasoning), but I think it’s understandable to not want to read certain settings because you don’t like what’s usually included in them.
And yes, I’ve read and loved Hound of the Baskervilles.] [Dove: The difference is that I’m saying I’m not into historical fiction, regardless of when it was written. The kids are saying that by virtue of when it was written, regardless of genre or author, it’s shit.]
Elizabeth sits down with her book, and spots Charlie Cashman, Brian Boyd and Aaron Dallas whispering together in a scheming kind of way.
You know, Aaron. The newly-Jewish character that realised that Brian was exactly like Hitler. Those two. I guess the holocaust wasn’t that big a deal after all then. Or maybe he’s no longer Jewish? [Raven: Fuck me, that’s shit.]
The continuity is strong in this one.
We head hop to Jessica to appreciate just how terrifying she finds three lines of Dracula. Admittedly, Sweet Valley did manage to provide a storm that is usually reserved for the Super Chillers. A rumble of thunder provokes a few screams, but not Jessica. [Wing: No, she’s just throwing herself beneath her desk like this is an earthquake or something. I laughed.]
Wednesday, after school. This was the last class of the day, and now Jessica needs to use the bathroom but doesn’t want to go alone. A bizarre group forms, agreeing to walk home together: the twins, Amy, Lila and Maria. Jessica raises the bathroom idea and tries to make it seem like Elizabeth needs the bathroom. After much prodding, Elizabeth agrees to accompany her, but that’s not enough for Jessica, she pushes the other three into joining her.
“Oh, come on,” Lila interrupted. “It’ll be more—fun with all five of us.”
“There’s nothing to be worried about,” Jessica added. “It’s not like there are any vampires up there or anything.”
“Vampires?” Amy repeated in a strangely high-pitched voice.
“Oops,” Jessica continued quickly. “Did I say ‘vampires’? I didn’t mean ‘vampires.’ I meant, um, ‘campfires.’ There aren’t any campfires up there or anything.”
Maria gave a hollow laugh. “We know what you meant, Jessica,” she said. “Sure, we’ll go. For fun.”
I… actually like this. It’s kind of cute, and it is nice to see that Team Boring and Team Unicorn can get along outside of Super Editions/Chillers/etc. But it is also daft. I understand fear. Even before we started living through Captain Tripps, I had epic fear about a lot of things, but I only needed one person with me for it to calm down. Then again, Jessica is a drama queen.
The kids bump into Janet Howell, which is supposed to be a jump scare, but it’s very hard to sell a jump scare in a book, so mostly it’s more text than necessary to add her to the group. Also, the bathroom they’re heading to is out of order, so they have to use the one on the third floor, which is out of the way and barely used. [Wing: I find the entire premise of this creepy third floor bathroom out of place in Sweet Valley. It’s so clean and white-washed there’s no room for creepy anything outside of the Mercandy mansion.]
They all enter the bathroom, the thunder rumbles overhead again. The door opens and an “unearthly” (no further description) hand reaches in. Then the lights go out. Everyone freaks the fuck out. There is screaming, panic, grabbing each other, Jessica is particularly worried that a vampire has hold of her. After a lot of paragraphs, everyone manages to get out of the bathroom into the hall where they hug, panic and Lila cries into Janet’s lap. Yeah, no. Lila does not cry in public. [Raven: This also contains my favourite line in the book, as Jessica grasped the edge of the bathroom sink to steady herself during the vampire panic… “It occurred to her that maybe it was a vampire cleverly pretending to be a sink, but she refused to let herself think about that any further.” Proper laugh out loud there.]
And then they see Brian, Charlie, Aaron with Bruce Patman and all of them are laughing their heads off.
I can’t really get over the fact that Brian’s just a dude now. A tossrag one, like Bruce or Charlie, but he’s downgraded from “evil” to “acceptable knob”. This is what happens when you attempt to tackle the holocaust in a tween book. You have to oversell the evil, and then put the Hitler avatar back into the world and just hope that nobody remembers that this kid was totally more evil than all the others who were doing the exact same level of elitism and bullying. That’s going to bug me a lot.
And that whole bathroom visit was a chapter. It ends with the girls deciding:
Wednesday afternoon, Wakefield kitchen. We cut to the twins discussing revenge as they set the table. Steven walks in and makes fun of them for the bathroom scare, because apparently the Sweet Valley High is buzzing with the hot gossip that literally today after school four boys scared six girls in the bathroom of the middle school. Goddamn, how dull is high school that this hot gossip somehow managed to reach the school after it closed and everyone knows? By the time the twins hit high school, the gossip is who kissed who, is someone sleeping with their teacher (no, of course not, no sex EVER), did someone get caught stealing, etc. But sure, I totes believe that the freshmen boys can’t think of anything else to talk about than a bunch of twelve year olds pulling one of the lamest pranks ever. [Raven: Steven is portrayed as cool Basketball star of the high school, but I reckon he’s just a creepy no-mates kid secretly spying on his sisters 24/7. Maybe Bleak Valley is actually an invention of a Steven-type kid locked in a cupboard, rather than Elizabeth…?] [Wing: Oooh, we should explore that next time we record a podcast. Or when we get to recording the episode about this book. Whichever.]
Steven even somehow knows that Jessica thought it was a vampire attack, which is bizarre because even her identical twin who was right next to her at the time it happened doesn’t know that. He’s even aware that the boys used a tape recording of glass breaking for atmosphere, a level of detail I skipped because I deemed it too boring. He starts making up jokes about their scare, which leads to the most Mercandy backyard line of all times.
“Revenge would be awfully sweet,” Elizabeth said, looking meaningfully at her twin.
Mr. Wakefield walked into the kitchen. “What’s this about revenge?” he asked, eyeing the knife in Jessica’s hand. Reluctantly, she lowered it.
Even though I’m not loving this book, it now contains my second-favourite line of all time (basically anything in Poor Lila! is my favourite).
Ned asks how the girls are planning on getting their revenge, and adds that he was pretty good at scares back in the day. Obviously this generates another tedious “Oh, the olde ways are dead, ancient one,” conversation.
“That was different,” Jessica argued, shooting her brother a dirty look. “Kids today don’t need Frankenstein, or Poe.” She carefully avoided saying Dracula. “We need something like Jason, or Freddy Kruger, instead.”
“Freddy who?” Mr. Wakefield asked.
Jessica sighed. “Exactly.”
They just referenced something contemporary!
And like Ned has no idea who Freddy is. Watch Never Sleep Again, which details just how intense the Freddy-mania was throughout the eighties. (High point? Dodgy sleeping pills with pictures of Freddy on the branding, “Take one and go see Freddy…”) Even my mother and her friends knew who Freddy was. I knew who he was before I’d even watched the movie, and I was four when the first one came out. [Raven: I really with they’d go one way or the other with cultural references in this series. We can have old films, but not new films? Oh no hang on, we CAN have new films. But old books. And fake films that Maria has been in. And fictional new books, but not real new books. And music? ALL FICTITIOUS STARS AND BANDS. Jesus, Francine, pick a fucking lane.]
Then Steven pretends to cut off his finger and uses spaghetti sauce as blood. Everyone takes him seriously, even though I’m fairly sure he’s pulled this prank before. Ned rushes to the phone to call 911 as Steven reveals the hilarious japery. It is hysterical, people. I have never been so awash in a sea of mirth. I never saw the big reveal coming. And the fact that this prank has not only been done to death in all walks of life, never mind in this series alone, does not make it annoying to read in the slightest. [Raven: My mother was once eating some Midget Gems and cutting onions. She accidentally nicked her finger with the knife, swore like a docker, and spat out a Midget Gem. My worried father, dashing into the kitchen to help, saw the red Midget Gem on the floor, assumed it was a severed fingertip, and full-on fainted. True story.] [Wing: Amazing.]
However, it does give Jessica an idea.
Thursday, Mr Bowman’s class. Jessica deliberately sits next to Charlie Cashman, Lila grabs the seat the other side, and Elizabeth sits behind him. All three girls are cheerful and aggressively friendly to him, which freaks him out. He wants to sit with Brian but they’ve hemmed him in and he is freaked out by how friendly – borderline flirty – they are. I love this. Without wanting to be all buzzwordy, I love that Jessica took her power back by using girlishness. I’d say sexuality if they were older, but dude, they’re fucking twelve, let’s not sexualise them.
Mr Bowman starts the class by turning off the lights and lighting a candle for atmosphere while reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jessica comments to Charlie that it’s “so romantic”.
About ten minutes into the story, Charlie is gripped, and Jessica offers him a box of candy. He reaches in and screams. He demands Mr Bowman deal with Jessica, because she offered him a box with a dead finger in. Jessica clarifies that the finger isn’t dead, it’s hers, just made up to look dead. She comments that boys are “so brave”, and accepts that she’s going to be told off after class, and it was totes worth it.
[Wing: I love this scene for a lot of reasons, but when the fuck did she manage to make up her finger to look dead? If she did it before class, how did no one notice? If she did it during class, how?]
Friday morning, the lockers. Elizabeth arrives early and heads straight to her locker, which is already open. There is a Barbie doll hung from a shoelace and covered in ketchup. She calls for Maria, who is also conveniently early, and both are freaked out to the point where neither want to touch the doll. Really? C’mon kids, you’re twelve. Be grossed out by the congealed ketchup ruining everything in the locker, but it’s just a Barbie covered in red sauce. [Raven: Like, how is this scary? “Oh no, my Barbie has committed suicide! How terrifying!” At least have a creepy “watch your back” style note or something.]
There is also a note: “THE SCARE WAR IS ON!” [Raven: Not that kind of note.] [Wing: Raven’s been monkey pawed.]
Friday Lunch, Unicorner. It turns out that Lila found a note splattered with ketchup in her bag. It reads: DON’T SCARE US—WE’LL SCARE YOU.
Apparently nobody, least of all the snooty Unicorns, are at all bothered that their clothes and items are covered in ketchup thanks to these pranks. We do get a delightfully Unicorny exchange here though:
Before Jessica could ask her anything more Janet arrived at the table and put down her tray with a bang. “Jessica,” she said sharply as she sat down. Jessica’s heart sank. “I don’t like to point fingers,” Janet continued. “I’m not the kind of person who goes around blaming others—am I, girls?” Ellen, Mary, Lila, and Mandy nodded in agreement that Janet certainly did not go around blaming others.
“But if anyone’s responsible for this, it’s you,” Janet said, looking straight at Jessica and narrowing her eyes.
Jessica immediately apologises, then thinks for a moment and then asks what she just apologised for. It turns out that Janet found a purple note in her locker, and she assumed, based on the colour, that it was “official Unicorn correspondence”. It was not. It was a note saying “Revenge” and it was covered in ketchup.
The boys are incredibly inventive today.
Janet is furious that she’s been dragged into this, and she suggests they all meet at Jessica’s house after school to come up with a game plan.
Janet is fabulously Janet in this scene, Jessica is amusing, but Lila is not very Lila, but two out of three ain’t bad, so I’ve heard. (Live, actually. With Raven and Wing sat either side of me.) [Wing: Best. Gift. Ever.] [Raven: I hate Janet in this book. She seems like a charicature of Janet.]
Friday, after school, Wakefield kitchen. Team Boring are making brownies and being delighted that it’s Friday afternoon. Yay a whole weekend ahead of them. Unfortunately, the Snob Squad are here – and just so we’re clear, Elizabeth actually refers to the Unicorns out loud and in front of other people as such. 104 books in and we finally have actual proof that Elizabeth does call them the Snob Squad.
Talk turns to the boys, and their pranks. At this point, Jessica wanders in to steal the batter from the brownies. Elizabeth asks what the Unicorns are talking about, motivated by the scare war being on, and Jessica prissily responds that it’s privileged information. Team Boring suggest they all team up to get back at the boys, and Jessica points out that Elizabeth isn’t exactly known for her wild scheming.
Elizabeth airily says fine, I guess you don’t want to hear about the frozen Jell-O trick, and Maria adds how about the fried cockroach prank. Amy boorishly yells that she has no idea what they’re talking about, because Amy is the dimmest thing in the room right now.
I’ll admit, I started to wonder about frozen Jell-O. I didn’t figure out how to use it in a prank, but I did think it must be fun to hurl a football-sized chunk of frozen red Jell-O and watch it explode like the T1000 in the end of Terminator 2. The fried cockroach trick just has no merit as a set of words. Why would you fry them? Who fries them? Are they euthanised first? Are you buying them dead, or even pre-fried? What is the benefit. No, that one holds no interest. Maria fails.
Despite Amy’s lack of tact, Jessica is intrigued and Team Boring and Team Unicorn combine to create the brand new Team Unibore: Pranksters Extraordinaire.
And we cut to the end of the meeting, where Janet decrees that the twins must test out their pranks on Steven before they use them on the boys at school, dropping any failed pranks. Obviously, Elizabeth’s morality kicks in, but then Steven shows up and makes some jokes at their expense and Elizabeth is like, “Morality be damned! Let’s prank that fuckwit!”
Friday night, Saint Wakefield’s bedroom. Elizabeth starts to read The Hound of the Baskervilles and hears a dog yapping in a nearby yard and freaks the fuck out.
Can you tell I’m not feeling this book at all?
Saturday morning, Steven “the tossrag” Wakefield’s room. Steven wakes up and tries to make up some more jokes about the twins. He comes up with the following and decrees it “perfect”:
A tape recorder.
–A tape recorder? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
I’m sure this is hysterical if you’re Steven. And let us all be grateful that we are not. [Raven: This joke needs so much setup for so little payoff.]
He sees something at the end of the bed and screams for his parents that it’s a giant rattle snake coiled and ready to attack. He’s exaggerated how vicious it is, but it’s a small life-like snake. No idea where they got that from since last night, since nobody in Team Unibore seems the type to have snake replicas knocking around.
You know what? I’m so not feeling this book, so I’m just going to bullet point the pranks that get played on Steven, since it’s a whole weekend.
- Plastic spider in his cereal bowl. He spots it immediately and is trés smug.
- He does not spot the follow-up rubber cockroach in the same bowl and nearly chokes on it. Then screams when he sees what he spat out.
- Frozen Jell-O hurled at him when he sunbathes by the pool. He nearly jumps out of his skin. [Wing: I still don’t understand how this is a scare. But like Dove, I do want to throw frozen Jell-O at things now.]
- Peeled grapes dropped down his shirt.
- Red food colouring in the shower head.
- Helium balloons wrapped in white sheets floating past his bedroom window.
- Screams recorded on tape playing in his closet.
And now to hop off bullets to describe this one in a bit more detail. By now, Steven is super fed up with being constantly pranked, and to be fair, the parents should’ve stepped in and actually put a stop to it by now, instead of gormlessly telling the twins not to go too far – that happened after the first or second prank. Instead, the parents have fucked off to a party and left him at the mercy of the murderous psychopath and her enabling twin.
He helps himself to a candy bar in the pantry. Jessica waits until he’s swallowed his first bite before screaming in horror. Those are the candy bars that are laced with rat poison, they’re going to use them to poison the rats in the basement. Steven doesn’t buy it because the twins have been pranking him all weekend.
However, Elizabeth appears to call Alice, who is being played by Maria, who uses her talent of being a child actor to mimic an adult’s voice so well that Steven actually believes he’s speaking to his mother. Maria is far more talented than we give her credit for. Or Steven is even more stupid than we already think.
MariAlice tells Steven to ride his bike to the hospital
and ask them to pump his stomach and she’ll be there in 20 minutes. Steven dashes out of the house, and the twins yuck it up as they imagine how cross Steven will be when he passes by Maria’s house and she explains to him.
Ordinarily I’d point out how daft it would be to store candy bars laced with rat poison in the pantry where anyone can grab them in a house with three kids (with perfect metabolisms), but then I remembered how terrible Alice and Ned are at parenting, and then I just kinda gave a “sounds legit” kind of shrug, and let it slide as a plausible turn of events. [Raven: I quite liked this prank, and the food-colouring-in-the-shower-head one.]
Sunday night, Evil Wakefield’s bedroom. Jessica decides to read The Black Cat by Poe. Apparently because she likes cats.
The continuity is strong in this one.
Obviously, she freaks out.
Monday lunch, Unicorner. Jessica gives a report on the results of the pranks. Janet is keen to hear the outcome of the food colouring in the shower head prank, as it was hers. Jessica remembers this and tactfully says that it was probably the best prank, but hard to pull off at school, so maybe they should keep it in reserve. Janet compliments her back, so her tact works.
Elizabeth arrives at their table and tries to start a conversation when Lila gasps and leaps back, saying there’s a snail in her food. Ellen and Mandy back off immediately, but Elizabeth and Jessica are well-versed in fake animals and immediately see it for what it is, guessing one of the boys slipped it on Lila’s tray when she was in the line.
Uh… how little attention do you have to be paying to your tray for someone to slip something on there? Also, given that the kids have been talking about pranks non-stop, how is Lila so clueless that it was a prank? If she spotted it, why didn’t she just have a moment of panic, then laugh, then tell everyone else that for half a second she bought in, then realised what it was. Why did Lila and Mandy have to panic over it? Ellen I’ll allow, because much as I love her, quick thinking isn’t really her thing. [Raven: And again, how is a snail in the food scary. I can see it’s unpalatable and maybe upsetting, but scary? Not in the slightest. Also, putting a snail in Lila’s food shows they don’t know Lila too well… she’s been to Paris multiple times, and she’s surely eaten snails before.]
By the way, Ellen is not particularly Ellen in this book. I need at least Lila or Ellen to be in character, otherwise I’m out, and both are just bland as fuck.
Monday, English class. Before class starts, Charlie attempts to freak Elizabeth out by putting something cold and wet against her neck. She tells him, in a very bored tone, that frozen Jell-O works better than a wet glove.
Monday, lunch. Jessica tries the “you’ve been poisoned” trick on Brian, convincing him to vomit out of sheer panic at the idea that maggots are in the lunch. [Raven: “You’re eating maggots, Brian.“] [Wing: I cannot believe Raven, not Dove, made that reference.] [Dove: At any point in this book, I was either annoyed or exhausted. It’s a miracle I finished at all!]
Monday, Mr Bowman’s class. (Wait, so… Mr Bowman doesn’t teach English? Or there’s more than one English class in a day? WTF?) Mr Bowman tells a story about a man eating noodles that turn out to be a woman’s husband’s brains. As the wham line kicks in, Lila tosses cold leftover spaghetti at Aaron Dallas, who screams. Mr Bowman apparently misses the drive-by spagging, and tells Aaron to chill, it’s not that scary. Every adult in this book is hopeless. But I have just created the phrase “drive-by spagging”, so it’s not a complete loss.
Monday, after school, the walk home. The twins gloat about how wimpy the boys are. Then Elizabeth wants to walk a different way because she’s scared of a dog. Thankfully, Jessica assumes that Elizabeth has a prank idea, so goes along with it.
Tuesday morning, Wakefield kitchen. Steven is so jaded by his sisters’ bullshit that he opens a brand new box of cereal rather than risk their japery. Elizabeth suggests Team Unibore reunites for a big sleepover on Friday night. Jessica asks why Friday, which is a hugely dim question. Because it’s the start of the weekend. Pretty much all term-time sleepovers happen on Friday. What are you, new? But the answer is because it’s Friday the thirteenth. It can be a victory party. They let it slip that Steven had a hand in there forthcoming victory, and they should bake him cookies as a thank you. Steven is suitably traumatised and retorts that he’d rather be in Timbuktu. And then he thinks to himself that the slumber party will be a great time for revenge.
Tuesday after school, the walk home. Somehow Jessica and Mandy are discussing how they pulled the helium balloons/sheets prank on Bruce Patman. What? When? *shakes head* You know what? I don’t care. I hate this book. Not like the last few, which were offensive, just in a normal ithigy way. Apparently the boys have hit back with bloody feet in the bathroom stall (what?) and a recording of gunshots when Lila bent over (implying she farts bullets?) that is super not funny in a post-Columbine world. [Wing: Not particularly funny in the pre-Columbine world in which this was set, either, but mostly because I just don’t get what they wanted from it. Though I love your farting bullets theory.] And apparently Elizabeth has added cyberterrorism to her list of skills, because in a pre-internet age, Elizabeth somehow managed to send a message from her terminal to Charlie’s, despite the fact that the computers probably aren’t networked to that degree, and they’re working on Windows 3.1 at most. She sent him a message saying “They’re coming to get you” and then managed to erase all evidence that she’d done such a thing.
Elizabeth is legion. She is many. She does not forgive. She does not forget.
Tuesday night, Saint Wakefield’s room. Spoilers: the Hound of the Baskervilles is not a real ghost. Elizabeth is no longer freaking out. [Wing: Ugh, Elizabeth, the creepiness stems not from the resolution but from the path to that resolution. You idiot.]
Wednesday afternoon, Wakefield compound. Jessica reads The Tell-Tale Heart. Obviously she freaks out and decides to read something else.
And now’s probably a good time to tell an ancient Wing and Dove story. Thousands of years ago, during one of our first discussions about horror and our reactions, we both recalled as children how we’d be afraid to leave the genie out of the bottle. If you start a scary story, the only way to keep the frightening things in their own world and out of ours is to finish it. You finish the movie, rewind the tape and put it away. You get through the book and put it back on the shelf. This is where Jessica is falling down, I think. She’s not putting the genie back in the bottle. [Raven: That’d involve housework.] [Wing: Yes, true, and I still feel that way. I cannot leave the story unfinished. Which means if I ever end up in a situation where reading something to the end is what triggers the apocalypse, we’re all fucked.]
Thursday afternoon, school library. Jessica reads The Cask of Amontillado. Guess what? She freaks out.
Thursday night, Wakefield dining room. In some genuinely terrible scene-setting, we get halfway through an utterly pointless scene in which the twins plan their slumber party, before hopping into Steven’s head, where he basically is a Point Horror villain and thinks, “Mwahahahaha. Your happy plans will not go as you think!”
Friday afternoon, Wakefield compound. The twins set up for the Unibore party. Steven claims he’s going out, says goodbye and then waits in the garage for shit to go down.
Team Unibore arrives and they all watch Friday the Thirteenth: Part XXXVI, which… um, no. Michael Grant says it’s a hard no on referencing real things, even if you add an additional 27 titles to it (there were 9 movies in 1993). [Raven: I refer the reader to my earlier rant, above. Also, can kids in the US rent movies with no restriction? There’s no way any wholesome UK twelve-year-olds would get chance to watch a slasher film in the UK.] [Dove: I went with mum to rent 18 rated horror movies for sleepovers. The dudes at blockbuster gave zero fucks as long as mum was there.] [Wing: In the 90s, in small town US, people often didn’t give a fuck. The only time I had an issue was when Ostrich and I and his best friend (who later, randomly become one of my best friends after Ostrich moved away for awhile) went to see The Crow: City of Angels and the theater required we have someone 18+ with us. Not a parent, mind you, we could have pulled any random adult in on this. I never had trouble renting movies. These days, people are stricter about it. Sweet Valley adults are failures all around, though, so I did not even question them being able to rent a movie that doesn’t even exist. Oh, randomly, Dove and I recently had a long conversation about children at the cinema and the different way ratings work in the US and the UK. It was very interesting.] Lila comments that the movie is way scarier than the stories Mr Bowman has been reading. Jessica, on the other hand, considers whether they used ketchup or spaghetti sauce. It appears that Jessica thinks those are the only two options.
After the movie, everyone gets out their sleeping bags and they move on to telling ghost stories by candlelight while another plot-convenient storm rolls in. I swear we recently had a book where this was decreed as utterly childish behaviour. Not the Jaguars – although they were too far above slumber parties – but I feel like the Unicorns have mocked people who tell ghost stories at sleepovers.
Maria tells a cute little story where the hook is “bloody fingers” and ends with a jump scare, which is fine. Elizabeth then retells The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then they notice four shadows outside. Jessica threatens to scream, which is just plain odd. Who, in the throes of fear, actually has time to pre-announce their scream? Elizabeth moves closer to the window and waits for the next lightning bolt to light up the backyard, where she sees two ghosts, a skeleton, and something else a big more vague. She calms herself and notes they’re wearing Nike trainers.
The rest of Team Unibore giggle once she relays her findings. Elizabeth is furious though. She might cut a bitch for ruining the slumber party. As before, Elizabeth never forgives and never forgets.
Elizabeth comes up with a plan based on Baskervilles, where they’ll paint a scary face on a sleeping bag and scare the boys. Why not just turn the hose on them? [Wing: Dove is great at foreshadowing.]
Friday evening, Wakefield basement. Steven hears odd noises and tries to figure out what’s going on. Surely the twins haven’t seen him, he’s been quiet the whole time. He checks the window and sees a kid wrapped in toilet paper (which would go for several grand on the black market right now), banging airplane propeller blades together. He realises that while he waits to prank his sisters, some other kids have rocked up and are in the process of pranking his sisters.
This should be a funny moment, but my only reaction was a deep and very bored sigh.
Steven thinks his prank is worthy of its own TV show and Johnny Buck will write a song for it. Steven is a tool. [Wing: One thing that did throw me in this book is Steven’s love for Johnny Buck. I could have sworn all he did was mock the singer before this.] [Dove: That’s actually a really good point. He’s been enjoying drawing a moustache on Jessica’s posters and saying he’s an awful actor in something recent.]
Friday evening, Wakefield back door. Team Unibore leap out of the house, dressed as the most frightening sleeping back that ever sleeping bagged. The boys scatter in terror and they lose Charlie. Aaron, Brian and Bruce immediately beg for their lives. Charlie hides in a tree, and Elizabeth hits him with the hose.
Friday evening, Wakefield compound. The girls invite the boys in for hot chocolate and start to negotiate the terms of their official win of the scare war. The boys have to sign a declaration, cluck like chickens for a minute, and refer to each girl as “Your Awesomeness” when addressing them.
This lasts for all of six seconds before Steven’s prank kicks in. He makes noises in the basement. Then the lights go out. Jessica hides in the pantry and flashes back to the story she read recently, sparking off mild claustrophobia. Everyone else reacts in non-specific terror, somehow able to see a frightening monster from different rooms in the darkness. It’s probably explained, but I literally don’t care. I’m so bored.
Then they hear Steven’s laugh.
Everyone laughs, etc. Hot chocolate and cookies. Everything’s fun. The boys set off home, and now there’s a fog rolling in. Sweet Valley is having all of the weather tonight. And then walking up the street comes two more monsters. That’s like four monsters in a single chapter.
And, fucking hysterically, it’s the Wakefield parents, proving that even the meth-addled and ancient can get in a good scare too.
And then there is a pointless and awkward three-paragraph lead in to the next book, titled “Jessica’s Cookie Disaster”, which I suspect requires significantly less foreshadowing than the likes of “Poor Lila!” or “Amy’s Secret Sister”.
This blew. This was awful. I don’t entirely blame the Jamie, although the continuity was awful. She had Janet down in a way that impressed me, but she hadn’t a clue with Lila or Ellen, who were generic girls, simply making up numbers.
This is not something that makes a good book. I would wager it’s pretty much impossible to do a PG-rated prank book. I seem to remember a fanfic writer doing a fic about the escalation of prank wars between maybe Angel and Spike (failing that it was Buffy and Faith). One prank involved one party’s furniture all being tied to the ceiling of The Bronze. That was fun, and it worked because there was a level of invention that could only be reached with witchcraft and/or supernaturally strong people with too much free time.
This does not have that luxury. It’s a bunch of twelve year olds, stuck in the real world, written by someone who was not moved by the lolz to write about pranks, but was simply given the beats of the story and told to make it work.
The result? Absolute drek. So boring. Nothing was scary. Nothing was funny. I was bored witless while reading, and even more bored while recapping. And in some parts of this recap, I was so tired that I was both hearing and seeing things. And even that didn’t make things better.
Finally, the title. What the fuck. Steven Gets Even is not the theme of the book. It’s the spoiler. This should have been called The Scare War. It would be liked calling Sixth Sense “Bruce Willis is Dead”.
But I’m done. This is now my fellow recappers’ problem.
[Raven: This was not good. The pranks sometimes didn’t even have the illusion of being scary. Janet made Jessica sit on ice cream at one stage… my, how terrifying. There was a lot of “X pretends to be a monster, then Y pretends to be a monster, then Z pretends to be a monster, etc. It all felt very repetitive. As Dove points out, the continutiy was atrocious, and writing a single jump scare is difficult enough, never mind a book that’s basically trying to do so many jump scares it’s been scored by House of Pain.
Not one for the highlight reel, I’m afraid. Or rather, I’m not afraid.]
[Wing: I can’t believe I found this as charming as I did. I thought most of the pranks were believable for 12-year-olds (though some completely inexplicable either in how they pulled them off at school or why they did them in the first place), and though Lila was completely not Lila in this book, I quite liked the friend teamup and their dedication to pranks. The boys were completely fucked up in the combo of boys used for this lighthearted romp, though.]