Sunday, July 10, 2016

REVIEW: Whisper of Death (book) by Christopher Pike

Whisper of Death is YA horror, originally published in 1991. I got it via ILL.

This review includes loads of spoilers. You've been warned. No read-alikes list, because all I could come up with was Stephen King's The Langoliers, and I'm only familiar with the TV movie adaptation.


I'll start this off with a laundry list of warnings. This book features abortion and treats it as murder. It has multiple references to rape (one instance where the word is used and a few others where it isn't). Also, at one point, the heroine consoles herself after her decision to have an abortion by telling herself that “Our child probably would have been retarded” (22), because both she and the father didn't do very well in school. Oh yes, and there's some fat person stereotyping.

Okay, now on to the summary. Roxanne and Pepper are two high school students in Salem, Arizona who try their best to look cool and unaffected by the world. They start dating, have sex, and Roxanne discovers she's pregnant four weeks or so later. She'd like to keep the baby, but Pepper convinces her to have an abortion. At the clinic, however, Roxanne changes her mind. She and Pepper head back to Salem, at which time things begin to get weird.

The whole town is deserted, and even radios and telephones don't work. The only other people Roxanne and Pepper find are three other teens: Helter, a hothead who believes in shooting first and asking questions later; Leslie, the school beauty; and Stan, the overweight smart kid who's already taking college-level math. It's Stan who figures out the common denominator tying them all together: Betty Sue, a girl at their school who killed herself four weeks ago.

This was one of my nostalgia rereads, although, to be honest, I remembered almost nothing about it. The cover was familiar, as were Betty Sue's abilities, and that was about it.

You'd think a book that so openly featured abortion would have stuck with me, but I guess not. When Roxanne found out she was pregnant, I was surprised when her doctor, without appearing to judge her in any way, mentioned abortion as one of her options. Even now, it's rare to see abortion being brought up as a viable option in fiction featuring unexpected pregnancy, unless it's an “issue” book specifically meant to deal with that topic.

While I thought that was pretty amazing, I was less happy with how things went from there. I should mention that I'm pro-choice: I believe women should be able to make their own decisions about what they do with their bodies and that there should be healthcare options available for whatever decision they make, whether they want to go through with the pregnancy or terminate it. Roxanne wanted to keep the baby, and that was fine. It was after she talked with Pepper that things fell apart. He wanted her to have an abortion, and she caved, even though she clearly felt that it was murder. She beat herself up about it, until she changed her mind, after which the story itself continued to punish her. But more on that later.

Aside from the surprising beginning, this book didn't really grab me until almost halfway through, when the group discovered Betty Sue's diary and stories. Betty Sue was...troubled. To those who didn't know her, she came across as quiet and shy. In private she was a seething mass of hatred and jealousy. If she was interested in a guy, then he should want her back. If some other girl dated or slept with a guy she wanted, well then they both had to pay. Even her closest friends weren't safe. It was just too bad for everyone that she happened to have supernatural powers.

Betty Sue's stories had a childish quality to them – if they hadn't been so deadly, they'd have been silly. I was morbidly interested to see how everyone was going to die and to learn what they'd done (or what Betty Sue had thought they'd done) to deserve it. The only details that weren't a surprise were those surrounding Pepper's death. Pike made that one a little too obvious.

But how to end it? That's where the book lost me, and now I'm going to enter spoiler spoiler territory.

At the end of the book, Roxanne learned her part in all of this, and it was bizarre. You see, Pepper slept with Betty Sue and got her pregnant prior to sleeping with Roxanne and getting her pregnant. Betty Sue got jealous and hatched a plan. She'd terminate her own pregnancy and, as she was dying, trap the five people she hated most in one of her stories, a place where she ruled and could punish everyone as she pleased. The key to it all was Roxanne. She'd become Roxanne's fetus (weird, yeah, and I still don't know that the timing works), and Roxanne would trigger everything by deciding to have an abortion. Basically, everyone was doomed to die the instant Roxanne's abortion started. Congratulations, Roxanne, it's all your fault! This was practically Der Struwwelpeter level of moralizing.

Fetus Betty Sue made sure that the abortion would be a monumental and bloody disaster, killing Roxanne along with everyone else as it trapped her and the four other teens in an unending punishment loop. Roxanne was able to escape the loop (and I think go to heaven or someplace like it, so I guess there's that), but her decision not to play Betty Sue's game made no difference as far as everyone else was concerned. Helter, Leslie, Stan, and Pepper were still trapped in Betty Sue's deserted world, scheduled to die whenever and however she wanted.

I think I might have liked the book a tiny bit more if Roxanne's final decision had meant something, had derailed Betty Sue in some way. As it was, this ending was kind of depressing. Stan, as far as I could tell, wasn't guilty of anything more than liking Betty Sue even though he knew she could control his and others' behavior. Pepper was guilty of not liking Betty Sue as much as she wanted him to, and of not using condoms. Leslie didn't show Betty Sue as much appreciation as she wanted her to. Helter was probably the most guilty person in the group, but that situation was screwed up from start to finish. Betty Sue raped him by using her powers to force him to have sex with her, and so he took back what little control he could and turned the sex into rape. Right, just typing that makes me feel gross.

There you have it, my second recent Christopher Pike reread. I wish I could remember how Teen Me felt about it. Adult Me liked it well enough until the end. I know horror novels don't necessarily have happy endings, but, besides making me angry, this ending was just plain unsatisfying.

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