Sunday, March 31, 2019

REVIEW: Chain Letter (book) by Christopher Pike

Chain Letter is YA horror, originally published in 1986. I got it via interlibrary loan.


Last summer, seven teens from the same high school went to a concert and, for various reasons, ended up riding back together (oh man, that car must have been cramped). They were drunk, rowdy, and stupid and ended up running someone over in the middle of the desert. Although a few of them wanted to talk to the police, in the end they all agreed to just bury the guy and forget about him.

In the book's present, one member of the group, Fran, has just received a creepy chain letter from someone calling themselves "Your Caretaker." The Caretaker says that Fran must perform a task that will be listed in the newspaper classified ads. Then she must cross her name off of the Column I list in her letter, put it at the bottom of Column II, make a copy of her letter, and send it on to the next person in the list, who is another one of the seven people who were in the car when the man was run over. The next person on the list must receive the letter within five days of Fran getting her letter.

The tasks the Caretaker asks them to do are initially relatively painless. Fran has to alter her painting of the school mascot in the gym. Kipp has to flunk an exam. However, the instant someone decides to defy the Caretaker and refuse to do their stated task, the Caretaker makes it clear that they mean business. If these teens want to avoid getting hurt or killed, they'll have to do what the Caretaker wants, no matter how much they'd prefer not to. The only other way out is to figure out who's behind the Caretaker. Is it one of them? Someone outside their group, watching their every move? Or possibly even the man in the desert. What if he wasn't really dead when they buried him?

I'm pretty sure my first Pike book ever was Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil. I don't recall anything about it and I don't think I ever went back and read Chain Letter, because nothing in this book felt familiar. Now that I've read Chain Letter, I can't for the life of me imagine a sequel, especially one with the subtitle like that. But it's Pike, so who knows, maybe reincarnation is involved.

Honestly, Chain Letter wasn't very good. Despite the title, the chain letter aspect felt tacked on, and Pike never took advantage of the classic "if you don't send this to X people in X amount of time, X will befall you" aspect of chain letters. The classified ads had a more prominent place in the story, but I suppose Classified Ad isn't a particularly thrilling title. Then again, neither is Chain Letter.

I did sort of enjoy seeing what the Caretaker would ask the teens to do next, but most of the tasks weren't particularly interesting and a few were even insulting (one task required the person to spread a rumor that they were gay). I also found it difficult to believe that officials at the school wouldn't have gotten wind of at least the earliest tasks - the very first one even used the first name of the person it was assigned to, although the Caretaker got a bit smarter and reverted to initials and code for later tasks.

I correctly guessed most of what was going on before I'd even gotten halfway through. I've either reread too many Pike books and have finally internalized his logic, or Pike just gave away too much too soon, I'm not sure. At any rate, I spent most of the book hoping that the details I'd noticed were just red herrings, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. I outright groaned when Pike bent over backwards to make the ending a combination of bittersweet and happy. Even if you take the Caretaker stuff out of the equation, those seven teens did in fact kill someone, after which they buried the body and never told anyone what they'd done. A happy ending did not feel appropriate.

There was one scene in the book that I really liked, the part where Alison was alone at home. It was good and genuinely scary. I wish more of the book had been that gripping. I didn't hate this, but it was pretty forgettable. (Hey, maybe I did read it at some point and just forgot everything about it!)

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