Why R.L. Stine's 'Party Games' is a Tricky Piece of Literary Nostalgia: 3 Ways to Read It


Plaid flannel and babydoll dresses may be making a comeback at the mall, and dance music appears to be returning to its house roots, but there's another reason why 2014 is feeling very 1994: author R.L. Stine has returned to Fear Street, the series of books that dominated the Young Adult section in bookstores during the Clinton era.

The latest entry, Party Games, is dedicated to Stine's Twitter followers, the thousands of twenty- and thirtysomethings who came of age during the author's literary heyday (yours truly proudly included). They're the ones who have longed for some 90s nostalgia in the form of good old-fashioned teenage bloodshed and have taken to social media, urging him to revisit the fictitious town of Shadyside and its infamous dead-end street.

Party Games is the story of 17-year-old Rachel Martin who gets invited to a birthday party hosted at a mansion on mysterious Fear Island, where the titular games turn deadly for guests. The birthday boy happens to be game-loving Brendan Fear, "pale and serious-looking" with "a shy smile," a descendant of the powerful Fear dynasty that practically ran the town back in the 1800s. (Hence everything being named after them -- see: the entire Fear Street Saga.)

R.L. Stine is celebrated because of the sheer amount of material he has been able to churn out over the past two-and-a-half decades. His books are easy-breezy paperbacks filled with numerous cliffhangers designed to keep young readers hooked on every word. Three years after debuting Fear Street, he dropped Goosebumps on the younger siblings of those readers, and from there, he became a household name and broke publishing records.

So it may be difficult to criticize a writer who is so loved by kids (and former kids) yet whose signature work is full of simple-to-follow plots and less-than-inspired dialogue.

I realize it's impossible to capture the same thrill and excitement I had whenever I picked up the latest Fear Street at Barnes & Noble during my pre-high school years. Reading the latest installment now is definitely not the same experience as it was back then.

Therefore I believe there are three ways to critique -- or three perspectives from which to approach -- Party Games:

1. As a 14-year-old living in 1994.

2. As a 14-year-old living in 2014.

3. As a present-day, grown-ass 34-year-old man attempting to relive his early adolescence.

Reading it as a teen living in the 90s, Party Games should really be subtitled as a "Super Chiller," simply because it's over 200 pages and has a lot of story to tell. But this being 2014, a time when publishers of young adult fiction can make more money with a hardcover title (higher prices), a first-print paperback is out of the question. Either way, the story is rapidly paced, just like previous Fear Street entries. Cliffhangers galore!

Hypothetically reading it as a 14-year-old in present day America, Party Games moves pretty quickly because of its short and swift chapters. But the characters seem a little blah, almost like cardboard cut-outs. And there are way too many fake-outs. (The previous chapter was all in her imagination! It was a prank!) Come on, is this what was considered scary 20 years ago?

Finally, as a 2014 thirtysomething who is well-versed in all YA fiction from the 90s and proudly owns every Fear Street title in existence, the obvious excuse to pan Party Games could stem from my arguably matured literary tastes. I assume a 14-year-old who reads this now would share the same views. After all, today's YA titles are light years away in sophistication when compared to the YA novels of the 90s. Vampire sex, dystopian bloodbaths, and brutally honest portrayals of teens-in-crisis is what dominates the shelves these days. (Again, in hardcovers, probably to make the adults who read them feel less guilty.)

But would it be fair to criticize Stine's latest work based on what's currently in the market? Yes and no.

After reading the twist-filled Party Games, I can see that R.L. Stine, "one of the bestselling authors of children's books in the world," (sorry J.K. Rowling) hasn't really lost his mojo. But his mojo doesn't quite fit in today's YA world. Now at the age of 71, it seems like Stine is writing for teens as if it were still 1989 (when the first Fear Street title, The New Girl, was published). And the world we live in now resembles nothing like the one from 25 years ago.

Stine, as crafty and swift as his writing is, appears to be stuck in a time warp in which characters insult each other with comments like "lousy creep" and "stupid jerk." And do today's teenage girls still call a hot guy "a hunk"? But I have to give him this: he can whip up a variety of ways to describe the moonlight while running from danger through a dark patch of woods.

One can't help but think that his sweeping success with the more juvenile Goosebumps has somewhat allowed his finger to slip off the pulse of the fickle, hard-to-market teen audience. He can't turn to his son Matt, who once modeled for the cover of The Perfect Date, for inspiration and the scoop on what's trending among adolescents (The junior Stine is now in his early 30s). Therefore Stine's current crop of "teen" books still come off as PG (PG-13 at best) horror tales while his competition continues to tiptoe along the border of R-rated territory (perhaps because most YA fiction has never had a wider, more adult audience until now, which is another discussion for another day).

If Goosebumps exists in a safe, Disney Channel-like realm, then Fear Street falls somewhere within the confines of an ABC Family universe -- risque antics neutered by slight sugar coating.

Sure, you could argue that this reader has merely outgrown these kinds of books, that I am too old to appreciate and enjoy literature aimed at readers less than half my age. But a closer look at bookstore shelves will show you that not all YA authors of yesteryear are trapped in (or relegated to) the past. Christopher Pike, the other bestselling author of 90s teen fiction, has been pumping out sequels to some of his classics (The Last Vampire has now been rebooted as the Thirst saga), and he has even kicked off a new trilogy called Witch World. Having read his latest offerings, I can see that his writing is sharper than ever and has successfully adapted to a 21st century marketplace. Loyal readers and fans will tell you that Pike has always dealt with more mature subject matter when compared to Stine, but his current novels show an expanded grasp on his readership. The edge he had in the 90s (one that my 14-year-old self noticed back then) hasn't dulled whatsoever. Now in his 50s, Pike has demonstrated a depth and richness in his writing that was only teased two decades ago.

If R.L. Stine's idea of keeping up with today's generation and updating his stories is to include blatant, throwaway references to Skype and Netflix, then a non-fan (a hard-to-please 14-year-old) might advise him to respectfully close his laptop, retire, and enjoy the rest of his life -- at the risk of sounding ageist.

And let's talk about the heroine at the center of Party Games: Rachel is a girl who works part-time as a waitress at the local hangout (how quaintly Saved by the Bell) where she observes all the other "kids" from her school. Yes, she repeatedly refers to her peers as "kids" throughout the book -- has she been inhabited by the spirit of an elderly curmudgeon? No, she's just written that way -- by a 71-year-old man in a teenager's first-person POV.

She's also in what appears to be a potentially abusive relationship with her boyfriend Mac, a dude who warns her to stay away from the birthday festivities on Fear Island. She (Stine) describes Mac as follows:

"I knew he had a bad reputation. I heard he'd been suspended from his old school for fighting. I'd seen his violent temper. But I also thought he was a good guy at heart. He was kind at times and very soft-spoken, even shy. He had a tender side he didn't let many people see. Yes, he was very possessive, even though we'd only been seeing each other for a few weeks. And he resented the time I spent with Amy and my other friends. But I kind of thought that meant he cared. Stupid me..."

Yes, stupid indeed. She clearly doesn't show any signs of self-respect, and that may be a bit of a problem. File this under: #WhyIStayed

But Stine, in the end, somewhat redeems her (and himself) by placing Rachel in some nightmarish situations during which she demonstrates some resolve and backbone (in one chapter she must claw her way out of a "death pit" by creating a ladder from a pile of skeleton bones). Like most of Stine's heroines, she thankfully manages to stand up for herself and fight back.

The book is divided into four parts, and once you get to the intense second denouement (it's like Return of the King, there's more than one ending), you realize that Stine is having fun with the reader, jumping back and forth between horror themes. Some may be disappointed by the Big Twist while others will just be happy to enjoy the rest of the ride.

I'm torn. While a part of me treats this as enjoyable trash, the other appreciates the opportunity Party Games offers to a new generation of readers, a chance to visit the town of Shadyside and discover the horrors that lurk in the shadows.

Will I buy the next Fear Street entry, Don't Stay Up Late, when it comes out in time for my birthday next spring?

You bet your nostalgic bookworm ass I will.

@TheFirstEcho

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