I started learning English in earnest with the books of R. L. Stine. I started learning about myself when I, at thirteen years old, picked up Christopher Pike. The first book I read by him was Road to Nowhere. It had a garish cover – my mother was aghast. She had raised me reading Pushkin and O. Henry! What was I thinking?
I was thinking that Teresa, the protagonist of Road to Nowhere, wasn’t that different from the fairy tale heroines I had encountered as a child. Willingly, she had entered an Other World (because, in fairy tales, we always have a choice about these things – even if the choice was not entirely obvious), and was being tested – severely – and with no points of reference to guide her. Her guardian angel looked like a demon, and vice versa.
What I’ve always admired about Pike (and it’s amazing how few people talk about him these days) is that he never treats young readers like idiots. You aren’t coddled – there’s death, there’s sex, there are the human dilemmas that you will end up facing for the rest of your life, however long or brief it may be. Most importantly, there are consequences. Although Pike is a great writer of thrillers and twisted fantasies, his feet are planted firmly in a moral, albeit cold and vast, universe.
Sometimes, Pike’s books end up tagged with various ideologies. Whisper of Death – a journey into an uncanny universe that’s part Stephen King and part Kafka – comes off as an anti-abortion book. However, it seems as though there is a whole lot more sinister message behind the plain “teens, don’t have sex (or, if you do, at least find a condom) and get abortions!” that many people picked up from it. I didn’t like the ending, but the book has stayed with me for many years.
The Midnight Club deals with the absurdity and injustice of dying young. The book cover suggests a thriller – which couldn’t be farther from the truth. The first line still runs through my mind sometimes – “Ilonka Pawluk checked herself out in the mirror and decided she didn’t look like she was going to die” – it floats out of the sound of creaking bus-brakes, it rings in my ears in the line at the movie theater. It haunts me, perhaps, the way that Ilonka’s past lives haunt her. The book is hopeful, but not comforting.
In terms of pure ingenuity, Scavenger Hunt is probably the most bizarre Pike book I have read. The action swiftly descends into a kind of acid flash-back, but it’s a journey you can thankfully follow. Reading this, you are reminded of the seemingly fickle-minded, sadistic gods of Greek tragedy. The ending leaves you with few clues, and so you try to come up with a more detailed identity for the beings that populate the book (which was also the case with the Blair Witch), an activity best left for the daytime.
Pike’s plots accurately capture the helplessness of being acutely self-aware, but too young and inexperienced to escape trouble. Like many of the good fairy-tales, his stories are often concerned with the idea of growing up. Arising from the same tradition as pricking spindles, Pike’s monsters drag their screaming victims into adulthood. Survive, and you become that much stronger.