Every teenager has a schoolbag full of books. Jotters, textbooks, and – in my case – a paperback for emergency reading, the kind that blots out everything else. Sometimes I’d read in the common room while waiting for my friends to finish their lunch, mostly it would be during English class when we’d finished studying for the day. As a thirteen-year-old brat, I loved a good Point Horror. They were all the same, really. That’s what you call writing to a formula, but when the formula is so fun, does it really matter? These books were as American as apple pie, their covers are bright and bleak as a fake smile. For a while, they were all the rage. At this point (pardon the pun), I scribbled little stories on any bit of paper I could find. The Book Club at Cumbernauld High School was full of girls from the year above and a few people I knew from my year. They were mildly disdainful, looking down on everyone, which was their right because they were a full year older and a few inches taller than all of us. One of them had a huge crush on Stephen King, or so she said. I’d already started trying to read his books, though Cumbernauld Library had one overzealous librarian who made sure I read age-appropriate fiction.
Point Horror was the perfect mixture of digestible, addictive, and throwaway. I never did though. That is, throw them away. Not literally. I’m not quite ready to star in the new series of Hoarders, but I keep certain books. Somewhere in a box up in the loft (which I only got when I moved into my current home) are some Point Horror books sitting alongside my Doctor Who/Nancy Drew stories from primary school. Even now I can see those Point Horror books, their cover art forever stuck in the ’90s portion of my hippocampus. Just like the stories themselves, these book jackets followed a strict formula. A focus on one strong image from the story, vivid neon text with jagged edges, and a small tagline. The back of the book would follow the colour of the jacket, with a small rectangle above the blurb with another shot of the cover image. They stood out on the shelf, for sure.
Back then, I loved RL Stine and Diane Hoh better than the other American authors. Their Point Horrors always worked for me. But last year while looking back at my formative reading (digging out those Meg and Mog books from when I was eight!), I reread some of those old ’90s horror novels in one sitting. Richie Tankersley Cusick, the author of Trick or Treat, suddenly became my favourite. Every Halloween I dig out certain books for the month. M.R. James is always there, of course. Stephen King too. And sometimes I read another Point Horror. My reading pile is always so tall and getting through my books is a constant mission. I read something heavy and follow it with something easy. You can’t get easier than a Point Horror. They’re thin, the text is large, the characterisation is small, and yet there’s always something reassuring about that American world I used to dream about experiencing. Why I wanted a locker at school? These books and all those trashy bright teen dramas Channel 4 used to show in the morning. Saved By The Bell. California Dreams. That sort of thing. When your world is deeply dark (as my childhood was for all the shit that happened), you often grab onto something that can take you away. Books, television, music, and films are the quickest bus out of boredom.
When I reread some of these books last year for Halloween, it became frustrating how many similar beats they all shared. R.L. Stine was absolutely rotten for having chapters end in someone being found dead, only for the next chapter to start with it being a practical joke. People were followed by strangers only for them to be trying to return a purse or a bag. The titles are all similar. There’s The Boyfriend. The Girlfriend. The Dead Girlfriend. Beach Party. Beach House. Goodness, James Patterson has made a career from this sort of familiarity. Also, the main character not understanding why someone is after her comes across as slightly odd in hindsight. Just because her parents are still together, she owns a car, and dates the head of the football team, why would anyone hate her for that? Silly cow. And yet there were moments of real darkness in these daft little books. Funhouse by Diane Hoh has someone sabotage a rollercoaster, killing and maiming characters – and that’s in the first chapter. Some of the books clearly didn’t fit or suit the range. Caroline B. Cooney’s The Stranger and The Perfume don’t really conform to the cosy (or cozy in American) horror formula these books established. However, her Vampire books (starting with The Cheerleader) are absolutely pure Point Horror despite their supernatural bent.
Eventually, the books started to get a little tedious. Or maybe they weren’t enough for me anymore? Too many weird entries, supernatural or zany angles, and story arcs that took place across separate titles. The British variant known as Point Horror Unleashed was okay, but they weren’t American, as Point Horror should be, which meant sales dropped. Sometimes I wonder if publishers would ever bring them back, reprint the titles for a new generation of potential fans, and if not a new generation, then a grateful old generation who still loves those books. There are clubs all over the internet. You see them on Instagram, discussed in detail the way I might talk about the new Ellroy or Tartt, with all the enthusiasm and love of a true reader and devoted fan.
If Point Horror does come back from the dead, I wouldn’t be surprised because in the world of Point Horror…nothing stays dead for long.