Lights Out was more of a straightforward murder mystery than anything supernatural. So was Sixteen Candles, but Night School, which I’ll be reviewing next, has an actual vampire in it, so I’m hoping the series isn’t just “could possibly happen in real life” thrillers.
Like so many teen horror novels of the 80s and 90s, this feels like it’s taking place in the 1950s.
We open with Mandy on the diving board at her house. Her friends Tara Evans and Steve Latham are there, although Steve is that kind of “friend” who is really just hoping to date her:
Steve Latham reclined on a folding beach chair. His hazel eyes watched longingly as Mandy approached. Steve had a crush on Mandy, though he had never told anyone. In the beginning stages of their relationship, Mandy had given him the “just friends” speech before he could even try to kiss her. It hurt that Mandy might never feel the same way about him, but he hung in there, hoping for a shift in the tide. (p. 6)
Ugh. Is this going to be a thing in every book in the series? Maybe it should have been called Creeper Academy. I’m personally hoping for a shift in tide that carries Steve Latham and Marshall Butler out to sea.
Anyway, Mandy’s father, Vernon Roberts, is cooking burgers for her friends before he has to go the graduation ceremony that afternoon. Mr. Roberts is a guidance counsellor, an English teacher, and volunteers for all forts of extra jobs at school. He’s gotten Mandy a position as editor of the school newspaper, but she works up the nerve to tell him she’d rather just be a reporter, and he agrees to re-arrange his arrangements.
Mr. Roberts asks why Brett Halloway isn’t attending their barbecue:
“Brett had to go to the gym this morning. Coach Chadwick called him in.”
Vernon Roberts studied his daughter, wondering why she and Brett hadn’t really clicked. They were the perfect type to go steady, become childhood sweethearts, get married in college and have a family by their early twenties. (p. 12)
Am I just oversensitive or is this really weirdly intrusive? She’s only just started dating Brett. I don’t think you need to be evaluating their breeding potential at this point, ugh.
Remember how I mentioned that this book feels like it’s set in the 50s? This is the sort of thing I mean:
There were certain decisions—mainly about going steady—that Mandy wasn’t ready to make yet. (p. 13)
This book was published in 1993. If people were talking about “going steady” in 1993, I sure as hell missed it.
Coach Chadwick and Brett pick up Mandy’s father and they leave for the graduation ceremony. Mandy gets freaked out because her father says “I love you, kid,” before they drive away; he never calls her that, and his face looked “serene and happy,” which gives her shivers for some reason.
Tara and Mandy ditch Steve by pausing near some skateboarding friends of his, inspiring him to go hang with the skaters so they can make their getaway and go to the graduation ceremony without him. They have this hilarious-to-me conversation:
Mandy sighed. “I want a real relationship, Tara. I want to care about a guy because I know him, not just because he looks good.”
Tara’s smooth face grew serious. “That’s real mature, Mandy. And I can see your point.”
“I want to go steady for all the right reasons,” Mandy went on. “Not because I can have the cutest boy in school.” (pp. 26-27)
For some reason I keep hearing That’s real mature, Mandy in the voice of Frenchie from Grease, and now I have Summer Lovin’ stuck in my head. Help.
Anyway. Mandy and Tara go to the school, and because of her dad’s job Mandy knows there’s a door left open on the roof. They go in and they’re on a catwalk up in the roof of the gymnasium, and that seems like a really odd angle for watching the graduation ceremony. Wouldn’t you just see, like, the tops of everyone’s caps?
Then a HOODLUM straight out of the fifties shows up to menace them.
A rough-looking, pimply-faced boy slid into the dim light. His dirty red hair had been slicked back and shaved punk-style on the sides. He wore stiff jeans and a leather jacket. Thick boot soles clomped on the iron mesh.
“Nobody says neat anymore, sweetheart,” he told Tara.
Mandy knew him immediately—Jimmy “The Deuce” Boatman. His narrow eyes gave her the head-to-toe once-over. Mandy was afraid, but she wasn’t about to let Jimmy know it.
“What are you doing up here?” she asked firmly.
Jimmy took a crumpled pack of Camels from a leather pocket and stuffed an unfiltered cigarette between his thin lips. (p. 32)
There’s a lot of very retro-feeling banter and then Jimmy pulls a knife, but then Brett shows up and a) roughs him up a bit and then b) saves him from falling off the catwalk. (There are, like, a whole lot of people up in this gym roof for some reason.) The combination gets Mandy all excited.
Tara suddenly realized what had happened right in front of her own eyes. Mandy and Brett were finally connecting. He had saved her from the evil clutches of the Deuce. She stepped back, closing her mouth, watching them go on like she wasn’t even there.
Brett reached into the pocket of his blazer. “Hey, check this out. I mean, here, I have something I want you to see.” He put something cool and metallic into Mandy’s hand. (p. 37)
It’s his class ring. Of course it is.
Brett threw out his hands. “That’s it. We’re going steady.”
“Well, Holloway, go ahead and kiss her!”
The voice of Mandy’s prankster father echoed through the rafters of the gym. (p. 38)
Oh, cringe. That’s appalling. I was laughing all the way from when “the Deuce” showed up until this point, though.
Then Mandy’s father gets electrocuted/crushed by falling bleachers, further wrecking the hilarity of that 1950s-style roof scene. Damn it.
Mandy tries to run to him, but Coach Chadwick grabs her by the shoulders and warns her not to touch the bleachers or she’ll be electrocuted too.
I can’t even mock the next few chapters, because they consist of Mandy being miserable, her mother drinking too much, her friends and Coach Chadwick trying to be there for her even though she’s in too much misery to connect with anyone, and the police briefly investigating his death (and revealing he had bank accounts they didn’t know about, and which Mandy doesn’t believe were his).
Mandy tells the police about Jimmy Boatman, and refuses to believe her father was diverting school funds into secret bank accounts.
You know, I constantly criticize YA Horror for its unrealistic depiction of people moving on, unscarred, from the deaths of friends and family. This book is more realistic, and it makes for horrible reading. I think I prefer the Point Horror approach: “LOL, three people have been murdered. Oh well!”
Mandy goes to the graveyard to “talk to her father,” and just before I melt into a sad puddle of feelings The Deuce shows up to add some much needed creepiness.
“Mandy, Mandy, sweet as candy.”
She froze, zero degrees in her bones. The voice had come from behind her. It had clearly said her name.
“Here I am, honey!” (p. 76)
Only of course it’s not a ghost, it’s Jimmy “the Deuce” Boatman. Can I just mention that if the phrase “Mandy, Mandy, sweet as candy” was something she’d expect to hear her father say, I’m creeped out on an entirely different level? Because that’s just not right.
Jimmy accuses her of ratting him out to the cops (his 50s-era choice of slang, not mine), and pulls a knife on her. She runs, but he pins her against a tree, and we get this:
Mandy screamed at the top of her lungs but no one could hear her in the storm. Jimmy pressed his body against hers, pinning her to the tree trunk. His thin fingers touched her soggy hair.
A glazed look came into his eyes. “You ain’t half bad for a Prescott puke. How about a kiss?” (p. 79)
She knees him in the groin and escapes.
But when she gets home Harlan Kinsley, the new assistant principal of her school, is there, calling her mother “Barbara” and letting them know the investigation into Mandy’s father’s death has been closed.
She spends the summer avoiding Tara and Steve and Brett, and in September school starts up again and Jimmy Boatman sneers at her that everyone knows her father was an embezzler. This book is less scary than MISERABLE.
It was September for two pages and now suddenly it’s December:
Steve bent down and gave her a snowy kiss on the cheek. Tara reached up to knock a single snowflake from the end of his nose.
Tara suddenly grimaced. “Oh, we’re so happy together. Why can’t Mandy be happy, too! She should get back together with Brett.”
Steve shook his head, frowning. He couldn’t even remember why he had ever carried a torch for Mandy. Last summer, he had nursed a crush for a girl who no longer existed. Mandy had withdrawn from everything except her schoolwork and her competently written stories for the monthly issues of The Crier. (pp. 87-88)
SHE’S IN MOURNING YOU ABSOLUTE DIPSHIT. I mean, I suppose I should be relieved he’s no longer creepily hoping for Mandy’s affections. I just hope Tara knocked that single snowflake off his nose really fucking hard.
And with that we’re back to the plot and out of the almost-too-sad-to-read mourning part, as we find out Mandy has started trying to investigate her father’s murder.Also, her mother is engaged to Harlan Kinsley (Mandy’s father has been dead for six months now).
She confides her feelings to Coach Chadwick:
“Your father was insured for a lot of money,” Coach Chadwick said. “He also had another policy that paid off the mortgage after he died. With everything, your mother inherited assets worth close to four-hundred-thousand dollars.”
Mandy shook her head. “I don’t care about the money.”
“Harlan Kinsley might,” he replied gravely. (p. 95)
Now that she’s investigating in earnest Mandy reaches out to Tara for help.
Mandy started to tell her, catching up on their lost time, pouring her heart out. Tara listened, commenting periodically in a sincere voice. They even laughed once or twice. (p. 97)
It’s hard to imagine that conversation would contain a lot of points where you’d want to laugh, honestly.
“And now my mom’s engaged to the guy who might’ve killed my dad for the insurance money!”
“OMG, LOL, that’s so funny!”
Yeah. Anyway. In addition to drinking, Mandy’s mom is now popping pills, and the doctor whose name is on the prescription is some friend of Harlan’s. Yikes.
A little snooping leads Mandy to Bromley, his former hometown, where an extremely gossipy librarian tells all: Harlan Ellison was married before, to a rich girl. He’d been in trouble at school for plagiarism. His wife died on a ski trip to Mount Adams. Rumor says he sued her family for his right to her inheritance.
Meanwhile Tara and Steve have accompanied Mandy on her trip, and they seem to have a super healthy relationship.
Tara drew closer to Steve. “This is a cute little town. Let’s settle down here when we’re married.”
Steve bristled at the joke. “Forget it. I’m never getting married. Hey, there’s a place. Let’s eat breakfast. I’m starving.” (p.122)
Settle down there, Peter Pan.
When Mandy gets home Harlan Kinsey and her mom have planned a romantic weekend getaway to Mount Adams, and they want her to come along. Mandy stalls, but he’s on to her and she’s afraid to let her mother go with him alone, so yay, they’re off to the place where his first wife died! Mandy’s mother is increasingly stoned/drunk/useless and Mandy’s unable to convince her of her suspicions.
She tries calling Tara to let her know what’s going on, since they literally left on this trip too fast for her to get in touch with anyone.
Kinsley came toward her, grabbing the receiver. “You little fool.”
“Tara, I’m at Moun—”
Kinsley ripped the receiver cord out of the pay phone. (p. 146)
You know, even if he turns out NOT to be the killer, I don’t think I’d ever forgive or trust him after that point. The guy obviously has major anger management problems.
(Also, I’ve read way too many old school romance novels, because for a second there the “you little fool” made me think he was coming on to her. No, seriously, that’s a line the “heroes” in really old Harlequins use ALL THE TIME.)
Then Coach Chadwick shows up, along with Jimmy “the Deuce” Boatman, and there’s a whole lot of ridiculous conversation:
“Not like that?” the Deuce railed. “Then tell me why you had me pullin’ bolts on graduation day, Coach Baby? Shuh. Why’d I plant that frayed extension cord to light up old Vern? I’ll tell you why! So Mr. Roberts goes under the bleachers. Zzt! Boom! He’s buzzard bait!” (pp. 155-156)
It goes on like this for PAGES but that’s as much as I can stand to type out. At one point Jimmy calls him “Coacherino.” Anyway: Coach Chadwick was in love with his best friend’s wife, so he killed Mandy’s father (having set up dummy accounts to make him look like an embezzler). Only instead of falling into his arms, Mandy’s mother married Harlan Kinsley.
Jimmy tries to stab Mandy, and Coach Chadwick sort of redeems himself a little by shooting him to save her. But then when she isn’t on his side he says he’ll have to kill both her and Kinsley.
Kinsley saves the day by fighting him off with a ski pole, and then Coach Chadwick’s jacket gets caught on the ski lift somehow and he’s pulled into “the whirring wheels and gears” of the ski lift and killed. I had no idea ski lifts were potentially lethal.
His inhuman cries echoed through the calmness of the dark valley. Mandy covered her ears so she would not hear the crunching of bones and cartilage. (p. 162)
The police arrest her stepfather, but now Mandy’s determined to prove his innocence. Displaying more common sense than anyone has so far in this book, she goes to the hospital and sits beside the unconscious Jimmy “the Deuce” Boatman, and when he regains consciousness she makes a nurse listen while she asks him who made him do “all those horrible things.” The nurse hears him say “Coach Chadwick,” and Mandy goes to get the policeman on guard outside the room so things can be cleared up.