During the 90’s, teen horror fiction was huge. Authors like R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike already had major hits, and Scholastic’s Point Horror was thriving. Recently, I’ve made it my personal mission to collect and read as many of the titles from the decade as possible. This month, for Horror Bound, I’m taking a look at TWO titles—Final Exam by A. Bates and Crash Course by Nicole Davidson. With it being the end of the school year, I chose books that center around tests.
First up is A. Bates’s Final Exam. This title was published in 1990 under the Point Horror label by Scholastic. The story centers around protagonist Kelly, who is in the midst of studying and taking final exams. Graduation is just around the corner, and Kelly has big plans for the future. However, it appears that someone is attempting to get in her way of achieving her goals.
Even though the book’s cover is one of the most recognizable from Point Horror, I’ve never read it, and I didn’t know a lot about the story beforehand. There were things about the characterizations and plot that I found to be both pleasantly surprising and disappointing. Bates chose to make Kelly an auto mechanic, a character trait that was unexpected and made her more interesting than expected. By discussing the workings of automobiles, Bates is able to correlate a lot of that knowledge to Kelly’s understanding of people. Likewise, the author wisely uses the studying and taking of tests as metaphors for human relationships and life lessons.
The act of playing pranks on fellow students is a common story element and theme throughout most Point Horror books and can also be found in countless other teen horror titles from the decade. SPOILERS AHEAD: During the course of Final Exam, seemingly non-life-threatening pranks play a huge part in driving the story forward. While the attacks on Kelly were fun to read, the downside is that until near the end of the book I never felt that she was in any kind of real danger.
Final Exam is not the first book I’ve read by A. Bates, and, like what I’ve read before, her writing seems repetitive at times, but it doesn’t take away from enjoying the overall story. By the time Kelly starts going through her mental list of suspects, Bates is able to make a convincing case that the perpetrator could be any of the characters that Kelly questions. The end result of the whodunit is surprising, fits the overall recurring themes of the book, and drives the point home that the characters are being tested in multiple ways. After flipping back through several chapters, it was obvious that Bates effectively foreshadowed the answer throughout the book.
Overall, Final Exam is an enjoyable Point Horror title. 4/5
Next, sticking with the school testing theme, I picked up Crash Course by Nicole Davidson. Like Bates, this is not the first book of Davidson’s I’ve read, but it’s been a long time (like, 25 years or so), and I didn’t really know what to expect. Davidson seems to be a bit of a fan favorite so I was looking forward to jumping in.
Unlike Final Exam, Crash Course is not set during finals week. Instead the story takes place over Thanksgiving break when a group of students are assembled to study for SATs at an old lake. Coincidentally, like the lead character in Final Exam, the protagonist in Crash Course is also named Kelly. (It’s a 90’s thing, I guess). While at the lake, weird things begin happening.
Out of the entire Crash Course cast, the characterization of the lead is disappointingly the weakest of the bunch. I found the supporting characters to be more interesting and likable than Kelly. At first, it seems that the supporting characters will be nothing but stereotypes, but, midway through, it is evident that each of them is well-drawn and believable. Like most 90’s teen horror books, there are a few characters in Crash Course that seem a bit “off”, and it is difficult for the reader to discern their true intentions. Of course, this writing trick is a device to keep the reader guessing and turning the pages, but, in the case of Crash Course, the uncertainty of motivation adds to the character development.
Other than the opening chapter, nothing really “scary” happens until around the midpoint. Instead, the first half of the book is largely dedicated to building relationships. Here, Davidson does a great job at creating chemistry and tension among the group. As the story slowly reveals character essence and emotion, most of their thoughts and actions seem realistic. By 90’s teen horror standards, the teenagers of Crash Course are dealing with serious and weighty issues that are not presented in a campy or cartoonish kind of way that they so often are in these books. With careful design, the reader feels an emotional connection to the group by the time the horror story kicks back into gear.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of test prep being done within the pages of Crash Course, but, early on, Davidson uses the example of how to eliminate multiple choice answers to a question. It’s an obvious setup to how Kelly will figure out the story’s whodunit, and it was something I found myself looking forward to reading later in the book. Unfortunately, the setup is never used to its full potential.
In a lot of ways, the writing in Crash Course is stronger and more well-developed than that of Final Exam. However, I have to take off big points for Crash Course’s Kelly falling near the bottom of interesting characters in Davidson’s story. The push to have each of the ensemble characters equally well developed is the book’s ultimate downfall. The constant jumping from different perspectives is frustrating and made it feel like I didn’t have a primary character to root for, a simple fact that left me feeling uninvolved in what happened.
I rate Crash Course 3/5
In the end, I enjoyed both books, but for a nostalgic read that is full of entertaining 90s teen horror fun, Final Exam nudges past Crash Course.
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