Have you already blown through Season 3 of Stranger Things and are looking for something to maintain the creepy, but fun vibes? Kill River is a story that will keep you firmly entrenched in the sun-bleached and neon-soaked 80’s Nostalgia Overload that is Summer 2019.
Kill River by Cameron Roubique introduces us to Cyndi—a girl way more interested in the best songs on the radio and the newest videos in heavy MTV-rotation than trying to figure out her place in the high-school hierarchy. She’s perfectly content to stay at home on the weekends making mix-tapes…well, almost. Cyndi sometimes wishes she could find friends that shared her interests or at least didn’t crap all over hers, and that way, maybe then she wouldn’t be the cafeteria outcast just hanging with her Walkman.
Cyndi’s introverted ways have of course started to worry her parents. So, when pleas for a little less Sony and a little more socialization fall unheard on Cyndi’s headphone-covered ears, they decide to send her to summer camp. What she thinks will be an absolute summer nightmare starts out being better than she expected. She meets Stacy—a girl who on the outside seems like a clone of all the girls who have rejected Cyndi before and someone who would never waste her time on Cyndi except to maybe terrorize her. But, Stacy seems to get Cyndi—she sticks up for her when fellow peak-80’s-named cohorts Brad and Zack give Cyndi crap for being so quiet and just listening to music all of the time. Stacy shepherds Cyndi out of her shell and into their too-cool-for-summer-camp hijinks, and that’s where the trouble starts. The kids decide to give their camp counselors and parents a big “fuck you” and run away from camp in the hopes that their parents will be forced to take them home for the summer. But, they soon find out that their particular brand of summer invincibility has an expiration date as they get lost in the woods and stumble into someone’s twisted waterpark variety of summertime fun.
Kill River is the better version of a Fear Street book (trust me, I’m working my way through all the Summer themed ones as side-reading). The back blurb is just dying for a, “Four suburban-kid stereotypes walk into a summer camp…” joke because we can all see where this kind of story is heading. But, where Fear Street books sometimes seem like a tease when it comes to, you know, actual fear and characters to root for (I say that with nothing but love, Mr. Stine), Kill River has both.
Roubique kept the mystery going and the thrills were better than those our semi-local waterpark can offer (and I didn’t get any gnarly scars from janky old slides…so, bonus). Keep this one in with all the other “Sun-Bleached Horror” titles that have been popping up lately courtesy of Midsommar-rama, (check out our Midsommar review HERE) because these four kids stumbling through a water-park in broad daylight trying to ignore the sinking feeling that something is majorly wrong was tense. The sinister happy faces plastered over every sign mirror the kids—they’re slapping a happy face on and trying to distract themselves from being lost in the woods with a few moments of waterslide fun. The foreshadowing starts out pretty ham-fisted, but as the creeping feeling of being watched and the quick glimpses of a disguised face ramp up with one of the kids disappearing, watching these kids try to then reason and fight their way out of the impossible was heartbreaking.
The atmosphere of Kill River was so surreal that I really felt for the kids when they had moment after moment of “this can’t be happening”: Something this terrible can’t be happening to us because we’re privileged teenagers. Something this terrible can’t be happening during bright summer daylight. Something this terrible can’t be happening at a place specifically built for fun and happiness. The impossibility of it all fits perfectly with the story’s bizarre tone, and Roubique kept that chaotic feeling going right through to the last page. There’s never any explanation of who or what the killer is, or their motive behind all the murders, and I really appreciated that because, honestly, I was waiting the whole time for some crazy enlightenment to ruin the scare of it all. But, thankfully, Roubique doesn’t try to shoehorn in a motive or implausible killer into a story that doesn’t need one. (I will say that there is a sequel to this story, so maybe some of that is holding out for the finale.) There’s no side-story giving hints about the “who” and “why”. There’s no police investigation at the end to neatly explain the fear away. Instead, readers are left isolated in the waterpark and running in terror with the characters, and there’s no time to really wonder about the who and why.
The characters started out as heavy caricatures of 80’s teens with Pac Man cereal, side ponytails, and day-glo everything constantly pointing out how 80’s they are, and that was a little heavy-handed for my taste. Thankfully, Roubique loosened the 80’s grip and let the characters eventually seem more like real teenagers. Cyndi, Stacy, Brad, and Zack were all of us as kids—trying to figure out how to match the outside to the inside without committing social suicide. Cyndi as our main character was, of course, especially endearing. Roubique lets you walk with her through the school hallways, camp activities, and chilling Thrill River waterpark and really settle into the loneliness she hides behind her punk t-shirts and headphones. You root for her when she starts opening up and making friends without choosing to sacrifice who she is, and you ache for her when that openness leads to occasional rejection and, ultimately, loss.
Stacy and Zack were lesser versions of this, but still solid characters. On one hand, I felt like I didn’t get to know them well enough and was left wondering what I missed out on in not getting to hear from them as much. I think part of this was the sometimes-confusing narration style. Readers are in Cyndi’s head for most of the story, but there are odd instances where the point of view is switched up. I didn’t necessarily mind the changes when they happened, but it would sometimes drag me out of the story for a second because it would be so abrupt or out of place. I didn’t mind getting Stacy or Zack’s perspective and would have loved more of it but would have liked it done a little more seamlessly.
What we do get to know of Stacy and Zack is entirely relatable. They’re at that turning point of figuring out whether they should abandon what they’ve always known in exchange for something that feels truer to who they’re realizing they are. Stacy and Zack have been friends with Brad for forever. Up until this summer, they loved how obnoxious and belligerent Brad could be. Now they’re just kind of over it—especially when their hard-ass leader gets them lost in the woods and shows them how self-obsessed his bravado really is. Stacy sees Brad’s swagger for the insecurity it covers and loses any romantic interest in him. She recognizes that the honesty she sees in Cyndi is what she wants more of in her life, and it’s her friendship with Cyndi that takes the forefront in the story. Zack recognizes that where Brad’s insecurities lie are places where he has confidence. He doesn’t have to match Brad’s jokes or foolish behavior and be the side-kick—he can establish control and lead where Brad falls apart.
Kill River was a lot like its setting—it looked like easily-recognizable fun but kept me reading through all of the twists and turns it took away from what I was expecting. I’m excited to read the sequel next month and see where the story goes next (and simultaneously wanting all of the answers and not wanting anything explained at all). Eat a choco taco, wait 20 minutes, and then dive into some serious summer slasher fun with Kill River.
P.S. If you’re looking for more spooky summer reads, jump in on the Bloody Beach Summer Readalong: Kill River 2 is one of the books for August, so what are you waiting for?
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