In the late 1990s, I was in my 20s and working as an assistant at the chilly outer regions of book publishing. At my first job, for a now-defunct mail-order book club, I shepherded Bridget Jones’s Diary into our catalog. At another, I conceived and edited an unauthorized “instant” book about the TV show Ally McBeal. That particular job was located in the same offices as 17th Street Productions, the book packager for the Sweet Valley High series, and I worked cheek-by-jowl with its editors as they churned out dozens of titles each year.
I first met Sweet Valley High’s heroines, the Wakefield twins, in 1984, when I was 11 years old, just a year after the first 12 books in the series were released into the marketplace. One morning, after a sleepover, I found them neatly lined up on my friend’s bookshelf and speed-read them all, unable to stop even to pee or get a glass of water. Elizabeth and Jessica were a vapid yet engrossing dyad: they were both 17, blonde, and a “perfect size six”; they wore matching gold necklaces, and they shared a convertible. The only difference? Jessica was vain, Elizabeth bookish.
Sweet Valley High plots traded, for the most part, on a simple question: is it better to be a good girl or a bad one? Take The New Elizabeth, number 63 in the series and one of my favorites. The back-cover copy breathlessly sets up the conflict: “In an effort to prove that she can be as adventurous as Jessica, her daring identical twin, Elizabeth secretly decides to take up surfing. That will show her friends she knows how to take risks.” (Elizabeth soon learns that risks can create unforeseen consequences, like the fact that her surfing instructor falls in love with her.)
In cloistered Sweet Valley, they were untouched by anything more significant than a healthy tan. It was a world of whiteness and privilege, without hunger, illness, or death.
The original Sweet Valley High titles, which eventually totaled 181 books, implicitly encouraged readers to consider whether they were a Jessica or an Elizabeth and thus good or bad themselves. The books were primers for beginning to think deeply about your own identity—and stress about it. Am I bossy or confident? Is it selfish to try to get what I want? Is adventure brave or irresponsible? If I make my boyfriend mad, does that mean I’m doing something wrong—or should I have a boyfriend at all?
The Wakefield twins had the luxury of being able to think about identity in such simple terms because, in cloistered Sweet Valley, they were untouched by anything more significant than a healthy tan. Theirs was a world of whiteness and privilege, without hunger, illness, or death. There were no cop shootings in Sweet Valley, no teachers dying of AIDS or neighbors spray-painting the N-word on your mother’s car—to reference a few memories from my life growing up mixed-race and Jewish in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1984. In Sweet Valley, there wasn’t even acne.
By the time I came to the packager, however, dark times had come to Sweet Valley. The beaches were gone, as were the pastel covers. Instead of wearing matching necklaces, in book 100, The Evil Twin, released in 1993, Jessica and Elizabeth are tormented by murderous doppelgängers. In books 104, 105, and 106, all released in 1994, the plot leaves both Sweet Valley and high school behind: Jessica and Elizabeth are suddenly in werewolf-plagued London. By 1996, in book 126, Tall, Dark, and Deadly, Jessica is dating a vampire.
Sweet Valley High, of course, always went to where readers were. (During my stint working next to the series editors in 1997, they had already built the brand into a leaning tower of spin-offs: Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley University, Sweet Valley Senior Year, SVH Secret Diaries, and a long-running TV show.) The departure from the series’ beaches-and-besties story lines was an effort to keep up with a teen publishing boom that caught fire in the early ’90s—one that built on the popularity of Sweet Valley’s suburban idyll, then took it in a twisted direction: young adult horror. Everyone in these books was still white, blonde, and rich. They still had expensive cars and dutiful boyfriends, and they thought a lot about their hair. Except now, a lot of these teen girls were dead.
The impresarios of young adult horror during this time were Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine, authors who churned out their own series—with the help of a packager, naturally—that rivaled Sweet Valley High in both scope and longevity. Pike started his creepy oeuvre with 1985’s Slumber Party, an explicit homage to the tropes of Stephen King in which a group of girls reunite at a remote house after a deadly sleepover. R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series launched in 1989 with The New Girl, in which a guy, Cory Brooks, has to figure out why the girl he sees at her locker every day appears to be deceased.
The heroines of Stine’s and Pike’s books are indistinguishable; nearly all, like the Wakefield twins, are blonde and slim, and all are circumscribed by the institutions and social events of their towns. (You won’t find any of these girls bird-watching or hitching a ride—or even visiting an aunt in Cincinnati.) But Pike’s and Stine’s thrillers, with titles like Bury Me Deep, Whisper of Death, and One Evil Summer, turned the tropes of teenage life into something deliciously awful: boyfriends weren’t mad, they were undead; unrequited crushes made amends from beyond the grave; late-night prank calls led to the discovery of fresh corpses; and the high school queen bee got her comeuppance in the form of a broken neck.
Pocket Books published both Stine and Pike as part of its Archway imprint, and the authors’ dark covers were usually only differentiated by their fonts: Stine’s lettering oozed down into bloody knifepoints, while Pike’s titles were scrawled like evil messages written in lipstick. The accompanying taglines were the perfect mix of teen fluff and terror. The cover of Stine’s 1994 Fear Street book One Evil Summer depicts a winsome blonde laughing and holding a terrified cat aloft. “Chrissy is perfect—perfectly evil,” the subhead says. In The Best Friend, a blonde sits under a Christmas tree, rearing back from a wrapped gift and a note that reads, “To My Best Friend.” There’s a big butcher knife stuck through the bow.
It’s important to note that Fear Street is not just a state of mind, it’s an actual street, set in the fictional suburban town of Shadyside. Like Sweet Valley, Shadyside itself is “normal”—there’s a high school, a pizza hangout, shopping centers, and movie theaters—and its inhabitants are middle-class and prosperous. But Fear Street is literally shady; its houses are old and crumbling, and visitors break in the back or creep up the stairs far more often than just entering through the front door..
Take book 22, 1994’s Bad Dreams, in which sisters Maggie and Andrea move to Fear Street after their father dies. Younger sister Andrea feels overshadowed, angry at her older sister, who not only gets the canopy bed but is a champion of the swim team. But Maggie’s life isn’t as perfect as Andrea thinks: whenever Maggie sleeps in the canopy bed, she is haunted by a mysterious girl ghost, who tries to strangle her.
They turned the tropes of teenage life into something deliciously awful: boyfriends weren’t mad, they were undead; unrequited crushes made amends from beyond the grave; late-night prank calls led to the discovery of fresh corpses.
Like the Fear Street series, Christopher Pike’s books also trade on teen-world standbys, like feeling invisible, or wishing you were dead. In 1989’s Remember Me, Shari Cooper wakes up from a birthday party and, suddenly, no one can see her. As the novel unfolds, she realizes she’s been killed and becomes intent on solving her murder, which leads her to a family secret that explodes everything she’s ever known.
Whereas Sweet Valley let readers revel in happy endings, Pike’s and Stine’s supernatural, murderous romps took on the particular horror of being a teenager and having painful feelings. Sibling rivalry doesn’t actually involve your sister strangling you to death in your own bed, but it can certainly feel like it. You are probably not actually a ghost to your family, but many of us go through our adolescence feeling like we are. And while your boyfriend is not a duplicitous vampire, when you realize he was just dating you to gain access to your math homework, it kind of feels that way.
The supernatural and horror elements of Pike’s and Stine’s novels were emotional outlets for feelings girls had to hide in real life. The books provided girls with the educational and entertainment equivalent of slumber parties—a safe space where they could gush over crushes, talk about sex, or even dabble in the occult. At school, you would never confront a bully. But on a Ouija board, you could point the planchette at the mean girl and let it say whatever you really wanted: DIE BECKY DIE.
Pike and Stine didn’t invent the teen thriller market, they just advanced it. I grew up on a more high-toned version of the genre, reading books such as Lois Duncan’s 1978 thriller Killing Mr. Griffin, in which students plot to kidnap a teacher and accidentally cause his death, and Richard Peck’s 1976 novel Are You in the House Alone, a groundbreaking work about stalking and acquaintance rape—which didn’t have a name at the time—that made me unable to babysit for months. I Am the Cheese, a 1977 young adult novel by Robert Cormier, was a psychological thriller about the evils of organized crime. Books like this treated teen horror with the solemnity accorded to the adult world, and were a means to ask big questions about life.
Other young adult titles of the era used fear as a…” used fear as a kind of public service announcement. The most notorious of these was the “anonymous” 1971 book Go Ask Alice, the debunked diary of a girl drawn into a life of prostitution via casual drug use. Another favorite was Sandra Scoppettone’s 1984 book The Late Great Me, the gripping story of a 17-year-old alcoholic. These books were about terrors or challenges that actually occurred but were little-discussed—things you should have gone to talk to your parents or your teacher or your guidance counselor about.
The young adult market’s pivot from hyperrealistic, PSA-type horror to séances and stabbings is perhaps no better illustrated than by Lois Duncan’s 1973 novel I Know What You Did Last Summer, which tells the story of a group of kids who accidentally kill a young boy in a car accident, then flee the scene. (They think they’ve escaped, until they begin to get a series of mounting threats from an anonymous witness.) And though the inciting event at its core concerns a tragic manslaughter, the book, terrifying and provocative in equal measure, is not so much about murder as it is about peer pressure, redemption, and learning to take responsibility. By the time the book was produced as a film in 1997, however—when YA readers were deep into Fear Street–era drama, and one year after the release of the hugely successful movie Scream—the story had been updated with abundant, visceral gore and a fishhook-wielding masked man in a raincoat as an antagonist. (Instead of pondering the nature of guilt, the heroine, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, stands in the shower like an ingenue in a poor man’s Psycho.) When Duncan herself went to see the movie, she wasn’t even sure she’d entered the right theater. Perplexed, she waited until the end of the credits, when “Based on the book by Lois Duncan” finally appeared in small type.
As the young adult market continues to churn into the 2000s, authors working in the genre have found new ways to understand the terrors of the world. Some use horror as a kind of moral panic: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, in essence, is partly about the danger of vampires, and partly about the danger of losing your virginity. Contemporary realist fiction—not unlike the Lois Duncan books I was enthralled with—focus on the sorts of problems that don’t go away or can’t be dispatched with a stake to the heart: Lauren Halse Anderson’s Speak, published in 1999, tells the story of acquaintance rape, and Karen McManus’s clever One of Us Is Lying, from 2017, is a Breakfast Club–style murder mystery set in a detention center for teens.
Young adult thrillers allow teens to feel they have control over the most terrifying aspects of adult life.
YA titles have also become less painfully white since Sweet Valley High days, and more politically astute, with female heroines who act and are not acted upon. Marie Lu’s 2011 Legend addresses genetics alongside politics, and Veronica Roth’s popular 2011 Divergent series features a female hero rebelling against a strictly divided society. In 2017, Cherie Dimaline published The Marrow Thieves, a book in which indigenous people are hunted for their bone marrow and this year’s young adult blockbuster is Tomi Adeyemi’s African-inspired fantasy Children of Blood and Bone (soon to be a movie), in which the heroine must restore magic to her despised people. And of course there’s Angie Thomas’s 2017 best seller The Hate U Give (released earlier this month as a feature film), which features Starr Carter, a young woman fighting for her rights after her childhood best friend is murdered by the police.
The Marrow Thieves, Children of Blood and Bone, and The Hate U Give represent a new kind of book for girls: books that are not only entertainment, but are about the creation of a better world. Like their predecessors in the YA space, they allow teens to feel like they have control over the most terrifying aspects of adult life: insecurity and injustice, changing bodies, the death of loved ones. The difference between them, and, say, Sweet Valley High’s The Evil Twin, or Fear Street’s One Evil Summer, however, is that fear and threats of violence or are no longer things to run screaming away from; instead, they’re prompts to stand up and fight.