Rereading My Childhood — Fear Street: Bad Dreams
I was apprehensive about doing Fear Street. I have fond memories of the series, and it was included in my attempt to buy back my childhood — scouring thrift stores for books. Long before I decided to write this essay series (“Rereading My Childhood” — in case you forgot), I read Fear Street: The Stepsister. I hated that book. When I say “hate,” I mean I wanted to throw that book into a fire. I loathed every character — the sister main character who is entirely too paranoid, the inconsiderate stepsister, the fake actual sister, the dismissive mother, and the worst character in teen genre fiction history — the misogynistic father who serves no purpose other than to say creepy comments to his step-daughter and harass the mother. He should have been the killer. He should have died. However, he was not. In fact, the “twist” wasn’t really a “twist” but something so obvious I called it on the third page, making it pointless and frustrating. After reading that book (and I won’t do a Rereading of it — the thought of spending my time writing about it makes me want to destroy my computer so I have an excuse not to do it), I wasn’t sure if I could read the rest of the Fear Street series. Are they unreadable to anyone over the age of thirteen?
I still read Bad Dreams and guess what?
I liked it! Like The Stepsister, this one also features a pair of sisters who don’t get along. Unlike The Stepsister, it doesn’t feature a gross stepfather and a dismissive mother. The mother in this book is a good character, and neither sister is outwardly evil. We see our protagonist’s flaws while speaking to her sister, and her sister exhibits some petty behavior. This one also has several twists, some better than others, but the biggest one is so insane I never saw it coming. It’s not a “deus ex machina,” so I wasn’t angry. Overall, this is a solid Fear Street book that centers on some great and flawed female characters.
Fear Street: Bad Dreams starts with a prologue in which a nameless character is murdered by her sister in her gorgeous canopy bed. It’s a creepy scene. There’s something in the shadows of the room. It’s her sister! Her sister with a knife! Her sister kills her — like straight-up knives her. R. L. Stine is not fucking around. At least, not at the beginning.
Now we’re in the first chapter. The chapters are similar to the ones in Goosebumps — short. It seems Stine’s affinity for short chapters didn’t end with Goosebumps. The short chapters are back and shorter than ever!
We meet the Travers sisters — Maggie and Andrea and they do not get along. Maggie believes that their mother holds Andrea to a lower standard than Maggie, despite their close ages, and Andrea is jealous of Maggie’s inherent advantages in the looks department. Maggie is described as an effervescent, red-haired gorgeous teen, while Andrea is listless and dull. However, Andrea is a snob and resents moving to a poorer neighborhood after their father died and their mother was unable to maintain their lifestyle.
They reach their new house on Fear Street and Maggie’s dog, Gus, runs out into traffic, and we have our first cliffhanger. The dog is fine, of course. Stine knows better than to kill off a dog at the beginning of the novel.
The family enters their new house, and in one of the rooms, the one designated to Maggie, is a gorgeous canopy bed.
“Say, Mags,” Andrea began. “Mags, you know how I’ve always wanted an old-fashioned bed like this one, right?” Andrea bit her lip.
Here came the question Maggie had silently predicted.
Sure enough, Andrea demanded, “Can I have it?”
Can I have it? — Andrea’s four favorite words.
Andrea stared at Maggie, pleading with her eyes. Maggie lowered hers to the bed.
What should I tell her? Maggie asked herself. What should I do?
Should I avoid a fight and give it to her?
What should I say?
If Maggie had known the horrors that awaited her in the old canopy bed, her answer might have been different.
But she had no way of knowing why the bed had been left behind.
Ooh, ominous, and a proper cliffhanger ending to a chapter. Mrs. Travers decides that since it came in Maggie’s room, and since Andrea choose the larger room, that Maggie should keep the bed. To which Andrea wails, “But that’s soooo unfair!” Mrs. Travers is completely fair, but I can imagine a girl who has been coddled her entire life thinking that she should get the canopy bed and the bigger room.
Maggie complains to her inconsequential boyfriend Justin about the house, saying it looks like The Addams Family house. (Don’t drag that house — it’s a museum. It says so in the theme song, and I would love to live in a museum.) I say “inconsequential” because he doesn’t do anything. He could be cut from the book and it would have no effect on the plot, and he’s the only dude. I wish Stine had cut that sausage out so the book is a pure clambake, but we live in a world in which every story has to have at least one dude. At least he’s relegated to the “girlfriend” character like women in, oh, just about every movie ever. #progress #feminism
That night, Maggie has her first nightmare involving a blonde girl, and she wakes up screaming after a chapter break. Her mother suggests that she is overcome with stress, which is a reasonable reaction, no sarcasm at all. Stress does some crazy things to people, and nightmares are a common symptom.
The next morning, Justin comes over with sponges. How romantic. They make out, and we get a daytime scare.
When the kiss ended, they were both breathless.
Maggie’s heart was thudding in her chest. She gave Justin several quick kisses on the cheek.
Then she glanced past him to the bedroom doorway.
And she saw that they were not alone.
Someone stood in the shadows, staring at them.
The girl from the dream!
No, it’s just Andrea asking for a camera. Whomp-whomp trumpet noise. This makes Andrea seem like a voyeur like she was going to say, “Don’t let me interrupt you — I like to watch.” That would be creepier than anything in this book.
Just two pages later, Justin can’t breathe! He’s in peril!
Oh, no. He’s just having a little goof at Maggie’s expense. End of Justin’s contribution to the book. Good riddance. Begone! Go back whence you came! A football or something.
Maggie and Andrea are on the swim team and are competing with two other girls, Dawn and Tiffany, for one of two spots on the 200IM. That’s a thing, right, Stine?
Maggie was breathing hard now, and every muscle ached.
But the thought of losing hurt a lot more.
She silently commanded herself: Faster! Faster!
She pushed harder, harder — as she came to the end of the breaststroke. But then she made a poor turn at the wall.
I’ve blown it! She thought.
She had never lost a really big race before.
Could she still win? It was now or never.
Freestyle was her strongest stroke. But she had only two laps to catch up.
She felt as if she was skimming over the water. The shrill cheers and screams in the gym reached an ever higher pitch. Nearing the far wall, Maggie passed Andrea — then Tiffany.
The passage wrapped me up in the excitement. This was actual suspense — not that boring white boy feigning peril. More like this, please.
Maggie comes in first, followed by Dawn and then Tiffany with Andrea bringing up the rear. After the race, Maggie sees Dawn floating facedown in the pool. Danger? No, of course not. She’s just practicing breathing control. Then the girls laugh until the end of the chapter, where Maggie has another nightmare.
Andrea wakes her up and Maggie blames the bed for her nightmares.
Andrea stood up. She ran her finger down one of the bedposts. “See? I told you-you should’ve let me have this bed. It’s bad luck. And it’s giving you nightmares.”
Maggie stared at her as if she hadn’t heard. “The bed . . .” she said. That was it! She reached out and grabbed her sister’s hand. “Andrea, you’re right! The girl in the dream, the girl in trouble? She was sleeping in this bed!”
“That’s spooky,” Andrea admitted. “And she got . . .”
She let the question trail off. Maggie finished it for her. “Stabbed,” she murmured softly. “With a knife. Over and over. Don’t you see? I knew it was too good to be true,” Maggie moaned unhappily.
“The owners just leaving this beautiful bed behind. There had to be something wrong with it.”
Andrea insists the stress is getting to Maggie. Hey, Maggie? There’s a simple way to prove the bed is causing nightmares: give the bed to Andrea and see if she gets the same dreams. This isn’t complicated. Yeah, maybe your sister gets a neat canopy bed, but she might also get nightmares where nothing happens. You pass on the nightmares or you realize it’s stress and can deal with it — either way no more nightmares.
Maggie doesn’t do that. Instead, she implies that Andrea wants Maggie to be more stressed so Andrea can swim in the 200IM. They fight after Maggie’s shitty inference. Up until this exchange, Maggie has been tolerant of Andrea’s pettiness, but in this chapter, we get to see that Maggie isn’t completely innocent. Andrea was showing genuine interest in Maggie’s well-being, but Maggie had to throw in some backhanded comment. Andrea can act immature, but Maggie doesn’t act like an adult either.
The next day, Dawn falls down some stairs and breaks her arm. She thinks Maggie pushed her like Nomi in Showgirls. Maggie goes home and falls asleep on the couch. Then she goes outside and falls asleep there. She wakes up and some weird old man is staring at her.
His name is Milton Avery, and in true deus ex machina form, he and his wife tell them about the murder that happened in the house.
Mr. Avery continued. “There was a girl about your age — named Miranda. Pretty girl with blond hair.”
Maggie knew instantly that Miranda had to be the blond girl in her dream!
“Did Miranda live in my house?” Maggie asked eagerly.
“She and her family lived in your house, yes,” answered Mr. Avery.
“Milton, that’s enough,” Mrs. Avery spoke up.
“No, please tell me,” Maggie pleaded.
“She was killed,” the old woman blurted out. “Murdered.”
“She was stabbed,” Mr. Avery said in a hushed whisper. “Stabbed right in her own bed.”
Yeah, that was pretty obvious from the prologue, but thanks, Old Man Avery, for peeping at seventeen-year-olds, I guess. He’s probably banned from the local mall.
Maggie dreams more and mistakes common household items (a curling iron) for various murdering paraphernalia (a knife). Her mother sends her to a therapist after Maggie yells, “I’ll never calm down!” That’s a totally normal thing to say there, Mags. That’ll work.
During swim practice, Tiffany wins the 200IM. Coach pulls Maggie aside and encourages her to work things out internally, within herself, and externally, with her sister. Maggie leaves Coach’s office and finds Tiffany covered in blood. Tiffany was stabbed! But she doesn’t die so that makes the current death count for this book just one unfortunate sister during the prologue. I understand not killing off Dawn — it’s an early incident in the book and Dawn is Maggie’s best friend. Tiffany, however, is a completely expendable character who we never see again.
The novel culminates in an attic showdown, but it starts during a barbeque with the teen peepers.
I’m tired enough to go to sleep right now, Maggie decided.
I have to get to the end of the dream. I have to put this nightmare behind me.
“I’m going to get some more soda,” she lied, getting up from the table.
Everyone was staring at her. Her mom started to her feet with a worried look.
“I’m just going to the refrigerator, Mom,” Maggie said. “Chill out.”
She smiled at everyone, but she smiled too hard — which only made her feel like a lunatic.
I can imagine this unhinged, wide smiling. It’s unnerving. Maggie goes upstairs to sleep (how she planned to deal with her mother when she didn’t come back after getting a soda, I have no idea), but the canopy bed is, just like, gone. That night, Maggie finds the bed in the attic with a person asleep in the bed.
“But who are you?” Maggie demanded.
“Gena,” the girl replied. “Wasn’t I in the dream?”
“I-I don’t know,” Maggie told her. She edged toward the attic stairs.
“I’m Miranda’s sister,” the girl said angrily. “Why wasn’t I in the dream?”
After Gena murdered her sister Miranda, she lived in the attic! This bitch lived in the attic Hugo from The Simpsons style, listening to everything happening in the house. She was appearing in corners. She was stealing knives. She pushed Dawn down the stairs. She stabbed Tiffany. Why?
“But I’m doing it for you, Andrea,” Gena replied, sounding hurt. “She’s mean to you. She’s mean — like Miranda.”
“For me?” Andrea cried. “What did you do for me?”
“I did everything for you,” Gena replied softly.
“I did everything for you, Andrea,” Gena continued, ignoring Maggie’s terrified cries. “I hurt those two girls for you. So you could be on the swim team.”
“You what?” Andrea shrieked.
“Oh, no,” Maggie gasped. “She’s the one who hurt Dawn and Tiffany. I don’t believe it.”
“And I pushed the knife into your sister’s pillow, Andrea,” Gena confessed proudly. “You know. To give her a little scare. To get her ready for tonight.”
“But I don’t want you to kill her!” Andrea wailed. “Who are you? What is going on? How did you get into our house?”
“Shut up, Andrea,” Gena said softly.
She lowered her gaze to Maggie. “It’s time for mean sisters to die.”
Andrea is forced to save her sister and together they defeat Gena, tying her up and, I’m assuming, handing her over to the local law enforcement. (Does Shadyside have a police force? They must be busy with all the disproportionate murdering and attempted murdering.) Miranda and Gena are a reflection of Andrea and Maggie. By actually confronting what their relationship could be, they are able to overcome their issues and become better sisters.
Admittedly, the twist came out of nowhere. I conjecture that the prologue was added later, but the addition rendered the teen-peepers-exposition-Averys useless.
The Averys could be cut. The boyfriend is extraneous. Tiffany should have been killed to show how close the danger is to Maggie. Despite this, I still had a great time reading it. I think my opinion is a bit skewed. The last Fear StreetI read (The Stepsister) made me livid. Frankly, I was happy with the flawed female characters, and I was even happier there wasn’t a terrible, misogynistic, creepy male character. I was happy with the twist that came out of nowhere, and I didn’t predict it on page three. If the rest of the Fear Street books are at least as good as Bad Dreams, we’re in for a glowing series of reviews. I don’t think that will happen, but at least I’m committed, and if I hate the book, you’ll read all about it.
For a list of every Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, and Fear Street book review I have written, go to RereadingMyChildhood.com. To listen to the official podcast, just visit the website or search for “Rereading My Childhood” in your favorite podcatcher. For more information about me, Amy A. Cowan, visit my website AmyACowan.com or follow my Twitter: amyacowan.