1989 is the nominal endpoint of books that I plan on covering here- I always find it interesting that the relatively recent books date so much more quickly than their older counterparts. If this book had been written in the 1970s (or earlier) we might notice the outdated slang, but it probably wouldn’t have a plot rely on a technology that firmly places it within a 5 year period (for those of us who remember) (or is simply baffling for those of us who do not).
More to the point: I should have remembered to stay away from paperbacks that use this particular font (I call it “Spooky Matisse”), especially in fluorescent colors.
Background: And speaking of that cover, it is CONFUSING and WRONG on every level.
A party line (those who have read Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself can skip this section) was a shared phone line among several customers: each household had a unique ring to let you know when to pick up your calls. You could also listen in on your neighbors calls to find out if they were plotting murders or something, although this was usually frowned upon (the listening-in, not the plotting; tying up the line for hours with teenaged girl-gossip was also discouraged).
There is no haunted Party Line in this book: it deals with a chat line in which teenagers pay fifty cents a minute to call in and talk with other teenagers or murderous child-molesters pretending to be teenagers. It was pretty much the #1 way to get lured to a gruesome death before we had The Internet.
Which leads to the second problem with the cover: in order to call up your local teen murder-line, you had to have a touchtone phone. If your parents still had a rotary phone, you were out of luck. Try hanging out at the park and waiting to get lured into a van by some guy looking for his lost puppy, kid.
The Plot: Teenaged Mark has a hard time talking to girls. He lives with his single mother, an ex-beauty queen who now works second shift as a sales clerk at Discount City. That is all the background and characterization we’re given. Is he new in town? Is his father dead or just a dead-beat?
Mark is also in trouble for running up a $90 phone bill the previous month calling 976-TEEN at 50 cents the first minute, 25 each additional to talk with other awkward teenagers or just eavesdrop on their conversations.
Although his mother has forbidden him to call after she got the phone bill, after Mark finishes his homework assignment (he’s writing a short story about a bloody severed arm) and eats eight hot dogs for dinner (ugh), he calls anyway and catches part of a conversation between a girl and somebody who does not sound like a teenager. Then he listens in on a bunch of girls complaining about how boys don’t notice them. Mark picks up a lot of tips, like how he should look girls in the eye and mumble “hello” to them to show interest.
There has been a rash of teenage girls going missing in Unnamed Town, Anystate USA. When the mayor’s daughter goes missing, Mark wonders if she was the girl who was talking to Mr. Creepy on the chat line. Mark thinks he recognizes Mr. Creepy’s voice as that of his horror-enthusiast English teacher, Mr. Santos, who has conveniently been absent from school for the past week. Hmmm….
For a font that is working so hard to sell HORROR there is very little horrify-ing for most of the plot. Mark and his friends make a deal with a local Old Guy to fix up a car in exchange for selling it to them. Mark puts his eavesdroppings about making eye contact to good use and is soon dating both Marcy (whom he met in school) and Janine (whom he meets on the Party Line). When more girls go missing, Mark, Marcy and their friends decide to sign up for a self-defense course at the local rec center.
This is the only remotely interesting subplot. Called “Fight Dirty And Live!” the class is taught by Vince in the best Rex Kwon Do tradition:
“I’ll tell you one thing right now. I’m dead serious. That’s why I’m alive. My best friend isn’t. There’s a coffee can by the door. If you can afford it, put money in it before you leave. If you can’t, stay anyway. I need money just like everybody else, but it’s more important to me to teach people to survive.”
“Kidney,” he said. “Eyes. Throat. Nose. Little finger. Groin. Those are the first six places you’ll concentrate on.”
“I can guarantee you, being a slab of meat on the ground in front of a thug while he attacks your date or kills your child is more disgusting.”
Rex, I mean Vince, is intense.
Mark and Janine do some sleuthing to try and find out if there is a connection between the missing girls and the Party Line. Mark, very sensibly, wants to call the police with his suspicions, but Janine (who spent three months in a foster home after reporting her abusive parents) is all like, screw the pigs:
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk to the police, but I am saying they messed up my life royally and didn’t do one thing about the problem I went to them for.”
“That isn’t very encouraging.” Mark said.
Janine and Mark decide to ferret out Mr. Creepy themselves, and have Janine make dates with him on the Party Line, while Mark hides in the bushes to Rex Kwon Do him as necessary. Unfortunately, every time someone shows up it is only one of Mark’s awkward friends. Apparently the entire school spends all night running up their parents’ phone bills.
Janine makes one last date on the Party Line, and when Mark can’t make it to lurk in the bushes, he’s not worried, because he thinks that she’s going to meet his friend Robbie; then he learns that Robbie is actually going to meet his other girlfriend, Marcy.
Mark calls Janine’s home number and gets her unseen mother on the line, who tells him that no one named Janine lives at that number. MYSTERIOUS!
Mark races to the park where Janine had made her date, and luckily there is a small deus ex machina hanging around to inform him that a girl of that description had willingly gotten into a gray VW Beetle and driven towards an unfinished housing development.
Is it Mr. Santos? Is it her parents? No, it is Vince. There is a very confusing and badly written fight and chase scene in which Vince Rex Kwon Dos Mark and Janine into near-unconsciousness, Mark steals Vince’s car but can’t get it in gear, Vince clings to the luggage rack, and then Mark repeatedly bites Vince’s hand as he tries to climb in through the driver’s-side window. Then the cops show up and everything is fine.
It turns out that Vince had been luring girls on the Party Line and then snatching them and keeping them in his basement because he was crazy after his girlfriend was killed by a mugger. Don’t worry, though:
“Luckily they’ll be all right,” she said. “He didn’t hurt them. They said he was always kind a polite. He meant what he said. He just wanted someone around. He wanted a friend.”
So much for HORROR. Also a plot hole that you can drive a truck through: Mark has been going on and on about how Creepy’s voice is familiar and that is why he thinks it is his teacher, but he hasn’t even met Vince when starts investigating the disappearances.
Janine’s real name is Alise, which is also repeatedly spelled Elise because Scholastic cheaped out on proofreading, which is why her parents didn’t know who Janine was. I guess they stopped beating her, so now she’s fine?
Everybody watches hot air balloons, the end.
Sign It Was Written in 1989 Department: Mark knows that Janine is rich because she has a microwave in her kitchen, which he stares directly into while reheating fried rice: “I’ve never seen one cook before,” he admitted.
Dawn Of The Downfall of Civilization Department: “Good job,” Mr. Santos said. “Your spelling stinks, but there are a lot of spelling-check programs available for computers these days.”
Any Final Advice, Vince? “Heads bleed easily. Blood in the eyes stings and blinds a person. Keep your own head safe, and go for the attacker’s head. If you can blind him, you have a better chance of escaping.”