As part of this series, I've reread several YA classics fondly remembered for their thrills and chills. None were so delightfully age inappropriate as Christopher Pike's 1990 page-turner Fall Into Darkness, about a girl falsely accused of her best friend's murder. But she's been framed... BY HER ALLEGEDLY DEAD FRIEND.
It just gets more ridiculous from there. (Spoilers.) (Even if I spoil every detail the writing is still amazing.) Our story opens in jail, where our piano-playing heroine is waiting to meet her sleazy (but very talented!) defense attorney. The first lines offer a great glimpse at what you're in for:
The trial was for murder. Sharon McKay stood accused. She was supposed to have killed a girl named Ann Rice. It made for wonderful headlines: the poor and talented Sharon destroying the rich and beautiful Ann in a fit of rage. Pushed Ann off the side of a cliff, no less, the papers said. Nasty girl, that Sharon McKay. The media were having a field day. The two had been best friends.
But I'm innocent, Sharon McKay thought accurately enough.
She is innocent. In fact, as we learn in whiplash-inducing flashbacks interspersed between courtroom scenes, Ann deliberately faked her own death on a mountaintop campout, to punish Sharon for supposedly driving her beloved younger brother Jerry to suicide. But! As Ann learns when her scheme goes horribly awry and she's left stumbling around a national park in the dark, it wasn't really her idea at all. In fact she's been manipulated by her gardener/classmate/childhood friend/total sociopath Chad into the plan. Chad killed Jerry, it turns out! Because Chad knows he and Ann are meant to be—if only she hadn't gotten engaged to Chad's brother, Paul. And then, when she tries to escape, Chad kills Ann! And THEN he tries to kill Sharon, after she escapes the murder charges, finds Ann's body and realizes what he's done.
It's a glorious shit show and I cannot believe kids were reading these books. Reformed Christopher Pike addict Hillary Crosley and I sat down to discuss this spiritual godfather of 90210.
Kelly: Did Fall Into Darkness live up to your fond memories?
Hillary: Fall Into Darkness gave me a lot of nostalgia and I also clutched my pearls a little bit because we were dealing with sex and a heroin addict by page 5. I think I read this book when I was 11 years old. I was in these streets.
Kelly: Yes, I was quite amazed at how Melrose Place it was. I really enjoyed this bit of exposition from the beginning, re: our heroine Sharon: "She definitely had a sexy body."
Hillary: No one was ever in class! Not one scene was in class, outside of flashbacks to move the dialogue forward.
Kelly: They were only nominally high schoolers. But I do respect the "you don't want to read about high school anyway, kids, you wanna read about LIFE" approach. It was like a really bonkers Law and Order episode but relocated to "high school" in the sense that those TV shows from the 90s take place in "high school." More of a signaling device to 13-year-old readers than an actual part of the plot.
Hillary: Yes, which I must've loved at 11, with all the high school knowledge I had. I really must've expected my final teen years to rival Veronica Mars after reading this book.
Kelly: And it was just so lurid. Like how Sharon's improbably named lawyer (JOHNNY RICHMOND) was said to hit on his clients, which was treated really as more of a tacky inconvenience than, you know, a gross violation. She doesn't want the bother but otherwise she doesn't seem especially alarmed.
Hillary: Right, he's skeevy and the final line (when she's being hauled off to jail again) is her saying something like "Hopefully I can find another lawyer" after she describes how her mother let skeevy lawyer guy feel up her legs during their celebration dinner once she gets off on her murder charge. Can I get some actual parenting please?
Kelly: Also Sharon is dating that guitar player but thinks maybe she wants to fuck Chad. Meanwhile Chad clearly wants to fuck Ann, who is engaged to Chad's brother. Like, what? The scene where Chad is giving Sharon a back rub and she's not wearing a bra (and also he keeps looking over at Ann) is CLASSIC snuck-out-of-the-library stuff. I almost felt like maybe they should have just worked out their issues via mountaintop orgy and avoided the whole murder thing.
Hillary: And then Chad thinks he MIGHT want to boink Sharon, but only after he kills Ann, because, you know, boinking your dead first love is off the table now.
I think the best part of this book was the sheer madness of it all. How is Ann soooo crazy and hates Sharon soooo much that she's willing to set her up for murder instead of just pushing her off the cliff at night?
Kelly: It was amazing to read something with no deeper messages, no educational angle, no attempt to guide kids in their development as human beings. It was actually refreshing, in a way. Today's YA seems very engaged with larger cultural issues, and Fall Into Darkness is just like, "But let's put our hands down each other's pants and then botch faked murder. That'll be fun, right?"
Hillary: I love it. You know what else I love? This book came out the same year as 90210, in 1990. It was ahead of it's time of not giving a FUCK about whether the kids make it out alive and/or with good values.
Also, there was a movie based on the book starring Tatyana Ali that came out in 1996? Where was I? I demand to watch this on NetFlix or Hulu or something. Give it to me now, like tonight.
Kelly: This looks amazing.
That sleeveless turtleneck and those overalls. That's 1996 for you, right there, in one outfit.
Hillary: Oh man, I had that damn overall and stripped shirt outfit. The shirt was a half top and I'd change into it at school after I escaped my hawk-eyed mother. (Sorry mom!)
Kelly: What about the book do you think drew kids in? Was it the raciness?
Hillary: I think it was the story. I read this book so long ago I genuinely forgot what happened in the plot and where it twisted. That was delightful because I was really surprised when something happened, like when Chad admitting to shooting Ann's brother AND suffocating her mother? He was a killer, just hanging around.
Kelly: Chad covered a lot of ground, murder-wise.
Hillary: And no one noticed. Like, what? How … When …
I think kids like me read this book because it was a digestible version of, say, John Grisham. We couldn't dig into all that legal and adult content so we had Christopher Pike's a-bit-too-old-for-us books.
Kelly: The courtroom scenes were pretty amazing. My favorite moment: "'Objection!' Hanover shouted. 'Shut up!' John shouted back." I don't think that's proper courtroom procedure.
Hillary: When Paul crumbles on the stand, my eyes were going through the lines so fast!
Pike's really good at the build-up. "He knew he was on a roll and he wasn't slowing down." L O L. OK, because the case is solved, the real murderer's outed in 30 pages, cool.
And the sleepy judge who napped during all of his cases—getting a little too real there, Pike. I've been on jury duty, you are fighting to stay awake.
Kelly: Probably the most realistic moment of the book, to be honest.
Hillary: Right. The idea that Ann, as the rich girl couldn't have the life she wanted to she set out to ruin her best friend is a leap in the first place. (Leap, get it? Like her off the cliff?) But Pike's writing is so fun that you just go with it. He's probably the reason I can watch unrealistic fun stuff like Scandal and just say to myself 'suspend your disbelief and cackle!' I blame him for Nashville, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder ... Revenge ... Sons of Anarchy … the list goes on, man.
The story's not scary per se, unless you're thinking about how wacked humans can be. How someone you've known forever can just kill you, your mama and your brother and then have a temper tantrum when someone calls him out on it. How your best friend probably hates you. Frenemies are real, kids! Learn that now! Before Brenda and Kelly on the soon-to-be popular show 90210.
Kelly: I guess that is the secret terror of every high schooler, though. "Literally everyone hates me, secretly."
Hillary: Guess what kids, THEY DO. They ARE all gonna laugh at you.
Kelly: This has been Hillary Crosley of Jezebel, telling the kids the cold, hard truths of life.
Hillary: Before we go, a few odes to my fave ridiculous lines:
"That's how she killed him. WITH HER LOVE. Love can kill just as easily as hate. I hate her, Chad. I want to kill her."
"Then why don't you?" he asked.
Good question. Why do I have to jump off a cliff in the middle of the night to punish someone else, and break my arm and smash my brain?
Ann, do better. Here's another:
"I am crazy. So are you. There isn't a girl in the world who would have done what you did tonight. But you did it. I knew you would do it. You're as crazy as I am."
"You have to kiss me goodbye." She leaned forward as if she were going to kiss him, carefully raising her left hand toward the candle, slowly moving her right arm closer to his knife. "Because I'm going to kill you."
If that ain't some Dynasty shit, I don't know what is.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.