Rereading Christopher Pike: Chain Letter
January 12, 2012
Based on both my memories and the condition of this paperback, Chain Letter was one of the Christopher Pike books that I revisited most often in my teenage years. The plot is a better than average take on the I Know What You Did Last Summer story, because Pike’s villain pushes the guilty teens to act out in self-destructive ways. The pranks are fun if not exactly consistent, and the climactic scene where Alison is chased through her home and empty housing development by the villain is exciting and tense.
This book was much, much better than Pike’s Whisper of Death, but there were still some aspects that disturbed me while rereading it from an adult perspective. Massive spoilers are below the break.
The teens in the story were involved in a hit-and-run in the desert nearly a year before the book begins. While sports star Tony was driving (after having a few beers), several others either had or felt some responsibility for the accident. And everyone agreed to bury the victim and go on with their lives. Just when they think that chapter of their lives is over, someone with knowledge of the accident forces them to play a series of dangerous pranks.
I liked the setup and overall story, but characterization was once again a problem. All the guys in the group have solid, genuine relationships with one another, but the girls bicker and compete. The self-assured girl who speaks her mind is branded a jerk, despite the fact that the others aren’t any nicer to each other.
“Joan the jerk” is really sexualized, and that seems to be part of the reason the heroine, Alison, dislikes her. Alison has a crush on Tony, and she hates that Tony has gone out with Joan. Of course she can’t be upset with Tony for dating a girl that she doesn’t like. No, it’s Joan’s fault for being sexy and pursuing the guy that Alison wants.
The relatively small amount of sex-related content is all really awkward. One of Joan’s tasks late in the book is to spread a rumor that she’s a lesbian, which she refuses to do even after two of her classmates disappear for failing their assignments. Having people think she might possibly be gay is apparently a fate worse than kidnapping and possible death. Alison thinks about “putting up a good fight” towards keeping her virginity on her first date, which is an amazingly creepy expression to use in that instance.
And just like in Whisper, the female protagonist takes an unfair level of blame for all the book’s drama. Alison is just as responsible as any of them for burying a dead stranger in the desert, but at the end of the book she takes on a heaping helping of extra guilt. After a fantastic chase sequence through an empty housing development, it’s revealed that Neil, a member of the group, is the mysterious, letter-mailing kidnapper.
Neil is shy and had a history of illness. He’d used a series of other, imaginary ailments to cover up the fact that he had terminal cancer, because he didn’t want his friends to feel sorry for him. The cancer caused mental problems, which made him identify with the dead stranger in the desert and seek to punish his friends for their crime. Neil also had feelings for Alison.
Once Alison finds out that Neil had a thing for her, she remembers what she thought was a casual offer from Neil to go to the movies several months earlier. After Neil’s death, she feels a sense of crushing guilt over not going out with him. Alison actually says that, because he was so nice, it was bitchy of her to reject that date with him. Alison never suggests that she was attracted to Neil in that way, but apparently that shouldn’t matter.
In the world of Chain Letter, a girl should understand that an invitation to hang out is a date, that a nice guy deserves that date no matter what your own level of romantic interest, and that not going along with it means you’re a bitch (and therefore partly to blame when that nice guy starts hurting your friends).
(Some sentences from this post are from my much shorter Goodreads review of the book.)