Best of Book Riot: Pike vs. Stine: Retro YA Thriller Smackdown

This week we’re running some of our favorite and most popular posts from our first three months. 

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If you’re about my age and went to a public middle or high school in North America, you know the key battle of the 90s in grade 6-9 classrooms across the continent: R.L. Stine vs. Christopher Pike — who is more awesome? Everyone had an opinion, and even if you read both you liked one or the other more. The only people who didn’t were the kids who claimed Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine were the same person (and I’m sure these conspiracy-theorists-in-waiting grew up to be 9/11 Truthers). For my part, I was 100% Pike — which, after reviewing the books through adults eyes, makes me worried that I was a terribly disturbed little person.

Before stumbling into a used bookstore last week, I hadn’t read a book by either of these authors in about ten zillion years. But I thought about them a lot, especially any time I thought about issues of darkness in YA literature. Because these Pike/Stine thrillers were EVERYWHERE when I was a child, and no one seemed to notice that they were violent, filthy, and wholly without literary merit. Honestly, they were also really really scary. And they occupied an entire shelf in my grade school library — a shelf my friends and I mowed through with reckless abandon. R.L. Stine, for goodness sake, was published by Scholastic, which meant we could order his books from school book orders alongside sticker books and Clifford the Big Red Dog stories. I mean. Really?

Anyway, fate had it that just as I was wondering about my Book Riot post this week and thinking about starting to look back at some of the YA from my childhood in a kind of retro feature, I happened upon a stack of Stine/Pike books for $1.95 a piece. A bargain at twice the price! I picked two comparable texts (similar length, both published in 1991), and thought that this week, I would settle once and for all the great Pike v. Stine debate.

I have a very scientific method for this process that is both inarguable*, infallible**, and without reproach***.

The fighters:

 ve

Round 1: Body Count

Pike: 5, all young teenagers, two good-looking

Stine: 2, both pets (one snake, one cat)

Advantage: Pike. Stine keeps almost killing people but pulling back too soon. Pike offers a complete body count — essential in the early-90s teen thriller genre.

Round 2: Best Example of Atrociously Dated Language

Pike: “Far out!” — but only once. The text is surprisingly not dated.

Stine: “Bogus!” on almost every single page. Everything is bogus. You’re bogus, I’m bogus, adultery is bogus, murder is bogus, poverty is bogus, bad grades are bogus. It’s delightful to relish in this level of bogosity.

Advantage: Stine. Because if you’re reading a teen thriller from 1991, you want it to feel like a teen thriller from 1991. You want to backcomb your hair, rig up an inexplicably huge t-shirt with a scrunchy for no reason, and rock out to “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams. Stine gets bonus point here for giving his protagonist a mullet.

Round 3: “Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children” Rating

Pike: HOLY CRAP. We have murder, coke binges, pervy naked photos, a sex abusing father, teen sex, teen rough trade, and a psychopath. Awesome. I seriously cannot believe I was reading these things when I was 12.

Stine: Yawn. Just one psychopath, a broken hand, and two dead pets. Boring.

Advantage: Pike. Obviously.

*** Author’s Note: Thanks to the folks at Reddit for noticing my error here!  The category is a CLEAR Pike win, but I had typed Stine.  Many thanks for checking my math, Redditors.  #thisiswhyImanEnglishgeek ***

Round 4: Oh, Snap! Moment

Pike: There’s a moment where you realize that the bag of sugar is really cocaine laced with strychnine, but honestly you kind of see it coming. Retroactive spoiler alert circa 1991.

Stine: OH MAN, I ACTUALLY YELLED OH, SNAP. The protagonist is carrying the psychopath girl down to the basement, because he thinks she might be dead and he needs to stash the body, but then, “SURPRISE!” Because it is his birthday. And his thoughtful girlfriend has thrown him a party. I actually yelled, “Oh, Snap!” at the book.

Advantage: Stine. Did you not see me say I actually yelled, “Oh, Snap!”?

Round 5: Overall “Literary” Merit

Pike: There are a lot of twists and turns in this tale, and Pike definitely does a better job of outlining character motivation and foreshadowing. There’s even some clumsy symbolism (the missing knife is both freedom AND death). Because he resists reveling in his cultural moment, the text feels more timeless.

Stine: This book is pretty hopeless. The only character motivation seems to be “women is bitches,” and if you like some misandry with your misogyny there’s also a healthy dose of “men only think with their penises.” Otherwise the characters are flat, even for a formulaic teen thriller from the early 90s.

Advantage: Pike. I mean, no one’s winning the Pulitzer any time soon, but Pike’s book was both more fun to read and more substantial. It felt like less of a giant self-indulgent waste of time, is what I’m saying. And that’s enough to win this category.

Winner: Pike, taking three out of a possible five categories. And now I’ve solved a conundrum on par with the crisis in the Middle East or the travesty of global warming. You’re welcome, Book Rioters.

*: probably not

**: unlikely

***: Oh, God, no.

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Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature and teaches in the Vancouver area.  She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Follow her on Twitter: @mittenstrings.

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