I’m insanely pleased to finally be reading a Nightmare Club book set at Cooper Riding Academy. The little “Now Open!” poster in the front of every one of these books mentions three schools, but so far I’ve only seen the other two (Cooper High School and Hudson Military Academy, if you’re new here). And, come on, the all-girls riding academy HAS to be the best and hauntiest of the lot, right?
Recap: We open with a prologue. A beautiful but unnamed seventeen year old Cooper Riding Academy student meets up with her boyfriend in the woods. (We’re told in passing that “Elise Chalmers ran the school,” which for some reason feels significant to me). She’s got surprise for him: a horse! He’s delighted by this, because he used to live on a farm with horses, so they both mount the thing and ride to the lake, where the horse tosses them off. Thinking his girlfriend hasn’t resurfaced, he dives to try to find her…but she’s on shore, the bitch, where she whispers “goodbye” as he’s dragged under and reduced to a spray of bloody chum. Immediately she feels “the power” enter her, and reflects that she’s passed the Initiation.
Okay, for some reason when I first read that I thought the prologue happened, like, a generation or more ago. Then I got to chapter one and it’s taking place only five months after the unnamed girlfriend fed her unnamed boyfriend to a lake monster.
Kimberley Kilpatrick (“trim and only five-foot-three inches tall” in case you want the Sweet-Valley-esque description) is having a bad day. Unlike everyone else at Cooper she’s not rich-rich; she transferred in for senior year; the place is austere and has weird rules of conduct; her parents are dead; her aunt and uncle think she’s a burden. Okay, so she’s actually having a bad life.
But also a bad day, because Sharon Cruise, a girl who hates her, talked her father into buying the one horse at Cooper Riding Academy that Kimberley had bonded with. Kimberley shuts herself in her room, looks at the one picture of her parents she brought with her to school, and cries it out. She consoles herself with the thought that at least she wasn’t chosen as the reject that all the other girls torture. I’m…I’m really not overstating that. At all.
It could be worse, she realized. Though she was considered a reject, it was not as bad as having the honor of being the reject, the one that was marked for the year-long “Rite of Passage.” Another girl, Thelma Hopkins, had been given that honor. Each year, one girl was picked to bear the insults of all the others: to serve them, to be humiliated by them, and to lose all hope of ever being accepted as their equal. Kimberley had been told various horrible stories about the ritual during which the title was bestowed.p. 17
I don’t want to overquote, so I’ll summarize: they kidnap a girl at night, beat her and shave her head, ritually humiliate her by having her act like an animal or something, and threaten to “severely punish” her if she tells. (Uh, more severe than that? How?). No girl chosen to be the reject has ever made it through the school year without transferring. Maybe the next chosen reject should just stab a couple of these little bitches. Just a suggestion.
Oh God, Kimberley flashes back to when she was just turning nine, and her parents died in a gas explosion at their restaurant. She’d smelled the gas in the basement, but got distracted by the new bike they gave her, and didn’t warn them.
Then she discovers her teddy bear (also a gift from her parents) has been filled with blood and entrails, and holy hell, this book may actually be too intense for me to read. It’s not the blood, it’s the psychological torment. Sharon and her clique show up, laughing, and put a pillowcase over Kimberley’s head, because guess what? She’s been chosen as the reject after all. As they pull her out of the room she hears them tearing up the photo of her parents.
Just before it all gets too bleak to handle:
“Put her down,” a voice said.
The voice was that of another student, not Mrs. Alcott.
“I thought we had an understanding,” said a voice Kimberley recognized as Sharon’s. “I don’t interfere with you, you don’t interfere with me.”
“Put her down,” the other girl repeated simply.
Kimberley was amazed to find herself gently deposited on the landing at the head of the stairs. The unknown girl commanded, “Take off the pillowcase and the tape.”
At once, the soft cloth was pulled from Kimberley’s head and she saw the face of her savior. The girl seemed familiar. She had auburn hair, deep blue eyes, and a magnificent figure.p. 22
I love the implication that this school is basically run by rival gangs.
“A voice Kimberley recognized as Sharon’s” is a ridiculous phrase, though.
Anyway. The girl who just rescued Kimberley is called Ashlyn McConnel, and she’s not just gorgeous, she’s one of the richest girls at the school. The others are obviously afraid of her, and scatter when she tells them Kimberley is now under her protection. Uh. Is this meant to be weirdly hot? Have I acquired some kind of psychological damage from reading too many of these, and now they all sound vaguely erotic??
Startled, Kimberley looked back at Ashlyn, who gestured at her bloodied clothes. “We’ve got to get you out of this stuff,” Ashlyn said. “Take me to your room.”p. 23
But back in Kimberley’s room, Ashlyn does something even more awesome than I could have anticipated: while Kimberley is showering, she cleans up all the blood and guts from earlier, and then somehow the torn up photograph turns out to be the one of Kimberley’s awful aunt and uncle, not the cherished one of her parents.
I can already tell that 1) Ashlyn is going to turn out to be in thrall to evil powers and 2) I’m not going to care one little bit.
I’m sorry, I’ll cut down on the quotations soon, but this is the most amazing conversation to ever happen in a Nightmare Club book:
“And I know what my reputation is in this school. Do you know what they call me and my friends?”
“Yeah. Beauty’s Daughters.”
“It’s from a poem by Byron. ‘There be none of Beauty’s Daughters with a magic like thee; and like music on the waters is thy sweet voice to me.’ Pretty, isn’t it? Now tell me what they really call us.”
Kimberley felt uncomfortable, but she knew this wouldn’t be the first time Ashlyn heard the term. “‘Predators.'”
“That name was my idea.”p. 26
Oh my GOD. I would have been all over this as an angsty teen. Byron quotes? Intimidating beautiful girls calling themselves predators?
Anyway, Ashlyn tells Kimberley she needs to stop seeing herself as a victim, and asks if she wants to join the predators. There’s an initiation (consisting of answering a single question), but that will come later.
Kimberly meets Nikki and Tanya, the other two Predators, and now she has people to eat meals with in the dining room. They chat about stuff: sneaking out to meet Ashlyn’s rotten boyfriend; Tanya’s beloved childhood stuffed toy that also got destroyed; how Sharon needs to be taught a lesson. It’s a wide-ranging conversation.
Dream sequence! Kimberley dreams she meets a sleek gray horse and then giggles as it stomps Sharon to death. The giggling is ominous, but I can’t say Sharon is the kind of character you’d mourn once she’s dead or anything.
So…stuff starts happening to Sharon. Weird stuff. When Sharon lifts the cover on her meal at dinner, the bloody entrails she stuffed into Kimberly’s bear are on her plate. Again: it’s impossible not to feel like she had that coming. But when she screams and an adult monitor comes over and lifts the cover, the meal is fine. The next day all her notes for the semester have been replaced by blank sheets of paper. A rock crashes through her window at night, but the window is fine when Mrs. Alcott (the housemother or whatever assigned to their floor) shows up. Etc.
She begs Kimberly to make it stop, apologizes for everything she’s done, and offers to get Lightning (the horse) back, but Kimberly just says she’ll “consider” stopping it.
That night they sneak out of the dorm and meet up with Gregory Rose, Ashlyn’s lousy, Nietzsche-quoting boyfriend.
He looked down at her and sneered. “‘The vanity of others offends our taste only when it offends our vanity.'”p. 41
“‘The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.'” His smile was cold and terrible.p. 42
Kimberley cleared her throat and was about to speak when Nikki interrupted.
“Nietzsche was a sexist pig. He also said that ‘when a woman has scholarly inclinations there is usually something wrong with her sexually.’ I’ve been reading up on your hero, Greg.”
He shrugged, then spun suddenly and struck Kimberly in the mouth. Her jaw rattled and she issued a quick cry of surprise. Then she was falling to her knees.p. 42
Rose walked back to his truck and opened the driver’s side door. Before he got in, he said, “‘Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil.’ Remember that, Ashlyn. Happy anniversary!”p. 43
So just to recap: in the space of three pages there are four Nietzsche quotes and then a guy punches Kimberly in the face for absolutely no reason.
Kimberly’s jaw is throbbing in pain, but she insists she’s okay and they don’t have to take her back and put ice on it (like Ashlyn sensibly suggests). Then a car pulls up blaring an “old time radio show” version of The Phantom of the Opera, and a guy gets out. Kimberly falls in insta-crush with him, dreamily musing that he might be Italian, or possibly Jewish, with a perfect face marred only by a big nose that makes him seem “flawed, human, and vulnerable” (is it just me or is that a lot to get from a nose?). Also he has a Brooklyn accent and sounds like the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast,” two things I cannot reconcile even a little bit. Jesus, how hard did Gregory Rose hit her?
They get in the car with Griff (the Jewish-Italian Beast from Brooklyn), and go to the Night Owl Club because otherwise this book wouldn’t fit in the series. Along the way Ashlyn makes them stop at a pharmacy, where she buys Kimberly some ice for her jaw, Advil, and a Coke. At least one of them’s thinking clearly. Griff and Kimberly are too busy talking about his anguished past and his love for old-time radio shows.
They exchange backstory about the Night Owl: it used to be an orphanage, and a couple of hundred half-starved children died in a fire there.
Kimberly goes to the washroom, thinks about how she’s “been waiting for [Griff] all [her] life” (oh please), and re-emerges in time to see him in a tense standoff with Gregory Rose. Jake Demos, the owner of the club, kicks Gregory and his pals out, but also warns Griff he wants peace and quiet.
“This isn’t over,” Griff said to Rose’s departing form.
“‘One is best punished for one’s virtues,'” Rose replied.p. 58
This kid. I’m starting to want to kill him myself.
On the way back Kimberly becomes separated from her friends in the woods and thinks she sees a horse.
Gregory Rose wasn’t the only person alive to ever have read the philosopher Nietzsche. Kimberly’s uncle had one of his books and she’d flipped through it once or twice. A quote now came to her: ‘In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man.’p. 64
Love? LOVE? You literally met him tonight, you idiot.
Anyway. Kimberly starts having nightmares, more vivid each time she has them, of helping children onto the back of a large grey horse. She gets a test back with a ‘D’ but then when she looks again its a ‘B,’ and as the book progresses she stops having to worry about her grades at all because now she can just sort of absorb the information she needs.
She vandalizes Sharon’s room, writing ‘reject’ over all the walls, and I’m starting to lose sympathy for Kimberly. Also she runs into Thelma Hopkins in the hall (the girl who was going to be the reject before they chose Kimberly) and the obviously-terrified Thelma calls Kimberly ‘Ms. Kilpatrick,’ which Kimberly loves. Ugh, Kimberly: you don’t get to complain about bullies if you IMMEDIATELY TURN INTO ONE given the chance.
So we’re not even halfway through and I hate the main character, great.
She and Griff go on a date, and she tries out a new look with her hair, then gets enraged at him when he says she doesn’t have to change to please him, because she wasn’t trying to please him; she was just trying out a new look. She doesn’t tell him any of this, though; she’s just angry. I hate people like this.
Then the police show up and arrest Griff (they claim they AREN’T arresting him, just taking him in for questioning, but if the police read you your rights and assume custody of you by ushering you into a police car, you are under arrest). . At the police station he finds out why: Gregory Rose is dead. While Griff is being interrogated or whatever, Kimberly falls into a trance or something in the waiting area, and dreams she’s helping a child onto that horse again. The little girl has curly black hair, a “Cindy Crawford” mole, and an NYU sweatshirt.
Griff and his mother bring Kimberly home (to her aunt and uncle’s place, that is) and the house is on fire. Her uncle, an absolute sociopath, flies into a rage because his teenage niece was on a date. Also the fire started in Kimberly’s room, so they assume she started it by smoking, even though she doesn’t smoke. As much as I dislike Kimberly, I feel sorry for her again. I guess it’s easy to turn into a bully when you live with people who bully you, and she clearly does.
A red Ferrari was seen at the house and Sharon drives one (and was allowed to leave campus for the weekend), so Kimberly knows it was her. Kimberly hatches a plan to tamper with her own riding equipment, so when she falls she can blame Sharon. Complicated!
But during riding class the next day Sharon cuts through the graveyard. When her horse rears up in panic at the sight of the grey ghost horse, she’s thrown, and then trampled to death. Kimberly sees this happen, but no one else sees the ghost horse, of course.
Kimberly continues to be completely irrationally angry at odd intervals on her next date with Griff, but also in love.
Ashlyn invites Kimberly home for the weekend. She has a forged permission letter from Kimberly’s angry uncle, and claims she’s hired actors to answer the phone if the school dials the number on the letter. That is so patently ridiculous I don’t understand why Kimberly believes it, but okay. Whatever.
Kimberly decides to go to the police station and lie that Griff was with her when Gregory Rose was killed. While she’s waiting, she looks at the bulletin board of missing children and sees the little girl from her dream.
In her dream, she had given the child to the gray horse. She forced herself to look at the faces of the other children once again. Yes, two more had appeared in her dreams, and had also been taken away by the gray horse.pp. 107-108
She goes looking for Griff to confide in him, and finds him at The Night Owl, dancing with a blonde girl who you absolutely know is going to be his cousin or something. Yup, it turns out to be a childhood friend.
Kimberly makes a massive, screaming ass of herself, and actually knocks the other girl over. She also punches Griff in the face, and threatens to go to the police and spin some story to make him look guilty of the murder . It’s really difficult to like this protagonist.
Jenny, the waitress from the club, catches up to her in the parking lot and tries to offer help (Jenny and her father, Jake Demos, are recurring characters in this series but I don’t know yet what their deal is). Anyway, Kimberly is a massive bitch to her, and although she has enough insight to realize she sounds like her uncle, she decides maybe that’s a good thing. I know she’s supernaturally enthralled or whatever but I still hate her.
Back at Tanya’s house, Tanya’s father is crying and slamming his head against the wall because “he was bad and had to be punished,” according to Ashlyn. Creepy. And now it’s time for Kimberly’s initiation, yay!
Ashlyn tells her the gray horse is real, and all the nightmares are real, and Sharon died because that’s what Kimberly wanted, and that’s how her grades changed, and blah blah blah. In the midst of all this stuff we already know, she also explains that the gray horse is The Sentinel who guards and serves “our Lord and Master,” the thing in the lake from “before there were men.” Kimberly is, meanwhile, picturing her uncle David in place of Tanya’s father. Wow, she’s really leaning into this whole evil thing. I’m reluctantly impressed.
They also tell her, in possibly the least believable conversation in this whole book, that the children she’s seeing in her dreams are all from abusive homes, and “our lord finds decent homes for them.” Uh huh, sure he does. He also steals puppies, but only so they can go live on a farm, right? Kimberly is not entirely convinced:
Nevertheless, she could not forget the waking dream she had endured at the police station earlier that night. She had seen the horse throw a child into the water and a geyser of blood explode from the surface of the lake.p. 125
They inform Kimberly that to pass the initiation, she has to sacrifice Griff. The other girls try to convince her that he betrayed her (you have known each other for A FEW DAYS there is nothing to betray). Ashlyn, though, is brilliant (in the evil way), and instead says Griff is only friends with the blonde girl, but that’s why he can reveal his true self to her. Ashlyn shows Kimberly a scene in the mirror:
He was in tears, His chest heaved and he blubbered like a baby. Kimberly felt instant revulsion at the sight. The girl beside Griff took him in her arms and urged him to get it all out. She promised that everything would be all right. Kimberly suddenly wished that she could reach through the mirror and tell her how exactly wrong she was.p. 127
So having punched him in the face, Kimberly is now revolted that he’s crying because their relationship is over? Even though she’s been claiming to love him? Kimberly, you heartless bitch.
“He loves you,” Ashlyn said.
“I can’t believe I didn’t see him for what he is.”
“And what’s that?”
“Weak. A joke.”
“But he loves you,” Nikki taunted.p. 128
I have to admire this level of manipulation.
Kimberly, left alone with the mirror, sees her parents, who assure her they’re proud of the woman she’s become. So either the mirror images are fake, or her parents have unusually low standards.
Anyway, she agrees to sacrifice Griff, but then spends a sleepless night second-guessing herself. The next day Tanya kindly assures Kimberly that she had a hard time too, but now she’s happier than she’s ever been. Tanya’s mother is in the background beating her head against the wall through this conversation (because it’s “her turn to be punished”), which makes it one of the most genuinely disturbing scenes in the book.
Kimberly uses her memory of her mirror-parents to justify calling Griff and setting up a date for Friday night. A DATE WITH A LAKE MONSTER. She’s still having nightmares, though this time with her parents in them, and when she wakes up she realizes what’s wrong: her parents in the dream and in the mirror were wearing the clothes from her photograph, which was taken when they got engaged. They can only appear that way because that’s how Ashlyn saw them, in that one picture!
Kimberly breaks into Ashlyn’s room (actually, a white luminous figure shows up and unlocks the door) looking for further information. A mysterious light leads her to an ancient diary under Ashlyn’s pillow, written in some strange language, so she steals that. As one does. She copies out some of it and then buries the book in the woods because this isn’t fucking complicated enough. She digs it back up literally at the bottom of the same page, Holy Pointless Filler Scene.
So on Friday night instead of leading Griff to the woods she goes on the run with him. (Somewhere in here we learn, in a throwaway sentence with no real explanation, that one of Gregory Rose’s band members confessed and Griff is no longer suspected of murder.)
Kimberly and Griff are pursued by Ashlyn and co. in a scene that’s meant to be scary but is instead weirdly hilarious and cartoon-y.
A tapping came from the direction of Kimberly’s passenger side window. Both Kimberly and Griff turned their heads sharply to the right. Then, from the other side of the car, a hideous voice erupted. “Boo!”p. 148
This goes on for a few pages, with the Predators standing in the middle of the road with the ghost horse (the car passes harmlessly through them), slashing at Griff’s throat while hanging off the side of the moving car, etc. Finally the car crashes, knocking Griff unconscious, but Kimberly manages to shove him aside and drive to The Night Owl.
Jenny is waiting for them, and helps get Griff inside. Jake stands watch over him. Jenny assures Kimberly that the Predators can’t get inside the club, then proceeds to info-dump a huge volume of folklore. Kelpies! Scotland! Ashlyn’s ancestress Victoria McConnel, who wrote the diary! A random Donald Trump reference…wait, what?
“Well, let’s just say that Victoria was married to that era’s Donald Trump.”
“The problem is, she found out how the McConnel family had made their fortune.”p. 155
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t in construction.
Victoria defeated the creature back in the day (by sacrificing herself for her husband; guys, is Melania okay? Has anyone heard from her lately?).
But Ashlyn’s parents died young and didn’t get a chance to instruct her in her inherited monster-quelling duties. Instead, once she inherited the statue we never once heard of before this page, the creature started communicating with her through her dreams.
“Seen the movies Reanimator or From Beyond?”
“I saw part of From Beyond on HBO. It was pretty gross. I turned it off.”
“That was based on Lovecraft. He wrote about incredible monsters from other dimensions that came to our world and demanded to be worshipped. The Kelpie’s like that.”
“Okay,” Kimberly said, finding her “willing suspension of disbelief” getting stretched to the limit.p. 158
You and me both.
Also Jenny has visions, and it’s Kimberly’s awful uncle’s fault that her parents died. They’d asked for money to repair the gas pipes under their house and he refused. So…they knew the pipes were dangerous and still stayed there? With their daughter? EVERYONE IN THIS BOOK IS A MORON.
Well, except Jenny I suppose.
Although she’s just told Kimberly to sneak back into the school and find the piece of the statue that once contained the monster, so it’s possible she’s also an idiot, I guess. Or maybe she’s as fed up with this whole thing as I am and just wants Kimberly to get caught.
Back at the school Kimberly is attacked by horses. Again: not supposed to be funny, but made me laugh quite a bit. All the school’s horses are just milling around waiting for her, and then they attack. Sharon’s horse shows up as a zombie and tramples her a bit, but she gets away.
Then SHARON shows up as a zombie, and it’s considerably scarier, and also sort of sad. Kimberly uses her own power to get the horses to trample zombie-Sharon AGAIN, holy crap. I mean, she’s hoping Sharon’s spirit is being released from her rotting corpse, but still. Brutal.
Ashlyn and Tanya and Nikki are waiting inside the school (not at the lake where Jenny said they’d be). Also? They’re dead.
It killed her, Kimberly thought, it killed them all and brought them back to serve it. This was what Jenny had been reluctant to tell her. The waitress had correctly assumed that Kimberly would not have believed Ashlyn and the others to be little more than reanimated corpses.p. 172
What? WHAT?! After all the gibberish Jenny DID expect her to believe, somehow this extremely pertinent bit of information would have been too much? THIS was the thing you chose to leave out? JFC, Jenny.
They head back to the Nightmare Club where they hold a knife to Kimberly’s throat to try to convince Griff to hand over the diary. He tries a spell, but they attack him and place his unconscious body on the gray horse. But then Ashlyn turns on the other two girls and helps Kimberly escape.
So Kimberly drives Ashlyn’s car to the lake, and…how can there be forty pages left? Kill me.
Kimberly lets the Sentinel take her into the water so she can confront the lake monster/kelpie/Lovecraftian horror (how, though? Won’t she just drown?)
Ashlyn shows up (HOW, though?), possessed by Victoria McConnel I think, because her eyes glow violet as she reads aloud from the diary. Kimberly gets pulled under the surface and winds up back in her parents’ restaurant. I’m beyond even asking how anymore. In this version she warns her parents, and they all escape from the restaurant, and she understands that she’s dying and the monster is winning and that’s why she’s seeing her heart’s desire.
Griff, only really it’s her subconscious disguising itself as Griff so she’ll listen to herself, tells her she needs to confront the truth if she’s going to win.
It turns out she DID try to warn them. Her father gave her the bike to shut her up, and then slammed the door in her face and locked it. She’s been convinced she felt guilt all these years, but really she’s ANGRY because they didn’t listen. Suddenly she’s (aware she’s) in the lake, and she turns all her anger on the creature. Wow, this is totally better than therapy.
It’s also more confusing than therapy. Kimberly escapes the water. Re-enters the water? I’m not sure. Sees Griff’s body, but it isn’t him? But it is and she drags him to shore? The Sentinel is there but then it turns into a “statuette,” clutched in Ashlyn’s dead-for-real-now hands.
Griff comes to, and is possessed by Victoria McConnel, and she asks Kimberly to be the statue’s guardian (because the lake monster is undying “as long as there is evil in the world,” so the best they can do is contain it). Kimberly agrees. Victoria disappears, wrapped in the arms of
Trump her husband.
Cops and ambulances and things show up. Somehow the cops have a tape of Ashlyn confessing to the murders of Gregory Rose and Sharon.
Final Thoughts: Well, that was incredibly entertaining. I mean, I screamed at the book a lot, but I can’t say I ever wanted to stop reading it. Well, not until the extremely confusing final chapter. I admit I was relieved to hit page 190 and find out it was over. The rest of the pages are an excerpt from Warlock Games.
There were a lot of points where I felt that too much plot had been crammed into this book. Fewer chase/fight scenes and more subtlety would have helped, I think. It kept feeling like we were getting to the final confrontation, only to find out we were still several confrontations away.
What is with all the Nietzsche-quoting teens in this book? I could buy one of them trotting out maybe one or two quotations, maybe; by about the third quote by Gregory Rose I was over it. Then Kimberley got in on the act, and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down. She “flipped through a book” and memorized a quote, sure. I mean, who doesn’t accidentally memorize Nietzsche?
Speaking of Kimberly, who I didn’t like but did feel MASSIVELY sorry for: are we to assume that the insane mood swings where she kept getting enraged at Griff (for stuff she didn’t even tell him about) were a side effect of being beset by soggy, lake-monster evil? Is she going to stop doing that now? Or is she just a colossal bitch?
Ashlyn is my hero. Heroine. Whatever. I still don’t know WHY she helped Kimberly at the end, but it was awesome, and honestly I thought she was awesome even when she was swaggeringly evil. It’s not her fault she was orphaned before she knew how to control the statue-monster-kelpie thingy!