Greetings from beyond the decorative grave, Bookwyrms! It’s almost time for one of my favorite months, a time to embrace the spectral and surreal from a safe distance. This year’s theme is going to be soapy spooks, goofy ghosts, and mysterious melodramas… but before that, I’d like to share a more legitimately scary soap opera about another Uncanny Carnival.
Warning: Yes, it’s another Sweet Valley book. There’s more of that to come. #bwahahaha #sorrynotsorry
Jamie Suzanne. Sweet Valley Twins Super Chiller #3: The Carnival Ghost. New York: Bantam Skylark, 1990.
WARNING: This is a play-by-play. There will be SPOILERS.
Also, Scare Warning: this story is LEGIT UNNERVING, though it does have a cheerful ending. They’re not kidding when they call it a Super Chiller. There’s a (fictionally historical) child death involved, via carnival ride accident. I talk about that very vaguely in this review.
Rating: 5 out of 5 circus ponies that freak out every time you come near.
Playlist: This book reads SO MUCH BETTER with the Circus Horror playlist from Spotify in the background. It’s mostly carnival tunes in a slightly more chilling key, plus a few themes from modern horror movies. On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for more cheerful, whimsical carnie tunes, I also recommend the album Circuses, Carnivals, & Creepy Clowns, also on Spotify.
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Check it out! Unlike the eponymous Sweet Valley High super special, this one actually features a winter carnival! That spans the whole book!
We open on the Twins and Family eating at a Chinese restaurant the day after Christmas (I guess Ned hasn’t developed his allergy to all Chinese food yet), engaging in friendly banter over their respective fortune cookie messages. Jessica’s warns her not to be too vain (fair enough!), while Elizabeth’s warns her to stay away from high places (oddly specific!). The waiter makes a dumb comment about identical twins needing to share the same fortunes because they look exactly the same (personality? what’s that?), but maybe that’s also a warning about sticking together and having each other’s backs?
Anyhoo, there’s a carnival in town and the twins ride their bikes over to see the set-up. Of course all their closest friends are there, and the Unicorn Club (mostly Lila) argues with Jess over the reliability of fortune tellers while Liz vows to help Amy Sutton write an article for the sixth-grade newspaper about the carnival. Surely this will be a week of wholesome, lighthearted merriment!
But things get weird as soon as the twins actually attend the carnival. They go through a haunted house and, for some reason, the standard jump scares are actually rattling Liz. She and Jess separate near the end, Jess going into a room labeled Vampires and Liz going into a room labeled Ghosts. Just before she enters, a slightly younger girl with long dark hair and an old-fashioned white dress appears behind her, assuring Liz that the room is totally not that scary. The girl, named Claire, walks in first, but seems to have run ahead somewhere by the time Liz timidly follows her. All she can see now, besides the typical ghostly decorations, is an open grave with an oddly realistic tombstone with “C.C.” carved into it and the dates 1882-1892.
I’m sure you totally can’t see where this is going.
So, Liz has to walk through the open grave to get out, and boy is she glad to be back out in the sunshine… But wait! There’s Claire, off in the distance!
An annoyed Jess watches Liz run off, but decides it’s a good opportunity to visit the mysterious Mademoiselle Z (which we later learn is short for Zalekis! Is that a Lithuanianized version of a Polish last name? 😀 ), who tells her something very good is going to happen to her.
And sure enough, Ned and Alice announce that very night that they’re going to raise the kids’ allowances! OMG MADEMOISELLE Z MUST BE THE REAL DEAL! After all, her sign did say “Satisfaction Guaranteed”!
So the twins go right back to the carnival after dinner, along with a few of the Unicorns, who are still (mostly Lila) skeptical about the fortune teller. That is, until she accurately predicts that something terrible will happen to Lila! And sure enough, about five minutes later, a pony spooks and knocks Lila into a mud puddle, ruining the rock-star t-shirt she’d just won at a dart-throw booth!
Pause for a sweet burn: It took Lila eight tries to win the shirt, and when she brags that she totally knew she’d win, Jessica mutters, “After eight tries, who wouldn’t?”
Anyway, nothing too morbid so far, right?
But things get more unnerving as the week wears on. The always-dependable Liz starts slacking on her chores and ignoring her other friends so she can spend practically all day, every day at the carnival. And she won’t shut up about her new friend Claire, who seems a little odd, but is really just lonely and totally isn’t manipulating Liz with her constant requests to drop her other plans.
Surely Amy can finish that article by herself! Surely Jessica doesn’t mind doing both her and Lizzie’s chores (to be fair, it is usually the other way around, and Jess even makes a nice comment about how Liz has covered for her so often that it’s kinda fun to repay the favor). And surely there’s a reasonable reason no one else seems to see Claire, or that she keeps playing these seemingly impossible magic tricks on Liz!
But then Liz goes from mildly flaky to downright addicted. She walks around like a zombie, fights with her parents about why she can’t spend yet another day at the carnival instead of doing her chores, and tells poor Amy to flip off with her stupid article.
So, an aside: If I wanted to pointlessly psychoanalyze these books, I’d say that this is the problem with a world that expects its citizens to stay within such narrow personality limits. A person who’s expected to ALWAYS be The Good One is naturally going to burn out and snap once in a while, and when they do, it may just be epic and dangerous. ESPECIALLY if you’re holding that person to a double-standard.
Everyone just laughs and rolls their eyes when Jess slacks off — after all, Liz will always be there to cover! — but it’s a SHOCK and a SCANDAL whenever Liz takes a break. No wonder she keeps having these Evil Elizabeth breakdowns!… (no, srsly, the final Super Chiller is just called Evil Elizabeth. I’d insert the cover image, but it totally scared the halibut out of me as a kid and I’d rather not inflict that on you all…)
Anyway, Jess starts to wonder if there’s something really off about the carnival. When she returns to Mlle. Z’s one day, the fortune teller snaps at her to stay away or something terrible will happen. And Amy says something disturbing about her research — according to some old newspapers, the carnival’s been kicked out of several towns in Northern California because of child injuries. And on top of all that, Jess is having nightmares about something knocking at her window and moaning at her to Stay Away…
So, since Liz has abandoned them both, Jess uncharacteristically decides to help Amy with the article. They interview a guy who used to work for the carnival…
Another quick aside: It is SO WEIRD to hear what an epic Mean Girl Amy becomes in the high school series.
…who tells them he quit after some Srsly Weird Ish happened to his sets. Apparently, that creepy tombstone in the haunted house was supposed to be a hokey decoration that just said R.I.P., but when he came back the next day, it had turned into an actual tombstone with the letters C.C. and the dates 1882-1892.
Jess tries to warn Liz about all the creepy things she’s learned, but Liz tells her to shove off. Finally, on the last evening of the carnival, Saint Elizabeth stays out way past her parents’ permitted time (they’re conveniently away at a party, so they don’t know). It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, and Jess is forced to face her fear of the carnival (remember, Mlle. Z told her to stay away and she’s a legit fortune teller!) to look for her sister. She searches all over the midway as the rides start to close, almost gets trapped inside the haunted house, and is finally rescued by Mlle. Z’s assistant/bouncer, who assures her that the creepy fortune teller just wants to finally explain things.
APPARENTLY, Mlle. Z sent her bouncer, who’s also her fiancé, to knock on Jess’s window and make scary sounds those earlier nights, to make SURE Jessica stayed away (because that’s not criminally inappropriate). Because, as it turns out, Mlle. Z didn’t know Jess was a twin, and thought she was the one wandering around the midway every day with Claire — whom Mlle. Z can also see! Because about fifteen years ago, Mlle. Z was also a kid whom Claire tried to seduce (I guess family loyalty kept Z from ever leaving the carnival, since her parents also used to work there or something), and she knows the whole story!
One more aside: I love how Claire calls Mlle. Z an “old woman” when, if she was Liz’s age or younger at the time of her own haunting, she couldn’t be more than 27 now. But then, some of the Sweet Valley ghostwriters (see what I did there?) have been known to describe anyone above 25 as “middle-aged.”
Claire’s parents, the Caldwells, used to own the carnival back in the 1800s. Her mother died when Claire was little, and her father was super cold and strict, and never let Claire go on the rides. But on the late night of her tenth birthday, Claire finally disobeyed her father and turned on the Ferris Wheel by herself. Unfortunately, there was an accident and she fell off, dying instantly (I’m being vague here because it’s a little too horrifying to describe). And now she haunts the carnival, trying to get other kids to join her on her side of the grave.
Which brings us to the final boss battle. Although Z and her fiancé try to distract Claire and Liz with a herd of loose ponies, Claire manages to lure Liz onto the Ferris Wheel. Jess jumps into the car with her at the last minute and they both get stuck at the top, where a Not Playing Nice Anymore Claire tries to convince Liz to jump off. But Jess grabs Liz and holds on for dear life, begging her to stay in the seat. Liz finally snaps out of her daze when Claire tries to hurt Jess, and tells the ghost no.
Luckily, this is one of those Labyrinth situations where all you have to do is give the villain a confident enough No and they’re forced to disappear (in a more nightmare-inducing way, in this case).
So! Jess and Liz return home, (finally) get a good night’s rest, and end the story with a much needed bit of good-natured mischief involving the B-plot (Lila’s father let her throw a ridiculously elaborate carnival-themed New Year’s Eve party, during which Jess pretended to tell fortunes that she and Lila had pre-written, only Lila’s fortune mysteriously changed to a prediction that she would go totally bald soon…the twins discovered later that their older brother Steven was the one who snuck that in).
As Jess reads a letter mysteriously delivered by Mlle. Z, predicting that she and Liz “would always share a special bond of love and friendship” (awww), Steven answers the doorbell to find Lila on their doorstep, literally bald! Aaaaaaah! And as he runs away in terror, the twins laugh over Lila’s apparently movie-quality bald cap.
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Whew! That was a doozy! (or should I say “BOO-zy”…no? ^_^; ) I gave this one a 5 out of 5 not only for the effectively creepy storyline, but also because it kept my butt glued to the seat from start to finish. What about you Bookwyrms? What delightfully trashy horror novel actually surprised you with legitimate chills? Anyone else feel like curling up with a few dozen videos of Teddy Bear the porcupine eating pumpkins while making muppet puppy noises before they go to bed?
P.S. Oh, and it turns out Mlle. Z’s NOT a real fortune teller…all of her correct predictions were just coincidences! Guess who’s having red herring for dinner?
Crystal Ball clipart from clipartkey.com.
“What could possibly go wrong” meme from Know Your Meme.
I knew it GIF from tenor.
Spinach puffs GIF from giphy.
Cute puppy GIF from bestanimations.com.
You Have No Power GIF from gifer.