Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Face of Terror, or “Psst! You’ve Got Something On Your Face”


This Fear Street Saga begins in a gothic mansion (obvs). Thomas, the handsome sensitive artist, is slowly dying at the hands of an unknown man. Unknown man is a nutter, as he cackles over Thomas’ body. We’re not sure why or how he’s dying but he’s getting gradually weaker. His last act is to look at the locket he’s carried around with him, of his twin sister Elizabeth. If only he could save her from his murderer, but he knows that Elizabeth is the man’s obsession – he strives only to possess her by any means possible. Thomas’ last thought as he slips into the cold is that the unknown nutter is truly insane …

Shadyside, 1867

Elizabeth, the twin sister, is unaware of her brother’s plight, but she’s hardly having a better time for it. She works 12 hour days in the mill, and lives in a dreary gray boardinghouse. Poor little Elizabeth, directly out of a Dickens novel. You can bet things are about to get a lot worse. She dreams one night of her brother Thomas, that he’s in danger. It may just be that she hasn’t heard from him in months, when they used to write daily. But ever since he’s begun work as a painter for a reclusive yet brilliant wax artist who lives in an isolated gothic mansion, he’s been incommunicado. And she can’t shake the thought that something is wrong.

She tells her bestie Margaret about her fears. Margaret is a feisty former-rich Southern belle, whose family lost everything in the war, and now her only dream is to marry rich to escape the short brutal life of the proletariat. Sigh. And isn’t that just every girls’ dream. Margaret immediately sees an adventure and a chance at a rich husband, and they decide to track down Thomas. Since famed recluse-wax-artist Peter Gustavson, will be showing his wax pieces in Shadyside that week, they figure they’ll go and see if there’s any word from Thomas.

They go to the traveling wax museum, which seems like an interesting thing to have as a traveling show. I have never been to a wax museum, largely because wax figurines creep the hell out of me, but I’ve also never been convinced of their value for entertainment. I could be wrong, but there are many things I’d rather see over wax. Although, it was 1867, so maybe this was high entertainment back then. Apparently, since all the townspeople put on their Sunday best to see it. Each wax tableau is set up to depict a gruesome death throughout history: Socrates and his hemlock, Cleopatra and her snake, Joan of Arc in the fire. So, we get right away that Gustavson is a bit of a ghoul. Elizabeth gets all freaked out, somehow falls onto Marie Antoinette and ends up in the working guillotine. K, what? How did this happen? And isn’t it horribly dangerous to cart around a working guillotine for entertainment? Liz is a spaz.

Elizabeth nearly loses her head, but is rescued by Gustavson’s handsome assistant, Patrick, who saves her in the nick of time. Ooh, he’s cute, Elizabeth loses her head again – over him! She asks him about her brother, and Patrick gives her the bad news that Thomas has been missing for days now. The girls decide to catch a ride with Patrick to Cliff House, the notorious hermit’s mansion two days ride away – whether Patrick wants them to or not. But not before they receive a warning from the driver, little Jimmy. He tells them that Gustavson is a Fier, and nothing good will come from hanging around him. Little boy is ignored.

Cliff House, 1867

Cliff House is a mansion, literally carved out of the face of a cliff. Once again, R. L. ghostwriter, I am underwhelmed by your creative naming skills. Let’s aim higher next time. They are greeted at the front door by a gaunt butler … carrying a human head on a platter. After much freaking out, they realize it’s just wax. Nothing to worry about, except being isolated with a crazy artist with a sick sense of humour. Then they’re greeted by the actual housekeeper, Miss Matheson, who is so old she’s much more terrifying then the wax butler. She informs them Thomas is still missing and shows them to their rooms.

Elizabeth keeps on thinking wax figures set throughout the house are people, and talks to them until she starts screaming because it’s sporting a hatchet from the head or something. I figure you’re only allowed to do that once. Catch on, Elizabeth. They are wax. Even Margaret’s getting annoyed with her. Then Elizabeth is given a genuine reason to freak out. The room she is shown to is the perfect room, her perfect room. The room she had always described to her brother, down to the last exact detail, the sky blue walls, the canopy bed, and a bookcase full of her favourite poets. Yup, that would freak me out too. But then Elizabeth realizes that in HER perfect room, there would be a music box that played the “Blue Danube”, and since there isn’t, there obviously isn’t any cause for concern. Really? That amount of obsessiveness seems an awful lot like cause for concern.

Flash to creepy man, thinking about how Elizabeth is his perfect woman – as he’s creating a wax figure of the perfect woman, who will stay with him forever. Because she is made out of wax. These obsessive abusive relationships really never end well. There’s some crazy talk about how he needs power to complete the final step, then he closes the lid on the delicate blue music box that had been playing the “Blue Danube.” Dun dun DUN!

Next morning, Gustavson blows into breakfast, barely meeting the girls before proclaiming that Margaret will be an adequate model for him. He tells Elizabeth that Thomas will be back any day from his errand fetching pigment colours for his painting, and asks her to stay in her room in the meantime. Elizabeth, however, is not a good little girl, and goes exploring, finding all kinds of macabre scenes playing out around the mansion. Like the Disney Haunted Mansion! She finds Thomas’ room in the attic, and is despondent when she sees his sketchpad beside his bed. He would never willingly go anywhere without it, so something must be wrong. She finds a letter addressed to her, which intimates that Gustavson was a loon.

Elizabeth is determined to get out of Cliff House, and goes to find little Jimmy, the driver. She finds him in the stables, lying in his own blood as his throat was recently slit – like, body still warm recently. She runs screaming to the mansion to get Margaret, only to find her in her room, unresponsive and cold, barely able to move. Miss Matheson comes across her, and tells her she better keep her mouth shut if she wants to survive her stay at Cliff House. So Elizabeth does what she says, and goes to dinner with Gustavson. Margaret is at dinner, looking wan and delicate, and completely in love with Gustavson, fluttering over his every word. Elizabeth can’t keep up pretenses, and runs away to her room.

Patrick finds her in her room, and she throws herself damsel-style at his feet to save herself and Margaret. She tells him about finding Jimmy, and they go to check it out. Only there’s nothing there, not even a blood stain. Patrick confesses his love for Elizabeth there, which is a random place to do so, and wants to take her away to a homestead out West to start a fresh life together. Liz is down, once they figure out what happened to Thomas. She returns to the mansion, to find Margaret collapsed in a heap on her floor, and a disfigured wax woman bearing the message: Leave here, or suffer your brother’s fate.

Footsteps outside catch her attention, and Elizabeth sees Miss Matheson sneaking into the woods. Upon following her, she discovers a cottage, and obviously tries to break in. Inside, there are paintings of Elizabeth everywhere, done by her brother. And in the middle of the room is the Blue Danube music box. I’m sure Elizabeth bites a knuckle to keep from screaming as she realizes Gustavson’s obsession in her.

Not sure what to do, she flees the cottage, where her eye catches on the tall tower to one side of the house. All cliff-based gothic mansions must have a tower, only there’s no entrance to the tower from the house. So she finds an outside door, and upstairs finds her brother’s painting studio, which has been trashed. She’s just finished being horrified by that, when Gustavson comes in, effectively trapping her. Liz, being the big spaz she is, goes out the window and tries to climb down the trellis. Halfway down, she realizes that Gus will easily beat her down there, and goes for the window. Someone grabs her and pulls her in, throwing a blanket over her head and pulling her down a passageway. The blanket is removed, to reveal … the aged Miss Matheson.

They are in Gustavson’s workshop, and there is one beautiful wax figure of a woman, done over and over again, but each missing an important detail like an eye or a mouth. As she looks at Miss Matheson’s crepe-y skull, she realizes the wax figures are actually of her. Miss Matheson tells her story.

She used to be engaged to Peter Gustavson. In fact, she was only … twenty years old. Gus and Miss M grew up together, the children of wealthy landowners, who encouraged them to marry as soon as the war broke out. Gus loved Miss M, but she was reluctant, because she loved another – Patrick Granger, Gus’ best friend. They decided to run away together, to run out West and start a new life together (sounding familiar), but Gus caught them, and murdered Patrick in front of her eyes.

The guilt of murdering his best friend ate away at Gus, as he slowly lost his mind. He began to think that Patrick was still alive – in fact, that he himself was Patrick. And because he was a Fier, and they’re always kind of supernatural and talented in the dark arts, he began to look like Patrick in those moments of insanity (Yeah, right. He probably just put an eyepatch on and messed up his hair.) As his insanity grew, so did his obsession with the dark arts. He uses the spirit of people to create his lifelike pieces of wax-art. The soul is trapped within the sculpture, giving those figures extra sparkle. Miss M, who of course had to pay for her betrayal, has had her life force slowly drained from her, into the wax figures Gus makes of her, but never enough to kill her. So she lives halfway to the grave already. Thomas, with his sensitive artist eyes, discovered Gustavson/Patrick’s secret, and had to die for it. Elizabeth, as Gus’ new pet, had to get the hell out of Cliff House, now.

Interruption by Gustavson, crashing into the workshop. Miss M tells Liz to run, then stalls Gus. She runs through a passageway to a different part of the workshop, to see the wax figurine of a beautiful young girl done up as if she’s dancing at a ball – but for the despairing look on her face. The wax figuring is Margaret, and Liz soon finds Margaret’s body crumpled to the floor, her face missing. Not cut off or anything, just a blank smooth oval. Like one of those wooden figures you sketch, you know the ones? Creepy. She also finds the figure of Thomas, chopping wood at a western homestead. Patrick enters the room now, all loving and such. Liz attacks him, gouging at his face with her fingernails.

His face … comes off. His Patrick face was a wax cast. So, it wasn’t the dark arts? And how can you have a wax face on your face, and have people think it’s real. It would be like extreme botox, it’s not like you could talk or move or anything. I feel someone should have figured this out before hand. Wouldn’t it crack, or get white and flaky? Whatever, cat’s out of the bag, Liz is on to Patrick’s dirty little secret. Just then Elizabeth finds the nearly complete wax figure of herself … minus one face. Instead of letting Gus have hers, she sets her wax self on fire. Instead of melting, it bursts into flames, as does everything else in the workshop. Gus starts burning too. Miss M comes in and embraces him, and they go up in flames together. Elizabeth flees once and for all.

She narrowly escapes a fiery death, and winds up in a nearby pond. Looking to see her reflection in the water, she realizes her beautiful face has been burnt beyond recognition, and she’s horribly disfigured. In her hands she finds the wax she pulled off of Gus’ face, and goes to work making herself a new face. Out of wax. My original concerns still remain as to whether this will actually work, or whether she will look like a girl with glompy wax on her face.

For a Fear Street Saga, not bad. I need to comment on the cover, though. Tagline: “What happens when wax comes to life?” Sheer terror, that’s what. It’s almost as bad as when puppets or dolls come to life. Like a fool, I was expecting actual wax figures coming to life. I should know by now that taglines are written by people who’ve never read the book, to add more suspense and surprise to the actual book. Still, creepy artists, gothic mansions, multiple personalities, this book had a lot going for it. I’ll give it 18 wax faces out of 22.


Anonymous said...

Apart from a few plot contrivances, this one actually sounded rather good.

A. M. Stine said...

The only thing I could think of while reading this book was Rory Gilmore's high school boyfriend (Dean?) getting his face ripped off by some girl in House of Wax. Then I think he fell into some sort of inferno. Best Movie Ever?

L. K. Stine said...

I've always been so creeped by House of Wax, never been able to watch it. Wasn't Paris Hilton in one of those? Could we then count them out of best movies ever?

Anonymous said...

Paris dies in a gruesomly awesome fashion.

L. K. Stine said...

Ooh, how does she die?

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't ruin it for you but she gets impaled (and not the sort of "impaling" she is used to) but by a lead pipe through her face.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog! I only have vague recollections of borrowing a few R.L. Stine books from the library as a kid. I don't remember which ones - no wonder, since he, uh, kinda repeats himself - as I've learned from reading your recaps.

Anyway, I shake my head every time I spot a rip-off from classic literature or old movies. How sad that so many kids were introduced to these ideas through this hack of an "author" instead of the originals! The movie House of Wax (Vincent Price version) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) are sooo much better. I can't believe he stole not only the significant Marie Antoinette wax figurine, but also the idea of the villain wearing a wax face (and the heroine removing it in the same friggin' way!)

R.L. - have you no shame? Sigh.