Recap #90: The Forbidden Game #1: The Hunter by LJ Smith
LJ Smith was never part of my reading repertoire when I was younger. In fact I never even read The Vampire Diaries until earlier this year and it was only the very first book (the original, not the re-releases). That kind of drama never interested me and still doesn’t. I’ve always known who she was thanks mostly to my fellow Lost Boys mailing listers who talked about her work a lot. But hers were never books I picked up.
I stumbled upon The Forbidden Game series completely by accident and I kind of love her style of writing here. Slightly lyrical, much descriptive, and writes pretty relatable, realistic characters (mostly). For the most part, this is what I know of LJ Smith despite her grander library of works. I do have other books of hers on my shelves, including some non-sequential Night World books (all originals, not the re-releases, I avoid those regardless of author, if I’m going to read 90s teen cheese it’s going to be in its original glory). But the impression I do have of her writing, even factoring in book one of The Vampire Diaries, is pretty good.
[Wing: I never read her as a teen, either, though a friend sent me the entire Night World series when I was in my early twenties, and I loved them. I’ve since read other things, including The Vampire Diaries back when I recapped season one for a website, but Night World remains my favourite of her works.
However, I love the Teen Creeps’ podcast discussions of the books: Teen Creeps and The Hunter.]
The Blurb: He sold her the Game, and Jenny Thornton walked out mesmerized by Julian, the gorgeous cyber-punk with electric blue eyes and frost-white hair. When she and her friends open the plain white box at her boyfriend Tom’s birthday party, she chills to the warning: “Entering the Shadow World can be deadly. Do so at your own risk.” Spellbound, they piece together the cardboard Victorian house and decorate the rooms with their darkest nightmares. Suddenly the game is real! They’re in the house of horror, running from The Shadow Man — Julian himself, who forces them to confront their worst nightmares or be lost in a private hell. It’s Julian’s game, and Jenny is the prize he’s stalked for years. He’ll do anything to win her as she bargains desperately for her body — and soul . . .
Smith has a thing for cyberpunk and mentions it a lot throughout the book, especially in regard to how Julian is described. I’m a child of the 90s but cyberpunk is just a hint too old for me so I did have to look it up. And yeah. Hackers. Black turtlenecks and the blue glow of a computer forever etched onto a person’s face. Okay.
[Wing: Cyberpunk was very popular in my classes in the 2000s.]
The Place: Mostly within the Shadow World, a nightmare scape made up of everyone’s darkest fears encapsulated in a frozen wasteland of even more nightmare creatures. But when they’re not there, they’re in the LA area. You know. Juxtaposition.
Or a Labyrinth world that’s ever-changing and filled with things from the players’ darkness fantasies. Either or.
Like legit watch the beginning of Labyrinth as the camera pans through Sarah’s room and catch all the little tidbits of creatures that are already in her room and then spot them in Jareth’s Labyrinth. Same thing.
[Wing: Much like the Carmen Adams books had a real Lost Boys feel to them, this book in particular smacks of Labyrinth, mostly in fun ways.]
Jenny Thornton — The girl with perpetual white knight syndrome who is way too willing to adapt her life to her boyfriend for his ease, and because of this she’s rather infuriating. At one point she even mentions that Tom will always come first above all other friends. Rather typical of less secure teenage girls in relationships but still maddening to read. I think it’s supposed to be explained away by them having been friends since they were little kids but Tom’s presented as a dick and Jenny’s just all googly-eyed for him. Annoying.
One of her friends, Michael, described her hair as the color of honey in sunlight. Sounds like Michael needs to be slapped. She’s slender, has straight eyebrows, forest green eyes, and is serious-looking. She’s also known for her pool parties because they’re so awesome but on this unusually cold day in LA, where the story begins, she’s out hunting for a game that’ll turn her now-indoor party into something interesting.
Her parents are well off and they paid a decent amount of money to have their house filled with culturally appropriated items from all over the world. There doesn’t appear to be a genuine appreciation for any of it. It just looks good and it sounds good that the tiles are Mexican paving stones and the rugs are from this country and those masks are from that country. It’s all rather pretentious.
Julian – Resident creep and kidnapper hellbent on taking Jenny for his own (aka Jareth). He has indescribable blue eyes, heavy black lashes, a sleepy look, and white hair the color of frost. He has an otherworldly beauty, is Jenny’s age, lean, elegant, with an air of danger about him. His white-blonde hair is cropped at the sides and long in the back and front, getting into his eyes. His fingers were long and slender and he had a snake tattoo around his right wrist. An earring in the shape of a dagger or a snake hung from his ear. If you’re not thinking of Jareth at this point I don’t even know who you are right now.
Dee – Token angry black girl that wants to fight everything. She’s wearing an army fatigue jacket, close-cropped hair and has legs for miles that Smith mentioned repeatedly. But she’s as beautiful as an African priestess. So there’s that. She’s considered reckless with a skewed sense of humor. She’s known Jenny the longest and as a result when Audrey came into town and Jenny befriended her Dee got jealous and she and Audrey have has a contentious relationship ever since. [Wing: Consequently, I ship Dee and Audrey. Also, I love Dee, though Smith seriously needs to lay off the othering of her beauty.]
Audrey – I was initially under the impression that she was Chinese with a diplomat father and she had to move around a lot for his job, but she’s described much later on in the book as having porcelain skin and her hair is a glossy auburn, almost copper. She has chestnut eyes, spiky jet black eyelashes (another point that Smith repeats ad nauseam) with spiky copper bangs and polished nails. So I’m leaning toward cultured white girl that kind of throws it in people’s faces and is always dressed to the nines because Daddy can afford it.
Granted I like Audrey because she openly tells Jenny she doesn’t like the way Jenny kowtows to Tom’s tastes all the time. But it’s not in a feminist empowerment type of thing but because she believes you should keep boys guessing. Whatever. At least she’s voicing her distaste for Jenny’s ridiculous pandering to her boyfriend. I’ll take what I can get.
Audrey’s the newest member of their group, having only been around for a year. The rest have been around since early elementary school.
Tom – Resident twat boyfriend who thinks the world revolves around him and Jenny’s okay with that. She goes all doe-eyed thinking about a stuffed animal he gave her that said ‘I Love You’ on it and how he never said that to her in public but he had his ways of saying is privately.
He has dark brown hair kept neat and short, a faintly mocking smile, and he wears simple clothes but they always look put together on him. When he’s around Jenny feels like all of her worries fade away. He has hazel eyes with green flecks that Jenny describes endlessly throughout the book. She also admits he’s a little arrogant, but she’ll only admit this to herself.
Michael – Effectively useless character who’s shaped like a teddy bear, has rumpled dark hair, wears sweats, and has the eyes of a sarcastic spaniel. I have no idea what that means and my Google search resulted in roughly dick on that. [Wing: Can spaniels ever look sarcastic? Ever? They are the epitome of “puppy dog eyes” in that begging kind of way.] He’s described as a person who would randomly snoop through your mail and other stuff that’s left out, or put away and he’d go through drawers. Jenny calls him insatiably curious. I’d call him a nosy asshole.
Zach – Jenny’s aloof cousin who has light hair pulled back in a pony tail, an intense, beaky-nosed face and gray eyes. Jenny’s not too sure if he actually likes her or merely tolerates her. He never says anything unless he actually had something to say. [Wing: Seriously, go listen to that Teen Creeps episode even if for no other reason than how they deal with Zach and Jenny’s situation. It is hilarious.]
Summer – Another pretty useless character but at least she’s not insufferable. She’s tiny with curly, thistle-down hair and dimples. She serves a purpose later in the story and she might as well be wearing a red shirt.
The story opens with Jenny walking down the street in a bad part of town. She’s there because she didn’t want her friends to see her shopping for a game and knew the area would be far enough away that no one would see her. Smith mentioned that since the riots happened a lot of buildings are still boarded up. If you’re at all brushed up on your history she’s talking about the Rodney King riots in 1992. The book was published in 1994 so probably written in 1993 or so. So this gives you an idea of just where Jenny is and how much of a dumbass she’s being for the sake of finding a board game.
Of course a couple of dudes end up tailing her and when she comes across a door nestled into a mural she ducks into it in order to avoid them. Turns out the store is called More Games and while Jenny, in a moment of clarity, realizes that stumbling upon a random game store just when she needed it was weird, she figured she might as well peruse. Because I mean these things usually happen, right? Sometimes?
Scattered all around the store were games that the modern world probably had never seen outside of a museum combined with some words on a cork board (that Smith describes as cyberpunk for some reason) coupled with a boom box pumping house music.
A breathtaking boy makes his appearance and Jenny forgot Tom’s existence for a moment. Not sure how because she recognized that she forgot Tom’s existence for that moment, thus still remembering him, but whatever. He’s gorgeous, dressed all in black and is described as having a style that’s a mix of cyberpunk (there it is again) and Byronic poet. Everything about him unnerved her, but she couldn’t figure out why. Just something was off, especially as he started to describe the games around him.
For a nanosecond she had the brilliant idea of leaving but she found his voice memorizing and couldn’t get her body to listen. He seemed to know she was looking for a special game and even when he went to fetch it she wanted to leave but thought on it too long and he was back.
Julian produced a blank white box that Jenny desperately wanted to touch. It was a weird thing, though, completely devoid of fingerprints smudged on its surface. He started teasing her with it, saying things like she might not be mature enough for the game and all of her misgivings fell away and she became highly amused.
Jenny’s basically a cat with a set of keys right now. With no mention of any kind of magic going on when it comes to manipulating Jenny’s feelings about anything I’m left to believe that she just has mood swings and isn’t the greatest at reading situations. [Wing: Some people are really susceptible to because slyly challenging them like that, teens or adults. I like that this is a weakness for her.]
He finally gave it over to her after some additional ribbing and when she touched it it felt like an electric current ran up her fingers. She desperately needed this game. She went to pay for it and when he opened the till the register was filled with foreign money in all shapes and sizes. She mentioned that the wrongness of it cut into the pleasure of getting the game and it gave her the chills.
When she realized she’d been in the store for over an hour she freaked out about her time warp and ducked out. She threw a standard “see you later” departing statement toward him and he mumbled something about “at nine” which she totally brushed off but as the reader you should know this is obvious foreshadowing and should not be ignored.
Just before she dodges out the door she turns and looks at him and is unsettled by what she sees: a hungry look on him while blue and purple stained glass cast streaks across his hair. She thought he looked like a starving tiger about to go hunting. This will not be the last time Smith uses this description for Julian. In the slightest. She has a bad habit of repeating her descriptions and they’re not very blendable descriptions either.
The creeps that were following her before ended up waiting for her to come out of the store. She groped around for the doorknob behind her blindly only she couldn’t find it. FOR SOME REASON THE DOOR TO THE STORE WAS GONE. Dun dun dun.
In a moment of stupid panic, Jenny decided to throw the game at them as a distraction, thinking that they’ll stop and consider what it is. I have no idea why and this is quite possibly the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But I guess people do stupid things in a panic? Anyway, she raised the game box over her head and her would-be attackers freaked out and ran away. No throwing necessary. They just booked. So she skedaddled on home.
On her way home she almost felt like the box was thrumming with power but chides herself for the thought. No way that could be happening, right?
When she gets home she’s greeted by a mangy-looking cat that she’d adopted. It growled at the box but didn’t bite her. Apparently animals never bit her. This right here is a bit of a failing with Smith setting up Jenny and the protection around her. At the end you find out that Jenny’s always been able to put herself in dangerous situations and never ended up hurt because Julian was protecting her. This instance with the cat and the prior one with the two men were supposed to be foreshadowing but the way they’re set up they just feel really random and like forced tension. At least with the guys. You know, start the story off on a sinister note. And here’s a random cat. She could have set this up a whole lot better than what she did.
Dee and Audrey were already at her house waiting for her when she walked in the door. Audrey was cooking because she had some personal Chinese chef while living in Hong Kong that was practically part of the family and taught her to cook and since Tom loves Chinese so much she’s just throwing some stuff together. Audrey becomes far less of a cad later on when her shell breaks downs, thankfully. She’s not necessarily insufferable on the page at this point but she’s a rather typical rich girl with experiences no one can really relate to.
While Dee and Audrey are abiding each others’ existence (because they don’t really like each other) Jenny goes upstairs to change and reflects on her relationship with Tom that’s been going on since second grade. To which I say OMG break up. Experience the world. If you’re meant to be together you’ll find your way back to each other. But this kind of thing isn’t healthy. It’s not even endearing in a fantastical sort of sense, especially since they’ve been together nonstop all that time. I’m probably the weirdo when it comes to this kind of thinking but it just speaks to a really sheltered, unlived life and I think it sad. This kind of thing just isn’t romantic to me. Never was.
Jenny goes back downstairs and everyone else has arrived. Audrey, to prove her point that men have wandering eyes, flirts with Tom in front of Jenny but Jenny passes his flirty reaction off as him just being nice. I mean if we’re supposed to feel anything for Tom Smith isn’t doing a good job of setting him up as at all likable. Granted Jenny comes off as insufferably apologetic and I can’t really stand either of them.
Jenny has such misgivings about the game that she tries to be all like ‘Oh you guys won’t like it. It’ll be lame.” But no one’s buying that and they end up opening the white box. Inside is a tagboard doll’s house that they have to construct and of course this group of teenagers, without alcohol, is like yeah totally. Let’s do this. When they’re done they end up with a three-foot tall Victorian house with three floors and a turret that opens in front like a regular doll’s house and the roof was removable. [Wing: I love complicated games and puzzles, but this seems like a lot of work to do before I even get to play the damn game.]
The game pieces themselves were paper dolls that the players had to draw their faces on that are then moved throughout the house. The house is supposed to be haunted and they’re supposed to face a new nightmare in each room. Of course they have to watch out for the Shadow Man, who brings nightmares and dark fantasies to life and makes you confess your secret fears. All of the players need to draw their darkest nightmares on slips of paper, shuffle them, and place them face down in each room.
When Jenny takes a crayon to draw her own nightmare she just ends up drawing a doodle. She does have a recurring nightmare but she can never remember it. She thinks it’s an actual memory from when she was little but it’s eluded her all these years.
They take the Shadow Man out of the book and Jenny’s heart nearly stops when she realized the face is Julian’s. They also need to hold onto the Creeper, a giant snake, and the Lurker, a wolf, as fiends they’ll need to battle later on. The drawing of Julian was uncomfortably lifelike and radiated danger to Jenny.
Before they can play they need to take the Oath of the Game. They all need to swear that they’re playing the Game of their own free will and that the Game is real. Jenny’s not feeling it at all but because everyone else is all into it and Jenny is a total people-pleaser she goes along with it too. She actively convinced herself that her misgivings were nothing.
The Oath indicated that the Shadow World exists alongside their own world but never touched it. It’s sometimes called the World of Dreams but it’s as real as anything else. Entering it can be dangerous and all players play at their own risk. The Game can be hazardous to their lives and they need to swear that they understand that.
At this point no one knows what they’re actually dealing with here so they brush off the dire warnings and are all like yeah, let’s do this! Meanwhile Jenny’s having a panic attack on the inside. Even Tom’s on board even though Jenny’s shit at hiding her feelings despite not actually saying anything and calls him a jerk in her head for not recognizing her discomfort. Only she quickly squashes that thought because it is his birthday and he deserves whatever he wants. Oh Jenny. This really does sound like it’s a relationship that exists on the fringes of abusive. Not physically and maybe not even outwardly emotionally but Tom seems to be completely oblivious of Jenny and really takes her for granted. Granted she allows it.
Out of the corner of her eye she catches sight of the box lid and the red U that’s inscribed there as it flashes red. Of course she brushes having seen that off as just a trick of her vision or something. Gotta love it when characters ignore all of these signs.
Once they start pulling cards to start the game things get real. One card mentioned hearing footsteps on the floor above and it’s brushed off as pretend because they’re supposed to act like they’re in the doll house. Except when it sounds like footsteps are walking along the ceiling in Jenny’s house, which is a single story. The next card mentioned how none of the windows or doors will open and then they get up and try them . . . they’re stuck. Nothing will open.
The next card says a clock strikes 9 and even though Jenny doesn’t have any chiming clocks they still hear a clock chiming the hour.
I really loved all this description opening the start of the Game. It truly was creepy and disconcerting and poked at underlying fears of mine, namely hearing things that weren’t actually there and playing with what’s real and what isn’t. Smith did this really well.
[Wing: This part is seriously gorgeous and fun, as description, as horror, and as world-building. I wish they’d make a really good movie adaptation of it just for that scene alone. It’s like an even more horrific Jumanji.]
A strong wind came through that knocked everyone out and when they wake up they’re in the parlor of the doll’s house.
Tom’s stellar personality really shines when he starts freaking out. Jenny tried to be rational and pointed out they’re in the doll house and he calls her stupid and is generally condescending to her. She then thinks about how often he does snap at her. Such a great relationship.
Jenny goes around and started touching things and realized that the room was real. Items in it were real. Nothing was cardboard like the doll house they built.
Julian stepped out of the shadows and he looked even more exotic. His hair shone in the dimness of the room and he’s wearing a black vest that showed the smooth, hard muscles of bare arms and pants that looked like snakeskin. His heavy-lidded eyes and long lashes stared at her. When he looked over everyone Jenny watched as each person flinched from his gaze.
Zach is officially useless as he acts like he’s in a daze and not too aware of the things going on around him. Meanwhile Jenny’s convinced Tom’s acting like a dick because he feels responsible, however, up to this point Tom hasn’t been painted as someone who takes on responsibility like this. He doesn’t come off as the self-loathing type so I’m not sure if I’m supposed to believe Jenny to be so clouded in her judgment of Tom or whether I’m supposed to believe her. She’s not set up as an unreliable narrator so I don’t know.
Julian explains that they invoked the Game with the rune Uruz that was on the box lid. Effectively they said their right words and now they can’t take any of it back. Summer tries to pass it off as just a mistake but Julian’s like don’t play with fire if you can’t handle the heat. Now they have to play until someone wins.
This is where Julian leers at Jenny, which sent Tom into a frenzy when he realized Julian’s prize for winning is his girlfriend. Of course Julian’s having none of that and unleashed a nightmare on Tom that only he could see. Jenny tried to snap him out of it but it didn’t work although she did mention his green-flecked eyes again. Because that’s what a person is paying attention to in a situation like this.
In a blink everyone disappeared and Jenny’s left standing in the parlor alone with Julian. It’s her who’s the main player and it’s her job to get everyone to the portal at the top of the house in order to get home. She begged and pleaded with him that this isn’t what she meant to do. But he just reiterates that if she loses she has to stay with him as his but this only caused her to get indignant and she lashed out.
He stops her with two words: Careful, Jenny. How very Jareth. When he says this she sees his true intent in his eyes along with the ancient, primal magic that he is. She refers to him as Darkness incarnate.
Jenny asked why is he fixated on her and Julian responded that he’s been in love with her forever, since she was a little girl. Gross. He compared her to Persephone and he to Hades. He promised her the world, everything she could ever want, by offering her a way out, which she doesn’t take. Then he promised her hardships in the Game and threatened that he never loses. Usually Jenny’s anger is over quickly, however, Julian’s words stir up a slow-simmering fury in her that she doesn’t let go of. [Wing: GOOD! STAY MAD! This is gross and creepy and twisted (and really interesting), and you are not a prize to be won or lost, JENNY.]
He threatened her friends when she fights him then plunges her into the Game, revoking his offer of an easy way out. Before letting her loose he gave her a riddle to solve and told her if she could solve it one friend could go. There’s also a time limit on the game: she had until dawn. If they don’t get out by then they’re stuck in his world forever. Then an unseen clock chimes the hour.
So . . . you have thirteen hours in which to solve the Labyrinth . . .
Thinking of another way out Jenny looks out one of the windows and deeply regretted that decision. On the other side was a frozen tundra with a blizzard and deformed creatures crawling about. So not an option to go that way. [Wing: … I really want a story about people sucked into the game and going off to deal with the blizzard and the deformed creatures rather than play by Julian’s rules.]
Even as she knew that Julian’s targeting her with all of this Jenny’s still boo-hooing about Tom because he’s getting Julian’s “special attention” for being her boyfriend and he has it so much worse than she does. You simpering twit. Just shut up and play the Game already.
She gets up to the second floor and she realizes the hallway looked like the one in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. The bulging door there always scared her and what’s here is a single bulging door with Dee pulling on it. Inhuman, guttural snarls came from the other side and Dee was trying to close it. Together they managed to get it shut. Once they did the hallway went silent.
Dee, who seemed to be calm about everything, told Jenny that she woke up in the hallway after appearing in the parlor with everyone. When she opened the door there was a “butt ugly monster” on the other side and she’s been trying to close it ever since. Then another door appeared and they decided to open it.
The girls end up in a replica of Dee’s bedroom and when the door slammed closed it disappeared. When they looked out the window it was the regular view from Dee’s window only the window wouldn’t open or break. Dee appeared completely unmoved by everything that’s going on and threatened to kick the Shadow Man’s ass. Her mentality is adapt or die, basically.
Dee didn’t like tech, instead preferring to work with her hands. She didn’t like feeling useless. As her nightmare forms it’s a huge half sphere in the sky with beams of bright light jutting out around it. I didn’t think this was described all that well since it ended up being your standard UFO. I think Smith was initially going for more unknown and then just relied on the standard for that. It probably would have come off better had she just described a typical UFO.
Ultimately Dee’s worst fear is physical helplessness and her inability to fight against such advanced tech. So when the aliens abduct them they’re rendered paralyzed. The aliens themselves are the typical gray type, featureless with big eyes and no noses.
Dee freaked out when they started crowding around her. The more she struggled the more attention they paid her and then they started torturing her. When they turned their attention on Jenny she just got frustrated because she didn’t understand what she was expected to do in this situation.
Then they both realized simultaneously that thrashing is what brightened the light and the light is what kept them paralyzed. So Dee kept thrashing so that the light over Jenny dimmed while hers brightened, keeping the aliens’ attention so Jenny could get away. Jenny was finally able to throw herself off the table but just before she hit the ground the alien powers stopped her, keeping her hovering inches above the ground. When they placed her back on the table they poured green liquid in her and Dee’s mouths. The girls waited until the aliens left and then spit it out.
Both of their lights were eventually dim enough that they were able to roll off their tables and make their way to an airplane door in the wall that wasn’t there before. They both jumped out, effectively going skydiving, but landed back in Dee’s room which then spit them back out into the Haunted Mansion hallway. A piece of paper with Dee’s nightmare drawn on it flutters by and they both realize that when they’re in nightmares they need to look for doors as their way out.
[Wing: UGH DEE I FEEL YOUR FEAR. That would be terrifying.]
Everything keeps changing (it’s not fair!) and then Julian appeared walking down an endless hallway toward them dressed all in black. He asked Jenny how she’s liking the Game. He talks about her, her hair, and pulled it down from the pony tail. She tried to stop him but it’s feeble and the words are half-hearted and she’s not even sure she wants him to stop. Then she tried to get away from him only to nearly kiss him before finally pulling away and thinking about Tom.
Again she asked Julian why her and she tells her that darkness is drawn to light and he wants to cherish the good in her and counter his own evil. In that moment Jenny truly believed that he loves her but she also strongly believed he’s evil. So she’s able to read some situations, just not all.
[Wing: The very essence of what you are doing here is evil, Julian; so much for using her to counter your own evil.]
Then it dawned on her: even in his own world he can’t do anything to her that she didn’t want and for which she didn’t give permission. That’s why he couldn’t just take her and tried to have her kiss him. She started mocking him then and he got all sorts of creepy and said he’ll have her regardless, if not by force then by persuasion and he can be very persuasive. Oh gross. What a great start to a relationship.
He threatened Audrey, who’s in the hallway now, and Jenny ran to her and they both find Dee standing in front of another door and Julian’s gone.
On the other side of the door is a great forest with some scattered lights in the valley. Audrey, in a slightly mocking tone, said she drew an image of the Bloomingdale’s catalogue being blank so she wouldn’t have to fess up to her nightmare. Only the forest they’re in is the Black Forest from Grimm’s Fairytales.
And then Jenny described Audrey as having well-bred nostrils. WTF are those? What is with some of Smith’s descriptions?
A wolf with yellow eyes appeared just as Audrey was thinking out loud about it and Jenny realized that Julian is pulling nightmares directly from their heads, not just from the papers they drew on. Which is terrifying because people know the superficial things that freak them out, but how many people know, or admit to, what truly terrifies them? The fact that Julian is using the latter showed the extent of his darkness.
[Wing: NEEDS MORE WEREWOLVES. Evil, bloody, man-eating werewolves.]
They all stumbled upon a group of guys dancing and making merry in the woods who marveled at their beauty and try to place wreaths on their heads and get them to drink. Too bad the girls were actually a sacrifice to the Otherworld and they get shoved down a hole. At the bottom they’re greeted by deformed animal elf things that really creep Jenny out, to the point of physical revulsion.
Audrey was cowering on the ground and the only way Jenny could get through to her was to make her think her mascara was running. And here is where I rolled by eyes because this is preposterous. I get it. It’s cute and kitschy and Audrey’s that superficial that that’s the only way she’ll respond in a time of stress, falling back on something she knows. Except if she’s that freaked out she’s just going to shut down.
The elves walked them through a rocky, mossy cavern, and then through numerous subterranean caverns with crystal everywhere. Once inside another massive cavern the girls were separated and Jenny was brought to meet the Erlkonig. Three guesses who it was. [Wing: I once wrote a short story where the Erlkonig was going to devour the world, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the right answer here…]
Jenny ended up solving the riddle on the way as something to take her mind off of what was happening and she figured she could get Tom out. Because while she loved her friends Tom came first above all others always. Fuck, Jenny. Really?
Of course the Erlkonig was Julian and he’s wearing a white tunic and breeches with soft white boots that show off how lithe and smoothly muscled he is and in the moonlight his hair was silver. He’s wearing a broad, flat leather belt that rested over a flat stomach and narrow hips and is modestly encrusted with sapphires. I’m pretty sure modestly encrusted is an oxymoron.
Through dangers until and hardships unnumbered . . .
He also has starving tiger eyes again. So there’s that.
When Jenny confronts him with the answer to the riddle (a kiss) he says she has to give him the answer, that was the deal. This, of course, made her fuming mad.
They go for a walk and he explained that the reason why wild animals don’t attack her and she doesn’t get mugged in dangerous places is because he’s always watching her. How totally creepy. And she knew she should hate his attention but she kind of liked it. The Prince of Darkness chose her. He admitted that she’s his first and only love and he gave her a rose to show his affection. Jenny nuzzled it against her cheek only to have it turn into his hand and she shoved him away. Sometimes a peach is really a fever dream ball where you’re wooed by a King.
Julian, as is par for the course, threatened her again but she refused all of his advances when she’s actually aware he’s making them and not being tricked. Granted she could have just turned down the rose instead of taking it from a trickster but whatever.
Audrey started screaming and Jenny ran after her. When she found Audrey and Dee they’re surrounded by what are basically zombies. Dee distracted them by attacking and told Jenny and Audrey to run to the door that popped up. They did and the door locked behind them once they went through. A few seconds later Dee came stumbling through and the clock struck twelve.
When the paper Audrey drew on fluttered by it had a picture of a forest on it, which Audrey finally copped to drawing. She kept having dreams about it but she never knew why and she never knew which forest it was. More proof that Julian pulled from their subconscious.
In typical Audrey fashion she redid her hair and reapplied her lipstick and for the first time Jenny realized she’s seeing behind Audrey’s facade of perfection. Audrey’s always hated moving so much and even though her father’s retired she got an unsettled feeling that they’re going to pick up and move again. This makes Dee feel bad for her and she softened toward her former nemesis.
With all the German flying around them Audrey started remembering pieces of it and remembered that there are nine worlds to the old Germans, with Niflheim as one of them, aka the Shadow World where runes kept the destructive creatures in it from getting out. Jenny then started linking the runes to her memory from her grandfather’s basement but something’s keeping her from making the ultimate connection and opening the memory. [Wing: So just keep going until you reach Yggdrasil, and you’ll have access to all the nine worlds.]
The girls continued down the hallway until they found Michael pacing in front of a locked door, where he’s been since disappearing from the parlor. He’s had no other way out. The girls were able to open the door without a problem and Michael graciously allows Jenny to go in first. At least he openly admitted he’s a coward.
Only on the other side of the door was the same exact hallway. The house kept bouncing them from one side to the other with no other way to get into Michael’s nightmare. When they go through the door a final time it closed and locked.
That’s when they start to itch. Michael pushed up his sleeve and saw that he’s growing some plant life from his skin and he freaks out. Jenny’s also growing some moss, Audry’s plants look like mold, and Dee’s is a red and green-leafed plant. How gross. This totally reminded me of Creepshow where Stephen King grew moss all over his body and ended up shooting himself in the head. That totally skeeved me out.
Michael completely freaked out and Dee tried to pull the plant off but it was actually rooted in his skin and he started to bleed when she pulled too hard. He was freaking out so hard that Audrey had to command him to stop and kissed him to divert his attention to something other than the plants growing on him and it worked, at least a little.
The only way they figured they could get the plants off was to burn them. When Michael tried to grab a candle he realized he’s rooted to the floor. Literally. He’d grown into the floor. So Audrey grabbed a candle and put it to a leaf. It burned off without any issues. When all of Michael’s skin plants were gone everyone else’s just faded away without the need of the flame.
His drawn-on paper fluttered by and the clock struck one and a stairway appeared.
[Wing: Fuck, another terrifying fear that made my skin crawl. This part of the writing is great, but then she goes off on the repetitive descriptions and a couple super annoying characters, and it starts to fall flat.]
At this point, when Smith mentioned Audrey’s spiky dark lashes and spiky bangs yet again I can’t help but roll my eyes. She has some unique descriptions but she uses them repeatedly throughout the book and they just get jarring.
The group ascended the escalator that appeared in front of them and they ended up in a hallway of mirrors zig-zagged about to make going from one end to another anything but a straight line. Would they go left or right?
They chose one and Dee ended up ahead of the group. A flash of light appeared and she’s standing in front of an elevator-like door. Something whimpered from around the next bend and they find Summer curled into a ball. She’s been stuck in the mirror place, possibly hallucinating. She thinks she might have been seeing people, maybe Zach and Julian.
When they step up to the door Summer was so desperate to get out of the mirror hallway that she wasn’t very apprehensive about facing her nightmare, a messy room bound to be on the other side. Can’t say I blame her. Mirrors are awful.
Worthless Michael is worthless as he tried to get out of going into the nightmare before he’s shoved in and then doesn’t help any of them clear a path through the junk in front of them.
Initially the room is just a messier version of Summer’s room, complete with spiders squatting under some debris. Because Summer is a live and let live kind of girl. Also completely disgusting. Then the garbage changed from paper waste to food waste to dead animals and then it’s just downhill from there.
While Summer does fear a messy room her true fear was something her grandmother told her: that things would grow in her room, that it would attract unpleasant bugs, that it looked like an earthquake hit it, and she would get lost in there. You’d think, if she were genuinely this afraid of these things that she would keep her room clean but I guess even that wasn’t incentive enough.
And this is where it gets really gross because Summer’s had nightmares about sneaker-sized cockroaches and columns of man-eating fungus taking over her room. It freaked everyone out so much that even Michael had a fire lit under his ass to power through the crap and help get them out of the room.
Of course as they motored monster bugs kept cropping up, much larger than any sneaker. Then the world started to rumble and they went frantic digging for the door that had popped up on the other side of the room. When they got to it they realized it opened inward so they had to clear even more away from it in order to open it.
Jenny looked behind her as they were working and saw that the room had cracked open to a bug-infested nightmare hell with prehistoric bugs and algae monsters. Summer froze and ultimately got consumed by all of the creatures within the room and once the earthquake hit everything collapsed. Jenny, with her syndrome, tried to help but Dee had to pull her back and out the door to safety. This time, once they were all on the other side of the door, it faded back into the mirror wall. Just disappeared. Jenny connected those dots and determined that Summer was dead. Considering when Dee got stuck on the other side of the door it didn’t go anywhere and then she came through it, this is a natural logical step in her thinking. Honestly I’d think the same thing too.
Summer’s death completely upended Jenny and she freaked out, having to be calmed by the group. While they’re shushing her the clock struck two. She took the death hard. Summer had joined their group in the fourth grade just needing to be taken care of, which Jenny did. Only now she failed so she’s taking the death personally. [Wing: I was shocked at hell that someone actually died in a story like this.]
The group scattered trying to find provisions and each other, leaving Jenny in her place at the mirrors. A flash draws her attention and she chased after it. It led her to an open door. When she stuck her head through there wasn’t anything but blank space on the other side. The door started to close and she made an instant decision to jump through it to the other side.
On the other side was Zach’s garage with the lights dimmed. She found Zach himself in his dark room agitating a tray of chemicals to process a photo and he was zoned out, like how he’d been since they started the Game. Completely out of it. He doesn’t really acknowledge her when she tried to snap him out of it but he did explain how he found the room. Then he collapsed for some reason and he apologized to Jenny and he seemed to snap out of his funk, at least momentarily.
But when she’s holding him he started kissing her neck and things start to get squicky. She kept repeating that they’re half-cousins and that this is wrong but she didn’t push him away like she should. He started talking about how she didn’t really love Tom and how Tom didn’t deserve her and Jenny noticed his gray eyes go a little blue. I WONDER WHO IT COULD REALLY BE.
She must know this too, somewhere deep down, because she just fell into the feeling and they kiss. She gets absorbed into it and she kissed him like she never kissed Tom. She moved to run her hands through his hair and before she can even come up for air, like her brain is already in on it but her body hasn’t caught up yet, she knew it’d be Julian’s hair, not Zach’s, that she touches.
Jenny freaked out and shoved Julian away and scrubbed at her mouth while questioning whether she really knew that was him or not. I imagine so, Jenny. Otherwise you got it bad for your cousin. Gross. [Wing: Cousins can still marry in some places in the USA, can’t they? I do love that she’s really freaked out over whether she knew it was Julian all along or whether she got swept up in the weirdness of this place and made out with her cousin.]
There’s a lot of gross in this book. Are you noticing that too?
Julian started talking and for a second she slipped into his voice but then the memory of Summer brought her back to her senses. Jenny had her Sarah moment and complained about things not being fair and Julian’s not having any of that, pointing out that the world isn’t fair.
Jenny had a bit of a come to Jesus moment during this conversation with Julian in that she realized that bad things do happen to good people. Just look at Summer. And she’s just as susceptible. She tells Julian he’ll have to take her by force if he wanted her so he’s like okay. And attacked her with a swarm of bees.
We can really stop with the bugs now, guys. Okay?
They swarmed her, collecting all over her body in a thick bee suit to the point where she can’t even put her arms down at her sides. He says to just say the word and all of this will go away but she didn’t. Instead she allowed herself to faint, knowing that crushing the bees would cause them all to sting and that it’ll probably kill her. Granted I don’t think she had much of a choice when it came to fainting but she accepted it all the same.
[Wing: This reminds me of that bee episode of Pushing Daisies, a delightful show gone too soon.]
The clock struck three and Jenny woke up and the bees were gone. Julian didn’t let the bees sting her. Jenny got up and found a door painted into a backdrop with a knob protruding from it. It creeped her out but she decided to open it anyway. On the other side was darkness where a sky hung too low and the ground barely existed. The only light was tungsten flood lamps dotted throughout.
The door was still there when she looked back at it but she figured she was actually in Zach’s nightmare now so she had to go find him. She stopped at each light along her way and realized that each scene was something Zach had created for his art. This unnerved her but she couldn’t articulate why.
She ended up finding him under a light, playing with a rock. He had the same glazed look about him but she knew this was her real cousin. Turned out he thought everything that was happening was him going crazy because it runs in his family. He convinced himself that everything he’s seeing is his hallucinations. [Wing: UGH ZACH. I had similar fears sometimes when I was younger (and then was diagnosed!), so I feel this hard.]
Bolts started flying around them and Jenny screamed at him to move, which snapped him out of his daze. There was a hunter after them clad in body armor and wearing a mirrored helmet. Jenny assumed it was Julian but she couldn’t actually tell.
They ran back to the door only to find it gone. In order for Zach to face his nightmare he had to face the hunter, and that meant taking off the hunter’s helmet. He’s convinced that the hunter is himself and taking of the helmet will prove that it’s not. For some anticlimactic reason the hunter lets them just walk up to him and Zach is able to remove the helmet without any fighting or issues and it revealed nothing. Nothing’s on the other side of it. The armor collapsed, a door appeared, and Jenny saw the sanity return to his eyes. Kind of an odd way of putting that but okay.
Zach’s paper fluttered by and he tore it up. Jenny asked him why he thought insanity ran in the family but Zach wouldn’t answer. When they get back to the mirror hallway they decided to split up to find the others. Zach had a couple crayons on him that he took when they first started setting up the Game and they each take one so they can draw on the mirror and find their way back. Only Jenny had just mentioned that nothing could be trusted in that place. But some things could . . .? I have no idea. Your mother is a freakin’ aardvark.
Jenny’s hallway ended at a blank concrete wall that scared her. Tom was still at the top of the house and the only nightmare that was left was hers. A paper fluttered at her feet and she picked it up to see the doodle she’d originally made.
Julian asked if she needed help and when she turned around she saw he was wearing the body armor from Zach’s nightmare. He had a purple streak in his hair and a blue triangle on his cheek. Cyberpunk again for some reason.
He admitted to having watched her for hours on end when she was growing up and Jenny finally took that literally and thought it’s terrible. He asked whether she’d known he’d been there and she outwardly denies it but inwardly admits to having always felt watched. She used to wake up in the middle of the night to see something in the dark but it always disappeared when she turned on the lights. He prodded at her, telling her her nightmare is behind the blank wall but she can’t overcome it if she can’t get into it and she can’t get into it until she remembered it.
All hail the trusty crayon as Jenny whips it out and starts drawing, starting with what she does remember from her grandfather’s basement when she was five. Once she started drawing a door appeared and Julian disappeared. Her ghost self at five appeared and walked her through the memory and Jenny followed along, not thinking too hard in order to not block the memory from coming back.
Her sixteen-year-old self realized as she’s walking around the basement that it’s filled with articles of protection from all manner of cultures. Her kid self flips through books on runes and spells of protection and current Jenny came to the logical conclusion that her grandfather was a sorcerer. Who wouldn’t come to that conclusion? I mean, the answer is obvious.
[Wing: I mean, obviously.]
Behind a bookcase is a door with a blood-rusted X over it and Jenny opened the door to find a frozen wasteland on the other side of it with dark fey eyes watching her. One set of eyes she recognized as Julian’s. Jenny’s memories came flooding back and her grandfather pulled her out of the way, trying to close the door with sealing runes but it didn’t work. Ice crept onto the ceiling and floor and the creatures that escaped demanded young Jenny as payment. Instead her grandfather traded his life for hers.
The icy mist curled around him and took him back through the door kicking and screaming. Jenny tried to hold on but he scratched her hand to make her let go just before he was taken all the way through, leaving her battered and sobbing on the floor.
Jenny woke up and she’s surrounded by her friends. Turned out they dropped down a chute back to the first floor and had to make their way back up. They ultimately followed Jenny’s crayon trail to find her. Jenny explained her nightmare and Zach added in the family version of the story, thinking their grandfather was crazy and abused her. This was Zach’s reason for thinking he was going crazy himself.
[Wing: OH ZACH MY HEART.]
She had to face her nightmare alone because she had to overcome an event that had already happen, not face a what-if. At first she thought she failed her nightmare because another door hadn’t appeared but it was at the top of the basement stairs mostly the whole time. When they climbed up the stairs Jenny’s slip of paper was there and the clock struck five.
They made their way into the turret and Jenny noticed that it looked like the More Games store, just with a grandfather clock and Tom chained to it. Tom looked awful but he said that Julian didn’t actually do anything to him other than the rats. Instead he mocked Tom by showing him what was happening in a mirror and Tom kept trying to escape, which explained the chains.
On the other end of the room was a door that was partially open but in front of it was a giant coiled snake and a large wolf, the Creeper and the Lurker. Julian finally made an appearance and did what he does best: mock them. He did say the door would be open if they got to the turret but he’s not going to let them through. Jenny is his by force. This makes Tom furious but Julian only laughed and planned on feeding the rest of Jenny’s friends to his fellow dark fey along with the creatures already in the room.
Dee tried to attack Julian but he laid her out. Then Jenny offered herself to him if he let the others go. Naturally he’s skeptical at first and said she has to swear to him by putting on a ring. And of course Tom stays for insurance. Jenny started playing into Julian’s wishes about wanting him instead of Tom.
They both agree and she repeated an oath, swearing herself to Julian. At first Julian said the oath itself is irrevocable and then like three lines down said it’s only irrevocable if they kiss. Little bit of writing slip there.
And Michael looked on with dark spaniel eyes. Anyone know what these are? Anyone?
Julian finally lets everyone go, including Tom because Jenny convinced him enough that she’s there of her own volition and he didn’t need a bargaining chip. They then go into the basement to talk and get better acquainted. I actually did think Smith did a good job of setting this whole scene up. I was genuinely reading it going is she screwing with him or not? It was hard to tell.
They get chatty and they kiss and Jenny led Julian into the closet that she opened in her nightmare. With hearts in his eyes Julian didn’t see the set-up coming even though he’s literally walking right into it. She lured him into another kiss but before it could happen she bolted out, slammed the door, and chanted the sealing rune she heard her grandfather say in her nightmare.
[Wing: Jenny, you’ve ended up being delightful! Way to be proactive and smart.]
When she got up the stairs the rest of her friends were waiting for her, some of them having figured out it was all a ruse. The door leading out was a door to sunrise. Literally just the colors of sunrise and nothing else. But they all jumped and Jenny woke up in her living room, the rune on the game box all rusty-looking. The doll house is intact but missing the dolls and nightmares.
Tom and Audrey were convinced Jenny was staying with Julian and when Jenny looked down at her hand the ring was still there. She claimed that Julian changed the rules so she figured she could too. But he didn’t change the rules, did he? He just worded things in a way that benefited him and Jenny didn’t listen. So really she was the one who boned everything and Julian was actually true to his word.
Instead of setting the Game on fire and dancing in its ashes they stuff all the pieces into the box and Jenny tapes it shut. Because that’s a great way to not get sequels. She is a little regretful of having to lock Julian away and felt like the world might be a little poorer without him. Considering he’s a psycho fey who’s been stalking her since she was a little girl and kidnapped her to force her to marry him, I’m okay with being that kind of poorer.
For some stupid reason they’re going to call the cops and confess what actually happened to Summer. Because that sounds like a great idea.
Jenny found out that Tom’s worst nightmare was losing Jenny. He pulled out his own slip of paper for her to see and finally admitted he’s been kind of a shit in their relationship. And because Jenny’s a dolt she’s fine with it.
While everyone was recovering someone broke in through the slider (because that’s the thinnest glass to break in the whole house) and stole the Game. Of all the way to continue the story on, this is probably the dumbest. It was the two thugs who stalked Jenny when she went to the store and they claim they just couldn’t get it out of their minds after seeing it. So they stole it and the book ends on them cutting it open. Seriously. Couldn’t think of anything else?
Jenny thought it’s useless anyway because the Game was made specifically for her. Except Julian did mention early on that others have played and failed at the Game. She was just the only one to actually beat Jareth, I mean Julian. So this is set up all clunky-like for book two.
I do like Smith’s writing style and her brutality with what’s going on with the characters. She’s very unapologetic when it comes to putting them through the wringer and I totally have an appreciation for that. But she overuses really odd descriptions and I’m not sure about her character development. Tom’s a twat, Michael’s useless, Dee’s the token black girl who’s always ready to throw down, Audrey’s the priss, and Jenny’s house is a den of cultural appropriation. Better characters than I’ve seen in other 90s YA horror I’ve read but considering how the rest of the book was written I expected more out of the characters. It just felt like she had her points she wanted to make and her focus was on those points and everything else fell by the wayside.
And the ending. Ugh. Seriously, there are so many other ways in which to get that game back out into the world. Jenny could have dumped it in the trash can outside and the two men could have fished it out without running cartoon-style into the slider to get it.
Ultimately, though, Smith wrote a good story with a hell of a world that’s only nominally influenced by Labyrinth. If you don’t get Jareth feels form Julian then we didn’t watch the same movie. With that being said, I genuinely wonder where book two goes. Imagine nowhere good in [hopefully] the best of ways.
[Wing: While sliding glass doors can be broken into (a lot of them, at least back then, would have been tempered glass, which is weak at the edges), this is one of the most ridiculous ways to get the game back out into the world. Anything would have been better, including them burning it up and it appearing somewhere else because it can’t be destroyed.]