Before R.L. Stine, there was Christopher Pike.
For thrill-seekers of a certain age, even if the author’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the books themselves will. Their cover art is delicious. For instance: a young blonde woman lies on the ground, presumably dead, her limbs twisted at unnatural angles. Yum! Or: a young blonde woman drives a car, with a skeleton riding shotgun! Wow! OR: an evil football player gloweringly side-eyes a young blonde woman! Hooray!
On each book cover, too, the author’s name is emblazoned above the book’s title, in much larger typeface, EMBOSSED IN NEON LASER BLOOD. Ka-pow! Christopher Pike had a “personal brand” decades before anyone had invented the phrase!
I recently purchased Pike’s 1986 young-adult thriller Chain Letter on my Nook, and I was galled—galled!—at the sheer audacity of the “updates” some hooligan copyeditor has made to the book’s original text.
No, this isn’t the first time a young-adult classic has been modernized for a new generation of readers: The Baby-Sitters Club series was actually first to be hijacked. In 2010, Lois Duncan’s 1973 I Know What You Did Last Summer suffered an identical indignity. And unabridged though the texts may yet be, even classics like Wuthering Heights have been redesigned for fresh new readers.
I did not initially notice the updates to Chain Letter—that is, not until one character, Tony, started praising his beloved “‘97 Ford.” (Confusingly, Tony later reappears in a “Ford Tempo,” a vehicle that was not manufactured after 1994. I still don’t understand whether the “Ford Tempo” is supposed to be the same car as the aforementioned “‘97 Ford,” even though it literally can’t be.)
Just before the teenagers’ car accident (Seven! Seven teens! Seven teens in a 1997 Ford Tempo!), we are told that Tony, the driver, is “swerving” as if he were playing “the video game Pole Position“ which, besides being an impotent analogy anyway, really will be lost on contemporary readers. If the copyeditor is mercilessly tweaking details, why leave in the reference to a 1982 arcade machine?
Then, in the very next sentence, Joan is “fighting” “for the switch on the tape player”—a tape player that, two paragraphs ago, WAS NOT A TAPE PLAYER AT ALL BUT, IN FACT, KIPP’S CELL PHONE.
What we have here is an ENTIRE PARAGRAPH MISSED—MISSED—BY THE EDITOR. THE RESULT IS AN INCOHERENT NARRATIVE: WHAT YEAR IS THIS? WHERE ARE WE?? OUR YOUNG READERS ARE NOW HURTLING, UNTETHERED, THROUGH SPACE AND TIME.
The updated text also struggles to account for the invention of cell phones; these attempts, too, are inconsistent.
Here’s an example. In a protracted scene that reads like the first half-hour of Scream, Alison is home alone during a thunderstorm, and the house’s power is on the fritz. (Alison, we are told, repeatedly “restarts” a “DVD.”) After a nervewrackingly lengthy electrical blackout, Alison ventures downstairs to check the back door, only to discover the door has somehow become unlocked!
The scene is already fraught, but tension is further torqued when Alison answers the house phone, and only to the sound of shallow, “ragged” breathing. Alison intuits, correctly, that the person on the other end is her would-be murderer. Yet Alison does not hang up on her anonymous caller, for Reasons:
As long as the person was on the phone, he was somewhere else, and he couldn’t break through the door and split her like a side of beef.
Well, that isn’t actually how phones work, Alison, unless, of course, the year really is 1986.
Alison, now duly terrified, phones the police for help. But her call is instantly disconnected:
The phone was dead. The connection had not been simply interrupted. There was no dial tone, no static, nothing. And hadn’t it gone dead the second she had started talking? The police hadn’t even gotten her name.
There. End of paragraph. Alison is done for.
But then…! on the very next line, THIS EXPLANATION, which stands as its own entire, solo paragraph:
And she had no idea where she’d left her cell phone.
OOOHHHHHHHHH. NOW I SEE.
Except I don’t see, because in a universe where cell phones exist, how would keeping the killer on the line… ever guarantee… that the killer isn’t… standing… at the front door…? It’s like, why even bother with this? Why even raise the question? The text isn’t addressing plot holes; it’s inventing them.
She forced herself to think. The only way her antagonist could have called one minute and cut the line the next was by being at one of the places where the phone company had been working installing new cables. Several times, while on her daily walks, she had passed the gray electrical boxes and noticed the numerous
THIS ENTIRE PASSAGE NO LONGER MAKES A LICK OF SENSE, AND IT’S ALL BECAUSE THE COPYEDITOR SNEAKED IN A SENTENCE ABOUT CELL PHONES.
There are at least ten episodes of Seinfeld that would unravel, were the characters to carry mobile phones. Meanwhile, slasher movies like Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls only make sense, plotwise, with landlines.
Therefore, in translating the events of Chain Letter from 1986 to “now-ish,” the narrator must constantly stop the action to assert mobile technology’s absence: “Plus, Tony’s cell phone battery was dead”; “Alison probably dropped her cell phone in the bathtub”; “Joan’s cell phone was on Mars.”
The “modernized” Chain Letter text particularly stumbles anytime it attempts to update pop culture references. In one scene, virginal Alison—in the bathtub, fantasizing about her new boyfriend Tony—imagines how she might give him physical pleasure:
…[S]he closed her eyes and thought of how when she was a rich and famous actress, she would have a Jacuzzi installed in her Beverly Hills mansion where she could entertain Tony in the way she had seen on Real Housewives.
Quite apart from the hope that no 18-year old pick up her lovemaking tricks from Real Housewives, it’s doubtful—though I could be wrong!—the under-30 set is fans of the show anyway. On top of that, though, Real Housewives will not last forever: Instead of updating the text, the reference actually dates the story further, gives the text an even shorter shelf life.
The revised text of Chain Letter also attempts to update name-drops of 1980s sex symbols, with outright bizarre results. As one character tells it,
“[Fran is] not the girl I thought she was. Did you know she once painted a nude poster of Brad Pitt?”
This mention of Naked Brad Pitt is actually the story’s second invocation: Both times it embarrasses Fran, who is secretly a lovable freak, and both times it seems weirdly tone-deaf. Yes, Brad Pitt is a good-looking man; he’s also, at present, 50 years old. Are teens even interested in Brad Pitt anymore? It just doesn’t ring true.
Meanwhile, in the original text, Fran apparently painted nude David Bowie, which is a comparatively weird and edgy undertaking (I assume it was Ziggy-era Bowie). It also seems more like something a burgeoning art student would still do, even now.
In all truth, I’m disturbed by the very idea of modernizing books for children and young adults—not because I don’t believe this could be done well, because I’m sure it can. But where does this trend stop? Do we update Louis Sachar’s books? Jerry Spinelli’s? Do we update Newbery winners? Caldecott winners? Mark Twain?
We’re treating children’s books as if they were houses with dated appliances and fixtures and peeling wallpaper, in desperate need of renovation. We’re treating children’s books like interior design projects. But books are not houses, and these little tweaks and adjustments aren’t harmless. When we “modernize” literature—yes, even the trashy stuff—we’re diminishing the original works. We’re saying we don’t trust the original authors to make the “right” decisions. We’re saying the books need “fixing” because they weren’t “timeless” enough the first time around.
And even if those books aren’t “timeless,” why should we want them to be? Contrary to widespread belief, Harriet the Spy isn’t timeless at all: It’s absolutely a product of a specific place and time. It reads like 1964, and it’s the better for it. The same goes for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), The Outsiders (1967), Weetzie Bat (1989), or Girl (1994). These aren’t books that necessarily need “freshening up”; they’re historical documents. They stand the test of time precisely because they’re time capsules.
But this constant revisionism also does a disservice to young people. Because, if you change the text for the reader’s benefit—and young people can tell that you’re doing this, they’re keyed into that type of thing—it really only reads as condescension.
Adults would do well to remember that, the younger the reader, the more imaginative the reader. A story won’t lose its immediacy just because it mentions landlines and David Bowie, same as a historical novel doesn’t lose immediacy for mentioning corsets or bodice-ripping, same as a fantasy doesn’t lose steam for mentioning dragons.
The kids are all right. The kids can handle it.
…EVEN WITHOUT THEIR CELL PHONES!!!!!!!