Here’s to the kids of not too long ago yesterday. Growing up, they had all kinds of options when it came to reading young adult stories about the supernatural. They had books that featured ghosts, witches, vampires and other cool and creepy things. I didn’t have Harry Potter when I was growing up, only Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H reruns.. Being that the early 80s were the dawning of my young adult years, Twilight had not yet set in (And from what I’ve heard about the series, that’s a good thing.), While adolescence was a time of strong emotions, I never got the Goosebumps over the whole thing. In order for me to get my fix of the spookies , I had to turn to – The Dark Forces! Oh no! (Ohhh yes!)
What are the Dark Forces?
The Dark Forces is a series of teen horror novels that was published by Bantam Books in the early 1980s. The series consists of roughly fifteen book written by various authors. Each book is a stand-alone story and to the best of my knowledge there are no overlaps or crossovers between books. All of them consist of supernatural tales that feature teenage protagonists who go toe-to-toe with ghosts, demons and other magical entities. The series averages about 150 pages per book. These are not timeless classics; they are not on par with one Harry Potter. While The Harry Potter novels thrilled fans of all ages, I doubt that the Dark Forces series had any following from adult readers. They just didn’t have the breadth of topics or the simple yet sophisticated kind of storytelling that went into creating the Hogwarts culture. Today these books are largely forgotten. In fact they are hard to come by,, at least when it comes to paperbacks. I’m sure some can be found on Amazon, Ebay, etc. As mediocre as they are in terms of popularity and content, I enjoyed reading them when I was thirteen. They certainly had cool looking covers. I didn’t read them all. Maybe half?
For a few years now, I had been wondering about these books. Alas, I couldn’t remember the title of the series nor any specific book title. But thanks to some references from Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction, I was able to gather enough information to conduct a search for the right, proper, and fitting book from this series. Of course, that would be a haunted house book. Did this series feature any such thing? Gosh, I didn’t know! But if it did, by golly, I was determined to find it, read it and review it. The results of this determination are toward the end of this piece. But for now, read on to learn even more about The Dark Forces series.
Going Deeper into the Dark Forces
Were things really that drastic in the early 80s that I had to succumb to “dark forces” to get my reading kicks? Was there no other reading outlet to save my precious soul? I suppose there was. There were The Hardy Boys and The Nancy Drew Mystery series, but those were already on the way out and besides, from my understanding, they were more mystery than fantasy. Maybe there was some other book series that I simply neglected. No matter because The Dark Forces worked for me. Ha ha ha ha ha! (Go back and read the “ha ha’s” with a sinister sounding laugh).
Truth be told, this series was all about warning impressionable youngsters like myself about the dangers of messing around with dark forces. If memory serves me correctly, the books I read had lessons for us , the misdirected sheep that followed those evil, soul-corrupting trends that struck like a plague back there in the early 80s. Created by evil masterminds, targeted against us – the precious children of America – such trends included role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and video games. For you see, demons were liable to take over the games and music, and that’s bad and stuff.
I’m only half joking about the things I wrote in the previous paragraph. I never had to worry about demons infesting my pastimes. And there ain’t nothing wrong with Dungeons and Dragons, video games and heavy metal music! Like anything else, so long as they are used and not misused, it’s all good. But back in them there days (early 80s), adults were worried about these sort of activities and the ill-effects they might have on their sons and daughters.
There were stories , real or fabricated I never knew, about “that one boy” that lost all touch with reality on account of his addiction to Dungeons and Dragons. I remember how freaked out a certain religious fanatic relative became when I was gifted the game at Christmas. Since the game calls for spell casting, even though it’s all make-believe, this person had real concerns about treating magic playfully. In regards to heavy metal music and rock and roll in general, certain religious leaders and politicians reacted quite unfavorably to the explicit lyrics of certain songs. They insisted that albums with such songs have warning labels. Others claimed that certain songs had “backwards, Satanic messages.” The leaders of my Sunday School youth group hauled us all off to a seminar on the Satanic influences of rock and roll. The pastor leading the seminar explained to us that backward messages come though all to clear in our subconscious. Therefore, rock music is, in effect, hypnotizing youth into worshipping Satan. He actually believed this. As far as video games go, a common concern among parents is the graphic violence that is portrayed. But in the early 80s video games were in their infancy and graphics were laughable by today’s standards. Still parents found reasons to get all in an uproar. Video games were stealing time away from homework. They were seen as addictive and, as with Dungeons and Dragons, parents worried that their children would lose touch with reality as they give themselves up to the fantasy worlds portrayed in the games.
Now, what does all this have to do with the Dark Forces series? To refresh, I had written “the books I read had lessons for us , the misdirected sheep that followed those evil, soul-corrupting trends that struck like a plague back there in the early 80s.” How so, you might be asking?
The first book of the series is The Game by Les Logan. I don’t remember reading this one, but according to some Goodreads reviews , it seems to serve as a warning against the use of Ouija boards. So kids, even though such a game is sold on the same shelf as Monopoly and Scrabble, don’t buy it! The Ashton Horror (#12 in the series) by Laurie Bridges ,is another book that I missed. But according to the synopsis on Goodreads, young Dennis gets some attention from the prettiest girl in town. She invites him to join a “fantasy game club”. No, no Dennis, fantasizing is the Devil’s work, don’t do it…Dennis? And wouldn’t you know it, the club members are trying to free an imprisoned demon. Bad club members!
I do remember owning Beat the Devil (#10 in the series) by Scott Siegel. Who could forget that cover? Anyway, Doug is an expert at arcade video games. He becomes obsessed by a game called “Beat the Devil.” This game takes precedence over the important things in his life; his school work, his girlfriend, even his own sanity. And guess who it is that is sucking away at Doug’s life? Why, it’s the Devil himself! So you see kids, even though it may be far-fetched to think that the Devil is controlling you via Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, video games can make your life “Hell” if you become addicted to them.
The book I remember the most is The Bargain (#5 in the series) by Rex Sparger. I remember the story featured a teenaged (or maybe they were in their early 20s, I don’t know) rock band called The Coastals, or something like that. Anyway, a shady promoter approaches them, m promises them fame and riches, and soon thereafter he is their manager. He convinces them to change their name to Sabbat and change to a heavy metal sound and image. I guess they had a more pop-oriented style before (I hate pop!) If you haven’t already guessed, this manager is secretly an agent of Satan. The band as, in effect, signed a contact with the Devil, but somehow they get out of it and defeat the evil forces. By the book’s end, a pastor helps the band and as it turns out, the pastor can play a mean guitar. Isn’t that precious?
So in sum, with current synopses to backup my memory, I describe these books as simple stories (easy to read) that are warning manuals in disguise. They are saturated with warnings against games and trends that are marketed as harmless pastimes when if fact they are gateways to the dangerous world of “dark forces”. Even as a teen, as I enjoyed reading these books, I became annoyed with the not-too-subtle warnings.
Now here is a question: Was each and every book of the series like this? I don’t know. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t read the series in its entirety. Alas, my impressions are largely based on memories from thirty-five years ago. Being that it has been such a long time since I had read any of these books, is it possible that my impressions are flawed, my memories imperfect? This is very possible. So I decided that I needed to read one of these books and review the material from a more current mindset. Once again, I wanted to take a trip down memory lane as I did when I reread Ghost House Revenge, as I did when I took in the various book descriptions in Paperbacks from Hell. Were there any books in the Dark Forces series that featured haunted houses? Yes, I found one. Waiting Spirits (#11 in the series) by Bruce Coville. This is not one of the books I had read as a youngster. This would be my first reading.
Would this book serve as yet another lesson about avoiding the lure of “dark forces”?
Would I feel differently reading one of these books as an adult? Are there story elements that anyone, both young and old, could enjoy? I would find out. And I did find out. You can read all about it in the following paragraphs.
A family spends a summer at a house by the beach. It’s a nice summer home, although Lisa doesn’t want to be there. She has her life back home, which includes a chance at dating a guy she likes. Before the summer’s end, she’ll find a boyfriend right there by the beach. See Lisa , now that it’s all over, wasn’t it good for you to spend the summer at that house? You found a boyfriend, You learned a lot of family history. You got possessed and tried to kill your younger sister. Good times!
Who is all in the household? Well there’s Lisa’s ten year old sister Carrie. They get along quite well. There’s mom and dad. Dad is trying to write a book, so everyone just please leave him alone. Mom just does mom stuff . Grandma is there. She is a retired professor and it is her house. She grew up in it. She’ll behave a little mysteriously now and then, so readers should watch out for her. And of course, there are some ghosts inside the house. They always help to make a summer eventful.
For a novel directed at young teens, his book is surprisingly dark. Yes I know, this is from the Dark Forces series, so wouldn’t that be a no-brainer? I guess what I mean is, yeah of course any subject matter concerning ghosts or demons is by definition “dark.” But the story doesn’t just leave the darkness to the mere presence of supernatural entities but this book. Instead it clinches it with a darkness that lurks in the backstory and manifests in the behavior of the spirits and the havoc they cause. In various places in the book, there is the death of a child, the terror of an insane ghost, and the startling repercussions of a teen possessed.
I had serious reservations at the beginning. After the prologue, Author Coville wastes no time “RUSHering” in the story. This rush is was most likely geared at teen readers that are in no mood for prolonged setups. It is raining everyday during the family’s first week at the summer home. The girls are bored out of their minds. The grandma comes to the rescue with an idea to pass the time: they should “play a game” where they can try to communicate with spirits. Grandma is referring to “automatic writing”, the process where the one with the paper and a pencil becomes a medium while the spirit will take control of the pencil and write out a message. So haphazardly Grandma suggests this and with a mere shrug, the girls and their mother agree. One their very first attempt, with Lisa acting as the medium, they make contact with a spirit. All that was needed was some kind of mundane utterance, something like, “Are there any spirits here, please respond”. This did the trick because right away, Lisa becomes temporarily possessed and the spirit uses her hand to write a message. After this, all the “game” participants had an attitude like “huh. That was weird. Oh well, what should we do next?”
Despite that weak beginning, the story does mature a bit. There is some pretty scary ghost stuff going on and the story slows down so that it can take it all in. Mind you, I’m not saying his piece is a candidate for The Pulitzer Prize of haunted house novels. It’s rather juvenile, but it’s better than I thought it would be. And guess what?? It didn’t smack me over the head with lessons and warnings. Coville, thank you for not doing that. Ironically it’s an adult that starts the trouble by initiating the automatic writing game.
Bruce Coville is a prolific children’s author with an extensive bibliography. His books are divided into several series of his own, including Magic Shop Books (five books), My Teacher is an Alien (four books), I Was a Sixth Grade Alien (twelve books), and many more (From Wikipedia). His series Bruce Coville’s Chamber of Horrors (four books) includes Waiting Spirits. Will I read any of these? Probably not. I read Waiting Spirits to experience a quick dive into the sea of Dark Forces nostalgia while adding to my collection of Haunted house book reviews. I have done this. Waiting Spirits is not a bad book, so these other Coville books probably won’t be bad either. But I’m not it’s intended audience. I was once, back when these books were published. I am not anymore. Time to move on. And besides, I’m a haunted house guy and just because these are “horror” books, it doesn’t mean that any of the remaining three feature haunted houses and….oh wait…..I now see that the second book of his “Chamber of Horrors” series Spirits and Spells does feature a haunted house. Ohhh and it seems interesting:
Trying out their new haunted house game, Spirits and Spells, in the creaky old Gulbrandsen place seemed like a cool idea to Travis, Tansy and their friends.
That was before they found out what was in the attic…and the basement…and everywhere in between.
Am I going to be sucked into yet another book meant for a young reader? We’ll see. We shall see