YA Book Club: Christopher Pike’s ‘Die Softly’
This is one of the Pike books that has stuck in my mind, more than 20 years after I first read it because of its ending. Before we get to that, I feel like I should explain the process of writing these posts, which is a true labor of love.
See, every week I revisit a YA book because a lot of what I read was trash back then, and since I love to read trash now, it’s the perfect blend of nostalgia and well, trash. Here’s the thing though, I am chronically overestimating the amount of time I have to do anything. So what ends up happening is that I will select a title to cover the proceeding week on a Thursday, and then 1) forget that I have to read the book until about Sunday night, and then 2) procrastinate reading said book until about Wednesday evening, when invariably I run out of time, fall asleep watching Hoarders on my couch, wake up in the middle of the night and set an alarm for 6 am to read said book, and then write it up. This is a process I repeat like clockwork, and despite not having a lot of room for error, works for me. That is, up until this dumb book because here I am, just having finished read it, and I honestly can’t figure out if it’s a trash masterpiece, or just trash.
I have a clear memory of first reading this, as I was in Junior High, and participated in this glorious elective at my school called CADFY. What is CADFY you might ask? Well, friends, it’s an acronym that stands for “Caring About Drug-Free Youth.” Basically it was a sketch troupe at my school where we put on anti-drug and alcohol sketches for the rest of the school and the greater community. Our big finale was a silent dance set to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I kid you not. I think it’s kind of a thing, or at least was, because I found multiple examples of it on YouTube.
Now, this may sound un-cool to you, but you’re not thinking big picture here. It was basically the only elective at my school that meant you were all but guaranteed an easy A, and way more importantly, you were hardly ever in class but always on “the road,” which really meant going to elementary schools and senior centers (they liked to know the youths were staying drug-free, I guess?) Which brings me to “Die Softly” which I picked up in my Jr. High library and read during a CADFY all-day summit at said library. I have no idea why I was afforded that luxury, my distinct memory is that I just hung out in a corner and read, while everyone else milled around, too. Now you see why CADFY was so great, don’t you?
There’s also a certain irony that’s not lost on me now, that I read a book where the protagonist dies because he’s forced to inhale cocaine, while I was hanging out with my drug-free middle school group. Yes, friends, “Die Softly” is that book—and I have never forgotten the ending, because it rocked my 13-year old self’s world. I’m pretty sure, up until that point, I had never seen “the good guy” die before the end of the book. Upon re-read, “the good guy” is actually a sexual abuser, so I kind of feel he had it coming. Since this is a fictional teen horror book, who cares if the main guy dies?
I’m getting ahead of myself, let me back track.
“Die Softly” is about Herb Trasker, an 18-year old high school student who works at the local VCR manufacturing plant in northern California. He is a self-described loser, and a virgin and his life is headed nowhere, fast. That is until one day, his friend Sammie tells him he should sneak into the girl’s locker room and set up a camera in order to take pictures of the cheerleaders showering, so he does.
So, we have to stop for a second and contextualize this. 1991, when the book was written, was not so far removed from all those teenage sex-comedies of the ’80s. You know the ones, where Betsy Russell, the patron saint of teen sexploitation comedies, would ride a horse topless, and the boys would frequently somehow sneak into the girls locker room to watch said teens erotically shower, soaping each other up, and giggling. I read this book, 6 years later, in 1997/98, right about the time Monica Lewinsky was being called a slut, a lot, on the nightly news. This all seemed normal to me, then because it was presented as normal to us…by the men who made this media.
Friends, it’s 2019, now, and I was disgusted by the entire premise of what our “good guy” Herb does. Furthermore, it really bummed me out for my 13-year old self, and all the other 13-year old girls (who, let’s be honest, made up the vast majority of Pike’s readership) that such a gross violation and form of sexual violence could be normalized and used as the damn plot point that kicks off all the action in the story. In the book, it’s called “perverted” not “felonious.” In fact, a grown man who is a cop, no less, tells our boy Herb that can’t blame him for doing it.
I still can’t quite wrap my head around the entire thing, but I know in my soul that s*it like this is what conditions girls to feel like the violence they face every day is normal. One of the things I’ve had to come to terms with as I get older is that even though I have always viewed myself as a person in charge of her own body, and autonomy (even at 13) on some level, I always accepted the status quo set out for me. That I had to reactively fight for, rather than proactive take, what should be mine. This dumb book, in a small way, conditioned me to operate within the framework. It’s a bit of a mindf*ck to clearly see that 20+ years later upon a re-read.
Anyway, this is basically why I’m still confused whether this is so dumb it’s a trashy masterpiece, or if it’s just garbage. Because what happens next is so dumb, it’s great.
So sh*tbag Herb sets up the cameras because he’s a piece of sh*t, in order to capture the cheerleaders naked in the shower. There’s a twist, though, friends—see, before he can go back to school the following evening to retrieve said camera, Lisa, one of the head cheerleaders, dies in a fiery car crash after driving her car off a cliff. The same cliff where a year previously, Herb’s friend, and his best friend Theo’s brother, Roger, died in the same manner. Herb is first to discover the wreck, but others soon arrive on the scene including sexy cheerleader Alexa, Lisa’s best friend, and Sammie, who is there for reasons unknown.
That throws Herb off a bit because Alexa asks Herb to take her to the police station to await Lisa’s autopsy results. Sammie follows them to the station, I guess because it’s Friday night and there’s nothing else to do in town?
Anyway, after hanging out at the police station for hours and getting no answers, Herb has Sammie drive Alexa home, so he can go get his pictures. He retrieves them, and Pike spends about 5 pages walking us through the development process, which was incredibly boring and clearly there to justify to the IRS, should he ever be audited, that the thousands of dollars he spent on camera equipment was “research” for this book.
What’s on the film? If you guessed murder you’d be right, but also, naked pictures because why not? Let’s have a grown man describe a naked teenager’s body to his primarily female audience. That sounds like a fun and normal thing to do. Yes, friends, Herb catches Lisa naked in the shower, and in the last frame, Alexa approaching Lisa with a bat, as if to strike her. What happens next is basically 150 pages of Herb running in to the same 4 people over the course of the night, and it’s kind of confusing so let’s just skip to the end, which is also confusing, but will save us time.
All you need to know before we skip ahead is that Alexa has a boyfriend named Stephen, and it was his car Lisa was driving when she died; and to remember that Herb has a friend named Theo, and it was his brother (Roger) who was killed a year ago. Additionally, everyone knows there are photos of the murder, and they all want them.
OK, so everything comes to a head when Alexa and Herb are back at the gorge, hours later. because they’re supposed to meet Sammie to discuss the photos Herb took. Only, they decide to hide a bit away from the designated meeting point and see what Sammie does. That’s a good plan because Stephen shows up, angry, accusing Sammie of killing Roger a year ago. Sammie admits it was her, but shoots Stephen after he tries to stab her with a knife. Then, Sammie is shot by an unknown assailant, and falls into the gorge, getting impaled on the wreckage of Lisa’s car (because it’s still there, she had only died about 6 hours ago…)
Alexa goes to cradle Stephen’s body, and Herb goes to find out who the sniper is. Guess what? It’s Theo. He shot Sammie for killing his brother. He returns to Alexa and she insists they go down to the bottom of the gorge to make sure Sammie is really dead.
It’s all over now. Or is it?
It’s not over.
Cut to later that day. Herb has been speaking to a police seargant on the phone, telling him everything he knew from the night before. The cop wants him to come in to the station, but Herb refuses. He has a friend coming over later, see?
He gets off the phone to find out that his mom has gone to speak to the police, because good parents most definitely leave their children alone after they were a witness to a double homicide not 4 hours before.
Herb suspects Alexa might have a role in all these murders going around, so he relies on his pervy instincts and sets up a camera in his bedroom to take pictures at 5-minute intervals.
Alexa comes over, and Herb agrees to let her tie him up in his bed. He’s a sad, pathetic type of creep who genuinely believes that even though Alexa might be a murderer, sex with her might still be an option and he thinks being tied up is a precursor to that. I’m not kidding.
So now that Herb is tied up, he lets Alexa know that he knows she played some role in the murders from last night. I guess that is his version of foreplay?! Alexa, having this doofus tied up, sees no reason not to tell him everything. So here we go:
Alexa and Lisa were massively in to coke, and recruited dudes to go steal sh*it for them to fuel their habit. In return, the guys got to have sex with both teenagers, and get a lot of coke. Fun fact, Christopher Pike was about 36 when this book was published, but I digress. So, Roger, the dead brother, was one such guy. Stephen was another, but he came along after Roger died. Roger, though, was a “good guy” (Alexa’s words) so one day, all the sexin’ and stealin’ caught up to his conscience and he said he wanted out. So, the girls tied him up to a tree, put duct tape over his mouth, and forced him to inhale cocaine via his nostrils because they’re sociopaths, I guess. Well, that only made Roger mad, and gave him super strength. So, he was able to rip himself free of the ropes that tied him, and he came after Lisa and Alexa. Naturally, Lisa and Alexa jumped into a car to get away from Roger, who was hot on their tail with his own car. This is where Sammie comes in. She just happens to be driving on the road coming in the other direction. Lisa/Alexa see her, and drive in to a ditch, which sends Sammie’s car into an uncontrolled spin, ultimately stopping the car in both lanes of traffic. Roger comes speeding down the road, sees a car stopped in the middle of both lanes, drives straight off the cliff so as to not collide with Sammie’s car.
Somehow Lisa and Alexa convince Sammie she caused the accident and all three girls agree to keep the secret. This is why Sammie admits she killed Roger, to Stephen.
Cut to the following year. Lisa tries to kill Alexa with some bad cocaine that was laced with strychnine, basically because both those girls are bitches, and that’s how bitches in this book deal with confrontation. So Alexa decides Lisa has to die. Alexa recruits Sammie into this plan, because she tells her that Lisa is planning to go to the cops and tell them Sammie killed Roger. So they decide to kill Lisa while she’s in the shower after cheerleading practice—only Sammie doesn’t trust Alexa, so she convinces Herb to take pictures of the cheerleaders naked in the shower to ensure that the murder is caught on camera, and oh my god, it’s all OK you guys since Herb actually took pictures of the murder! Crisis of conscience resolved! Not.
We’re not done yet (aren’t you glad I skipped the 150 pages of driving and running in to people?)
Now Alexa has to get rid of Sammie, because she knows Sammie is up to something, and Stephen, because she’s bored of him. So basically she had given Sammie a gun earlier in the day, to help with the Lisa murder, only she had one bullet in the chamber and the rest were blanks. She has Stephen come meet Sammie at the gorge, and somehow Theo is there, too (to take care of Sammie) and I only finished this book an hour ago and I can’t remember how Theo got there, the plot is that messy.
So Alexa knew Stephen was going to threaten Sammie with a knife, but she told Stephen not to be afraid of Sammie’s gun since it was supposed to be filled with all blanks. But Sammie shoots Stephen with the one real bullet and he dies. Alexa takes his knife, to make it look like Sammie was unhinged, and Theo takes out Sammie for killing his brother. We’re not done yet. Then Alexa and Herb hike down to the gorge to check that Sammie is really dead, only the true purpose of that was to retrieve the blanks from her gun.
Cut to Herb’s bedroom. Alexa is a bit bummed out that she has to get Herb’s blood on his nice shirt, and that’s when Herb realizes he’s in deep s*it. Yup. Alexa pulls her signature move on Herb. Duct tapes his mouth and forces him to snort the cocaine laced with strychnine. Herb dies. Bye Herb, you sucked and died because you were too dumb and horny to live.
There’s an epilogue, though. See, somehow the cops find Herb’s camera, and develop the film on it. He was able to capture Alexa murdering him, and the book ends with her being arrested.
…so you can see why I’m conflicted about this one, yes? It’s so messy, dumb, and with a high body count that it should rank among Pike’s best. Yet, the amount of needless sexual violence against the female characters, specifically, makes me also hate it. I left out the whole subplot about Alexa heavily implying that her father sexually abused her, so she somehow got revenge on him, resulting in him being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
I think had a woman written this, we still would have gotten the trashy mess of the plot, but we could have had a much better execution of it, so I guess that’s ultimately my thoughts on this one.
Next week, I’m dropping the unofficial theme of “cocaine is bad” that we’ve had for the past few entries, and going back to one of my favorite YA books of all time” Lois Lowry’s “A Summer to Die” which up until just now, I thought Judy Blume had written. Until next time, friends.
Header Image Source: Archway Paperback
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