Small Evils: ’80s Horror Books ‘The Doll’ and ‘The Haunted Dollhouse’ [Buried in a Book]

Had it not already been taken, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” would have been a better title for Michael August’s second volume in the Scream series. Instead, this 1994 book borrows the name of a relatively obscure 1980 slasher movie, New Year’s Evil, but it hardly has any slashing. August (real name: Sidney Williams) wrote a new spin on an old tale; the new kid in town wants to make friends. However, Charisse Bienville has less conventional methods for getting recognized and moving up the social ladder. As she offers four classmates a solution to their shared problem, Charisse also invites them into a world of black magic.

Despite its title, New Year’s Evil largely takes place around Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s not until the end of the last act when the characters go to a foreboding New Year’s party. In the meantime, Tess Ryan frets about the ritual she and her four friends participated in before Thanksgiving. Tired of the school’s number-one outlier, Bran Hatten, menacing them and everyone else, Tess, Casey, S.W. and Nathan all enlist the mystical aid of the new transfer student from New Orleans. “I’ll help you,” Charisse Bienville gladly offered.

Bran deserves his bad reputation. When he’s not threatening the girls who turn him down, he’s beating up the guys who he feels intellectually or socially threatened by. It’s his way of coping with a bad home situation. But did he deserve whatever happened in that basement? Some black candles, the group’s wishes written down on paper, and a few pricks of blood were all it took to curse Bran. Although, he wasn’t hexed in the way Tess and her friends were expecting. The weirdness only starts right before Christmas as Bran experiences the loss of control over his own body. He unknowingly writes arcane symbols on the classroom chalkboard rather than an algebra equation, he jumps into a mall fountain, and an invisible force prevents him from whaling on Nathan. It’s not long before Bran thinks someone is controlling him.

Tess shuddered as she considered what was about to happen. Charisse had promised that Bran soon wouldn’t be bothering anybody ever again.

As Tess suspects Charisse to be an evil witch, Charisse realizes she has to get rid of Tess. The Bienville sorceress first reduces her enemy’s numbers; Charisse usurps Tess’ best friend, S.W., by preying on her low self-esteem. In addition, Charisse cuts the remaining heroes down to two after she psychically commands Bran to kill Nathan, coincidentally after he discovers a solution on the internet. As if losing two allies wasn’t enough, Tess then comes down with septicemia after being attacked by S.W.’s recently adopted black cat (and Charisse’s familiar).

Christmas break soon comes along, and only Tess and Casey are left to deal with the growing problem no one but them knows about. Charisse’s coven expands with the addition of the most popular girl in Pembrook High School, Nancy Gibson, and it’s during another of Nancy’s renowned Christmas parties that Charisse not only gains more followers, but she also saves the day when she saves Tess from a rampaging Bran. Of course, this is after Charisse sicced her lapdog on Tess in the first place.

Usually in these kinds of stories, one trip to the local library is enough to solve the mystery, but in New Year’s Evil, the heroes are thwarted by snail mail. The textbook on witches that Tess and Casey requested from another library is still en route as Charisse puts the finishing touches on her master plan; she, S.W., and their cohorts are hosting a big New Year’s Eve blowout at Charisse’s house. Once the book does arrive, though, it practically confirms that Charisse is descended from a coven of witches who moved to the Louisiana badlands during the Louisiana Purchase, and she is the lone survivor of a witch massacre. Tess and Casey subsequently visit an academic writing a book on witches, Felice Wharton, but other than casting doubt on the main characters’ findings and hypotheses, she doesn’t add much to the story and is never heard from again.

When it feels like New Year’s Evil has gotten off track, Tess and Casey finally step into the dragon’s den. There’s little time for partying before Bran chops off some random guy’s head with an ax, and Charisse corrals everyone who refuses to join her coven. The big showdown entails Tess and Casey nearly becoming human sacrifices, and working out a way to combine three different elements — fire, water, earth — in order to defeat Charisse. A collapsed water tower, a lot of mud, and some handy matches all play a part in the explosive finale.

Now they were about to take the final steps toward — did she even dare imagine it — black magic.

New Year’s Evil was published in a decade where witches were no longer frightening vestiges of old worlds and superstitions. Everyone, from Disney to the WB, had started to embrace (and commercialize) witches. Some even saw them as relatable. This book also predates The Craft by two years, which was responsible for teens forming their own covens, dressing in full black, and buying “spellbooks.” It was all pretend and simply another form of socializing, after all, but alongside the younger generation’s sudden espousal of witchcraft were those who vocally opposed it. New Year’s Evil seems inspired by said moral panic, but August is sure to mention the existence of white as well black magic.

As in many narratives about witches, white and black magic coexist. Charisse, whose soul soured after her original coven was slaughtered by duplicitous outlaws, adopted serious black arts “with an eye toward malevolent sorcery, the kind that gave witches a bad name.” Charisse ultimately targeted Tess because she recognized her to be a potential white witch only after they performed the spell on Bran. And it was the unaware Tess whose burgeoning magic was influencing Bran to cease his bullying, however her attempts were meager in comparison to someone as experienced as Charisse. Tess’ soul is also the purest of the group, so if anyone was going to be sacrificed on New Year’s Eve, a time of great “cosmic alignment,” it had to be Tess. 

For the majority of New Year’s Evil, Tess was wary of magic like anyone her age, in her location, and of her social standing might be in 1994. She was raised to be scared of witches, or rather what they represent: the unknown. At one point she suggested bringing in a priest to deal with Charisse, thinking that’s the only way to fight this other belief system. It’s only when Tess incidentally studied the history of witches did she get a better understanding. Yes, one black magician had set out to destroy her, but Tess eventually knew Charisse is the exception, not the rule. Not all witches are dangerous. And once she acknowledged witchcraft as something that can be benevolent, Tess was able to defeat not only Charisse, but also her own ignorance. Learning about and, most importantly, accepting another culture is what really saved Tess in the end.

There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.

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