Christopher Pike knows his way around death, but how the author approaches the act of mortality in The Midnight Club is unique, even for him. In spite of the foreboding blurb and Brian Kotzky‘s creepy artwork, this 1994 book isn’t about young people dying at the hands of an external threat. Here death comes from within; the main characters are killed by maladies, not maledictions or madmen. With the setting being a hospice, the outcome is known from the start. Yet how it all plays out is unpredictable.
I belong to you. Each session of The Midnight Club opened with a chorus of this phrase before the storytelling commenced. As the other ailing patients of Rotterham Hospice slept, five close-knit teenagers gathered and swapped original tales until their creative wells ran dry or their bodies gave out. These spoken stories were an expression of their deepest fears, greatest regrets and last wishes. For Ilonka, Anya, Kevin, Spence and Sandra all shared the same fate; they wouldn’t be leaving this place alive. And until their last dying breath, they belonged only to each other and The Midnight Club.
Numbed by a steady intake of hard narcotics, and frequently reminded of their impermanence, the characters who called themselves The Midnight Club spent their last few weeks on Earth succumbing to fantasy. Nothing they created for these nocturnal meetings is exactly of the horror variety, though. Ilonka and her friends already had reality to be scared of — they saw no need to further scare themselves. So in place of fabricated frights, the five found amusement in an assortment of dramatic, humorous or just plain wild tales. This story-within-a-story aspect is something Pike’s other death-centric novel Road to Nowhere has in common with The Midnight Club.
Though it may seem like readers don’t spend enough quality time with the characters outside of group scenes, their Midnight Club submissions say a lot about them. Their pent-up feelings and anxieties were all over the stories they shared. Some details had obvious real-life inspirations, whereas others were more cryptic. Despite how close they were to the end, Ilonka and her fellow Midnighters were still hiding truths from not only each other but also themselves. These tales acted as catharses, as well as prepared them for what’s to come.
He belongs to us now. We’re the only friends he really has, the only ones who understand what he is going through.
For Anya Zimmerman, whose bone cancer led to a leg amputation, she didn’t believe she deserved to be happy. She sabotaged the good things in her life, and she punished herself over her desires. Anya’s one and only story “The Devil and Dana” featured a teenage girl not unlike herself, who made a misguided deal with the devil. Ultimately, Anya’s offering is in hindsight a goodbye note passed off as a darkly funny yarn. Although “The Devil and Dana” has nothing on Anya’s confession about Bill, the ex she wronged and never apologized to. That candid admission has some sting to it, but thankfully Pike neither leaves loose ends nor robs Anya of her chance at forgiveness.
The somewhat strait-laced member of the club was none other than Sandra Cross, who never shared a bonafide story of her own. The closest she came was a short and slurred anecdote about how she lost her virginity to a random guy in a park. While Sandra promised a “masterpiece was [on the] way,” she never got to tell it after receiving a second lease on life; it turns out that her type of Hodgkin’s wasn’t fatal. As Ilonka spoke to Sandra on the phone later on, she realized Sandra never fully participated because she “never really belonged.” The Midnight Club was, after all, “only for the dying.”
As explained early on, Rotterham “was not a happy home for the rich and healthy, but a sad place for the young and poor.” Kevin, on the other hand, was from a wealthy family. His parents could have sent him to the finest hospice available, yet Kevin came to a place that received most of its patients from state hospitals. The former track star with a talent for painting was now barely able to walk after another (and final) bout of leukemia. As sick as he was, though, Kevin was kind and sensitive till the end. He didn’t even have it in him to tell his on-and-off girlfriend Kathy the cold-hearted truth about hospices; Ilonka spared him that trouble, though she did so for her own selfish reason.
Kevin’s romantic nature came out in full bloom with The Midnight Club’s longest tale, “The Magic Mirror”. Physical fatigue prevented him from finishing the life and trials of Herme the Muse, even after two meetings. It was only when Kevin had an intimate one-on-one talk with Ilonka did he give his characters closure, and Ilonka the satisfaction of knowing his story was about how much he loved her. Kevin took the long way getting there, but Herme’s heart-rending saga is worthwhile.
“It’s all right. You don’t have to be ashamed.”
Spencer “Spence” Haywood tended to go first at each meeting, mainly because everyone wanted to get his violent and theatrical contributions out of the way. Routinely the butt of jokes, Spence tolerated the others’ jeers as he recounted two vicious epics; “Eddie Takes a Step Out” saw a severely scarred Vietnam War vet pumping strangers full of lead from his perch on the Eiffel Tower, while “Sidney Burns Down His School” showcased an outsider getting back at his classmates. These two stories have a distinct theme of rage against society to them, and after some coaxing from Ilonka, Spence acknowledged he was gay and he was at Rotterham for AIDS, not brain tumors. It was practically unheard of to see a YA book broach the subject of AIDS and homosexuality around this time, much less be sympathetic. This crucial and affecting moment between Ilonka and Spence was as important then as it is today.
Ilonka Pawluk, the Polish American teen whose biggest regrets included never having a boyfriend, insisted her stomach tumors were shrinking. (They weren’t.) Of everyone in The Midnight Club, she was in the most denial of death, and her vivid accounts of supposed past lives were how she comforted herself about the great unknown. What is there to be afraid of so long as there’s reincarnation, Ilonka figured. She wasn’t alone in fearing there might be nothing waiting for them once they all died; they all formed a pact declaring the first to go would make contact with the others “from beyond the grave.” This morbid promise, along with a certain miracle only she witnessed, are what helped Ilonka finally make peace with her mortality.
Other stories have been known to personify death; they turn it into a calculating killer of sorts, stalking its prey like any other blatant villain in the horror genre. In contrast, death here is entirely neutral, not to mention a necessary, unavoidable and often untimely part of life. Pike exerts his abilities as a writer to make that tough pill a bit easier to swallow, and the results are eerily reassuring and achingly beautiful in equal amounts. The Midnight Club certainly doesn’t deliver overt or traditional horror, but deliberating “the horror of nonexistence” at length can be just as frightening, if not more so.
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.