Almost a year after Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday sent the infamous Mr. Voorhees into the not-so-sweet hereafter, the third book in Berkley’s Camp Crystal Lake series was published. At the time, it wasn’t clear when Jason would be back on the big screen, but his story continued in random books (not novelizations) and comics until the kinks in a long-delayed crossover movie — eventually Freddy vs. Jason — could be worked out. However, the problem fans had with Goes to Hell could also be an issue with Eric Morse’s quadrilogy.
In The Carnival, Morse (real name William Pattison) delivers another tale about Jason Voorhees’ legacy. This 1994 young-adult novel centers around the sketchy, traveling carnival set up near Crystal Lake. Rather than this being another take on the “evil carnies” idea, though, the carnival itself becomes plagued by otherworldly forces grown in Jason’s absence. These self-contained stories all play up the supernatural vibe of the Friday the 13th universe, something that’s not always been so blatantly said in the movies.
In this series, Pamela Voorhees’ massacre is a fact, yet Jason Voorhees’ carnage remains the stuff of storytelling around a late-night campfire. There are also other legends specifically about Crystal Lake itself. The protagonist of The Carnival, Maxine “Maxi” Wagner, recounts a story about the area she heard from someone else. She says Crystal Lake is “like the Devil’s gateway. That if you dig down deep enough anywhere around there, this invisible vapor starts seeping up out of the ground. The vapor turns you meaner and nastier, the longer you breathe it in.” Maxi’s friends scoff, but the Fantana Travelling Fun House and Carnival experiences the myth firsthand.
As the carnival owner, Vince Fantana, and his crew set up the rides and vendors, they all gradually succumb to the campgrounds’ unseen evil energy. Their digging unleashes the “vapors,” causing everyone to become either hostile or ill. Maybe both. For the chief mechanic, Mitch Deever, his growing uneasiness is worsened as soon as his dog finds a hockey mask nearby. Yes, that one. The same mask that now possesses anyone who wears it. This plot sounds a lot like something out of the Friday the 13th television series, had it been connected to the movies.
This hand was holding a blowtorch. Nick tried to scream, but as he opened his mouth, the searing flame went past his lips, burning, burning, burning its way right through the back of his throat.
The Carnival isn’t a typical Friday the 13th story. Jason is not only M.I.A., these books retread ideas from two of the more divisive movie entries: A New Beginning and Jason Goes to Hell. First off, someone other than Jason himself is responsible for the bloodshed. This is by no means a Roy Burns situation, though. And like the body-jumping concept from of the 1993 sequel, Jason’s evil is passed on from one person to another. The transference here is, of course, a great deal less repulsive.
So, Mitch develops an insatiable need to kill now that he’s donned the mask. His preference for teen girls is answered as well when Maxi and her two best friends flock to the carnival that fateful Fourth of July weekend. Their first stop is the fortune-teller, Selena Tokar, who’s filling in for her ill mother. Selena sees only “good things” when she reads the whole group’s fortune. Maxi, on the other hand, receives a less generalized reading; Selena picks up on Maxi’s bad relationship with her father. The soothsayer is spot on, but there’s no time for Maxi’s daddy issues as Mitch stalks her and her friends.
Something this book does that the movies didn’t do is have Jason kill children. The closest was in Jason Lives when Jason enters a cabin bunk full of young, potential fodder. It’s one of the most suspenseful moments in the entire franchise, but those tykes survive to camp another day. Here, Mitch feeds his murderous appetite with two boys from Camp Topeka. While en route to the carnival, Bernard and Nick die in brutal fashion after bumping into Mitch in the woods. Nick gets a blowtorch in the mouth, and Bernard does himself in by running straight into the high-voltage electric fence surrounding the carnival. This whole scene might not sit well with everyone, particularly if they think children are off-limits in slashers.
The core characters, including Maxi’s two romantic interests, spend most of the story collected in a group. So the real challenge is separating them in a place where people tend to stick together. All it takes is a little teen drama to get the ball rolling, and before you know it, Maxi’s friends — the devout KC and the chronically single Wendy — go off on their own and subsequently die. In the meantime, Maxi is left with the two guys fighting for her affection: a pushy classmate and a creepy professor. Morse doesn’t write any romance into this book, so don’t expect either Romeo to get very far with Maxi. Especially once Mitch kills both of her admirers in the Tunnel of Love.
The young girl lay slumped over her seat. Only her head was missing.
The increasing tension and unrest at the carnival — caused by a combination of missing people, malfunctioning rides, and the sudden and collective onset of unexplained sickness — pave the way for a exciting finale. As opposed to having the one token Final Girl face the villain, the story adds Selena to the mix; she and Maxi battle Mitch inside the House of Death. Selena comes within inches of losing her head in a guillotine before Mitch is separated from the mask. The danger isn’t over yet, though. The supernatural power coursing through the carnival somehow zombifies Mitch’s victims inside the fun house. Once lifeless statues, such as The Boston Strangler, are also brought to life.
The Carnival has a real twisted sense of humor once Maxi and Selena flee the House of Death. Selena confesses she lied about her reading from earlier; she saw death, not good things. After Maxi points out she’s alive, she’s then mauled to death by Mitch’s dog. This moment comes as a real shock considering Maxi was appointed the book’s main character from the beginning. This last-minute development instead leaves Selena as the lone survivor. As she maneuvers herself over the super-electrified fence, the hockey mask escapes the ensuing explosion inside the park and lands somewhere outside the pandemonium, waiting to find itself another host for Jason’s evil spirit.
It’s easy to dismiss the Camp Crystal Lake series, with it being aimed at teenagers. But guess what? So were the movies. And The Carnival packs a real wallop as far as mayhem goes. It’s about as violent as anything from the ‘80s era. And although she didn’t make it to the end, it was refreshing to have an unideal and loathsome character like Maxi play the part of Final Girl. Think Melissa from The New Blood, but with more depth and wit. A possible downside, namely for fans of Jason Voorhees, is he’s not in these books. Regardless, Jason’s spirit is present, greasing the wheels of this gruesomely entertaining ride.
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.