I’m not sure how many times I have read this book. At least twice: once as a teenager, and once yesterday. It may have been more; I don’t know. I’ve read and reread all or most of Christopher Pike’s books. My memories of them are an amalgamation of witchy teen sex and murder, compiled mostly during that hazy unformed lump of time between the ages of 13 and 16. I was a boring kid, so in between tearing out pages of Thrasher mag for my “inspiration” binders (I didn’t skate, like at all) and stickering my closet door with ska band logos, I stayed up ‘til 4am on humid summer nights devouring Christopher Pike books. All books really, but there was something about his I couldn’t get enough of. I liked R.L. Stine too, that other ‘90s YA horror genre giant, but it wasn’t the same. Those were just stories to me, part of the never-ending stream of words I shoved into my gullet.
Pike books stand apart for me, and The Midnight Club stands apart even among its brethren. These last few months I have been reading some great authors, classic works, ones that are currently standing the brutal tests of time. And yet—I haven’t felt anything. Not a goddamn thing. Granted, life has been hard lately. It’s easier to sit around mainlining television than forcing my beleaguered mind to focus on those words I used to live for, and to live on. I picked up The Midnight Club because it would be easy. I needed easy. Instead, within the first five pages (smelling like humid summer nights, smelling like youth) it all stirred, all of it, and I laid awake reading way past the (ungodly at my age) witching hour, moved to near tears.
I’m suffering today for it; but also I’m not.
“Rotterdam Home, a hospice where teenagers with terminal illnesses went to die, was home to the Midnight Club—a group of five young men and women who met at midnight and told stories of intrigue and horror. One night they made a pact that the first of them to die would make every effort to contact the others . . . from beyond the grave.”
It’s interesting that the summary encapsulates the basic plot of the book in all of its simple absurdity, yet in trying to promote its magic, completely fails to describe said magic.
As a kid, this simple story got to me. As an adult, it’s still simple…but yet not. How do I describe this? I feel like Pike is touched. I think he was chosen (or something less corny, please bear with me) to transmit certain ideas or concepts. This could be me falling prey to the spiritual, otherworldly messages he slips in most of his novels; it’s more than that though. He takes these morbid scenarios and creates something complex, universal. Simple enough for a child, deep and touching enough to inspire that same child as an adult. He never condescends to his intended audience or cleans things up; The Midnight Club is full of messy feelings, tough situations, death, sex, love, despair, hope.
Ilonka Pawluk is a gravely ill teen. She and her similarly sick friends Anya, Spence, Kevin, and Sandra tell stories to each other every night as they wait for death. Their young bodies should be vital, healthy, in the full flush of youth; instead they are emaciated, riddled with abdominal tumors the size of oranges, with amputated limbs and sores on once-smooth skin. Ilonka and her friends can barely walk some days and survive off drug cocktails, but they still make it to their nightly gathering of the Midnight Club. The stories they tell are reflective of their sicknesses and mental states. Spence always goes gory: his tales are violent and bloody. Anya’s are bleak, philosophical, existential, and somewhat cruel. Sandra has yet to tell a story, begging off due to lack of imagination. Kevin, the most creative of the bunch, spins a multiple-part love story, and Ilonka details clear memories from her past lives. The stories are so Pike: plain yet effective language, tales within the tale. There is meaning within them if you look, but it’s unnecessary and even distracting to do so. Just enjoy them. (Or be annoyed, as they sometimes interrupt the flow of the broader story.)
But what is the broader story? Pick it apart and it’s the barest of bones: the kids have cancer, they tell stories at midnight, they are friends and some have feelings for each other. Then most of them die. And yet.
There is fated love. There is letting yourself melt back into the universe that birthed you. There is painful regret for things you have done, and all you’ll never experience. There is the calming of tortured souls. The hating of oneself, and the all-encompassing love you can allow yourself to feel only if you don’t expect anything back. There are no hidden messages; it’s all laid out in plain view, easily flowing page by airy-light (despite the heaviness) page in sticky sweet New Age-y language. And burrows under your skin somewhere, if you let it.
I just love this tale. Ilonka and Kevin—their feelings are real to me.
A note on my copy: I think it’s the original release from 1994. There used to be a tiny used bookstore in a strip mall off my street called Canterbury Tales. These little paperbacks were a quarter each—I used to go every single day in the summer and get a new one: Pikes, Agatha Christies, a ton of R.L. Stine too. The Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High. I don’t remember the rest. I’d lounge on the hot splintery wood of the deck around our backyard pool, devouring them until the sun turned into shade, my grandmother hollering at me to come inside and do housework like a good Greek girl. To stop tanning, that I looked like a peasant. The pages of The Midnight Club still have water stains and random bits of dried leaves stuck in the creases, though I never defiled them with pen or pencil. It seemed like sacrilege to impress my thoughts upon it, but oddly holy to let the outside world and atmosphere in. Whenever I move and someone complains about the boxes and boxes of heavy books I insist on keeping, I try to explain this to them and no one has yet to understand.
(This is reprinted from my Goodreads account; be my friend if you’re so inclined! Most of my reviews are Game of Thrones/ASOIAF related…)