Frightening Females: The Women Writers Who Made Point Horror Iconic

by | Oct 27, 2021 | Article, Interview | 0 comments

Note: This interview appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Retrofied. Order the full 48-page issue in print or as a digital download today.

When you think of the seminal teen series Point Horror, R.L. Stine might immediately come to mind; or perhaps you remember the first novels published by Christopher Pike. The men of Scholastic’s famously scary series went on to have extremely successful careers, launching Pike’s pulpy standalones and Stine’s spooky Fear Street and Goosebumps. But when you peer closer at Point Horror’s many volumes, you’ll notice certain repeating names: Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Richie Tankersley Cusick, Carol Ellis, A. Bates, Lael Littke, and D.E. Athkins. The women of Point Horror dominated the series. While their names never became quite as famous as their male peers, their words kept us up all night with tales of deadly lifeguards, amusement parks gone wrong, prom dresses from Hell, and murderous stalkers in the mall. As young and impressionable readers, we probably didn’t understand that we were digesting so many defining female voices of the time. Yet looking back, their influence is undeniable.

As terrifying kids became big book business, Scholastic put out a collection in 1991 titled Thirteen, featuring 13 tales of horror from the many writers under the Point Horror umbrella. 9 of the 13 short stories in the original book were written by women—a testament to their impact and importance to the imprint. By the mid-90s, the sequel companions to Thirteen noticeably featured almost entirely male authors. Only one female writer from the Point roster, Diane Hoh, was given her own series (the eerie college-themed Nightmare Hall.) What would motivate a publisher to move away from their mostly female house of authors? Looking back at their historic contributions to the genre, Retrofied wanted to dig deeper. We reached out to writers Caroline B. Cooney, Richie Tankersley Cusick, and Auline Bates to find out what actually happened during the ’80s and ’90s teen horror paperback boom.

Q: How did you initially get involved in writing for Point Horror? What were your thoughts when you heard of a horror imprint for teens? [Note: Scholastic released teen horror titles under its Point division throughout the ’80s, but didn’t officially brand the series as Point Horror until 1991.]

CC: My horror books for Scholastic were by assignment!  I had written enough paperback original romances and series for Scholastic that my editor, Ann Reit, knew I could write “to order.”  Horror was an untried genre for YA, and YA readers at the time were younger than they are now. She requested “entry-level horror.”

AB: In all honesty, selling a book requires that you send the right manuscript to the right editor at the right time. You need to have a decent story, of course, and tell it well, but thousands of good stories get rejected every year because that particular editor didn’t see how it could fit into their current line. Since teen suspense was what I succeeded in selling, teen suspense was what I then focused on writing.

RTC:  I’ve always been interested in horror and had decided to try my hand at horror stories.  The YA market really appealed to me, because I felt that young adults were more receptive to so many experiences and emotions.  So when the series Twilight […Where Darkness Begins] came out, I bought and read the existing books in the series, and I loved them.  When I inquired about writing a book for them, they sent me a tip sheet, which basically gives you the do’s and don’ts of the kind of book they’re looking for. Thus, I wrote Evil On The Bayou, and it was published. When Twilight went out of business, I had already written another novel to send them, so my agent submitted it to Scholastic. And although they didn’t care for that manuscript, they asked if I would be interested in writing another book for them which they had titled The Lifeguard. As you can imagine, I was thrilled, and that was my first published book for Point Horror. That book ended up on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.

Q: What was your writing schedule like during that time? I know that some of you were writing many different types of genres simultaneously. Can you describe a little of your work process?

AB: I wrote longhand, with a blue Bic pen. I used loose leaf paper initially but switched to spiral notebooks when I kept scattering pages. Eventually, I learned to interact better with computers and began composing directly on the screen, but it took a while. I still find I relate better to a blank piece of paper than a blank computer screen!

When I have enough to spark a feel for the story, I start scribbling and write until I no longer know where I’m going. Then I generate and play with a few directions until something else sparks, and I start scribbling again. That pretty much describes my process. I am muse-driven, not outline-driven! I love finding out what happens, and why, as I write the story. I always know approximately how I want the book to end, but rarely how I will get there.

Book cover of 'Party Line' by A Bates, published by Point HorrorRTC:  I’ve never been able to do outlines.  I never know where my book is going to go or how it will end.  It’s strictly intuitive. I’m always surprised at the ending, and who the villain turns out to be. And I hope my readers will be just as surprised.

My work process is pretty basic. I assemble my characters. Pictures from books, magazines, social media, artist friends, etc. Naming them is a very careful process. I don’t want the reader getting characters confused or wrongly identified. I want each name and face and personality to be distinct. Also, houses feature prominently in a lot of my books. To me, houses have personalities of their own, they become characters just like the people do. So if there is an important house or building in the book, I will find a picture of the house exterior plus the floor plans. That helps me set the stage for possible scares to come. Then I tack all photos and floor plans on bulletin boards over my desk, so that I can see them at all times. It’s amazing how many possible scenes will come to mind just staring at faces and houses. Once I get the first draft finished, I print it out on yellow paper. This is where I do ruthless editing.

Q: At the beginning of the series, the majority of the books in Point Horror were authored by women. As the books gained popularity, that trend seemed to shift. Did you find being a female writer challenging in the publishing world of the ’80s and ’90s?

CC: Writing back then consisted of mailing a paper manuscript to an editor.  You were judged entirely by the content of your manuscript. Your gender did not matter and I doubt if anyone thought much about it.  Did the book serve the market in the way the editor needed?  Was it well-written and would it make Scholastic proud?  If you as a writer wanted not to reveal your sex, you had only to use initials (I could have been C. B. Cooney) or a pseudonym and I assume some people did this.

AB: The plain truth is I had no concept of being a female author, simply of being a writer. I never had experiences as a writer where I felt being a woman had any effect at all, neither in benefits nor disadvantages. However, I, and most other writers of teen suspense, did begin to encounter serious problems selling our work to publishers. The problems, as I learned, arose from a combination of what happens when you turn books into a franchise and Wal-Mart’s influence on the market.

When readers really enjoy a book, they want another one like it, and young readers, especially, want it as soon as possible. This bodes well for multiple authors in the same genre. I don’t know the figures, but the market for teen suspense supported the work of say, perhaps a dozen writers, maybe more, with each writing a book a year. But R.L. Stine pumped a ton of new titles on the market in a matter of weeks? I’m not sure how fast they came out, but it was machine-gun fast! He flooded the suspense market and took it over.

RTC: Scholastic was always very good to me. I never felt pressure to compete with other authors or to be more successful than other authors.  When my books became popular, I became good friends with R.L. Stine; we attended several conferences and signings together and always had a lot of fun sharing stories about the book world.

Q: Did you have the chance to build any relationships with the other women who wrote for Point Horror? If not, do you find that regretful?

Book cover of 'The Cheerleader' by Caroline B. CooneyCC: Remember that in those days, there was not yet email, let alone texting, Facebook, and so forth. Communication among authors was infrequent. I didn’t know or think about who the other writers were. Occasionally you were told what Author B and Author C had just written in, say, The Cheerleaders series, so that you, jumping in with another title, would not write the same plot. The plot might be chosen by the editor, but I never knew a thing about the other authors themselves.

AB: Writing is primarily a solitary activity, which suits my personality. I belonged to a writers’ group for a while (before I was published) and it was nice to be in the company of others who talked about writing issues such as sentence structure, plotting, character development, character consistency, and so on. It’s not something very many people find fascinating! But members moved away and the group fell apart. I did attend some writing seminars, which I enjoyed, but beyond that, I didn’t really interact with other writers, male or female.

RTC: Very regretful. Unfortunately, I never met any of the other women who wrote for Point.  I think it would have been fun—and inspiring—to share the joys and disappointments, all the challenges and experiences, and most of all, the writing wisdom that our craft brought to us all.

Q: Auline, you chose to go by the pen name A Bates, instead of using your first name. Was that a specific choice by you (or the publisher) to remain more appealing to a general audience?

AB: I am horrified at the thought of being a public person! I don’t want or enjoy attention. I avoid crowds and am perfectly happy being an unknown, private person. Putting my name on a book and trying to sell it was unthinkable.

Q: How much control did you have over the books that were written? Were there any themes or storylines you wanted to include in your work but were dismissed by the publisher?

AB: Party Line originally had a couple of girls die, but the editor who offered to take a second look if I rewrote it informed me that characters did not die in Scholastic, Inc. books. There were other things I had to change to meet their editorial requirements, eliminating any reference to illicit drugs or physical interaction beyond kissing, but after knowing those limits, only minor editing changes were necessary for the rest of my books.

RTC: Very little control. No control over the cover and titles. There was strict censorship, certainly not like today. And minimum blood, gore, and violence. Personally, most of my gruesome incidents took place off-screen. The way Point worked then, or at least for me, was that they gave you the general concept of the book, the length, the title, the cover. It was up to me to flesh everything out, come up with characters, scary scenes, etc., and produce the actual book.

Q: Many of the Point Horror books featured female protagonists and were marketed towards a teen girl demographic (although they have had lasting universal appeal). Did you consciously write for a female audience?

CC: Prior to the magnificent and much-to-be praised advent of the Harry Potter series, far fewer boys were reading fiction.  You were writing for girls, so it’s reasonable that plenty of the writers and most of the lead characters were also female. After Harry, boys were much more willing to dip into fiction.

AB: Having mostly female main characters was never a marketing consideration. I am female; I had three daughters—I felt most comfortable with female characters.

RTC: I probably did, though I never specifically decided that this book or that book would be exclusively for a girl audience. A lot of boys read my books, too. I frequently got reader mail from boys saying how much they enjoyed my books, which was a real treat to hear.

Book cover of 'Trick Or Treat' by Richie Tankersley Cusick, published by Point HorrorQ:  Looking back at your body of horror work for Point, what are you most proud of? Do you have a character you loved to write or a particularly memorable book?

RTC: I think my favorite Point title is Trick Or Treat. It had everything in it that I love—the fall season, the menacing and isolated old house, dark secrets, the cute guy (of course!), and the female character who meets dangers head-on. I’ve had so many readers ask me to do a sequel to this book. Maybe I will someday! When that book ended, I really didn’t want to leave it. I still love re-reading that book.

Q: Point Horror titles are still being republished and released in print and digital today. There’s a lot of current interest particularly with media properties and nostalgic adults. What are your thoughts on the lasting impact of the ’80s teen horror book boom?

CC: Amazingly it is now more than 40 years since my first YA book was published.  I am often astonished to find that some of these books are not only in print, they still flourish!  It’s so exciting.  I hear now and then from someone like you, re-reading a book first cherished in the 1980s, and still pleased with it!

AB: I am delighted to have entered the teen suspense market at its sweet spot in the ’80s. I loved being a best-selling author. I loved the fan mail (I answered every letter) and I particularly loved creating the stories themselves. One critic said my books were of a higher quality than many others on the market, more thought-provoking, and deeper, and I loved feeling like I added something to my readers’ lives.

RTC: It was a safe way to be scared. It transported the reader to a world of suspense and danger, yet that world was still secure. It was a much more innocent time for kids. Point Horror fears were always conquered and understood in the end. Readers knew that eventually the protagonist would win and find resources within herself that she didn’t realize she had.  If it got too scary, the reader could just close the book. Things were simpler, and Point was fun. The cute guys, the interesting settings, the best friends, the cliffhangers and surprise reveals…it was easy to immerse oneself in the story and shut out the real world. To totally escape into the book world where danger might lurk, but the reader was always safe, and the ending was always happy with problems solved. I wonder how many of today’s Point readers wish they could go back to those times? I certainly do.