Martha Powell has no idea what happened that previous November. The young Shadyside resident, a junior at the local high school, remembers everything else about her life — family, friends, and a deep love of art — yet this one event remains a mystery. The worst part is, no one in this Fear Street book will help her recover that lost memory; Martha is forced to do this on her own. And the only thing pushing through all the noise in her head is the haunting image of a stranger’s face.
RL Stine shakes up routine by introducing the mystery at the very beginning of The Face. Martha is already in recovery when she is first introduced. The protagonist comes across as well-adjusted given the evidently painful trauma plaging her life. Martha has a boyfriend, Aaron, and several other friends to help her through this rocky period, although Dr. Sayles asks them not to help his patient with her memory loss. “It has to come back naturally,” the therapist told Martha’s friends earlier. As illogical as this sounds, the decision prolongs the suspense.
As Bill Schmidt‘s cover art suggests, Martha’s terror is triggered by a drawing. The main character herself is an adept artist, and she plans on submitting a portfolio for a summer college program in the town of Waynesbridge. Yet, every time she takes a pencil to her pad, the only thing she can produce is a face. As if her hand is possessed, Martha draws a mysterious young man’s face, again and again. Her brain will not show her the whole picture just yet, but it is offering this frightening first sketch.
“And saw to my horror that I had drawn the face again.”
Stine has mentioned he preferred avoiding topics like divorce and abuse in his books, but here he shows Martha’s friends, siblings Adriana and Ivan, going through serious issues at home. The brother and sister endure the constant arguing between their parents; Ivan reports they were even throwing things at each other before his father finally left. The parental problems naturally have a ripple effect on the children, seeing as straight-A student Adriana is looking sickly and is struggling with her classes, and Ivan has been drinking a lot and hanging out with a bad crowd.
Then there is “the most beautiful girl at Shadyside High.” Laura is more concerned with her potential modeling career than Martha’s amnesia, or the fact that her ex-boyfriend, Ivan, has fallen down a dark hole since their bad breakup. When she sees the face Martha has been drawing, however, Laura has the same reaction as the others. She obviously knows something.
Meanwhile, boyfriend Aaron is being awfully shady in spite of his concern for Martha; she suspects their mutual friend Justine has something to do with his behavior. Justine is not only a third wheel, she hangs out with Aaron when Martha is not around. Could the two be having an affair? And does this somehow relate to Martha’s amnesia? Justine only invites more suspicion when she calls Martha late at night and menacingly says, “Your life isn’t as perfect as you think.” At the very least, something good comes from this boyfriend drama when Martha hounds Aaron about the face from her drawings. He finally caves:
“Know why you haven’t seen him, Martha? Because he’s dead!”
Martha can only trust herself at this point, and her psyche is helping by sending her these random flashes. So far, the dead guy was someone at the cabin Martha and her friends visited back in November. And, for reasons unknown, the stranger was kissing Martha. Nothing is making sense, but it is abundantly clear they all knew the guy. Stine even starts to cast doubt on the protagonist herself. Could Martha’s memory lapse be her way of dealing with a crime she committed? A threatening message left on her answering machine seems to think so: “You keep drawing him because you killed him.”
When it seems as if Martha is the biggest suspect, The Face reminds readers about Adriana seeing a hypnotherapist named Dr. Corben. Ivan previously told Martha his sister was sorting her own problems out through therapy. The mention was overshadowed by Ivan almost killing both Martha and himself with his reckless driving. Yet, when Martha has an episode at a school basketball game — she imagines all the players having the same face from the drawing — Adriana gives her friend a hypnotic suggestion to calm her down. It goes without saying, only bad things come from amateur hypnotism.
Shortly after that scene and the revelation of why Aaron has been acting so fishy all this time — to no one’s surprise, he and Justine have been dating and sneaking around for months — Martha learns the dead guy was Sean, Ivan’s friend who lived in Shadyside’s downtown area, Old Village. She remembers Sean kissed her, but Martha was resistant and pushed him away. Another of these flashes then reveals how Sean died; he was decapitated when the group went skiing.
“It took me so long to realize that someone had strung a silver wire across the ski path.”
Even though there is only one murder in The Face, and it occurs in the past rather than currently, it is grislier than usual. On a ski slope, Sean went down first after Martha was having trouble with her ski straps. Little did they know, there was a wire strung between the trees and across the ski path. In true slasher fashion, “the silver wire sliced off Sean’s head.” Now decapitated, Sean’s body continued to ski while his head “bounced onto the snow… and emptied out.” On top of that graphic description is some damning evidence in the present day: Martha finds wire and wire cutters in her bag from the trip.
It would have been interesting to have Martha be the killer all along, but Stine throws another log on the fire. Martha is convinced she is guilty when Adriana shows up at her house. She confirms she saw Martha and Sean disappear into a room at the cabin, arguing about something. Is that something enough to warrant murder, though? Martha seems to think so until Ivan suddenly appears. He claims he set the wire because Sean was blackmailing him about a car he had stolen. The only thing is, Ivan fixed the wire so it would have only knocked Sean down, not kill him.
Unable to let her brother turn himself in for a crime he did not commit, but also wanting Martha to take the blame, Adriana enters villain mode and explains her entire motive and plan. She admits to lowering Sean’s wire so Martha would have died. Of course, Martha did not ski first on the slope as intended, and Sean was the one whose head went flying. And why did Adriana do this? It was her way of getting back at Martha after Sean expressed interest in her rather than Adriana. The object of her affection was dead, but that did not stop Adriana from framing Martha; she hypnotized her on multiple occasions so she would not remember the truth.
While The Face started out as a “from beyond the grave” type of story, Martha was neither compelled by Sean’s spirit to avenge his death, nor was she being haunted by her own forgotten crime. No, the horror here was all natural. Going for a human conclusion made it more disturbing, too. In the end, this serving of Fear Street is a twisty and satisfying thriller, so long as readers do not take its tagline at face value.
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.