Great Literature Of The 20th Century: Sweet Valley High – Kiss Of A Killer

Jessica wants to be with Jonathan… forever. But is Elizabeth strong enough to stop a creature of the night?

Today’s Great Literature entry looks at the 128th instalment in the Sweet Valley High series, Kiss of a Killer by Kate William. It’s the one with a vampire in it. The concept of “jumping the shark” is now well known, but I think “adding a vampire” should be added to the artistic lexicon.

I first heard about this book at the Paranormal Fiction and Romance Forum at Dymocks, and was very keen to read it. I hadn’t expected it to be so hard to find a copy – I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula that explains why you can find any Sweet Valley High book in any op-shop, but a specific Sweet Valley High book can only be found in a single library in a small town near Ballarat.

For those of us who weren’t teenage girls in the eighties or nineties, let’s start with a quick recap of the Sweet Valley High books. Created in 1983 by Francine Pascal, Sweet Valley High followed the lives of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, teenage twins who attend high school in Sweet Valley, California. There were 152 books in the main series, and many more in the numerous spin-off series including Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Junior High, Sweet Valley Senior Year, Sweet Valley University and Team Sweet Valley. A spin-off TV show ran from 1994 to 1997.

The story of Kiss Of A Killer is fairly simple, and I should point out that if you read on there will be spoilers. Major spoilers. I am going to tell you everything about this book, including the end. So if you were planning to read an obscure book for teenage girls that was published twelve years ago but just hadn’t got around to it yet, look away now.

So, to the plot: future-trophy-wife Jessica is dating future-emo-kid Jonathan, much to the ongoing annoyance of future-angry-lesbian Elizabeth. At a party at Jonathan‘s house, Katrina Sutton is found dead. Luckily she’s only someone’s cousin so no-one is too upset, but the town’s death toll keeps rising. Elizabeth is suspicious of Jonathan – after all, he’s not blonde. Eventually she comes to the conclusion that Jonathan is a vampire.

Even though we know Jonathan is a vampire, Elizabeth‘s “proof” seems astonishingly flimsy – he has a similar name to a student from the 1930s, he’s wearing the same ring as his “ancestor” in a painting, he owns some books about vampires and no-one has any photos of him. Surprisingly, even the fact that he wanders around in direct sunlight is used as evidence against him. It’s easy to see an alternate reading of Kiss Of A Killer in which the paranoia and bigotry of small-town America erupts into violence against a young man who doesn’t fit the ways of the majority. After all, this is a world where everyone is either blonde or wants to be, and characters say things like “We have year-round sunshine and gorgeous beaches”, and “I don’t think black hair would go with your skin tone or your personality”.

I kept waiting for the twist in Kiss Of A Killer – perhaps Jonathan wasn’t a vampire, or that he wasn’t the vampire doing all the killing – but no. This is a story that plods from point A to point B, and it’s hardly an express ride – on page 4 a body is found, drained of blood and with punctures in the neck. On page 116 Elizabeth thinks it might be a vampire! The girls aren’t exactly bright.

Admittedly the girls do have more important things on their minds than Sweet Valley‘s rising body count – important things like boys and clothes. The main sub-plot is about how Elizabeth used to go out with Todd, but he dumped her when he found her cheating on him with Joey Mason at Camp Echo Mountain in Montana. Now he’s thinking about forgiving her. Curiously, it never occurs to Elizabeth that she should be the one apologising to Todd for her behaviour – she’s both self-centred and astonishingly passive, letting the men in her life make all her decisions. In the end it comes down to whether Todd can forgive her, or if Joey will simply get sick of her being such a wet blanket and dump her (as it goes, both these things happen).

Being more than a hundred books into the series means the girls have a lot of back-story, which tends to come out in clumsy exchanges like this moment with their parents:

“Your recklessness amazes me, Jessica. There’s a serial killer on the loose! And you know how we feel about motorcycles. Have you forgotten that your cousin Rexy was killed in a motorcycle crash? And that Elizabeth nearly died in one too?”

Being a cousin in the world of Sweet Valley High is a bit like wearing a red shirt in the original Star Trek, or being a friend of Jessica Fletcher – you really shouldn’t worry about making any long-term plans.

I should also point out that “cheating” in Sweet Valley High means “kissing”. It’s curious that the vampire story originated as a Victorian metaphor for sex, and a hundred years later it serves exactly the same purpose in Kiss Of A Killer. There may be endless kissing but the only penetration taking place is in Jessica‘s neck. The book also features the least believable boys in the history of teen fiction, who never ask the girls to go any further than second base and generally act more like girls than the girls do. It appears that Sweet Valley High takes place in a world without cock.

Where there’s a vampire, there’s an angry mob, and eventually the kids come for Jonathan. Having got them so worked up, Elizabeth suddenly has an inexplicable change of heart. It turns out Jonathan didn’t quite kill one of the minor characters, just left her in a coma, so Elizabeth decides he deserves a second chance and allows him to get away, no doubt to kill again. He’s killed a bunch of people and a kitten already, but most of those were cousins so all is forgiven.

There’s no doubt that the most interesting and believable character is this book is Jonathan, the vampire. He’s the only one who seems capable of thinking about the bigger picture, of the world around him. If only he didn’t eat people he’s probably end up running the Sweet Valley Cinemateque, or working on his one-man show about Kafka for the Sweet Valley Fringe Festival. So, you can live forever, you’re a sexy creature of the night, what do you most want?

Family, he thought, testing the word in his mind. A loving family was something he pined for, what he missed most of all. And what I can never have again, he reminded himself wistfully.

Jonathan desperately wants a nuclear family like the one Jessica and Elizabeth have. Seriously? The guy can live forever and he’s whining he can’t have mac’n’cheese and games night on Thursdays? I wanted to run a million miles from the claustrophobic smugness of the Wakefield clan, and I’m not even undead.

 

I’d never read a Sweet Valley High book before, and undoubtedly I never will again. I was very impressed how well the books reflected the priorities and beliefs of the target audience, but I was also struck by two things:

The first was that for the “heroes” of a series, the sisters are frustratingly passive. Elizabeth seems incapable of making any decisions for herself, and Jessica is such a damsel-in-distress you wonder if she’s really worth saving.

 

The second is that the girls are such princesses – perfect bodies, wealthy families, cars and probably even ponies – that they’re hard to identify with. It surprises me the series could have been so successful since the majority of readers would’ve spent high school being taunted by the very types this book reveres. It’s like remaking Heathers with Shannen Doherty as the hero.

There are occasional bright spots, like this unintentionally hilarious moment:

I wish Jonathan were here today, she thought, longing for him. He’d know just how to handle this angry mob.

And the end to chapter nine is quite effective:

A moment later she heard what had startled him. Loud voices were coming from a short distance down the beach. her mind snapped to attention, pushing away the soothing fog. A shiver of fear raced up and down her spine. “Oh, my gosh, what if it’s the murderer?” she cried softly.

Jonathan crawled back into the cave and pulled her close. “I guarantee you,” he whispered in her ear, “it’s not the killer.”

Sadly, Kiss of a Killer is out of print (why? WHY???) but you can still buy these Sweet Valley High books from Amazon UK: Dangerous Love and All Night Long; these titles from Amazon USA: Sweet Valley High #1: Double Love, Sweet Valley High # 2: Secrets, Sweet Valley #3: Playing with Fire (Sweet Valley High); and the television series on R1 NTSC DVD: Sweet Valley High – The Complete First Season.

Previous entries in Great Literature Of The 20th Century:

Passport To Survival

The Doctor Who Cookbook (plus further reading)

Spotlight On Australia

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15 Responses to Great Literature Of The 20th Century: Sweet Valley High – Kiss Of A Killer

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    “It appears that Sweet Valley High takes place in a world without cock.”

    Now why didn’t I write that in one of my high school book reports.

  2. chumpman says:

    Sweet Valley High…when i first heard about it, I was in highschool and my best friend is all over it. I don’t know what’s the fuss is all about. But then again, I am a geek and I love sci fi…. :p

  3. Narrelle says:

    I feel very charmed by the fact that Jonathan took one look at this world of ninnies and chose to kill them instead of making them immortal, so they could plague the world forever with their passive blondeness.

  4. Dallas says:

    Ahhhh GREAT literature of my youth revived… thank you ;)

  5. outlandinstitute says:

    Anne-Marie: I may have taken that line from The Age reviewing a new Jane Austen compendium, I can’t recall…

    Dallas: Were you a fan of the Sweet valley High books? I’m curious as to how girls did relate to the twins – are you supposed to want to be them, or just be their friends?

  6. Anne-Marie says:

    I still wish i was young, blonde, skinny and popular.

    Ironically – if Austen’s world had cock – there wouldn’t be so many children called Darcy in the world.

  7. Andrew says:

    “It appears that Sweet Valley High takes place in a world without cock.”
    yes but that doesn’t stop it from the intellectual equivalent of porn for romance-starved naif teens fed on a diet of beverley hill 90210

    in fact i think “a world without cock” could almost be the title of some z grade soap opera….

    but what impresses me is the fact you actually spent time tracking it down…

    and is there *really* a paranormal fiction and romance forum? ufos in love??

  8. outlandinstitute says:

    If only voice-over artist extraordinaire Don LaFontaine hadn’t passed away recently – just imagine a cinema ad showing a desolate wasteland, with Don’s voice coming in:

    “In a world… without cock…”

    I think I was just fascinated how well the books matched the needs of the audience – very young girls who want kissing and “love”, but not any of the unseemly mess that goes with it. The relationships are amazingly chaste, and there’s definitely a theme that at the end of the day your family/friends/sister are always going to be more important than some boy anyway.

    There really was a paranormal fiction and romance forum held at Dymocks – I went to see Narrelle Harris talk about her book, not realising it was an actual “event” as such. Narrelle, are you around? Can you explain what the paranormal fiction and romance forum was?

  9. Glenn says:

    Oh man, I don’t remember reading any of the books (I was totally a “Goosebumps” kid thank you very much – perhaps you should read Camp Jellyjam for the next installment?!) but I do remember the television series from when it used to air on weekend mornings alongside such other classics as “Saved by the Bell” and the ill-fated “Clueless” tv series amongst others.

  10. Narrelle says:

    The Dymocks forum was held partly in response to an upcoming Romance Book Month which they hosted. It was attended mainly by members of the Paranormal Romance readers group, HEART – which has its own newsletter and everything. Paranormal Romance (ie romance books with undead people in them, apparently) is So Hot Right Now. I think it’s very funny my book is shelved with those books in Dymocks, since it does not contain any paranormal romance. Or that much normal romance. Just a lot of dead people.

    The forum featured academic Dr Rebecca Do Rozario (who has delivered papers on the vampire in modern fiction), fellow author Keri Arthur (her character is a vampire/werewolf hybrid), and journalist Kate Cuthbert as MC. The audience was made up mainly of the HEART group and John and Evil Dr Chris.

    Discussion revolved around the reasons why Vampire Lovers Are So Hot Right Now, and Why Don’t Readers Think Necrophilia Is Icky. Well, more than that, but it’s early in the morning and my brain fails to function before 10am. Anyway, it was very lively and fascinating, and I don’t recall if the Sweet Valley High book was brought up in response to comments about my lead vampire Gary’s vast and strange collection of vampire-related books and DVDs, or if I just pounced on the idea as soon as it was raised as something that was bound to be in his collection.

    So if you are a huge fan of writers like Keri Arthur, Kim Harrison, Laurel K Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer et al, you should contact Dymocks to get onto the mailing list for the newsletter and spend time discussing your passions with kindred spirits. You should also buy my book, even though there’s no romance in it, because you could probably do with a change of pace.

  11. outlandinstitute says:

    So Andrew, now you know.

    Glenn: I’d happily review “The Horror At Camp Jellyjam” except I suspect the Goosebump books are actually good, which I think would somehow ruin the fun….

  12. Glenn says:

    Perhaps, indeed.

  13. Sam says:

    I haven’t read this, nor have I read, or seen, Twilight. But judging from the reviews it seems that there are some similarities? Apparently Twilight was written by a devout Mormon, the main message of the series being: no sex before marriage (using the metaphor of vampirism for sex). Not having read or seen it, I could be getting this wrong, but the main vamp in the books abstains from biting people, but he and the other, mortal, romantic lead fall into an unrequited, bite-free, love. Do they marry in later books? Does he then get to bite her? And if vampirism is a metaphot for sex, whats up with all this biting of animals?

  14. Michelle says:

    Definitely one of the great series I voraciously collected and read as a young’un. 8-) True, I found the Baby-Sitters Club, Boxcar Children, and Goosebumps to be even better, but I’ve many fond memories stirred by the mere mention of the ‘Sweet Valley’ twins. =D

  15. CARMELA DE LEON says:

    I LOVE SWEET VALLEY HIGH, SWEET VALLEY SENIOR AND SWEET VALLEY UNIVERSITY…

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