It’s November 1991, Nirvana’s in the tape deck, George H.W. Bush is in the White House, and movie-obsessed college student Charlie Jordan is in a car with a man who might be a serial killer.
I picked up Survive the Night this past summer while browsing at one of my favorite independent bookstores in Asheville, N.C. I read a lot of Christopher Pike novels when I was a teenager, and as this book is set in 1991, the plot description reminded me of themes Pike favored. The structure of the book, set up as if describing the narrative arc of a Hollywood screenplay, appealed to me. The protagonist, Charlie, reminded me of my own fragile time in college.
When Charlie’s roommate is murdered, she finds herself desperate to get out of town and, against the wishes of her boyfriend, accepts a ride share offer from fellow student Josh. They leave in the evening, after dark, for what is supposed to be a six-hour drive. Right away you can tell Charlie has more than a few hang-ups—she’s still emotionally raw from losing her parents in an auto accident several years earlier, and now her best friend has been murdered, Charlie blames herself, and no one knows who is responsible. And while obsessed with movies, particularly those in the film noir genre, she also has a tendency to let her mind wander off in its own version of a flashback scene.
This isn’t a movie. This isn’t “Shadow of a Doubt.” Just because she’s trying to think like movie Charlie doesn’t mean they share the same situation. Movies are fake, after all. Something she intrinsically knows but always forgets when the lights dim and the projector whirs and Technicolor fills the screen. That’s why Charlie loves them so much. They’re a bit of magic brightening a reality that’s cold and gray and dull.
As the two drive, Charlie becomes more and more paranoid that Josh isn’t who he is. As she reflects on the death of her roommate and the other two murders that have happened to female students at her university, she wonders why she was foolish enough to have accepted a ride with a total stranger. The book has all the hallmarks of a slasher film–a night drive on a desolate road, an all-night diner with an older waitress who is as tart as the apple pie on the menu, and a protagonist who seems to be slowly losing her grip on reality. The final act of the book features a confrontation in an abandoned lodge in the Poconos that kept me on the edge of my seat. I don’t think you’ll expect the ending, but all in all, it was a satisfying read full of twists and turns.