Femme Fatales and Toxic Masculinity in Christopher Pike’s Die Softly and Master of Murder

Teen horror of the ‘90s is populated by a range of girls: there are the marginalized and hapless victims, who are stalked, attacked, and murdered for the reader’s entertainment. There are the intelligent and resourceful Final Girl-style survivors (who are also often stalked or attacked for the reader’s entertainment). And then there are the femme fatales, like those of Christopher Pike’s Die Softly and Master of Murder, who are sexy, manipulative, and destructive.

Die Softly’s Alexa Close and Master of Murder’s Shelly Quade are young women who know what they want and will go to any lengths to get it. Alexa and her best friend Lisa Barnscull are cheerleaders, but also their small town’s major cocaine suppliers. They bribe a male classmate with sex to steal for them, sell the stolen goods in Los Angeles, then buy and ferry back the drugs. They put cocaine in the cookies they take to the school bake sale and when their rube, Roger, is resistant to their plans, they tie him up mostly naked in the woods and force-feed him drugs (seriously–in a novel intended for teens and young adults. So much for nostalgically idealized adolescence). Alexa later murders Lisa and is willing to manipulate, kill, or seduce whoever she has to in order to keep her secret safe.

Master of Murder’s Shelly Quade grows into her role as femme fatale over the course of Pike’s novel. Her biggest transgression for most of the novel is dating multiple guys at the same time. She manipulates one of the boys into “accidentally” seeing her having sex in the hot tub with the other fella, in the hopes of driving the peeper into either a murderous rage or a confession. When she finds out who really killed her boyfriend last year, she retaliates with a murder of her own.

Both of these young women are able to manipulate the guys in their lives into doing what they want, using their bodies and sexuality to get what they need. And the male protagonists of these two novels are willing to let them, taking full advantage. But Pike doesn’t present Die Softly’s Herb Trasker or Master of Murder’s Marvin Summers as creeps or antiheroes. These are just dudes who have a “healthy” interest in girls. Each young man’s fixation on one particular girl is presented as a reflection of their love and devotion, rather than problematic stalking behavior. And when they find themselves in voyeuristic or sexually advantageous situations with the girls of their dreams … well, everyone knows the old saying, “boys will be boys.”

The represented normalcy of these boys’ actions and the ways in which they think about the girls they “love”—as well as other girls within the novels—is problematic, though their actions are further excused and justified by the fact that these femme fatales “deserve” whatever they have coming their way. Herb and Marvin’s toxic masculinity is tucked behind their respective facades of being “nice” guys, “good” guys, better men than some of the others in these novels who are more overtly objectifying and abusive. But their private thoughts about Alexa and Shelly are just as objectifying, their intentions just as manipulative and exploitative, as those of the other, more overtly misogynistic characters.

Die Softly opens with Herb Trasker’s plan to rig a camera in the girls’ locker room shower so that he can take naked pictures of the cheerleaders, including his love interest Alexa (though he’s certainly willing to take a look at any of the young women who get caught on his camera). And while Herb is well aware that this is something that could get him in big trouble, it isn’t presented as something that is fundamentally, ethically wrong. The opening lines of Chapter One reflect, “His blood was hot. His thoughts were naughty.” Not predatory or exploitative or criminal or reprehensible: just “naughty.” This perception is further reinforced by others’ responses to Herb’s actions. When Herb tells the detective investigating the resulting murders about setting up his camera, the detective reinforces the “normalcy” of this urge, telling Herb “I can understand why any teenage boy would want photos of a bunch of naked cheerleaders. Hell, I’d probably look at them myself.” The exploitation of young women’s bodies to be looked at without their awareness or consent here is overt and horrifying. Leaving aside the possible explanation that the detective is playing a role to earn Herb’s trust and get to the truth, Herb’s understanding is this is an adult authority figure who is not only leaving aside the illegality of what Herb has done, but also noting that he himself would gladly take a peep at some underage girls and reassuring Herb that taking these pictures just really isn’t all that bad. If he is playing a role, the detective never lets Herb in on this reality or holds Herb accountable for what he has done, and Pike never makes this clear to the reader either, apparently content to leave this open to the reader’s interpretation and potentially reinforcing this perception of “normalcy.” When Alexa herself finds out, she also tells Herb it’s not a big deal, offering to let him take nude pictures of her sometime soon, as long as he does what she wants him to do now, and while this is presented to the reader as further evidence of her compromised morality, Herb couldn’t be happier with this proposition.

While he ends up getting some naked pictures of Lisa (which he of course gleefully looks at, even though she’s not his lady love), he also gets a picture of Alexa sneaking up on Lisa with a baseball bat, preparing to murder her. When Alexa finds out about the picture, a convoluted chase to solve the mystery and prove her innocence ensues. While Herb finds out the truth about what happened to Alexa and Lisa’s last boyfriend, the cocaine, and the Alexa’s manipulation of a couple of their other classmates, when it comes to the picture itself there really is no mystery, aside from how many facts Herb is willing to ignore and how much danger he is willing to risk if it means he gets to have sex with Alexa. The answer turns out to be ALL of them, as he lets her tie him to his bed while regaling him with tales of her murderous exploits, while Herb reassures himself that he might be able to escape, help might come, he might not die, and—stubbornly clinging to this hope—she might still have sex with him. Herb doesn’t get to have any sex but he does get a whole lot of cocaine as he overdoses and dies, but unbeknownst to Alexa, he has set up his handy photography equipment once again, which snaps pictures of his own murder. But the fact that she’s a murderer doesn’t erase or excuse Herb’s own exploitative actions. Herb is presented as a fairly innocent victim in these final pages, his death a tragedy, as he is unfairly punished for doing something “normal” that any teenage boy would do.

Master of Murder’s Marvin Summer is less overtly exploitative than Herb Trasker, but his fixation on Shelly Quade borders on obsession. In the book’s opening chapter, Marvin sits in class surreptitiously watching as Shelly reads his latest novel (written under his secret pseudonym, Mack Slate), in which the heroine is raped, abused, and murdered, with readers endlessly speculating about who did it and why as they wait for the series’ final book. Marvin and Shelly had gone on a few dates before the mysterious death of one of her other boyfriends, Harry Paster, the previous year, so Marvin at least knows Shelly a little, rather than objectifying, pining for, and projecting his own expectations and desires upon her from afar (though he does do a fair bit of this as well). When he drums up the courage to ask her out again, it turns out she has been waiting for him to do so all along and their dinner and a movie date ends with them lounging naked in Shelly’s hot tub together. Just when it seems like all of Marvin’s dreams are about to come true, he discovers that she went out with him because she thinks he murdered her old boyfriend and is trying to manipulate a confession out of him with her feminine wiles. Taken together with Die Softly, it would seem that solving a murder together is an almost foolproof and super sexy relationship-building exercise, as long as the mysterious girl at the center of the mystery isn’t planning to murder you or have you arrested in the end (which she pretty much always is).

Marvin is all in on helping Shelly figure out who murdered Harry, right up until he finds her in the hot tub with the improbably-named Triad Tyler (a linguistic reference to his role in a love triangle, which is actually a quadrangle at at least one point? A penis joke?). Even though Marvin is well aware that he and Shelly are not exclusive, this discovery catapults him into a jealous rage in the discovery that “His girl, his Shelly” (the emphasis here is Pike’s) was “the worst kind of slut.” Marvin’s sense of possession and entitlement—which is certainly alarming and problematic enough on its own—quickly morphs into an objectifying dehumanization. Marvin discovers that he is incapable of killing Shelly when he has the chance to do so, but he is willing to leave her to be murdered by Triad, riding away on his motorcycle as the other boy holds a knife to Shelly’s throat. Marvin leaves Shelly with the parting piece of advice that in one of his Mack Slate books, “The heroine should try to kill the villain. The guy’s rotten to the core and it would give the heroine a chance to redeem herself—if that’s possible.” Marvin couldn’t kill Shelly himself, but he also firmly believes that she needs to prove that she deserves to live: if she’s femme fatale enough to seduce and betray him, she’d better be femme fatale enough to be capable of murder to save herself. In both Master of Murder and Die Softly, the female characters are reduced to their sexuality and their allure to their male counterparts, unsettling and damaging expectations that are communicated to teen female readers. When this wears thin or doesn’t play out in quite the way those men demand, these girls literally become disposable, as Marvin walks away with little concern over whether Shelly lives or dies.

It turns out that Shelly is capable of murder, though what that experience is like or how she deals with that trauma in the aftermath is overtly silenced both in the final chapters of Master of Murder and in Pike’s two sequel stories. Despite this dysfunctional beginning, Marvin and Shelly stay together following Master of Murder, maintaining a long-distance relationship. However, Marvin notes in “The Fan From Hell” (included in Tales of Terror) that “he was faithful to Shelly only within specifically geographical circumstances” as he prepares to have sex with a fan who reached out to him online and who he sensually describes based on what color of jellybean she smells like that day. While Marvin is filled with rage at the idea of “his Shelly” with another man, this infidelity on his part is humorously and cheekily brushed aside: Marvin is never considered slutty or morally compromised, a clear and unsurprising double standard. Shelly fares better here than she does in “The Burning Witch” (included in Tales of Terror 2), however, where she is magically murdered by witches and maybe brought back from the dead, though the final pages of “The Burning Witch” leave the reader hanging.

“The Fan From Hell” offers its own problematic variation on Pike’s femme fatale/toxic masculinity setup, as the “fan” in question threatens to frame Marvin for rape if he doesn’t write a book for her, bragging about how she has manipulated the medical staff and police to whom she has reported this alleged assault. Marvin’s fame here is a double-edged sword: he uses his Mack Slate persona to get girls and his “fan” singles him out specifically because of his fame. Marvin writes the book, while also continuing to have sex with her multiple times a day throughout the writing process. She manipulates him, he uses her, and they continue in this mutually destructive relationship until Marvin is able to prove his innocence. When Marvin succeeds in getting a recorded confession that she lied about being raped, he is presented as a victorious hero. Ditto when he has to murder her to save himself. The message readers are left with is that it is commonplace for a woman to lie about a sexual assault to get what she wants, particularly if there is a famous man involved, a damaging perception that has long been used to silence survivors or question the veracity of their experiences and accounts.

Herb and Marvin’s toxic masculinity extends beyond their interactions with their romantic ideals as well, creating a world in which gendered relationships are presented as normatively exploitative. Herb is all-too-happy to look at naked pictures of any of the cheerleaders, with an equal-opportunity approach to his voyeurism. His relationship with his friend Sammie highlights another facet of his toxic masculinity and his estimation of the value of the women in his life. Sammie is a “tomboy” and “not entirely feminine.” She is described as fat with the fashion profile of “a male ex-convict.” She has a short, unflattering haircut, like “a dish towel that had fallen into a garbage disposal” and refuses to wear makeup. She is an accomplice in Herb’s quest to take naked photos of the cheerleaders, telling him where to set the cameras up and when to set the timer for, in the secret hope that it will capture evidence of the planned murder and, in turn, allow her to bring Roger’s murderers to justice. Despite the fact that Herb and Sammie have been friends their whole lives, he betrays her without a second thought for the opportunity to have sex with Alexa, ignoring Sammie’s repeated pleas for help and participating in a setup that ends in her death, with the fact that she is unfeminine and threatens his chances of sexual conquest making her ultimately disposable. In Master of Murder, Marvin’s only other sustained relationship with a girl is with his younger sister Ann, who worships him, and while this relationship is not exploitative, it is unbalanced and paternalistic, and the fact that she adores Marvin is pretty much the sum total of her character development, presumably to show readers what a “good guy” Marvin really is. Women in the novels are reduced to sex objects and kid sisters: complex characterization and any representation of gender identity beyond the strict masculine/feminine binary need not apply.

The young women in Die Softly and Master of Murder are not hapless victims waiting to be rescued and their young male protagonists are no valiant knights in shining armor. These characters engage in manipulative, mutually destructive, and even fatalistic relationships. Herb and Marvin are presented as sympathetic protagonists, guys who make some mistakes but are really only doing what any other guy would do in their situation, erasing any serious consideration of the toxic masculinity and exploitation that inform how they think about, interact with, and use the women they desire. As for the women themselves, these femme fatales survive every challenge they encounter—including at the hands of their novels’ respective “heroes”—but they are never presented as heroines (or even antiheroines), ultimately reduced to bad girls who got what they deserved.

Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.

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