Mystery, Death, and the Caretaker: Christopher Pike’s Chain Letter and Chain Letter 2 

When it comes to teen horror, Christopher Pike’s Chain Letter (1986) is iconic, and although  the novel predated the ‘90s horror heyday, Chain Letter laid the groundwork for many of the novels that followed in that teen horror tradition. While Chain Letter is a compelling standalone novel, its narrative is dramatically reframed and complicated with Pike’s Chain Letter 2 (1992), which returns to the same characters and scenario but takes the horror in a completely new direction. 

The horror begins in Chain Letter when a group of friends begins receiving anonymous letters from someone who calls themself their “Caretaker” and demands they perform increasingly humiliating and dangerous tasks. This isn’t the first time the seven friends have been brought together by traumatic secrets: one year ago, they were on a joyride in the desert, drinking and lost while heading home from a concert, when they hit a man with their car. It’s unclear whether the man was alive when they hit him or not and they don’t have a  clear sense of exactly what happened, because one of the teens had turned off the car’s headlights shortly before the car left the road and hit the man.

Unable to give a clear account of what happened, and uncertain of their own culpability, the friends decide to bury the man in the desert, tell no one, and go about their lives the best they can. But the Caretaker knows. As a result, he also knows they’re unlikely to go to the police, because they would have to tell the story of what happened that night, implicating themselves in the coverup, if not the death itself. The Caretaker has an insightful understanding of what makes these teens tick and what will be the most personally humiliating or hurtful to each of them; for example, he makes Brenda tell off the director of the school play, which costs her her role when all she wants is to be a star, and he demands that image-conscious tough-girl Joan go to school dressed in a ridiculous clown costume. When they refuse to do as the Caretaker says, they pay a high price, like when Kipp gets in a car accident due to tampered-with brake lines after refusing to follow through on his charge. 

The tasks assigned by the Caretaker highlight what these teens value most about themselves or their self-image, working to take it away from each of them respectively as they must betray or sacrifice who they are and what matters most to them to meet the Caretaker’s increasingly dangerous demands. However, in addition to the threat to self-image and personal agency, the Caretaker’s machinations also begin to erode the bonds of friendship between them, causing them to doubt and even turn on one another. One element that distinguishes the Chain Letter from other, similar narratives like Lois Duncan’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973) is that these friends aren’t really all that close and arguably, weren’t really friends before that terrible night in the desert. There isn’t a collective shared history or powerful camaraderie to unite them or make them willing to stand with one another. Kipp and Brenda are dating and there are a couple of best friend pairings within the larger group—Alison and Fran, Tony and Neil—but there’s also a good deal of apathy and animosity between several members of the group.

No one really seems all that invested in hanging out with Joan, aside from the fact that she’s rumored to be “easy” so Tony goes out with her, which causes some competitive tension between Alison and Joan because Alison has a crush on Tony, and Tony’s not really all that into Joan. Tony likes Alison but doesn’t act on his feelings because he knows that Neil has a crush on Alison too, while Fran likes Neil, who doesn’t even notice her because he’s so focused on Alison. Before the accident, the seven of them had never hung out together as a group–they only end up in the same car that night because Alison’s car breaks down after a concert, and the others offer her and Fran a ride home. They don’t hang out much together after the accident either, at least until the letter arrives, when they start getting together for emergency strategy sessions. They’re isolated from one another both emotionally and physically, with Alison being the most dramatic example of this as she and her family are the only residents in an otherwise empty subdivision far from the city, which is, inevitably, where the novel’s final showdown takes place. 

Chain Letter’s big reveal is equal parts shocking and heartbreaking, when they discover that their friend Neil is the Caretaker. Not only is the Caretaker one of them, he’s arguably the best of them: Neil has been the most conscientious and morally conflicted of the teens, encouraging them to do the right thing that night in the desert and throughout the course of events that followed, though he never forces anyone’s hand or takes the lead himself, staying silent to protect Tony even as he begs Tony to turn himself in. Neil looks to his friends to save him from himself and by extension, to save themselves from their terrible collective decision, but they fall short. Neil’s investment in making sure justice is served for the man in the desert is particularly sad when he confesses that he sees himself in the dead man. Neil is terminally ill, a fact that he has kept from his friends, and his biggest fear is that he will be discarded and forgotten once he is gone, that his existence will have had no impact and leave no lasting legacy following his death. 

Despite the horrors he has inflicted upon his friends, Neil is redeemed in the novel’s final pages. There are some inexplicable moments of mystery, when Neil tells his friends about a voice that has been directing his actions and encouraging him to hurt them, but after terrorizing his friends and even faking his own death, when it comes to the breaking point, he is swayed by his feelings for Alison, which allows her and the others to escape rather than being killed. Tony also becomes Neil’s protector, taking his friend to a cabin up in the mountains where he can live out his last days peacefully. Following Neil’s death, his feeling of affinity with the dead man in the desert becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as Tony buries Neil in the same spot in the desert, that grave now empty because Neil took the man’s body to use when he faked his own death, which means the nameless man is laid to rest in Neil’s grave, while Neil takes the man’s spot in the desert. Neil’s sense of deferred justice and foreboding have come full circle, but so has his friendship with Tony, and, to a lesser extent, the feelings he has for Alison, as his friends care for and cover for Neil, even after his death. This is a bittersweet conclusion, with the horror seemingly at an end, and the teens involved all knowing a bit more about themselves and the lengths to which they’re willing to go to save themselves and one another. 

Then everything changes with Chain Letter 2, where Pike demands that the reader dramatically reframe what they thought they knew in Chain Letter. In Chain Letter 2, Pike tells the rest of the story, revealing events that were going on behind the scenes, completely unknown to the novel’s characters or readers, while simultaneously continuing the story to tell readers what happens next. The horror of Chain Letter 2 also shifts significantly, from psychological real-world horror to supernatural events that border on cosmic horror. This is a big change in course direction, though (perhaps) surprisingly, it really works. The new direction of Chain Letter 2 raises some implicit questions about how we understand the world around us and rationalize, explain, and  construct narratives that make sense when the world itself is inexplicable. The new perspective provided by Chain Letter 2 arguably works to make Chain Letter richer and more complex, replacing easy answers with abiding mysteries, with metaphysical dangers supplanting and transcending the human horrors of the first novel. 

In Chain Letter, Pike provides readers with a clue that there’s more than meets the eye in Neil’s final conversation with his friends, as he tells them that “this thing got in my head and I couldn’t get rid of it. I don’t know where it came from. It was like a voice, saying this is true and this is a lie. It wouldn’t shut up! I had to listen, and I did listen, and then … I did all this” (175-176). This opens the door to a potentially metaphysical explanation, though it follows immediately after Neil’s discussion of how his illness, drug treatments, and depression were making him a bit delirious, so it’s easy to rationalize and dismiss this statement. But any chance of a logical explanation goes up in smoke when the letters start coming again in Chain Letter 2

Building on tropes of the 1980s’ Satanic Panic, Chain Letter 2 reveals that the friends’ experience, Neil’s behavior, and the man in the desert are all small pieces in a much larger puzzle that involves ritualistic sacrifice and the threat of spiritual damnation. While the tasks in Chain Letter were unpleasant, the ones assigned by the Caretaker in Chain Letter 2 are violent and cruel, demanding that the teens seriously hurt themselves or others as the Caretaker tells Fran to drown her puppy, Kipp to burn his sister’s arm, Brenda to cut off her finger, and Tony to shoot Alison. While Neil was a conduit for the Caretaker in Chain Letter, the Caretaker is actually a disembodied demonic presence. The Caretaker is able to infiltrate people’s minds and dreams, and takes residence in the lives of those it manipulates and controls in order to claim a corporeal existence that allows it to hurt people. While some of these vessels are willing (like Chain Letter 2’s Sasha), others like Neil are seduced through fear, confusion, or the promise of power. There’s an insidious sense that the pranks and tasks from the first book set up a moral slippery slope: relatively inconsequential in and of themselves, for the most part, but designed as “an initiation process” (Chain Letter 2 182) to compromise the teens’ moral alignment, in the hope that they can be pushed further, and ultimately destroyed, with the next task. The stakes are a lot higher as well, and while everyone except Neil made it out alive in Chain Letter, the body count quickly begins to rise in Chain Letter 2, as the friends start to be killed one by one for refusing to complete their horrific tasks. 

Reflecting the larger scope of Chain Letter 2, outside forces and influences beyond the friends’ immediate circle come to the forefront, driving the conflict and action forward to its explosive breaking point. A seductive young woman named Sasha comes between Tony and Alison, convincing Tony that Alison is cheating on him and beginning to induct him into a Satanic cult, all without Tony realizing how he is being manipulated. There’s a lot more to Sasha than meets the eye, as in an earlier life, she was Jane Clemens (though she called herself Charlene), a cult member who seduced and then murdered Jim Whiting, the man in the desert. Following this sacrifice, Jane commits suicide and returns from the dead, ready to continue on her dark path and lead others to walk it alongside her as a conduit for the Caretaker. As Alison and her new friend Eric track down information about Jim, Alison comes to the realization that she and her friends simply stumbled into the tail end of Jim’s dark and complicated story. While they’re still guilty of burying him in the desert, they didn’t actually kill him, which is a relief. These different revelations, each coming quickly on the heels of the previous one, result in a kaleidoscopically shifting understanding of what actually happened that night, as the pieces are rearranged and begin falling into place. 

Through the two novels, the Caretaker attempts to usher the friends through three rounds of increasingly violent actions, with a box appearing after the third column in Chain Letter 2. This final stage shifts the dangers from the physical to the cosmic and spiritual. Tony begins to see this potential damnation in his dreams, first finding himself  “floating in an alien sky … filled with heavy pounding sounds and thick smoke that stank of sulfur … [an] abyss of unpleasantness” (72). While this is bad enough, it is nothing compared to the Caretaker’s box, which Tony floats closely by, sensing that this was “where he could end up – if he made the wrong choice … beyond the wall there existed true despair” (73). He hears the “cries of creatures that might once have been human but had now become twisted and evil,” understanding that these are “cries that prayed only for a death that would lead to nonexistence” (73). Given the threat of this agonizing damnation, death at the hands of the Caretaker, or even being sent to the hellscape through which Tony floats, are framed as the preferable alternatives. 

While Alison and Tony’s dwindling group of friends finds themselves up against powerful infernal forces, largely personified through Sasha’s manipulation and violence, there are angelic forces of good that rally to their side as well. Alison finds herself drawn to a beautiful lake in the mountains, where she is helped and guided by a kind stranger, only to realize that this is where Tony and Neil spent Neil’s final days, with the stranger an incarnation of Neil’s soul returned to Earth to help Alison, which once again shifts her understanding of previous events, as Neil’s love and desire to protect Alison transcend both his madness and his death. 

Tony very nearly succumbs to Sasha’s manipulation, as he returns to that fateful spot in the desert and prepares to shoot Alison, where forces both infernal and divine once again interfere, reasserting the central importance of friendship and love as the only forces that can save them from the Caretaker and the suffering of the box. When Eric attempts to reassert logic and order onto their understanding of events in the desert, Tony tells him to leave it, preferring instead to “see it how we wish to see it … To me it’s a miracle” (196). Just as Tony, Alison, and the others’ perspectives have dramatically changed and shifted with the new revelations in Chain Letter 2, Tony’s entire worldview has been transformed, as he readily embraces a miracle rather than seeking a logical explanation. Where the group’s belief in themselves and one another had been shaken by Neil’s betrayal in Chain Letter, the surviving friends are now assured in Neil’s goodness, their own capacity for sacrifice and resilience, and their role within the larger scheme of the universe. 

Chain Letter and Chain Letter 2 are a fascinating duology, with each book engaging with different elements of the horror genre and having their own distinct philosophical perspectives. This is a significant shift and one that at first glance might not seem like it would work all that well. But Pike’s Chain Letter novels are very effective, with the second book serving as both a reframing and a continuation, providing readers with another perspective from which to read (or more accurately, reread) Chain Letter, with an awareness that there are always untold stories going on in the margins and behind the scenes that could change everything. 

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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