Jenny glanced back over her shoulder. They were still behind her, on the other side of the street but definitely following. They matched their pace to hers; when she slowed to pretend to look in a store window, they slowed, too.
There were two of them, one dressed in a black T-shirt and leather vest, with a black bandanna on his head, the other in a long flannel shirt, black-and-blue plaid, unbuttoned. Also unwashed. They both looked like trouble.
The game store was a few block ahead. Jenny quickened her pace a little. This wasn’t the best neighborhood in town, and she’d come here specifically because she didn’t want any of her friends to see her. She hadn’t realized, though, that Eastman Avenue had gotten quite so rough. After the last riots, the police had cleared things up, but many of the vandalized stores still had boarded windows, which gave Jenny a creeping feeling between her shoulder blades. They were like bandaged eyes turned toward her.
I’m fairly sure that The Forbidden Game trilogy were the first books of L.J. Smith‘s that I read, probably around the time they were published in 1994. By the time I started tracking my reading in 1996, I was already an earnest L.J. Smith fan and had read most of her books. Between 1994 and 2000, I re-read all of L.J. Smith’s book compulsively and if I remember correctly, The Forbidden Game was my favorite series during this time.
Most of L.J.’s books feature teenagers dealing with extraordinary circumstances or creatures with minor adult supervision. Sometimes, as in The Forbidden Game, they are relatively normal teenagers. Later, L.J. would write about the psychically gifted, a coven of modern-day witches, vampires, and more in her other series. But The Forbidden Game is like Labyrinth meets Jumanji meets Norse mythology. Maybe it’s because I just re-watched Labyrinth (on a huge screen outdoors in a field by the river with food trucks nearby, perfect), but I totally suspect now, as an adult, that L.J. might have modeled Julian from The Forbidden Game on Jareth from Labyrinth.
In 1998, I was 16 and I moved from my hometown in Georgia to Mandeville, Louisiana (a suburb north of New Orleans, across Lake Ponchartrain). This is my cut-off for the books I’m reading during The Re-Reading Project and it was also a pivotal year for L.J., who stopped publishing for more than a decade. Stranded in unbearably humid Louisiana as a surly teenager, I re-read all my L.J. books and sought out other L.J. fans online. The Internet was relatively new to the casual home user and I explored webrings (remember those?) and e-mail during that first summer away from everything I knew. I also wrote my first book and I was heavily influenced by L.J.’s books when I wrote it, especially The Secret Circle. By the time I went off to college in 2000, L.J.’s fans still didn’t know what had happened to her and were still waiting for her to publish the last book of a 10-book series which was supposed to wrap up before the new millennium. All of this feels like ancient history to me now, but that last book, Strange Fate, still hasn’t been published, which I’ve written about here before.
At the end of my earlier post about L.J. Smith and Strange Fate, I’d noted that she’d been fired from writing The Vampire Diaries and that new books were being written by a ghostwriter. There’s a really good Wall Street Journal article I just found while researching for this post that talks about what happened and how L.J. is using fanfiction to write and publish her version of new Vampire Diaries books. It’s a very bizarre (and cautionary) story. It also explains why she stopped writing for a decade.
So while I’ve never read the two stand-alone books that L.J. first wrote, though she was only publishing actively for less than ten years (particularly 1994-1998), she managed to create several series that had an enormous impact on me as a person and a writer. But, in college, I mostly put the books away. While I’ve always had them on my bookshelves (till now, they’re in storage), I haven’t re-read them. Starting around 2008, all of her books were republished in shiny new omnibuses and both The Secret Circle and The Vampire Diaries were made into t.v. shows. New books were published for both series (which I haven’t read). Out of nostalgia mostly, I bought the reissues of all the books and even some of the new books, but I still didn’t re-read them. I was afraid that the experience of reading them could never be the same as it was when I was a 14-16 year old and that somehow the books would be diminished.
But when I started thinking about doing The Re-Reading Project, I knew that I would have to re-read something by L.J. Smith. I thought for a long time before I decided on The Forbidden Game, since it was my first series of hers and my favorite. So I dug both the original copies and my big omnibus edition out of storage. They were in a box that a friend helping me pack one day had labeled:
When the time came to read this month’s selection, I was once more in D.C. I’d read an engrossing thriller on my Kindle during the flight and started a Gillian Flynn book once I arrived (wait for the Quarterly Reading Report!) and I found myself dreading The Forbidden Game a bit. It was too big to fully ignore, but silently reproached me every time I passed it while carrying my slim, engrossing Gillian Flynn novel. Finally, I picked it up and began reading.
At first, all my worse fears came true. I was bored. I thought Jenny and her boyfriend Tom were about as interesting as cardboard. Julian, the bad guy, was a little too reminiscent of Jareth. All of Jenny’s friends, the background characters, were marginally more interesting, but they also felt a little too purposefully cast (Audrey, the globe-trotting rich girl, Michael the schlubby funny guy who somehow won her, Zach the sullen anti-social computer nerd/artist, Summer the ditzy but sweet flower child and Dee the athletic black girl). But, as the story progressed, I was turning pages faster and faster, remembering why I’d liked the book and the characters and finding new nuances and details that the younger me wouldn’t have noticed, particularly in each of the character’s fears as they encounter them. I don’t remember being particularly interested in the second book when I first read the series, but that was the one that came alive to me now, especially the difficulties that the friends face now that they’ve returned to the real world without one of their own. The third book is interesting for all the ways that Jenny has changed, especially in her relationship with Dee and with Julian, and also because of the “road trip” aspect of the kids having to finish the game in a different state. The details of how they get from California to Pennsylvania are hilarious. In a pre-9/11 world, they fly across the country with, among other things, a crowbar in a duffel bag. Since I had just flown for the first time in a long while and was baffled how I was going to wash my long hair for 10 days with less than 3 ounces of shampoo, that was something I especially noticed.
Except for that and a few other small things here and there (the clothes! and the phone situation in book 2), the books aren’t as dated as I thought they’d be. While reading them now, at 32 years old, could never be the same as my experience reading them as a teenager, I was pleased about how enjoyable re-reading them was, both as an exercise in nostalgia and for their own sake. I prefer the original covers, which give you an idea of what the game world and Julian look like, over the rather static picture of an updated Jenny alone, which is why I included them above. Plus, a book as heavy as the omnibus can really kill your wrists (but it did lay open very satisfyingly).
I’m not sure when I’ll re-read any more L.J. Smith books, but I’m no longer afraid to. Perhaps I’ll go back and finally read The Night of the Solstice and Heart of Valor, her first too books. If you look at her website and her Wikipedia page, L.J. Smith has plans for new installments of this series too, in addition to Strange Fate. She plans a fourth book for both the Dark Visions series, as well as The Forbidden Game (called Rematch!). I suppose I could always re-read each series when and if each of these new books is published. Should be interesting to see if it comes to pass and how old I am when it does.