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Choose Your Own Nightmare (1995-1997)
Joel ha desaparecido (Spanish)
Montgomery, R. A.
Schmidt, William (Bill)
It Happened at Camp Pine Tree is sadly a disappointment, at least to me. Your mileage may vary. I love camp stories, I love camp horror. This book suffers terribly because there is absolutely no internal consistency. Different paths lead to wildly different resolutions. Depending on your path, Joel may or may not be dead. Even the first choice is inconsistent! Depending on your choice, another person may or may not have read a letter!
I did like a few things. Lennie is a surprisingly effective villain, since he goes a bit further than most CYOA characters would. Across different paths, he has a snake pit where he enjoys seeing snakes kill each other, he may have left Joel to die on an island, or he may have been looking to poison Joel to make him sick for the rest of the summer. Pretty evil stuff, at least for a non-alien character.
I'm not sure why R. A. Montgomery had a co-author for this book. Janet Hubbard-Brown's career consisted of a couple dozen basic nonfiction titles for kids, as well as adult mystery novels under the name Janet Hubbard, but what was her contribution to It Happened at Camp Pine Tree? We can only guess. You are looking forward to a second consecutive summer at camp. Last year with your friend Allie was fun, and you both were fond of a charismatic camp counselor named Joel. You're less enthused to see Lennie again, an obnoxious counselor whose uncle, Mr. Fosgood, is the camp director. You and Allie will be special helpers this summer, and you're glad to be assigned to Joel's team rather than Lennie's. But then reports trickle in that Joel disappeared from Camp Pine Tree several days ago. Lennie is pleased to have him gone, but you and Allie are worried. Did Joel simply quit and go home without bothering to notify Mr. Fosgood, or has a sinister fate befallen him? Could you and Allie investigate and solve the mystery?
Based on your choices, the backstory changes significantly. Lennie might tell you he was the last one to see Joel, when they sailed their small boats to Mystery Island for a day trip. He claims Joel didn't meet back with him at camp afterward, and no one has heard from him. Lennie's flippant attitude makes you uneasy; you wonder if his jealousy of Joel's popularity could have prompted him to do something violent. When you question Mr. Fosgood, he says the police are on the case, and you need to focus on your responsibilities as a camp helper. Eerie tension fills the air around Camp Pine Tree, and Lennie's demeanor doesn't help. You're about to run out of investigation options when Allie discovers an envelope addressed from Joel in Mr. Fosgood's office. Is it a break in the case, or is the camp director suppressing the truth of Joel's whereabouts?
Depending on whom you decide to trust, you'll embark on a variety of story paths. Getting caught for stealing the envelope brings your investigation to an abrupt end, but if you avoid being found out, you still won't have a chance to see the envelope's contents before it's destroyed. Sneaking off with Allie to Mystery Island may be your best bet to find Joel, but beware: if Lennie has seriously harmed him, he'll do anything to stop you from proving it. Mystery Island has become a desolate place with toxic sludge swirling in the water, and a reunion with Joel won't be lighthearted. Your favorite counselor may be on the verge of excruciating, grotesque death; can you and Allie do anything to save your own lives, let alone Joel's? Going hiking with the younger campers and steering clear of Mystery Island might be a wiser course of action, but spending that much time with Lennie is bound to be tedious. It's worse, however, when he disappears from your remote campsite and you must corral the kids with Allie, all while sensing a menacing presence following you. Most any encounter with Joel in these wilds is profoundly disturbing, given his shocking physical deterioration. Even if you don't run into a decomposing version of your old friend, you might wind up eating poisonous brownies or tumbling into Lennie's snake pit. Good endings are rare, so don't count on your story ending well.
What does It Happened at Camp Pine Tree have going for it? Atmosphere. It offers some of the best pure horror scenes in the Choose Your Own Nightmare series, all of them coming once Joel is past the point of being helped. These endings are chilling, but the potential is wasted because we never find out what's going on. Is Lennie responsible for Joel's suffering? Is Mr. Fosgood? Maybe someone else? There's also no consistency to the mystery. Joel might be wasting away on an island, infected by radioactive slime, or be pulling a weird, elaborate prank on you in cahoots with Lennie. Or maybe he never disappeared at all; he's just late for camp because Lennie gave him bad information. This lack of story discipline turns what could have been a moody, suspenseful, wonderful gamebook into a narrative mess good only for a few disturbing endings, and even then only if you ignore their context in the book. It Happened at Camp Pine Tree for sure has its moments, but I'm disappointed by what could have been the best entry in the series had more thought been invested. To use a fishing metaphor, this book is R. A. Montgomery's "one that got away."
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