Bookworms: The Name of the Star (2012) by Maureen Johnson
Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star is a YA thriller sure to please any fan of horror and the paranormal, adults included. Readers with an appreciation for Jack the Ripper (the lore, not his handiwork) will be even more pleased, as Johnson draws on London’s most notorious serial killer for inspiration.
Jack the Ripper was a sick guy (understatement of the century, here), killing at least five people and terrorizing London in the process. It’s believed that he sent letters, taunting the police for not being able to catch him, much like the Zodiac killer would do nearly a hundred years later. Jack the Ripper sadistically murdered prostitutes, women society wanted little to do with, and was never caught. The Name of the Star feeds on the legend of Jack the Ripper, bringing it out of the past, into the technology-heavy future, and tying it all together in a neat little bow. Eventually, anyway. It’s never simple with these serial killers.
High school senior Rory Deveaux moves from her forever-home of Louisiana to London for her final year of school. Soon after her arrival, London is in the grips of a killer who claims to be Jack the Ripper. He’s killing women in the same manner as the original Ripper (not this Ripper), and the police are at a loss to explain these mysterious killings, or to find the killer, because he is somehow able to murder these women without leaving evidence of himself behind (other than what he wants to leave). The entire city is on lockdown, everyone terrified that the Ripper will strike again, somehow, without being seen.
Because that’s the mystery…no one can see him, not until Rory spies him one night at the scene of a recent murder. She’s at a loss to explain how she saw him, even though her friend, who was right behind her, didn’t see anyone and she’s forced to dodge questions from both the police and her concerned friends. For those keeping score at home, this teenager is dealing with the following: adjusting to a new school, in an unfamiliar country, away from her parents, while a serial killer stalks the street and, somehow, she’s the only one who can see him. That’s some Katniss-level angst right there.
This book reminded me a lot of the violent horror stories I used to read as a tween and teenager, the ones that bridged the gap between Goosebumps and Stephen King. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking that the supernatural twists and underlying violence wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Fear Street or Christopher Pike novel (though, of course, it should be said that Johnson doesn’t have the obsession with her protagonist being beautiful and perfect that both R.L. Stine and Pike seem to…GEE I WONDER WHY). Unlike those novels, however, this one seemed to have more at stake. In a Fear Street or Pike novel, it’s expected that there’ll be a body count, but it’s nothing to be concerned about because it’s practically impossible to get too attached to any of the characters. That’s not the case in The Name of the Star. Johnson has created a cadre of very real characters in a very unreal situation, meaning that Rory and her friends seem like they’re in actual danger as the novel progresses.
That’s not to say that all was darkness and depression. Maureen Johnson’s humor infuses the novel with a level of quirk and sarcasm that I appreciated. Rory’s friends are funny, sometimes without meaning to be, and Rory is a supremely likeable protagonist. YA fans, especially those who have a soft spot for the RL Stine and Christopher Pike novels of yore, won’t be disappointed.