Unlike everyone else in her family, Emily is an underachiever. She's spent her whole life sitting quietly in the back row, hiding behind her hair and it doesn’t bother her in the least – but it bothers her parents. In an effort to get her to reach her full potential, Emily’s parents enrol her in Camp Excel, a summer camp for underachieving teens. However, shortly after arriving at the camp, Emily is struck by a feeling of déjà vu. Ever since she was a child, Emily has had a recurring nightmare, the setting of which appears to be Camp Excel. Has Emily been to the camp before, and if so, could the dead body she sees in her nightmare actually be real?
Starting back in the 1960’s, Nixon wrote over 130 books and this late entry in her bibliography highlights just how much young adult mysteries have changed since that time. First published in 2003, Nightmare is one of the last books Nixon wrote prior to her death that year, aged 76, but reminds me more of teen mysteries I have read that were published back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s (for example, some of the older Lois Duncan novels). Books back then were created using a completely different paradigm from what is used today: they were shorter (Nightmare is only around 45,000 words or 166 small paperback pages long); there is never a real sense of danger (the murder in Nightmare occurred well in the past, and there are no murders in the present); and all of the teenagers talk and behave like responsible adults, rather than how teenagers really behave (seriously, these teens are a bunch of slackers and underachievers who are away from their parents at summer camp. Does anyone really believe they would be spending their evenings doing homework?). Compare this to Barry Lyga’s recent I Hunt Killers, a book in which a teenage boy hunts an extremely vicious serial killer, and you’ll get what I mean. Presumably, Nixon worked within that old paradigm her entire life and in her old age, wasn’t about to change. Unfortunately, the consequence of this is a book that feels dated, in spite of being only 10 years old.
With only 166 pages to work with, there’s little time for character or plot development. The teen characters, that is, Emily and her friends punk Taylor, aspiring playwright Maxwell and new age Haley, don’t fare too badly (I actually really liked Maxwell), but the teachers at the camp, who are the main suspects in the murder, receive so little attention that when the killer is finally revealed, I had to flip back in the book to remind myself who this character was and even whether this character was male or female. The ending is extremely abrupt, with the killer being revealed and stopped all in the space of the last six pages; and Nixon never really capitalises on the full potential of her setting. If a book is set at an academic summer camp for underachievers, of course the people running it have to be doing something illegal and immoral. Why couldn’t Nixon see this?
If this book were published back in the 1970’s, I would probably have given it a more positive review, as by the standards of that time, it’s not a bad book and it kept me entertained for its entire duration. Yet, in the last two decades, YA mystery fiction has come a long way, and by comparison to books published at the same time as Nightmare, it’s not difficult to find something that’s a lot better. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and re-watch Disturbing Behavior.
Verdict: A disappointing swan song from Joan Lowery Nixon, one of the most successful YA mystery writers of her time.