horror high ridge

Julius Goodman’s The Horror of High Ridge is probably the most infamous of all Choose Your Own Adventure books. I mean, let’s face it, the series as a whole is aimed at children and thus desires to be generally inoffensive, but The Horror of High Ridge was banned and challenged in school libraries from coast to coast all throughout the 80s and into the next decade. Given its particularly gruesome cold-blooded endings, The Horror of High Ridge qualifies as the Evil Dead of the CYOA saga. Just think about that for a moment. A children’s book that can hold its own against a Sam Raimi film–how freaking awesome is that?

The Horror of High Ridge by Julius Goodman (illustrated by Paul Granger)

Published: December 1983

Number in the CYOA Series: 27

This book is a sequel to the bizarre, fast-paced, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink magnum opus House of Danger, which I previously called one of the best books in the series. “You” are teamed up with your two friends from that book, sort of the Akbar and Jeff of the CYOA series, Ricardo and Lisa. Although done by a different illustrator, you are depicted the same way as you were in House of Danger: a tall lanky redheaded boy with freckles who likes to wear turtlenecks. Ricardo and Lisa are the same too.

This time around you’re staying with Ricardo and Lisa in your quaint little cabin in the town of High Ridge. Your place doesn’t have electricity, and you’re searching for your great uncle’s buried fortune, though that doesn’t really factor into the book. It’s nighttime and you begin to hear a bunch of ghostly moans from outside the house. After some banter with Ricardo and Lisa, who demonstrate their utter uselessness to you, the first choice is whether to leave the house to investigate the sounds, or stay in and hope they go away.

Either choice eventually propels you into the thick of the plot, which manages to remain pretty unified despite all the decision trees. High Ridge isn’t specifically named as being in any state, but it’s obviously supposed to be a Western mining town, and it’s chock full of ghosts of settlers and Native Americans, who evidently got into some kind of genocidal brawl decades ago and wiped each other out. Thus, the whole town is haunted. For whatever bizarre reason the ghosts of the settlers and Indians re-enact their murders of each other on the same night every 50 years. Guess which night is tonight?

This is actually a pretty good premise, and to his credit Goodman never really gets off track. The focus is always on the ghosts and how to end the “horror,” which is the ultimate goal of the story. (There is a way to do it but I won’t spoil it for you). In the meantime, the body count is astronomical for a CYOA book. Somebody gets killed about every three or four pages, though in fairness many of the murders depicted are the ghosts re-enacting the original massacre. And it’s not like Star Trek where it’s just random redshirts who buy the farm. Your own mortality in the pages of this book ought to be sending your insurance premiums inching higher. Here are some of the highlights:

  • You, Ricardo and Lisa get blown away by prospectors in a hail of rifle fire. (p. 44)
  • A prospector fatally cauterizes you with a red-hot iron. (Ouch!) (p. 47)
  • You get splattered with spectral blood from a knife murder that occurs right in front of you, and presumably burned to death. Complete with illustration! (p. 68)
  • “It looks as if your only choice is the way you will die.” (p. 75)
  • “Searchers don’t find your bodies for a month.” (p. 79)
  • “The sound of you hitting the road is loud in the quiet night.” (p. 93)

And, my absolute favorite, also with an illustration:

  • “Then the silence is broken by your screams as knives appear out of nowhere and bury themselves in your backs.” (p. 71)

Even this isn’t the worst of it. I think what really pushed this book over the top was page 51, where you see an Indian warrior carrying a decapitated head by its hair, with blood dripping down his back. The illustration on the facing page–yes, you see everything–is especially horrifying.

I certainly oppose book censorship, but I have to admit the school boards who challenged this book weren’t totally off base. I’m not sure I’d want my 8-year-old nephew reading this, but then again, 30 years later, there’s a lot worse stuff than that out there.

But enough about censorship. Is the book any good? Actually, it is. It’s certainly the most danger-fraught entry in the CYOA series, and the white-knuckled rawness of the writing makes this an uncommonly scary and suspenseful book. The plot is a little hackneyed, but Mr. Goodman stays on message throughout, avoiding the genre-bending extravagance you see in other books in the series. As a ghost story it’s chillingly good. It definitely goes where no CYOA book has gone before, and where few ever dared to venture again.

The premise of The Horror of High Ridge would make a kickass low-budget horror movie. There’s very few CYOA books that would make good movies, but this is one of them!

Grade: A

Next up will be another Julius Goodman entry, Treasure Diver.