One thing I loved about Ten was the initial setup, the setting. An island, cut off from the rest of civilization. A house on a cliff, separated from the rest of the island by a rickety bridge. A group of teens who don’t seem to know each other, but who are all connected by one person – Jessica – who is noticeably absent from her own party. A raging storm. Power outages. Cut phone lines. It was creepy and fantastic, if a little cliched.
Upon entering the house, I struggled to differentiate the cast of characters, as they’re introduced in a flurry of activity. Luckily, Ten casted each character into a traditional horror-film role to make my ability to distinguish each person easier – there was the asshole (Nathan), the jock (Kenny), the prude (Vivian), the slut (Minnie), the slut’s object of affection (Ben), the token black guy (TJ), the almost forgettable best friend (Gunner), the girl who dies before we get to type-cast her (Lori), and the voice of reason that no one listens to (Kumiko). And then there’s the female lead, Meg, who stands out in no way, except you somehow know that she’s going to survive because she doesn’t have a stereotypical role to fill.
Once you get past Ten’s characters, which I had hoped were cast in such traditional horror-film roles as some kind of obvious joke for my – the readers – benefit before throwing me for a complete loop by not using those roles to define the characters, you realize the plot is also following a string of horror movie cliches. As people are killed, each character reveals some flaw, or acts in some insufferable manner, just begging for them to be offed for their awful behaviour. At each turn, someone (usually Kumiko) points out the obvious solution (like sticking together) before the rest of the group decides that the obvious solution makes no sense, and does the action that every horror-film buff knows will lead to imminent disaster (like running upstairs when you realize there’s a killer in your house). Of course, Meg and TJ are the two characters who you realize are going to be around for a while, as they seem to be the only ones determined to solve the mystery of the killer. The others are content to spoon on the couch, or disappear by themselves until the next murder brings them all back together.
All of this would have been fine, I would have even enjoyed for its irony, if the characters didn’t acknowledge how easily they fit into these horror tropes, before falling into their cliched roles. The first murder is staged as a suicide, which shocks everyone but they are able to write it off as nothing more. The second murder is swept under the rug as a tragic accident, even after Meg finds signs of foul play. By the third murder, everyone is becoming suspect but no one outright admits that there is a murderer on the loose! It was like McNeil was following a checklist of horror tropes, in an effort to cram as much of them as possible into Ten. Suspicions are raised and everyone begins to mistrust everyone else, which they acknowledge is very Lord of the Flies-esque. Check. People continue to be murdered after the group splits up, so the group continues to split up. Check. Details about the killer are slowly revealed to the protagonist, who keeps the clues to herself for fear of scaring the others. Check. The protagonist begins to suspect her romantic interest. Check. The killer delays in killing his last victim so he can have a heart-to-heart tell-all to fill in any holes left in his grand plan. Check. And the entire time, Meg is focused on her feelings for TJ! I just had a hard time entertaining the idea of a budding romance while the bodies piled up around them.
All that being said, Ten wasn’t necessarily an unenjoyable read. I read it in a couple hours, over the course of an evening, so it was obviously very readable. But when I sat down to write about Ten all I could focus on was how predictable the plot was, because it was so formulaic in following stereotypical horror tropes. Even when I had my suspicions about the killer, I knew I would be wrong and that there would be a big twist I couldn’t see coming, because it followed the formula I had come to expect.