My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
It is the autumn term and Greer MacDonald is struggling to settle into the sixth form at the exclusive St. Aidan the Great boarding school, known to its privileged pupils as S.T.A.G.S. Just when she despairs of making friends Greer receives a mysterious invitation with three words embossed upon on it: huntin’ shootin’ fishin’. When Greer learns that the invitation is to spend the half term weekend at the country manor of Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy at S.T.A.G.S., she is as surprised as she is flattered.
But when Greer joins the other chosen few at the ancient and sprawling Longcross Hall, she realises that Henry’s parents are not at home; the only adults present are a cohort of eerily compliant servants. The students are at the mercy of their capricious host, and, over the next three days, as the three bloodsports – hunting, shooting and fishing – become increasingly dark and twisted, Greer comes to the horrifying realisation that those being hunted are not wild game, but the very misfits Henry has brought with him from school…
“I think I might be a murderer.”
Such goes the first line of S.T.A.G.S., setting the unpretentious, guileless tone that protagonist Greer MacDonald carries until the end. For such a wacky story, right up there with Final Destination and its peers in the slasher genre, her voice holds a refreshingly casual ring.
S.T.A.G.S. is a disquietingly creepy cross of Heathers, The Lottery, and The Hunger Games. Its premise of ultra-rich social evolutionary aristocratic kids hunting their less fortunate schoolmates should never work, yet it does anyway, at least to the extent that S.T.A.G.S. is a great popcorn horror read. The book knows not to overstay its welcome, keeping itself succinctly under 300 pages. Even so, the first half is rather too quiet for a premise that promises to deliver on blood and violence, and things don’t really heat up until after the first twenty chapters.
That said, when things do heat up, shit gets real fast. If you can make it through the first 150 pages (which shouldn’t be too difficult, considering Bennett’s easily readable style), there’s a big payoff to be had. The ending, in particular, is exactly what you’d want for the premise.
Although Greer’s voice is very enjoyable to read, down to the on-point film references she drops every couple of pages, she does essentially behave like a Final Girl, or your generic horror B-movie. Which is to say that she’s on the one hand extremely resourceful (and smart too, in this case, as a star student with a photographic memory) but on the other makes some…questionable choices when the plot calls for it. Just bear with her when she goes into idiot-mode, though. She’s far from the worst of YA heroines when it comes to soundness of judgment.
Some considerations that may impede maximum enjoyment of S.T.A.G.S.: If you’re looking for multi-faceted characterisation and nuanced themes you won’t find much of that in S.T.A.G.S., which stays true to form as a straightforward stabby book. If you admire old money you probably won’t like the borderline-insane level of depravity they stoop to here (I for one found it a fresh contrast to the tonnes of royal heroes in YA). If you want a believable/engaging romance you’ve come to the wrong place; both of Greer’s crushes are more distracting than anything else. (And downright disgusting, in the case of Henry.)
Of course, most of the above should be set aside. S.T.A.G.S. is basically a slasher. Read it as one.