Book Reviews, Novels, YA

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps [#s 1 : 10] (1992 – 1997)

a series of 62 novellas, #s 1 to 10

[#s 1 : 10 | 11 : 20 | 21 : 30 | 31 : 40 | 41 : 50 | 51 : 62 ]
Check out the rest of the series using the links above!

01. Welcome to Dead House

It will just kill you.

Verdict: Great

The first Goosebumps novella published back in 1992, Welcome  to Dead House is also one of the series’ best and darkest stories.

Amanda and Josh Benson have just moved with their family to the town of Dark Falls. The name’s apt, as the town seems overcast in a permanent darkness: Clouds are constant, gnarled trees hang their shade over every home, and each street is littered with decaying leaves.  It’s not just their new home — the ‘dead house’ of the title — that reeks of death…it’s the entire town, with a massive cemetery acting as center stage in local attractions.

Welcome to Dead House is one of the most beloved Goosebumps books for good reason. It’s utterly oppressive from page one, and there’s death lurking around every corner. The town itself harbors dark secrets from outsiders, and even darker plans for the entire Benson family. While Amanda and Josh are quick to befriend a few local kids, those very kids also shift between friendly and threatening very quickly, and before long, the two Benson kids can’t get the creepy locals from intruding into their dreams and making ominous demands.

For those interested in Goosebumps, you can’t go wrong starting with book one. The ‘safe scares’ formula for what came after had yet to set in, which means Welcome to Dead House features a bit more gore and death than R.L. Stine’s later stories. The looming threats — which include animal abuse and melting faces — might be the only reason for the squeamish to skip this entry, otherwise it’s a great joy.

02. Stay Out of the Basement

Something’s waiting in the dark…

Verdict: Good

While not among the best Goosebumps entries, Stay Out of the Basement is still a great, iconic entry that’ll keep readers enthralled to the end. We all probably grew up with nearby places we weren’t supposed to go — for us, it was a grimy garage (haunted, I assure you) piled high with old, rotting boxes, each packed to the brim with useless objects belonging to long-time hoarders — or parents with jobs too complex and too awful to figure out, so Stay Out of the Basement‘s story opens itself to easy connections.

After being fired from PolyTech, Margaret and Casey’s dad, Dr. Brewer, has been spending his days locking in the family’s basement. He’s since transferred his university botany lab to home, and is filling his days with dangerous, nebulous experiments. ‘Stay out of the basement!’ is his standard referral to keep his family’s curiosity quiet. With the kids’ mom away on a business trip, the kids are left alone with their obsessed dad for too long — and he’s starting to act downright weird. He’s bleeding green; plant growth is poking out from under his hat; he’s even eating fertilizer and sleeping in a bed of wormy soil. Eugh.

Soon, he’s cooking weird plant foods for the kids and trying to force it on them with terrifying implications of ‘…or else.’ When the kids finally do break into the basement, they find a brutal, humid environment — not good for the house, I’m sure — packed with living, breathing, audibly heaving monstrous plans…and the discarded clothes of visiting friends.

The mystery around what’s happening to Margaret and Casey’s dad, whether he’s good, bad, plant, human will keep readers going to the end. It’s a claustrophobic story, too, as the kids have no place to turn beyond their dangerous house once the threats ramp up.

03. Monster Blood

It’s a monster blood drive!

Verdict: OK

Monster Blood introduced one of Goosebumps‘ most iconic monsters — the Monster Blood™ of the title, magically capable of anything — as well as the longest-running (and worst) sub-series within all 62 books. It also gave us Evan Ross: R.L. Stine’s most lifeless hero, whose only trait seems to be getting upset at every little thing happening to and around him.

The story opens with Evan Ross arriving at his creepy Aunt Kathryn’s for some much-needed vacation time. His aunt is an old, deaf witch who has spent much of her life living in isolation, with only her black cat for company. Evan quickly befriends a neighborhood girl named Andy — who embodies everything Evan is not — and the two kill time visiting a local toy shop. What they find is the original container of Monster Blood®, a type of silly putty so scary the storeowner nearly decides it’s not worth selling for all the trouble it will bring.

At first, the Monster blood acts just as silly putty should: It’s a goopy, thick substance that our heroes make a mess of, slapping it all over Aunt Kathryn’s furniture. When Evan’s dog, Trigger, eats a chunk of the putty, the horror quickly escalates as the dog uncontrollably grows too big for its collar. Soon, the Monster Blood© starts exhibiting other strange powers, including a taste for human flesh and the ability to infinitely expand beyond its original size.

The first Monster Blood story is weird. The witch storyline that drives the Monster Blood here is dropped in all three sequels in favor of evil scientists, which is unfortunate, as the witches are the only interesting characters here. The Monster Blood’s power originating from a magic spell gives the story a very Hocus Pocus (1993) twist, making the putty threatening rather than comedic. It’s something I wish the sub-series kept.

The inspiration for Monster Blood is as boring as Evan Ross himself: R.L. Stine was inspired to write this horror novel when his son Matt threw silly putty on the wall. It stuck, and Goosebumps was born.

04. Say Cheese and Die!

One picture’s worth a thousand screams.

Verdict: OK

Greg and his friends while away the summer hours by breaking into the local spook-house and stealing a bizarre camera. In Stine’s beloved Twilight Zone spin, the camera forecasts the future: Any photo it spits out shows the subject befalling tragedy. It starts innocently — a friend is seen falling down the stairs, and he does — but the risks of the camera quickly ramp up. Another friend nearly breaks their neck; Greg’s dad nearly dies in a horrific car accident; Shari, Greg’s closest friend, goes missing for days. When she returns, she has no memory of where she was or what happened.

The camera belonged to a creepy squatter known only as ‘Spidey.’ In the Goosebumps tradition, Spidey was a mad scientist who lost everyone he ever loved to the camera’s evil powers, and was repenting by hiding it away at his own expense. The camera is imbued not just with scientific ‘progress,’ but a dark magic curse. This combination of magic and science — whatever — loses me a bit, and is too similar to the unfocused Monster Blood stories. The ridiculous appearance of both Spidey and that toaster-camera in the TV adaptation — which, by the way, stars a young Ryan Gosling — don’t help. It would have been more spooky and more Twilight Zone without the convoluted explanation. (This thread is abandoned in the sequel, the poorly-named Say Cheese and Die  Again!)

The TV adaptation made the evil camera out to be a giant toaster wielded by Ryan Gosling.

For Greg and his friends, they struggle to rid themselves of the camera without running into Spider, who at this point is desperate to end their lives and keep his secret buried. Knowledge of the camera is spreading among their friends, and since no one believes the crazy story, gorier and gorier photos are being taken by the day. It ends up more violent than spooky, even featuring the series’ only witnessed death. It’s an alright entry, but only that, hurt more for being so early in the series. Tim Jacobus’ original cover art might be my favorite part.

05. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

What will wake the dead?

Verdict: Good

It’s Christmas vacation, and Gabe Sabry is offered the adventure of a lifetime: To accompany his uncle Ben into unknown archaeological territory. A new series of secret chambers have been found deep underneath the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and Ben’s research crew has exclusive access. As they uncover the hidden rooms, however, there’s a mysterious infection spreading among the workers. Along with it, rumors of a centuries-old curse on any who invade the tomb’s confines. Relenting against superstition, Uncle Ben and his family push onward, discovering further tombs full of past explorers — a plethora of corpses denoting the curse’s long record of victims. Unfortunately for Gabe and his family, it looks like the curse has its rotted, eye-less pits focused directly on them.

Cultural appropriation is always tacky, and it’s tacky here. Any story about Egyptian mummies and cursed corpses is inherently going to have that against it. Being an ode to classic pulp adventures, however, with its story carved out of classic horror movies like Freund and Karloff’s the Mummy (1932) may alleviate these issues to an extent.

Still, readers get a romantic story of exotic adventure, full of traps, international museums, deadly scorpions, secret passages — all the pulpy cliches a mummy tale should provide. There’s just something about ancient Egypt that I found (and still find) enthralling when I originally read this story in the ’90s. Sure, it seems silly to think anyone could find new, untouched tombs in the Great Pyramids today (tourist traps that they are), or that all of Egypt can be condensed to a few obnoxious, belittling stereotypes, but Gabe and cousin Sari’s adventures are perfectly pulpy and exciting, nonetheless. I wish mummies were more mythologized to remove these issues, because I love the concept and atmosphere they offer, even when the result is ridiculous Brendan Fraser movies.

06. Let’s Get Invisible!

Now you see him, now you don’t.

Verdict: Good

Let’s Get Invisible! is dark. Darker than it’s title and cover art suggest — and much better, too. It’s Max’s 12th birthday, and he, his brother Lefty (so named because he’s left-handed), and their friends sneak into the dank, dusty attic of Max’s house to explore its hidden treasures. What they find is amazing: A secret room with only a large, ghastly mirror within. Overhanging this mirror is an old pull-chain lightswitch that turns the individual in front of the mirror invisible.

With the flick of a switch, Max and his friends have found the miraculous secret to invisibility. Something’s not quite right with it, however — this is Goosebumps, after all! — but that doesn’t stop the friends from seeing who can pull off the silliest pranks while invisible, or who can stay under its power the longest. It’s a feat, as the longer the kids stay under the mirror’s power, the harder it is to make it back. Strength leaves them, their visions get blurry, they even hear voices calling to them and see unusual shapes moving towards them….

It’s surprisingly sinister, and the finale (with its requisite twists) is downright creepy. Don’t be fooled by the cover and the tile: Let’s Get Invisible! is about far more than simple invisibility and being silly. The monsters are very real and very threatening. While Let’s Get Invisible! didn’t leave much of an impression on me when I was younger, I feel like I enjoyed it far more as an adult.

07. Night of the Living Dummy

He walks. He stalks…

Verdict: OK

Before Slappy came around, Stine wrote about the evil Mr. Wood in the first Night of the Living Dummy. Everyone forgets about Mr. Wood. Understandably so: His story’s forgettable — his name, too. This first book of the popular Slappy saga is also one of the first Goosebumps stories to feel lacking in its narrative focus: Random things just sort of occur, and red herrings pop up to confuse the reader. Then it’s over.

Night of the Living Dummy is about twin sisters Lindy and Kris, and the personal competitions between them. After finding a discarded dummy (Slappy), the two girls take up ventriloquism to entertain classmates and neigbors. Mr. Wood enters the story as a second dummy meant to keep the twins from fighting over Slappy. Things quickly escalate with Mr. Wood, however, as he seems to have a mind of his own: Threatening, insulting, and even attacking friends and family under the guise of Kris’ ventriloquism act.

Mr. Wood, like Slappy in all subsequent stories, is a ventriloquist’s dummy possessed by an evil spirit. Also like Slappy, he’s not threatening, and the heroes of the story quickly dispatch him with brute force once he plays his cards and makes his threats. This is how all three Night of the Living Dummy stories progress, with the first being the weakest of them. (The ending is ridiculous, too!)

Slappy would eventually go on to replace Curly the Skeleton — pictured here — as the series’ mascot.

I suspect that Slappy only ever became the series’ mascot (replacing Curly the Skeleton) because of the TV adaptations of the second and third books. (This first book was never adapted, and Mr. Wood subsequently forgotten.) Both adaptations greatly improved on their lackluster source material, turning Slappy into a fun villain with a penchant for drama and physical humor. This can’t prevent his novel roots from being so boring, however.

08. The Girl Who Cried Monster

She’s got the monster of all problems!

Verdict: Great

Lucy Dark is really into monsters. She loves stories about monsters, thinking up her own, scaring her younger brother with imaginary monsters around every corner — until, that is, she realizes Mr. Mortman at the library is a real live monster!

Her obsession with monsters is well-known, so no one believes her. (Of course! given the book’s title referencing ‘the boy who cried wolf’ folktales.) The Girl Who Cried Monster is about Lucy’s attempts to prove to parents and friends that Mr. Mortman is an inhuman, cruel creature with bugging eyes, an external, hanging (gross) mouth, and a taste for live baby turtles, flies, eels, snails, etc. We can only hope he doesn’t eat curious young girls, too.

This is a childhood favorite — an iconic, imaginative early entry in the series. It invokes an atmosphere perfect for overcast, miserable afternoons (especially with Tim Jacobus’ great cover art to grab readers’ attentions). The library setting is great, as well, and Mr. Mortman’s humorous penchant for order in his library. (Before chasing after Lucy — for he is, indeed, a monster — he must first stop to pick up and organize spilling library cards.) I remember reading this in the Sequoya Elementary School library back in the ’90s, and translating some of the plot to our own library and the awesome librarians there.

09. Welcome to Camp Nightmare

It’s the little camp of horrors!

Verdict: OK

The first of R.L. Stine’s summer camp Goosebumps frights, Welcome to Camp Nightmare may also be the weakest of them. It breaks the suspension of disbelief a little too often, making it just a little too off in its plotting.

Camp Nightmoon isn’t like most summer camps. That’s apparent from the first page. Camp leaders are aggressive about their guns, for one, and treat campers like Billy Harlan with stereotypical military bravado. The camp’s setting is a little unusual, too, as it exists in both a desert wasteland and a thriving forest with raging rivers. (Confusing geography seems to be a standard with R.L. Stine, whom I suspect rarely leaves the safety of American suburbia.)

After an explosive start to their camping adventures, Billy and his campmates settle in under the care of the inexorable Uncle Al, a strange man who cares for the kids, but also goes out of his way to keep his campers two faulty steps away from certain death. The campgrounds include poisonous snakes, dangerous rapids, an aptly-named Forbidden Bunk, a murderous monster known only as ‘Sabre’ — but, oddly enough, no first aid supplies, no nurses, and no care in the world for the kids’ safety.

While I enjoyed the camp setting, the classic TV adaptation, and Tim Jacobus’ tremendous cover art as a youngster (one of his spookiest!), something about Welcome to Camp Nightmare never sat well with me. It’s a little scatterbrained in telling its story, up until the over-the-top twist adorning the final page. It’s an enjoyable early entry (remembered mostly, I wager, for its cover art), but the setting is never used to its full potential like it is in later camp-themed entries.

10. The Ghost Next Door

There’s a strange new kid on the block…

Verdict: Great

Hannah’s had a lonely summer vacation: Her friends are long gone, too busy to answer her letters, and her small town’s just about empty of things to do. About the only activity she has is keeping her brothers company around the backyard campfire — at least, until a boy named Danny suddenly appears as  her new neighbor. Hannah’s quick to make friends, but something about Danny just never sits right: He comes and goes at random, disappearing at a moment’s notice, almost as if he were a ghost…

Like any Goosebumps novella, things aren’t quite what they seem. Dark shadows begin haunting Hannah, intent on taking her beyond the story. The Ghost Next Door is a finely-structured, classic ghost story, never quite playing to the Goosebumps formula. It’s not scary, but rather thrilling and creepy. The mystery of the ghost’s purpose and identity unravels in a really clever way, too. (Hint: The Ghost Next Door was the  most prominent influence on the 2015 Goosebumps movie starring Jack Black!)

It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoiling it. Rather than hinging on a last-page twist as most of Stine’s books do, the ghost thread goes through some shocking turns at the halfway point, completely altering the story’s direction. It’s never a major mystery, but is still satisfying to figure out, and helps make the Ghost Next Door one of R.L. Stine’s most mature Goosebumps yarns.

[#s 1 : 10 | 11 : 20 | 21 : 30 | 31 : 40 | 41 : 50 | 51 : 62 ]
Check out the rest of the series using the links above!

1 thought on “R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps [#s 1 : 10] (1992 – 1997)”

  1. How is Evan more bland than any other protagonist? Most of them are just as one-dimensional as him. Why only single him out?

    Also, Andy isn’t that great. She’s the one who keeps returning the monster blood despite knowing how dangerous it is. She’s the reason Cuddles terrorised the school and nearly got everyone killed.


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