Book Reviews, Novels, YA

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps [#s 21 : 30] (1992 – 1997)

a series of 62 novellas, #s 21 to 30

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

21. Go Eat Worms!

Homework was never this gross before!

Verdict: Good

Go Eat Worms! toes that Goosebumps line between comedy and horror. Following the science fair fad of ’90s kids stories, this is a story about a young student obsessed with science! Todd Barstow is really into worms, and dreams of being an entomologist someday. His school’s putting on a science fair, and Todd’s project — constructing a model suburban house for worms — is his ticket to winning the grand prize: A brand new PC!

The conflict in this yarn comes from Todd’s sibling rivalry, and the vicious pranks he and his sister Regina play on one another. While sabotaging his sister’s project, Todd is starting to think his mistreatment of worms for the worm-house project is manifesting physical consequences in his real life. Even without eyes, it’s clear these worms he collects are starting to look at him sideways — even angrily. Not only that, but whenever he works on his worm collection, infinitesimal earthquakes seem to follow.

It’s up to Todd and his best friend Danny to figure out if everything they’re experiencing is an elaborate prank by Regina, or if these worms really are out for revenge. Todd’s obsession with worms seemed off-putting at first, but then, when I was his age I was rabid over frogs and toads. It’s all incredibly silly, and the horror elements are muted in contrast to the characterization between the siblings and their classmates. The silliness works to its advantage, however, making Go Eat Worms! a good, if light, entry in an already light series.

22. Ghost Beach

No swimming. No surfing. No haunting.

Verdict: Great

Siblings Terri and Jerry Sadler find themselves caught in a ghostly mystery at the family beach house. While visiting their older — much, much older — cousins at their ancestral New England home. They get away from the boring relatives as often as they can, spending their days on the nearby beaches (complete with spooky caves and a family cemetery dating to the 17th century!).

Ghost Beach deserves credit for staying focused. Outside of the older cousins, Terri and Jerry only meet and interact with three distant relatives (Louisa, Nat, and Sam) and the reclusive ghost of the title. They never stray too far from home– either to the haunted cave (a ‘sanctuary’ that traps ghosts) or the eroding cemetery cliffs. This lets Stine really focus on the mystery of the ghost, and make the characters / reader feel as isolated and trapped as possible.

It’s spooky, and full of Stine’s characteristic plot twists that make guessing the ghost’s identity and desires a challenge. Parents might want to note that Ghost Beach contains some of the series’ most visceral scares, with ghosts’ faces melting away to the bone, and even the implied death of a character. The series rarely gets as spooky as it does with Ghost Beach.

23. Return of the Mummy

He’s back…from the dead!

Verdict: OK

Return of the Mummy isn’t bad, but, like How I Got My Shrunken Head, is held back by outdated stereotypes and ignorance of foreign cultures. It also follows its predecessor, the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, nearly beat for beat while upping the cultural appropriation and not bothering to improve the earlier book’s faults.

Gabe Sabry, of the Curse…, returns to Egypt to once again visit his Uncle Ben on another archaeological excursion underneath the Great Pyramids of Egypt. His uncle has his sights set on yet another undiscovered tomb conveniently located in one of the world’s greatest and oldest tourist traps. It’s the archaeological find that will shake the world as it hasn’t been shaken since King Tut!


As the family descends into the busy pyramid, they’re joined by Uncle Ben’s grumpy academic associate, Dr. Fielding, and a local news reporter named Nila. Both are soon cast into suspicion as the tomb (and its untouched mummy) are uncovered, and superstitions erupt over mummy curses and vengeful spirits.

I feel cognitive dissonance with this one: I adore stories set around Egyptian mythology, mummies coming back to life, hidden tombs with secret passages — all the good Egyptian stereotypes. At the same time, stories like these are inherently reliant on casual stereotyping for personal pleasure that it’s all undeniably tacky.

So even though Return of the Mummy is nearly as fun as Gabe’s earlier adventure, it follows in the earlier story’s footsteps too closely. That ancient Egyptians were apparently evil, beautiful white people who all speak perfect English is a little hard to look past as an older reader, too.

24. Phantom of the Auditorium

He’s out to stop the show…for good!

Verdict: Great

Phantom of the Auditorium is emblematic of Goosebumps‘ success. The 24th book in the series, it came out when the series was at its most popular, featuring clever translation of Gaston Leroux’s the Phantom of the Opera (1910) to a middle-school setting, and some of the series’ most well-developed heroes in Booke and Zeke. Instead of being stand-ins for an emotional experience or molded from grade-school stereotypes, Stine gave this gaggle of youngsters their own lingo, in-jokes, and sense of wit.

The mystery itself borders on run-of-the-mill for the series, but is no less clever for it: Ms. Walker, the school drama teacher, is setting up a truncated (and school-friendly) adaptation of Leroux’s horror classic, and Brooke and Zeke are cast as the two leads. The play — of course — holds a curse over it, and hasn’t been performed since the original leading actor disappeared during a 1920s rehearsal. As practice commences, the play is fraught with small accidents and sabotages meant to stop the play in its tracks.

Suspicion is cast on Zeke, the self-centered jokester of the group, and a mysterious man claiming to be the school’s ‘night janitor.’ R.L. Stine casts the red herrings effectively, and the mystery continues until the very end with a humorous twist typical of the series.

Phantom of the Auditorium is as fun a yarn as one can expect of the series, and the joy of it really plays off of the improved characterization rather than the meaty mystery. Brooke, Zeke (and the new student, Brian) are very clever kids. Their witty conversations and the constant school setting of this one reminded me a lot of Joss Whedon’s early work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, strangely enough, which is a pretty big plus for a light ‘n’ fluffy kids series.

25. Attack of the Mutant

He’s no superhero. He’s a supervillain!

Verdict: Great

This 25th entry in the Goosebumps series was an absolute favorite as a kid. While it’s more an adventure than a horror story, that doesn’t hurt its quality any. Attack of the Mutant‘s also among the series’ funniest stories, and continued Phantom of the Auditorium‘s (the previous book) strong attention to character: Skipper and his friends ‘n’ family all feel like real people — clueless, awkward adults and stubborn kids with stubborn interests.

“I can’t see a thing!” Dad exclaimed. “Get that away from me. Can’t you see what this onion is doing to my eyes?”

“There’s a trick to chopping onions,” Mom said, bent over the stove. “But I don’t know what it is.”

Attack of the Mutant is about Skipper’s obsession with collecting comics. He’s into the usual superhero fluff of the ’90s, including not just nods to Marvel, but Todd McFarlane‘s Spawn series that defined (and, unfortunately, led to gross stagnation and sexism) the 1990s comics industry. His favorite series, though, is the fictional Masked Mutant series, about a supervillain able to take any shape. After reading the latest issue, in which the villain’s lair is shown for the first time, he steps off his busride home only to see…that very lair standing tall in front of him, a great, pink fire hydrant towering over the surrounding neighborhoods.

From there, the comics continue bleeding further into reality, to the point he even starts appearing in his own favorite series. Again, it’s not scary so much as it is adventurous and silly and awesome. Moments of suspense abound, but Attack of the Mutant‘s mostly about sneaking into a lair of villainy, outwitting over-the-top supervillains, and saving the day.

Highlights include Skipper’s unhealthy relationship with his friend Wilson, who’s always trying to push his ~fascinating~ collection of stamps on poor Skipper. (Skipper, in turn, is cruel to the sad, boring kid, but their relationship still works in a really fun way.) One of the heroes from the Masked Mutant also makes an appearance, and his role’s the creepiest part: It’s up to Skipper to save his hero, and once he does, the Galloping Gazelle really isn’t such a hero, and even uses Skipper as a distraction so that he can run away. What a hero.

He rested a gloved hand heavily on my shoulder. His gray eyes peered at me solemnly through the slits in his mask. “Do you have wall-climbing abilities?” he demanded.

I shook my head. “No. Sorry.”

“Okay. We’ll take the stairs,” he said.

I was a weekly comics fan when I was Skipper’s age. Not superheroes, really, but Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog series between issues 30 and 70 (still going strong, with over 280 issues as of today). I connected a lot with Skipper when I first read this back in the ’90s, but if you or your kid are completely separated from the comics industry, this maynot hold your attention the same way. Reading as an adult, though, was a complete blast, as I vividly recalled many of the same images and thoughts from 20 years ago. Skipper would go to my local All About Books and Comics in Phoenix, Arizona; I’d dream time and time again what I’d do alongside the freedom fighters of Mobius when Mecha Sonic would show up; etc. Attack of the Mutant is awesome.

26. My Hairiest Adventure

It keeps growing…and growing…and growing…

Verdict: OK

After the fun R.L. Stine had in the preceding stories (Phantom of the Auditorium and Attack of the Mutant), My Hairiest Adventure feels as run-of-the-mill and shallow as the title and cover suggest.

It’s not bad by any means — it’s just uninteresting. ‘Hairy’ Larry, our protagonist, is uninteresting. His friends and their band are uninteresting. The antagonists — a rival band — are uninteresting. The light-hearted mystery around Larry growing thick, black, greasy hair in unusual places is — you guessed it — uninteresting.

Stine’s stories typically provide surface-level spooks and jokes meant to connect with kids and keep those pages turning. This, for all its shortcomings, deserves some credit for branching out to craft a metaphor around puberty and the awful, awful changes puberty brings.

“Do you think the stuff works?” Jared asked, adjusting his cap and staring at the bottle.

“It has to,” Lily said. “They couldn’t sell it if it didn’t work.”

My Hairiest Adventure is a silly story, and a decent way to pass the time, but there are many better Goosebumps books to choose from, whether you want spooky horror (Ghost Beach) or silly humor (Go Eat Worms!). The problems lie not just in how boring the entire concept of body-hair-as-horror is, but, while Larry fixates on an expired can of tanning lotion as the cause of his ills, the real ending is telegraphed too obviously and too early with a subplot involving dogs.

27. A Night in Terror Tower

It’s gonna be a L-O-N-G night!

Verdict: Good

A Night in Terror Tower plays with some really classic horror elements, but experiments a bit too much outside the comfort of pure horror. The set-up is excellent: Siblings Sue and Eddie are visiting London with their parents, exploring historical sites like the Terror Tower of the title.

‘Terror Tower,’ as it’s known, lives up to its name in being a creepy, claustrophobic, grimy medieval tower, where enemies of the local leaders were once violently tortured and killed. Sue and Eddie immediately get lost in the twisting remnants of this torture palace, and find themselves surrounded by hungry rats, and a cryptic lunatic desperate to capture them.

It’s at this stage that I lost interest. The focus turns away from the wonderfully-spooky tower to fantasy and sci-fi, with a completely nonsensical time travel plotline that just never works. Like with other lesser Goosebumps yarns, the twists and turns are too apparent from page one, and there are little surprises in store for readers. (According to R.L. Stine’s biography, A Night in Terror Tower is the only entry in the original 62 books that went through extensive rewrites and multiple drafts before his editors found it publishable, which may explain some of its incoherence.)

Sue and Eddie’s adventures in medieval London end up just OK — as is the surprisingly normal ending — but it’s a steep step away from the promises of the first 40 pages. Juggling so many genres in so few pages is understandably difficult, but, due to that incoherence, the final result ends up having many of my favorite and least favorite Goosebumps moments back to back.

The cover alone catapulted it to favorite status as a kid, however, and I still find it darn menacing. Its focus on internal, uncontrollable fears is pretty great, too.

Losing your memory is so terrifying. Much more frightening than being chased by someone.
That’s because the problem is inside you. Inside your own mind.
You can’t run away from it. You can’t hide from it. And you can’t solve it.

28. The Cuckoo Clock of Doom

Keep your eyes on the birdie!

Verdict: Terrific!

The Cuckoo Clock of Doom is among the most genuinely terrifying yarns in the series. The main storyline, about a flawed cuckoo clock that distorts the flow of time for a young boy named Michael, is creepy enough, but it’s Michael’s family life that is most terrifying. Michael’s younger sister, Tara, is a born psychopath, and whenever she was in focus, I felt nothing but discomfort.

R.L. Stine has mentioned the cuckoo clock of the title was among his favorite creations, and it’s a great one! An antique clock dating to 1800, is sold cheaply to Michael’s father because it carries a mysterious ‘flaw’ that took the previous owners 15 years to spot. It’s never explained what happened, but rather left to the imagination as the terror builds. Like Stine’s Monster Blood, the cuckoo clock’s powers border on nebulous, but in this case it adds to the mystery (like: why does the year counter end in the year 3000?).

Once the cuckoo clock comes into the family’s possession, Michael thinks he can play a trick on his sister to get even.  For years, he’s been the butt of her malice, and every day brings some vicious prank at his expense (whether it be ruining his birthday presents, embarrassing him in front of his crush and her friends, or even getting him beaten to a pulp by bullies). His plan is to make it appear Tara broke the mechanical cuckoo bird so that when the hour strikes, its entrance is underwhelming. It’s a small prank to play on such a hateful person.

When he wakes up the next morning, Michael finds himself reliving the awful birthday party Tara ruined 2 weeks earlier. But that’s just the start: Day after day, Michael uncontrollably relives random moments from his past, moving further and further back in time. The cuckoo clock is no longer in their possession, and he’s much too young to find it on his own or convince anyone of his time travel predicament. It’s a creative approach to time travel, and the cuckoo clock itself is an interesting invention, with a lot of implied mythology behind it.

Tara, though….

She proudly bears her nickname (‘Tara the Terrible’) in torturing Michael every minute of the day  — and it’s not just sibling rivalry, it’s pure malice and delight in his pain that drives her to hurt her own brother. To grow up with her as close family would be a nightmare akin to We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s eponymous psychopath, making her possibly the scariest thing from the Goosebumps series.

29. Monster Blood III

Evan’s growing up way too fast!

Verdict: Bad

Even though Monster Blood® is one of the defining monsters from the Goosebumps series, the stories built around them have never felt particularly strong. Monster Blood is just too nebulously powerful. It makes things grow; hungers for whoever gets in the way; has a will shaped by magic in one book, then its own in the next; makes things bad while toeing self-contradiction. It doesn’t help that Evan, the hero in every Monster Blood story, is possibly Stine’s weakest character.

Evan Ross’ defining characteristic is simply to complain, and he spends each Monster Blood book doing nothing but trying to stay out of the excitement. It would be better to focus the story around one of Evan’s more interesting friends, like Andy or Kermit.

His cousin Kermit is awful — awful — and consistently gets away with blaming his own mischief on Evan. He’s a brat, but a very smart brat. He spends his freetime doing chemistry experiments. Evan and Andy, frustrated by Kermit’s brattiness, hatch a plot to scare Kermit by injecting Monster Blood into one of his experiments. The intent is to give him something he can’t control, and, unfortunately, no one’s able to control the joke. Evan ingests some of the Monster Blood, and quickly finds himself a giant gallivanting around town, unable to hide: He helps kids unhook a kite from a tree; he shows off his newfound basketball skills; and he runs from the cops and firemen who are convinced he’s a space alien.

The Monster Blood sub-series should have ended with the second book. Monster Blood III isn’t dreadful by any means, but the story feels narrow with its unwavering focus on boring characters being boring.

30. It Came from Beneath the Sink!

It’s warm! It’s breathing! And it doesn’t do dishes!

Verdict: Good

Moving into a new home, Katrina ‘Kat’ Merton and her brother Daniel find a warm, squishy, dirty, breathing sponge left behind underneath the sink. This gross find brings a wave of bad luck to Kat and her family. According to legend, there exists a creature much like this sponge called ‘Grools’ that serve as omens of bad luck. Any who try to rid themselves of the create fail, and instead meet an untimely death. With each passing day, Kat’s relatives and friends find themselves mysteriously injured or even nearly killed, and the Grool pulses and heaves, growing bigger and brighter. Kat and her brother must find a way to safely rid their family of this bad luck charm before someone ends up seriously injured or killed.

It Came from Beneath the Sink! borrows its title from one of Stine’s favorite 1950s B-movies, It Came from Beneath the Sea.

Most of It Came from Beneath the Sink! is spent following the kids as they handle the Grool’s bad luck, all while trying new and creative methods to rid themselves of the creepy omen. Of course, no one believes the siblings or wants to help since the ‘deadly monster’ is just a dirty old sponge (even if it is pulsing and breathing and chuckling to itself). The Grool’s an imaginative monster that can’t be harmed or tossed aside, and looks harmless despite the damage it causes.

It’s a fun tale, though not particularly spooky. Despite the apparent harmlessness of the monster, it’s impossible to predict or bring under control, which creates some tense moments of real danger. There’s also a touch more gore in this entry, and the possibility of death looms over every character.

The title is based on the 1955 B-movie, It Came from Beneath the Sea, which, according to R.L. Stine’s biography (It Came from Ohio!), was one of the inspirations for his writing career.

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

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