Book Reviews, Novels, YA

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps [#s 31 : 40] (1992 – 1997)

a series of 62 novellas, #s 31 to 40

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

31. Night of the Living Dummy II

He’s still walking. He’s still stalking.

Verdict: OK

While the first Night of the Living Dummy was a mess of unlikable characters doing unlikely things, the first sequel is a little more structured. Still, the conflicts with Slappy (or any of the evil dummies) never felt like they carried significant risk. Even as a kid, I recall finding the heroes’ attempts to overpower the dummies too easy and too immediate. Slappy was more of an annoying personality who wouldn’t leave you alone than a threat, especially with his fixation on making children his slaves.

Slappy takes center stage as the villain after Mr. Wood’s failed plot in the first novel. Amy Kramer is a young girl with an odd passion for ventriloquism. Where her rival sister, Sara, is a wunderkind artist, Amy expresses her skills in comedy routines with her dummy, Dennis. Unfortunately, Dennis (and her act) is in shambles, and Slappy enters the picture as a dolled-up replacement. (How he got from the first book to here is never explained.)

As expected, he comes complete with a magic spell that brings him to life, and he immediately ruins Amy’s acts with cruel insults or even physically injuring the audience. He’s also sneaking into Sara’s bedroom every night and ruining her artwork. No one believes that a dummy could come alive, so Amy is increasingly separated from a family who can no longer trust her. Probably the freakiest scenario here: Being so mistrusted by your own family that no one can look you in the eye.

Sara does, at least, come to believe Amy, and the two sisters hatch a plot to get the family back on Amy’s side, getting rid of Slappy for good. It was significantly better than the first Night of the Living Dummy, but it’s still missing something that I still can’t quite put my finger on.

32. The Barking Ghost

Bad dog. Really BAD dog.

Verdict: Good

The Barking Ghost really used to scare me. Any ghost story with animals would leave me unsettled. At least human ghosts have a purpose behind their existence: A structured story to communicate. Dead animals don’t get the luxury of conveying their loneliness or abuse easily.

The scenario — two black Labradors with shining red eyes haunt Cooper and his friend Fergie in rural Maine — had me thinking a lot about such loneliness when I was younger. Cooper’s just moved to the middle of nowhere from the big city of Boston, and from the first night onward he’d find himself woken up by two barking dogs. Everyone else rolls their eyes, assuring themselves he’s listening to the wind again.

Soon, the dogs start showing up in his house, where walls are no obstacle. The dogs might be threatening one instant, and friendly the next. Cooper and Fergie quickly find themselves drawn into the woods by these two ghost dogs only they can see or hear..

This being Goosebumps, there’s a final twist — and it’s a little too out there for me (especially given some very nice foreshadowing of a better twist…), spoiling the mystery the first two-thirds build up so effectively. There’s some strong characterization here, as Cooper and his brother Mickey have a golden relationship full of teasing and humor. It’s just a bummer the final third drags detracts from the stronger aspects, making this merely a decent entry.

33. The Horror at Camp Jellyjam

Tennis…ping pong…monsters, anyone?

Verdict: Good

One of the rare Goosebumps books to ditch Midwestern suburbia, the Horror at Camp Jellyjam does the wilderness camping experience justice.

Siblings Wendy and Elliot ride deep into the forest on a runaway trailer, leaving their parents (and safety) far behind. Luckily, they land themselves in the eponymous Camp Jellyjam, a competitive summer camp with every sport and fun even a kid could want: Swimming, tennis, ping-pong, basketball — it’s exactly the fun summer vacation the siblings weren’t getting from their parents’ camper.

The Horror at Camp Jellyjam is another solid mid-series adventure, full of creepy scenarios and one of the better exotic settings. Its worst feature may be that the protagonists lack personality, even for a Goosebumps story: Wendy’s a boring goody-two-shoes, and Elliot is defined only by his competitive streak.

As you’d expect, things aren’t what the heroes expect at Camp Jellyjam. Days pass and their parents are nowhere to be seen; the counselors running the camp are aggressively cheerful and creepy (as seen on the original cover…); the camp itself promotes an unhealthy competitive spirit that categorizes its kids into good and bad. Just what’s going on behind this camp? and why are there sporadic earthquakes rocking the camp? ‘Only the best’ are allowed to find out, as they cross they undergo the Winner’s Walk ceremony…and disappear forever.

Elliot gets himself absorbed in the competitive vibes, and it’s up to Wendy to sidestep the neverending sports and figure out where the kids and the parents have disappeared to. It’s a good mystery, and the resolution to it’s really unsettling (if a little hard to believe).

Oddly, the Goosebumps Classics reissue cover gives away a huge spoiler in the story.

34. Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes

Keep off their grass!

Verdict: Great

You can tell R.L. Stine had a lot of fun writing this one. All the main characters — Joe, Mindy, Moose…even the evil gnomes, Chip and Hap — are hilarious goofs.

The gnomes of the title aren’t quite what you’d expect from the recent Goosebumps (2015) movie. They’re classic trickster figures, in the vein of Coyote, Loki, or Raven. When Joe and Mindy’s dad adorns his yard with two ugly lawn gnomes, the gnomes immediately dive into midnight mischief — usually at the expense of the neighboring gardener. 12-year-old Joe, of course, gets blamed for all the trouble.

Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes isn’t scary at all; it’s just fun. Even for younger readers, there aren’t many moments of suspense, and it’s instead more about the mischief that the gnomes, Joe, his friend Moose, et al., play on one another. Joe’s sister, Mindy, has a serious case of OCD, and exhibits her quirks and need for order throughout the story. She’s easily one of the most interesting characters in the entire 62-book series, and helped make this one of the funnest stories Stine wrote — even if it is light on the spooks.

35. A Shocker on Shock Street

It’s a real dead end.

Verdict: Horrible!

A real dud in the series, A Shocker on Shock Street gives too much focus to its twist ending that the characterization and plot severely suffer.

Best friends Erin and Marty are obsessed with a fictional series of Shock Street movies, and the complex mythology built around them. Erin’s dad is an engineer for the fictitious franchise, who gets the two heroes exclusive access to a terrifying new ride through the movies’ sets. They come head-to-head with giant praying mantises (that spit digestive goo!), zombies, ghost trams, werewolves (a particularly drawn-out encounter that defies any sense of urgency in just how bizarre it is), and a number of other shocks through Hollywood’s Shock Street.

Erin and Marty’s adventure starts as nothing more than a ride haunted by animatronic monsters, but soon enough it’s clear the monsters — and the danger they pose — are very real.

Usually R.L. Stine plays strong sibling personalities off of one another to enhance both the humor and scares, but these two friends are lifeless. Marty is nothing but obnoxious, and Erin, the narrator, is barely present at all. It’s consequently difficult to keep track of the two as they dodge monsters up until the silly, nonsensical twist. A Shocker on Shock Street is more uninteresting than anything, and came right before a series of bad-to-mediocre stories that had me and most of my friends abandoning the franchise in the ’90s.

36. The Haunted Mask II

New face. Old nightmare.

Verdict: Great

A good, old-fashioned Halloween yarn is what Goosebumps does best. The Haunted Mask II takes place a year after the original Halloween tale, and Carly Beth, having lived through the nightmare of bonding with a devilish mask, is no longer the scaredy-cat she once was.

She’s also no longer the narrative focus — instead, this direct sequel follows one of Carly Beth’s old bullies, Steve, as he deals with coaching a team of rabid animals (i.e., first-graders) in the days leading up to Halloween. The kids treat him like dirt, and with the holiday approaching, he hopes to out-do Carly Beth’s horrific adventure and really scare the pants off his obnoxious students.

‘The Unloved,’ as the haunted masks are known, are some of R.L. Stine’s most creative monsters. Partially, it’s because the suggested mythology behind them: With a slew of masks desperate to tell their individual tales, we’re limited to only experiencing a small handful of these ghastly monsters and imagining the rest. The masks are ugly, warm, pulsing, fleshy covers perfect for Halloween; they look utterly real, and throb with a creeping desire to be worn. Once a mischievous soul dons the mask, it physically — painfully –merges with that person, and the mask’s personality melts into the person’s, as well.

Last year, Carly Beth wore the mask of what’s best described as a demon; Steve, on the other hand, grabs the mask of a decrepit old man covered in necrotic tissue, only days from death.  Spiders inhabit his few strands of hair, and he only sports a single rotting tooth in his mouth. The old man is also emotionally haunted by loneliness, weakness, depression, and a self-loathing anger.

Having a kid — especially a joker like Steve — take on the characteristics and emotional turmoils of someone so worn-out and unhappy is rough, and the looming danger of simply running out of time feels very real. It’s darker than the original Haunted Mask, and I greatly appreciate that the villain is not a black-and-white source of evil, but rather uncomfortably grey and sympathetic.

Both of the Haunted Mask stories are a series highlight, and both still hold up exceptionally well as perfect accompaniments to the Halloween season.

37. The Headless Ghost

Major headache!

Verdict: Great

The Headless Ghost might be the most straight-forward horror tale in the series since the 1992 opener, Welcome to Dead House. There’s little of R.L. Stine’s Mad Magazine humor here, as  friends Duane and Stephanie go ghost-hunting in the town’s haunted mansion. After a year of haunting the local youngsters with practical jokes and made-up horrors, they’re taking things to the next level by trying to haunt the one place ghosts already exist.

The majority of this 37th entry is spent sneaking through the mansion’s nooks and crannies after dark. 100 years earlier, a young boy was murdered by a ghost already present in the mansion, and his head was hidden away where no one would ever find it. Since that day, the boy himself has joined the ranks of hte mansion’s ghosts, forever seeking his lost head. Duane, Stephanie, and their new friend Seth are out to find the boy’s head among the mansion’s secrets.

The nights searching are paranoid: The house is full of cold spots, disembodied voices, bloody secrets, and utter sadness. The ghostly sightings themselves are reserved for key moments when they’d pack the biggest punch. It’s pretty rare for Stine to hold back like this, and the pacing of the Headless Ghost really sets it apart from the series’ usual formula. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable tale, and a favorite for the Halloween season.

38. The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena

He’s no fun in the sun!

Verdict: Bad

With hushed whispers, the Goosebumps series started show signs of a worn-out welcome in the 30s and 40s, but I found it hard to pinpoint any book as separating eras of quality. The series would just go up and down, most books good, a few great, and the occasional stinker. The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena is a stinker, and kickstarted a string of back-to-back stinkers.

This entry is as silly as the title suggests. Nicole and Jordan Blake are two youngsters tired of the SoCal heat. Their father, a well-known photographer (and an absolutely dreadful parent), is hired to venture into the Alaska wilderness to track down the cryptozoological beast of the title. Locals have been going missing, and accounts of this folkloric beast are cropping up so frequently with these disappearances that the greater population is starting to believe.

The villains of Goosebumps‘ 34th, 35th, and 38th entries were leading monsters in the 2015 movie.

To this SoCal family, snow is the real myth they’re interested in. The job is just an excuse to get out of the heat.

Since this is a Goosebumps story, the abominable snowman of the title is, of course, very real, and very threatening. In a plot twist uncomfortably similar to Spielberg’s the Lost World (1997), the dad safely brings back the snowman to Pasadena, storing it — alive, encased in ice and magic snow — in a giant cooler in his dark room. And he escapes.

It’s too ridiculous. The siblings are an interesting enough pair, but the father is a complete jerk who continually puts his kids in danger for personal profit; and the stereotypical portrait of Alaska is too over-the-top (tundra, glaciers, crevasses, snow caves, snow rises, dogsleds, one-horse towns — we see it all within a couple square miles). Plot threads themselves seem connected by unrelated happenstance, a typical sign of low-quality ‘bumps.

For these reasons, this book’s a real stinker in the series. It failed to capture either the horror or zany humor of the preceding entries, and ends up wallowing somewhere in the middle where nothing much works.

39. How I Got My Shrunken Head

Heads up!

Verdict: OK

12-year-old Mark Rowe has an unhealthy obsession with jungles and video games and jungle-themed video games. Anything thematically related to jungles really gets him excited; he even dreams of following in his Aunt Benna’s footsteps and studying the jungle’s wildlife and cultures. As How I Got My Shrunken Head opens, his Aunt Benna’s assistant shows up for a surprise visit, bringing an equally-surprising gift: A 100-year-old shrunken head.

Mark’s a huge fan of video games, including, it’s suggested, the classic ’80s game, Pitfall!

That, and a plane ticket to visit her aunt’s research station in an isolated corner of Southeast Asia.

Mark’s story feels like a pulpy adventure yarn straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Mark has to endure oppressive heat, blood-thirsty beasts, gun-toting villains, and ancient magic in order to save the day. Maybe he’ll grow up a bit, too.

It’s not bad, but the story’s pulpy roots, and frequent references to both jungle mysticism (literally: ‘Jungle Magic’) and shrunken heads, make it feel dated beyond its 20 years. It also ups the violence and bypasses Goosebumps‘ trademark safety. Death looms around every corner, and the villains’ comeuppance is both ominous and undeserved.

As a side note, R.L. Stine has a rough history with scientists, and that’s no different here. Aunt Benna, one of only two heroic scientists in the entire series (the other being Deep Trouble‘s Dr. D), is terrible: She studies everything — archaeology, ecology, biology…even astrology — and is directly to blame for every danger Mark faces in the story. Thanks a lot, Science.

40. Night of the Living Dummy III

Every dummy has his day — and night!

Verdict: Good

Night of the Living Dummy III is weird. It’s weird in that it’s nearly identical to the prequel, Night of the Living Dummy II, for nearly every beat of its plot.

It some respects, it legitimately feels like a rewrite, but one spent correcting the issues with the prior two stories in the sub-series. R.L. Stine’s characterization also really shines with this entry; the siblings play off of one another with genuine personalities, and their reluctance to accept their doofy cousin feels very real. The dad is uniquely awkward, often failing at being a stern parent — but, boy, does he try! He tries really, really hard to be a commanding parent, and fails every time.

Night of the Living Dummy III also inches towards genuine creepiness: Trina and Dan O’Dell’ dad brings home a 13th dummy to add to his growing collection. Soon after, horrible pranks star occurring int he night, with cousin Zane usually at the butt-end of them. Most of the novella is about unraveling the mystery of who’s pranks, and what the motivation is. It could be Slappy, or the threat might be a bit more grounded and…real. The supernatural scares don’t become blatant until the very end.

With mild spoilers, I still don’t understand Slappy’s goal of making children his slaves by simply being an annoying jerk. Like in the immediate prequel, he isn’t threatening — just irritating and rude. And like with the first two books, our heroes simply overpower him with brute strength once he plays his cards and start making threats. It makes Slappy’s nefarious goals confusingly quixotic, and his threats not threatening.

But Night of the Living Dummy III was all about characterization, and the feeling of an ominous mystery. It’s easily the best of the original sub-series, and can be read entirely on its own without reference to the first two.

[#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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