Book Reviews, Novels, YA

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps [#s 41 : 50] (1992 – 1997)

a series of 62 novellas, #s 41 to 50

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

41. Bad Hare Day

He’s no Easter bunny!

Verdict: OK

Bad Hare Day‘s premise isn’t interesting. Tim Swanson, an amateur magician, lives by his magic tricks — he’s obsessed with impressing his classmates. One day, he hopes, he’ll follow in the footsteps of his favorite magician, Amaz-O. As the story kicks into gear, Amaz-O is putting on a late-night show at the local magician’s theater. Tim, with the help of his bratty sister, Ginny, don’t see any choice but to sneak out and catch the performance.

But things aren’t what they seem at the performance. Tim finds himself stealing Amaz-O’s bag of tricks for his own purposes, but the magic within the bag proves too strong and too real for Tim to control.

There’s also a talking bunny with a lot of attitude.

Tim and Ginny play off one another’s personalities really well. They banter and joke, pretend to fight, but ultimately care for one another as siblings do. Ginny, a budding student of karate, also issues much-needed chops and kicks to any deserving individuals or objects. Their parents occasionally present themselves to crack a joke or two about soul-sucking jobs and overall parent misery.

The story itself is oddly paced. Other characters lack a presence worth describing. Tim’s adventure doesn’t even start until over halfway through, which might leave a lot of younger readers bored. The adventure itself is a head-long rush towards a quick and clever twist ending.

It’s OK, but suffers as not interesting. Magic tricks are a pretty niche, unsocial thing to obsess over (at least, they were as I recall them…), so Tim’s interests might not connect with many readers. I enjoyed the banter and humor between the family members — there are a number of genuinely funny moments in Bad Hare Day, but it’s not enough to cover for the lack of scares and story.

42. Egg Monsters from Mars

They’re no yolk!

Verdict: OK

Despite the premise (and cover) promising one of Goosebumps‘ more humorous stories, Egg Monsters from Mars is more gross-out horror than anything. The story is born from classic genre B-movies, with the aliens of the title appearing all over Dana Johnson’s neighborhood. During his sister’s birthday egg-hunt, Dana finds one of many mysterious, pulsing, throbbing blue eggs. Overnight, an egg-like ball of slime hatches in Dana’s sock drawer, spreading its yellow grease wherever it moves.

It’s disgusting, and R.L. Stine makes use of gross-out descriptives to full effect. The monster’s intentions are unknown but seemingly-benign, and Dana takes it to a neighborhood laboratory hoping to learn more about the gross little critter.

Trusting the lab’s lead scientist, however, proves to be a mistake. The duplicitous Dr. Gray traps Dana with a herd of egg monsters in order to further study the Martians’ effects on people. Dana’s kidnapping borders on torturous, only adding to how effectively creepy this story can get.

“Please don’t stare at me like that,” he said. “I’m not a bad guy. I don’t want to frighten you. And I don’t want to keep you in this lab against your will. But what choice do I have? I’m a scientist, Dana. I have to do my job.”

Dr. Gray is an awful human being, with no concern for the rights of human subjects. He was terrifying, but I hated his inclusion. By saying it’s his ‘job’ as a scientist to kidnap Dana, it paints a very false, very negative image of science that I couldn’t get behind. (This is a complaint I have of many Goosebumps stories.) Overall, it was a step up from the books that preceded it, while still bordering on forgettable.

43. The Beast from the East

He’s a real animal!

Verdict: Horrible!

The series had been feeling dog-tired for the five entries preceding the Beast from the East, and that feeling culminated here. The worst of the Goosebumps series, this forty-third entry seemed to signal a very bored story written by a very bored writer.

Ginger and her twin brothers, Pat and Nat, are out camping with their parents. Barely settling into their campsite, the kids get lost and are immediately dragged into a deadly game of tag played by an alien species of blue-furred, English-speaking monsters. This game is, of course, called the Beast from the East — a name that alludes only to how arbitrary the game’s logic and rules are: Whoever’s the ‘Beast’ of the title must either escape or tag another player before sundown, or face being eaten by the winners.

But — and here’s where the arbitrariness of this entire story drags it down — the tag only counts if the ‘Beast’ sneaks up and tags the player from the east without their notice, and only if the other player doesn’t claim to have paused the game for any made-up reason. Add to that, hiding spots that only work once per game (implying the monsters know about them but pretend not to…?), penalty rocks that randomly explode if touched, brown splotches of grass that are instant-win zones for hungry monsters, special clone rules (for the twins!), and so on.

The siblings spend the entire book hurtling through a game of cat and mouse, with new rules popping up in each chapter. It’s all too random and too frantic, allowing no time for developing characters or a coherent story.

Usually the stinkers in this series are still fun to read, but the Beast from the East has nothing going for it.

44. Say Cheese and Die — Again!

Think negative. Real negative.

Verdict: Good

A step above the original Say Cheese and Die!, this sequel is mostly a retread that amps up the stakes while ditching the earlier story’s weaker aspects (magic! science! Spidey!), putting friends Greg and Shari in more danger than ever before. The set-up is admittedly weak (as is the title…), but it didn’t stop R.L. Stine from fixing some of the loonier aspects of the original, focusing instead on the horror…and some more legitimate fears like body-image issues.

Over summer, Greg and the gang nearly got themselves killed messing with an unusual toaster-camera. This particular camera shows violent, painful futures for each photo’s subjects — potentially even death. School’s started, however, and Greg’s brought the horror story to his English class. This upsets his tyrant of a teacher, Mr. ‘Sourball’ Saur, who demands that Greg must prove the camera’s power is real, or else get an F for all his work.

Greg’s been here before, but this is Goosebumps. He should know better, but steals the camera back despite that, and chaos ensues. Surprising chaos for a Goosebumps novel. Thanks to the cursed camera, Shari begins wasting away, losing tens of pounds a day. Greg, on the other hand, bloats up overnight, gaining at least 200 pounds to the surprise of friends and family.

Except ‘Sourball’ Saur, who just slings insults at him like a bully.

“Greg, I want you to go see the nurse, “Mr. Saur ordered. “I want her to discuss the four food groups with you. I think you’ve been eating too much of all four!”

(Obviously, Mr. Saur should have his teaching license revoked.)

I felt embarrassed just walking down the street. When cars drove past, I knew the people inside were staring at me. Laughing at the big mound of Jell-O bouncing along the sidewalk.

While the plot of the cursed camera is by no means original (Twilight Zone and Are You Afraid of the Dark? have both been here), it’s a fun ride. It’s rough getting in the minds of kids facing these types of body-image issues. (I went through the same concerns between 12 and 14, too — the absolute worst time to have any kind of social problem like this — and Greg’s worries reflected my own.) Say Cheese and Die — Again! is, despite its lame heritage and even lamer title, a big improvement over the preceding book.

45. Ghost Camp

Be all that you can’t see!

Verdict: Great

Yohhhhhhhh Spirits!

Ghost Camp‘s a surprising gem for coming so late in the series, particularly after a string of uninspired, uninteresting duds spelling the series’ doom. Far different from the usual Goosebumps formula, this entry sticks close to its horror roots, playing out like a traditional ghost story in the woods.

Brothers Harry and Alex Altman (possibly the first and only case of not having a brother-sister team) are joining a summer camp late in the season, intending to spend a few weeks in the woods before the new school year starts. Camp Spirit Moon’s the only camp accepting latecomers, however, and it’s an unusual camp full of unusual personalities, hidden with nary a trail or guiding sign to point the way deep in the woods.

For their first night in camp, head counselor Uncle Marv shares some truly eerie, truly true ghost stories about a camp just like Camp Spirit Moon. Following that, the resident campers spend every moment trying to terrify both the newcomers by, well, ‘dying’ again and again and again.

The camp’s intentions are quickly revealed as sinister — no spoiler going by that title — and both Harry and Alex need to find a way to escape an oppressive black fog enveloping the camp, as well as a monstrous force living deep within the wood, and the countless souls desperate to escape the cursed camp in our heroes’ places.

The dedication to the spooks created one of the most satisfying R.L. Stine yarns in a long while.

46. How to Kill a Monster

Step 1: Run. Step 2: Run faster.

Verdict: OK

How to Kill a Monster is as generic as the series got. Siblings Gretchen and Clark are spending a few days with their grandparents while their parents are on a business trip to Atlanta. Their grandparents live off the grid, deep in the heart of swamp country. They have no phones, no TV, almost no windows — they just barely manage working electricity! They also life in a house designed to be a castle, oddly enough (which doesn’t sound like the wisest choice for sinking swamp soils).

Gretchen and Clark are baffled by the wa their grandparents live, and by the odd behaviors they exhibit. Both adults are constantly cooking meals to feed the family five times over, and then sneaking leftovers to a locked room hidden deep in the castle. The siblings investigate, and, sure enough, find a verifiable swamp monster trapped in part of the house.

In a shocking display of poor parenting, the grandparents lock the siblings in with the monster and leave, asserting that the kids must either prevent the monster from getting out, or find a way to kill it.

“‘We know it’s unfair to run off now. But we’re just going for help. We’ll be back — as soon as we can find someone. Someone who knows what to do with this horrible beast.

“‘Sorry, kids. We really are — but we had to bolt you inside the house. To make sure you didn’t wander into the swamp by yourselves. It’s not safe out there.’”

Were they for real?

It’s a plain entry, repeating too many beats from earlier stories. I did like that the siblings were not biologically related, even if it didn’t affect the plot — R.L. Stine’s families typically stick to stereotypes of the American Ideal. Other than that, it’s a mildly enjoyable diversion compared to the better Goosebumps stories, but it’s hard to recommend.

It also contains my favorite editing gaffe in the entire series:

Clark stared at me. Frozen. His eyes on the raging monster.

47. Legend of the Lost Legend

Finders keepers!

Verdict: Horrible!

Legend of the Lost Legend was received poorly, and helped signal the impending end of the series. It’s the first of only a handful of Goosebumps stories to never be republished; it also deviates from the series’ trademark horror and thrills to tell a straight-faced fantasy.

It’s not the worst story in the series, and the first quarter of the story provides a good setup that lasts until the fantasy elements start creeping into the story, eventually overwhelming the plot with pure chaos. Once the story devolves into a series of random events coated in fantasy, there’s nothing to hold thie books together.

The best Goosebumps stories rarely leave suburbia, and for good reason. When we get stories out in the woods, or among lost island jungles, or in the arctic tundra — anywhere remotely exotic to the Midwestern United States — the stories rarely make use or even show an understanding of the setting. This one, set in the forests of the make-believe European country of Brovania, is no different.

Siblings Justin and Marissa are on a quest with their father — a professor who collects and publishes folklore from around the world — to find the Lost Legend. The story’s title refers to stories of a lost folktale, written and buried deep in the woods centuries earlier. It’s a fun setup, promising a solid Goosebumps entry. But then the kids get lost following a mysterious dog, and stumble upon an unusual woman (dressed like a viking!) who offers them what they seek if they’re able to pass a test.

The test is where the story loses itself. The creepy woods are replaced with a papier-mâché forest (literally: ‘The Fantasy Forest’). Native life is replaced by animatronic mice and giant cats. Then the test is over, and the kids pass for understanding there’s a difference between real and unreal. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s never interesting.

The tale concludes with a humorous twist that actually does the series justice: The Lost Legend of the title isn’t quite what the heroes expected — or wanted. While the story’s not as bad as some of the other stinkers, it’s hurt by the cascade of random events driving the plot, and by never taking advantage of its setting.

The thought of being played with and then eaten by a giant cat with a giant, scratchy tongue is pretty awful, though.

48. Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns

Put one head in front of the other…

Verdict: Great

Halloween provided Goosebumps with many of its best stories, and Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns is one of those. It’s hero, Drew Brockman, is also one of R.L. Stine’s funniest, most relatable, and real narrators in the entire series.

Neighborhood brats Tabby and Lee count bullying our heroes (and, well, everyone) among their favorite pastimes. Among their worst crimes is a neighborhood-wide prank they played on Halloween night two years before. Drew, Walter, and the twins Shana and Shane have been fostering Halloween revenge plots ever since — no one gets away with ruining the greatest of all holidays! Grrrrrr!

Drew growls a lot, too. She’s tiny in stature, with elfin features and elfin nicknames to accompany her looks. She and her friends are tough and outspoken about that toughness — maybe they even overcompensate a bit. But they’re fun, likable, and completely spastic heroes.

On Halloween night, two ghoulish figures with flame-lit jack-o’-lanterns for heads sneak up on Drew, Walter, and the two bully brats. We’re to assume they’re the missing twins, but something isn’t quite right with the pair of creeps. The pumpkin-heads are cruel, and things quickly escalate away from their revenge plans as the group is pushed deep into the woods. To top it off, these ‘friends’ just sound wrong, with deep, rasping, cruel voices. Wasn’t there something about people disappearing around town recently, too?

Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanternsis a tremendously fun Halloween tale. The sense of creeping mystery — whether our gang is being pranked, or led by monsters, or what! — is upheld up through Stine’s trademark twist ending. That, coupled with the quirky and original personalities telling this story make it among the best Gooseboops yarns in the entire series.

49. Vampire Breath

Open wide and say…mouthwash!

Verdict: Bad

Vampire Breath has one of the series’ most clever twist endings, but the story itself is completely underwhelming. Like many of Stine’s weaker stories, the plot seems held together by unrelated happenstance, and it does no justice to the vampire lore. The pressure of a monthly publishing schedule surely wasn’t helping when he was pushing 50 books in the series, either.

What’s unusual is that the set-up promises a completely different story. Freddy and his friend Cara are telling scary stories to their neighbor, Tyler: Stories of werewolves creeping up behind him during the full moon, heaving a sour werewolf breath on his neck before tearing him to pieces.

The entire babysitting scenario has no relationship to the rest of the story.

Freddy and Cara then stumble upon a secret room in Freddy’s basement. The inside bizarrely resembles a castle — greatly contrasting with the typical suburban home — and houses nothing but a coffin and a glass bottle that says ‘Vampire Breath.’ There’s also a feeble, old vampire with no fangs hiding in the coffin.

Keeping with Stine’s love of the classics, the vampires of Vampire Breath most closely resemble Lugosi’s 1931 performance as Count Dracula.

The vampires of this story have almost no relationship with vampires as we know them (even that sort); they come either from the 1931 movie (cape and all), or Stine’s imagination. The Vampire Breath of the title is a powerful gas that all vampires must ingest once a day in order to maintain their immortality (although this rule is broken on multiple occasions). It also, like Monster Blood, does just about anything imaginable, including powering invisibility, their very memories (or else risk Alzheimer’s), and enabling time travel.

Freddy and Cara travel back in time to a 19th-century castle infested with scores of vampires and empty Vampire Breath bottles. They must help the vampire find his fangs, all while hoping to get back to the 1990s without being turned into vampires themselves. The plot actually goes out of its way to ridicule the threatening vampires, making them weak and boring in contrast to the supposed threat the heroes feel:

I tried to imagine what it would be like living here in this castle. Sleeping all day in a coffin. Rising up at night and turning into a bat. Flying out night after night in search of necks to bite.


Just thinking about it made me shake with horror.

The element of time travel and vampires that act nothing like vampires made this story too silly and nonsensical for me to appreciate. Abandoning all the foreshadowing from the first 20 pages didn’t help. It has that classic twist ending, but nothing much else worked.

50. Calling All Creeps!

Just dial 555-CREEP!

Verdict: Great

Poor Ricky! The hero of Calling All Creeps! is easily the biggest loser in the entire 62-book series (even beating out Monster Blood‘s Evan). The poor kid has no friends and is bullied by his entire school — even his teachers! Cat calls of ‘Sicky Ricky’ and ‘Ricky Rat’ follow him from class to class and beyond, chanted by every student he runs into. It’s hard to get into these shoes without feeling terrible.

The novella opens with a new student, Iris, moving into town and offering Ricky an out from his loserdom — he’s finally getting a friend! That friendship, however, is immediately strained by one of Ricky’s biggest bullets, a cruel eight-grade student named Tara. Tara oversees Ricky’s work for the school newspaper, and, unhappy with his blunders (caused by other bullies…), fires him in front of Iris. Desperate to get back at Iris for ruining his new friendship, Ricky breaks into the newspaper’s office and inserts a malicious message giving away Tara’s phone number into the next day’s paper. Unfortunately for Ricky, Tara is observant, and turns Ricky’s prank back on him before the issue goes to print:

Calling All Creeps! Calling All Creeps! If you’re a real Creep, call Ricky after midnight at 867-5309

Ricky’s awake all night, getting call after call from self-described ‘Creeps.’ The trouble continues in chool, with Creeps leaving him messages in his locker and tossing messages in class or lunch asking when the Creeps will next meet, and about when they can start ‘planting seeds’ and ‘taking over.’

Despite sporting one of the series’ lamest covers, Calling All Creeps! is one of the most fun yarns R.L. Stine wrote. The mystery of the Creeps’ messages is incredibly inviting, and had me pondering a lot as a youngster, asking just what I’d do in Ricky’s poor shoes — whether the conspiracies taking place were real or imaginary (of course they’re real!), and how I’d deal with the pressures of a possible ‘seed’ invasion….

[#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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