Book Reviews, Novels, YA

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps [#s 51 : 62] (1992 – 1997)

a series of 62 novellas, #s 51 to 62

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

51. Beware, the Snowman

He’s got a heart of cold!

Verdict: OK

Beware, the Snowman deserves credit for some truly terrifying moments. Jaclyn and her Aunt Greta have just moved from the big city of Chicago to a small village in the Arctic Circle. Think Barrow, Alaska for the setting: A small, isolated town caught in a perpetual deep freeze that spends half its year in the dark, barraged by snow storms.

While Stine tends to farm dated stereotypes in writing exotic locations — and he does here, no doubt (Jaclyn can scale the neighboring mountain and be home all in five minutes!) — Beware, the Snowman doesn’t quite suffer from this stereotyping. The entire story is so claustrophobic, and the setting obscured by a permanent snowstorm. It’s always dark, always punishing — and there are always creeping sounds just out of sight.

In adjusting to small-town life, Jaclyn takes to exploring the village’s nooks and crannies, to questioning the lives and superstitions of the locals in order to better understand them. It seems the whole town lives in a quiet fear of a living, evil snowman on the bordering mountaintop. The villagers pay homage to this monster by populating the streets with the snowman’s scarred visage.

It’s all quite creepy. The paranoia of being chased by unseen animals or monsters in a claustrophobic, pitch-black village makes for some dramatic scenes on par with Stephen King. This sense, unfortunately, doesn’t last for the whole story. As the mystery surrounding the snowman unravels, so does the suspense. Beware, the Snowman‘s last third especially suffers from a haphazard series of corny coincidences, plot holes, nonsensical magic, and a pitiful deus ex machina twist. It also rewards the worst possible parenting: Complete abandonment.

It’s unfortunate. The first two-thirds provide plenty of genuinely creepy moments, but the silly ending helps turn Beware, the Snowman into one of the more forgettable ‘bumps.

52. How I Learned to Fly

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a…kid?

Verdict: Great

How I Learned to Fly is farm more enjoyable than the weak cover art and even weaker title implied. (I purposely avoided this book as a kid, thinking it looked awful. It’s reputation is not as one of the more memorable entries, either, offering neither spooks or originality.) As far as Goosebumps goes, this entry is far more about character growth and dealing with the social pressures and anxieties surrounding puberty than the usual monsters or ghosts. It’s about the regular, likable Jack Johnson dealing with a competitive, cruel ‘friend’ named Wilson, while trying to navigate a budding relationship with his crush Mia Montez.

Wilson’s the most terrifying thing about this story. He’s a malicious bully who masquerades as Jack’s friend, manipulating everyone around him for personal gain and pleasure. He’s a born psychopath, with no regard for anyone but his own self, who uses all his friends as tools to simply get what he wants — including Mia. Still, it wouldn’t be Goosebumps without something fantastical or creepy, right?

Jack suffers heartbreak early on (thanks, of course, to Wilson), embarrassing him into hiding in the local abandoned home. It’s here he finds an antique book called Flying Lessons: An ancient tome that promises the secret to achieving human flight. Of course, he doesn’t believe a word of it, but decides to follow the exercises and recipes out of boredom. And, this being R.L. Stine, it works!

For a while, he keeps it a secret, slowly working up a plan to finally one-up his nemesis with a very public race. Wilson, being who he is, comes prepared — he’s been spying! — and both soar into the sky in front of everyone. The power of flight also brings a few other unwanted things to Jack’s life, most notably fame. The world makes demands of him, even his parents forget he’s an individual and use his newfound powers for profit.

And that, like Wilson, end sup being another unexpected horror of How I Learned to Fly.

“These people are scientists from the university,” the nurse started to explain. “They’ve heard about your…uh…special talent. And they want to examine you and Wilson.”

I took a step back.

One of the men moved toward me. “If you really can fly, think of how useful you can be to our government–perhaps as a secret weapon against our enemies.”

The woman in the khaki pants stuck our her hand. “Come with us, Jack.” She shot a nervous glance at the others. “Nothing bad will happen to you.”

It’s a great story for younger readers, but it doesn’t quite fit the Goosebumps formula. Other than the usual vilification of science that drives me nuts, it’s a surprisingly touching story, and features some of the most (or only) developed characters in R.L. Stine’s entire career. Just don’t expect the trademark horror.

53. Chicken Chicken

It’s a finger-lickin’ nightmare!

Verdict: Good

Chicken Chicken is another entry readers actively avoided as a kid. The name gave no suggestion of quality, and the cover art is…perplexing. The farm setting is exactly the place no city bumpkin like myself wanted to visit. The plot — transforming into a chicken — just sounds bad. And it is bad. It’s also disgusting, silly, and really, really fun.

Like the similarly-maligned How I Learned to Fly, this story was a complete surprise given its reputation as the series’ lowpoint. The plot is far more focused than the series tends to be, and the characters come close to real development in only 120 pages: Siblings Crystal and Cole cause accidental mischief against a young goth woman — no, seriously — who lives alone with only her cat for company. Vanessa’s a witch, and casts a spell on the two siblings for their poor manners, leaving the two heroes with only the words ‘chicken chicken’ on her lips.

Pretty soon — and this is where it gets disturbing and uncomfortable and fantastic — both Crystal and Cole find themselves transforming into chickens. The process takes days, dragging out the grotesqueness of the situation. Crystal’s lips slowly harden to a bone-like consistency, pushing forward further and further on her face (and making an alarming amount of clicking sounds whenever she tries to speak); Cole’s having trouble talking without a cascade of clucks and squawks interrupting his sentences; they’re both spending hours each night and morning painfully removing feathers sprouting by the hour. And, of course, no one believes them despite the blatant physicality of it all.

The entire story is focused around the horrors of their transformations, and their attempts to overcome it. In some ways, it’s a rehash of the earlier My Hairiest Adventure in exploring the horrible changes of puberty — just in a much more interesting way. Many of the lesser Goosebumps entries have trouble staying this focused before inserting unrelated happenstance and random punchlines, so this one sticking so close to the two heroes and their woes is a pleasant — or is in unpleasant? — surprise.

Did I mention how disgusting it is? Yeuch.

54. Don’t Go to Sleep!

Rise and shine. Forever.

Verdict: Bad

Like many of the later Goosebumps stories, Don’t Go to Sleep! is largely forgettable. In a story ripped straight from the Twilight Zone or Star Trek: Voyager, 12-year-old Matt Amsterdam spends a night enjoying the spaciousness of his family’s guestroom (riveting!), only to wake up in another reality. In fact, every time he naps he finds himself awakening to a new world — he and his family will be older; younger; monsters; squirrels; carnies (huh…); unrelated by blood; and cetera.

Unfortunately, this calls upon him the Reality Police™, who wish to put him into a permanent coma to avoid any further alterations to reality.

It’s a standard, uninspired entry. For most of the story, we’re alongside Matt feeling confused over what’s happening, what the rules are, where the story’s trying to go: Just confused in general. Being confused, unhappy, and constantly sleepy seem to be Matt’s only characteristics, which makes him too uninteresting to keep up with.

His review of Anna Karrenina is really sharp, however:

It was an English class, all right.

But we weren’t reading comic books. We were reading a book called Anna Karenina.

First of all, this book is about ten thousand pages long. Second, everybody else had read it, and I hadn’t. Third, even if I tried to read it, I wouldn’t understand what was going on in a million years.

The plot’s explanation — that a rift in reality has broken over the guestroom’s bed at just the moment Matt napped there — doesn’t come until nearly three quarters into the story. The solution to Matt’s adventure — sleeping in his old bed — doesn’t make sense, either. Don’t Go to Sleep! isn’t bad, by it’s as immediately forgettable as the title.

55. The Blob That Ate Everyone

He’s no picky eater!

Verdict: Good

The Blob That Ate Everyone isn’t the most original Goosebumps yarn, but it is a lot of fun. The plot takes most of its creativity from old 1950s B-movies and Twilight Zone reruns, reaching more for comedy than true horror.

Zackie, a budding horror novelist and absolute scaredy-cat, is sneaking around a burned-down antique shop when he’s gifted an old typewriter by a very unhappy storeowner. As he sets down with his best friend Alex to write his latest horror story (“It was a dark and stormy night…“), the words he writes immediately come true. Zackie and Alex go nuts exploring the possibilities: The power goes out; weather is controlled; their ‘friend’ — a rude bully named Adam — is placed in unusual circumstances; parents vanish; blob monsters heave hungrily from basements, waiting for fresh meat….

The power of the typewriter is nebulous, and Zackie starts believing all the odd occurrences may just be coincidences. After an awful day of bullying from Adam, Zackie launches into writing his newest revenge story about a blob monster terrorizing the town. Zackie then makes it to town just in time to see the blob monster at work, eating Adam and other citizens whole.

The blob monster itself is a gross-out monster (see: Egg Monsters from Mars), with lots of pulsing and throbbing and slurping and sucking. What propels this entry ahead of the run-of-the-mill concept is the sense of humor the characters and situations are imbued with. The dad is especially great, showing up just to mope about his personal need for ice cream, and please, don’t Zackie and Alex want ice cream so he’d have an excuse to go into town for some sweet treats?

I wasn’t keen on the twist ending. The last chapter is a self-contained reversal in the story’s direction that was too silly. With the endless possibilities such a typewriter gives, Zackie and Alex’s narrow explorations of that power were hard to believe. They barely did anything, and argued too much about how to convince anyone of its power. It’s obvious to say you could simply write people to believe, but, personally, I’d give everyone poopy pants.

56. The Curse of Camp Cold Lake

Last one in is a rotten…ghost!

Verdict: Terrific!

Overall, the creepiest, scariest, most successful and focused Goosebumps story in the bunch. The Curse of Camp Cold Lake is emblematic of the series in a way few books are — Tim Jacobus’ cover is perfectly creepy, the title is chilling, and the story sticks to clever scares to keep the younger readers turning pages. Like so few other entries, Camp Cold Lake also tackles significant social issues kids might be facing, too, making this an entry to admire.

Sarah and her brother Aaron are dropped off for a week of summer camp hi-jinks at Camp Cold Lake. Sarah’s a shy, gawky youth who suffers crippling social anxieties. She makes a few verbal blunders and, along with them, quick enemies of her bunkmates. This ensures every moment of her ‘vacation’ will be miserable, defined by a cycle of bullying behaviors from her new friends — and, of course, her enabling counselors. It gets pretty brutal, but I could easily identify with many of her social screwups.

They’ll feel so guilty. They’ll never forgive themselves for the way they treated me.

After my close call, they’ll see how mean they were. And they’ll want to be best friends with me.

We’ll all be best friends.

The best Goosebumps story is a slowburn, and the first half builds up to a defining moment of Sarah getting even the only way she feels she can: She pretends to drown. Only — and this is one of the best scenes in the series — she sort of…does. Briefly. And in that brief moment, she’s in a deserted Camp Cold Lake in the midst of an oppressive winter storm. She meets Della, a long-dead Camp Cold Lake camper who’s been waiting years for a friend like Sarah to show up. As desperate as Sarah is to make friends, she doesn’t want to die. One of the counselors revives Sarah, but Della has no intentions of letting her new friend get away….

The Curse of Camp Cold Lake is excellent — almost unbelievably so for the series. Like most of Stine’s work, however, it ends on a silly twist. It’s not as nonsensical or left-field as the series tends to get, but it still betrays some of the novella’s otherwise excellent characterization and plot threads. Regardless, this is still among the best Goosebumps yarns for new readers or nostalgic adults who want to see the series do its name justice.

57. My Best Friend is Invisible

Not seeing is believing!

Verdict: OK

An unusual entry, My Best Friend is Invisible reaches in too many directions, indecisive on whether it wants to tackle realistic social issues readers may be facing, or just be silly with itself in Stine’s Twilight Zone style. This indecisiveness makes the story simultaneously memorable and forgettable.

The title plot is immediate: Strange occurrences start happening around Sammy from page one. His window opens on its own; his food keeps disappearing into thin air; he’s getting in trouble for messes he didn’t make; invisible, clammy, wet, sticky hands keep poking at him and pushing him around. Without any warning, his new invisible friend introduces himself.

Brent is an enthusiastic, invisible youth who genuinely likes Sammy, and wants nothing more than to help him in any way he can. The only catch is Sammy has to be his friend. Brent’s also kind of a needy jerk — no intention of his own — and he won’t leave Sammy alone. Every attempt to help our hero ends in an embarrassing blunder for Sammy and only Sammy.

But Brent, the invisible friend of the title, is just continually needy and pushy and happy to be with Sammy. His obsessive behavior is genuinely unsettling. It seems at times he wants to hurt the kid he’s stalking, that he has no intention of really helping Sammy with anything. (Or if the invisible boy’s really a boy at all….) A classmate is even nearly killed, all in the name of a dumb joke.

The obligatory twist ending is among the silliest of the series. I’m usually not too keen on this type of twist, but this entry’s is a bit endearing. The darker aspects of the story are the most memorable parts, but these are too often interspersed with arbitrary silliness. This odd dichotomy makes My Best Friend is Invisible a perfectly average entry for the series.

58. Deep Trouble II

Something’s fishy…again!

Verdict: Horrible!

The original Deep Trouble was a fun, early entry about marine biology and — oddly — mermaids. It was clever and unpredictable, with a focused narrative that was dragged down only by being about mermaids who cry underwater rather than the monsters or ghosts the series is known for (and the cover promised). Deep Trouble II is not good, and just about takes the cake for most offensive Goosebumps story.

Billy, Sheena, and their uncle Dr. D all return from the first outing in an all-new, completely unrelated adventure. There are no mermaids here — simply large animals who grow larger by eating genetically-engineered plankton, created in secret by a mad scientist working alone in the high sees, with visions of solving world hunger via illegal research and conspiring to murder children. It’s as silly and random as it sounds — and it’s no surprise that Deep Trouble II rejoices in the casual vilification of science, which plagues the entire series start to finish.

After the crew share close encounters with over-sized snails, goldfish, sharks, and jellyfish, an antagonizing scientist — Dr. Ritter — and his two goons invite themselves onto Dr. D’s boat, and immediately dispense threats. Dr. Ritter has been creating a new type of plankton via genetic modification, turning any ‘fish’ — the definition of fish is quite loose here — that eats it into a giant. His research is illegal and dangerous, and in finding witnesses, he decides he has no choice but to sic his goons on the family. Helped by two over-sized gulls — deus ex machina — the heroes narrowly escape only to find themselves stranded in an ocean full of giant beasts. From there, unrelated happenstance propels the plot forward to its silly, unbelievable twist ending.

Deep Trouble II fails to be scary, thrilling, or even mildly interesting, but rather feels like a slap in the face to readers of all ages.

59. The Haunted School

They’re watching you learn…the hard way.

Verdict: Terrific!

In 1947, the entire graduating class of Bell Valley Middle School vanished in the blink of an eye. The original school building was boarded up, and a newer school built around it. Tommy Frazer, in an attempt to make friends at his new school, is helping his classmates Ben and Thalia decorate for a school dance. Right before the dance starts, the school banner is ruined, and Tommy and Ben rush off to find materials for fixing it.

Unfortunately, they won’t be making it to the dance: Tommy unwisely tries to take a shortcut by diving into an elevator in the abandoned section of school. (Why?!) The elevator doesn’t even inch up, but rather takes the two kids sideways to the world behind the school walls…exactly where the 1947 class disappeared to 50 years earlier.

The Haunted School‘s one of the most creative Goosebumps entries, very much in the vein of Twilight Zone. It’ also uncharacteristically focused; there’s no random happenstance and series or series of unrelated, implausible events here: It’s a straight-forward story, and all the better for it. (The prose is also more clear than R.L. Stine’s usual work, making me think this wasn’t churned out, but a story he spent his time on in between the quick churn-outs….I’m looking at you, Deep Trouble II.) The twist is clever and telegraphed early on without being obvious, which brings a sense of closure to the story.

If I were to talk smack about this  wonderful story, I’ll sa that Tommy is not an interesting hero. He barely has any personality, and I had trouble remembering his name as he mostly speaks in the context of those around him (Ben, Thalia, the gray people beyond the walls) rather than himself. I also interpreted one of the story’s messages as questionable: In addition to saying readers shouldn’t pretend to be something they’re not, the Haunted School also seems to suggest you shouldn’t ever venture beyond your comfort zone — and even hide your true self or feelings from others if they won’t be accepted. Despite that, I can easily fit this late-era Goosebumps entry among the series’ best. It’s just exciting, creepy, and led by one of R.L. Stine’s best mysteries.

60. Werewolf Skin

All dressed up and no place to howl!

Verdict: Good

12-year-old Alex is sent off to stay with his quirky aunt and uncle for Halloween while his parents work internationally. Aunt Marta and Uncle Colin live in the small, close-knit community of Wolf Creek, where everyone — everyone — believes in and is obsessed with werewolves. Even the schools seem to teach nothing but a twisted werewolf mythology, and most nights are (somehow) lit by a full moon.

Alex’s hobby is photography, and before you know it, he’s sneaking around trying to photograph the unusual neighbors (never seen but always heard), and taking kids up on their dares to stay in the woods at night, hiding along the werewolves’ trails. As Halloween approaches, he and his new friend Hannah discover the identity of real werewolves, and plot to steal their werewolf skins as Halloween costumes.

Like R.L. Stine’s weird-o vampires of Vampire Breath, the werewolves of Werewolf Skin are far removed from the typical werewolf mythology. Werewolves aren’t just half-wolves, visiting their darker natures under the full moon — they instead rely on donning physical skins which are shed every morning. They have to hide their skins away until the following evening, and then, as the moon rises overhead, werewolves must wrap the layers of the skin close, and let the animal’s nature melt into their bodies.

Stine’s earlier vampires, I thought, veered towards pathetic, but the werewolves’ reliance on these external skins ends up being both gross and creepy, providing some of the book’s most effective moments in which we seethe startling transformations of these monsters. It’s a slow, gross, visibly painful process. Werewolf Skin also sheds some of the series’ trademark playfulness, diving into explicit gore: Wild animals are violently torn apart at multiple points, sometimes only a few feet from our hiding hero. It makes for tense moments, and one of the more mature stories in the Goosebumps series.

Werewolf Skin is mostly great, but some of its horror aspects are not used well: Halloween is established as a major event, but it’s hardly celebrated or acknowledged prior to and even during Halloween night. The only use, it seems, was to tie the story into the book’s release date. The werewolf plot builds up tension towards a few natural twists, keeping the reader guessing the whole way, but then foregoes those natural twists for something totally random and bland. Werewolf Skin fizzles out over the last 20 pages, making it a good entry rather than a great one, which is a bummer, as we really need more quality werewolf stories.

61. I Live in Your Basement!

Talk about a MONSTER nightmare!

Verdict: Good

Prior to the Goosebumps finale, R.L. Stine focused on horror more than ever before. The last 10 books contain almost all of the series’ scariest moments (e.g., #s 53, 56, 59, 60), including the penultimate entry: I Live in Your Basement!

Ignoring the silly name, the 61st book is uncomfortably creepy to the very end, and easily the scariest entry in the entire series. No time is wasted on R.L. Stine’s usual gags and punchlines: The story opens with 12-year-old Marco avoiding his overprotective mother — the only source of humor in the entire book, and a one-note joke at that — by joining his friends for a game of softball. Gwynne, the toughest, tallest girl in his class, accidentally knocks Marco out cold with her bat. He wakes up to his mother’s incessant worrying, and from there nothing sits quite right to the very end.

It starts with a phone call. A boy named Keith is calling to simply let Marco know that Keith is there with him, living in his basement. It’s up to Marco, he understands, to look after Keith. When Marco tells his mom about this, there’s no phone in the room, and no call ever came.  Keith starts making appearances everywhere, but the unreality of it immediately extends beyond just this mysterious boy: Friends and family start referencing things that never happened; his doctor assures him quite coldly that Marco will need to die and his brain needs to be studies (to which his mom agrees, “the doctor knows best!”); Marco wakes up one morning to Gwynnie being not the tall, tough classmate, but his younger sister.

In the single most terrifying scene in the entire 62-book series, Marco digs through the basement with Gwynnie struggling to find Keith’s hiding spot: Without warning, Gwynnie gives a big, cold smile — too big of a smile. Her mouth opens beyond possibility, and her insides casually pool out of her mouth, coating the room around Marco. It’s disturbing, and would be more at home in Stephen King’s It than R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps.

The entire novella carries this confusing sense of dread, as the reader never knows what’s going on until the very end. Like most Goosebumps stories, there’s the trademark twist ending, and like most Goosebumps stories, it veers off on a completely new course ignoring all that came before it. As usual, this is the weakest part. I’m also not sure how this story could be handled by younger readers, as the twists and turns are convoluted enough that younger readers may be unable to follow. I Live in Your Basement!‘s a good, but not great, entry in the series, and deserves more credit than it gets (it’s currently the least-read, worst-selling entry in the entire series!) for sticking so closely to those horror roots.

62. Monster Blood IV

This blood is bad to the bone!

Verdict: Horrible!

Monster Blood IV is what you get when you take the plot of Monster Blood III — which wasn’t good — and add two parts “the Trouble with Tribbles” (1967), and one part Gremlins (1984). As the final book in the series, it was an uncomfortably sour note to end on. Like many of the series’ low points, Monster Blood IV is uninspired and bland, start to finish.

Evan Ross and his friends — Kermit, Andy, and even Conan the Bully Barbarian — return from Monster Blood III to repeat Kermit’s obnoxious science experiments. By chance, Andy (yet again…) finds a container identical to the green Monster Blood containers of the past three books, with the only differences being it lacks a label, and it’s a shocking shade of blue instead of green.

It’s not creative or interesting, and sounds like a safe excuse to repeat the previous Monster Blood stories without changing the formula too much. As our heroes lose control of the blue Monster Blood, it takes the shape of a cute, playful chipmunk, bouncing and chirping in delight. Much like Joe Dante’s Gremlins, the instant the blue cutie gets a taste of water, its playful and cute demeanor flies out the window: It starts multiplying at an alarming rate, and each generation of blue critters is increasingly more hostile and threatening than the last, eventually growing teeth and slimy hair.

As the population of blue monsters spirals out of control, our heroes are unable to keep it a secret, and before long the monsters are threatening the entire city.

The critters of the fourth and final Monster Blood story were inspired by the tribbles and mogwai of Star Trek and Gremlins, respectively.

And like the immediate prequel, most of the plot takes place in a single, boring location, and most of the dialogue revolves around the characters’ archetypal traits (Kermit’s obnoxious; Evan’s as boring as ever; Conan’s a jerk). Andy’s barely present this time, which is unfortunate as she’s the only genuine personality in the Monster Blood sub-series.

Monster Blood IV is a boring, by-the-numbers entry — doubly hurt by being a retread of the first three Monster Blood books — and a bummer ending to the Goosebumps series. It’s not R.L. Stine’s worst story, but it’s really close.

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

reviewed and revised April to November 2016

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