Is Goosebumps Still Good Today?
But how do they compare today? True, the Goosebumps series is kiddified and specifically intended to appeal to a younger audience, with little gore and few deaths. (Compare these, for example, to R.L. Stine’s teen companion series Fear Street, which contained enough gruesome murders and bloodletting to rival any of the Friday the 13th film series.)
It’s also true that they were hastily written, lack engaging characters, and likely appealed to children in part due to their numerous little chapters, which made it easy to keep track of where you were in the story. (One can speculate that grownups enjoy James Patterson’s works because of the similar “many small chapters” method.) Despite this, many of the Goosebumps are still entertaining today. Here are some of the greatest, as well as a few that Stine would have wished to rework if he’d had the time.
Say Cheese And Die!
The concept of an evil camera has long been a mainstay in macabre fiction (The Twilight Zone did one, as did Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? ), but few have exploited it as well as Stine did in one of the series’ earliest installments. Four friends discover an old camera while visiting a frightening abandoned house in their neighborhood (in Goosebumps, every quaint small town or calm suburban neighborhood had to have at least one eerie Gothic manor for the youngsters to poke around in).
However, the camera soon begins to capture images that appear to foreshadow awful things to come (one child snaps a photo of his family’s new car that shows it to be totaled, and his father is killed in an ugly automobile accident long after). When the group’s lone girl, Shari, vanishes after a photo of her is taken in which she does not appear, Greg understands he must find a method to bring her back while also stopping the camera’s reign of terror and keeping it away from the terrifying guy in black who wants it. This is one of the saddest in the series (it ends with a real death and a “Oh oh, here we go again” ending), but it’s a great start to the series and Stine at his finest.
Welcome to Camp Nightmare
This is the first of the “summer camp gone to hell” Goosebumps books, and it highlights both Stine’s ability to tell a fast-paced and compelling story, as well as one of his biggest flaws: his inability to come up with a decent ending or his willingness to take on a ridiculous “final shock” that doesn’t work.
Billy goes to Camp Night Moon for the summer, and things go south nearly as soon as he arrives. A snake bites one of his cabinmates. There isn’t a single nurse in sight. The counselors and Uncle Al, the allegedly insane camp director, don’t appear to give a damn about their charges. The boy who was bitten by a snake departs. Another cabinmate investigates “The Forbidden Bunk” and disappears, presumably as a victim of the camp’s fabled monster “Sabre.” On a trek, two more youngsters vanish. Billy is unable to contact his family. His letter is being held back from him. What exactly is going on here?
Stine does an excellent job of creating paranoia and isolating Billy until he’s completely alone and terrified, leaving us to question, “What’s going on and how is this poor boy going to get out of it?” It’s fantastic…until the last revelation, which is a complete ruse and reads like something M. Night Shaymalan would dismiss as “too corny.” (And this is coming from the guy who brought us The Village’s godawful ending.) Oh, and there’s a ridiculous climactic reveal that was last seen on Twilight Zone half a century ago. Until the conclusion, it’s still one of Stine’s greatest.
The Horror at Camp Jellyjam
The second of Stine’s summer camp chillers, unlike Nightmare, does not end on a sour note. Wendy and Elliot, brother and sister, go on a road trip with their parents when their camper trailer becomes detached from their automobile – with them inside. Thankfully, they end up at Camp Jellyjam, a super-fun sports camp where kids can relax until their parents arrive. Elliot, who is uber-competitive, fits in brilliantly, but Wendy begins to have doubts.
What’s with the counselors’ obsession with “becoming the best?” Why are they so blind to the rest of the world? (This is best illustrated when Wendy accidently breaks a bat into a counselor’s ribcage and the counselor simply tells her to choke up on her swing.) Why do kids who win six gold coins (prizes for winning competitions) and go on the “Winner’s Walk” after dinner every night vanish? What’s the deal with the ground rumbling late at night?
As he develops one of his most unusual and repulsive monsters, Stine is at his most hilariously twisted and campy. Has the paranoia and isolation of Nightmare, but mercifully, this one has a nice conclusion (though Stine can’t help himself with a silly joke at the end).
Piano Lessons Can Be Murder
How can you not like this selection with a title like that? Jerry (one of the best of Stine’s Goosebumps leads with his prankish personality) moves into a beautiful old house with his parents and discovers an astounding antique piano in the attic, which he begins to play. His parents set up lessons for him at the local Shreek Piano school, which is managed by the slightly eccentric Santa Claus-lookalike Mr. Shreek.
When Jerry discovers that the piano is haunted by a nightmare ghost who plays music late at night and comes before him in terrifying images, he gets more than he bargained for. Is she attempting to warn him away from the Shreek school, where kids are said to attend classes but never leave? Jerry’s quest for information could lead to him paying the ultimate price for his “impressive hands.”
This book contains some of Stine’s most graphic imagery, such as the ghost’s appearances (one time she has no hands, another time her face falls off until it’s just a skull), but it’s also one of the funniest in the series, thanks to Jerry’s wisecracking narration and his home life (such as his ongoing struggle with his family’s psychotic and claw-happy cat Bonkers). It’s difficult not to sympathize with Jerry as he tries to persuade his overly concerned parents of what’s going on. (When his father adds, “You don’t really believe in ghosts, do you, Jerry?” when he sees the ghost for the first time, his reaction is simply, “I do now!”)
Though things feel a little rushed at the conclusion, this is one of the most enjoyable of the series (good twist, however, concerning the real threat within the Shreek school).
Stine’s take on Jaws and other ocean horror stories, complete with sharks, armed goons, and everything else from the Peter Benchley school of watery adventure. Billy Deep (convenient name) and his solemn sister Sheena are visiting their Cousteau-like scientist uncle Dr. D in the Caribbean when their uncle receives an odd assignment: discover and capture a real-life mermaid. Billy is game, but he has no idea what his uncle has gotten them into. He’s already had an encounter with an apparent sea monster (a huge malformed octopus that he barely escapes from early in the book).
Soon, he, Sheena, and Dr. D find themselves in the middle of a frightening adventure featuring gorgeous but dangerous mermaids, hungry sharks, and a group of kidnappers determined to capture a mermaid no matter who they have to kill in the process. Billy’s encounter with a massive and hungry hammerhead shark), a few hilarious moments (Billy mistakenly holding onto fire coral), and welcome sympathy for the mermaids make this a wonderful, fast-paced adventure (in the end, our heroes decided to keep their existence a secret rather than see them enslaved in captivity).
One only hopes that the spectacular sea creature Billy meets early on in the novel played a bigger part in the plot. Billy and Sheena would appear in a lesser sequel, Deep Trouble II, as well as in the Goosebumps:Horrorland series, beginning with Creep From the Deep, their focal novel (which has them and Dr. D battling a ghostly pirate crew).
This was arguably the most successful subfranchise within the Goosebumps franchise, spawning three sequels (Monster Blood II, III, and IV) as well as a Goosebumps:Horrorland sequel (Monster Blood for Breakfast), although the first is still the greatest. Evan is imprisoned at his crazy Aunt Kathyrn’s house for a few weeks, alone except for his aged cocker spaniel Trigger, while his parents work on getting their new home in Atlanta ready. Fortunately, Evan meets a lady friend in extroverted Andy; sadly, he also discovers a can of “Monster Blood,” a greenish fluid, at an old junk shop in town.
Unless Evan and Andy can stop it, the goo takes on a life of its own and grows larger and larger, eventually morphing into a Blob-like monstrosity that threatens to consume everything in its path. Evan and Andy are two of Stine’s best protagonists (their banter is rather funny) and anyone who loves old 50s B-grade monster flicks with love it when the Monster Blood goes on the attack. There’s also a clever twist to the reason for the Monster Blood rampage, which elevates the plot from a sci-fi monster fiction to full-fledged supernatural horror.
Unfortunately, in the progressively worse sequels, all of which included Evan and Andy, that twist was ignored. The finest sequel is undoubtedly Monster Blood II, in which a lovely little hamster eats some Monster Blood and transforms into a massive monster straight out of a Bert I. Gordon epic that attacks Evan and Andy’s school. Who doesn’t like that?