I was searching through books from my childhood on GoodReads when I had the whim to reread some of the old series that I used to enjoy. From things like Nancy Drew to Animorphs, there were a lot of stories that I read as a kid that were fun and short and might provide some entertainment even to me now. I was also curious to see how they stood up to the test of time and maturity. Since I had a particular love for horror novels and TV shows as a child, I decided to start with Goosebumps!
Goosebumps, the series by R.L. Stine, were introductory horror novels for children of my generation. There are 62 books in the series, and most feature 12 year old protagonists who are confronted with strange, paranormal events. While the children are often threatened, there is never much violence in these books, and the kids usually escape their enemies (though sometimes they are changed in odd and unnerving ways). There are usually at least two protagonists in each book, and at least one boy and one girl. The books often end with a silly, but creepy twist that makes the reader rethink the story, or entraps the characters in a bigger or more long-lasting problem than expected.
Rating these books is rather hard. They are not particularly well-written, but neither are they really meant to be pieces of great literature. Goosebumps is a series for entertaining and scaring kids, not necessarily expanding their horizons, or making them think about deep questions of life. However, this absence of a philosophical underpinning is perfectly fine. I have no problem with books that are really just about entertainment and silliness as long as there are also books for kids that do offer a more insightful reading experience. As a child, I loved challenging myself to see how many Goosebumps I could read in a day because even then I took them to be short tales whose sole purpose was to keep me amused for an afternoon. I also read books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth, so the presence of Goosebumps didn’t discourage or prevent me from reading novels with a bit more substance. Thus, Goosebumps are a perfectly legitimate part of a kid’s reading diet, but they don’t tend to warrant all that many stars. Make no mistake, they are entertaining, but this is often despite their poor construction and writing. I have given most of them low-star ratings, but I have been enjoying my re-read even though they have numerous literary problems. I can definitely understand why kids devoured stacks of these books as they are often ridiculous, but scary stories that capitalise on the worst fears of children.
Title: Goosebumps #1: Welcome to Dead House
Rating: * * ½
Welcome to Dead House is where the Goosebumps phenomenon started, and it is a very standard example of what one will get with this series. The Benson family finds out that they have inherited a house from a forgotten relative, so they move to the small town of Dark Falls to start over. Amanda and Josh are our protagonists, two siblings who are 11 and 12 years old (the standard age for all Goosebumps protagonists). Right away they start making friends with some of the kids in their new town, but they soon find that things seem a bit off in Dark Falls. The kids discover that all their new friends have gravestones in the town cemetery, and Dark Falls is actually a city of ghosts that needs to sacrifice the entire Benson family in order to survive!
This first book of the series is moderately suspenseful and creepy, but it’s also not all that memorable. There are a lot of spooky house scenes, but Welcome to Dead House is a fairly standard evil ghost story. It gives kids what they want – a few scares and frights, and that’s really all Goosebumps ever aims to do. It sets the tone of the series and the general parameters of how these stories work, and was a very safe opening to the series.
Title: Goosebumps #2: Stay Out of the Basement
Rating: * * *
In another sibling team-up, Margaret and Casey Brewer are confronted with a chlorophyll-filled nightmare when their father’s experimentations get out of hand in the basement of the family house. After their father was fired from his research position at a biology department, he brought his experiments home, and became a hostile hermit who rarely came up for sunlight or air. He forbids the kids from going to see his lab, but of course they disobey these orders and discover that their father is up to strange and possibly evil things. However, it turns out that their father is not responsible for these terrible acts, but a plant duplicate of him!
Stay Out of the Basement is an example of a really well constructed Goosebumps novel. The mystery is slowly revealed through creepy and disturbing observations and realizations. The kids are confronted with a difficult choice as to how to figure out who is their real father is when they have two identical duplicates, leading to a suspenseful climax. I was particularly happy to see that mom was not completely oblivious in this story as it’s hard to explain how a wife manages to not notice that her husband has become a terrible, plant monster. The twist ending was also enjoyable, and not nearly as absurd as some of the other Goosebumps novels get. Overall, Stay out of the Basement is probably one of the stronger stories of the series.
Title: Goosebumps #3: Monster Blood
Monster Blood is one of the most well-known and popular Goosebumps story lines, and it has several sequels that follow this book. However, it is certainly not one of my favourite stories of the series. This particular novel introduces readers to Evan and Andy. Evan’s parents are off looking for a house in a new city, so he is left to stay with his strange, deaf aunt Kathryn. When wandering about town trying to waste time, he meets Andy, a local who takes him to her favourite toy store. The shop is an eclectic mess of strange, old items, and Evan finds a can of monster blood in a backroom. Both the shopkeeper and his aunt give him understated warnings about the product, but Evans just thinks it’s a fun pile of goop to bounce around. However, the monster blood starts growing out of control, and Evans discovers that his new toy was cursed by a witch that was controlling Aunt Kathryn. Using the monster blood against her, the witch is defeated.
So, where to start with this one? Sometimes the plots of Goosebumps novels are pretty scarce, but this one is basically non-existent. First, we have a mysterious substance that an old toy keeper doesn’t want to sell, making readers think that the monster blood is ominous on its own. However, then we have the introduction of the witch near the end of the book who is supposedly responsible for all of this trouble because she is evil for the sake of being evil. The monster blood mythos would have been far more interesting had it just stuck with the strange, but magical toy explanation as the witch conflict was weak and unconnected to the rest of the plot. The book is also very repetitive, and many of the conflicts showcased are not particularly interesting or scary. Despite it being one of the central stories of the Goosebumps series, I am not a fan of Monster Blood.