R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps [#s 11 : 20] (1992 – 1997)

a series of 62 novellas, #s 11 to 20

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

11. The Haunted Mask

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If looks could kill…

Verdict: Terrific!

Carly Beth, ever the fraidycat, hopes to show her classmates what true fear is this Hallow’s Eve (of 1993). Her classmates, chief among them Steven and Chuck (of the Haunted Mask II), cont scaring poor Carly Beth among their favorite pastimes, and Carly Beth is desperate to get even this year by dressing up in the scariest costume she can find.  (Her mom’s homemade, adorable duck costume isn’t up to par, I’m afraid.) On Halloween afternoon, she steals away to a new, mysterious costume shop and finds the scariest masks she can locked away in owner’s office. These masks, he asserts, are not for sale — and with good reason!

This doesn’t stop Carly Beth, who’s so anxious about her plan that she convinces the shopkeeper to let her try them out. The owner was right, however, and something isn’t quite right with her mask — it’s warm, pulsing, sour, and more akin to living skin than latex. When Carly Beth speaks through it, she doesn’t hear her voice (and perhaps not even her words). Her actions even cease to be her own, as she turns vicious and hateful to not just her bullies, but family and friends. Her experience is so painful and surreal she’s never quite sure what’s happening — even more-so when the transition between her neck and the mask’s lining vanishes.

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Stine on the set of the first Goosebumps adaptation with actress Kathryn Long wearing the Haunted Mask itself.

The Haunted Mask is one of the most iconic books in the series, and deservedly so. It’s a thrilling Halloween tale, perfect for the holidays. It also has one of the better sequels of the original 62 books, and was the basis for the wonderful TV adaptation that kickstarted the Goosebumps TV show in 1995. (It was certainly my favorite VHS tape when I was younger. According to R.L. Stine’s biography, the actress who played Carly Beth was so dedicated to the role that she ate real live worms during the worm-in-the-sandwich prank scene. Even during countless retakes.) The anxiety of the masks is enthralling, as is the mythos built around them as ‘the Unloved’ — a series of failed experiments; of decaying, fleshy masks representing different monsters both real and fantastical, all with their own agendas and personalities.

(The explanation, buried in a short book that was packaged with Goosebumps-themed Pogs during the series’ heyday, is lame: The shopkeeper is a teenager who, desperate to pass his chemistry exams, sneaked into his high school to study. He accidentally mixed the ‘wrong chemicals,’ causing an explosion that aged him to a creepy old man with a pencil-thin mustache. He then dedicated his life to getting back his ‘old,’ handsome, teenage face by creating the Unloved….Lame.)

All the Halloween stories in Goosebumps tended to be highlights. The holiday season seems to bring out the best in R.L. Stine, who pushes the social aspect of horror to the extreme, putting our heroes in private dangers even when surrounded by friends and families. The Haunted Mask is among the best with its dedication to the holiday and its creative mythology; it’s even as fun to revisit as an adult as it was when I first read it.

12. Be Careful What You Wish For…

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It might come true.

Verdict: Good

The cliche of Be Careful What You Wish For… is exemplified in its title. It’s a predictable premise played predictably, but also a classic in the series, and sticks to its simplistic roots effectively.

Even though Samantha Byrd’s the tallest girl in school, she’s also the gawkiest, clumsiest girl on her  basketball team. Her height and lack of skill makes her an outsider, subject to frequent bullying by her teammates (particularly one cruel beast named Judith). Walking home from school one day, Samantha extends a small act of kindness towards a lone gypsy woman named Clarissa, helping the woman safely find her way home. In gratitude, Clarissa offers Samantha three wishes with the stipulation that she be careful in her choices.

The stereotyping of gypsy culture is perhaps benignly offensive today, showcasing an ignorance characteristic of ’90s kidlit (and Stine’s work, in particular), but it still makes for an excellent folktale for poor Samantha Byrd. She’s a kindhearted character to the end, and nothing ever goes right for her, even when she is careful. Samantha makes three basic wishes:

  1. To be the strongest player on her team….
  2. To make that cruel bully disappear….
  3. To simply make that bully like you….

They’re simple, soft wishes, and Clarissa does her best  to help Samantha be happy, but things never work out the way she wants them to.

Be Careful What You Wish For… is one of the darkest Goosebumps tales, and features one of the series’ most sinister twist endings — Samantha doesn’t deserve that! This 12th entry may not be the most original of premises, but it’s still a wonderful read.

Be Careful What You Wish For… also has the honor of being one of only two books in the original Goosebumps series to not feature cover art by Tim Jacobus. While the original artist for this entry is unknown (as far as I could find), Tim Jacobus returned for the mid-2000s reprint pictured above to create brand new artwork for the two books he missed.

13. Piano Lessons Can Be Murder

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Play it again, hands!

Verdict: Good

Piano Lessons Can Be Murder is one of those early Goosebumps yarns that really strained my interest in the series as a kid. Unwanted music lessons, while common in some circles, is niche enough that the bulk of readers won’t find the title interesting. The boring — boring! — cover art doesn’t help, either.

Jerry’s story starts in the midst of a fascinating ghost story. Having just moved into a creaking old house with his parents, he finds an antique piano abandoned to the attic. Set up with the hope of learning it, Jerry finds the piano is haunted! Night after nigh, he awakens to the haunting melodies of a long-dead woman. With Jerry’s attention, the woman’s ghost melts and blood pools from the open ends of her wrists.

This is spooky.

Where the story heads from here is not. Piano Lessons… is hindered by a weak second half, eschewing the ghostly chills in favor of sci-fi robotics and mad scientists. It’s as unexpected and nonensical as it sounds based on the first half. I didn’t like it or find it particularly spooky as a kid, and still don’t.

Still, the ghost story is built up really effectively, and the pay-off it gives (despite the robots…) isn’t bad, either! It’s a decent entry, but only that, and marks the transition to the genuinely good stories populating the rest of this list.

14. The Werewolf of Fever Swamp

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Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?

Verdict: Great

Fever Swamp invokes a layered mythos atypical of the Goosebumps series. The swamp harbors old, sick memories of a fever driving any inhabitants insane, ultimately killing them. Given the title, the fever has obvious parallels to lycanthropy.

For Grady Tucker and his family, the swamp is full of mysteries worth investigating despite the danger. His parents — both scientists — research a species of invasive swamp deer and their ability to survive the local swamp’s harsh conditions (– a somewhat questionable research goal, I might add). Grady quickly befriends two competing locals, Will and Cassie, as well as a giant dog named Wolf. The four spend their days exploring the swamp, hiding from a mad hermit, and stumbling upon mauled corpses of animals. Every night, the backwoods echo with wild critters’ howls, and a wild beast starts clawing to be let in, leaving the rotting animal corpses it hunts closer and closer to home.

Even though R.L. Stine writes the swamp as a basket of swamp cliches, the plots focused enough within Grady’s neighborhood that the geographical cliches never get out of hand as they do in How I Got My Shrunken Head or the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena.

The Werewolf of Fever Swamp does a lot right despite its problems: The mystery of the swamp and its monsters is effective, the setting downright oppressive and heavy, and Tim Jacobus’ cover art among his best (it was definitely my favorite as a kid, narrowly beating Welcome to Camp Nightmare).  The plot’s rife with red herrings, pointing the finger every which way for the werewolf’s identity, making no one trustworthy even for older readers. Like many of the best Gooseboops yarns, the twist ending fits perfectly within the rules of the story (not to mention how dark it is!), making the Werewolf of Fever Swamp one of the best entries in the series.

15. You Can’t Scare Me!

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They’re coming for you…

Verdict: Bad

In some ways, it’s hard to tell if You Can’t Scare Me! is one of the best or worst Goosebumps entries. Unlike most of R.L. Stine’s novels, it’s not limited to just being a shallow horror yarn, but rather hits hard at bullying and the consequences thereof. The supernatural element is merely a rumor — an old legend of murderous mud monsters — rather than a threat.

Mostly.

The real horror of You Can’t Scare Me! comes from the social pressures of being an average 13-year-old. A young punk, Courtney King, gets away with bullying 12-year-old Eddie Campbell every day of his life. She insults him; scares him; even spreads her bullying behaviors to others (including adults). This story is about Eddie getting revenge. Or trying to, anyway. He and his few friends hatch up plan after plan to scare Courtney, to get her back for all the misery she incites in his life, but all he ever gets is trouble.

Courtney, it turns out, is afraid of nothing and proud of it. Using the local legend of the mud monsters — that once a year on a moonless night (much like tonight), the muddy victims of a long-ago mudslide rise from the earth to seek out victims, dragging them back to their muddy graves — Eddie plans to scare Courtney into thinking the mud monsters are coming to drag her to her grave.

It’s an effective legend, but it comes all too late for this boring adventure. And despite equally-effective message on bullying, it can’t save the story from feeling unfocused, not scary, and even downright boring. (Many later Goosebumps stories, like How I Learned to Fly, deal with bullying more effectively.) Nothing happens, and it’s a shame, because the book’s full of good ideas.

16. One Day at HorrorLand

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Enter if you dare…

Verdict: Terrific!

Of all the original Goosebumps books, One Day at HorrorLand is one of the most thrilling, iconic, and imaginative books in the series. When R.L. Stine revived the brand in recent years, the HorrorLand theme park was so packed with stories to share, it provided the basis for all its scares.

For their 1994 vacation, the Morris family — Lizzy, Luke, parents — and their friend Clay are on a road trip to the Zoo Gardens theme park. Typical of ’90s dads, the family’s driver gets lost despite knowing exactly where they are and where they need to be. Instead of finding the  Zoo Gardens, the family stumble upon a mysterious, empty — !!! — theme park smack in the middle of a tumbleweeds-and-all desert: HorrorLand.

Their car explodes the moment they get out, and the Morris family is left stranded at the park with only the unusual staff (known as ‘Horrors’) and the unusual rides to comfort them while they plan their escape.

HorrorLand’s thrills promise certain death — all in the name of fun, of c. — with never-ending slides, dangerous river cruises in creaking, rotting coffins, threatening employees, murderous competitions, etc. The HorrorLand park makes for another perfect Halloween adventure, and one of R.L. Stine’s most fun novellas. It’s a rare entry that perfectly balances the series trademarks — horror, humor, mystery, adventure — and is one of the rare entries sporting a completely natural, clever twist endings.

17. Why I’m Afraid of Bees

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He’s no ordinary human bee-ing…

Verdict: Bad

I saw a single bee, standing in the center of the hive floor. He was performing a kind of jumping, twisting, hip-hop dance. How weird!

Even my 10-year-old self knew something was wrong with this one.

I couldn’t believe my eyes! That cover was lazy! That title — even lazier!

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Why I’m Afraid of Bees borrows its plot from the obscure 1965 sci-fi novel, Mindswap.

Why I’m Afraid of Bees has more in common with late-era Goosebumps titles than any of the preceding stories. The plot is drawn heavily from old sci-fi pulp (in this case, Robert Sheckley‘s 1965 novel, Mindswap, about a man who switches bodies with an alien on an alien planet), and any point seems disjointed or missing underneath inaccurate bee trivia, excessive exclamation points, and early ’90s references.

Lutz the Klutz is unhappy with his life, and follows a shady Internet ad to an agency offering to give him a week-long vacation in another person’s body. In a twist reminiscent of the Fly (1958), a bug gets in the way of the mindswap process, and Lutz finds himself trapped in the body of a tiny bee.

Lutz’s story is as lazy as the cover looks, but unlike the stinkers above, it was fun all the same.

”Never!” He cried. “I don’t care what you do to me! You’ll never get your body back! It’s mine, and I’m keeping it forever!”

Whoooa! I could not believe my ears.

I mean, he was covered in bees! And still he wouldn’t listen to reason!

18. Monster Blood II

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He’s one hungry hamster!

Verdict: Good

Monster Blood II is where Goosebumps really started infecting its readers with collectability. It was the first sequel, and the first to build on its own lore (even if it betrays that lore repeatedly). It was a hit already, but I recall this being the point in which the series took off, producing offshoots like the POG line and the Escape from HorrorLand FMV game. Cuddles, the Monster Blood-fueled hamster, was even an early mascot to rival Slappy and Curly.

Even though this is the best book in the Monster Blood sub-series, I’m still confused by its existence. Evan, the most bland hero in the entire series, returns to a starring role. He’s still a nervous goof who spends his time worrying about everything, while his friend Andy (also returning from the prequel) continually steals the spotlight with her energy and enthusiasm. The concept of Monster Blood is the best part of the series: A creepy, goopy substance with infinite power depending on whatever the plot demands. But Monster Blood II also does what its two sequels do: Betrays the lore of the first book. Gone are the witches and their witchcraft; gone is the Monster Blood’s intent. Instead we’re left with a mysterious goo that grows and grows, and makes anything that consumes it grow as well.

Evan’s having trouble adjusting to his new school after the original adventure. Andy remains his only friend, and he suffers daily embarrassment at the hands of bullies — including his wonderfully-stereotypical science teacher — who refuse to take his stories of Monster Blood seriously. Every day’s misfortunes end with Evan having to care for the classroom pet, Cuddles, and nothing much interesting happens until Andy makes her return with a new canister of Monster Blood. Of course — look at that cover! — cute little Cuddles gets his hamster paws on that canister’s contents, and it’s up to Evan and Andy to use their prior experience to save the day (and get Evan some much-needed respect).

I loved this one. I loved it as a kid, and still love it today. Evan’s a bore, sure, but Andy brings a lot of character and cheer to the story — more than enough to make up for Evan’s shortcomings. Cuddles turning into a giant (but still cuddly) monster made for a fun adventure without overdoing it on the silliness.

19. Deep Trouble

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Just when you thought it was safe…

Verdict: Good

Deep Trouble carries a lot of broken promises, but still manages to be one of the more fun early Goosebumps yarns. It’s cover promises giant killer sharks — which only barely skirt into the story. The first third of Billy’s adventure promises a lot of gripping sea monsters and dark cryptozoological mysteries for our recalcitrant hero and his goofball family.

Then evil spokespeople for an evil zoo show up and offer Billy’s uncle, a marine biologist known as Dr. D, an impossible fortune to find a…mermaid…?

Their reasoning for the mermaid’s existence is baffling, and Dr. D’s reaction to said baffling made for a really funny moment. But tossing in a mermaid is still an unexpected turn in the story, taking us away from sea monsters and horror in favor of innocent mermaids and corporate conspiracies — both very much outside the series’ intentions. This being the short yarn that it is, they find the mermaid almost immediately, and the plight of animal abuse for corporate profit takes center stage as everyone vies for ownership of a very self-aware mermaid.

Despite how odd the mythological turn is, Billy’s adventure is still really fun. Out of the entire 62-book series, Deep Trouble deserves some credit for being the only story to not vilify science and scientists, instead painting both as heroic.  That’s pretty incredible, given how frequently the series abuses science as inherently evil and the cause of all problems. Deep Trouble also has some of the most violent moments the series has seen since Welcome to Dead House, with an uncomfortably-brutal shark attack, and a claustrophobic near-drowning that had me scared of the water for weeks when I was younger.

20. The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight

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It’s a field of screams!

Verdict: Good

The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight was one of the best original Goosebumps books to show a mature sense of suspense. Jodie, Mark, and most on their family farm feel like real people with real interests and fears (and real jokes!), rather than the simplified caricatures one usually expects from the series. (Though Stanley, the farmhand with special needs, is somewhat offensive in how comic his behavior is.) Siblings Jodie and Mark contrast well with one another — Jodie’s the outdoorsy adventurous one to Mark’s backpack-full-of-Gameboy-cartridges lazybones. They mystery, too, was nearly impossible to guess, with so many threads both mundane and dangerously occult to tug at the reader’s suspicions.

The novella opens with Jodie and Mark arriving at their grandparents’ farm for an annual vacation. Hidden fishing holes, a large farm to explore, endless chocolate-chip pancakes every morning and ghost stories before bed: The two adore their annual visits here.

For the summer of 1994, however, their normally-loving and attentive grandparents are unusually reserved. They barely speak a word to our two heroes, and when they do, it’s to be dismissive, yet genuine and caring at the same time. Stanley, the farmhand, has a new passion for the occult, including an uncomfortable obsession with rows and rows of scarecrows, all of which he’s convinced are alive and walk at midnight. From there, the confusion over what the junk is going on, and if anyone’s really in danger, escalates.

The large scale of the mystery brings about some of the pacing issues: There wasn’t enough room to wrap up the story, so it peters out all at once in a miraculous, random action. On a lighter note, the sudden ending also contributes a sense of mythology to the book, leaving the reader to imagine if things are really over for our heroes, or just beginning. As the 20th book, however, it still gave readers the impression that Goosebumps wasn’t losing steam anytime soon.


[#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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