Goosebumps 1-5

Welcome to my new series of retrospective reviews! In these posts, I’m going to be slowly making my way through R.L. Stine’s classic Goosebumps series. Not including spin-offs and specials, this middle grade horror series was published between 1992 and 1997 and ran for sixty-two novels. Please note that, due to the age of this series, this post is likely to contain some spoilers. You have been warned. For the purpose of today’s review, I’m going to be looking at the first five books only. I’m also going to be reviewing this series in the order that they were released in the United Kingdom, which should be noted does differ slight from the order that it was originally released in the United States.

In Welcome to Dead House, Amanda and Josh are forced to move when their father inherits a creepy old house. While Amanda is immediately concerned by the horrifying visions that she has in her bedroom, she grows more worried still when she meets the strange children that live in her neighbourhood. They all seem oddly friendly and keen for her to stay with them. Forever.

In Say Cheese and Die!, Greg and his friends uncover a strange Polaroid camera when poking around an abandoned house. While he initially thinks it is broken, Greg soon discovers that the photos its takes might show the future. Yet, as the pictures begin to grow more sinister, Greg begins to grow concerned that the camera is actually evil. What if it is causing bad things to happen, rather than predicting them?

In Stay Out Of the Basement, Margaret and Casey begin to grow worried about their father when he loses his job and begins working from their basement. Suddenly, he has no time for them and forbids them from going near the odd plants that he is growing. Margaret grows more worried still when she notices that her father is eating plant food and starting to physically change. Just what are his experiments, and does he have plans for them?

In The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Gabe is excited to be spending Christmas with his archaeologist uncle, even if it means that he has to withstand his annoying cousin Sari. After all, how many kids get to explore hidden chambers deep within the Great Pyramid? However, things take a sinister turn when one of his uncle’s assistants tries to kidnap him. As he flees, he soon finds himself lost deep within the pyramid. It is here that he learns a gruesome secret, yet he might not live to tell the tale.

In Monster Blood, Evan is annoyed that he has to stay with his creepy Great-Aunt Kathryn. Not only is she old, but she’s also totally deaf. However, while exploring a local toy shop, he discovers something that seems more fun – a can of goo that seems to possess weird properties. However, when his dog eats some of the Monster Blood and starts to grow, Evan realises that something is weird about the ooze. Worse still, it seems to be growing and developing a mind of its own…

Although I don’t remember Goosebumps with the same fondness that have for Animorphs, this series was still an important part of my childhood. While the series certainly has horrific elements and can be really creepy in places, it is still completely appropriate for young readers. The books are often so exaggerated that they are quite amusing – even to an adult reader – and present threatening situations without being too grim or grisly.

In fact, I personally think that Goosebumps books are a great way of introducing young readers to horror fiction. There aren’t that many middle grade novels that are pure horror stories, as this genre is something that’s often deemed to be inappropriate. Stine is evidently a really skilled writer as he has a knack of creating horrific situations that are rooted in genuine childhood fears. From the fear of moving to a strange neighbourhood to the fear of a parent becoming a monster, these might seem to be small to an adult but are enormous and scary things if you are a child. Personally, I think that this is one of the biggest reasons why these books were such a big hit in the ’90s.

Goosebumps is also certainly written with its target audience in mind. The novels are printed in a nice, clear way and chapters are very short, often ending in cliff-hangers to keep the attention of even the most reluctant of readers. Even coming back to this series as an adult, there is a lot to enjoy. The books are a little dated now, with their references to Gameboys and lack of technology, but still contain a lot of heart. The kids in these stories can be kind of annoying, but in that sense they are well written. Siblings pick on each other, but pull together when it matters. Bullies can be brutal, but generally get what’s coming to them. This is something that resonated with me when I was a pre-teen and still resonates with me now 20 years later.

So, let’s take a look at each of these early instalments to see how they hold up.

Welcome to Dead House immediately took me by surprise. Although I remembered Goosebumps to be a bit over-the-top and weird, I forgot that the first couple of instalments were actually a lot more serious. Welcome to Dead House is a surprisingly creepy and effective ghost story. It uses its length well, quickly escalating from things that go bump in the night to sinister child apparitions. While it is a fairly standard ghost story, it is incredibly effective and may even be a little scary for sensitive readers.

However, Welcome to Dead House was not perfect. It does require a certain suspension of disbelief. I mean, the entire novel centres around the fact that the family moves into a house that has been supposedly left to them by an uncle that they have never heard of. The novel also has a bit of an abrupt ending. After its brief climax, it just kind of ends with a sudden twist. This was disappointing, as Amanda and Josh are really denied their victory. All we get are a couple of pages that let the reader know that they were fine and then moved out of the house.

Actually, the Goosebumps twists are probably something that I should note here. While the kids in Goosebumps books survive their horrible ordeals, the novels usually end with a slightly sinister sting to show that not everything is well. These twists could probably annoy some readers, as very few Goosebumps stories have direct sequels to carry on from these. However, I personally think that they are kind of fun as they leave open ends to allow a creative reader to imagine what would happen next.

The characters of Welcome to Dead House were probably one of its stronger aspects. While we did not have a lot of time to get to know Amanda and her family, I did appreciate the fact that they behaved like a true family, down to the little arguments and annoying younger siblings. Yet, as combative as Amanda and Josh can be, they still manage to work together when it is needed to save the day. The only thing that was a little annoying was that neither protagonist seemed to grow from their experiences. This is especially true of Josh, who never becomes any less irritating.

Say Cheese and Die! is another surprisingly creepy instalment to the series, which kind of makes it interesting that the English publishers decided that it should be the second part to be released (as it was the fourth in the United States). It is also a very different sort of novel to the first, containing a much larger cast and a more of Twilight Zone feel, casting aside ghosts in favour of an evil, accident-causing camera.

While the story was surprisingly enthralling, it did still have a few frustrating flaws. After the first-person narrative of Welcome to Dead House, the third-person voice of this novel felt rather clumsy. The opening chapters were bogged down with too much character description and the few instances where the perspective left Greg felt unnecessary. I would have also liked for there to have been a bit more explanation as to where the camera came from and how it was made. Much like with the “chemical leak” explanation for the previous book, this was largely brushed over.

Still, that said, I did actually really enjoy this story. The photographs added a lot of tension to the tale, encouraging the reader to press on to find out how the “accidents” will all play out. The ending, again, was partially positive but carried an oddly dark sting. Unlike in most of Goosebumps stories, Greg does play an active role in killing the villain and the final twist could prove fatal for the two school bullies.

The characters of Say Cheese and Die! were also a little varied. Despite the larger friendship group, a lot of the characters were left undeveloped. Bird is just the irritating “funny” character, and Michael doesn’t do anything much at all. Still, Greg was a very sympathetic protagonist and you could certainly feel his growing guilt and sense of helplessness as he realised what the camera could do.

I thought that Welcome to Dead House and Say Cheese and Die! would be tough acts to follow, but I was really pleased to find that Stay Out of the Basement was even better paced. Although it was still written in the same clumsy third-person style as the previous instalment, it was far faster to find its feet and did not waste as much time with exposition and unnecessary character description.

The novel escalates quickly and smoothly, with Margaret and Casey coming to slowly realise that their father was not right and finally investigating the forbidden basement. The horror this time felt a little closer to home, as the children find themselves isolated with an inhuman (and possibly murderous) parent. It also made a lot more of an effort to explain its science than the previous two instalments. While it was still far-fetched from an adult perspective, at least it required less suspension of disbelief.

I also found the protagonists to be a bit less annoying. While Margaret was somewhat of an everyman, Casey was less of a jerk than most Goosebumps siblings and so the two could work together quite nicely. My only real frustration was just how long it took them to discover the source of the moaning in the basement. This would have been the first thing that I checked out and there is no real reason for why it took them until the final few chapters!

However, it was all downhill from there. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb was the first weak link in the series. It shed the small-town America feel of the previous books and instead relocated to a more exotic locale. In this case, the heart of Cairo. While I at first thought that this change of scenery would be a bit refreshing, it instantly made the situation a bit more difficult to relate to. After all, how many kids get the chance to spend their holidays with a world-famous archaeologist?

The pacing of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb was a lot slower than previous instalments, giving it more of the feel of an adventure story until the final few chapters. Even when the novel had finally flipped its horror switch, it still felt a bit shallow. There didn’t really seem to be any kind of curse, despite the title. It didn’t even seem to be that supernatural, given the villain turned out to be a totally ordinary man. The only truly supernatural element of the story took the for of Chekhov’s mummified hand. This problematic object was referred to throughout the story, as Gabe had somehow managed to get his hands on this grisly antiquity at a yard sale in America (I wish I was joking) and it ultimately became the one thing with the power to save the day. In the depths of the Great Pyramid of Giza. What were the odds of that?

Yet, despite all of its flaws and weak plotting, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb surprisingly had the best set of characters. Gabe and Sari both had markedly different personalities and played off each other in a realistic way, goading each other into getting in trouble. I also liked that the cast of this book were entirely people of colour. This made a change from previous novels, where this was never specified.

And then, there’s Monster Blood. If you were planning on skipping an instalment of the series, this would be the one that I would suggest. I don’t remember enjoying this one as a child and it doesn’t hold up as an adult reader either. The story wasn’t frightening at all, taking all of its horror from jump scares which aren’t very effective on page. The pacing was also incredibly slow, with the titular goo taking a little while to appear and longer still to do anything. And then there was the plot…

Putting aside the fact that no child would get as excited about a tin of slime as Evan (serious, why does finding this make his life?), the twist of Monster Blood is unbelievably weak. The witchcraft element of the story is never really alluded to, beyond the fact that Kathryn owns an “evil” black cat. We never learn exactly who (or what) Kathryn is, how she came to be cursed, or what connect she has to the Monster Blood. The rapid way in which everything is wrapped up in this novel is incredibly unsatisfying.

To make matters worse, it does not even have a likeable cast. Evan is a little jerk who never redeems himself or does anything to win the reader over. Even when the Monster Blood becomes dangerous, all he tries to do is hide it. He’s whiny and makes no effort at all to get along with his elderly aunt. While Andy is slightly better, she’s still a bit of a shallow protagonist and never really does anything on her own.

So, I think I’ve probably rambled for long enough. I really enjoyed reading through these early instalments and, despite the fact that the quality did dip in The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Monster Blood, the first three novels were all strong and contained a lot of memorable moments. I’m really looking forward to delving further into the series in a future review.

Welcome to Dead House can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

Say Cheese and Die! can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

Stay Out of the Basement can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

Monster Blood can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Asha - A Cat, A Book, And A Cup Of Tea
    Mar 25, 2019 @ 12:35:45

    I was always too scared to read these as a kid, but I love the nostalgia people have for them. This was a fun read!

    Reply

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