Goosebumps 36-40

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier in this series. You can read my reviews of these novels here:

1-5 | 6-10 | 11-15 | 16-20 | 21-25 | 26-30 | 31-35

It’s Halloween and so I thought that this is the perfect time to continue my Goosebumps retrospective. Please note that, as per my previous posts, this will contain massive spoilers for the books in question. You have been warned.

Chances are that you have already heard of Goosebumps. The original series was written by R.L. Stine and was published between 1992 and 1997. The sixty-two novels are largely all stand-alone horror stories aimed at middle grade readers. The series is still hugely popular today and has since spawned dozens of spin-offs and adaptations. For the purpose of this review, I’m going to look at books 36 to 40 only. I’m basing this on the order that they were released in the UK, as this does differ slightly to their US release order.

In The Haunted Mask II, Steve has been given an unthinkable punishment – the task of coaching the first grade soccer team. The kids know how to make his life a living Hell and so he’s determined to have his revenge on them. With Halloween looming, he knows that it’s the perfect time to scare the little monsters out of their skins. If only he can get Carly Beth to tell him where she got her terrifying mask…

In The Headless Ghost, Stephanie and Duane love to terrify the kids in the neighbourhood. However, their old pranks are starting to get boring. To spice things up, they decide to visit Hill House – a local landmark that is known to be haunted by the ghost of a headless boy. While they initially plan to hunt for the spirit’s missing head, they find themselves in unspeakable danger as the ghost makes clear that any head will do.

In The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, Jordan and Nicole have never left their Californian home-town and long to see the snow. Luckily, it seems that they will finally get their wish when their dad is given a chance to travel to Alaska and obtain photographic evidence of a strange monster. At first it seems like a great adventure, but that’s before Jordan and Nicole find themselves lost in the frozen tundra. Will they find their father, or will the snowman find them first…

In How I Got My Shrunken Head, Mark is thrilled to received a gift from his Aunt Benna. It’s a genuine shrunken head and an invitation to join her on the remote jungle island of Baladora. However, when Mark arrives, he discovers that all is not as it seemed. His Aunt has been missing for a long time and her colleagues believe that Mark holds the secret to Jungle Magic. Mark knows that he’s the only one who can save his Aunt, but how can he do so when he does not know how to use his powers?

In Night of the Living Dummy III, Trina and Dan have grown up appreciating their dad’s collection of creepy ventriloquist dummies. However, their wimpy cousin Zane is less impressed. Every time Zane gets startled by the dummies, Trina and Dan get blamed for pulling pranks. The trouble is, neither of them are responsible for the mysterious accidents and moving puppets. Trina is determined to find the logical explanation behind these occurrences, as she knows it can’t be that the dummies are actually alive. Can it?

It can safely be said at this stage that the Goosebumps series is a bit of a mixed bag. Throughout the forty books that I have read so far, we have seen all manner of different horror story tropes. Some of the stories have ghosts and some have monsters. Some are scary and some are humorous. Some are told in the first person and others in the third. It’s the nature of the Goosebumps series that, while the books share some common recurring themes – the desire to scare others, bratty siblings, childhood fears – they still have something to offer readers with almost any taste.

Still, now that we are over half-way through the series, it is quite clear that quality fluctuates quite wildly. We’re now seeing Stine produce more sequels to earlier stories, and some of his ideas are growing increasingly surreal. Still, even at this late stage in the series, there are some real gems to be found. Let’s take a look at each of the books in turn so that I can show you what I mean.

If you read my review of The Haunted Mask, you will remember that it remains one of my favourite Goosebumps books. It was a creepy story with a strong protagonist and decent twist ending. Because of this, I was really disappointed to find that its sequel was decidedly average. The Haunted Mask II was set a year after the events of the first book and focused this time on Steve and Chuck – the two kids that picked on Carly Beth last time around – as they also discover the living masks.

The story is very slow to get moving, relying on the fact that the reader knows what will happen when Steve does put on the mask to inch out tension. When he finally does, his choice of mask makes the story a lot more humorous than the original. While Carly Beth turned into a monster, Steve instead becomes an old man with all of the associated health problems that go with this. However, after this point, the story follows the same pattern as the original. Steve and Carly Beth desperately hunt for a way to remove the mask before its effects become permanent.

Even the twist of The Haunted Mask II is exactly the same as the original, which leads me to another problem. At the end of The Haunted Mask, we learn that Carly Beth’s brother has donned her mask and is therefore trapped forever. However, this is not mentioned at all in the sequel. Carly Beth’s brother is only eluded to once and we are not privy to his fate. This felt like a bit of a plot hole, as you would have thought that Carly Beth’s family would have been a bit more fearful of masks if they had a monster son!

However, I did think that the characters in The Haunted Mask II were very strong. Although Steve is certainly not likeable to begin with (what is it with Stine and kids who are obsessed with elaborate revenge pranks?), you do certainly start to feel for him as the story progresses. I also liked the scenes with his family, as these did a great job of fleshing out his personal life.

It was also nice to see Carly Beth again, as she was a similarly strong protagonist in her own book. The only thing that I found a bit of a shame was that we learn nothing more about the masks’ creator. While he does get a little cameo when Steve first visits the shop, it would have been nice if the novel explored more of who he was or where he came from.

Fortunately, The Headless Ghost is a much stronger novel. I haven’t really been a fan of the ghost stories in this series so far, but I am pleased to say that I found this one to be quite effective. While it does take a little while to find its feet, it becomes surprisingly creepy as Duane reveals tales of ghostly happenings at Hill House. This only escalates as he starts to explore the mansion in the hope of encountering a spirit.

The legends of Hill House have the feel of a campfire story, over-the-top and sufficiently scary for kids, yet never overly gruesome. As Duane and Stephanie explore, they have many creepy encounters that are certain to make young readers shiver. However, Stine does a fantastic job of building tension and saves the absolute best for the novel’s climax.

My only real issue with the story was that there ultimately wasn’t much of a mystery behind the disappearance of the ghost’s head. After a lot of build-up, the characters virtually fall over this in the last few chapters. However, after this, the novel reveals its true twist ending. While this does not add much to the tale, it did take me by surprise and was tonnes of fun.

In terms of characterisation, The Headless Ghost is also fairly strong. Duane and Stephanie are both likeable and are a bit of an inversion of the typical Goosebumps protagonist. Instead of being scaredy-cats, the two actually take delight in being the ones to scare other kids. The story purely focuses on the two of them as they explore the house, with Stephanie being the more confident of the two and Duane being endearingly determined to impress her.

However, I did feel that the two of them probably deserved more of a comeuppance. We have seen earlier protagonists meet sticky ends for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Duane and Stephanie are actively pests, taking delight in bullying younger kids yet never truly being forced to answer for this behaviour.

Sadly, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena was not quite as well constructed. This Goosebumps book was largely let down by its ending, which was a shame as I did enjoy the way the plot ramped up towards this. While it is questionable why Jordan’s Dad would take his kids on a hunt for a man-eating monster, the story maintains a brisk pace as the protagonists brave the dangerous Alaskan Tundra, heading deeper into the snowman’s domain with every chapter. The novel also does a fantastic job of building a feeling of isolation over these early chapters, creating a sense of foreboding long before the monster ever appears.

Yet The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena loses this over its climax. When the action returns to Pasadena, the plot takes a very odd turn. Instead of a story about a monster, it focuses on magical snow that can freeze a person solid. This was a very strange twist and I must admit that I did not find it all that satisfying. It largely undid all that the early chapters set up, removing any tension and just becoming silly.

Yet, in terms of characterisation, I did think that the story was pretty strong. While the monster was disappointing, Jordan and Nicole are both sympathetic characters. Despite their bickering, they seem to get on pretty well and certainly work well together. Although their Dad was incredibly irresponsible, he was also interesting as he was the first single parent to appear in a Goosebumps novel (even though this was only briefly mentioned in the story).

How I Got My Shrunken Head was also a bit of a forgettable addition to the series. While it wasn’t one of the worst Goosebumps books that I have reviewed, it never really felt as though it accomplished much either. It reminded me a little of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, in that it was more of an adventure story than horror. Mark is whisked off to a remote jungle island by a complete stranger (seriously, why are Goosebumps parents so lax when it comes to child safety?), has a brief evening of adventure, and saves the day using ill-defined magic.

While this instalment is rather exciting, it let itself down with the lack of detail. How I Got My Shrunken Head gives no real explanation for where the jungle magic came from, what its limitations are, or why Mark’s aunt is the one who controls it. There is also no explanation for where the enormous pile of shrunken heads at the base camp has come from, and the villains – Aunt Benna’s assistants – have no motivation beyond just being power-hungry and inherently evil.

The characters in this story also felt under-developed. While Mark is likeable enough, he doesn’t really have any defining character traits. All of the other characters in the novel were completely flat. They were either good (wanting to protect the jungle), or bad (wanting to claim the jungle magic for selfish reasons). There was no middle ground.

And finally, there was Night of the Living Dummy III. If you have read the previous Night of the Living Dummy stories, you will certainly know what to expect from this one. And, I must admit, it’s getting a little tired. While it’s not as dark and creepy as the others, it does have the same structure of Slappy being brought home by an unsuspecting family, malicious things happening around the house, and the kids being blamed. The truth – that Slappy is actually alive – is revealed over the last few chapters.

Trouble is, this twist no longer comes as a shock when the reader knows full well who is responsible. Because of this, I did not find the novel very engaging as I just found myself reading on in anticipation of the inevitable. The story would probably only be truly effective for a reader who had not picked up the previous two instalments, though I can’t imagine why anyone would gravitate towards the third book of a trilogy. Even if the reader (for some reason) did, I still think they would be disappointed. The climax felt a little bit lack-lustre, not really living up to the all-out fight with Slappy in the second book.

I also didn’t think that Night of the Living Dummy III really used what it had that well. Given that, this time, the spell to animate Slappy was recited in a room full of dummies, there was potential to give the demonic puppet a whole army of allies. Unfortunately, this opportunity was missed and the other dummies don’t play much of a role until very late in the story.

In terms of characterisation, Night of the Living Dummy III was also a bit varied. While the two protagonists – Trina and Dan – were a bit bland, cousin Zane actually did have a bit more going on as the book detailed his hobbies and nervous personality. Trina’s father also had more involvement in the early chapters than the average Goosebumps parent as he was the one responsible for bringing Slappy home, yet he gradually faded from the novel as the story progressed.

Anyhow, I think that about covers everything. While this little selection of Goosebumps books certainly wasn’t the best, I would certainly recommend The Headless Ghost to any young horror fans, as it’s a creepy tale with a decent twist. Let’s hope that the next five instalments are a bit stronger.

The Haunted Mask II can be purchased as a Paperback & eBook on Amazon.co.uk

The Headless Ghost can be purchased as a Paperback on Amazon.co.uk

The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena can be purchased as a Paperback & eBook on Amazon.co.uk

How I Got My Shrunken Head can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

Night of the Living Dummy III can be purchased as a Paperback & eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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