Thursday, June 14, 2012

Books We Loved, Volume 1: Goosebumps

Note: This is the first of several entries I’ll do on different books or book series that were beloved by kids in the Golden Age.  They won’t be in consecutive order, just done sporadically.

Reader Beware: You’re in for a Scare

In the early 90’s, kids loved a good scare.  Whether it was our weekly date with the Midnight Society on Are You Afraid of the Dark, staying up past our bed times to sneak a peek at “Tales from the Crypt”, or scaring ourselves silly watching Chuckie or Freddie Krueger, we couldn’t get enough scary stories.  But perhaps no “horror” franchise was more successful in the Golden Age than R.L. Stine’s line of Goosebumps books.

With their trademark title font and vivid cover illustrations, Goosebumps books grabbed your attention right away.  When the book case opened at your school’s book fair or you stepped into the kids’ section at your local bookstore, you were instantly drawn to the Goosebumps books. 

Goosebumps were a winner for everyone.  Kids thought it was cool to read “horror” stories and liked the bizarre story lines and plot twists.  Parents liked the fact that their kids actually wanted to read rather than just play Genesis or Super Nintendo, and the fact that Goosebumps books didn’t have any graphic violence or death earned them the parents’ seal of approval.  It was the perfect recipe for success for Stine, Scholastic and the series, as Goosebumps sold over 350 Million copies worldwide.  On Publisher’s Weekly’s list of the All-Time Bestselling Children’s Books (as of 2001), 45 Goosebumps Titles were in the greater than 1 Million copies sold category (Welcome to Dead House was tops at over 2.1 Million copies sold, Say Cheese and Die was just behind). 


Goosebumps books followed a pretty simple formula.  First, Stine started with an experience that kids could easily relate to, like spending a summer at camp or taking a trip to an amusement park or dealing with a bully at school.  He then added a protagonist who was a kid, around the same age or perhaps slightly older than the reader.  He also almost always threw in a supporting character that was the opposite gender of the protagonist.  That way, regardless of whether the reader was male or female, they had a character with whom they could identify.  Finally, Stine almost always framed his stories by putting the characters in some new setting—whether they had just moved to a new town or were visiting a relative on vacation, there was generally some plot device used to make the character unfamiliar with his or her surroundings, making the events that were about to unfold all the more frightening.

As any Goosebumps reader can tell you, the real hallmark of the series was plot twists, both at the end of a chapter and at the end of the book.  Each book had many short chapters, and at least a half dozen times there would be chapters with cliffhanger endings.  The ending of a chapter might go something like:

 “ and then I turned the corner and shrieked at the top of my lungs.  There it was—the monster, charging right at me!”

Of course, within the first paragraph of the next chapter, we learn that it wasn’t really a monster at all, but the protagonist’s friend playing a trick on her, or a dream, or some other cheap plot device.  Nevertheless, I don't ever remember feeling angry at the books for pulling a fast one on me.  What I do remember is always telling my mother that I’d go to bed “just as soon as I finish this chapter”, only to be unable to stop at the cliffhanger.

Stine also loved to throw in a major twist at the end of most of his books, some of which were totally out of left field.  For instance, revealing that all the events of the book took place on another planet in preparation for a trip to a strange planet called Earth (Welcome to Camp Nightmare) or revealing that all of the characters are not actually humans but dogs (My Hairiest Adventure).   But even though some of the endings were completely absurd and might make you say “WTF?” when you think about them now, as a kid it was more of a “Whoa... Cooooooool!” reaction.

Even though they were supposed to be scary, Stine kept the Goosebumps series pretty light-hearted on purpose (as contrasted with his Fear Street series for older readers, which was not silly or playful like Goosebumps).  Sure some of the twists may seem over-the-top in retrospect, but really that was the whole idea.  Goosebumps was not a realistic fiction series, so why not take advantage of that and really stretch the imagination?

Top 5 Goosebumps Titles (Title only, not plot)

1. Monster Blood

The first Goosebumps book I ever read, and always one of my favorites, Monster Blood was good enough to inspire 3 separate sequels.  Monsters = scary, Blood = scary, so "Monster Blood" naturally piqued a kid's attention. 

2. Welcome to Camp Nightmare

Just by coincidence, this happens to be the second Goosebumps book I ever read, and arguably the biggest "WTF" ending of the series.  Summer camp themes were a Stine favorite, but "Camp Nightmare" has a great ring to it.

3. The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight

This title had a unique sound to it, a little longer and more eerily declarative.  Sounds like something a crazy old man would tell you in an ominous voice.  Creepy.

4. A Night in Terror Tower

Have to think that this title was inspired by the popular Twilight Zone-themed ride at Disney's MGM Studios, "The Tower of Terror".  It was pretty popular around the time this book came out, and Stine has admitted he borrowed a lot from The Twilight Zone.  Still, the title sounds cool and is vague enough to make you curious--"What is Terror Tower?  What happens in a night there?" 

5. The Headless Ghost

 With a tip of the cap to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, "The Headless Ghost" combines the horror of decapitation with the spookiness of an apparition.  Seems like a winner to me.

Top 5 Goosebumps Cover Illustrations

1. The Haunted Mask

Probably one of the most iconic books in the series, The Haunted Mask's glowing eyes and ferocious teeth in front of a little girl's face instantly grabs your attention.

2. One day at Horrorland

There's a real eeriness to this cover, something uncanny about a theme park--which should be a happy, lively place--set against a foreground of desolation and death.  Not to mention the Horror looming ominously.  Also, bonus points for use of the "Charlotte Hornets" colors that were so popular in those years.

3. The Beast from the East

No, this one does not involve BamBam Bigelow, but apparently some sort of Koala bear crossed with a sloth and injected with steroids.  I have no idea actually because I had pretty much stopped reading the series by the time this one came out, but it looks pretty intriguing and surreal with a strange creature against a lush background.  

4. Calling All Creeps

Again, I have no idea what this one is about because I had stopped reading them by this point, but it looks like a bunch of velociraptors dressed like street toughs and crammed into a phone booth.  How could anyone NOT be interested in that storyline?

5. The Curse of Camp Cold Lake

I will say this for Goosebumps: By the latter years of the series, Stine may have been really stretching for storylines, but Tim Jacobus and whoever else was drawing the cover art were really hitting their stride.  Some of the cover art after book 40 is really excellent.  I love the color scheme of The Curse of Camp Cold Lake, and a skeleton with hair emerging from (or sinking into) a fog-covered pond is as scary as it'll get for a Goosebumps book.


About 2 and a half years ago, around Halloween, in a fit of nostalgia for the Goosebumps books I once held dear, I decided to buy one off of eBay-- for old times sake.  It was only a couple dollars for a used one, and I thought it would be fun to walk down memory lane.  "One Day at Horrorland" was my choice, and I was able to get through it in just a few hours.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Goosebumps books hold up well over time.  Sure, since I’m an adult now, the books are not really aimed at my demographic; but poor writing is poor writing, and Horrorland was laden with it.  Forgettable characters, cheesy dialogue and totally ridiculous twists and cliffhangers were there in abundance.  And it just wasn’t really a fun read, even for nostalgia’s sake—so if anyone out there is considering re-reading a Goosebumps book for kicks, my advice would be to leave the memory alone.

For those interested, a blog called Blogger Beware has some really detailed summaries and criticism of the series.  He’s WAY too negative and sarcastic for my taste, but I was glad to have some reminders of how some of the stories unfolded, and you may be too.

But overall, I don’t want to denigrate the series the way Blogger Beware does.  If you enjoy cynics who like to lambaste books/shows/games etc. from their childhood, you’re in luck because the internet is full of those types.  But this blog isn’t for that—this blog is to remember why we loved those books or shows or games in the first place.

It has been almost 2 decades since R.L. Stine started furiously cranking out Goosebumps books.  But all those years later, I still remember the excitement of seeing a new Goosebumps book on display in a bookstore or at a book fair.  Picking it up, seeing the bright colors and the colorful illustration, reading the teaser and perhaps just as importantly, checking the back cover to see what the next book was going to be called.  I remember lining my book shelf with them, as many as I could talk my parents into buying for me, and displaying the collection proudly to friends.  I remember staying up late, trying to get to the end of the book before my mom caught me.  And though the writing may not have been Newbery Medal-worthy, I remember thinking it was totally awesome as a kid and loving the far-out plot twists.

So, nearly 20 years later, Goosebumps books are still remembered fondly by me and many others Golden Agers.  Maybe Stine isn’t such a bad writer after all.