Book Talk: Earthbound (Richard Matheson, 1989)

eath-1Note: Earthbound’s release should technically be dated 1982. However, Matheson attached the pen name of Logan Swanson to the original version after publisher Playboy Press “severely” edited (source: wikipedia) the original manuscript. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t until the 1989 re-release that Earthbound was published unaltered with Matheson’s name on the cover hence why I am using that date for this review.

Last year, I made a vow to spread my wings and step further afield when it came to the fiction I consumed and the authors who wrote it. This was right after reading Stephen King’s non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, in which the famous writer explores the subject of horror, what makes it tick and – more importantly – the writers and works of fiction that inspired him. I jotted down a list of titles, recommended by King, that I wanted to investigate. And yes, I totally appreciate the irony in compiling a more varied reading wishlist using the recommendations of the author that I have stuck too close to over the years.

Earthbound by Richard Matheson is the first book that I have crossed off that list. I have to confess that, despite being an avid reader, I hadn’t heard of Matheson before purposely seeking out Earthbound. I guess that’s proof of how little I have actually dipped my toes below the surface of horror’s waters.

As such, I was unfamiliar with the author’s writing style. Regardless, this is a review and so I can only offer my honest opinion based on my experience with the book and what I got out of it.

It was a book of two halves and a slow-burner to begin with. David and Ellen Cooper have gone away to an isolated beachside cottage at Logan Beach, the place where they spent their first honeymoon over twenty years ago. Unfortunately, Logan Beach and the cottage in particular have become quite rundown and ramshackle in the intervening years and the icy cold temperature that permeates the building is highly uncomfortable. The couple put up with the dilapidation and unfavourable cold however because they are there to try and rekindle their ailing marriage.

Not much is initially explained on the marriage breakdown front but it is hinted that David has had an affair in the recent past and that their marriage is on the rocks as a result. It’s this section of the book that is the slow-burner. The conversation between David and Ellen is fairly flat, their background is only gently alluded to and quite honestly, I didn’t find either character that interesting. What’s more, there are precious little scene changes and so you – the reader – feel stuck in the depressed cottage with these two characters that aren’t exactly thrilling to be around. Once I’d finished this book, I DID appreciate that David and Ellen were just very normal, boring but flawed people and that, perhaps, this was a quality of the writing and not necessarily a detraction. But without that hindsight, Earthbound initially felt lacking in depth and pizzazz.

Until Marianna shows up.

The mysterious Marianna arrives at the door while Ellen is out and David is on his own. She is young and shockingly beautiful to David, who is immediately bewitched.

When she looked back at him, David felt the drawing tingle in his flesh again, stronger than ever now. It was almost unbelievable that any woman could be so lovely. He stared at her, imprisoned by her beauty.

Straight away, during the first few pages of Marianna’s presence in the book, you can tell that the tendrils of obsession are beginning to wrap about David. Matheson uses some powerful language and descriptives here and I had no trouble believing in Marianna’s intense beauty and the affect that she was having on unwitting David.

Then it’s back to some more David and Ellen with David now obsessing over Marianna and allowing her image to cloud his mind even while he is supposed to be attentive to Ellen and their fractured marriage. But then Marianna returns at night and Matheson suddenly spices things up with a shot of erotic sex as Marianna follows through on her determination to seduce David.

With an impotent shudder, David slid both arms around her and she fell against him, lips, hungrily, at his again. He pulled her violently to himself, the pressure of her jutting breasts arousing him still further. Suddenly, Marianna jerked his right arm free and, twisting slightly to the side, lifted his hand to her left breast. David cupped his palm across the thrusting cone and started fondling and massaging it, feeling through the sweater, how its nipple hardened at his touch. Marianna licked his lips tempestuously. She raked her teeth across his cheek, her breath like spilling fire on his skin. “Anything!” she whispered in his ear.

Drawing back, eyes never leaving his, she tugged the sweater up across her head and slung it aside; David tightened at the prominence of her bust as she turned her back to him. “Quickly, darling.” His fingers trembled as he picked the four hooks from their eyes. The brassiere ends sprang apart and Marianna shucked it into his lap. “Hands,” she muttered. David held them out, numb and shaking, and she clutched them to the pendant arching of her breasts, hissing through her teeth, eyes hooded as he dug his fingers into them. “More,” she said. Gasping, David dropped his head and started kissing them. He ran his tongue across the large, stiffened nipples and she pulled him savagely against herself, a frenzied moaning in her throat. “Feed,” she said. Her back went rigid as he began to suckle her. “Bite me, hurt me.” Her hands were clutching at his head like talons of steel. “Take them,” she ordered. “They’re yours, yours!”

(Still with me?)

Between Marianna’s sudden, inexplicable appearances, her lustful interest in a forty two year-old married man that she just met and the furious, animal-like sex that she is only too willing to initiate, it is clear that there is something not right about her. Furthermore, David wakes the next morning to feel utterly drained of energy and not necessarily due to the night’s physical efforts. You begin to wonder if Marianna is a succubus or some form of sexual vampire.

The rest of the book – without going into any more spoilers – is David gradually losing his mind as Marianna continues to visit and his obsession spirals out of control, as does the sensation of being sucked dry (no dirty pun intended…). He and Ellen argue and an internal war rages within as David grapples with what he knows is right and the delicious, gratifying wrong that Marianna has poisoned his well with. He wants – needs – Marianna and his lust for her is all-powerful. At the same time, he is desperate to escape the cottage and get away before it is too late.

Unfortunately, it IS too late once the horrifying, supernatural truth about the enigmatic Marianna is revealed. Fortunately for the reader however, this is where the book kicks into overdrive and everything comes to a wild head. If Earthbound had been a slow-burner before, peppered with flat spots and dull dialogue, the endgame more than makes up for it. Seriously, it comes from nowhere and is a chaotic rush of madness and plot twists.

As I have no doubt suggested, I didn’t immediately take to Earthbound with much enthusiasm but by the time I reached the book’s conclusion, I was left a little breathless by the sudden rush of events. In fact, it made me look back at the book as a whole and realise that the dull bits were just part of the suspense. I think I was expecting straight-up horror but while Earthbound certainly has that, it is more of a psyhological story. The description of David’s mind and thoughts as he slowly drowns in his obsession for Marianna for example is rich and almost disturbing.

Thing is though, I think most of us can relate to being obsessed with another person that we are infatuated with on a near-toxic, unhealthy level. We know it is senseless and irrational with no chance of a happy, wholesome ending. I know I certainly can and I was reminded of the dark time in my life when I’m ashamed to admit that I was a slave to a woman’s beauty, my mind akin to a runaway minecart. And while my own experiences pale drastically next to the supernatural forces and savage sex that David Cooper faces in Earthbound, I still saw murky reflections there. It made me feel a touch uncomfortable about myself as a human being and a man and that is, in my opinion, REAL horror that hits harder than any OTT gore or monsters could ever hope to.

My overall feeling about Earthbound is that it is a book that probably needs a second read-through in order to fully appreciate. I think being pre-armed with pre-existing knowledge of the characters (rather than being frustrated by the lack of explanation and scant characterisation of David and Ellen early on) would help the reader enjoy the suspense and pyschological aspects of the book that much more.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #5: Monster Blood (R.L. Stine, 1992)

MB-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

I have to begin this particular review with a little mystery. If you have read the previous entries in this series then you may be thinking that I’ve made a mistake in a title. After all, the previous book – The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – was dated 1993 so why are we going BACK to 1992 for the next book in the series? Well, the copyright page of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb stated “First Published in the US by Scholastic Inc., 1993”. Here, with Monster Blood, it states 1992. Though all of these books look uniform in terms of covers, I definitely have a mix of editions on my hands. After all, the prices for these books began at £2.99 in the UK before rising to £3.50 and then – finally – £3.99. What’s more, these prices are printed on the back of the books so it’s clear whether you have an original or newer printing in your hands. That said, the copyright pages don’t ever change and only show the date of the first UK publication. In addition to that, they could have printed these books and updated the copyright pages a billion times over and it still shouldn’t affect the original US publication date.

The only solution I can offer is that Monster Blood was published before The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb in the US and the order of release was switched about for the UK. I haven’t looked into it though so feel free to enlighten me on the truth in the comments if you know! Anyway, that’s enough rambling about publication dates. Onto Monster Blood

The Blurb

Evan’s not too happy about staying with his weird Aunt Kathryn – she gives him the creeps!. But at least he’s found a friend, and they’ve discovered a great toyshop, selling really cool things – like Monster Blood.

But there’s something very strange about this Monster Blood – it seems to be growing…and growing…and growing…

And what’s more, it’s developed an appetite – a monstrous appetite!

We’ve arrived at one of the most iconic series’ in Goosebumps’ run and one of the longest-lasting. There are four Monster Blood installments in total with Monster Blood IV completing the original run of 62 books. This here though, is where it all begins. Evan’s parents are having trouble re-locating to a new home in Atlanta and so, while they are busy sorting out adult affairs, they leave Evan with his Aunt Kathryn. Thing is, Aunt Kathryn is pretty sinister, looks like a witch and is completely deaf. Evan is also in an unfamiliar neighbourhood where he knows nobody and so it doesn’t look like a fun summer is on the cards.

Fortunately, he chances upon a new friend – Andy (full name, Andrea – she’s a girl don’t you know?) – and finds some form of escape from Kathryn’s house at least. Andy suggests that they go into the nearby town where there is a toy shop.

Evan hesitated. He hadn’t told his Aunt he was going into town. But what the heck, he thought. She wouldn’t care.

Besides, What could possibly happen?

Oh nothing much…apart from finding a strange tin in the shop’s back room labelled “Monster Blood”, the contents of which will lead to supernatural horror. Just your standard trip to the local store, huh? While they are in the shop, there is another really dated 90’s moment which I should save for the “Incredibly Dated Segment” at the end of this review but I’ve used the Nintendo card several times in a row now so I’ll just include it here.

“Do they have Nintendo games?” Evan asked her, whispering, afraid to break the still silence.

“I don’t think so,” Andy whispered back. “I’ll ask.” She shouted up to the front, “Do you have Nintendo games?”

It took a while for the man to answer. He scratched his ear. “Don’t stock them,” he grunted finally, sounding annoyed by the interruption.

I’m starting to wonder if Stine was sponsored by Nintendo. Of course, the truth is that Nintendo as a brand was just THAT big in society back in the 80’s and early 90’s so I shouldn’t be surprised that it finds it’s way into children’s fiction.

Anyway, Evan purchases the tin of Monster Blood from the shop (much to owner’s annoyance since Evan simply waltzes into an off-limits back room and picks it up from a shelf of crap) and then he and Andy mess about with the slimy contents, unaware of what the (very) near future holds. The Monster Blood begins to grow, becoming too much for the original container to hold. Evan and Andy have to keep finding new ways to store the green goop and, as is Goosebumps tradition, none of the adults have even the slightest clue what is happening. Evan’s dog – Trigger – even gets away with growing in size after ingesting some Monster Blood and nobody else seems to see the problem – not even a vet who diagnoses Trigger’s sudden doubling in size as a late growth spurt!

At wit’s end, Evan and Andy have to resort to pouring the Monster Blood into dustbin but it soon escapes and begins a deadly rampage as the book reaches it’s endgame.

A robin, pulling at a worm in the grass, didn’t look up in time. The trembling green mass rolled over it.

“Oh!” Evan moaned, turning back to see the bird sucked into the green ball. It’s wings flapping frantically, the bird uttered a final cry, then disappeared inside.

Plop. Plop. Plop.

The Monster Blood changed direction, still bouncing and quivering, and leaving white stains on the grass like enormous round footsteps.

“It’s alive!” Andy screamed, her hands pressed against her cheeks. “Oh, my God – it’s ALIVE!”

Reading this book as adult, I can still appreciate the concept of the Monster Blood and the sinister description of the massive green blob as it begins absorbing people, looking to feed on living creatures. It is, of course, a complete rip-off of 1958’s The Blob, a classic horror movie about an ever-growing alien blob that devours the citizens of a town. Unoriginal it may be but I still enjoyed Monster Blood as a ‘lite’ version of The Blob.

Until the conclusion that is. You’d hope for an interesting explanation as to the origins of the Monster Blood substance, especially given how creepy the toy shop and its odd owner were. Unfortunately, everything falls to shit at the end so if you somehow haven’t already read this book, prepare for spoilers and all that.

As it turns out, the Monster Blood itself isn’t evil or a sentient creature. Y’see, Aunt Kathryn really IS a witch and she was forced to place a spell on the otherwise inert Monster Blood by ANOTHER witch that had been disguised as her cat – Sarabeth – all along. Sarabeth is also responsible for Aunt Kathryn’s deafness and had been keeping her captive for the last twenty years. Where had Sarabeth came from and for what reason did she move in with Kathryn and decide to keep her under her control? And why did she decide to kill Evan and Andy in the most obtuse, ridiculous manner possible? It’s a bizarre finale that takes away the mystery of the Monster Blood with a load of partially explained (and that’s being generous) nonsense about witches and black magic.

The ending feels extremely cheap, almost as if somebody else wrote it at the last minute. Naturally, the Monster Blood – now shrunk back to its original volume – disappears while everybody is preoccupied with attempting to wrap their brains around the nutty events that had just transpired. I thought this stuff was only alive thanks to the (now broken) spell? I guess we will have to wait for Monster Blood II

The Cover

On a more positive note, I LOVE the cover for Monster Blood. The tin looks evil as fuck with a jack-o-lantern style face and glowing red eyes peering out from the dark innards of the can. It’s worth remembering that the can isn’t depicted like this in the story but this is the kind of artistic liberty that I can wholeheartedly approve of.

The incredibly dated bit

I wonder if Aunt Kathryn has a video, he thought. He quickly dismissed the idea. No way…

A nice little flashback there to the days of VHS tapes and VCRs. In fact, this book is SO old that it was still feasible to assume that people didn’t even have video players…

The nostalgia rating

Pretty high with this one as Monster Blood is one of the more recognisable books in the series. While I didn’t remember how that terrible ending played out, I did recall most of the other events in the book so it must have stuck in my brain.

Up Next: Let’s Get Invisible!

Book Talk: Lancelot (Giles Kristian, 2018)

Lance-1Sometimes, you just pick up books on a whim, not expecting anything at all, but finding that you have a real gem in your hands. Lancelot by Giles Kristian is one such book. I had nothing to read so picked this out at random from Tesco’s book section. It ticked several boxes: it was cheap (only £4), it was something different from an author I am unfamiliar with and – most importantly – it was based on ancient Britain which meant knights, castles and a medieval setting.

More specifically, this is a re-imaging of the Arthurian legends. The likes of King Arthur himself, Guinevere, Merlin and – of course – Lancelot are all present in this book but rather than re-treading familiar ground, Giles Kristian puts his own spin on the story and in the process, gains some creative freedom. The same key events from the famous Arthurian legend transpire here but the way everything is woven together is all original as are the characters and their personalities. Kristian also manages to minimise the use of fantastical magic and sorcery in his book, grounding the tale in reality with supernatural elements playing a clear second fiddle to physical battle and the actions of men rather than directly controlling or influencing events. The Lady of the Lake for example is a real woman and while the book hints at her mystical abilities, she is still a human being who ages like anybody else and uses herbs and ointments to heal instead of magical powers.

The story is told in the first-person from Lancelot’s point-of-view, making the famous knight the protagonist and “hero” of the tale. The book begins with Lancelot as a young boy living in Gaul, the son of King Ban of Benoic. His father’s lands are overrun by King Claudas, forcing Lancelot’s family to flee. King Ban’s brother – Lancelot’s uncle – betrays the family but fortunately, Lancelot survives the resulting slaughter after being rescued by the mysterious Lady Nimue (the aforementioned reimagining of the Lady of the Lake) and her men, including the warrior, Pelleas who goes on to become a father figure of sorts to Lancelot.

I take a man’s head from his shoulders and turn just in time to see the big Saxon driving his spear into Tormaigh’s throat latch. The stallion screams and swings his head at the saxon, blood spraying from the wound, and he stumbles on, carrying me forward still, towards Arthur. He and Gawain loom above the swarming enemy, hacking and thrusting, unable to turn their mounts now for the press, the two of them shining above the sea of grey like a sunset on the edge of the western sea.

From there, the story follows Lancelot as he grows into a man on the island of Karrek Loos yn Koos just off the south-western coast of Britain. He learns to become a warrior and quickly establishes himself as the most gifted and able young swordsman of all the boys training to be ‘Guardians of the Mount’ on the island. It is on the island that he meets Guinevere for the first time (after rescuing her from a sinking ship) and falls madly in love only to have her snatched away by circumstances outside of his control. Life on the island of Karrek Loos is only the prologue of Lancelot’s life however. He goes on to meet Arthur and become his close friend and sworn sword as Arthur quests to become the rightful High King of Britain, a country he is determined to defend from a ceaseless onslaught of Saxon invaders.

The last medieval type of story I read was the fantasy-orientated Song of Ice and Fire books (a.k.a Game of Thrones) and like those books, there is a great deal of richly-described battle in Lancelot. I wouldn’t say that things are as gratuitously graphic and gory as in Martin’s epic saga but Kristian is pretty unrestrained so you get a fairly mature and realistic description of battles and butchery. There are also many plot twists, betrayals and deaths of main characters without warning and this kept me reading, unable to put the book down at times.

There is also the central tragedy of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love for each other, a love that is seemingly vetoed by the wheels of fate at every corner. Their story is a constant vein flowing through the years of Lancelot’s life. Every time it seems that there is a chance for the lovers to finally be as one, there are bigger events and other people who get in the way. Lancelot is a man utterly bewitched by Guinevere and he never ceases thinking about her, even in the years where they are apart. His passion for her incites tragedy down the line and overrides the grand plans of Merlin and The Lady, plans which seem otherwise pre-destined and immovable until one man’s love for a woman he cannot have proves to be the most powerful force of all.

In the years since I had last seen her, there had not been a day when I had not thought of Guinevere. Whether I wielded a sword and shield, learning the arts of war, or swam around the Mount. Whether I was picking mussels off the rocks at low tide, climbing down the ledges in search of gulls’ eggs, honing blades, polishing the men’s war gear or eating in the communal hut. There was a moment of every day, be it as fleeting as a sparrow darting into a lord’s hall then out of the smoke hole, that I thought of Guinevere.

At those most often unexpected times, when I was not on my guard against it, she came on me like a stab wound. A wound which, though hidden from sight, never scabbed over. And even when she did not come with sudden, sharp and unbidden anguish, she was always with me; a dull ache deep in my chest. An ever-present absence. Guinevere.

The most striking thing about Lancelot however is the author’s writing style. Kristian’s prose is poetic and lyrical with descriptions and detail often indulgent and romantic, overflowing with metaphors and similes. He paints extremely vivid pictures and I ended up growing attached to all of the characters, especially Lancelot who the reader goes on a journey with. Lancelot is technically the traitor and adulterer of the Arthurian legend and even with the knowledge of what is probably going to happen towards the end of the book, I still found myself rooting for him. Unfortunately, this is a brutal age of war for Britain and Kristian doesn’t betray that background in favour of fairytale endings or idealism.

Her hair, which had never used to stay where it was put, was now braided and coiled and set in place with silver pins. Her skin, which though ever pale had used to be flushed from wind and sun, was as white as marble. Her eyes were dark with kohl and green with malachite, and her lips were red. Her chest swelled beneath a dress of green silk and a silver wolf’s pelt, and that dress, hemmed with silver thread, reached almost to the ground, so that only a glimpse of her silver-studded tan leather shoes could be seen. At her neck she wore a fine torc of twisted silver and around her upper right arm coiled a silver serpent with a red garnet eye.

And I could not find my breath.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough to anybody who has an interest in the Arthurian legend or medieval fiction. You feel the story as much you read it and thanks to Giles Kristian’s writing style, Lancelot quickly becomes a real page-turner – an epic journey through the years of one man’s life. This book was a genuine surprise for me but I have to say that, on the strength of Lancelot alone, I shall certainly be looking into the rest of Kristian’s work.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #4: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (R.L. Stine, 1993)

curse-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

With The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Goosebumps moved into 1993. It was business as usual though with more false scares, more oblivious adults and more far-fetched plot conclusions. But remember: these are childrens books! For the fourth book in the series, Stine set his sights on a more cliched horror movie theme involving Egyptian tombs and mummies which may or may not be as dormant as they seem.

The Blurb

Gabe and his know-it-all cousin Sari can’t wait to explore the pyramids of Egypt with his favourite uncle – an archaeologist – as their personal guide. It’ll be really cool!

But Gabe never realised how big pyramids are, or how many hundreds of tunnels they have. It’s too easy to get lost, and end up face to face with an ancient mummy!

But Gabe isn’t THAT scared. After all, there isn’t really any such thing as the curse of the mummy’s tomb…is there?

Mummies and ancient Egyptian chambers are right up there with aliens as the things that creep me out on an irrational level and it seems that I can’t be the only one if this book exists to scare younger readers.

There isn’t really much to say about The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb because it’s a pretty straightforward book that relies on the stupidity of the characters to progress the story. The way that Gabe and Sari ignore Uncle Ben’s advice and wander off alone in an unmapped tomb for example. Or how they ignore him yet again and leave the hotel room…that’s a pair of twelve year-olds wandering around Cairo on their own! Then there’s Gabe’s shoelace always coming untied at the worst moments.

Speaking of Gabe, I found him to be a really irritating ass of a character, especially at the book’s opening where he is whining about needing a drink for at least three pages.

Not now?

What does “not now” mean? I was thirsty. NOW!

Jeez, give it a rest!

And I can’t ignore the section where they are inside the pyramid and Gabe’s shoelace comes undone for the gajillionth time, leaving him separated from Uncle Ben and Sari. He ends up wandering around alone when the floor breaks apart under his feet and he plunges into a chamber full of mummies and ancient embalming equipment. After several pages of panic, his cousin, Sari, finally finds him. Except Gabe is now more interested in showing Uncle Ben what he “discovered”.

“Yeah. Wow,” I said, starting to feel a bit more like normal. “The chamber is filled with mummies. And there are all kinds of tools and cloth and everything you need to make a mummy. It’s all in perfect shape, as if it hasn’t been touched for thousands of years.” I couldn’t hide my excitement. “And I discovered it all,” I added.

The end is pretty ridiculous too but this IS a Goosebumps book so I have to let it off…a little bit. Long story short, Gabe carries a creepy mummified hand around in his pocket as a good luck charm (as all kids do – obviously!). He acquired this hand from a random garage sale back in America but it conveniently turns out to be the hand of the ancient Egyptian priestess, Khala. Trapped at the edge of a bubbling tar pit by the evil Ahmed, Gabe pulls the hand from his pocket and instinctively raises it up. The mummies in the chamber come to life and attack Ahmed and even though one of them grabs the villain by the throat and raises him off the ground, the mummy simply lets him go and Ahmed gets to run away screaming. It’s almost as if Stine started to write Ahmed’s grisly comeuppance then remembered the age of his target audience and chickened out.

Overall, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb isn’t one of my favourite Goosebumps books and it never was, even when I was a child. I think it’s more down to the fact that the plot isn’t as creative or original as many of the other entries in this series.

The Cover

Well, there’s a mummy. It doesn’t look very scary either, truth be told. It looks comical and a bit campy. It also looks like it’s doing the jazz hands.

The incredibly dated bit

She thought she was really hot stuff because she could get to the last level of Super Mario Land. But it wasn’t fair because I don’t have Super Nintendo, only standard Nintendo. So I never get to practice.

Need I say much more? Also, I have to pause for a moment and be a big nerd here, pointing out that Stine didn’t do his his research very well. Super Mario Land is a Gameboy game – not a Super Nintendo game!

The nostalgia rating

Honestly, not very high with The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. I have more nostalgia for its sequel (which we will get to eventually) since it was one of the first Goosebumps books I was given for a birthday, kick-starting my collection.

Up Next: Monster Blood

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #3: Stay Out of the Basement (R.L.Stine, 1992)

basement-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

Stay out of the Basement was a very interesting re-read. My younger self never considered it to be one of his favourites in the Goosebumps series and so the 2019 edition of Me had little enthusiasm for reading it again as part of this epic revisit. However, I really enjoyed it this time around and found new appreciation for the general premise. That’s what this series is all about really: looking at these books through adult eyes and seeing if I have a different response to what I’m reading. Onto the blurb:

The Blurb

Dr Brewer is spending a LOT of time down in the basement, and Margaret and Casey Brewer think their dad has been acting pretty strangely lately.

Maybe it’s just  a little harmless plant-testing. After all, he IS a botanist, and he needs something to do now that he’s lost his job.

But now he’s developing distinctly plant-like tendencies and Margaret and Casey are worried. What’s going on down there? It’s getting harder and harder to stay out of the basement!

The main reason I enjoyed Stay out of the Basement so much more this time around was because I appreciated the creepy, sinister sci-fi horror vibe of the plot. Nothing in the Goosebumps universe is what we’d call “realistic” but this is one of the more believable horror tales from the series. There is no supernatural monster or aliens involved. This is science run amok. The majority of the book is about the mystery of Margaret and Casey’s botanist father and his suspicious activity in the basement. Being twelve and eleven year-olds respectively, the temptation to disobey their father’s strict instructions to not enter the basement proves to be overwhelming. Their dad hasn’t been speaking to them too much of late and he spends most of his time down in the basement with his plant experiments, rarely coming up for air.

His fury at their intrusion scares the living bejeezus out of the Margaret and Casey but only fuels their curiosity. Why is he so secretive about the basement and so vague about what he is up to? Thus begins the mystery. Margaret and Casey find some strange plants in the basement that sound alive, as if they are breathing but that is far from the worst of it. Their dad is changing, becoming almost plant-like. It’s this creepy transformation and the tension within the house that I really enjoyed.

When she was sure that he had gone downstairs, Margaret walked eagerly into the kitchen. She had to know what her father had been eating so greedily, so hungrily.

She pulled open the door under the sink, reached into the rubbish bin, and pulled out the crinkled-up bag.

Then she gasped aloud as her eyes ran over the label.

Her father, she saw, had been devouring plant food.

There is also a really sinister scene that takes place at night. Margaret decides that she is going to confront her shifty father over the freaky anomalies that she and her brother have noticed and straight-up ask him what is going on. However, she witnesses him bleeding bright green fluid into the bathroom sink (as opposed to human blood) and sneaks away before he notices her behind him.

Margaret pulled the covers up to her chin. She realised she was trembling, her whole body shaking and chilled.

She held her breath and listened.

She could still hear water splashing into the bathroom sink..

But no footsteps.

He isn’t coming after me, she told herself, letting out a long, silent sigh.

How could I have thought that? How could I have been so terrified – of my own father?

Terrified.

It was the first time the word had crossed her mind.

But sitting there in bed, trembling so violently, holding onto the covers so hard, listening for his approaching footsteps, Margaret realised that she WAS terrified.

Of her own father.

And yes, I am very aware that the above quote could be taken way out of context and linked to much darker, horrible scenarios. The thought crossed my mind when I was reading the above passage so I guess that’s one downside to trying to read a children’s book with an adult mindset.

The endgame of the book and the explanations for everything were also pretty creepy and though the execution is typically rushed and a little ridiculous, it doesn’t spoil the tone that the preceeding three-quarters of Stay out of the Basement establishes. Dr Brewer had accidentally discovered the ability to fuse plant DNA with human DNA hence the bizarre vegetation that seemed a little TOO lifelike. In a twist of events, the kids’ father also accidentally created a plant-based clone of himself that was so life-like, it was able to take his place while the real Dr Brewer was kept captive. The kids come face-to-face with both versions of their father and have to choose which one to believe and which one to kill with an axe.

As with Say Cheese and Die!, I finished Stay out of the Basement and thought that it would be another perfect candidate for a more grown-up, eery suspense-filled horror movie. More importantly, I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the book as much as I did considering my preconception of it being one of the weaker Goosebumps releases.

The Cover

It’s a face surrounded by leaves and the bubbling slime is an appropriate green colour this time. Not one of my favourite Goosebumps covers but it does at least accurately represent the plot.

The incredibly dated bit

There were actually two amusingly dated bits that leapt out at me so I’m not going to choose between them.

Margaret moved closer. She felt sorry for Casey. He and their dad were really close, always ball or frisbee or Nintendo together.

This is SO 1980’s/early 90’s. It harks back to a more primitive time in the world of videogames when Nintendo’s NES and SNES systems were so popular and all-conquering in the US that you weren’t just playing computer games; you were playing Nintendo. The power of the household name that Nintendo had acquired would soon be dramatically eroded when Sony’s Playstation hit the scene in 1994/95.

They looked through some old magazines in Margaret’s room, listening to some tapes that Margaret had recently bought.

“Tapes” and “recently bought”…need I say any more?

The nostalgia rating

Reasonably high. The book – largely helped by the outdated aspects quoted above – feels totally early-nineties. Obviously, I don’t have massive nostalgia for Stay out of the Basement as a Goosebumps book though because, as already stated, I kind of didn’t really like it as a kid.

Up Next: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #2: Say Cheese and Die! (R.L.Stine, 1992)

cheese-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

I’ve always considered Say Cheese and Die! to be one of the more iconic Goosebumps books. It has a cool name and a pretty original premise for starters. Also, I’m guessing that Stine liked this one as well because this is one of only a handful of Goosebumps books to receive a sequel (though we would have to wait some time for it).

The Blurb

Greg and his friends think it’s pretty cool when they find an old camera in a derelict house, and it works. But the camera takes weird photos – like the one of Greg’s dad’s new car – totally wrecked? Then his dad is in a bad car accident – what’s going on?

And when Greg takes a picture of his friend Shari, she’s not in the photo when it develops – then Shari disappears altogether. Now Greg knows for sure that the camera is creepy – more than that, it’s evil.

Greg and his friends – Shari, Michael and Bird – are bored. Obviously, when kids are bored, the solution is to break into an abandoned house in the neighbourhood. A derelict house that just happens to sit in the darkness of enormous oak trees and have a reputation for ghastly goings-on. Of course. No wonder youth crime is often linked to being at a loose end. Perhaps kids were actually inspired by Say Cheese and Die! back in the day?

Anyway, Greg finds the polaroid camera hidden in a secret compartment and decides to take it which turns out to be a very bad idea in the long run. The first sign of the camera’s powers comes when Greg takes a picture of Michael and the polaroid develops to show Michael plunging through crumbling staircase railings…an accident which occurs moments later. The reader immediately knows the score but nobody else believes Greg’s suspicions, even when the camera continues to predict nasty accidents. Shari shows up as invisible then disappears inexplicably. Bird is pictured having a horrible baseball accident and this too comes to pass.

One thing that struck me was how stupid the characters are in this book. Naturally, it would be a stretch to believe that a camera could prophesise and even cause sinister things to happen but even so, the evidence is there for everybody to see. Yet, even after woe befalls Michael, Bird and Greg’s father, Shari demands that Greg bring the camera to her birthday party because the weird photos it prints are fun. Greg initially refuses but Shari hounds him relentlessly until her friend caves and agrees to bring it, despite knowing that something bad is bound to happen…

With a loud sigh, he pulled the camera from its hiding place in his headboard. “It’s Shari’s birthday, after all” he said aloud to himself.

I can’t speak for anybody else but if I had a magical, evil camera that I had solid reason to believe could cause accidents, I certainly wouldn’t relent and agree to take it to a party for such a silly reason! We’ll let Greg off here because he IS a kid but that habit of giving in to the demands of bossy girls is going to land him in trouble one day.

That said, bad decisions and naivete are a staple of the Goosebumps books as we will continue to see going forward with this review series. That along with misleading chapter cliffhanger “scares” and the dismissal of kids’ fears by the adults are what get the likes of Say Cheese and Die! past the hundred-page count in the first place.

The big question in this book of course is that of the camera’s origins. It turns out that an evil scientist who enjoyed dabbling in black magic placed a curse on the camera when his partner tried to steal it from him. Somehow, this imbued the camera with the power to steal the souls’ of those it captures on film. It’s all a bit vague and convenient really. Furthermore, you have to wonder how nobody’s souls were actually eaten in all of this. The only person who disappeared completely was Shari but Greg (accidentally) manages to restore her by tearing up her photo. Overall, not a lot is explained but to expect much more from a children’s horror book would be ambitious anyway. Say Cheese and Die! is a fun story with an idea that could be expanded on for – say – a more grown-up horror movie. Perhaps it has and I’ve missed it?

Anyway, bonus stuff:

The Cover

This time, we have the camera itself and various photos of the accidents from the story sinking into the orange Goosebumps sludge. The camera looks fantastic and creepy as fuck with a grinning face incorporated into the design. One thing I want to point out is the bottom-right photograph of a skeleton woman – a random photograph that doesn’t actually relate to anything in the book.

The incredibly dated bit

Honestly, nothing stood out to me as “dated” in Say Cheese and Die! so Stine inadvertedly succeeded in future-proofing this one. That said, the car that Greg’s dad proudly brings home is a brand-new Ford Taurus. Ford axed the Taurus earlier this year so perhaps the book will feel a little bit more dated in a few years time…

The nostalgia rating

Pretty high. As I said at the start of this review, I’ve always felt that this is one of the more iconic Goosebumps books and it reads pretty well, even as an adult.

Up Next: Stay Out of the Basement

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #1: Welcome to Dead House (R.L.Stine, 1992)

deadhouse-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

Here we are at the start of our big re-read of the Goosebumps series with the first book, Welcome to Dead House. This is where it all began and I was forced to feel both shocked and old when seeing the 1992 publication date on the copyright page. Holy shit; where has that time evaporated to? Anyway, this book established the formula that Stine would use for the rest of the series – a format that would grow pretty predictable before long but hey, these are meant to be books for kids, not grown adults like me.

The Blurb

Amanda and Josh aren’t too sure about the old house they’ve just moved into. It’s spooky, and probably haunted, and their new neighbourhood, Dark Falls, is pretty creepy too.

Their parents don’t understand them – You’ll get used to it, they say. Go out, make some new friends.

But the kids Amanda and Josh meet are twice as weird as the house. Not exactly what their parents had in mind. They’re friendly, all right, maybe a little too friendly. In fact, they want to be friends…forever.

It’s a straightforward book and you can see what is happening from a mile off. The family dog, Petey, is NOT happy about this new house that the family mysteriously inherit for free from the previously-unknown Great Uncle Charles. And you know what dogs can apparently sniff out, don’t you? Then there’s the town itself, the ominously-named Dark Falls where the streets are desolate, the sky a perma-grey tone and trees cast huge shadows over every lawn.

I would say, “Spoiler Alert!” but this is a twenty-seven year-old children’s book. The entire town is dead and the weird kids that Amanda and Josh meet are some sort of walking undead. Near the end of the book, it is revealed that most of the adults in town used to work at an outlying plastics factory when a terrible accident occured that transformed Dark Falls into an undead town. This explanation is so vague and daft that it deserves quoting here.

“Then there was an accident. Something escaped from the factory. A yellow gas. It floated over the town. So fast we didn’t see it…didn’t realise. And then, it was too late, and Dark Falls wasn’t a normal town anymore. We were all dead, Amanda”

Every so often, the undead population of Dark Falls need “new blood” (because requirements) and so families are lured to the “Dead House” before being forced to join the residents in their undead gloom. There’s no explanation as to why the “new blood” is needed or how the victims being brought to Dark Falls sustain the existing inhabitants. But this is Goosebumps so you don’t question stuff like that. Just like you don’t question why the only undead residents seem to be children with the exception of property agent, Compton Dawes. Or how Dark Falls exists on the map after a major chemical disaster that would have seen it sealed off in the real world. Or why nobody else passes through.

In typical Goosebumps fashion however, it takes a while to get to all of this. The first third or so of the book consists of chapters ending on false scares. Then there is the staple element of kids being victims of supernatural events while their parents roll their eyes, tell them to stop pranking around and simply don’t believe them.

For a book aimed at pre-adolescent children, there’s some pretty gruesome and semi-graphic stuff too. Obviously, I don’t read kids books these days so I have no idea if the gore flows freely in the ‘Young Horror’  genre but my cynical instincts would have me suspect that violence and bloody visuals might be toned down a bit for this overly-PC generation. Not so in Welcome to Dead House.

Ray’s skin seemed to be melting. His whole face sagged, then fell, dropping off his skull. I stared into the circle of white light, unable to look away, as Ray’s skin folded and drooped and melted away. As the bone underneath was revealed, his eyeballs rolled out of their sockets and fell silently to the ground.

Clearly though, the ten, eleven or twelve year-olds in the world of Goosebumps aren’t scarred for life or destined for a future of therapy after witnessing such fucked-up stuff. Unless it hits later? Maybe R.L. Stine should write gritty adult follow-ups to his books that follow the same characters as adults so that we can see how their lives turned out.

Welcome to Dead House is a simple and predictable ghosts ‘n ghouls horror story for kids. As an adult, you have the the unfortunate ability to see straight through the smoke, mirrors and false scares but this re-read brought with it a different kind of entertainment as I couldn’t help smiling at how dumb some of it was. Now, onto some bonus review-y bits…

The Cover

I absolutely loved the UK covers for the Goosebumps books as a kid and that admiration hasn’t changed as I’ve grown older. For starters, you just don’t get these sorts of hand-drawn covers anymore. Then there is the uniform style of the series with the bubbling slime and objects relevant to the story swirling about in this brightly-coloured sludge. Here we have a realistic grinning skull surrounded by gravestones. It’s eye-catching and simple yet the art is detailed and probably more adult than the story itself.

The incredibly dated bit

I’m going to put my bed against that wall opposite the window, I thought happily. And my desk can go over there. I’ll have room for a computer now!

Amanda’s joy at having space in her bedroom for a (no-doubt) big bulky early 90’s desktop computer with no internet is amusing in 2019. But it’s also nostalgic to go back to a time before tablets, mobile phones and social media. A more innocent, straightforward time some might say…

The nostalgia rating

Obviously high with the aforementioned lack of technology in society and the fact that I’m reading a book that I haven’t touched in around twenty years. Then there is that lovely, musty used book smell permeating the yellowed pages. And a listing in the very back for another line of books also from Hippo: The Babysitters Club. Remember those?

Up Next: Say Cheese and Die!