The Big Goosebumps Re-read #9: Welcome to Camp Nightmare (R.L. Stine, 1993)

Camp-Nightmare-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…

It’s taken nine books but we’ve finally reached the debut of another of Goosebumps‘ recurring staples: a creepy summer camp. Being a Brit, I’ve never really been able to relate to the whole summer camp thing but I’m guessing that it’s a pretty big thing in America given how there are four (if I remember rightly) books in the original Goosebumps series that take place at camps. Welcome to Camp Nightmare is the OG ‘camp’ story though…

The Blurb

Life at Camp Nightmoon is not exactly what Billy imagined. Okay, he can handle the bad food and the weird counsellors, but the crazy Camp Director, Uncle Al, takes a lot of getting used to. And that’s not the half of it…

When his fellow campers start disappearing, and his parents don’t answer his letters, Billy starts feeling just a little scared…What is going on?

Camp Nightmoon…Camp Nightmare, more like!

Things get off to a weird start straight away for twelve year-old Billy. The bus taking him and the other kids to Camp Nightmoon drives out through a desert and into the middle of nowhere. Then – without warning or any explanation – the driver drops them all off on a concrete platform (still in the middle of nowhere), dumps their luggage and roars off. Then the kids are attacked by strange, wild beasts before being rescued at the last minute by Camp Director, Uncle Al.

“Hi, kids! I’m Uncle Al. I’m your friendly camp director. I hope you enjoyed that welcome to Camp Nightmoon!” he boomed in a deep voice.
I heard muttered replies.
He leaned the rifle against the bus and took a few steps towards us, studying our faces. He was wearing white shorts and a bright green camp T-shirt that stretched over his big belly. Two young men, also in green and white, stepped out of the bus, serious expressions on their faces.
“Let’s load up,” Uncle Al instructed them in his deep voice.
He didn’t apologise for being late.
He didn’t explain about the weird animals.
And he didn’t ask if we were okay after that scare.

“What were those awful animals?” Dori called to Uncle Al.
He didn’t seem to hear her.

Then, they are all herded onto another bus and taken to the camp. Talk about inefficient and badly co-ordinated. Unfortunately for Billy though, poor organisation soon becomes the least of his concerns.

Billy shares a cabin with his new friends – Mike, Jay and Colin – and it isn’t long before the strangeness at Camp Nightmoon ramps up. Mike is bitten by a snake hiding in his bed and is told that the camp has no nurse. Translation: just deal with it yourself, kid.

Later, around the campfire, Uncle Al demonstrates how not to tame the curiosity of kids by explicitly ordering them not to go near the “Forbidden Cabin”. Gee, that’s not going to make them want to check it out even more, is it?

“I want you to make sure you see that cabin,” Uncle Al warned, his voice thundering out above the crackling of the purple fire. “That is known as the Forbidden Cabin. We don’t talk about that cabin – and we don’t go near it.”

I guess the first rule of the Forbidden Cabin is that you don’t talk about the Forbidden Cabin.

The unsettling developments arrive thick and fast from there on. Mike disappears with no explanation. The payphone on the main cabin turns out to be a dummy, made from plastic. Jay’s new friend, Roger, is apparently torn to shreds by a creature while they are going against Uncle Al’s warnings and exploring the Forbidden Cabin. According to the counsellors however, there never was a Roger on the camp’s register. Billy sees Larry intentionally throw a softball at the back of Colin’s head and knock him out during an organised game but the counsellor claims that the ball simply “slipped” from his grip.

Worse still, Jay and Colin are taken on a mysterious hiking exercise by a counsellor called Frank and all three never return. Billy also discovers that all of their letters home are being stored up at the main cabin and not actually delivered to their parents.

Any attempt to extract answers from either Uncle Al or the counsellors is met by stone-walling or a complete lack of concern as if people disappearing or being attacked by beasts in the dead of night is nothing to bat an eyelid over. These counsellors are complete assholes!

Larry turned his back on us and continued eating his breakfast. “Don’t you care?” Jay screamed at him. “Don’t you care what happens to us?”

I have to say that this is one of the better Goosebumps books so far. You really do wonder just what on earth is going on at this fucked-up, weird camp and the book keeps you guessing right until the end. You might assume that the camp is killing kids off for some nefarious reason or that the Forbidden Cabin could come into play again. You’d be wrong on both counts however. There is a good twist at the end – two in fact – and I genuinely didn’t see either coming the first time I read Welcome to Camp Nightmare as a kid. If you backtrack however, there are a few tiny hints earlier on in the book that all isn’t as it seems.

The idea of a summer camp that is more than it seems certainly gets overused further along in the Goosebumps series but Welcome to Camp Nightmare will always get a free pass for being the original. It’s also a suspenseful, creepy little story in its own right that doesn’t end in the way you might expect it to.

The Cover

Yet another extremely well-drawn cover but it isn’t one of my favourites. First of all, I can’t tell whether the two boys are screaming for help and drowning or if they are simply having a blast at camp. Also, why does the kid on the left have Colin’s headband when the other kid – with the long hair and shades – is clearly meant to be Colin?

The incredibly dated bit

Nothing that stands out too much this time but writing letters to be sent home in the mail is probably a redundant concept in the age of smartphones and email.

The nostalgia rating

Incredibly high for me with this book. This was one of the first Goosebumps books that I ever read and good memories are attached to it. I won a free book (for a reason I don’t actually remember) when I was at primary school and I got to pick something from a travelling library which was at school for a few days, selling books and trying to promote reading. I remember my dad taking me there after school and I chose one of the Goosebumps TV Special collections that contained Welcome to Camp Nightmare.

Up Next: The Ghost Next Door

Book Review: The Colorado Kid (Stephen King, 2005)

DSC_0438Year: 2005 (2019 Illustrated Edition reviewed)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
Format: Paperback
Pages: 208
ISBN: 978-1-78909-155-7

On an island off the coast of Maine, a man is found dead. There’s no identification on the body. Only the dogged work of a pair of local newspapermen and a graduate student in forensics turns up any clues, and it’s more than a year before the man is identified.

And that’s just the beginning of the mystery. Because the more they learn about the man and the baffling circumstances of his death, the less they understand. Was it an impossible crime? Or something stranger still…?

I missed The Colorado Kid the first time around and according to the introduction by Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai, it’s no wonder. The book was apparently out of print for a decade or more prior to this fresh 2019 Illustrated Edition. Out of interest, I took a look on ebay for one of the original editions and for a used paperback, they’re pretty expensive. And listed as “RARE”…of course.

Anyway, this is going to have to be a short review because The Colorado Kid is one of those stories that is difficult to talk about without spoiling but I will do my best. It’s a mystery story centred on the strange, unexplained death of a man in 1980. His body is found slumped against a bin on Hammock Beach, on the small island of Moose-Lookit, just off the Maine coast. There are no witnesses and nobody knows who he is. A probable cause of death IS established but beyond that, a lot of unanswered questions remained. Who was he? Why did he come to Moose-Lookit?

Fast-forward to the present day and twenty-two year-old Stephanie McCann is working a newspaper internship at The Weekly Islander, Moose-Lookit’s tiny paper company. The company is ran by just two men: Vince Teague, 90, and Dave Bowie, 65. As well as running the island’s sole newspaper, the men were also involved in investigating the msyterious death of the “Colorado Kid” back in ’80. You see, once a likely cause of death had been estblished, the authorities weren’t very interested in digging any deeper so Vince and Dave took it upon themselves to try and solve the confounding mystery.

This story is recounted to Stephanie by Vince and Dave and that’s essentially what The Colorado Kid is – these three main characters sitting in The Weekly Islander’s office and talking. If that sounds dull then just remember which author’s name is emblazoned on the book’s cover. Despite the fact that there is no action, danger or shift of location, I still found myself enjoying the company of Vince, Dave and Steffie. It’s one of those books that immediately feels warming and homely and I think it’s impossible not to feel like you’re sitting in with friends as Vince and Dave share the puzzling story with their young intern.

The mystery itself is also fascinating and the book was a real page-turner that I couldn’t help but tear through, partly due to that aforementioned cosiness and partly because of the twists and turns in the Vince and Dave’s story that kept me guessing right until the end. The Colorado Kid is just so easy to read but, despite its rapid pace, there is still ample depth and characterisation – enough for you to build up a picture of small-town life on an island community, even when the story has one foot in the past and one in the present. That’s just classic King and – as has been proved over and over – a shorter story isn’t immune to his vivid world-building.

The only downside is the book’s ending because after devouring a mystery story, the reader naturally expects a satisfying conclusion. You might not get that here and from what I have read, The Colorado Kid does have a reputation for being a bit of a marmite book. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it but you won’t reach that decision until the very last page.

Personally, I didn’t love the book’s conclusion but I also didn’t hate it. It was just something different that didn’t play by the established rules of how a story “should” wrap up in the traditional sense. It was well worth a read though, purely for the likable characters and the way in which the story was told. There was also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Stephen King’s other Hard Case Crime book, Joyland, which got a smile out of me.

It’s also worth looking at the new cover versus the original because they are both deliciously pulpy but also quite different:

Colorado Kid Covers

Both are painted throw-backs to the classic pulp covers of old, featuring gorgeous dames in a state of unashamed sexiness. I actually prefer the new version on the left however since the cover is actually relevant to the story. The original (right) is brilliant but has nothing to do with the plot. Nor does the quote of “Would she learn the dead man’s secret?” on the cover…not strictly anyway. It implies that Stephanie herself is investigating the death.

But I won’t get too pedantic over cover art because I really appreciate both. I love old-fashioned pulp-style art so these sorts of ‘tribute’ cover paintings are right up my street.

The new 2019 Illustrated Edition on the left has an additional small edge in the form of the interior illustrations which – again – are very evocative of the hand-drawn, sometimes rough style that books like these used to have in the 50’s.

In closing, The Colorado Kid might not be for everybody solely because of the way it concludes but that shouldn’t take away from how enthralling the journey to that conclusion is. This really is one of those books that you could lose track of time with and finish in one sitting. Plus, now that it has been reprinted and is easy (and much cheaper!) to acquire, there really is no excuse not to give it a shot.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #7: Night of the Living Dummy (R.L. Stine, 1993)

night-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…

Night of the Living Dummy is one of the more iconic and memorable books in the Goosebumps series. The idea of a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy gaining sentience is something you can do a lot with and I’m sure many kids who come into contact with a vacant-eyed dummy in real life would be unnerved. There would be two more Night of the Living Dummy entries in the original Goosebumps run, two more in the Series 2000 follow-up and a TV appearance in the live-action show so the popularity of Slappy is evident. The original book is a bit different however and Slappy himself isn’t even the main player…

The Blurb

Lindy can’t get over finding a ventriloquist’s dummy in her neighbourhood skip. Cool! Lindy names him Slappy. She’s going to learn how to make Slappy move and talk. Her twin sister, Kris, will be so jealous.

Then Kris gets a dummy of her own, and that’s when all the trouble starts. Weird things start to happen, nasty things. It seems as if Kris’s dummy is making them happen.

But a dummy can’t be causing all that trouble…can it?

Ultra-competitive twin sisters, Lindy and Kris, are always at each other’s throats, determined to one-up each other and constantly fighting. So when they find a ventriloquist’s dummy in a building site skip and Lindy decides to keep him, Kris grows jealous of how quickly Lindy gets to grips with operating Slappy and how much attention she receives from others for her act…

She’s jealous, Lindy realised. Kris sees that the kids really like Slappy and I’m getting all the attention. And she’s totally jealous. I’m definitely keeping Slappy! Lindy told herself, secretly pleased at her little triumph.

When these girls are around, you need to put the knives away. It seems as if they absolutely resent and hate each other’s guts ninety percent of the time. I felt a little more sorry for Kris as it seemed that Lindy tended to have the upper hand when it came to putting her sister down with nasty comments or verbal snipes. These girls are only eleven and not being a girl, a child or a twin, I can’t relate to their particular brand of intense sibling rivalry but even so…

br-1
[Source]
Anyway, this warring between the Powell sisters leads to their father buying Kris a dummy of her own from a local pawn shop. Now the sisters can compete at being the funniest, most skilled ventriloquist too! Great! Kris names her dummy “Mr Wood” and sets to work trying to beat Lindy at her new hobby.

But the arrival of Mr Wood also brings strange happenings to the Powell household. Mr Wood moving by himself for instance. He even speaks for himself while Lindy is operating him for some of their friends. In true Goosebumps fashion however, we eventually find out that the gradual ramping up of Mr Wood’s unnerving actions are an elaborate, drawn-out prank by Lindy to scare Kris. She even goes as far as to make her twin sister cry before ‘fessing up.

“No!” Kris shrieked, feeling herself lose control. “It wasn’t a dream! I’m so scared, Lindy! I’m just so scared!”

Suddenly Kris was trembling all over, and hot tears were pouring down her cheeks.

Lindy stood up and moved to the edge of her sister’s bed.

“Something h-horrible is going on here, Lindy,” Kris stammered through her tears.

“And I know who’s doing it,” Lindy whispered, putting a comforting hand on her quivering shoulder.

“Who?” Kris repeated, letting the tears run down her cheeks. “Who?”

“I have,” Lindy said. Her smile spread into a grin almost as wide as Slappy’s. She closed her eyes and laughed.

What a cow!

So all’s well that ends well then? Not quite…

Kris is practicing with Mr Wood when she notices a scrap of old paper tucked into his pocket. The paper contains words written neatly in an unrecognisable language and you can’t help but think, “don’t do it” but Kris reads them aloud anyway and that’s when Mr Wood really becomes a ‘Living Dummy’. At first, Lindy is convinced that Kris is simply trying to play her at her own game and their parents don’t believe Kris when she insists that the insults Mr Wood bombards their elderly neighbours with are coming straight from the dummy’s mouth, not hers. Naturally, Kris has no chance here because a) it’s a fairly unbelievable claim and b) she’s in a Goosebumps book and parents don’t believe ANYTHING in a Goosebumps book.

Despite her growing certainty that Mr Wood is really alive this time, Kris goes ahead with an on-stage ventriloquist performance at her school for an audience of kids and parents. You can see disaster looming a mile off and sure enough, things go horribly wrong for Kris as Mr Wood lays into music teacher, Mrs Berman with insults, much to the horror of the audience. But Mr Wood is only just getting warmed up…

“Please apologise. To me and to the audience,” Mrs Berman demanded.

Mr Wood leaned into the microphone. “Apologise for THIS!” he screamed.

The dummy’s head tilted back. His jaw dropped. His mouth opened wide.

And a thick green liquid came spewing out.

“Yuck!” somebody screamed.

It looked like pea soup. It spurted out of Mr Wood’s open mouth like water rushing from a fire hose. Voices screamed and cried out their surprise as the thick, green liquid showered over people in the front rows.

“Stop it!”

“Help!”

“Somebody – turn it off!”

“It stinks!”

Kris froze in horror, staring as more and more of the disgusting substance poured from her dummy’s gaping mouth. A putrid stench – the smell of sour milk, of rotten eggs, of burning rubber, of decayed meat – rose up from the liquid. It puddled over the stage and showered over the front seats.

Binded by the spotlight, Kris couldn’t see the audience in front of her. But she could hear the choking and the gagging, the frantic cries for help.

This is such an enjoyable scene and it really reminds me of the pie-eating contest scene from the movie, Stand By Me.

Again, nobody believes Kris and she is suspended from school. But even Lindy is forced to believe her twin sister when she witnesses Kris grappling with a very animated Mr Wood on the stairs one night. They come up with the idea of sealing Mr Wood in a suitcase and burying him at the construction site next door. Naturally, they manage to sneak out of the house in the dead of night and do all of this without their parents noticing! But Mr Wood is back the next morning, covered in dirt and grinning.

Their parents go out shopping and Mr Wood springs back into life. The ensuing struggle moves to the building site next door where the sisters manage to finally destroy Mr Wood by getting a steamroller to run him over. Again, a couple of kids were able to just walk onto a construction site where deadly steamrollers are operating? Whatever.

The gigantic black wheel rolled right over him, pushing him onto his back, then crushing him with a loud crunch.

A loud hiss rose up from under the machine, like air escaping from a large balloon. The steamroller appeared to rock back and forth.

A strange green gas spurted up from beneath the wheel, into the air, spreading out in an eerie mushroom-shaped cloud.

What’s that? We’ve reached the end of Night of the Living Dummy and the famous Slappy hasn’t featured? Well, it isn’t ever over until it’s over…

As she leaned over the chair to grab the window frame, Slappy reached up and grabbed her arm.

“Hey, slave – has that other guy gone?” the dummy asked in a throaty growl. “I thought he’d never leave!”

It’s interesting that Slappy is one Goosebumps‘ most famous characters and yet he isn’t even the star of the original book, only speaking up for the first time right at the end where the books tend to conclude with one final twist that rarely results in a sequel.

If you couldn’t tell from the way I had a lot to say about Night of the Living Dummy, I really enjoyed re-visiting this book. The pacing was good and Lindy’s cruel prank on Kris was actually much better than having countless, cheap end-of-chapter false scares padding out the story. What’s more, the central idea of a sinister, grinning dummy coming to life was a good one, even if it IS a lite version of Chuckie. The final third of the book when Mr Wood is alive for real is brilliant fun, especially the concert scene quoted above. Honestly, this is probably the best book so far.

The Cover

Not the most dynamic is it? Also, it features Slappy and not Mr Wood which makes little sense to me.

The incredibly dated bit

Lindy told them about the TV show she might be on, and they promised they wouldn’t miss it. “We’ll tape it,” Mr Miller said.

The nostalgia rating

Pretty decent with this one. I didn’t remember most of the plot but I did remember that it wasn’t actually Slappy at the centre of the original book.

Up Next: The Girl Who Cried Monster

 

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #6: Let’s Get Invisible! (R.L. Stine, 1993)

invis-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 dragged my heels on this review series recently but now it’s time to get back to it with the sixth entry in the OG Goosebumps series: Let’s Get Invisible! Strange mini factoid for ya though; the title of this book includes an exclamation mark on the cover but not on the spine or interior title page…weird. As you can clearly deduce, I am a damn interesting guy. Anyway, here’s the book’s blurb:

The Blurb

While exploring the attic on his birthday, Max comes across an old mirror there. No ordinary mirror either – this one is ‘magic’ – it can turn you invisible!

At first it’s fun playing now you see me, now you don’t. But soon Max and his friends realise something scary is happening. They’re not controlling the mirror. It’s controlling them!

This is yet another of those Goosebumps plots that I think would make for a great, grown-up horror film and for all I know, maybe it already HAS been done. It wouldn’t be the first time that Stine has riffed on an existing horror concept. As it is though, we have to join Max, his irritating brother Lefty, and his friends Zack, April and Erin. After Max’s birthday party (where a bunch of twelve year-olds watch The Terminator – superb parenting there), the group decide to explore the attic in the Max’s house. Like most people’s attics (we call them “lofts” here in the UK), it’s full of old crap but there’s also a door concealed behind a load of old boxes.

Naturally, the room behind the door holds a mysterious mirror that can turn you invisible. Because that’s what all creepy attics are like, right? The group quickly discover that standing before the glass and switching on the attached light turns whoever is standing beneath said light invisible. With invisibility being such a great power with so many possibilities, it’s good to see that the boys in the group immediately think of a noble application for them.

“I wonder if we could go downstairs and still be invisible,” I said. “I wonder if we could leave the house like this.”

“And go and spy on people?” Lefy suggested.

“Yeah,” I said. I yawned. I was starting to feel a little strange. “We could go and spy on girls and stuff.”

“Cool,” Lefty replied.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book is a bit of a slow-burner. The friends take it in turns to get their invisibility on and compete to see who can stay invisible the longest. Y’see, the longer one is invisible for, the longer it takes for them to reappear once the mirror’s light is switched off again. Despite the dangers and despite the fact that they are all knowingly messing with something that they have no clue about, the kids continue to play with the mirror, even when it becomes apparent that remaining invisible for a longer period of time causes them to feel all ‘light’ and as if they are drifting away.

Most of the book is Max deciding to never get invisible again then caving in from the pressure of his friends, especially the ultra-competitive Zack. It goes back and forth like this for a while with these kids not just throwing caution to the wind but firing it in with a high-powered cannon.

But I guess it’s easy to roll the eyes at their naivete as an adult. If I was twelve or in my early teens again, I’m pretty sure I’d be well up for being invisible so that I could scare the shit out of people or sneak into girls’ changing rooms.

But that’s no excuse for the fact that this book just doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere quickly which isn’t necessarily a problem for fiction in general but it is when a Goosebumps book is quite thin and short work to get through. The finale is quite sinister with Zack and Erin being sucked into the mirror, their places in reality taken by their reflections. The reflections force Max into the mirror so that his other self can also escape but Max manages to resist and the mirror gets smashed, releasing the real Zack and Erin and sucking the reflections back in. It just feels as if this ending could have been so much more exciting but instead it’s crammed into the final few chapters. The origins of the mirror are never explained either.

Overall, it was a decent enough read but I just wish the book had spent less time on the false scares and more pages on the mirror’s dark abilities.

The Cover

Not one of my favourites to be honest. The hands coming out of the mirror behind Max are pretty cool but Max looks like a girl here and I can’t tell whether he’s terrified or having the time of his life.

The incredibly dated bit

We compromised. We played Twister . Then watched some of the Terminator video until it was time to eat.

You can’t GET much more 90’s than Twister and videotapes!

The nostalgia rating

I recalled the basic plot of Let’s Get Invisible! but I don’t really have any memories of the book so I would have to say that the ‘feels’ were pretty mild with this one. It was one of those Goosebumps books that I probably only read once whereas I read many of the others multiple times over.

Up Next: Night of the Living Dummy

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.