Book Review: The Institute (Stephen King, 2019)

DSC_0476Year: 2019
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 485
ISBN: 9781529355390

Deep in the woods of Maine, there is a dark state facility where kids, abducted from across the United States, are incarcerated. In the Institute they are subjected to a series of tests and procedures meant to combine their exceptional gifts – telepathy, telekinesis – for concentrated effect.

Luke Ellis is the latest recruit. He’s just a regular twelve-year-old, except he’s not just smart, he’s super-smart. And he has another gift which the Institute wants to use…

Far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. He’s basically just walking the beat. But he’s about to take on the biggest case of his career.

Back in the Institute’s downtrodden playground of corridors where posters advertise ‘just another day in paradise’, Luke, his friend Kalisha and the other kids are in no doubt that they are prisoners, not guests. And there is no hope of escape.

But great events can turn on small hinges and Luke is about to team up with a new, even younger recruit, Avery Dixon, whose ability to read minds is off the scale. While the Institute may want to harness their powers for covert ends, the combined intelligence of Luke and Avery is beyond anything that even those who run the experiments – even the infamous Mrs. Sigsby – suspect.

It’s fair to say that I was a little cautious going into The Institute because, as much as I love Stephen King’s work, I wasn’t as enthralled by his latest output as I have been by the classics from his back catalogue.  Sleeping Beauties, for instance, was a great read until the anticlimactic finale and implication that men are the cause of most of the world’s problems. Then there was Gwendy’s Button Box and Elevation – two enjoyable page-turners that were just too short and not wholly satisfying as a result.

But Amazon were offering the The Institute at half-price (£10 instead of £20) if the book was pre-ordered so I threw caution to the wind and did just that. I’m glad that I did too because The Institute is a fantastic read and a real return to form that left me with very little to dislike.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that it had the classic King formula of multiple plot strands converging for the endgame. On one hand, there is Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop turned drifter. Jamieson is hitch-hiking his way to New York, taking on temporary jobs along the way, until fate brings him to the tiny South Carolina town of Dupray. Tim takes on an old-school night knocker job, only intending to stay in town for a while, but finds himself unexpectedly warming to small-town life and the people in Dupray. And they warm to him too. Tim quickly goes up in the estimations of Sheriff Ashworth and also manages to impress the frosty Deputy Wendy Gullickson, earning himself a dinner date with the attractive officer.

But if life is on the up and up for Tim, the same can’t be said for Luke Ellis. Luke is a child genius – a real one-in-a-million find – who is about to be enrolled into two colleges simultaneously…at the age of just twelve. Bright, popular and seemingly destined for greatness, Luke’s life should be about to take off but other people have different ideas. Luke is abducted from his home in the dead of night – and his parents murdered – by a special ops team who deliver him to the titular Institute, a top-secret off-the-books state facility that gathers together gifted children and subjects them to experiments.

It isn’t Luke’s incredible intelligence that the Institute are after however; it’s his latent telekinetic (TK) abilities. The Institute acquires children with TK or TP (telepathy) and uses their collected power to eliminate targets deemed dangerous for the world’s stability; terrorist leaders for example, or prominent figures that are seemingly on-course to start undesirable chains of events. The kids don’t know this to begin with though. What they do know is that they live in eerie replicas of their real bedrooms and have the freedom to roam the corridors of the Institute, use the vending machines and even access the (censored) internet…provided that they have earnt tokens from the Institute’s staff of course. They can even buy cigarettes and alcohol from the vending machines!

But this soft, open-prison style of incarceration comes with a nasty side. Scientists at the Institute subject the kids to all kinds of experiments that initially make little to no sense to Luke and his new group of friends. Failure to co-operate results in beatings, electric shocks from stun guns and even waterboarding. And this all before they have even graduated to the dreaded ‘Back Half’ of the Institute where their TK/TP abilities will be harnessed for the “greater good”.

So you have these two seemingly disconnected plots running parallel to one another before they finally meet up. It works very well in my opinion because I grew to really enjoy each of the lead characters and the supporting casts surrounding them. Whether it’s the town folk in Tim’s story or the kids that Luke befriends inside the Institute, both sides of the book are nicely fleshed-out and even the most minor of the supporting characters are brought to life believably in that special way that Stephen King has always been so adept at doing. Admittedly, there is more intrigue in Luke’s story but I wouldn’t say that either half is weak.

And you will love to hate those Institute people. From the cold and ruthless Mrs. Sigsby to the caretakers who seem to enjoy beating on kids and torturing them – they are all pretty nasty pieces of work and the cruelty that takes place within the walls of the Institute is described vividly by King with no punches pulled, even if it is just scared children who are the victims.

The book is apparently inspired by the thousands of children who go missing all across America each year and never seen again. The themes of government conspiracy and black site operations are also so relevant in this post-Wikileaks age where countless Youtubers and internet sites are eager to show you the proof that operations like the Institute are, perhaps, not so fictional at all.

I think that Stephen King has really done it again with The Institute. I would have liked the book to be just a little bit thicker and have the same level of detailed characterisation that the likes of IT and The Stand boasted but that’s pretty much the only criticism I have. The plot is full of intrigue and leads up to a fast-moving, action-packed finale that I found myself unwilling to pause with a bookmark. And the characters – as I have already said – are just so likable (or detestable in the case of the Institute’s staff). I would say that this is the best Stephen King book in this style since the fantastic Doctor Sleep (which seems like such a long time ago now!).

Highly recommended.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #10: The Ghost Next Door (R.L. Stine, 1993)

ghostnextdoor-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 slacked off on these reviews just recently but never fear because I am back on track and, at last, breaking into double digits with book number ten in the Goosebumps series. I have to admit that I might possibly have stalled on re-reading these books purely because The Ghost Next Door was never really a highlight for me and so I suppose I wasn’t that enthusiastic about getting through it. I can’t say that I’ve changed my mind now that I HAVE got it done but The Ghost Next Door was definitely an interesting read because it simply doesn’t feel like a proper Goosebumps book.

The Blurb

Hannah’s really fed up with the summer so far – all her friends are away and she’s stuck with her little twin brothers for company. Great.

But now that Danny has moved in next door maybe she will have some fun, after all. Danny’s pretty weird, though, he’s so pale – ghostly pale – and he keeps disappearing…

Hannah wants some answers. Somehow, she’s going to find out for sure. Could Danny be…the ghost next door?

Hannah Fairchild is a twelve year-old girl living in the small, quiet town of Greenwood Falls. She’s home for the summer and bored (as so many kids in these books are…) but perhaps things will look up now that Danny – also twelve – has just moved in next door. That basic intro aside, this girl be crazy! The book starts with Hannah waking up from a horrible nightmare about being trapped in her bedroom as her house burns down around her. Her unrealistically joyful reaction to realising that this was just a dream is priceless…

Boring.
But today, Hannah climbed out of bed with a smile on her face.
She was alive!
Her house hadn’t burned down.

Er…okay? Anyway, Hannah quickly becomes convinced that something isn’t right about Danny. He vanishes without warning for instance. Also, he apparently attends the same school as Hannah but she hasn’t seen him around nor has she heard of his friends. Between these items and a few other small pieces of “evidence”, Hannah arrives at the only possible conclusion: Danny MUST be a ghost.

I’m going to cut straight to it here and drop some spoilers so don’t read on if you don’t want this children’s horror book from 1993 spoiled…

spoiler-3

The book essentially attempts to lead you along with Hannah and her conclusion that Danny is a ghost. You even wait for false scares to give way to the truth sooner or later. However, the actual plot twist arrives around three-quarters of the way in: it’s Hannah that’s a ghost, not Danny. You see, she and her family were killed in a house fire five years ago hence the dream that she has at the beginning of the book. It also explains why some of the townspeople seem to not hear her when she calls out to them and also why she isn’t familiar with Danny’s friends. She’s existing in the present as a ghost but also sort-of in the past.

Unfortunately, I found that it was a fairly easy to twist to predict. I genuinely didn’t remember anything about The Ghost Next Door prior to this revisit but even so, I worked the truth out long before Hannah did.

I also mentioned in this review’s opening that this book doesn’t really feel like a Goosebumps book. It isn’t scary at all and I didn’t feel the horror vibes. In fact, it almost feels like a mystery book for young readers where a group of pre-pubescent kids try to solve a local mystery. In this case, Hannah is attempting to solve the mystery of Danny. The end-of-chapter suspense doesn’t come in the form of false scares but rather the drama of the town as Hannah tries to stop Danny and his friends from getting in serious trouble.

There is a supernatural boogeyman in the form of a mysterious black shadow with glowing red eyes that chases Hannah several times. This is ultimately revealed to be Danny’s ghost who is waiting for him to die so it can take his place (wrap your head around that).

The finale is also not really a Goosebumps conclusion. It’s more like a sad farewell as Hannah appears to leave the mortal realm behind.

“Come back, Hannah,” her mother whispered. “Come back to us now.”
Hannah could feel herself floating now. And as she flated, she gazed down – her last look at earth.
“I can see him, Mum,” she said excitedly, brushing the tears off her cheeks. “I can see Danny. In his room. But the light is getting faint. So faint.”
“Hannah, come back. Come back to us,” her mother whispered, calling her home.
“Danny – remember me!” Hannah cried as Danny’s face appeared clearly in the misty grey.
Could he hear her?
Could he hear her calling to him?
She hoped so.

So no creepy twist or anything like that. Just this decidedly out-of-place ascension to the afterlife. These last two pages really summarise the strange tone of this book and mark it out as a black sheep in the Goosebumps series. I wouldn’t say that this shift made for an enjoyable read because it isn’t what a reader of horror fiction would want from a Goosebumps book. That said, it was definitely unique and totally unexpected.

The Cover

I never understood this cover as a kid because it looked like an angel with some sort of holy light behind them. Not especially horror-themed! But now I see that this was the artist’s interpretation of Hannah with the flames from the house fire in the background. I think said artist may have taken the “short hair” description a little too far because she looks like a boy with a punk ‘do’.

The incredibly dated bit

Not much but Hannah communicates with her friend Janey (who is at summer camp) by writing letters and wondering why there aren’t any replies. Spoilers: you’re five years too late Hannah. That aside, it would all be text messages, Whatsapp or even Skype in 2019. Bring back the art of letter writing!

The nostalgia rating

Does not really wanting to read it because I recalled the book being a bit ‘meh’ count?

Up Next: The Haunted Mask

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.