Book Review: If It Bleeds (Stephen King, 2020)

Year: 2020 // Format Reviewed: Hardback // Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK) // Pages: 369 // ISBN: 978-1-529-391534

“In January of 2021, a small padded envelope addressed to Detective Ralph Anderson is delivered to the Conrads, the Anderson’s next door neighbours. The Anderson family is on an extended vacation in the Bahamas. Printed on this envelope, in large letters, is DO NOT FORWARD. HOLD FOR ARRIVAL.

When Ralph opens the package, he finds a flash drive titled If it Bleeds, presumably referring to the old news trope which proclaims ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. The drive holds a kind of report, or spoken word diary, from Holly Gibney. The final words are from an entry dated December 19th, 2020. She sounds out of breath.

“I have done the best I can, Ralph, but it may not be enough. In spite of all my planning there’s a chance I won’t come out of this alive…””

It’s been a few years since we had a short story collection from Stephen King so If It Bleeds was very welcome indeed. That said, I went in warily given that some of the author’s recent standalone short stories (Elevation, Gwendy’s Button Box) have fallen a little flat with me personally, leaving me hanging with – what I considered to be – abrupt, unsatisfying conclusions to their tales.

First thing’s first though: the blurb on the back of the book (as quoted above) is a bit misleading and I feel that I should address it for anybody who hasn’t yet picked this book up. First of all, it gives the false impression that the entirity of If It Bleeds is one big follow-up to 2018’s The Outsider, failing to mention that the titular story is actually one of four short tales. Secondly, Ralph Anderson – The Outsider‘s lead character – doesn’t actually feature in If It Bleeds. I get why the publisher focused fully on marketing this book as the next chapter in the Mr. Mercedes saga, including name-dropping multiple characters already known to the Stephen King faithful, but I thought it was worth mentioning that If It Bleeds is actually just the headline act of a four act show.

Starting off with the main reason that many will purchase this book, If It Bleeds is indeed the next part of the ongoing Mr. Mercedes ‘series’, although it is more of a direct follow-up to The Outsider than the preceding Bill Hodges trilogy. The glue that binds all of these stories together is, of course, Holly Gibney, who is still running her own private investigation company as we saw in The Outsider. If It Bleeds is Holly’s first solo story, which sees the endearing investigator stumble upon the existence of yet another eery, supernatural predator – another ‘Outsider’. The story itself is compulsive reading (as all of the books featuring Ms. Gibney have been guilty of), but the real draw of If It Bleeds is being able to catch up with old friends again, including the recurring supporting cast of Jerome, Barbara, and Pete. There are also plenty of references to events past that make all of these books feel like one continuous series, even if The Outsider and If It Bleeds are somewhat separate to the Bill Hodges trilogy.

Holly herself undergoes plenty of personal development throughout If It Bleeds, and she has a lot of interaction with her controlling mother which encourages said development. In classic Stephen King fashion, her personal battles run parallel to Holly’s pursuit of the latest Outsider creature, but both plotlines ultimately cross over in a satisfying way towards the story’s conclusion. It’s perhaps only correct then that the marketing gurus chose to focus on If It Bleeds alone because this is easily the best of the four stories here. It’s extremely moreish and I was genuinely disappointed that it couldn’t have been a longer, standalone book. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of these characters though – King seems to enjoy them as much as his audience – so I’m not too worried.

Thankfully the other three stories hold up on their own merit, even if they must live in the shadow of If It Bleeds. The opener, Mr Harrigan’s Phone, was my favourite of the supporting acts. It begins in 2004 when nine year-old Craig starts helping out retired billionaire businessman Mr. Harrigan, forming a friendly bond with the man. Fast-forward to 2007, and Craig becomes the proud owner of the brand-new iPhone, a gadget that he can’t get enough of. Mr. Harrigan however – a man with a somewhat luddite attitude towards new technology – isn’t having any of it. Four times a year, Mr. Harrigan sends Craig a two-dollar scratch card and, in 2008, one of the tickets finally comes in for Craig, netting him three thousand dollars. As a gesture of thanks to Mr. Harrigan, Craig buys him an iPhone of his own, which he initially rejects before Craig demonstrates the power of the internet and instant access to real-time business information. As the story progresses, a chilling supernatural thread – that follows Craig through his adolescent years – is introduced but, without spoiling the story, it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. What DID resonate with me, and got me thinking (always dangerous), were the philosophical questions raised about the effect of technology on society, the consumption of instantly-accessible information, and how it would change us all.

“”We may be looking at a huge mistake here, Craig, one being made by people who understand the practical aspects of a thing like this – the ramifications – no more than I do. An economic earthquake may be coming. For all I know, it’s already here. An earthquake that’s going to change how we get our information, when we get it, where we get it, and hence how we look at the world.” He paused. “And deal with it, of course.”

“…if I were the Wall Street Journal…or The Times…even the damn Reader’s Digest…I’d be very frightened by this gizmo.” He picked up the iPhone again; couldn’t seem to leave it alone. “It’s like a broken watermain, one spewing information instead of water. I thought it was just a phone we were talking about, but now I see…or begin to see…””

Additionally, it’s pretty cool to be cast back to a time – the mid-2000’s – that doesn’t feel that long ago, and to be reminded of how much simpler things were, even then, before the iPhone blew up and technology/social media really got us all – as Mr Harrigan would say – by the balls…and squeezed.

The Life of Chuck was the weak link for me. It tells the story of a man’s life in three acts, starting at the very end, travelling in reverse. Each act feels completely different though, and somewhat disjointed when put together as a whole. That said, each part is excellent as a standalone mini-story, and I really enjoyed the twist at the end of the first act that explained the crazy apocalyptic events unfolding for a group of characters that you assume are going to be the main cast. The third and final act sort-of ties it all together, although the new supernatural element introduced here felt slightly unnecessary when the story was being told in reverse. It IS clever though, and was certainly a different way of telling a story. I have a feeling that I might enjoy The Life of Chuck a little more the second time around.

Bringing up the rear is Rat, the latest in a long line of Stephen King tales that focuses on a writer, no doubt drawing inspiration from the author’s own life experience. This story was the closest one of the four to the classic, old-school King flavour of the 80’s that I wish we saw more of in the modern era. It tells the story of Drew Larson, an English teacher with a few published short stories, who dreams of being able to finally go the whole hog and successfully complete a novel. His previous unsuccessful attempt ended in a mental breakdown so it’s no wonder that his wife is absolutely not in favour of Drew heading up to his father’s old cabin, alone, in the remote woodlands of North Maine, so that he can seize the opportunity when a crystal-clear inspiration for a Western strikes him like a bolt from the blue. What happens next has shades of Poe’s The Raven, as Drew comes down with a bad case of the flu, his inspiration begins to run dry, and a powerful storm traps him in the cabin. A rat appears to him and offers him a macabre deal: the ability to finish his novel in exchange for the life of somebody close to Drew…

“The rat cocked his head, as if unable to believe a supposedly smart man – a college English teacher who had been published in The New Yorker! – could be so stupid. ‘You were going to kill me with a shovel, and why not? I’m just a lowly rat after all. But you took me in instead. You saved me.’
‘So as a reward you give me three wishes.’ Drew said it with a smile. This was familiar ground: Hans Christian Anderson, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm.
‘Just one,’ the rat said. ‘A very specific one. You can wish to finish your book.’ He lifted his tail and slapped it down on the manuscript of Bitter River for emphasis. ‘But it comes with one condition.’
‘And that would be?’
‘Someone you care for will have to die.’

I really enjoyed this one. It was psychological, and the isolated nature of the cabin paired with Drew’s obsession, and his fever-induced delerium, had shades of The Shining. Plus, I always enjoy a deal-with-the-devil scenario, where a desperate protagonist makes the mistake of bargaining with dark forces, only to find that they have been hoodwinked by said force(s).

All in all, If It Bleeds is a most enjoyable collection of short stories. I would happily recommend the price of admission for the titular story itself, but all four are worth your time. True, I may have been a little critical of The Life of Chuck, but even so, these stories are – in my opinion – the best short stories to have come from the pen of Stephen King in a good while. A very strong collection indeed.

Book Review: Cell (Stephen King, 2006)

cell-1Year: 2006
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder (UK)
Format: Paperback (reviewed)
Pages: 350
ISBN: 9780340921531

[note: this is a slightly tweaked version of a review previously published on my other blog, in 2018]

On October 1, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and graphic artist Clayton Riddell is visiting Boston, having just landed a deal that might finally enable him to make art instead of teaching it. But all those good feelings about the future change in a hurry thanks to a devastating phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse. The delivery method is a cell phone – everyone’s cell phone. Now Clay and the the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilisation’s darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage and a relentless human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature…and then begins to evolve. There’s really no escaping this nightmare. But for Clay, an arrow points the way home to his family in Maine, and as he and his fellow refugees make their harrowing journey north, they begin to see the crude signs confirming their direction. A promise of a safe haven, perhaps, or quite possibly the deadliest trap of all…

Stephen King’s Cell is – in my opinion – the sort of book that becomes a bit more relevant with each passing year. The story’s broken civilisation setting is nothing new and the ‘journey’ format, starring a group of survivors heading out into a new world full of danger, has been done before by the same writer (see The Stand for one example) but the fact that mobile phones are the cause of doom and destruction? Well, that part seems more and more plausible with each passing year.

We do after all, live in a world where so many rely on their phone for so much. People are glued to them on buses, trains and even in social gatherings where they are supposed to be communicating with real people (remember those?). Drivers would rather risk crashing, whilst crawling in traffic, than missing a vital Facebook update and there is of course, an app for everything.

So Cell’s premise of a brain-scrambling virus distributed globally via mobile networks, and wiping any trace of civilisation from their owner’s minds, doesn’t seem so far-fetched as a form of cyber terrorism that could metaphorically nuke most of the world’s population in one fell swoop. The book doesn’t focus on who was responsible for this attack or where they orchestrated it from because that isn’t the point. Instead, Cell takes the reader on a journey with a group of survivors who are thrown together in the wake of this catastrophe because they were either fortunate enough to not have their phone with them or because they didn’t own one in the first place.

There is the typical rich, satisfying detail that you’d expect to find in a Stephen King book, especially with regards to the primal, unfeeling violence that those affected by the cellular virus (known as ‘The Pulse’) inflict on others in the immediate aftermath. It feels real and a fair prediction of what might actually happen should such an event hit a technology-reliant Western society. As with any Stephen King book, no punches are pulled when it comes to the description of the violence and gore and this only helps make the survivors’ situation feel even more vivid.

Once the initial impact of The Pulse has brought civilisation to its knees, Cell then focuses on the main characters and how their mental state responds to suddenly being thrust into a world drowning in nonsensical madness, where only the fittest will survive. The main character is an everyman up-and-coming artist named Clayton Riddell who just wants to get home and find his young son, hoping that he hasn’t switched his phone on and that he still lives. He joins up with other survivors – who have their own harrowing stories – and they set out to escape Boston, make sense of the situation and find safety.

I really enjoyed Cell the first time I read it and re-reading it today, in 2018, it was just as good. The characters are very likeable and relatable as ordinary, everyday people. The mental journey and development that they go through also feels believable and you – the reader – do feel as if you are on this journey with them (albeit in the safer confines of the real world!) and the book becomes an addictive page-turner like most of Stephen King’s output. I also really enjoyed the detail, the descriptions of the violence and the state of the ruined world.

It’s a testament to King’s writing, and the way that he crafts endearing characters, that Cell also managed to sucker-punch me, striking me right in the feels when one of the group is suddenly killed without warning. It came out of nowhere and genuinely made me angry towards the killer! I can’t say that I experience that sort of emotive response to a book very often.

If I have any criticisms of Cell then they would be the inconclusive ending (which kind of leaves the reader to decide on what ultimately happens) and the fact that some new allies are introduced during the latter stages of the book yet there isn’t really the time to explore their characters and get to like them as anything other than a late-game support cast. I found that I was only there to see what happened to Clay and his original companions, not the new additions to the group.

Overall though, Cell is a great book and one of the better ones in Stephen King’s ‘modern’ lineup. I do tend to prefer the older, horror/supernatural-orientated books but Cell still manages to feel a little like those past glories while also having the other foot planted in a more current era.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #12: Piano Lessons Can Be Murder (R.L. Stine, 1993)

piano-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 think it’s time to hand out an award: a trophy for the most bizarre title to appear on a Goosebumps book. I mean, just what can you expect from a book called “Piano Lessons Can Be Murder”? And let’s just take a moment to appreciate the inclusion of the word ‘Murder’ in the title of a children’s book. I mean, I’m not the sort of person who gives a crap, but I can imagine modern-day publishers perhaps wanting to steer away from using the word ‘Murder’. But then again, I’m not clued-up on current Young Fiction so maybe I’m way off the mark.

The Blurb

Jerry’s all set for piano lessons, especially now he’s got his own piano to practise on. But now he’s met Dr Shreek, his piano teacher, he’s not so sure…

Dr Shreek looks harmless, but there’s something really weird about him that Jerry can’t quite put his finger on. He gives Jerry the creeps…

And then Jerry hears stories about Dr Shreek’s other pupils…who went for a lesson, and were never seen again. But those stories can’t really be true…can they?

As with a great many Goosebumps books, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder opens with a kid moving to a new town and a new house. Jerry, his parents, and their cat, Bonkers (who Jerry absolutely detests) have just moved to the town of New Goshen. Jerry is twelve (again, another Goosebumps staple) and makes the rookie mistake of being a prankster, much to the exasperation of his parents. It’s a rookie mistake because when the old piano in the attic begins to play itself during the night, his parents instantly dismiss Jerry’s claims as his latest prank.

But things get even creepier when the piano is moved downstairs so that Jerry can take lessons. His parents find a local piano tutor called Doctor Shreek (not a sinister name at all…) who has his own piano school in the town. At first, he seems not-at-all-threatening…

Dr Shreek smiled at me. “Hello, Jerry.”
He really did look like Santa Claus, except he had a white moustache and no beard. He had round, red cheeks and a friendly smile, and his blue eyes sort of twinkled as he greeted me.

But Jerry soon hears stories about other kids who have been to the The Shreek School for lessons and were never seen again. Exactly how so many kids can go missing from the same town, and this piano school can stay open when it is the one common denominator in all of these disappearances is a mystery, but perhaps Stine didn’t want his readers to ask that question. Anyway, Jerry continues to have his lessons and notices that the previously non-threatening Dr Shreek has an odd hand fetish…

I muttered thanks. I was surprised to see that his eyes had settled on my hands. “Excellent. Excellent,” he whispered.
I felt a sudden chill.
I think it was the hungry expression on his face.
What’s so special about my hands? I wondered. Why does he like them so much?
It was weird. Definitely weird.
But of course I didn’t know how weird…

okaymeme-1

Unfortunately, Jerry isn’t able to recognise the warning signs because he has a supernatural crisis to attend to. That piano that played itself when it was in the attic? Yeah, it’s still playing itself after being moved downstairs. And Jerry’s parents STILL don’t believe him after he sneaks downstairs in the dead of night and sees a friggin’ ghost at the piano, playing away. After several nighttime episodes (where the ghost conveniently vanishes as Jerry’s parents arive), they even send Jerry to see a psychiatrist about his “problem”. See kids, it never plays to be a practical joker that nobody believes. Especially if you live in the pages of a Goosebumps book.

At this point, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder is a reasonably intriguing book. You KNOW that there’s something up with Shreek but there’s also the mystery of the haunted piano which seems to be completely disconnected from the good doctor’s hand obsession and child-swallowing piano school. Where is the danger going to come from?

There’s even time for this hilarious dream sequence that was so ridiculous, I cracked a legitimate smile when reading it…

I tried to stop.
But my hands kept going!
“Stop! Stop!” I screamed down at them in horror.
“Faster! Play faster!” Dr Shreek ordered, his eyes wide with excitement, his face bright red. “The hands are alive!”
“No-please!” Stop!” I called down to my hands. “Stop playing!”
But they really were alive. They wouldn’t stop.
My fingers flew over the keys. A crazy tidal wave of notes flooded the family room.
“Faster! Faster!” the instructor ordered.
And despite my frightened cries to stop, my hands gleefully obeyed him, playing on, faster and faster and faster.
Faster and faster, the music swirled around me.
It’s choking me, I thought, gasping for breath. I can’t breathe.

Find me another book where a character is being suffocated by music. This might be the most ridiculous portion of any Goosebumps book that I have re-visited thus far but at least it was entertaining.

Anyway, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder follows the tried-and-tested Goosebumps formula of hooking the reader before devolving into a ludicrous, rushed mess at the very end. I’m sorry to come out and say that but there it is. If you wanted an intricate and masterfully-crafted conclusion that ties up the plot threads of the haunted piano, Dr Shreek’s hand obsession and the sinister rumours surrounding his school, then you’re going to be let down. This isn’t Charles Dickens or Stephen King, you know.

But just in case…

spoiler-3

In the last quarter of the book, we are introduced to Mr Toggle, the caretaker of The Shreek School who also happens to be an inventor, making all kinds of robots and machines…in a piano school.

Jerry then stumbles onto something that neither Toggle nor Shreek wanted him to see: a room full of pianos being played by floating, dismembered hands! It turns out that Toggle really likes beautiful music but, because human hands are apparently so difficult to create artificially, he has to lure promising young talents to the piano school so that he can steal their hands. Oh, and Dr Shreek is a robot, created by Toggle. And the ghost in Jerry’s house? A student of the Shreek school who had her hands taken and – we can only assume – died as a result, as did all of the other missing kids. New Goshen’s police department must either be incredibly inept or incredibly well bribed!

The situation looks bleak for our Jerry but, just before Toggle can harvest his hands too, the ghost from Jerry ‘s house shows up and teams up with the ghosts of all the other murdered kids to swamp Toggle and carry him off screaming into the adjacent woods. Everything I’ve detailed in the last two paragraphs happens in the last ten pages by the way, so there’s all the build up only for another utterly insane Goosebumps resolution to be vomited out at lightspeed.

Overall, I did enjoy Piano Lessons Can Be Murder, regardless of the mental ending. Up until the closing ten to fifteen pages, there is genuine mystery and I didn’t know whether it would be the ghost in Jerry’s house or Dr Shreek that would turn out to be the actual horror. As it happened, it was neither but I’d be lying if I said that the finale was satisfying.

The cover:

This one is pretty cool, even if it does sort-of give away Shreek’s robotic secret. I love the glowing, red Terminator-style eye and the pink/blue colour scheme of the bubbling slime. And, as ever, the artist’s work is incredibly lifelike.

The incredibly dated bit:

A twelve year-old willingly taking piano lessons? This always seemed more of an American thing to me so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and there are still lots of US-based kids who take piano lessons. But just in case, we have another outdated 90’s Nintendo reference in a Goosebumps book to play back-up:

I wondered what Mum and Dad planned to do with all those rooms.
I decided to suggest that one of them be made into a Nintendo room. We could put a widescreen TV in there to play the games on. It would be really great.

The nostalgia rating:

For this one, I’m going to have to say that it’s fairly low. I don’t remember reading Piano Lessons Can Be Murder so it might one of the few Goosebumps books that slipped through my net when I was younger.

Up Next: Be Careful What You Wish For

Book Review: IT (Stephen King, 1985)

DSC_0498Year: 1985
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: New English Library (version reviewed)
Format: Paperback (version reviewed)
Pages: 1116 (version reviewed)
ISBN: 0450411435

“To the children, the town was their whole world. To the adults, knowing better, Derry, Maine was just their home town: familiar, well-ordered for the most part. A good place to live.

It was the children who saw – and felt – what made Derry so horribly different. In the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurked, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT reached up, seizing, tearing, killing…

The adults, knowing better, knew nothing.

Time passed and the children grew up, moved away. The horror of IT was deep-buried, wrapped in forgetfulness. Until they were called back, once more to confront IT as it stirred and coiled in the sullen depths of their memories, reaching up again to make their past nightmares a terrible present reality.”

Stephen King’s IT is one of those books that has long since transcended into pop-culture. Even those who have never picked up a book have possibly watched the original 1990 mini-series or the recent big screen two-parter (released in 2017 and 2019). Tim Curry’s 1990 version of Pennywise the clown is also widely held responsible for so many adults’ irrational fear of clowns. Indeed, IT is probably the most successful of all adaptations based on King’s books.

I first read IT a long time ago (and only the once) but the book instantly became a firm favourite of mine. This year I have been digging out quite a few of my favourite books and revisiting them. At last, I have gotten around to IT – actually a decent commitment to make given the size of the book! This paperback version I have is just over 1100 pages so it’s definitely one of the most voluminous Stephen King books.

And it isn’t difficult to see why IT is such a whopper of a tome. This is Stephen King at his unrestrained best. I’m sure that stuff was cut or re-worked but even so, I didn’t get the sense that the author was forced to hold back or be overly concise. The detail and world-building is indulgent; the main characters and the supporting cast incredibly well fleshed-out. Best of all, IT is a real page-turner and not a single page felt like unnecessary, excessive filler.

The voice broke up in a series of choking hiccups and suddenly a bright red bubble backed up the drain and popped, spraying beads of blood on the distained porcelain.
The choking voice spoke rapidly now, and as it spoke it changed: now it was the young voice of the child that she had first heard, now it was a teenaged girl’s voice, now – horribly – it became the voice of a girl Beverly had known…Veronica Grogan. But Veronica was dead, she had been found dead in a sewer drain –
“I’m Matthew…I’m Betty…I’m Veronica…we’re down here…down here with the clown…and the creature…and the mummy…and the werewolf…and you, Beverly, we’re down here with you, and we float, and we change…”
A gout of blood suddenly belched from the drain, splattering the sink and the mirror and the wallpaper with its frogs-and-lily-pads pattern. Beverly screamed, suddenly and piercingly. She backed away from the sink, struck the door, rebounded, clawed it open, and ran for the living room, where her father was just getting to his feet.

The most captivating part of this book is the characters because they are all just so likable and you – the reader – really feel as if you are a part of their group. Even the antagonists – the bully Henry Bowers and his friends, Pennywise/IT and other random unsavouries – are endearing in their own way. This is because Stephen King really knows how to write characters and make them living, breathing and believable. He also knows how to make them relatable. In this respect, IT is a tour-de-force of King’s talent.

The story jumps back and forth between the events of 1958 and 1985, providing two versions of the main characters to get acquainted with. Obviously, their adult versions from ’85 are easier to relate to but it’s their eleven/twelve year-old selves that are much more interesting. This is because IT does such a good job of reminding you what it was like to be a child, how we viewed the world through naive/uninformed eyes and what sorts of irrational fears we hid from. There’s definitely a coming-of-age element to IT as Bill, Ben, Beverly, Mike, Stan, Richie and Eddie have to deal with the strange world of adults as well as confront the evil lurking beneath Derry, guided by seemingly immovable forces that they don’t understand.

As with every other Stephen King book that I have read, however, I can’t say that the horror aspect of IT scared or disturbed me, but that’s just me. It’s certainly a grisly book though, with some graphic deaths. There are also a fair few explicit bits involving minors, such as the moment between Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter at the town dump and, of course, the infamous sex scene in the sewers where Beverly loses her virginity to all of the boys, one after the other, as a form of ritual to keep them – as a group – close and the magic, that protects them, alive. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if King (and authors in general) would actively avoid such content these days because of how “sensitive” everybody is. This is a shame because these parts of IT aren’t presented in a needlessly-gratuitous or glorified fashion; they are just what they are.

There is also this very cool cameo from Christine, King’s famous killer car. Christine is one of my absolute favourite books so I really enjoyed this.

A sound impinged on his consciousness and began to grow. It was a car engine. It drew closer. Henry’s eyes widened in the dark. He held the knife more tightly, waiting for the car to pass by.
It didn’t. It drew up at the curb beyond the seminary hedge and simply stopped there, engine idling. Grimacing (his belly was stiffening now; it had gone board-hard, and the blood seeping sluggishly between his fingers had the consistency of sap just before you took the taps out of the maples in late March or early April), he got on his knees and pushed aside the stiff hedge-branches. He could see headlights and the shape of a car. Cops? His hand squeezed the knife and relaxed, squeezed and relaxed, squeezed and relaxed.
I sent you a ride Henry, the voice whispered. Sort of a taxi, if you can dig that. After all, we have to get you over to the Town House pretty soon. The night’s getting old.
The voice uttered one thin bonelike chuckle and fell silent. Now the only sounds were the crickets and the steady rumble of the idling car. Sounds like cherry-bomb mufflers, Henry thought distractedly.

He reached the intersection of the seminary path and the sidewalk and peered at the car, trying to make sense of the hulk behind the wheel. But it was the car he recognised first – it was the one his father always swore he would own someday, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It was red and white and Henry knew (hadn’t his father told him often enough?) that the engine rumbling under the hood was a V-8 327. Horsepower of 255, able to hit seventy from the git-go in just about nine seconds, gobbling hi-test through its four-barrel carb.

I suppose the revealing of IT’s true form deserves a mention because I know that many were disappointed with the monster – after all the different ways it changed its shape to match an individual’s fears – turning out to be a giant spider. This has often been derided as a weak and uninspired finale but IT only appears in this form to the children because its actual form cannot be comprehended by human minds, and so it takes a physical shape that resembles one of the most common fears of humans. As for the conclusion itself, things do get a bit wacky, cosmic and spiritual and I can see why this spoiled the book for some, but I – personally – wasn’t left wanting.

IT just has so much going for it: the characters that you really connect with; the charismatic evil of Pennywise; the drip-fed lore of the town of Derry and how it has been tainted by mysterious, sinister events; the incredibly rich detail. I’ve said it several times before on this blog, but I really believe that Stephen King doesn’t do stories like IT anymore. The quality of his writing remains undisputed and, yes, he has written some large epics in recent years that describe the journey or evolution of a small town and its inhabitants (Under the Dome, for example) but for other, similar examples that centre around raw, supernatural horror, you have to go back to the likes of Salem’s Lot and Needful Things.

IT is simply one of the all-time Stephen King greats and absolutely warrants its status as a must-read. Additionally, if you’ve only ever watched the cinematic versions of IT, you have likely missed out on a lot of the detail and the inner thoughts of characters that only a book can provide.

In short, if you haven’t already, go and read IT. If you have, and it’s been a while? Read it again.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #11: The Haunted Mask (R.L.Stine, 1993)

hauntedmask-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…

What have I done with this series? Well, it’s time to get back to business and continue powering through these sixty-two Goosebumps books. Book eleven is The Haunted Mask; a fairly memorable one thanks to its simple yet unnerving plot…

The Blurb

Carly Beth wants a special mask for Hallowe’en. A mask so ugly – so hideous – that even her best friends are totally creeped out by it.

Now Carly Beth has found her special mask – and it’s perfect! Everything she hoped it would be, and more…

Maybe too much more. Because even though Hallowe’en is over, Carly Beth is still wearing that mask…

Carly Beth scares easily, and her friends KNOW it. In fact, the first twenty pages of The Haunted Mask set the scene for Carly Beth’s desire to wreak revenge on these so-called friends, as their practical jokes push her too far. It’s been a long time since I was an eleven year-old, so maybe I’ve just forgotten what it was like at that age, but these “friends”…are assholes!

Carly Beth uttered a disgusted groan and spat the chewed-up mouthful of sandwich into a napkin. Then she pulled the bread apart – and saw a big brown worm resting on top of the turkey.
“Ohh!” With a moan, she covered her face with her hands.
The room erupted with laughter. Cruel laughter.
“I ate a worm. I-I’m going to be sick!” Carly Beth groaned. She jumped to her feet and stared angrily at Steve. “How could you?” she demanded. “It isn’t funny. It’s-it’s-“
“It isn’t a real worm,” Chuck said. Steve was laughing too hard to talk.
“Huh?” Carly Beth gazed down at it and felt a wave of nausea rise up from her stomach.
“It isn’t real. It’s rubber. Pick it up,” Chuck urged.
Carly Beth hesitated.
Kids all through the vast room were whispering and pointing at her. And laughing.
“Go ahead. It isn’t real. Pick it up,” Chuck said, grinning.
Carly Beth reached down with two fingers and reluctantly picked the brown worm from the sandwich. It felt warm and sticky.
“Gotcha again!” Chuck said with a laugh.
It was real! A real worm!

Seriously, fuck these guys. That said, I doubt that this would even register on the savage-o-meter of kids these days so maybe Carly Beth actually had it easy in 1993?

Anyway, CB decides that she has had enough and absolutely HAS to pay her friends back, especially Chuck and Steve. And what better time to orchestrate a major scare than Hallowe’en? It’s going to take something pretty special to make Chuck and Steve leap out of their skin however, so Carly Beth is thrilled when she finds the most disgusting, realistic mask of all in the back room of the new party shop in town.

The store’s owner doesn’t want to sell any of the masks from the back room however. He tells Carly Beth that they are not for sale. These masks are apparently too scary. But Carly Beth is insistent and digs in…

“Thirty dollars,” Carly Beth said, shoving the folded-up notes into the man’s hand. “I’ll  give you thirty dollars for it. That’s enough, isn’t it?”
“It’s not a matter of money,” he told her. “These masks are not for sale.” With an exasperated sigh, he started towards the doorway that led to the front of the shop.
“Please! I need it. I really need it!” Carly Beth begged, chasing after him.
“These masks are too real,” he insisted, gesturing to the shelves. “I’m warning you-“
“Please? Please?”
He shut his eyes. “You will be sorry.”
“No, I won’t. I know I won’t!” Carly Beth exclaimed gleefully, seeing that he was about to give in.

FLW-1

Armed with her new grotesque mask, Carly Beth hits the 1993 Hallowe’en trick-or-treat run and achieves everything she sets out to do…and more. She succeeds in scaring Chuck and Steve but, on the downside, she starts to feel odd. Suddenly, Carly Beth is feeling all hot and aggressive, leaping about and howling like an enraged animal. She even steals sweet bags from other kids! And as for that aggression…

Her anger raged through her chest. Her whole body was trembling. She felt about to burst.
I’m going to tear this woman apart! Carly Beth decided. I’ll chew her to bits! I’ll tear her skin off her bones! Furious thoughts raged through Carly Beth’s mind.

Er…yeah. Chill out, girl.

It’s obvious to the reader but not – apparently – to Carly Beth: the mask is taking over. Seems like that store owner had a bit of a valid point back there, huh? The truth finally hits her back at her best friend Sabrina’s house.

Sabrina ran a hand through her black hair. Her forehead wrinkled in concentration.
“Carly Beth,” she said finally, “there’s something very weird going on here.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Carly Beth demanded.
“There’s no bottom to the mask.”
“Huh?” Carly Beth’s hands shot up to her neck. She felt around frantically. “What do you mean?”
“There’s no line,” Sabrina told her in a trembling voice. “There’s no line between the mask and your skin. No place to slip my hand in.”

Oh dear. Looks like Carly Beth should have taken the store owner’s warning a little more seriously! So she races back to the shop, desperate for help from the store owner, only to be informed that there is no cure. Except, there is. Gotta hold something back for those dramatic end-of-chapter cliffhangers to work, after all. He tells Carly Beth that the mask can only be removed once, using a symbol of love. After that, it will bond permanently to the wearer’s face should they put it on again.

Up until this point, The Haunted Mask was pretty cool. The concept of an evil mask grafting itself to the wearer’s face and turning them into a monster was good and you can imagine the claustrophobic panic that you would feel in Carly Beth’s shoes. But, in typical Goosebumps fashion, the conclusion lets things down somewhat. These extremely random rules that the store owner informs Carly Beth of aren’t explained. Worse still, there is some backstory about how he created the masks – real faces –  himself in a lab and they became monstrous (for some unexplained reason) once they were removed from the lab.

If all of that is too silly for you then the following sequence turns events up to eleven. The other masks begin to wake up and Carly Beth ends up fleeing the shop with the masks flying after her down the street! Of course, nobody else witnesses this. It wouldn’t be a Goosebumps book without a kid running away in terror from something supernatural while the entire populance of the town just happen to be oblivious to it all.

The conclusion was weak in my opinion, even by Goosebumps‘ far-fetched standards. Carly Beth does eventually get the mask off but there is a last-page twist which nobody should win a prize for predicting.

Overall, The Haunted Mask is a fun book, let down (in my opinion) by a daft few closing chapters. We’ll have to see, in due course, whether The Haunted Mask II does a better job.

The Cover:

Pretty cool. The artist nailed Carly Beth with her whole head taken over by a seriously ugly, gargoyle-like mask.

The incredibly dated bit:

Probably when Carly Beth is first exploring the party shop and sees Freddy Krueger and ET masks. You KNOW that this is an early 90’s book with characters like that.

The nostalgia rating:

I’m going to say “low” for The Haunted Mask. I did read this one back in the day but I didn’t remember much about it other than the general premise. I actually read The Haunted Mask II first.

Up Next: Piano Lessons Can Be Murder

Book Review: Night Shift (Stephen King, 1978)

NightShift-1Year: 1978
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder (2012 UK Paperback)
Format: Paperback (Reviewed)
Pages: 488
ISBN: 9781444723199

A collection of tales to invade and paralyse the mind as the safe light of day is infiltrated by the shadows of the night.

As you read, the clutching fingers of terror brush lightly across the nape of the neck, reach round from behind to clutch and lock themselves, white-knuckled, around the throat.

This is the horror of ordinary people and everyday objects that become strangely altered; a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems, where the familiar and the friendly lure and deceive. A world where madness and blind panic become the only reality.

I will always aim to pick up any new Stephen King release as soon as possible but I can’t avoid the fact that I still prefer his older works. Before anybody cries, “rose-tinted glasses!” or accuses me of being stuck in the past, I do have a reason for my preference. Simply put, I feel that King has drifted away from the raw, old-school horror that he used to pump out. Books such as Salem’s Lot, Christine and The Shining for example. His modern novels are still fantastic but they are missing the sinister personality of his back catalogue.

The short story collection, Night Shift, is packed with such examples of the kind of Stephen King writing that I miss. Inanimate objects gaining sentience and killing people just because they can, for instance. Their evil needs no deep, meaningful explanation. It just is. There are also stories that play out like bizarre, horrifying nightmares that defy all sense and sanity. These sorts of stories are so effective because they deal with ordinary people and everyday objects and while you – the reader – know full well that this is all the realm of fantasy, you still can’t help but wonder, “what if…?”

It’s the sort of irrational, child-like fear where imagination runs amok and a person can see an evil, hungry grin rather than a car’s grille. Take The Mangler for instance. This is probably my favourite story from Night Shift. At a laundry, the Hadley-Watson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder – known to the employees as ‘The mangler’ – has just killed an employee. It should be impossible. After all, there are safety measures built into the machine, and it has passed its safety inspections. What makes this story is the gruesome, utterly unapologetic descriptions of the mangler’s work.

And Mrs Frawley, somehow, had been caught and dragged in. The steel, asbestos-jacketed pressing cylinders had been as red as barn paint, and the rising steam from the machine had carried a sickening stench of hot blood. Bits of her white blouse and blue slacks, even ripped segments of her bra and panties, had been torn free and ejected from the machine’s far end thirty feet down, the bigger sections of cloth folded with grotesque and blood-stained neatness by the automatic folder. But not even that was the worst.
“It tried to fold everything,” he said to Jackson, tasting bile in his throat. “But a person isn’t a sheet, Mark. What I saw…what was left of her…” Like Stanner, the hapless foreman, he could not finish. “They took her out in a basket,” he said softly.

The theme of machinery run amok of its newfound free will continues further into the collection with Trucks. Here, big rigs everywhere are suddenly thinking for themselves and set on murdering as as many people as possible, either by ramming their cars off the roads or running them down. The story focuses on a gas station diner and a small group of people taking shelter there as the trucks circle the building and pounce on anybody brave enough to make a run for it. It’s a silly concept on paper but again, it works so well because there is no sane explanation for what is happening. The only shame is that Trucks was adapted and expanded for the so-bad-it’s-entertaining 1986 movie, Maximum Overdrive, though whether the movie’s ‘explanation’ is actually superior to having none at all is up for debate.

Speaking of big-screen adaptations, there are several other stories in Night Shift that you may recognise from the movies. Quitters Inc. and The Ledge were both part of the 1985 horror anthology, Cat’s Eye, and Children of the Corn is possibly better known for its cinematic version. Then, there is The Lawnmower Man – a short story that is nothing at all like the famous movie which was only very loosely based on King’s story. In fact, it was so unlike the source material that King successfully won a lawsuit to have his name removed from all of The Lawnmower Man‘s publicity material.

I really like Quitters Inc. because it taps into the problem of addiction and that uncomfortable exploration of what it would actually take for a person to give up their vice.

“If the rabbit gets a jolt often enough while he’s eating,” Donatti said, “he makes the association very quickly. Eating causes pain. Therefore, he won’t eat. A few more shocks, and the rabbit will starve to death in front of his food. It’s called aversion training.”

“For the first month of the treatment, our operatives will have you under constant supervision,” Donatti said. “You’ll be able to spot some of them. Not all. But they’ll always be with you. Always. If they see you smoke a cigarette, I get a call.”
“And suppose you  bring me here and do the old rabbit trick,” Morrison said. He tried to sound cold and sarcastic, but he suddenly felt horribly frightened. This was a nightmare.
“Oh, no,” Donatti said. “Your wife gets the rabbit trick, not you.”
Morrison looked at him dumbly.
Donatti smiled. “You,” he said, “get to watch.”

Another of my favourites is The Boogeyman. A father visits a psychologist to tell his unbelievable tale of how all three of his children were killed by a horrendous creature that came out of the closet at night and literally scared them to death. It’s a great little story that taps into the childish fear of monsters hiding under the bed or in closets, and there is an amusing – if unnecessary – twist right at the end.

For the King faithful, there are also two Salem’s Lot tie-ins that will be of interest. The first is told through a series of letters and journal entries dating back to the mid-1800’s, and serves as a prequel of sorts. The second takes place after the events of Salem’s Lot and sees two men from a neighbouring town set out to rescue an out-of-towner’s wife and child from the ‘Lot.

Overall, Night Shift is a really enjoyable Stephen King short story collection. It’s dark, disturbing and classic King. While I did have my favourites, I don’t really consider any of the stories in Night Shift to be weak links (as with some of his other collections). So if you are looking for something that is more Stephen King than the author’s own modern output then you should consider taking a trip back to the past and giving Night Shift a shot.

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

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #8: The Girl Who Cried Monster (R.L. Stine, 1993)

GB-Girl-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…

When I’m reviewing these Goosebumps books, I seem to frequently be reminding you guys about one of the series’ central themes: the fact that the parents of the stories’ never ever believe their kids when they try to explain that something creepy is afoot. Ironically, The Girl Who Cried Monster is an entire book based on this (sometimes dangerous) parenting error that plagues the adolescents of Stine’s fictional universe. Lucy is adamant that she has seen a REAL monster but of course, her parents don’t have time for her ‘stories’…

The Blurb

Lucy’s always telling stories and scaring her little brother, Randy, with her “monster” tales – what a laugh!

But now Lucy’s seen a real monster – it’s the librarian, Mr Mortman. Lucy’s actually seen him tyrn into a monster, and it’s not funny, it’s horrible! But when Lucy tries telling her parents about it, they don’t believe her. Big surprise!

Can Lucy convince them she’s telling the truth this time…before it’s too late?

I’m going to have stick up for the adults in a Goosebumps book for the first time here because their twelve year-old daughter, Lucy Dark (great surname for a pale-skinned girl with black hair btw), is always making up tall tales about monsters to scare her little bro, Randy, who is six and easily convinced by her stories of foul monsters out to eat kids. I mean, you can hardly expect the parents in Goosebumps stories to believe in the likes of killer cameras and living dummies anyway because I’m fairly certain that no sensible adult in the real world would do so. But when Lucy is always flexing her overactive imagination, it’s understandable that Mr and Mrs Dark would call BS.

I guess that’s why the title of this book is a play on the saying, “the boy who cried wolf”. That’s pretty much a given. Perhaps Stine was poking fun at the oblivious nature of the adults in his books too?

Anyway, Lucy lives in the small town of Timberland Falls and has to attend a summer reading course at the library called ‘Reading Rangers’ (so edgy, right?). But one day, after returning Huckleberry Finn and collecting Frankenstein from the librarian, Mr Mortman, Lucy forgets to pick up her rollerskates. She heads back to library and while the front door is still open, nobody else is inside other than Mr Mortman. The librarian doesn’t realise that he is being watched and so Lucy witnesses something horrifying.

As he struggled to unscrew the jar lid, Mr Mortman’s face began to change. His head floated up from his poloneck and started to expand, like a balloon being inflated.

I uttered a silent gasp as I saw his tiny eyes poke out of his head. The eyes bulged bigger and bigger, until they were as big as doorknobs.

The light from the window grew even dimmer. The entire room was cast in heavy shadows. The shadows swung and shifted. I couldn’t see well at all. It was as if I was watching everything through a dark fog.

Mr Mortman continued to hum, even as his head bobbed and throbbed above his shoulders and his eyes bulged out as if on stems, poking straight up like insect antennae.

And then his mouth began to twist and grow. It opened wide, like a gaping black hole on the enormous, bobbing head.

If The Girl Who Cried Monster more than follows series tradition by featuring a supernatural monster that only the children seem to be able to see, it then completely dispenses with tradition by introducing the monster early on…and not have it be a false scare as is usually the case. Lucy manages to escape without Mr Mortman realising that his transformation has been witnessed but – as expected – her parents won’t believe her breathless tale when she bursts back into the house. The rest of the book is about Lucy setting out to prove that Mr Mortman is a monster; not because he needs to be outed in the interests of public safety but for the selfish desire to show her parents that she is right and that they are wrong to not believe her.

I imagined both my parents apologising to me, promising they’d never doubt me again.

“I feel so bad,” I imagined my dad saying, “I’m going to buy you that computer you’ve been asking for.”

“And a new bike,” I imagined Mum saying. “Please forgive us for doubting you.”

“And I’m sorry, too,” I imagined Randy saying. “I know I’ve been a real jerk.”

“And you can stay up till midnight every night from now on, even on school nights,” I imagined Dad saying.

Isn’t amazing how Lucy can see something so shocking and unbelievable and soon be thinking about all of the riches and rewards that she could potentially gain from proving her parents wrong? It’s also amusing to be reminded of the things we so badly wanted as kids! A computer, a bike…and staying up until midnight!

Forward-thinking Lucy might be, but she certainly isn’t realistic. Her outrage and self-victimisation at not having her monster story believed is one thing but her irrational disbelief at THEIR disbelief is another.

So, once again my wonderful parents refused to believe me.

I tried to describe what I had seen from hiding place in the library. But Mum just shook her head. Dad said I had a great imagination. Even Randy refused to be scared. He told Mum and Dad how he had scared me with his stupid papier-mache monster head.

I practically begged them to believe me.

But Mum said I was just lazy. She said I was making up the story about Mr Mortman so I could get out of the Reading Rangers course and wouldn’t have to read any more books this summer.

When she said that, I got really insulted, of course. I shouted something back. And it ended up with all of us growling and snapping at each other, followed by me storming up to my room.

Perhaps it’s redundant to tip-toe around spoilers for a twenty-six year-old children’s horror story but even so, I won’t give away the book’s conclusion because there is a pretty smart twist right at the end. Even I didn’t see it coming but then again, I don’t remember actually reading The Girl Who Cried Monster when I was younger. This must have been one of the handful of Goosebumps books that I somehow missed then added to my collection at a later date. Unfortunately, it’s a twist that Stine used several more times throughout the series and so it would eventually lose its creativity factor. Here however, it was a very cool way to end the eighth book in the original series and a twist that could only really be possible in a book.

There’s nothing complex or crazy about The Girl Who Cried Monster. It’s a straightforward monster story that plays on childish fears and the curse of having an active imagination as a youngster. As an adult, it’s all a bit silly, but I think most of us can recall the irrational fears of monsters that we had as children and so I imagine that this must have been a pretty relatable tale when read through adolescent eyes.

The Girl Who Cried Monster was quite a fun re-read and one of my favourites thus far in The Big Goosebumps Re-read.

The Cover

I think has to be one of my favourite covers so far. The picture of Lucy screaming in terror, surrounded by dusty old library books, is incredibly detailed and realistic. In particular, I love the detailing of her messed-up hair. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the name of the artist behind the UK Goosebumps covers (our books didn’t adopt the original Tim Jacobus’ artworks until book #33)

The incredibly dated bit

A lot of this book is dated. From Lucy’s brand-new rollerblades (SO 90’s…) to the very concept of a summer reading club at a local library. If you’re American and can confirm whether such programmes still exist then feel free to object! Of course, there is also the obligatory Nintendo reference. Are we sure Stine wasn’t sponsored?

I passed by Randy’s room. He was in there in the dark, no lights, the blinds pulled down. Playing Super Nintendo, as usual.

The nostalgia factor

As I already said, I don’t actually remember reading this book as a child. However, the general ‘feel’ of the story was quite nostalgic.

Up Next: Welcome to Camp Nightmare

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…

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[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