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

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

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

The Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, bonus stuff:

The Cover

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

The incredibly dated bit

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

The nostalgia rating

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

Up Next: Stay Out of the Basement

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

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

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

The Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cover

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

The incredibly dated bit

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

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

The nostalgia rating

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

Up Next: Say Cheese and Die!

Book Talk: My Reading Journey

The other day, I found myself reflecting on my reading ‘journey’, how I’ve been reading books my whole life and how my reading tastes have evolved. We are taught to read by our schools and force-fed a certain amount of written words in this way but many kids don’t read outside of their English lessons or are unfortunate (I consider it unfortunate anyway…) to have parents who don’t read or promote literature to their children. These days, it’s easier to distract kids with tablets (the electronic kind of course!), computer games or smartphones. These are all okay in moderation but none can provide the same mental stimulation as the written word and – dare I say it – can result in more braindead children, addicted to screens and with less grasp of that beautiful thing called The English Language.

I class myself as fortunate on two counts. The first is to have had parents who enjoyed books and promoted reading to me from a young age. My father was all about factual books covering the likes of science and astronomy while my mother enjoyed fiction. Their takes on reading might have differed but it did mean that there was always a full bookshelf in our living room. Books were bought for me too and so while I read at school, I was also reading at home and always ahead of most of my classmates when it came to reading ability. When we were given a book to take home and read over the course of a week for instance, I’d have it finished in a single evening. I was taking books out of the library on the weekends too and then the mobile library which used to visit every fortnight. I’d take out five or six books at a time and finish the lot well in advance of their return date.

The second reason I class myself as fortunate is that I was one of the last generations to come up through school with computers and technology only just beginning to go mainstream. They weren’t integrated into everyday life until I was in the latter years of secondary school and sixth form (college). Mobile phones didn’t start to become commonplace amongst kids my age until my early teens either. Why is this a positive thing? It meant that I could enjoy the emergence of technology without it dominating everything. It left room for books and the paper-based word to remain a staple of my education and downtime outside of school.

If you couldn’t tell, I really like books and reading hence why I’ve been enjoying talking about them so much on this blog. Books are fucking brilliant.

So I thought I’d go on a quick trip through my past to look at how reading evolved for me at the various stages of my life up until this point.

Early Years

The primary school I attended used the Oxford Reading Tree series of books to educate pupils on reading. The books began as large, mostly picture-based books featuring a recurring cast of characters and an increasing word count as you progressed through the ‘Stage’ system attached to the books. Stage 1 was entirely pictures for example and the school skipped over them (I didn’t even know they existed until spotting them in one of the store rooms). Stage 10 was the final batch of books in this format featuring Biff, Chip, Kipper, Wilf, Wilma and Floppy the dog.

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I skipped Stages 9 and 10 based on reading ability and went on to Stages 11-14 which were thicker books with self-contained stories branded as the ‘Treetops’ series, presumably to indicate that you’d reached the top of the reading tree. It was around this time that I also borrowed lots of ‘Jets‘ books from the classroom bookshelf; more stories with great front covers and often humorous, recurring characters (I wonder if anybody else remembers these?).

Jets-1
[Source]
Outside of school, my main vice when it came to books were R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of books. It was always exciting to find a new one in the library or add books to my personal collection whenever I had some pocket money or received books for birthday or Christmas. I know a lot of kids would have been pissed at receiving “boring” books instead of videogames, mountain bikes or the latest trainers but I enjoyed it immensely and I can probably thank R.L. Stine and his series for an interest in horror that endures to this day. I can certainly thank the books for nurturing my interest in reading and the springboard to the next level that they would provide.

On a side note, I did eventually complete my collection of the original sixty-two Goosebumps books, all in original, matching covers/first prints. I still have this collection as I had to be an adult in order to track down the missing books and finish the set but it’s a collection that fills me with nostalgia and takes me on a trip to the past whenever I take them out. The collection is a mixture of books purchased when new, books procured from charity shops or second-hand bookshops and a few that I had to use ebay for (mostly the later ones which are harder to pick up).

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What a complete Goosebumps collection looks like.

I also inherited my mother’s collection of Famous Five books at some point and enjoyed these too in my younger years. The more innocent and simplistic lifestyle of the children in Enid Blyton’s adventure stories is difficult to relate to these days (and was when I was a child I suppose) but they were great escapism and I thoroughly enjoyed plowing through the collection. I even went on to check out some other Blyton adventure books that involved different characters.

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Old school reading here…

Teenage Years

Goosebumps was a springboard into more grown-up reading because I became aware of R.L. Stine’s other series’ – the Fear Street books. These are tame books by adult standards but coming off the back of the false scares and childish fears in the pages of Goosebumps, they were a step up for sure. Of course, the trademark false scares and ridiculous plots of Stine’s were still present but now we were dealing with murders and more sinister supernatural menaces. I didn’t actually ever own the Fear Street books – I only borrowed them from libraries. They were sold under the ‘Point Horror‘ banner and I don’t really recall seeing them for sale in shops. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t looking when I was able to take out stacks of them at a time from libraries.

Point Horror also published lots of other horror stories for teenagers and young adults and I read these too. What I absolutely loved about the likes of Goosebumps, Point Horror and most books of this kind were the covers. The covers for these books were fantastic, largely because they were hand-drawn. The art was sometimes a bit shonky but for some reason, it usually added a creepy abstract element to the books rather than detracting from them.

Then there was ‘Point Fantasy‘ which was – as you’d expect – fantasy fiction from various different authors. I didn’t read many of these but of the few I did take out from a library, Elfgift and Foiling the Dragon stand out in my memory as ones I enjoyed.

Obviously, I wasn’t immune to Harry Potter either. My mother borrowed the first three books from one of her work colleagues and that’s how I was introduced to the wizarding world. I enjoyed it immensely and I can say that the Harry Potter books were the first books that I felt genuinely sad to finish, the conclusion of each one leaving me longing for the characters and their world. Suffice to say, I was well and truly hooked after Prisoner of Azkaban and bought each sequel on the day of release thereafter. Unfortunately, I got rid of those monolithic hardbacks a long time ago due to space constraints but I’ll never forget the impact that Harry Potter had on me.

The last notable books that came along before I got into adult fiction were Christopher Pike’s horror stories. These are STILL some of my absolute favourites. The beautiful hand-drawn covers caught my attention in libraries and I made a point of picking up used Pike books whenever I could.

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You don’t get cover art like this on books anymore. The lens crack in Die Softly is an actual hole! I also have a full set of the Last Vampire books packed away elsewhere.

I consider these the bridge between the silly teenage Point Horror/Fear Street style of horror and true adult fiction. Here we have murders and supernatural events but also, darker storylines and mild sexy stuff. These were probably the first books I read that featured sex and it certainly captured my attention as a teenage boy! Yes, I lived a sheltered, nerdy life…

Adult Years

As you have no doubt picked up on, my mother has been responsible for introducing me to a lot of the fiction I have read and it’s something I am grateful for when I know other parents didn’t push reading with their children. So it was only fitting that she gave me my first real “grown up” horror book – a battered paperback of Stephen King’s The Shining. If you have read any of my book reviews here on Unfiltered Opinion then you will already be aware that I am a big Stephen King fan. That used charity shop copy of The Shining was where it all began. I was enthralled and demolished the book, hungry for more.

As it stands, I have read almost all of Stephen King’s books by this point, many of them several times. The only ones I have missed (off the top of my head) are The Running Man, Thinner, The Bachman Books and the Dark Tower series (I know, I know…). I will track these down in due course but I am currently taking a bit of break from Stephen King and getting into thrillers, a genre I have only recently found an appetite for thanks to a few Peter Swanson books I was very impressed with.

James Herbert is another author I really enjoy. His books are pretty dark and disturbing with gruesome horror and gratuitous sex descriptions. The various deaths in The Rats are a good example of the former and the latter? Let’s just say that I’ve never fully forgotten the pages of description in Once where the wicked Nell seduces Katy in an entirely unnecessary lesbian sex scene that added nothing to the story.

I’ve also dabbled with Michael Crichton and Dan Brown as well as various autobiographies of my favourite Formula 1 drivers.

And I can’t not mention Robert E. Howard’s incredible Conan stories. I have “The Complete Chronicles” and it is an addictive blend of sword-and-sorcery, barbarian themes and totally non-PC content that I really admire and enjoy escaping to in this, the era of the easily-offended *shudders*

I’m hoping to continue broadening my literary horizons going forward and to review more books here.

Feel free to comment below if you had a similar literary upbringing to me, remember any of the books/series’ that I’ve talked about or just want to tell me what YOUR reading journey was like. I’d love to hear your thoughts.