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

 

Book Talk: The Deckle Edge

This is going to be one of those “the more you know” posts.

Also, potentially a post where I come across as a bit sheltered, particularly given that I profess to love reading and books. Forgive me.

DSC_0429Earlier this year, I discovered that there was a sweet, hardback special illustrated edition of Stephen King’s Joyland. I’d read my paperback copy multiple times (and reviewed it here on my other blog before I started reviewing my reads on Unfiltered Opinion) and it had become of my firm favourites. So an upgrade to a better version made sense. I really dug the pulpy, sexy cover of the illustrated edition plus it was a hardback (which is ALWAYS a reason to upgrade a book). Most importantly, I knew that I would read it again at some point so it wasn’t going to be one of those unnecessary impulse purchases that I’m doing my best to avoid these days.

But when the book arrived, I was pissed off. What was going on with the pages? What kind of awful factory defect was THIS shit?

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Now, you may well be sitting there – reading this – and nodding your head, having already spotted my embarassing error. Yes, this kind of finish is intentional.

I’d bought the book from ebay and considering that it was brand-new and only cost me approximately £12 posted to my door, I decided that I would just accept it as it was, warts and all. But, when I happened to be looking through my ebay purchase history one day, I came upon this book and the phrase “Deckle Edge” in the description (which I’d clearly either missed or ignored).

A quick bit of Googling later and I found the story behind my book’s ‘defect’.

Apparently, some books are still intentionally produced with this Deckle edge to give them a rough, old-fashioned look. Considering that Joyland is published under the Hard Case Crime banner, it made perfect sense for the book to imitate the old-school pulp classics in its physical appearance as well as its content.

The Wikipedia entry for Deckle Edging was quite informative by the way:

Before the 19th century, the deckle edge was unavoidable, a natural artifact of the papermaking process in which sheets of paper were made individually on a deckle. The deckle could not make a perfect seal against the screen at the edges and the paper slurry would seep under, creating a rough edge to the paper. The deckle edge could be trimmed off, but this extra step would add to the cost of the book. Beginning in the early 1800s with the invention of the Fourdrinier machine, paper was produced in long rolls and the deckle edge became mostly obsolete; although there was some deckle on the ends of the rolls, it was cut off, and the individual sheets cut out from the roll would have no deckle in any case.

With the appearance of smooth edges in the 19th century, the deckle edge slowly emerged as a status symbol. Many 19th-century presses advertised two versions of the same book: one with edges trimmed smooth and a higher-priced deckle version, which suggested the book was made with higher-quality paper, or with more refined methods. This tradition carried forward into the 20th and 21st centuries. As of 2016 modern deckle is produced by a purpose-built machine to give the appearance of a true deckle edge by cutting a smooth edge into patterns. Many modern readers are unfamiliar with the deckle edge and may see it as a defect; for example, Amazon.com has left notes to buyers that the deckle is not a flaw in the product.

The thing I find fascinating about this is that it used to cost the consumer more to purchase a neat book that had had its Deckle edge removed. Nowadays, the reverse is true and a bookworm should expect to pay a premium for an unrefined finish!

Personally, the idea of intentionally seeking a fake version of a crude finish in order to hold a status symbol in your hands is a load of bollocks. Secondly, I’m just not a fan of the Deckle effect. It looks cheap and feels annoying. If I’d purchased a very old book with a Deckle edge then that would be absolutely fine because a) it is authentic and b) it is unavoidable and understandable given said book’s vintage. But purposely reproducing this effect? Nah. It reminds me of people who make their car appear rusty and corroded, falsifying the weathering and patina. Each to their own but that sort of thing isn’t for me. It’s just fake.

The more you know.

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

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

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

The Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cool,” Lefty replied.

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

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

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

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

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

The Cover

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

The incredibly dated bit

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

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

The nostalgia rating

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

Up Next: Night of the Living Dummy

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

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

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

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

The Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, What could possibly happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plop. Plop. Plop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cover

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

The incredibly dated bit

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

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

The nostalgia rating

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

Up Next: Let’s Get Invisible!

Book Talk: Lancelot (Giles Kristian, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I could not find my breath.

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

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

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

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

The Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She held her breath and listened.

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

But no footsteps.

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

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

Terrified.

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

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

Of her own father.

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

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

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

The Cover

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

The incredibly dated bit

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

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

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

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

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

The nostalgia rating

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

Up Next: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

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

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

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

The Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, bonus stuff:

The Cover

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

The incredibly dated bit

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

The nostalgia rating

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

Up Next: Stay Out of the Basement