Hello and welcome back to another thrilling installment of my gradual decline into the sea of booze and bad chapter books! A note before we begin that I'm drinking from a Summit Brewing IPA pack. Or...a mostly-IPA pack because the first thing I'm drinking is an India Style Black Ale and it is...weird. Rather bitter and almost spicy and just...not what I'm used to in Black Ales. But I will say that it fits this book, which is...well, which features probably the strangest villain so far in Goosebumps and seriously the most idiotic main characters. So let's get it started!
Okay, so I say that the main characters here...aren't too bright, and I fully stand behind that statement, but we do get the most primary characters in any Goosebumps book so far. In good 90s tradition, they are as follows: scrawny kid, fat kid, main character, girl. Or, if we must name them, Bird, Michael, Greg, and Shari. And this book reminds us both that kids used to be able to just roam the countryside looking for adventure and that STRANGER DANGER IS REAL OMG LOCK THOSE CHILDREN UP! Because as the book opens the four friends are sitting around with nothing to do and so decide to trespass into an abandoned building where a homeless person (nicknamed Spider) seems to be squatting. And hey, we've all been there. In Middle America this is a legit thing to do.
So yeah, this book also does a lovely job of showing just how annoying people were around cameras when they weren't standard on every piece of electronics. I mean, these days we have selfies and infinite storage (essentially) and we can take a picture with our phones, so seeing a camera is just sort of standard operating procedure. In the rough and rowdy 90s, however? Wave a Polaroid around and people would COME RUNNING and immediately try to look cool/sophisticated/funny/what have you. This book reminds us all of those times. Also, THE FASHION. Let me find what Shari wears in this book...
"...an oversized yellow sweatshirt over bright green leggings."
"...an oversized, silky yellow top that came down black spandex leggings."
This book is actually pretty spot on when it comes to fashion. I hadn't noticed it in other books but certainly R.L. Stine was a keen observer of kids those days. Either that or he was just bitter that he never got to wear yellow tops and leggings. But wait, wasn't there a story going on? Right!
So the whole thing with the book is that the camera takes pictures...OF THE FUTURE! Only the future is always awful. They take a picture of Michael and it shows him falling. He falls. A different picture shows Shari as having disappeared and she literally disappears. Like, there are cops and everything. Which is where what I said before about stranger danger comes in. Because it also turns out that Greg's room (where he's been hiding the camera) is broken into. So we have 1. kids stole something from a weird homeless guy, 2. one of their rooms is broken into, 3. one of them goes missing and people think she was abducted. And yet Greg, instead of telling people that there's a possible dangerous kidnapper in the form of Spider, is convinced that the camera is magic and doesn't want to talk to the police only changes his mind and does but leaves out the part about stealing the camera and skips to the part where it's magic. It...doesn't go over well, as you can imagine.
Of course, though, it turns out that he's right and that the camera is magic and did make Shari magic disappear. It's okay, though, because in a bout of rage Greg rips up the pictures of Shari...being disappeared, I guess, and she reappears. Let that sink in, because it's something that gets glossed over in both the book at the show. Wait, there's a show? YOU KNOW THERE IS (I'll get to it in a minute). But yeah, so it turns out that tearing up the pictures brings Shari back, which might mean that the kids just figured out how to defeat the camera. If they take a picture, they can rip up the picture and the spell or whatever is broken. Right? Well, maybe, because NO ONE CHECKS. They just decide to return the camera (well, just Shari and Greg, really, because otherwise the scene would be far too full) and put it all behind them.
And people, I continue to be amazed at the explanations these books give for what happens. It's always...special. But this time it's completely fucking ridiculous. Because when Greg and Shari go to return the camera, they are confronted by Spider, who tells the whole wretched tale. You see, he was a scientist, you. And his partner (implied lab partner but I'm thinking more than that) invented this camera that would make them rich! But Spider (real name Fritz Fredericks) stole the camera and the plans because "I was evil, you see." Which broke his partner's heart (small wonder) and turns out to be a really bad thing because "My partner, you see, was much more evil than I was." And fuck, the Inception-level evil scientists here is awesome, all for a camera that somehow (the book never explains) is worth a fortune. But it doesn't end there, because not only was Fritz's evil beau a brilliant scientist, he was also "quite a master" of the dark arts. That's right, he was a MAGIC SCIENTIST and Fritz just broke his heart. Curses ensue (the evilest of curses!) and the camera ends up destroying Fritz's life, after which time he became a transient to hide the camera to keep it from doing its evil things.
Okay, and what could have been a sweet story about two evil scientists turned into a tragic origin story for Spider, lurker extraordinaire. Only, of course, despite doing a pretty upright thing in keeping the camera from destroying any more lives, he's totally okay with murdering Greg and Shari because they "know too much." Stranger danger, people. Luckily for our plucky young heroes, they turn the tables on the nefarious Spider and...straight up murder him. Seriously. I'm not making this up. They use the camera and take his picture and he dies of fright. Not because of the curse. Because it's the one thing in the universe that scares him most and they turn it on him. They then leave his corpse in the basement and go lie to the cops about it.
And okay, what the actual fuck?! I should say that there is a Goosebumps episode that covers this story (just 1 episode, luckily), and it actually makes slightly more sense. The story condenses things quite a bit, so there's no fat kid and a few of the other details (like Shari has this rather risque birthday party with truth or dare in the woods that the show completely cuts, but oh well I guess) are altered, but it does a nice job maintaining the heart of the plot (though not the fashion. There are no bright yellow tops OR leggings and that is VERY DISAPPOINTING). The main difference with the show is the ending, where Spider was the scientist who invented the camera, and it was going to make him rich because it shows THE FUTURE. Only it also MAKES THE FUTURE HAPPEN AND IT'S ALWAYS BAD. So he decides to hide the camera because in the show he's not actually evil (though he still decides he has to kill two children for reasons, dammit). Greg and Shari still escape, but they don't straight up murder him. They trap him in the camera and he is released when two bullies (who appeared earlier) find the camera (which Greg JUST LEFT OUT ON A TABLE) and start using it. The implication is that the bullies are dispatched but what happens with Spider (who, by the by, definitely knows where the kids live) is just left up in the air.
People, I am ALL ABOUT magic scientists. And OMG the weird relationship that Fritz has with his evil magic partner sounds amazing. This is the weird back story material that I have been craving and the book just sort of drops it in as if it's completely normal. There are tons of evil magic scientists in Goosebumps world, this novel seems to whisper. Which makes complete sense. Given everything that happens in these books, the fact that everyone is secretly evil is something that fits the narrative logic. That the novel features four lead characters is another interesting choice, though Michael is seriously under-developed (probably why he is dropped from the show). I think my favorite part of all of this is the parenting, though. Shari was missing for days. She mysteriously returns and claims not to remember what happens. The cops and her parents basically shrug and then she's allowed to go out with Greg without supervision the same day she reappears. A fine observer of the youths R.L. Stine may be, but I'm pretty sure his insights into parenting are TERRIFYING.
And again, this book completely ignores the fact that the kids figure out how to defeat the camera and 1. Do not just live out the rest of their lives with that knowledge, 2. Do not tell Spider about it when he confronts them, and 3. Leave the camera somewhere where it will be easily found after murdering someone with it. I reiterate my point at the beginning—these kids are not the brightest. As such, the book is something of a mess. An at-times glorious mess, but the complex storytelling and nuance of the series definitely takes a hit with this installment. But let's back that up WITH NUMBERS!
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 5/5 (OH FUCK YES I WOULD!!! Evil magic scientists FTW! I'm imagining that lab, with so much evil science and evil magic and evil science magic going on, both men lying to each other about just how evil and just how magic they are. Comparing their evil slowly at first, like a dance, before revealing their evils and standing in awe of how perfectly they seem to complement each other. There's also the weird stuff between the two bullies who end up finding the camera at the end of the book. In the show they might be murdered, but in the book what do they get up to? What sorts of dangerous (and sexy) hijinx ensue when they start using it for an impromptu boudoir shoot?)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 1/5 (No, no it is not. The plot has holes that you could drive a ruined station wagon through, the characters seem especially lazy, and the reveal is all kinds of completely random. After the last book which actually held up okay, we have another book that makes absolutely no sense and just, well, it is what is I guess)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 1/5 (I'm sorry, everyone. As much as evil magic scientists are something I want more of in this world, I can't really find much to redeem this story. Where many of the rest of the books have had some point that I could tease out, this one...well, aside from a mild "probably keep an eye on your kids or they'll do something stupid/illegal/dangerous" I can't really see much of anything to take away from here. Maybe "don't let your children grow up to be evil magic scientists" but eh, well, you could probably do worse. This is probably the worst of the series so far. We're still early, though!)
And there you go. Stop in next month for my drunken thoughts on Goosebumps #5: THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB. Cheers!