So we can all agree that Goosebumps is a pretty weird series, right? I mean, last time we saw a story that revolved around sibling jealousy and also ancient wizard-curses. But I feel that, by and large, the series has been pretty tame so far. Yes, there have been plant-men and vampire ghosts and evil mad scientist magicians, but... I think through all of this, the horror of the stories was still largely based so that the reader was uncertain if the magical or weird elements was truly happening. In essence, that the stories all operated on the hope that the readers would, like the characters, try and find ways to explain away the weird, and that they could not was where the horror sprang from. Why do I bother mentioning this now? Well, dear readers, SHIT IS ABOUT TO GO OFF THE RAILS!
Oh, I should say that I’m drinking Centennial IPA from Founders Brewing and it’s damn good. And I’m looking at a really odd book. I mean, it’s Goosebumps, but as I said above, I always got the sense that, before this book, the series was taking itself quite seriously. The strange elements are supposed to be scary. Here...well, here I just imagine that Stine was trying to find some way to top creepy-wizard-cursed-ventriloquist-dummy and just couldn’t. Like, just ran into a wall hard and decided the best course of action was to get blitzed out of his mind. Because gone is any attempt to keep things grounded. This book starts weird, gets weirder, and never for one fucking moment apologizes about it. In many ways it’s very freeing, and it reminds me a lot of what drew me to the series when I was younger. Not just the dime-a-dozen growing realization of the horror all around us kind of thing, but the really absurd stuff that only used to show up in the last ten pages or so of the earlier books.
So the book stars Lucy, who lives in a typical suburban town with her parents and younger brother (another younger brother, for those counting along at home). There is actually a little moment early in the book where Lucy comments on the banality of suburban names, and I find that one tiny part of the book to be rather telling, especially given where this story goes. But we’ll get back to that. Another thing we’ll get back to—they have no pet. And especially no dog. Despite mildly critiquing suburban...”culture”...Stine definitely uses a lot of suburban tropes to drop clues as to what might be going on or what we might want to be paying attention to and NO DOG is definitely A THING TO NOTE. Now, Lucy loves to talk about monsters, mostly to scare the crap out of her younger brother (a solid reason for monster-obsession) and I rather like that she’s such a little bastard when it comes to successfully scaring everyone around her. Now, this is a book, so of course any girl who is good at scaring people must be punished, but I do like that here we see that she’s very good at what she does.
The problem is...the summer reading program at the library. Which, fuck, you want to know something meta? I actually used this book as part of my entry into the summer reading program at my local library. Layers inside layers! But really, Lucy doesn’t really like reading, and the librarian, Mr. Mortman, is rather creepy. Now, I’ve mentioned this a few times but here again we see the horror of people not trusting children, and especially girls. She’s uncomfortable around Mr. Mortman but instead of treating that as perhaps valid and allowing her to, you know, not have to be alone with him in a creepy old library, she’s forced to go and, well, it turns out he’s a monster who eats his own pet turtles.
Now pause. You know how I said this is something of a departure for the series? Well, this is a large part of it. There is no question that this guy is a monster. He transforms and eats things and is generally very monstrous. Lucy discovers this very early on. But she’s not believed. And where earlier books looked a bit at how girls are gaslit to question what they’ve seen, here we have people plain just not believing her because she likes to scare people. Yeah, that punishment I mentioned before for being good at what she does is that everyone secretly wants her to die. Yay! But it means that she needs to go through escalating lengths to try and prove that he’s a monster. But for her that part of the story is over. There is no wondering if it's real or dramatic last-minute reveal that magic is real. Magic is always real in this story, dark and present, and that's a bit different. Not bad, exactly, but different. Also really confusing at times.
MONSTER TRIVIA TIME! Monsters cannot be photographed. Which I don’t understand one goddamn bit. Presumably monsters predate cameras. So how the fuck are monsters specifically able to avoid being filmed? Also, given the ending of this book, how does Lucy think will even work? Also also, WTF BOOK WHAT ARE YOU DOING I’M SUPPOSED TO BE THE DRUNK ONE!!!
Ahem, so the story really is just Lucy following Mr. Mortman around and trying to catch him in monster-mode. Wisely knowing that her completely legit concerns will be ignored indefinitely, she enlists the help of her completely useless, but technically male friend Aaron in order to expose Mr. Mortman as the monster he is. This...doesn’t really work out well for anyone involved. Until it does! Seriously this book makes no sense. The danger of Mr. Mortman is not exactly physical. I mean, he’s a monster, but Lucy ventures again and again into his lair (the library) in order to try and get evidence of his monster-ness. Despite being a monster, he’s still basically a joke, and it’s not even for-sure that he eats anything other than bugs and turtles. I have no idea if there’s some sort of hidden “plan” he has for being a monster in a random suburban town, but if there is we are never informed. Sigh.
That’s not to say that everything is completely boring. It’s mostly boring, because surprise surprise everything seems lost until Aaron does manage to confirm Lucy’s story at which point AS IF BY MAGIC EVERYONE BELIEVES HIM. FFS. It would be a supremely disappointing ending if the book didn’t have one more surprise in store. Because Lucy’s parents decide that, now believing that there is a monster in their town, they need to invite him over for dinner. Meaning, to be dinner. Because yes, gentle readers, the twist here is that Mr. Mortman is not the only monster in town, he’s just the crappiest. He is devoured, bones and all, while Lucy and her little brother watch on in glee, anxious for the days when their “real” teeth will come in. Yes, this book contains monster cannibalism. Yes, apparently the reason that Lucy was not believed was just “we didn’t figure another monster would move in.” No, it is never explained what the fuck Lucy’s parents are doing in this town aside from living the American Dream.
This does a few things. First and most, it completely ruins the whole photograph thing, as I mentioned before. It also, however, explains why they don’t have a dog. PEOPLE WITHOUT DOGS ARE LITERAL MONSTERS! Look around you. Is there a dog? No? Well then I’m afraid you’re a monster. Congrats. Also, you monster. It also sort of requires one to ask what the family does with Aaron. I mean, he’s an idiot, but I’m still on team They Eat Him. I can dream, at least. This also brings me to my favorite bit of this book, because if they’re monsters and choosing to live in suburbia then I feel that there’s a deeper message to pull from this than...uh...you know what, I have no idea what the “normal” message is. Don’t tell monster stories? Don’t be a girl and enjoy emasculating the boys around you? Those messages suck so I’m just going to get to mine, and I’ll call it...
The Monstrosity of Middle America: How R.L. Stine’s The Girl Who Cried Monster Reveals the Dangers of Cultural Conformity. Sounds like a real academic paper, no? But seriously, I do see something of a critique of suburbia build throughout the book. The way that it makes the script for “normal” humanity so easy, and the way that we punish not those who pose a serious threat but rather those who cannot maintain the mask of civility. Mr. Mortman’s sin was not, after all, being a monster. The main character is a monster. Her family is a monster. They are, presumably, the heroes of the story (even if we are to find their mere presence in the end the “real” horror). What makes Mr. Mortman so unbearable to the family is not that he’s another monster, but that he’s bad at hiding it. As long as he can hide it, the family will make allowances for him. They will excuse his behavior, because they want their behavior to be excused. They want their abuses to be overlooked, so they overlook abuse from others, even when aimed at their daughter. Only when the cracks start to show and having Mr. Mortman revealed would risk revealing them as well do the parents take action. And this is the promise of suburbia. Keep your lawn nice and your dress appropriate and keep all the weird shit inside, in the basement. The book seems to be saying not “there are monsters among us” because, well, duh, but rather that “this environment makes us into monsters.” It teaches us to wear the mask of humanity while hiding our true, repellant selves. It makes us toxic, because that repression leaks out in other ways. It’s an interesting and deep point that okay, yes, the book probably isn’t making but I’M DRUNK I DON’T CARE.
Anyway, some numbers!
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 1/5 (booooooring. Seriously, there’s like nothing to recommend this story to fanfiction, other than imagining all the weird not-porn the monsters could make while being invisible to film. The character beats are sparse and none of them really speak to me. I mean, one could imagine all the different monsters that Lucy describes are real and what they might be like but as far as fanfic goes, I’m less an inspired)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 1/5 (there are some plot holes so big they have their own gravity. I don’t mean to say that it’s all bad, but the opening of the book is really clunky and most of the book is playing a con because there’s no way that Lucy would never think about herself as a monster when there’s another monster right in front of her. That might have actually made the book more interesting, because presumably this is the first “real” monster she’s seen outside of her family, and I feel that there’s this implied isolation that comes with being a monster, and maybe that could have been explored. Instead, nothing much happens and what does is a mess. Moving on)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 3/5 (I have to give the book some points because this does represent a pretty large shift in the series and as such it’s an interesting installment. Here we have the weird centered instead of marginalized, and that’s a very neat thing. Of course it has its problems, but really for the series it represents something of a maturation, or at least more of a willingness to just go in a really odd direction and not apologize. It’s almost a comedy, in fact, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. There’s something to be said about this book representing the absurdity of horror and well, for that I’ll give it some credit. Not much, but some)
Okay, and join me next month when I’ll be looking at Goosebumps #9: WELCOME TO CAMP NIGHTMARE