Monday, July 23, 2018

LIVER BEWARE! You're in for a Drunk Review of Goosebumps #9: WELCOME TO CAMP NIGHTMARE

People, remember when I said that last book marked something of a turning point in the series, where Stine seems to have just given up trying to some degree? I’m happy to report that my suspicions have more or less been completely confirmed! This book is...well, it represents a further stepping away from the weird-infringing-on-our-world feeling of the early books, or even the horror-lurking-in-the-hidden-corners-of-the-world themes of the strangest of these books so far. And Welcome to Camp Nightmare certainly starts things out as if it’s going to play ball nicely, it proves to be something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to lay it on thick.

But first thing’s first. I’m drinking. Given then ending of this book, I’m drinking A LOT. I started with some regular Leinies a while ago and have now refined my palate with some IPA from Blue Oskars Brewing, which is pretty good. If I make it that far some Java Lava and bourbon is on the horizons after this, so forgive me if I descend into incomprehensibility. So now that you’ve been warned, onward to the book!

Meet Billy. Billy is a regular totally normal kid who is being sent to summer camp, a regular totally normal kid thing to do. He’s spending the summer at Camp Nightmoon because his parents are scientists who get sent on a lot of away missions—er, research assignments. He’s excited to try this whole camp thing out in part because he’s never been to one before. Now, I’m not too much of a summer camp expert either. For one week in sixth grade I think my school did a sort of stay-away camp that was mostly for science that I remember with mixed emotions (but that’s a story for another time). We dissected owl pellets and learned how to dissolve things in water and stuff like that. I have a feeling that this was much more...educational than most summer camps, which seem to be a bit more about doing outdoor things. Which is more what Camp Nightmoon is right from the start, when Billy and his new friends are dumped in the middle of the road and abandoned and almost eaten by tree bears or pig bears or something like that. Fun times. Luckily, the not-sketchy-as-fuck camp director, Uncle Al (I SHIT YOU NOT), shows up with a FUCKING GUN and scares off those darned varmints. Billy is apprehensive, but shrugs away his concerns.

Now I know this is hardly the place to be discussing some deep themes that run throughout Goosebumps, but drunk-me is apparently a bit of a philosopher so I can’t resist making some parallels between this book and the very first in the series, Welcome to Dead House, as well as the last book, The Girl Who Cried Monster. In those reviews I talked about belief as well, citing that throughout the entire affairs no one wanted to listen to the main characters despite the fact that they were 100% correct to be suspicious and think something was going on. Something was going on, and it nearly killed people. Now, look at this book, where Billy too begins to suspect that things are NOT RIGHT when during his first half hour of camp he’s nearly eaten by a strange animal and then one of his bunkmates is bitten by a snake only to be told that there is no nurse or medically trained anyone at this camp. Things only get worse as he finds out there is a forbidden bunk that no one’s supposed to go near and his councilor enjoys giving campers concussions. Plus, oh right, snakebite boy disappears. The other two boys in his cabin vanish after a “special hike,” and he’s told multiple times that none of them actually existed.

Now, this is all pretty standard Goosebumps fare. There is a SOMETHING WEIRD AND HIGHLY DANGEROUS that’s going on. One or more of the kids gets wise and tries to dismantle it, and some big shit goes down and we get to see everything crash to the ground. Slap a weird cover on it and call it a book. In Welcome to Dead House especially, this setup led to everyone almost being consumed by vampire-ghosts before the main character was able to save them with some handy-dandy tree destruction. But the book never really rewarded her for her, you know, believing in herself when no one else did. Similarly, in The Girl Who Cried Monster, there was really no apology for the parents refusing to believe their daughter despite the fact that they were all monsters and so learning of another monster in town should have been no big thing to listen to. No, it’s all just swept under the rug and to hell with everything, I guess. But in this book. Oh, in this book...

So Billy’s not having a good time at camp. People are disappearing and he’s pretty sure he’s next on the chopping block. There’s a weird creature called Sabre lurking around and he’s pretty sure Uncle Al does not particularly care about his well-being (though FFS HIS NAME IS UNCLE AL WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?!). I actually think it’s kind of hilarious the way the story just drops weird facts into the mix, too. Want to know what Scratch Ball is? Want to know the quality of the camp food? There’s actually a pretty good line in here about Billy sad-eating some pizza that I feel does a good job of capturing the entire experience (because the writing is not awful, for middle grade). And hey, Billy survives a harrowing canoe trip and manages to save his councilors life despite that guy being pretty awful. The weird continues though. Until Uncle Al convenes all the campers, hands them rifles (which he assures everyone are full of tranquilizer darts) and tells them that one of the girls from the girls’ camp has escaped and they need to hunt her down. And Billy must make a choice. Agree to do to protect himself or take a stand. He, of course, shoots Uncle Al...

EXCEPT EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS A LIE!!! Seriously, the book pulls a complete 180-degree turn here and it turns out that Camp Nightmoon isn’t actually a summer camp at all—it’s a government testing center! Of course! And everyone there except for Billy was just an actor testing Billy for reasons we’ll get into and he passed! Woo!

Now pause. Remember the others books I talked about, where the (female) protagonists thought something was wrong, were correct about it, but never got to reap the benefits of being right except to have survived? You remember how no one apologized to them for fucking gaslighting them into silence when it nearly kills everyone? Well Billy basically gets a fucking parade. Not only does everyone apologize for fooling him, but it actually turns out that by believing in himself over the fiction that was Camp Nightmoon, he passed some super-difficult test. He’s AMAZING!!! Except, of course, that if it hadn’t been a test that he would have let like dozens of people die before taking a stand. Whereas the main characters from the other books save everyone but a dog and some turtles. This seems...a bit excessive when it comes to evidence supporting what we teach children about gender. Boys get to fuck up repeatedly and then sort of win without having solved anything (if he tranquilized Uncle Al, after all, or even killed him, what would he have done next? Had he even thought of that?). He gets to be praised for his bravery, obedience, and intelligence. And just sigh...

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! Okay, so at the beginning I said that the book represents the confirmation of my suspicion that the series has gone off the rails. Well, it’s not just the misogyny. I mean, the ending of “It was all a test, hah!” is already pretty awful, but that’s just the first twist. THERE’S A SECOND, EVEN WORSE ONE. Remember Billy’s parents are scientists? Well, the test is to see if Billy will be allowed to go with them on their next away mission. And I mean literal away mission because their destination is...Earth, perhaps the most dangerous location in the universe, a planet that no one has ever gone to before! And...wait, let me drink some more. WHAT THE LITERAL FUCK?! Not only was this all just a test, but it was an ALIEN test because that makes so much sense. I mean, there are some slight hints (the weird animals that no one seems to think are that odd), but really this comes out of nowhere. Which of course leads us to...

CONSPIRACY TIME!!! I’m taking this one from the show (a 2-parter that you can watch on Netflix). Now, the show stays pretty true to the original, but when it comes time to mention Earth, the camera just pans up and reveals that Earth is right fucking there in the sky. Which means maybe that the book is taking place on the moon (you know, like Nightmoon?). But I tend to think something completely different. I think that the book is actually set on a shadow-world or mirror-world of Earth, one that can see us but we can’t see them. We’ve developed along nearly-identical paths (which explains how this world is exactly like Earth without being Earth), except that it’s just a bit off in certain ways. But it’s there, just...floating. And sometimes people from there come over to this world, and the results are the weird that these books explore. Basically, all the monsters and magic scientists and things originate in this shadow world (or possibly multiple shadow worlds) and can somehow travel to “our Earth” via portals or magic or some weird science. Because of course.

Okay, and now to the numbers!

On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 3/5 (this camp is pretty dull, tbh. But there’s some interesting things to explore with how it must be like for the councilors to be in this weird testing facility and having to deal with the ethics of everything and also maybe dealing with being isolated with just each other all the time. Now, the only councilor we really got to see was Larry, who was pretty terrible, but the others are probably much cooler and infinitely cuter. It’s my headcanon so I can make it so! Also I’m fascinated by what Billy’s parents really do, and seeing what happens on Earth would be great! Are they there just as observers? What do they think of a world that is basically exactly the same as their own? Hmm....)

On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 2/5 (you know, it has its moments where things are pretty interesting. It’s a camp story, the first for Goosebumps, so it gets some points for showing how camp can be twisted and weirded. Billy’s a pretty awful character, though, just rather clueless and bumbling, and the whole plot twist atop plot twist...makes no sense. That aside, and comparing this book to the other works that have female main characters can’t avoid certain comparisons. So yeah, not good.)

On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 2/5 (okay so here the twist atop twist might almost be to the book’s favor, because it makes for such a weird experience, but it’s more confusing than anything. What it proves is that Goosebumps is just embracing the bizarre and there’s no looking back now! The monster elements to the story are pretty eh, too. Sabre is barely present and actually fake and Uncle Al doesn’t really do much in the way of menacing. The whole premise is interesting but familiar, and done better in the books that aren’t so concerned with making sure Billy doesn’t feel too stupid for not figuring out what was going on. It’s not the worst of Goosebumps reads, but it’s just not all that interesting, either.)


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