Monday, August 20, 2018

LIVER BEWARE! You're in for a Drunk Reviews of Goosebumps #10: THE GHOST NEXT DOOR

Well, I continue to stand firmly in my belief that R.L. Stine just sort of...gave up trying to make these make sense. I mean, if you thought that The Girl Who Cried Monster was weird and kind of messed up—JUST WAIT! Though before I get to far I should say I’m drinking Banjo Cat today, which is a black IPA from a Madison brewery and pretty darn good. Given how fucking dark this book gets, I think this is a fitting drink. Anyway, let the horror commence!

Meet Hannah. Hannah dreams of fire. Hannah is lonely and bored because her best friend is away at a camp that Hannah’s parents couldn’t afford to send her to. She’s dealing with annoying younger brothers (twins!) and the constant press of how awful it is to live in suburbia. And I know I’ve said this before but Stine has some weird thing for younger brothers. I swear more than half of the Goosebumps books I’ve read have included them and it’s. just. weird. That aside, though, the book opens strong, actually using a framing device this time of Hannah writing letters to her friend at camp. It also sets up the mental place Hannah is in—bored, trying to make the best of the summer, etc.

And okay, so as I normally do I also watched the show for this book, and I must say that it has probably the largest departure I’ve seen from a book so far. The framing device is intact, but the where the book has Hannah mostly dealing with her family for the first large chunk of the book, the show decides to go in a different direction, having Hannah be home by herself pretty much all the time and never letting us see her family. Which is something that will become a Big Deal later on, and something I noticed right away that the show did, probably to “fix” one of the large plot holes in the book. Of course, trying to fix the plot holes is...a much bigger job than just adding in some extra foreshadowing.

Anyway, back to the book. Hannah meets a boy while out in the yard one day, and things take a turn for the weird. Because despite him being her age, going to her school, and living next door (and having lived next door for years), this is the first time Hannah is meeting Danny. Which...okay. Again, this is something the show tries to ease a bit into by having Danny have just moved into town, but in the book it’s an early “clue” that things aren’t quite what they seem and it’s a big reason that Hannah makes the cognitive leap that...Danny is a ghost! Oh noes! I mean, part of it is also that she’s having these weird dizzy spells and is being chased by a dark-clothed figure. Which is only kind of weird for suburbia. But here again I like that Stine has a keen eye for kids-those-days, and the references to Day-Glo clothing is...well, it certainly evokes a specific time and place. I was actually a little disappointed that the book had her dress much more conservatively than the books, because 90s fashions were the best fashions.

Flash forward a bit and we find Hannah stalking Danny in hopes of revealing his ghostly secret, for the purpose of...confronting him with it, I guess? Something neither the book nor the show really get to is, like, what’s the endgame of this ghost hunt? I suspect it’s just something to do to kill the boredom but it feels a bit like Stine was forcing things a bit, which, given how this all goes, makes an amount of sense. But oh right, there’s also a B plot in this book. B Plot!!! In which Danny is falling in with some Bad Kids and falling victim to Peer Pressure and Should Just Say No. JUST SAY NO, Danny!!!! Anyway, there’s a mean mailman and stolen ice cream and Hannah being outraged at the moral depravity of kids these days. Common ruffians, the lot of them!

But then, dear readers, the book reveals it’s first and most obvious twist. Danny isn’t a ghost after all. But Hannah is! In the most holy-shit-this-is-a-childrens-book? moment I’ve encountered in the series so far, it turns out that not only is Hannah dead, but her entire family is dead, too. And not only are they all dead, but it’s Hannah’s fault. Yup, she started a fire in the back yard to make her younger brothers feel better about not going to camp and then doesn’t douse it properly and they all die. Let that be a lesson to you—always send your kids to summer camp. Wow. Perhaps even more surprising than casually dropping that Hannah is pretty responsible for five deaths (including her own), though, is that the book DOESN’T DO A GODDAMN THING WITH IT! I mean, you’d think she might have a little bit of...guilt? Or something. You’d think that the book would make that kinda a big deal? But no, it just sort of trots that out and then forgets about it because PEER PRESSURE IS BAD OMGLOB!

So...okay. Hannah’s a ghost. And she’s being chased by a black-clad figure. And she keeps hearing her name being called. Cool, cool. My guess was that Death themself was stalking her, trying to drag her back to wherever kids go who accidentally kill their families. But no. Buckle up, people, because it’s about to get bumpy. So you know those Bad Kids? Well, they convince Danny to make some Bad Decisions. Bad Decisions that lead to him being trapped in a burning house and about to die. Ah-hah! Obviously this is what Hannah has pierced the veil for! Certainly this is what has drawn her back to the mortal world, to prevent a death that so closely mirrors her own. To be a lesson to kids everywhere to not play with fire. Huh, maybe Death is actually also Smokey the Bear? BUT WAIT!!!

Just as Hannah is about to save Danny from his fiery fate, she’s stopped. By that mysterious figure! She tears away his mask to find...Danny? Wait, what the fuck? It turns out, it’s Danny’s ghost. Now, let that sink in. His...ghost. However, he’s also still very much alive. And apparently desperate for Danny to die because then ghost-Danny will be able to escape the shadow realm, which apparently sucks. And now I down the rest of my beer and go in search of another.

Okay I’m back, for CONSPIRACY TIME!!!

So the book has a bad habit of just casually dropping these HUGE FUCKING DEALS and then not really going back to them. The implications of this reveal are...well, they’re pretty fucking significant. For it to make any sort of sense, it requires you to imagine that every person already has a ghost. You, sitting there, have a ghost, and that ghost wants you dead. Why? Well, because when you’re born your shadow-self is also born, but into a shadow realm which is really awful. When you die, this shadow-self then gets to be freed from the shadow realm The book isn’t really clear. But then normal-you have to spend the rest of eternity in the shadow realm. Raw deal, I know, but them’s the breaks. Except, apparently Hannah has escaped the shadow realm without realizing it and is in some sort of limbo, where she can interact with these shadow-people but can’t do much against them. Plus her escape from the shadow realm must have allowed shadow-Danny to escape temporarily, because if the whole point is that he wants to escape the shadow realm by killing Danny, it seems like he’s already out and just...wants to kill Danny for the kicks? It makes less than no sense, and yet it also...kinda makes sense for the series. I mean, it's also possible that real-Hannah, trapped in the shadow realm, got wise to this plan by shadow-Danny to kill his alive-self, and so it was her that followed him out, only something in the crossing of the barrier made her forget she was dead/wiped her memories back to right before she died? That would explain why she doesn't realize that five years have passed.

For me, it feels a bit like the mirror-world that the series introduced in Let’s Get Invisible! These, the mirror-people were evil. Here, the shadow-people are evil. So...I’m just going to assume that the mirror-world is the shadow realm and when we look into a mirror we’re actually seeing our own ghosts looking back at us. Totally not creepy.

But luckily, Hannah manages to slip free of Ghost-Danny and rescue real-Danny and save the day! Hurrah! And the voices that she’s been hearing the whole time turn out to be...her dead parents, calling her back home. Aww. Except, you know, it’s the shadow realm. Which apparently she was made to forget about or is so awful she’s repressed the last five years of being there. So...maybe not quite so yay. But if you just completely ignore all the dark-as-fuck things the book just sort of drops in your lap, it’s a rather sweet story about friendship. Indeed!

But let’s break it down by the numbers!

On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 4/5 (oh glob this gives me so much to work with, especially with the whole shadow realm. It’s so fucking creepy and it really makes me wonder what happened to Hannah’s shadow-self when Hannah managed to get free from her imprisonment. There’s just all of this really messed up stuff that go along with that and I want to know more. That aside, the relationships in the book are kinda weird. Is Hannah gone for good now that she saved someone? Was this some sort of shadow realm test? What the fuck happens to Danny, who is still sure that Hannah is real, even when no one believes him? How messed up is his life from now on? And do those letters that Hannah wrote ever get delivered? Anyway, big props to this book for leaving so much territory to explore, though it mostly came at the expense of the plot making any sense)

On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 3/5 (You know, this one isn’t all that bad. Yes, the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, but aside from that it’s a rather cute premise. Plus it manages a framing device and a B Plot. It’s probably one of the most formally complex books so far, and an interesting twist making the main character the ghost. I mean, a really obvious twist but still, I think it mostly worked. I do want to know how, in the show, Hannah was able to print something out in her burned-out house and actually give it to Danny, but details, details. Again, as long as you don’t actually focus on what’s happening, it’s delightful)

On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 4/5 (For the series so far, this one keeps things fairly heartfelt while also going full-on weird at times. And I appreciate what it was trying to do and what it did manage to do was still fun, even if it required some mental gymnastics on my part to try and salvage some cohesion from what happened. Really, it shows that the series is actually stronger when Stine cares a little less about making things believable. Which, I mean, was never exactly a problem for the series, but it was something that bogged down some of the not-so-good installments in the series. I feel like it’s starting to really hit a stride here with books that aren’t quite so self-conscious. They’re weird, but they mostly work. So yeah!)

Be sure to join me again next month when I’ll be drunkenly looking at Goosebumps #11: THE HAUNTED MASK

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