Happy Halloween! Things are a bit messed up this month because as I read this book back in early September I was struck that it’s a Halloween book, and as the holiday was only a month away, I thought saving this review for all you good people to ring in the season would be a good idea. So yeah, sorry that things are a bit weird, timing-wise, but I assure you that things are about to get SUPER SPOOKY, so there is that. Things are also about to get SUPER AWFUL because, let’s face it, the series is back into another slump following some rather ridiculous installments. I’m not sure where this book falls in the popularity of the series as a whole, but it’s still fairly early and it certainly feels to me like Stine is struggling to figure out exactly what to do, throwing darts at a big board of ideas while still kind of trying to keep things serious. Which might sound weird, considering, but stay with me.
Also, fittingly, my drink is a bit out of hand as well. I’m having New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin and...okay, before I critique Goosebumps allow me to say that this Voodoo Ranger sub-brand is getting out of hand. Already there were three different Voodoo Rangers, and they represent New Belgium’s line of IPAs (what used to be Ranger, Rampant, and...whatever the third one was). Having one name and different colors for them now is just...kinda confusing, but at least they’re all IPAs. And then Atomic Pumpkin shows up. I will admit! The art is very well suited to a pumpkin beer (skeletons and all). BUT! It’s not even an IPA. It’s a pumpkin and habanero spiced ale. Which is delicious and burns a bit but is not really in keeping with the rest of the line. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense while still being rather Halloweeny—which ends up being very well suited for today’s adventure. So, without further beer-rants (I hope), let’s get to it!
Meet Carly Beth. Carly Beth is really easy to scare. As such, everyone loves scaring her. It’s something that makes Carly Beth’s life a living hell but that everyone else sees as just “good fun.” Which is the first and only truly terrifying part of the book, the way that it deals with how society treats perceived weakness. Which is to say, brutally. Again and again throughout the first part of the book, people torture Carly Beth by going to various lengths to scare her, which causes her to freak out, which makes everyone want to do it more. When she complains, she’s told that it’s her fault, because it’s SO MUCH FUN scaring her, and if she just wouldn’t react so much people wouldn’t want to do it. And...wow. Now, Goosebumps has been pretty bald in its portrayal of gaslighting, but this might be the worst. Carly Beth states clearly she is not cool with this and even her best friend tells her it doesn’t matter, that it’s not about consent but rather her reaction. If only she didn’t let people know that she didn’t want to be scared. It’s blood in the water for everyone up to and including her teachers and other school administrators to laugh at her and make her feel like shit. Yay!
Things go...pretty terribly as Halloween approaches, the holiday making everyone particularly ravenous for to witness Carly Beth’s pain. For her part, Carly Beth dreads the day when everyone will be wearing costumes and trying to get her to react. So she comes up with a plan of her own. She’ll get the scariest costume she can, so that she can finally be the one with the power, the one who can punish those who have hurt her. Problem is her mom made her a duck costume. Her mom, by the by, who also made a super-realistic plaster replica of Carly Beth’s head. So...not weird at all. Oh, and Carly Beth has a little brother because OF COURSE (I’ve stopped counting how many of these books feature a little brother but it’s more than half, I think, and they are always THE WORST. I really think Stine has some unresolved issues to work out). Anyway, she’s discouraged at every turn about getting a scary mask because, well, gaslighting is real. She wouldn’t want to scare herself or some bullshit. And of course, the book is kinda bullshit and will actually make these warnings seem reasonable, but they are bullshit and you should know that now.
So Carly Beth wants a mask and goes to the new mask shop. Inside, she faces a really creepy proprietor who lets her look around. She then gets a peek in the back room, which has the creepiest of masks. She wants one. The proprietor doesn’t want to sell, but eventually is convinced. Carly Beth gets her mask, takes it home, and scares the fuck out of her brother. Justice! She rushes out into the night, into Halloween night, ready to mess shit up. The mask makes her feel good, powerful, and in control. And everyone fucking hates it. Where did good little Carly Beth go? This is some rather uncomfortable reading, tbh, because the book gives zero fucks about Carly Beth and indeed seems to like her victimization, framing it as mostly “good fun” regardless of how much Carly Beth herself says that it is painful and traumatic and NOT FUCKING OKAY. And the book seems on a trajectory throughout to tell her she’s wrong. Because, well, despite the fact that she’s awesome at scaring the crap out of people, at some point she thinks it’s gone far enough. It was exhilarating, but she wants to take the mask off. But oh hey she can’t it’s cursed there is no hope she should have thought of that.
Now, let me touch on the show that was made for this episode, which in some ways tries to fix some of the issues in the book, but not really. Mostly, it makes this punishment of the mask being cursed being more on Carly Beth because she stole it. In the book, she bought it, and so there’s really no “crime” to punish except having the same kind of “good fun” that has been inflicted upon Carly Beth all book. Of course, she goes back to the mask shop to confront the proprietor about this. In the book, he reveals that he’s a mask maker, but these special masks were too ugly, too scary, and so became spiteful and angry. They are the Unloved, which is a rather badass concept, and the reason he sold one to Carly Beth despite them being, well, cursed, is that he was hoping she would finally give the masks some appreciation. But of course one is fused to her face, which she did not sign up for, so she’s not in the mood to play along. In the show, the masks are still the Unloved, but they are masks that the guy made for himself to hide some deep deformity, only they keep on twisting and becoming these mockeries of faces. They are unloved because he’s rejected them, and so they’re hungry for other faces, and Carly Beth in stealing one without knowing this sorta screwed up. But again, in the book Carly Beth is solely a victim, and yet is basically told it was her fault for wanting to scare people, despite people scaring her being just a-okay. Sigh.
Anyway, the resolution of this one requires Carly Beth to track down a token of love to break the mask’s hold on her. Which is made more difficult when the masks all start attacking her, floating after her in what has got to be one of the most ridiculous chase scenes ever. That plaster head comes back to save the day, and the twist in the end involves Carly Beth’s little brother putting on the mask, thus cursing himself forever. Order is restored again and the implication is that maybe things just...go back to normal. Or is the implication that Carly Beth will no longer be so scared? Or that those bullying her, having been scared shitless themselves, will just...stop? That’s really not how empathy works but...whatever?
And okay, I’m not sure I really have a conspiracy theory for this book. Other than, you know, it’s kinda awful. The main lesson? Women aren’t allowed to be frightening. That it’s somehow wrong for women to try and take a power that is reserved for men to use against them. Namely, terror. Women who would think to use terror against men are monsters, and must be punished, and can only be saved by maternal love and knowing their proper place. And yeah, this is where I see Stine stumble the most in these books, and it’s definitely an unconscious thing in so many of these books. He plays it for scares, and it is definitely scary, just not really in the way I feel he’s going for. I’d be quite interested to see how he’d handle a boy with the same premise. Is there a book like that? I know there’s a sequel but I think it, too, have a girl as its main character. But we’ll get to it eventually.
Anyway, let’s look at this book by the numbers
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 2/5 (yeah, there’s not an awful lot here, though part of me does want to imagine what might have happened if Carly Beth wasn’t punished for what she did. What if she could have the power of the mask. What if she wanted to embrace it, and instead of becoming a monster, her love transformed it into something not ugly at all, but transforming and affirming and good. What if the Unloved were only really waiting for someone to embrace them, to see their beauty? What if that gives Carly Beth the confidence to overcome the gaslighting and fight through to a place where she can be comfortable in her own skin)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 1/5 (yeah no. Perhaps you can tell but this book is one of the grimmest in terms of taking anything meaningful away from it. Not that there’s nothing there but that what’s there is just fucking terrible. It’s by no means the first Goosebumps to give me some serious pause but it is so far the worst so far. Because it’s all about a person being bullied getting some power and becoming a monster and then being pushed back into their role and blamed for their discomfort and pain. It’s certainly hard to maintain a happy tipsy buzz, at least, when dealing with all this book has to offer. Proceed with caution)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 1/5 (still no. We’re officially in another slump with this and BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR which seems to inhabit the valley of “don’t be a girl or stray outside your assigned gender roles and definitely don’t try to take the power offered that might make your life better.” And just fuck, I’m really missing the campy ridiculousness of some of the other books that I can at least not hate. Ugh) So...Happy Halloween! Ehhh....
Okay, so this has been something of a downer. My apologies. Hopefully when I return to look at the next book, things will be looking up. Until then, cheers!