Monday, December 17, 2018

LIVER BEWARE! You're in for a Drunk Review of Goosebumps #13: PIANO LESSONS CAN BE MURDER

Welcome back, dearest readers. I have good news! This book is LOADS BETTER than the previous two. I also have bad news! It’s probably because the main character is a boy. That said, we’re a bit more on track for what I remember Goosebumps to be—ridiculous plots, interesting visuals, and endings that just make no damn sense. Plus, this book dips back into one of my favorite parts of Say Cheese And Die! Namely, evil mad scientist magic! Because just some of that would be too boring. WE MUST HAVE IT ALL! Oh, before I forget—I’m once again drinking Voodoo Ranger from New Belgium (it’s been really cheap here for some reason). But before you start telling me that’s what I always drink, wait! This is the regular IPA Voodoo Ranger. Totally different from the Imperial IPA or Pumpkin Ale I’ve had previously. Because branding! But enough of beer. Let’s get to the Goosebumps!

Jerry is a new kid. And here, almost immediately, I digress. Confession time, the first thing I ever tried to write (back in fourth grade, I think(?) was an alien horror thing called The New Kid. Where an alien pretending to be a new student causes trouble for a character that was probably named Charlie. The idea of change being a key element of many horror stories is something that plays with our innate conservatism. Change is scary because it means having to learn new things, navigate potentially dangerous arenas, and rely on people who are not part of our in-group yet. For kids this means new schools, new friends, new stresses or family dynamics, and even a new house. This book sets up a lot of that, showing how being in this new situation has unsettled Jerry. I do like the little detail that his bed is on the wrong wall, in the wrong direction. It’s something that really sells the way that these changes, large and small, can sort of make us question reality because they give us this general feeling of “wrong.” And while I think this fear-response to change is something that we shouldn’t wallow in by making any change seem like it will spawn nightmare-monsters that will devour us all, I think it’s something that horror as a genre engages with. At the very least, it’s something that Goosebumps often engages with.

As we’ve seen, a number of these books start with moving to a new town and finding that something...isn’t right. And here we get a slight variation of that. It’s not the town itself that’ Nor is it the school. It’s not the friends that the main character begins to make. It’s rather that the house itself he moves into is haunted. By a piano-ghost. Which is where we visit another Goosebumps classic trope—attics are creepy. Because while Jerry tries to sleep he hears phantom music drifting down from the attic, and discovers an abandoned piano. A piano that is playing a mournful tune. Unsettled, Jerry agrees to piano lessons rather than admit to being afraid. Only, moving the piano downstairs and arranging piano lessons from Dr. Shreek (yes, yes, I know, and he is OBSESSED with hands, which is all sorts of uncomfortable) only makes the visitations worse. Visitations that Jerry’s parents cannot hear or experience. Which...okay. We’ll get back to that. But first, a surprise! Here we have a book with a boy main character...who isn’t believed! When faced with their son claiming to see a ghost, the parents react with disbelief. But in a Goosebumps first, they actually arrange for him to see a therapist. actually a good move. And I love how in the middle of this book there is this quick scene where Jerry talks to a therapist and it seems to kinda help a little, though of course the therapist doesn’t think the ghost is real, either. But I do find it...odd that when it’s a girl main character she’s just told to be quiet, but when it’s a boy he’s actually taken to a professional, which implies that he’s not lying, exactly, but rather just needs some help. In the ongoing discussion of Goosebumps treating its main characters very different based on gender, this is an interesting wrinkle.

Anyway! The main tension of the book is split between Jerry dealing with this ghost playing the piano, and his weird piano lessons, which involve Dr. Shreek being all kinds of really creepy when Jerry’s parents are out. Then he gets the invite to study at the Shreek School. Sounds legit, right? It’s there he meets Mr. Toggle, who is apparently a mechanical genius who squanders his gifts by designing floor cleaners to terrorize children. Priorities! Anyway, things are getting more and sketchy, but because Jerry is a boy he’s allowed to opt of going further with his piano lessons. I can’t help but feel that if this were a girl MC, she’d be forced to stick it out and not be such a quitter, but whatever. he night terrors are annoying the parents and they figure that maybe it’s the pressure to play that’s getting to him. Or something. At the very least the anxieties that are obvious from the haunting (the ghost has no hands and just generally likes fucking with him) seem centered on the piano. Probably they just don’t like the therapy AND piano lesson bills. He still has to go to his final lesson, though, because it’s already payed for. PRIORITIES!!! So he goes and breaks the news to Dr. Shreek and things. Get. Weird.

So remember Dr. Shreek’s preoccupation with hands? Well, it was rather creepy from the start, and got more so as he seemed to gain some weird sort of ability to compel Jerry’s hands to act independent of his body. Not to worry, though! I mean, this Shreek School seems completely licensed and above board and like it hasn’t been at the heart of dozens of missing persons reports. Jerry’s dad found it in the phone book. Those things are NEVER WRONG. Except, and brace yourselves, it’s evil. But not entirely in a way I was thinking. Dr. Shreek goes all sorts of weird and attacks Jerry, who retreats to find Mr. Toggle, who maybe can help. And Toggle really does want to help...separate Jerry from his hands. Because you know what this has been about from the start? Robots.

You see, child-terrifying floor cleaners are only a front for the REAL passion of Mr. Toggle—building robots to play pianos (which includes, weirdly, Dr. Shreek, who is a robot but also a doctor, where Toggle is only a mister, which means Toggle created a robot who actually received more education than he did, which is just sorta odd, unless you think that he just named the robot "doctor" out of some deep insecurity about not having a doctorate himself). Now, you might be asking, aren’t player pianos already a thing? Even at the time of this book, couldn’t you use a computer to generate the sounds of a piano with exact precision? Wouldn’t it be completely unnecessary to harvest DOZENS of pairs of hands for to build piano-playing robots? The answer to all of this is, of course, YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND HIS GENIUS!!! Because of course he needs real live human hands for his dastardly machines. The human hand is way too complicated to recreate mechanically and it is the ONLY WAY TO PLAY PIANO. Just accept it. So obviously Jerry has to die, his hands used to create some sort of metal virtuoso. Obviously.

But in a twist YOU DID NOT SEE COMING, something happens to save Jerry. That’s right, the ghost that’s been fucking with him the entire book shows up right then and puts out the call. Ghosts from all over appear, and they all reclaim their hands so that they can carry Mr. Toggle out to the woods to do unspeakable things to him. And he was never seen again. Jerry’s parents sell the piano and probably Jerry continues seeing that therapist for a good long time. Win-Win! Not that it answers like any of the lingering questions of the book. I mean, okay, Toggle was murdering folks and using their hands for his machines. But how did he get away with it for so long? Did no one care to look for their missing loved ones at the literal last place they would have been seen? Further, how the fuck did that ghost just show up? If she could have materialized there, why did she wait for Jerry to not only go there, but to go there multiple times? And what the fuck happens to the hands after the ghosts use them to punish Toggle? Are they just roaming the countryside now, or is there a smelly corpse next to an even smellier collection of dozens of hands?

Oh, you know this must mean it’s...CONSPIRACY TIME!!!

Okay, so the book implies that the ghost haunting Jerry was actually trying to warn him about what was happening. Some of the messages can be interpreted as warnings, and yet if she was going to go to the trouble of warning him, and has the power to murder people with her hands, then why bother? Further, it’s not until she gets his attention by playing the piano that he considers lessons, so really it’s her fault to begin with that he’s in danger. But I think I get what’s going on. I think this was the plan all along. I think that this is all a ghost conspiracy to kill the man who killed them, and a mad scientist smart enough to take some measures to ghost-proof his lair. I mean, you don’t amass an army of severed hands without worrying about vengeful spirits. I think that Jerry was always just a pawn in this, lured in and used because ghost vengeance needed to happen.

I think this ghost especially was a bit pissed because I imagine something similar happened to her as to Jerry, only there was no belief or help when she told her parents about a bad feeling about the school. No, she had to continue, because no one likes a quitter. Because she’s probably just overreacting. Because reasons, dammit. So she died. Her parents shrugged and moved on. Hatred grew. But she networked. She met the other ghosts of the other dead girls. They poked at the school, but found it warded. They waited. Finally, Jerry arrived. And they knew that they would be able to use him, to hide themselves within his flesh to get into the school. So the ghost of his house does her work, getting him into lessons, even manipulating his hands in practice for when she will reclaim her own (because really the scene where he loses control of his hands does not make sense otherwise—Toggle is science, not magic based). Then he starts going to the school, and the ghosts ride him in. They can’t all fit at once, and there are a number of them, but each time he enters, more get through the defenses. Until that last day, when they all reveal themselves and have their grisly revenge.

Really it’s a brilliant scheme! If only Stine had intended for that to be the case, because it all fits together so nicely. I mean, and I just love this feeling of mad science versus ghost magic being waged, that Toggle felt so secure but was undone because Jerry was essentially too dense to figure out what was going on sooner. If he had, he could have avoided ever going to the school. But he got played by a ghost. A bit like a piano, actually. Nods.

Okay, though, let’s break down the ratings!

On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 4/5 (there is a whole world of ghost magic to explore here, both in the time surrounding Jerry’s story and before and after. What do the ghosts do with the hands? Does the main ghost have another ghost she’s sweet on? Similarly and MUCH more disturbingly, what the fuck is going on with Toggle and what the fuck is with his hand fetish? What does he get up to with his robotic assistant, Dr. Shreek? I really don’t want to know these things but they haunt me. THEY HAUNT MY VERY SOUL. As such, this is one of the most fanfic-rich books I’ve come across so far. There’s so much to explore in this epic battle between science and magic. SO MUCH!)

On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 2/5 (there are so many things that just make no sense here. The general fear of new things is okay, but the specific fear is practice? Which is not really something that I think too many people find horrifying unless they were made to pursue music when they didn’t want to. Which is something else entirely here, as Jerry does want to learn piano—though he really doesn’t know what that means. So while I might take a lot of enjoyment from parts of this book, it’s not so much because of the book as it is because of my weird theory as to how it actually works)

On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 3/5 (it’s finally one that isn’t awful! I mean, it’s not really that great, but I’m relieved that there wasn’t a third really terrible book in a row there. This one maintains a good sense of fun and I do like the mix of science and magic, but the book is hampered by the fact that just not much happens. It’s a rather hum-drum book and the cast is ridiculously small, really just Jerry. He kinda has a friend but they talk maybe twice. Mostly it’s just Jerry at home and while the book doesn’t do anything too awful with that, it holds it back from really standing out from the pack. Still, a solid installment!)

There you have it! Be sure to join me next month, where I’ll hopefully be looking at another not-awful Goosebumps!


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