Monday, January 28, 2019

Liver Beware! You’re in for a Drunk Review of Goosebumps #15: YOU CAN’T SCARE ME!

The title exclamation mark is back, the first time it’s shown up since Let’s Get Invisible! back in #6. I’m beginning to get a feeling that these Exclamation! books are all linked, if not in precise continuity, then in spirit and general construction. There have been three so far from the main series, Say Cheese and Die!, Let’s Get Invisible!, and now You Can’t Scare Me! In each of the books, there is an extended core cast (made up of four kids of mixed genders), and the stories tend to involve the kids stumbling across something weird and having to figure out a way to get distance from it. This was a stronger connection between Say Cheese and Die! and Let’s Get Invisible!, but there’s also an element of it in You Can’t Scare Me! as well. There’s also a blending of magic and science that gives them a more resonating feel to them. Hmm. I wonder if this stylistic consistency will hold up throughout the rest of the series, but for now I find it interesting that here we have another exclamation mark in a title and more similarities with some of the older books.
Oh! But hey, I should talk about what I’m drinking. It’s a Smoked Bock from Lazy Monk Brewing, based right here in Eau Claire, WI. It comes in a 16oz. can and it’s delicious! Definitely something that goes nicely with a book that’s all about mood and scares. So let’s GO!
So a lot of these books have something at their core that I feel gives the “horror” of the piece a bit more weight and meaning. Today’s book isn’t a new one for Goosebumps, but I will say that I ended up liking this book a lot more than I could have given that the general theme I pulled out was...fragile masculinity. Seriously, this book is all about fragile masculinity, and specifically about a boy feeling inferior to a girl and deciding that THIS CANNOT STAND! It’s a very sharp observation about the way that especially young people perform and police gender, where people who refuse to conform to what they are “supposed” to be are subject to reprisal and punishment for it. In this case, the main character, Eddie feels emasculated by the superior-in-every-way Courtney, and decides that he won’t rest until he has humiliated her and asserted his dominance. In this quest he is joined by his friend Hat (and I kind of love that this kid’s nickname is just Hat), Charlene, and Molly.
Now, the speculative element of the book only shows up in literally the last page, so most of the book is really just an escalating comedy of errors as Eddie attempts to scare Courtney and succeeds only in making himself and his friends look like jerks. But there’s a part of me that just fucking loves this book because of what it doesn’t do. And what doesn’t it do? It doesn’t let Eddie win. Seriously, there were many ways that this book could have gone. Let me walk you through them, with some background. Let’s start with the crime. While on a field trip at which Eddie is a lazy little shit, Courtney and her future girlfriend Denise are busily actually doing the assigned work (the monsters!). Eddie then gets scared by a grass snake, and saved by Courtney. Courtney then befriends some bees and uses them to further make Eddie look like a “scaredy-cat.” The implication is that Courtney is not afraid of things, while Eddie is afraid of his own shadow. This is similar to The Haunted Mask in that way but this book manages to step around a lot of the issues that that book was bogged down by. In any event, from this point the book could go in some standard directions.
1. Eddie could try to scare/ruin Courtney, slowly realizing that she’s not his enemy and is actually a pretty cool person, at which point they could become friends and put their differences behind them.
2. Eddie could try to scare/ruin Courtney and discover some hidden weakness that makes her intensely afraid and then use it against her to make her look bad, but then feel bad about it and apologize so that they can both move on, realizing that being an asshole is Not Cool.
3. Eddie could try to befriend Courtney, but she still treats him poorly, until he gets a chance to turn the tables on her, saving her from some bad situation, and emerges as the Hero of the Story.
IMO, these are the standard outcomes when dealing with stories about kids trying to scare each other. But as I’ve learned from Goosebumps is that it rarely takes a standard approach to these issues. So while it really sets the stage for #2, at the last moment it twists in a completely new direction, and I just fucking love it.
Really, Eddie is the villain of this story. We are stuck in his head throughout, so we get to see how “reasonable” his concerns and angers are, and yet really what he reveals is that he’s a little shit and Courtney is going to have a Tough Time for the simple fact that she doesn’t get scared easily. No, she’s smart and she’s committed to being a scientist and I swear to glob I want to read about the future adventures of Courtney, whose father is some sort of mad scientist and whose uncle is a fucking monster hunter who apparently travels around the world on the trail of mythic creatures. As such, Courtney approaches everything with scientific curiosity as well as a competence that makes her a target because, as mentioned, fragile masculinity. And I rather love how Courtney is basically the target of everyone. She’s “popular” only in the sense that everyone admires and hates her. By virtue of being a girl and awesome, even the other girls want to take part in censuring her, in hopes of setting themselves as the “good” or “acceptable” girls who will not threaten the boys...too much, at least. But Courtney really doesn’t seem to give a fuck. She has one friend and that’s enough for her. We should all be so well adjusted and brave, not in how she doesn’t scream at a snake or spider, but in how well she owns her own skills and doesn’t let the world gaslight her into feeling something’s wrong with her.
Eddie is the agent of mediocre masculinity, and as such most of what he tries to do backfires on him and his friends because he rather sucks at everything. Trying to scare Courtney with a fake snake just makes her seem more impressive. Trying to scare her with a real tarantula results in making his friends look bad and Courtney once again showing that she won’t shrink from “gross” or “creepy” things. She also believes in monsters. Not because she’s foolish or naive, but because of the evidence she’s seen. She remains open to the idea of monsters and the supernatural because why not? There are questions that need answering, and she wants to help answer them. She is the person we all wish we could be, unafraid of the ridicule she gets from admitting that she believes in monsters.
Which brings us to the final attempt to scare Courtney, where Eddie enlists the help of his older brother and his friends to dress up like Mud Monsters and pretend to attack Courtney. At night. Which, let me take two quick asides. First, Younger Brother Alert! This is one of the rare books that is told from the perspective of the Younger Brother (the other being, hey, Say Cheese and Die!, so another connection), but it remains in keeping with the Goosebumps Rule that if there are siblings, the younger are going to be dudes. At least so far, there has not been a little sister, which I find rather surprising, given how big a trope protecting a younger sister is in horror. But probably we’ll get there at some point. Second, I just want to unpack this moment in the book and highlight how fucking evil it is. We’re crossing a definite line when Eddie asks much older kids to “pretend” to assault Courtney. He’s actually paying off someone to make her regret...just being confident and awesome. It’s rather disturbing, not just because he wants to do this, but because his brother just goes along with this. Once again, Goosebumps reveals a horror that has nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with the more banal evil that people and especially young people engage in, which helps sets the stage for the larger evils that society reinforces and requires.
But wait, didn’t I say that I loved this book? How the fuck can I love a book that dips into such darkness?’s because the book, instead of having Eddie succeed in punishing Courtney and putting her back in her place, has something very different in store. Because it turns out...monsters are real. On the night when the scare is set to go down, instead of witnessing his brother put the fear of patriarchy into Courtney, he is present instead for actual monsters crawling out of the mud and dancing. And it breaks his fucking mind. What I love here is that it’s a moment where Courtney is afraid. She runs the fuck away from there. But Eddie does not get a chance to savor this because he’s too busy soiling himself in terror. What was supposed to be his crowning moment is instead such a traumatic event that he can’t talk about it, can’t get over it. He stops trying to go outside, stops knowing what to do or how to act. This moment is so shattering to him because of how complete his faith was in the cult of masculinity. To him, men were the most powerful things in the universe. Their power was complete. But seeing these monsters, knowing that this was not a force that would bend to the whim or will or masculinity, he broke. He saw the lies his life was built on, and he cannot unsee it. And he cowers, not knowing what to do with that. Which, IS FUCKING BRILLIANT!
Okay okay okay, seriously, this book subverts tropes so fucking well, because of how bad this could have been. Just thinking about the way that society teaches and conditions girls to believe their powerlessness, and the way that this plays out heaviest in adolescence and puberty, when gender roles drop like a ton of bricks and girls are made to understand that they cannot escape them. It’s them who most often have to face that the entire world is in on a conspiracy against them, so that they are not believed, so that they are made vulnerable and threatened, so that they cannot break out of the constant double standards. That here, what might have happened was Courtney needing Eddie, having to acknowledge his inherent superiority because he’s a boy and she’s a girl. She’s not even a tomboy. She’s a girl and embraces that, embraces her skills and her bravery. Most stories would break that. They would have her shatter in the face of the reality of monsters. But she LOVES IT! She’s thrilled that the monsters showed up, because it confirms what she suspected. Her scientific curiosity about plays out and she’s hungry for more. Eddie is a catatonic mess but Courtney just moves forward even more. This is perhaps my favorite of the books so far not because of the story line, which is kind of boring, but because of what it does with this point. For what it refuses to do.
And okay, I don’t really have a Conspiracy Time this book, but I do have what I want to happen next. Courtney, emboldened by her discoveries, follows in both her father and uncle’s footsteps and becomes a scientist and monster hunter, traveling the world to find and catalog the supernatural creatures where they can be found. Others try to make her look bad. Others try to break her. She leaves them shattered in her wake. Nothing stops her. She’s still out there, hunting, exploring. Denise at her side, she lets no one stand in her way, and finds a way to harmonize science and magic. And they live happily ever after.
One last thing, too. The title. Part of what I love about my reading of this book is the title. Because at first glance it’s a title that makes no sense. No one says this. So we must ask who is supposed to be saying this. Courtney? Part of what makes her awesome is that she doesn’t really have to insist on her own awesomeness. She doesn’t go out trying to make Eddie look bad. She just does, because he’s lazy and mediocre and she’s excellent. So if the title is supposed to be from her voice, then it’s her voice as filtered by Eddie. It’s what he imagines she’s saying when she’s just busy existing. More interestingly, the title actually makes more sense if it’s being said by Eddie. He’s the main character, after all, even if he’s far and away the less interesting character. But then, what is he saying this about? Does he mean that Courtney can’t scare him with her snakes and bees? I don’t think so, because it’s obvious that she _can_. Instead, how I read the title is a petulant, whining insistence that he’s not afraid of what she is and represents—a competent, superior girl. What he’s saying through that title is that he’s insisting that he’s not afraid of her, afraid of the idea of her, and yet he is. The most terrifying thing in the story for Eddie is not the monsters. It’s Courtney. And fuck is that a powerful message, especially since HE DOES NOT GET TO WIN. Thank you, book, for restoring my faith that this series isn’t entirely trash.
But before I celebrate too much, let’s break this one down by the numbers!
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 5/5 (okay yes so future globe-trotting monster hunter scientist lesbians might indeed be something that I think is a VERY GOOD IDEA. I have less than zero interest in figuring out what happens to Eddie unless he becomes the agent of some shadow organization out to discredit Courtney, still blaming her for the trauma he suffered and for his own failures in life. He and Hat can be like the dopey henchmen that try to make Courtney look bad and just up failing. Like a less sympathetic Team Rocket. Yes, I think I could live with that)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 5/5 (you know what fuck it, this is one of the sharpest feminist works I’ve read in middle grade, and I’m actually not ashamed to say it. I’m really not sure if it was intentional or not, but this is actually something I feel it’s important to expose people to. At least for those who will be able to read it and not see Courtney as a villain. I understand that will likely be the reading many people have, because it’s the expected one. I just don’t think it’s the reading supported most by the text. The text shows Eddie as the villain, and Courtney as the hero, and I love this book for that reason. There’s a discussion about why she isn’t the main character, but I think playing on the expectation that Eddie will win in the end allows this to hit harder than it would have if it focused on Courtney as the narrator. It’s just good. Really fucking good)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 4/5 (I know. Yes, I did just spend this entire review going on and on about how much I love this book. But. For Goosebumps, this really doesn’t do a few important things. Namely, it’s not especially weird. I love so much of what the book does, but it’s only speculative element is in the last page or so of the book, and even then it’s just a little weak. The central idea is pretty solidly Goosebumps, but in terms of what the series is capable of, this isn’t the best. I can’t really mark it down too much for that, but all my love of this book can’t quite overcome the very slight disappointment that this book didn’t dip into anything incredibly ridiculous. This is, in effect, one of the rare instances where this is a better book than it is a Goosebumps book. So take that as you will)
And there it is. Please stop back in next month, where I’ll be looking at one of the books I remember being obsessed with when I was little. Until then, cheers!


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