Friday, June 28, 2019

LIVER BEWARE! You’re in for a Drunk Review of Goosebumps #19: DEEP TROUBLE

So if you measured my slow descent into madness through my reading of the Goosebumps series, this book marks a new twist in an already interesting experience. In some ways it reminds me of The Girl Who Cried Monster in the way that it takes its speculative core and doesn’t even bother pretending that it isn’t real. But unlike that read, which was very much about the horror of not being believed, of something terrible hiding in plain sight, this book...well...huh. I’m not sure I’d call it a horror at all, despite the cover, which really brings to mind all the terror evoked by the sea and other deep waters. It’s actually about...uh...mermaids. And sweet Christmas, where’s my drink?

Oh right, drinking. So I recently came across a brand of seltzer that had names I could not resist. And one of them is Mermaid Songs. Which is...weird. Like, I’m not sure if mermaids are known for their songs, but whatever. Given that this book is similarly weird, though, I figured slapping some gin into the mix would make for an appropriate fuel for this review. So yeah, let’s get started!

First, the elephant in the room. The title of this one is Deep Trouble. The main character’s name is Billy Deep. This is perhaps the porniest name I have come across in my vast wanderings of children’s books, and I just want you to know that yes, I noticed it right away and yes, I giggled for a solid five minutes. Billy’s a young kid who spends his summers (along with little sister—the second little sister IN A ROW, which given the complete absence to now is noteworthy—Sheena) aboard his uncle’s boat. His uncle is named Dr. Deep (oh glob, keep it together), though he mostly goes by Dr. D, and he’s a jovial sort of scientist who I guess just wants to study fish. Unfortunately, doing marine studies doesn’t exactly pay the bills, and a major conflict in the story is the moral gray area that Dr. D is willing to troll through in order to keep his research alive. Rounding out the crew of the boat is Alexander, the assistant, who is remarkable only in being the worst cook ever.

So in good Goosebumps fashion, Billy is a bit of a shit. Like, Sheena’s all right and I do enjoy how the book makes her basically more competent than Billy at everything despite being the younger sibling. But Billy is competitive, impulsive, and prone to breaking the rules—even when the rules involve not touching fire coral. How he’s even alive at this point is really that as the story’s protagonist he’s got the superpower of Not Dying that means whenever he does something really dangerous he tends to be saved by Plot Development. So, you know, that.

Anyway, this trip with Dr. D might be the last, thanks to Dr. D apparently not really doing anything of scientific value. Also, because Billy might get eaten by a sea monster. Here again there’s an echo of The Girl Who Cried Monster in that Billy sees a monster very early on but is dismissed as being a little asshole (which is, actually, rather accurate. Billy himself doesn’t even know if he’s telling the truth, most of the time, and has a tendency to let fantasy intrude upon his waking world). Except instead of the book being about Billy having to convince people he’s telling the truth, instead a random zoo boat shows up and offers Dr. D a million dollars to capture a mermaid.

And yes, if that sounds just a bit random, welcome to the series. For me, we’ve wandered a bit far afield of tackling a lot of the tropes associated with horror and instead are just sort of doing whatever. In a Goosebumps way, it’s examining the “what if life in the oceans can be very different from what we know” kind of way, which can indeed be a great source of horror. Only...only mermaids to me are a weird choice for that. Especially since when Billy makes his first attempt to find a mermaid, he’s successful (albeit because he almost gets eaten by a shark and is saved at the last moment by said mermaid). But I mean, if mermaids were hard to find, maybe it would take a middle school kid more than a half hour with no equipment to find one?

A n y w a y. So bip bam he’s saved by a mermaid—who is immediately captured by Dr. D because scientific integrity really only works when you can pay the bills. Billy, to his credit, is suitably pissed off about this whole enterprise. Where before he was on team “sell the mermaid to a zoo,” now he’s much more team “maybe this isn’t cool because this seems like a person more than a fish.” And I do appreciate that the book does not make the mermaid super human. They’re given she pronouns but as those are just applied to them I’m ignoring them and instead using neutrals. So they’re taken aboard Dr. D’s boat and put in a little tank and basically things are looking up for Dr. D’s finances. Except that Billy is not cool with any of this, and Sheena similarly decides this will not stand. Together they plan to release the mermaid, but are foiled by a series of building complicates. First, Dr. D discovers them and stops them. Then the boat gets attacked by science pirates. Then Alexander turns out to have betrayed them all. Then—

Okay, I have to pause just because. Science. Pirates. I think here we have what’s the closest the book gets to dealing with anything related to horror and that’s the horror of being complicit in evil. It’s not the mermaids that represent monsters, but rather the greed and disregard for sentient life that Alexander displays that rings of true monstrosity. That Dr. D was close to making a similar moral compromise and that Billy helped to make this all possible through his enthusiasm to capture a mermaid without really questioning what that meant is what I get most out of this story. The mermaid here, instead of being a monster, is an innocent, and one who saved Billy by fighting off a FUCKING SHARK. It’s seeing the monster in Alexander that really shakes Billy, and once more nearly kills him (and his family).

Luckily for all of them, there’s a lot of mermaids, and they apparently only care about who is holding one of their own prisoner at the moment. Or, well, I’ll get to that. Needless to say that Billy, through his attempts to save the mermaid, earns a brief pass for his transgressions and helps the mermaids to retake their own and visit terrible revenge upon Alexander and the science pirates (great name for a band, fyi). The day is saved, Dr. D grows a conscience (or maybe just remembers the sounds of crunching bones as Alexander is pulled under the waves) and decides not to give the zoo information on the mermaids, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except Billy, who is eaten by a sea monsters in the book’s “twist.”

And can we? Just a moment? Talk about? What the fuck a twist is? Because I know for a goddamn fact that Goosebumps has completely forgotten. So. Like. A twist is supposed to be something that changes the reading of the text to some extent. That allows it to be read suddenly in a much different way. That reveals that something you assumed wasn’t true. Again, The Girl Who Cried Monster does an excellent job of that. Same with a number of the Goosebumps books. This one? Billy is literally attacked by the sea monster that people didn’t believe him about. I’m not sure that deepens my reading of the text except that it makes something clear about the reason why no one knows about the mermaids. Which means...


Okay okay. So this sea monster, which lives in the same place as the mermaids. And which totally eats Billy at the end of the book. Has to either be a mermaid in a different form, or is allied with the mermaids in some way. It’s the protector of their secret. For me, I think that the monster and the mermaids are in a sort of symbiotic relationship. The monster makes sure that no one who finds out about the mermaids escapes alive. And the mermaids help the monster find food. I am 100% convinced that is why the one mermaid was helping Billy—because the mermaid wanted to steal the kill from the shark and give it to the sea monster. Win win. Only Dr. D showed up too soon and so the day took a much different turn.

My issue with this reading isn’t that it doesn’t work, it’s that it completely destroys the reading I had of the story that allowed me the most mileage. When the story is looking at human monstrosity against those who would otherwise be considered monsters, then I feel like there’s something to take away from it. Something that does give the story a little bit to its credit. When it’s actually about how the mermaids are really actually monsters after all and their sea monster friend is going to eat Billy and probably everyone else who knows about the mermaids, then...well, it definitely changes things. In this reading, it does end up favoring the idea that the ocean is home to a great diversity of life, and a great danger, and that as humans, breaking the unknown laws of the ocean can mean a giant sea monster is going to eat you. Which, cool. But also, huh. So I mean, the book is just a mess. There’s basically the option of “Haha, I guess Billy got eaten by a sea monster coincidentally” in which case, all right, there’s still some literary merit here. Or it’s “Haha, humans are actually pathetic in the face of the bloodthirsty monsters of the sea” in which case, all right, I guess the book’s just fucking with me. I’m not sure which I prefer (because sometimes a booking fucking with me can be rather interesting).

For now, I’m just going to avoid the whole mess and try to rate this book by the numbers.

On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 4/5 (There’s something to be said about the setting, at the very least, at the intersection of the sea, monsters, and science. I do want to know so much more about Alexander and his science pirates. I want to know more about competitive zoos that house cryptids. I want to know what the fuck Sheena does after her brother is eaten by a sea monster. Does she survive? Does she strike her own kind of bargain with the mermaids? I am full of questions. I really don’t want Billy to survive. Fridge that guy, and give the reigns to Sheena, who seems a better choice anyway. In any event, the urge to know more about this setting is strong)

On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 3/5 (So this book benefits from being the first to really take the series in a couple of directions. Yes there are mermaids, but the horror is much more about human greed. Yes there are sea monsters, but the focus is still very much on how people are willing to discard the obvious sentience of a being in order to profit off of it. In that, it’s a surprisingly strong book when you look at themes of monstrosity and resistance. Until, of course, the ending, when it all just comes apart. So yeah)

On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 3/5 (The series really needs to get its act together wrt twists, but I feel this isn’t the worst example of a decent Goosebumps experience. The setting is interesting, the horror takes a bit of a backseat to just speculative fiction, but really it’s a nice and exciting read, with kids going up against adults in a way that the series hasn’t been about mostly. To me, it fits in more with the monster-themed installments, like The Girl Who Cried Monster, One Day in Horrorland, and maybe even The Werewolf of Fever Swamp. It’s fun, and doesn’t make too many terrible steps, especially if you think that Billy dies in the end)

So there we are! Another one down, and next month marks lucky number 20! I’ll also probably be looking at a new Give Yourself Goosebumps, which is super exciting for me. Stay tuned!

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