Friday, June 28, 2019

LIVER BEWARE! You're in for a Drunk Review of Goosebumps #20: THE SCARECROW WALKS AT MIDNIGHT

People, this is going to require a grown up drink. Because, well, because we get into some stuff that’s fairly common in horror but that Goosebumps hasn’t as a rule gotten into so much. So I’m drinking a whole pint of German IPA from Lazy Monk Brewing, a local favorite right here in sunny Eau Claire. Because this book. Oh this book. I guess let’s begin...

So this book gets back to the more modern horror movie roots of the series, and more specifically to the B-movie. Because, well, just look at that title. This one does sound like it climbed out of a shuttered theater and it hits all the marks pretty quickly. First, the heroes, the city kids Jodie and Mark. Jodie is all about summers are the farm—the fresh air, the chocolate chip pancakes, the scary stories—all of it! Mark is much more a little lump, who’s there mostly to play video games and read comic books. So, I mean, the story does get the state of things where the girl character can be older, more motivated, and better at basically everything, but still have to be treated as not-quite-equal to the younger brother, who seems catered to way more than Jodie. But I digress.

Anyway, the farm is way out there. In the countryside. With country people. So, you know, horror fodder. Seriously how many horror movies follow that script, where city folk wander into the wrong bit of sparsely populated rural area and end up running into the wrong sort? The farm is the kids’ grandparents, but both of them have aged visibly in a year and seem more tired, more worn out. Lest you think that the story is about the horror of aging, though (pretty sure that’s in the clock book, which is yet to come), we get to meet Stanley, the farmhand. Who is “one can short of a six-pack.” Readers, enter the screaming-huge Problem with this book. Namely, it basically positions a probably-disabled character and proceeds to do terrible things with him.

At first, though, Stanley seems mostly harmless. He’s “simple,” and the book doesn’t go so far as to get into diagnoses, which means I’m unsure if the implication is that he is neuroatypical or disabled or just Southern. Which might not have been a problem (not everyone, especially in medically undeserved communities, has a diagnosis) if it had treated him with some care and compassion. But, well, we’ll get to that. Stanley is about the one thing on the farm that hasn’t changed, though he won’t quit talking about his book on superstitions and how he made the scarecrows walk at midnight. Which Jodie and Mark brush off as impossible. Because poor, sweet, simple Stanley is probably just confused or something. Aw shucks.

The problems aren’t just with gram and gramp, though. Scary stories and chocolate chip pancakes are both off the menu (truly this is hell) and instead of one old scarecrow in the corn there’s a dozen freaky ones that Stanley won’t keep talking about. And they move at night. BUT I’M SURE EVERYTHING IS JUST FINE NOTHING TO SEE HERE. Sigh. Also, there’s a moment when grandma makes some cherry pie (instead of the normal apple) and the kids are all like “Whoa, isn’t grandpa allergic to cherries?” and everyone just sort of shushes them and continues on. So...I guess the allergy isn’t so bad?

So yeah, faced with all of this, surely Jodie (and to a lesser extent Mark) would realize that there is something Actually Wrong going on and maybe call their parents or something? (Strangely, that’s not even mentioned once in the book (unless they said that there was no phone but I don’t remember that). Typically writers rely on poor cellphone coverage to take care of the victims calling for help, but here I guess it’s not even an option. But ahem, sorry, digression.) Of course not. Instead, the entire sordid mess gets filed away under three things.

Thing 1: Old people break down. This is a natural part of life and we must accept it. Sure, it’s inconvenient, but obviously it’s rude to bring up the ways that people are An Old, so best to just say nothing.

Thing 2: Jodie has allergies that make her eyes water at plot-convenient times (way worse than the cherry thing, okay?). So when, say, she sees those creepy scarecrows just walking around, bold as brass, she must be having trouble because of the pollen.

Thing 3: Sticks. Not the former tree-part, but rather Stanley’s son, who I guess is more “normal” than his dad. But who likes to play pranks. So anything that’s weird or creepy that can’t be explained with Things 1 or 2, Sticks did it.

That about covers it, right? Right.

Now, to give the book a little credit, it does a nice job of sprinkling in the creepy stuff. The scarecrows all moving on their posts. The ways that everyone Even the numerous jump-scare moments when something reaches out and grabs Jodie only for it to be a weed in the water or a practical joke. There’s enough that can be explained away that the stuff that can’t seems like well, there’s probably something Jodie doesn’t know yet. Except that when things really do start crossing the line and it should be really fucking obvious what’s going on, the kids remain oblivious and stumble right into danger. Plus, well, Stanley tells them almost exactly what’s going on. And while I get that it’s to get everyone to think “they don’t believe him because they don’t believe him, a not-smart-perseon, could really bring scarecrows to life,” I also get that the whole thing falls apart when Stanley isn’t actually smart but instead stumbled into this and turned out to be selfish, vindictive, and cruel. Plus plus, what are scarecrows even going to do? It’s sort of established as the climax really starts going that they’re not that much of a threat. Or, well, we’ll get to that.

Anyway, at some point Jodie really does start to figure out that something isn’t right (it takes a while) and learns that Stanley apparently found a spell in his superstition book that allowed him to wake up the scarecrows, and used this power to basically force grandma and grandpa into his slaves, obedient under threat of scarecrow attack. He sense put the scarecrows back to sleep, but something with the spell isn’t working right, and they’re out of his control. Once he suspects this, he casts the spell again, hoping to regain mastery over the straw, but this only completes the break and the scarecrows turn into very lightweight zombies, essentially.

And okay, let me pause here, because this part was way too complicated and just sort of ridiculous. Because Sticks has been trying to convince his dad that the scarecrows aren’t still awake (despite the fact that at least some of them definitely are). But Jodie is convinced Sticks has been trying to scare them with the “fake” walking scarecrows. So she has Mark dress up like a scarecrow to scare Sticks. When a real walking scarecrow shows up, Sticks manages to beat it back, and Stanley sees and goes to cast his spell. They manage to kind of calm him down, only then Mark approaches and ruins it and Stanley casts the spell and big finish, okay. But. But... This is framed as somehow Jodie’s fault for getting Mark to dress up to scare Sticks, when really wtf does it matter there WERE ACTUAL WALKING SCARECROWS?!

Whatever. Anyway, the scarecrows all attack and there is a clever moment when they’re all mimicking Mark (who is still dressed up as one of them) and Mark pulls off his sack/hood and the scarecrows do too, decapitating themselves, but they don’t die. I liked that. But then in a moment of huh, yeah, the one canonical weakness of scarecrows, Sticks shows up with some torches and lights them all up. Day saved.

People, what a terrible mess. Taken at face value, the story is about the danger of letting people like Stanley have any sort of power (including, I guess, the power to read). Instead of making this at all about the arrogance of the city folk coming out to the farm, it’s entirely about the inadvertent evil of Stanley, who I guess didn’t want to be laughed at, despite that this was never really shown as a problem. But okay, sure. Even instead of making Stanley a red herring who would be too obvious because he seems too guilty and too easy to have be “the bad guy.” Instead even of having Stanley just use the guise of disability to commit crimes while secretly being abled and neurotypical, it’s just about how he’s incapable of understanding right and wrong fully and so acts out of selfishness and greed. It’s not a good look.

Only, is there another way to read this? One that makes a little more sense (if doesn’t fix all the ways this story missteps)? I think there might be, and so it’s CONSPIRACY TIME!

So it just doesn’t make sense that Stanley, who can barely read, could perform a ritual to bring deadly scarecrows to life on what, a whim? To all appearances, he’s out there living his best life, with a job on a farm and a found family that cares about him. And so if I’m looking for somewhere this whole thing might have come from, I’m looking not at him, but at Sticks. The teen who might resent his dad a little bit because I imagine Sticks catches shit for his dad, is embarrassed about his dad. Generally wishes that his dad was more of the kind of father that he sees other people have. Because I’m guessing Sticks is more the adult in their relationship. Except he’s just a kid, and very capable of making terrible mistakes. So he starts to plant the seeds in his dad’s head that other people are laughing at him, that he should do something about it. Meanwhile, it’s Sticks who has found a magic book and figured out how to work it. Or...mostly. So he performs the spell but makes it seem like Stanley did it, in an effort to get Stanley to act different, less embarrassing. Only of course it backfires.

Instead of fixing his problems, Sticks has only created new ones. And so he goes to fix it only to find that he can’t. At least not yet, and in the mean time he needs to cover for Stanley and himself. So that’s why he’s always around when Jodie encounters the scarecrows, in order to use him magic to effect her vision and confuse her, and to keep knowledge of what he’s done from Stanley, who would freak. Which would also make sense why he’s the one to save the day. Because he started the mess to begin with. So he had worked out this contingency plan. And now that it’s done, he can try and maybe figure out something else to do, or maybe he’ll realize instead that he needs to worry about himself, needs to outgrow the farm and get away before he turns into someone he really doesn’t like.

So yeah, there you have it! My theory, at least. So now it’s time to look at the book by the numbers!

On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 2/5 (I’m vaguely interested to see more about Sticks, who I feel is more central to this story but who barely gets any page time. The rest of the everyone, though...nah. Though I like the name Jodie in a Jodie Foster kind of way, the rest of the cast just falls short for me. The setting is very standard and blah and I could care less about Mark or gram and gramp. No thanks)

On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 1/5 (No. I’ve said before some of the problems that Goosebumps just sort of steps right into because they are central to horror tropes, but this was one I really wanted them to avoid. Casting disability as a form of corruption expressing a deeper evil is just nope. And while I kinda like that there are no hurt feelings after all this, at the same time I’m like what? They just go back to everything being normal? What? WHAT?! So no, no, very much no on this count)

On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 1/5 (Still no. I’d consider bumping it up here because it’s not like Goosebumps is good with just about anything, but even for Goosebumps it doesn’t really hold together. The twist at the end, too, which is just that a stuffed bear comes to life, is utter plop, and the entire premise is flimsy and boring. Normally at least the books give me a character I can root for, but Jodie isn’t treated well and is DENSE AS FUCK and Mark is annoying and dump trucks and we’ll just write this one off as a whole lot of no)

Okay, well there we are! Looks like we’re in something of a slump again, but join me next month for Goosebumps #21: GO EAT WORMS!, where hopefully things improve.


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