Hey, a new Goosebumps that has an exclamation mark in the title! For a while, I thought this might be code for the stories dealing with science and magic merging in some weird ways (beginning with the first example, Say Cheese, and Die! However, given that You Can’t Scare Me! really wasn’t about science (though it was awesome) and this book also really isn’t about science (not...really), I’m going to have to revise my theory. Maybe it’s this: if the title has an exclamation point, I’m going to hate the main character. Because yeah, Todd, this books “protagonist,” is literally the worst. Just...awful. To the point that I suspect this book is actually a sort of psychological test of utter brilliance. What it asks is simple: will we condone mental and emotional torture if the person being tortured is an asshole? Well, dearest readers, buckle up, because we’re about to find out!
One of the reasons I enjoyed Night of the Living Dummy was that for most of the book there was absolutely nothing speculative going on. No magic. No super science. It wasn’t until fairly late in that story that the main character read the magic words that brought her (and her sister’s) dummy to life. To that point, though, a lot of shit had happened, and the main character was definitely questioning her sanity. Well, here we get to revisit that particular idea, only much more robustly and with much more of a feeling of justice. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s meet Todd.
Todd is a bit of a shit. I say that about a lot of these Goosebumps main characters but it’s only because it’s true. Todd collects worms. And studies worms. But to say that he loves them might be overstepping a little bit. He cares little for the well-being of his worms, or for worms in general. Rather, he likes worms because of the power they give him. Mostly as a way to mess with his little sister, Regina. Now, I guess there’s been a moratorium on little brothers, as after like 15 books of only featuring little brothers, the last five have been much more about little sisters. Maybe it’s that the dynamics are so much different and more loaded with little sisters, and especially how they’re portrayed in these books. Which is to say, the little sisters of Goosebumps are competent and really tired of their brothers’ shit. Case in point, Regina, who has to suffer with Todd constantly putting worms down her shirt or otherwisely trying to freak her out with them. Now, both brother and sister have precisely one friend. Regina has Beth, and Todd has Danny.
Now, Danny is an interesting case study in this book, because Todd doesn’t really treat him all that well. They are friends because they’re both kinda losers, but they enjoy the pranks that they can pull with Todd’s worms. Danny is also...rather terrible. But he’s also completely the friend that Todd deserves. Meaning, the two are friends but because Todd feels no real loyalty or affection for Danny, Danny is completely okay with jumping ship when Todd is in trouble and needs help, because if Todd can’t be a true friend to Danny, Danny feels no obligation to try and defend or assist Todd. The book is rather apt when it looks at how these kids are together, and it paints a very vivid picture of Todd—it’s just not at all flattering.
So the main plot of the book revolves around a science fair and the resulting fallout. You see, Todd thinks he has it in the bag. Because worms. Why he’s sure this would be a winning project, I’m not sure, but he’s got a worm house and he’s ready to impress. To his credit, it’s not like most of the kids are doing great. Danny is making a model of the solar system with balloons. And Regina and Beth are making an enormous paper mache robin. Named Christopher Robin. Because of course. Also, there is a really weak subplot involving a rich new kid named Patrick “stealing” Todd’s idea and doing something with worms. The only reason this point seems to exist is because it puts the real plot into motion. How? Well, Todd, jealous out of his mind because Patrick is moving in on his worms, decides to track down Patrick’s house to spy on the competition. Regina doesn’t want to help, but is coerced into giving an address. This, however, turns out to be a trick, and Todd gets the shit scared out of him when he shows up to an old haunted house instead and sees what he thinks is a corpse but is actually just some old costume. He discovers that Regina did this on purpose as payback for his being awful all the time. And instead of realizing that it sucks when someone messes with you, his takeaway is that he must make Regina suffer even more. By sabotaging Christopher Robin.
The science fair...is a mess. Also, were science fairs really this important to people. I can’t even remember having a science fair when I was little, and I was in the middle of the suburbs. But that aside, this is where the Inciting Incident happens. Where Todd makes a mockery of science and his little sister and brings the wrath of justice down upon him. Where he casually shrugs at the chaos he has wrought and thinks he can walk away cleanly. Also, Danny wins the science fair, which I feel does not get a big enough moment. Like, how? Is his mom the judge? Or maybe the actual committee who decides are all cats who just want to pop the shiny, shiny balloons? Whatever the case, Todd ends up accidentally destroying his and Patrick’s entries and making an eternal enemy of his sister.
But big deal, right. This all sounds (and is, let’s be real) very boring. There’s nothing creepy going on at all. And yes, it takes over half the book for anything strange to happen, aside from an unexplained earthquake (which, well, you’ll see). After the fair, though, things change. After Todd casually slices a worm in half, the little buggers start tormenting him, showing up in all his things. In his hat, in his bed, in his food. He’s convinced it’s his sister at first, but she seems genuinely freaked out. So...what is it? Has he truly angered the worm gods and is now being punished? Slowly he begins his descent into madness. And every time he thinks he has it figured out, something happens to screw up his theories and expectations. Every time there seems like there could be a rational explanation, something new shatters his fragile hold on reality. He’s nearing his breaking point, having made himself a fool in front of the whole school multiple times. Danny will barely give him the time of day. He’s shaken, and then his parents decide they must take the worms away from him for his own good. His debasement almost complete, he hears something that changes everything.
Yo, it was his sister all along. Regina straight up tortured her brother for weeks. Weeks. Meanwhile pretending that she was shocked at each new horror she inflicted. Maybe she was shocked. Shocked at how righteous it felt to destroy a man. A man who needed destroying. And here is where my appreciation for the story and for Regina is both at its highest and confused. Because wow, first off. I actually really like that, knowing she would be the first suspect, she went all out to clear herself first, and then once Todd has discounted her, really amped up the efforts to dismantle him. She had help, of course, from Beth, but it’s just a wonderful idea that this young girl could so thoroughly drive her brother to despair and madness.
So of course he wants revenge. He makes up with Danny and the two go to dig worms at the place where, throughout the book, there have been unexplained earthquakes (remember those?). Well, it turns out the cause of them...is the Mother Worm. A Dune-esque beast that arrives as Todd plots his revenge against Regina. It’s set to kill both him and Danny when Regina and Beth, carrying the giant Christopher Robin, manage to scare the Mother Worm off. Which rather puts Todd off of worms. Instead, and at Regina’s insistence, he moves on to mounting butterflies. Which would be fine, except the twist finds him falling at the wings of the Mother Butterfly (which can somehow wield an enormous pin). Which...okay. I mean, the book is rather brilliant in how it handles all of this, but it’s also incredibly cruel as well. It plays on the reader’s own dislike of the main character, asking if maybe Todd deserves all this a bit, because after all he is just awful.
And of course, if you want to get even darker, you can follow me down the rabbit hole of CONSPIRACY TIME!!!
Okay, this isn’t so much a conspiracy as a simple truth. The Mother Worm? The Mother Butterfly? Even Todd “discovering” what Regina had been up to all along? Yeah, just more Regina honing her craft. All planned. Obviously with the worms soon to be booted from the house, she need to create a way to continue the torture. She’d grown to like it too much. To relish the fear in her brother’s eyes. So she orchestrated him overhearing her and Beth. And she knew exactly what he’d do, and that he’d piss off the Mother Worm, which is why she just happened to be walking by at that moment with Christopher Robin. Because it cleared her again. There was no way Todd was going to believe she set it all up. She’s used his own underestimation of her against him. Again. Because if she’s guilty of anything it’s in weaponizing the way that her brother thinks he’s better than her. She uses that in order to watch him twist in agony. And she proves that she can use it to manipulate him into even further terrors. It’s said that she is the one who convinced him to take up butterfly pinning. And...well...
The truly terrifying thing is what happens when she finally bores of just torturing him and wants a larger challenge?
Before I’m lost in a put of despair thinking about that, though, let’s break this one down by the numbers!
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 2/5 (For as much as I like some things about this book, there’s not too much I feel like exploring. I would be interested to know where Regina goes from here. Like You Can’t Scare Me!, the real protagonist isn’t the main boy character, but rather the girl character he’s trying to destroy. Who, in the end, destroys him without even trying. It’s very satisfying, but here I wasn’t quite into the characters as much. And the worms, for all they’re supposed to be scary, are just rather boring. Eh)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 4/5 (I actually think this one stands out as one of the better constructions, not because of its monster or its “gross out” quotient, but because at its heart it’s about siblings. Siblings trying to show who the superior person. For Todd, this means trying to squash his sister’s ambitions, because he can’t stand that she might be better than he is. He’s insecure, and that fragile masculinity once again opens him up to being eviscerated. Really, it’s a lot like You Can’t Scare Me! and I like it for that, like it for the brutality it exposes and shows how toxic masculinity can be a weakness exploited and made into something comical to see abused. It’s perhaps not as fun, and it’s definitely a bit more boring, but it’s a strong example of taking horror tropes and giving them a good squeeze)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 3/5 (I normally give books a lower relative score compared to objective score when they stand out for their themes and flourishes but fall down in their weird and goofy. Not that the Mother Worm was bad, but this is another book where the speculative element doesn’t actually rear its head until the last few pages. Which is just disappointing in a setting where monsters are real and in a book that does introduce giant vengeful totem animals. Like, I really like what the book does in some ways, intentionally or not, but for a Goosebumps it’s just not as out there as a lot of the others, and the whole worms thing is just yawn city. Sorry not sorry)
And there you have it! Join me and my much abused liver (I wonder if there’s a Mother Liver out there which will come at me seeking vengeance?) next month, when I’ll be reading Goosebumps #22: GHOST BEACH.