Anyway, to celebrate this incredibly clever idea, I'm drinking. As much as possible. To stay on theme, I'm having some Ghost Ship, a white IPA from Capital Brewing (based out of Madison, WI). It certainly fits the theme and hey, it's booze, so it makes everything just a little bit easier. That out of the way, let's dive right in!
So first thing I should tell you about this book is that the beach is actually hardly visited. It's certainly there, and it really is a beach, but aside from a single swim that the main characters, Jerry and Terri (oh glob why those names?), take, really the most it contributes is that there's a weird cave nearby, as well as a creepy graveyard, and Jerry forgetting his towel at the beach is actually a pretty big plot point, though not one that really explores the beach itself. I think Ghost Cave might have been a more appropriate title, but we'll get to that in a bit. Before that, let's meet the characters.
Jerry and Terri are siblings. Because of course. Their parents have shipped them off to spend the summer with they're weird old cousins, Brad and Agatha. Jerry has zero things interesting about him, in true Goosebumps fashion. Seriously, we've settled very nicely into a stretch of the series I will call "the sister should be the main character." Ever since the series embraced having younger sisters be A Thing, the guy main characters have been blander than saltines. Terri enjoys pressing flowers, grave stone rubbings, and a slew of other rather interesting things. Jerry is vaguely interested in "animals." That's it. Basically, the series has settled into giving the main characters some inferiority complexes because their sisters are more interesting and talented than they are and except where it actually embraces and normalizes that, it means a lot of boring blah blah Jerry trying to prove he's a dude blah.
Luckily for me this book actually does deliver a rather creepy experience. The place where Jerry and Terri are visiting has, as I mentioned, a graveyard. Made up almost entirely of distant relatives of Jerry and Terri. You see, back when the land was first being colonized to shit, a boat full of a single huge family sailed to the New World (and okay, don't think too hard about Religious Incest Cult Boat, because no, it doesn't make any sense). Well, most of them died the first winter, and so only a few survive. Except that around the area there's a lot of them, like Brad and Agatha, and a trio of younger kids who meet and befriend Jerry and Terri. The kids seem cool, except that they let slip that there's a creepy ghost living in a cave nearby, who comes out and straight-up murders things. A forest full of bones seems to back up their case.
And again, I want to commend the book for actually building a pretty creepy setting. The whole place is steeped in death and there's a mystery to what's going on, and what's the light in the cave that Jerry sees one night when he's out looking for his towel. The other kids warn Jerry and Terri away, but it only makes them more curious. Similarly, and suspiciously, Brad and Agatha have almost nothing to say on the matter, either, and quickly change the subject when it's brought up. Only one thing for it, right? Sneak into the cave and investigate! I mean, what's a creepy old cave and murderous ghost next to the plucky spirit of a—Jerry's totally going to die, right?
Alas, no. Though that's not say that there's not some weird shit going on. You see, inside the cave there is totally some weird old guy, who doesn't really react well to being barged in on by a kid. But Jerry manages to escape and spread the tale about the ghost that he outran. This, though, prompts the local kids to press Jerry to return to the cave and seal the ghost inside. The cave is supposed to be a sanctuary, a place where ghosts can't escape from, and if Jerry can block off the entrance with a rock slide, everything will be cool and the countryside would rejoice. Surely Jerry is all for this, right? Only problem is when he goes to try he's captured by the ghost...who tells him that he's not a ghost, after all, but a ghost researcher looking into the area because of it's long history of death. According to the not-ghost, it's the local kids who are the ghosts, and probably up to no good.
Nice try, ghost! Jerry sees right through you. Yes, the kids each have a gravestone in the graveyard. Yes, they're super creepy. But I mean they wouldn't...what's that, they've dug fresh graves with Jerry and Terri's names prominently displayed on the stones above them. Okay...well...that might be just a little bit weird. Jerry is fucking useless, though, so of course that means it's time for Terri to save the day. Which she does. Effortlessly. You see, Terri is wise to the complex "who's the real ghost?" mystery at play here, and she's getting to the bottom of it regardless of who has to die to satisfy her curiosity. Which, it turns out, is everyone.
You heard that right. You see, Terri's plan is brilliant and bloody, and Jerry has no idea he's playing right into it. First, Terri agrees to bury the maybe-a-ghost guy in his cave. However, owing to a rain storm going on, she ushers everyone into the cave mouth for a break before climbing up to the rocks they're going to avalanche. And once everyone's there, the maybe-a-ghost of course shows up and Shit. Gets. Real. With all the players in one location, and one that none of them can escape from easily, she lets nature take its course and of course the kids turn all "we're going to kill you" and mystery solved. *claps hands* A job well done. Wait, what do you mean there are murderous ghosts and no one can escape? Ooooooooh. About that.
You see, the kids spill that they've been dead for hundreds of years because being a pilgrim sucked and they didn't want to die so young. Which, wow, depressing. They want company and have decided that the nice thing to do was to kill Jerry and Terri so they could spend eternity together. Instead, the now-definitely-not-a-ghost ghost researcher manages to somehow push Jerry and Terri out of the cave and trigger the avalanche, trapping the ghosts inside. But also, you know, crushing him to death. Don't worry, though, if he comes back as a ghost he'll be trapped in the cave, too. Which, okay, a few things. First, what the fuck is a random cave doing here that is some sort of ghost trap? Like, weird. Second, The researcher says at one point that he feels bad for the ghosts and wants to help them find rest in the cave, but isn't trapping them there with no company like exactly the worst thing for them? The thing that they're willing to murder to avoid? Is his ghost now going to stay with them and, I don't know, play card games with them in the dark?
I do love how all of that played out, though, and the book kept things fresh with nicely horrifying touches. The graves, the fact that everyone has the same last name, the tragic history of the area, the random skeletons littering the woods. It does a lot that actually works for horror and that's actually really refreshing to see, especially given how well it also sticks to the Goosebumps tropes. And then, of course, the twist. Part of the story is that the researcher guy had a dog. This...wasn't very well explained but whatever, the thing is that dogs can sense ghosts (this has been established in Welcome to Dead House). And so the end of the book is the dog showing up and barking at Brad and Agatha. And really, at them. So it turns out they're ghosts, too. And not pleased that their secret is out. Which, hurrah, brings me to CONSPIRACY TIME!
I don't actually have too much for this book, because so much about it actually makes sense. The main thing that doesn't is this twist, because if Brad and Agatha are ghosts, really, what the fuck? The whole thing with the other ghosts is that they wanted to kill Jerry and Terri, but that doesn't seem to be the case for Brad and Agatha. Because, like, Jerry and Terri's dad also visited Brad and Agatha when he was young, and I'm pretty sure the implication is not that he's a ghost, too. So for whatever reason there's just this couple of ghosts who like to host kids for the summer. And they aren't too pleased that Jerry and Terri have found them out. Why? Well, I think that their history must be as tragic as the kids'. Meaning, they probably died that winter but were not joined by their children. So their kids survived and moved away, and that's what keeps Brad and Agatha around, that they want to stay connected to the family. That they still want to care for people. And have been doing so for hundreds of years. And now are pissed they have to murder Jerry and Terri. But, you know, so it goes...
Seriously, though, this is one of the best books of the series in terms of chills, and that bodes well for it as I move to break down its scores!
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 3/5 (Despite the strong showing, I actually don't have a strong urge to explore much about this setting or the characters. I think it's interesting, and Terri as a detective with Jerry as her bumbling Watson would be pretty hilarious. Oh wait, that does sound pretty awesome. Like, paranormal investigators. Okay, so, bumping my rating from a 2 to a 3)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 5/5 (This one manages to hit a lot of horror notes without being awful. Like, the fact that Jerry is the main character and not Terri is a little eh but Terri still gets to be awesome and I like a lot about this one. As a horror work, the question of who is really a ghost brings a lot of tension to the forefront and there's a lot of moments where the reader is reminded of the presence of death. Which makes for a very strong book)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 5/5 (While sometimes being a Good Book often makes for a Less Good Goosebumps Book, this one bucks the trend and manages to be scary without losing any of the goofy or the feel of the series. And it does require a more critical lens to enjoy as it is. It's really a creepy and tragic read, where someone actually dies and the twist in the end is unsettling but also makes complete sense. So yeah, this one's a keeper)
Well this high can't last. Join me again next month when I'll be looking at Goosebumps #23: RETURN OF THE MUMMY (wait, was there actually a mummy the first time through?)