Okay, so I admit I always wanted to get into theater, but I guess was never really good enough. Or maybe by the time I would have gotten into it, I was in sports and things instead, and it didn’t seem open to me. Or maybe I avoided it on some unconscious level because it’s not exactly...the...straightest of things. And maybe I just steered clear because I didn’t want to get into that. I’m kinda messed up. But anyway, that is all to say that this book hits me right in the drama geek feels, and I just can’t wait. Y’all, I can’t wait!
Oh, I should say that I’m drinking from the Dogfish Head summer variety pack (which is super cheap right now and full of things like a coconut IPA which is weird but good). So right, drinks are lined up. Let’s get to this book!
So Brooke and Zeke are kinda into horror. Scaring people is like their drug and despite probably having to attend a shit ton of D.A.R.E. assemblies, they are saying Yes to scaring people. Of course, it’s just a gateway to heavier stuff. Theater. And that stuff kills. I mean, at least if you’re in a Goosebumps book, and hey look at that WE ARE. Anyway, when they hear that the school is putting on a forbidden play that is apparently scary and cursed, they are all for it. They have been budding theater gays for a little while but this is their chance to level up their game. They manage to scare the leading roles, Brooke as Esmerelda and Zeke as the mysterious and misunderstood Phantom!
And okay, so the kids are also being overseen by Ms. Walker, who is totally like a tired lesbian who doesn’t know how she became a middle school teacher. She deals with this by probably drinking heavily and lowkey trolling her students with weird stories of terrible theater accidents. Because apparently this play has written special for this school seventy years ago, but was never performed because on opening night a kid totally died. The play was declared cursed and sealed away, but Ms. Walker likes to cheat death and so she decides to bust it out and have a gay old time!
Okay, so as the play gets going, Zeke and Brooke are very much Into It. To the point that Zeke gets really into character so that he can scare everyone. Which is about the time that Ms. Walker reveals that there’s also a creepy old elevator on the stage that people have apparently forgotten about for seventy years that maaaaaaybe killed that kid back in the day but pfft she’s sure it’s fine to use. And people, this elevator is the devil’s playground, a mechanical seductress leading the kids down into the fiery depths of...DISOBEYING AUTHORITY. I know, I know, say it ain’t so, but it’s true. This elevator, designed only to drop enough to hide someone from view, actually descends into a mysterious basement that I guess has also been ignored for like seventy years. Which will become important later.
Anyway, this story is actually something of a mystery, and one that stretches back to that kid dying seventy years ago. It’s also another rather effective and tightly knit horror story, where the kids are dealing with both the supernatural and a much more mundane and physical threat. Namely, the play begins to be plagued by someone posing as the Phantom who really wants to stop the play and scare everyone. Zeke falls under suspicion and eventually things get so bad that he gets pulled out of the play. Brooke for her part doesn’t want to believe that Zeke is responsible, but the evidence is rather damning and no one really cares what she thinks anyway. She’s the detective here, trying to figure out who would benefit from having Deke out of the play.
The list of suspects is rather short. There’s Tina, who is Brooke’s understudy and really wants to play Esmerelda. Tina is a jerk, and spends most of the book going between wishing Brooke would get too sick to perform and trying to scare Brooke away from being in the play by claiming the culprit is an actual Phantom, a ghost out to prevent the play from being performed. Except that Tina’s a punk and Brooke is an ace at horror, so really Tina comes off as desperate and a bit sad. There’s also Brian, a new kid who ends up working on the scenery. Brian is a bit of a pushover, easily led into mischief when Brooke and Zeke want to do things like investigate the school late at night. He also doesn’t seem to want the play to close, so he’s not exactly a great choice. The most obvious suspect is Emile, the “night janitor.” Because that sounds totally legit. But they meet him when they break into the school the first time (to explore the area beneath the stage). And of course the kids learn that the school doesn’t have a night janitor, which does make Emile seem pretty suspicious.
At this point, Ms. Walker has cancelled and uncancelled the play a few times, because she can’t even with these fucking kids. But booze is a miraculous thing and soon she’s back on board and opening night is drawing near. And Brooke, pissed that the guy they got to replace Zeke is an utter fool, agrees to sneak into the school at night again to try and find out what’s really going on. This is where they rope Brian into coming with them and when the story reaches the heights of its horror. Because seriously, going into the “belly of the beast” on a ghost hunt is just Not A Good Idea. In what world does that end well?
But away they go, and down into the basement, where they eventually get stranded (who would have thought?!?!). Fears begin to fly. Is the Phantom really a ghost? Are they about to be...eaten...or something??? I’m not sure exactly what ghosts do but they are scary so everything gets real tense and strange. Until they stumble across a little room. With a little bed set up. And Emile! That’s right, it was the fake night janitor all along! Because he was the kid who died in the play seventy years ago, right?! Brooke actually floats this idea, that maybe that kid never died, but instead started living under the stage. But of course Emile’s only about fifty years old. I will admit, I kinda laughed at that, because it does sort of read true to me, that past a certain point adults are just Olds, and the concept of seventy years is kinda hard to envision.
But okay sad news bears, people, because the whole reason that Emile has been trying to scare them off is not supernatural in origin. Instead, he lost his job a while ago and is now homeless, and moved into the school basement because he knew there was this space under the stage (his dad worked at the school when Emile was a kid). And now the kids have ruined it! Which, yeah, they have, and there is a rather tense moment when no one knows what’s going to happen next. It’s like everyone is weighing how bad it would be to kill all three of the kids. Luckily for them, the elevator comes back down just then and they race for the relative safety of the upper world. Hilariously, Emile makes his escape and just stays gone. No further mischief, and no arrest despite the cops being called in (which, is that like a Goosebumps first? The cops actually showing up? Because weird). And with Zeke’s good name restore, the play can resume! The heroes win!!!
Only, of course, wait for it...
Opening night. Stomachs churn with the reanimated corpses of dozens of fetid butterflies. Parents sip discretely from flasks and wonder if they can get high in the school bathroom like in the good old days. Ms. Walker is drunk and complaining a little too loudly to her girlfriend about all the students. The scene is set. The lights go on. And Brooke is the star of the show. Completely nailing her shit. Tina can eat a poop casserole because our girl is good. And Zeke. Well...Zeke seems a little off but really into the performance. Turns out because hey, it’s not Zeke at all. It’s the Phantom. It’s a fucking ghost.
And okay, let’s slow this down a beat, because it turns out this is the dead kid from seventy years ago, finally freed from his imprisonment because of this play. Finally able to live again in the limelight, and finally—oops Brooke shoves him down the elevator shaft he died in seventy years ago and he’s dead FOR REAL now. Just poof, gone straight to hell without getting to finish the play that might have helped him make up for dying like a chump so many years ago. Way to go, Brooke. Oh, and that ghost was also Brian. Because the kids find an old yearbook and turns out that’s the kid who died back in the day. And...well, okay, I find it rather hilarious, because I’m a terrible person. But really, I love that there’s this big reveal, that not only is the ghost real, but he’s been waiting over seventy years for this play to be performed and his big day finally comes and...he just immediately ghost-dies before the play is over. And the implciation is this time it’s forever. Shit. Brooke, accidental ghostbuster. Just brutal.
Which makes my CONSPIRACY TIME that much sadder, because this seems so obviously a situation where Brian has been stuck here for so long just waiting to take care of his unfinished business, and he’s so fucking thrilled to finally be on stage, performing this play he never got to complete. One play, and he can move on and ascend. On play, and—oh right, he gets shoved into the one place that will kill him for real. That won’t let him move on, but rather annihilate his soul. The truly sad part of which is that everyone was liking his acting. And now...well, now Brooke probably needs therapy. But I think this only solidifies Brooke and Zeke as theater gays, but ones who always find themselves in cursed plays, playing the roles of paranormal detectives and actors. Which does sound pretty kickass.
But all right, let’s try to judge this book by the numbers!
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 4/5 (Okay there are so many possibilities here. And I know Goosebumps has something of a reputation for the whole boy/girl platonic relationship, but I really love it in this book especially because it opens Brooke and Zeke to be totally awesome queer kids getting into acting and having fun with it. I totally want to know if Tina’s shit is that she’s got a crush on Brooke and omglob I want Zeke to grow up to be the MESSIEST theater gay ever, just delightful but hell on directors everywhere and only able to get roles because he picks all the ones that are cursed. Just perfect)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 4/5 (This is a rather well put together book, imo, and one that holds up well over time. The whole cursed play mystery is actually complicated and there’s enough red herrings to keep things interesting. The question of if there’s a real ghost is also fun, and harkens a bit back to other styles of mystery like Scooby Doo. The relationship between Brooke and Zeke is great and the book actually does a good job with Brian and Tina and even Ms. Walker, plus the whole Emile is homeless thing doesn’t just come out of left field. The twist at the end is sort of...eh, but overall this is another very solid book, without much in the way of major issues)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 4/5 (I’m giving this one fours across the board because I do appreciate the is it/isn’t it ghosts aspect and while the specific mystery doesn’t involve the supernatural, that there was a ghost among them all along is pretty great and that Brooke just casually destroys him is on point. I love it. It doesn’t get as weird as it could, but again it has a classic Goosebumps feel despite it coming in the mid twenties. Very solid, great use of middle school theater, and while the twist is very dark, I actually appreciate it much more than some of the other ones)
Another enjoyable book! I might be getting a little spoiled. Let’s see if this continues in next month’s review of Goosebumps #25: ATTACK OF THE MUTANT.