Mimosas. Dear readers, my apologies. I had every intention of getting this done before the new year, but time and circumstances conspired to make that just not possible. Alas! However, the winds of fortune have indeed righted my flagging ship and powered by delicious mimosas I am ready to take the deep dive into what is one of the mind-fuckiest and tragic Goosebumps novels yet. Yes, that is something of a tall order, given some of the other books I've covered (I'm looking at you, The Ghost Next Door). But seriously, this book is strange, sinking, and fucking gutting. Shall we?
Now, this book also features what is probably the largest cast of a Goosebumps book to date as well, with the main character Larry...well, not so much the leader as just one of the gang. He's part of a band, see, called The Geeks, who are getting ready to take on the much more affluent Howie Hurwin and his Howie and the Shouters in a local Battle of the Bands. So right off the bat we have a pretty solid plot already established. Larry and his friends (Manny, Jared, Kristina, and Lily) are a bit of a motley crew, with three guitarists, one keyboardist, and one vocalist. The redundancy will become important later, don't worry.
Anyway, the early story gets a few things out of the way. First, Larry's neighborhood has something of a dog problem, with packs of strays roaming the streets looking for children to devour. Solid plan, I must say, and it seems that they love chasing Larry especially. Second, Larry has really nice hair. He takes care of that shit, brushing it nicely and maintaining its perfect wave. Third, he's part of an actually decent friend group that just feels so...out of place in Goosebumps. Yes, they give each other a bit of a hard time, but no one is insufferable and while there is a little teasing, it's in good fun and mostly everyone just seems to like each other. Readers, you know you're in for some heartbreak, right? You can smell it in the air?
Well, so, after playing outside in the snow a little, the gang finds a bottle of INSTA-TAN in a dumpster and decide to give it a try. And okay, this isn't perhaps the greatest of ideas. But it's only a few months after its expiration date, so what's the big deal. It's not like going invisible or trying to scare someone to prop up toxic masculinity so what's the harm? Well, when Larry almost passes out after putting it on and going out to play...
Only psyche! Yeah, in a trend that will continue to get darker and darker over time, the book reveals that this passing out is just normal. Larry just can't sweat. No big deal. He gets injections regularly so that this...isn't a problem. And the Battle of the Bands inches closer. Really, I love how focused this book is. A lot of the time these books sort of fart around a little, but this one is playing a long con and so definitely strives to keep the plot zooming right ahead, which is where we get our first complication: hair! Turns out Larry is starting to grow dark, thick hairs on his hands and other places. Readers, if you're like me, you might think now that we've entered soundly into the realm of the horrors of puberty. Larry is growing hair that he finds unsightly, that he will do anything to eradicate. Personally I think the book goes a little heavy on how gross these hairs are supposed to be, but I'm guessing since hair is Larry's thing, he's terrified of that changing.
And so he resorts to shaving the hairs off as they appear and trying to keep them from everyone. Which makes a lot of sense, given that this isn't something he's been prepared for. And okay, I do kinda love that so much of this book is about no one wanting to talk to Larry about puberty and how he internalizes all this rather harmful shame and shit and really if people just paused for a moment and actually dealt with his fear, a lot of the angst of the book would be resolved. And really, to the book's credit, it does position Larry as wanting so desperately so say what's going on, to confess what's happening to his body, and being met with either deflection, disbelief, or dishonesty. It's something that speaks to me about puberty especially in the 90s, where television and public school was supposed to explain things but also didn't explain anything at all. So the shaving continues, and the Battle of the Bands gets closer still. And, of course, members of the band start to go missing.
Again, I like how the book builds this, because Manny just sort of vanishes and the kids are stunned by it. Worse, he's not just gone--his entire family is out of their house and no one knows what happened to them. Everyone just sort of acts like it's not a problem, and the kids have to just accept that and move on. Until Lily goes missing, too, and Larry notices two new dogs in the neighborhood that bear a striking resemblance to his friends. Which of course freaks him out. But again, even after confessing his fears to his parents, they just sort of shoot him down, tell him not to worry. He's shaved away the hair, so for them that's good enough. He's desperate to know what's happening, and they're desperate to not want to think about it. It's pretty fucked up.
Meanwhile the band is having some problems. Down to Larry, Jared, and Kristina, they rearrange some of their work and still have one guitarist, one vocalist, and one keyboardist (see, the redundancies worked themselves out!). And they take on Howie and the Shouters on the big night. It looks like it could be a disaster...until people notice the Geeks' special effects. How do they get Larry to grow hair all over his body? In a scene right out of Freud's fantasies, Larry breaks out in fur right there on stage, and everyone loves it. The Geeks win, but Larry is too upset to really enjoy it. He runs home, and confronts his parents with what's happened.
Readers, I have no conspiracy theory for this book because reality is so much more brutal than anything I could have come up with. Because finally, faced with the hairy mess in front of them, Larry's parents decide to finally come clean. He's going through changes. Changes that all the children in the town will go through around this time. Something completely natural and totally nothing to be ashamed of. He's turning back into a dog.
Now okay, that might seem a little abrupt. But ask yourself, what makes more sense: that children enter into puberty and emerge adolescents dealing with hormones and trauma and bullshit social expectations and gender roles...or that children are just dogs that a mad scientist has injected with weird drugs to make human except the drugs don't last forever and so around this time all the dog-children revert to their natural state and, presumably, die shortly after? Search your hearts, I think you know the answer.
Seriously, I can't tell if this is a brilliant work about how parents and society are terrible at preparing children for the realities of puberty, and that the whole idea of these new expectations are bullshit and damaging to young people who really don't need to be shamed about their bodies and desires...or if the book is like the most irresponsible thing every written, essentially telling young people that if they start growing hair in weird places...they're a dog. Now, not that kids go to Goosebumps looking to find out about the facts of life (glob help us all if that were the case), but it really is something that I can only stare at and slowly shake my head at, because not only is it saying that the main character and all his friends were dogs all along, the implication there is that, well, they are also twelve years old, which is dog years is...close to the grave, shall we say. So...
Okay, and that's not even "the twist" really. The real twist is that the experiment, in which the entire town was participating (I guess with couples who couldn't have or didn't want biological children), is that it's all a failure and being shut down. It's "too painful" for the parents to raise children just to have them turn into dogs, so they won't be doing it any more. With dogs. Larry's "parents" do, however, jump at the charter program to make children out of cats. Which...really, glob help everyone.
And I guess for me it is a rather sharp piece about how puberty can feel, how fraught it is and how much rejection and fear go with it. Not only does Larry have to contend with the fear of being rejected by his friends and peers, but his parents want nothing to do with it, finding it too painful for themselves that they have to deal with him changing and so making him deal with it all on his own, despite that they chose this for him and could easily give him information and tools to help make sense of it. It shows a central selfishness of parents who find their children going through puberty distasteful and just want young children forever with their innocence and pureness. Blech. In any event, I say that it's heartbreaking because it is. Because Larry loses everything, along with his friends, and aren't even truly mourned. Maybe it's not quite the same level of Holy Shit as accidentally burning your house down and killing yourself and your family, but I think the implications here, and the scale, make it even more horrifying.
But yeah, let's see how it measures up with the ratings!
On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 3/5 (there are two things that I would like to explore with this book via fanfiction: the lives of these elderly dogs after their reversion and what the fuck happens with Howie and the Shouters. It's never really revealed if Howie is also a dog, though I guess that might be likely if the whole town was effected? The school might include a lot of different towns, though? With the dogs, I wonder if the reason that they just go around attacking people is that they're trying to do something, trying to stop the cycle before they die, which can't take too long after they revert. And like, this has to be something that has been happening for a while, with older siblings and the like, or just other families who have moved away when their "child" turned back into a dog)
On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 4/5 (this book does a lot of things that make it stand out quality-wise from the series in average. First, it supports a larger cast while still being focused and effective. The plots all work together, none of them feeling tacked on--indeed, all of them are essential to the story. It makes a lot of interesting choices, forebodes the hell out of the whole dog thing, and is terrifying as fuck to thing about. It really does a great job with Larry trying to work up the courage to talk about his problems, and then it just goes from the throat with how he's treated after. It's not without its flaws, but I think this one does hold up as a decent story, with or without the Goosebumps flag)
On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 3/5 (this one falls into the trap of being a much better book than it is a Goosebumps book. While I love a lot of what it does, and while the ending is a masterpiece of WTF, the characters are a bit too well-adjusted, and the horror just a bit too real for it to work on the same level as a lot of the series, which is ridiculous above all and campy and...well, not too serious? Not that this makes for a bad installment, but the horror is much more cerebral here and the decision-making, outside of the whole INSTA-TAN thing, which was a nice red herring, was actually sound. The horror isn't so much what happened, but that it was always supposed to happen this way, and...ouch)
Okay, that's it! Join me next month for more Liver Beware!