When I first began reading Goosebumps, they were still relatively new.
My mom was a teacher, and in the summers she’d take us to the Scholastic book warehouse where I’d load up on as many discounted copies as I could get my hands on.
Since reading was the only thing I could do well, I read a lot — pretty much only for entertainment. I was always hoping I’d make some friends like in the books I read. You know, maybe an athletic girl would kick a soccer ball that knocked off my glasses, and so would begin a great friendship filled with misunderstandings. We’d solve crimes with someone’s younger sibling.
None of those hopes came to pass, at least not as a child. When I got older, I made friends through my reading in bars, with other people reading in bars. Generally, this resulted in horrific flings.
Anyway, back in childhood: one summer afternoon, a mountain resort in Vermont, by the pool, under a gazebo, with my Goosebumps book. I measured my success via two metrics: how fast I could race through the pages, and how frightened I felt.
At this point, I recall a distinct feeling of success on both counts. I could read a full Goosebumps book in around three hours. And I was increasingly fearless. Ironically, I was developing a full-fledged phobia around this same time.
I knew I could continue the series…but something in me cried out “what’s the point?” And really, what was the point? It was simply entertainment. I wasn’t sure what was next.
I soon gave up Goosebumps in favor of Fear Street. Goosebumps focused more on the supernatural. Any human deaths generally occurred outside the narrative. Fear Street, as I recall, killed off its characters regularly, and the evil was more human.
I began having nightmares every night, and a sense of dread throughout the days. I recall sitting in the back of the band classroom, hiding behind the marimba or timpani, powering through these books while the sound of class was a million miles away.
My parents forbade me from reading them so my nightmares would stop. Without scary books, I had to find other subjects to capture my imagination.
And so, I’m revisiting books, and Nettie suggested we read one of these weekly through the year. Why not?
The first thing I noticed is how much slower I read now. I took care with each sentence, noticing the attention to detail, and how the paragraphs flow between subjects. The brother, Josh, reacts to something, which leads to a description of him. Maybe simple, maybe predictable, but I enjoyed looking at the words rather than simply consuming them.
Until the ghost appears. And then I felt that deep injection of adrenaline in my gut. So I pulled out, now with the benefit of years of therapy, and observed the sense of fear. And how strange that Stine knows how to really stick it to you using only words. Simple words. And also that it’s a sense I apparently share with the young audience the book is intended for!
Once I began feeling fear, I had to occupy my mind with something else before going to sleep. And eventually began feeling a need to race through the pages to reach the conclusion. I found myself paying less attention to the details.
Book #2 begins not in the first person, but the third. This surprisingly little shift makes me think about the care Stine needs to put into the Goosebumps factory. He can give himself permission to experiment. I’m curious about his formula — but not curious enough to examine.
By Books #3, “Monster Blood”, and #4 “Say Cheese And Die” we’re firmly into something I find fascinating: the world of children, as distinct from the world of adults. Kids go outside and play. I don’t quite remember what this means. There was no real planning involved. You just leave your house, and go out into the neighborhood. And you interact with whoever else is outside also. While your time doing this is limited, it’s still a hell of a lot of time. And it’s daily. Virtually no responsibilities. Virtually no goals. You’re pretty much just a dog—you eat, you sleep, and when you become too much of a nuisance, you go outside and interact with others just like you.
Stine, so far, restricts his characters to this world almost entirely. So far, it’s always summer or vacation of some sort. Parents are often absent. In “Dead House” they’re busy with a house move. In “Basement” the mother is out of town while the father is occupied with work. In “Monster Blood” the parents are out of town. In “Say Cheese” the parents are preoccupied with their own lives.
Another similarity exists between the kids—as I mentioned above, they’re like dogs. They have virtually no distinguishing features. They’re all about 12. None of them are particularly committed to any interests — they’re just trying to avoid boredom. Boredom leads to getting into trouble. Gender doesn’t really make any difference either. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember if the narrator or main character is a boy or girl. They’re all easily distracted. Repeatedly, they’ll be discussing something crucial — life or death situations — and someone will make a joke or comment that ends all serious thought. Or suggests that the subject is “stupid” or boring.
And it’s not only the influence of others that leads them to lose interest in conversation—it’s also themselves. They’re quick to pull themselves out of any line of thought by simply dismissing it. The most obvious and infuriating example of this is when the kids in “Say Cheese” keep taking photos — essentially, every time you take a photo of someone or something, it spits out a photo of the future when something bad has happened to it. So when they take a photo of a new car, it shows the car badly mangled in an accident. The characters repeatedly dismiss the camera as “broken” regardless of how many times this happens—and comes true!
A final trait they all share is a poor ability to communicate.
I’ve read about how in the 1960s a movement, exemplified by Mad Magazine, grew around dividing children from parents. This is particularly fascinating since childhood is a relatively recent phenomenon. Young people were pulled out of the world of adults to become “children” — and become, for lack of a better term, little shits. Demanding to be cared for, but resenting their caretakers. By the time I was a kid, media for children would often repeat the same things about adults: “they don’t understand you.” Don’t they? Well, I keep hearing it so they must not. Teachers don’t understand you. Parents don’t. Other adults don’t. What don’t they understand? I’m not quite sure — but I felt misunderstood, so I focused on the media made by adults who apparently DID understand me.
These books perfectly illustrate the feeling of being a misunderstood kid. You want the help of adults because the problems you’re facing are too big and scary to deal with on your own. But when you tell them what’s up — they just don’t listen. They dismiss you. They ignore you. So you have to deal with problems on your own, and fix things on your own.
Yet time and again the problem isn’t merely that parents don’t understand. It’s that kids don’t know how to explain things in a way that doesn’t sound ridiculous. When the main character in “Monster Blood” finally decides to tell an adult his problem — he says something along the lines of “my Monster Blood has grown out of control.” What the fuck are you talking about? Go outside and play. The correct thing to say is “hey…look at this. Remember when I bought it, how it fit in this can? Well, now it doesn’t fit into this bathtub, and it’s eating stuff — watch — and I don’t know what to do.” Same in “Say Cheese” — the cop is like “hey, what’s up? Is there something you can add to this investigation?” And the kid’s like “my camera is evil. It made her disappear.” Yeah, okay. Stop wasting my time, kid.
But as a child, I thought the kids were saying things that totally made sense!
Now, of course, I see the adults as making complete sense. It’s picture after picture of parents who are struggling. At the mercy of poor health, of responsibility to family, of jobs that leach all sense of control out of your life. And the relationships between parents — they’re exhausted, they get on each others’ nerves, they have difficulty communicating, they’re plainly unhappy. They reflect people I know. While as a child I saw the adults in these books as too serious, uncaring, willfully misunderstanding the kids — now I relate to them.