I Re-read a Bunch of Goosebumps Books and You Should Too!

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When I was young, I didn’t have many friends. My family moved around a lot, and I lived in four states before I was ten years old. I was always the new kid at school, and it didn’t help that I was awkward as hell. So I spent a lot of time in my childhood reading. My favorite place in any town was either the library or Barnes and Noble. To this day, I find the smell of old books to be incredibly comforting. Around eight years old, one of my absolute favorite books was R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was a horror fanatic from a very early age, and I gobbled up these short little books like candy. I had a huge collection of them which I prized greatly.

Fast-forward a few years, and I am heading off to university. I left all of my things, including my well-stocked bookcase, at my parent’s house. However, a few months later they decided to move again. They boxed up all my things and put them in the basement of their new house.

The basement flooded that year. Most of my childhood toys, clothes, and other mementos were ruined. Including all my books. It was devastating.

I open with this story not to depress you but to explain why now, as an adult, I am working to collect the entire Goosebumps series. It’s become a bit of a passion project, because as a lonely, socially awkward child, my books were my refuge.

Last week I took a trip to the local thrift shop and stumbled across a gold mine. Nearly twenty-five of the original Goosebumps books were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me. I bought them all and walked home with them shoved into a backpack. My husband, whose feelings towards my book hoarding can best be described as amused confusion, asked if I actually planned on reading any of them.

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So I did. I sat down and read twenty-five Goosebumps books over the course of five days. None of them will count towards my goal of reading one hundred books this year, but I’m ahead of schedule and wanted a break.

While I was reading, a made a few notes as to why I think these books were so popular for children in the ’90s. And why they can still be a good entry into chapter books for kids today.

  1. They’re scary but not too scary. I have always been obsessed with the horror genre. Books, movies, comics, anything. Goosebumps was probably my first foray into books that could be considered “scary”. And to a second or third grader, they are pretty creepy. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, basically any classic monster has its place in Stine’s universe. He has an innate sense of how to chill his young readers without scarring them for life. His characters aren’t always brave, either. Sometimes they turn tail and run, just like we would. But at the end of the day, no one in the Goosebumps novels is ever in mortal danger. In Stine’s Fear Street series, which was written for an older audience, the characters often die. But the Goosebumps books are wonderfully innocent in that regard.
  2. For a child, the characters are someone to look up to. One thing that I never noticed as a kid was that every single main character in the Goosebumps books is twelve years old. Every single one. This was not an attempt to appeal to twelve year olds. By the time I was twelve I had long since moved on to Stephen King. No, R. L. Stine understood that children around seven to nine years old look up to and admire the “big” kids. Twelve is the perfect age for adventures. They’re not quite teenagers, but have more freedom than younger kids. They have the problem-solving skills that would generally allow them to behave properly in a scary environment. But they aren’t so old that they are preoccupied by the trials and tribulations of puberty.
  3. Their problems were our problems. Not the ghosts and werewolves. But a major running theme of the Goosebumps books deals with bullies. And annoying siblings. Unfair teachers and parents who don’t believe their children. Getting grounded. Being embarrassed in front of your classmates. All of the things that seemed to fill up the whole world when you were a kid. Everyone remembers the desperate unfairness of being a kid and having little power to change your circumstances. I was surprised by how strongly I responded to these children being bullied by their peers or older siblings. I think it would resonate just as much with today’s kids. Especially since the bullies or mean siblings always seem to get their comeuppance.
  4. The books are very predictable. This is important when you’re trying to encourage young children to read. Especially if you are also trying to scare them, but not too much. There are a few things that happen in every single book. At some point, one of the characters will say, “What could go wrong?” There will be a very scary sequence that turns out to be a nightmare. There will always be a heavy use of foreshadowing. And nearly every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. As an adult, the cliff-hanger chapter comes across as terribly lazy. But for a child, it’s key. It keeps them reading. Keeps them engaged and turning the pages.

In the end, I had a blast reveling in childhood nostalgia with the Goosebumps books this week. I’m going to continue trolling my local Salvation Army with the hopes of eventually completing my collection. I’m looking forward to reading them one day to my own children. Hopefully we can all be scared together.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#20 Penpal by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

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Penpal is a series of interconnected stories that detail the creepy and mysterious circumstances surrounding a young boy’s childhood. As an adult, the narrator is beginning to understand that what seemed like random events from when he was a kid was actually a terrifying pattern centered around a madman.

Penpal has a rather interesting origin story. It began as an installment on reddit.com’s Nosleep forum. It was then picked up and recorded in audio form by the award-winning Nosleep podcast. The initial chapter became incredibly popular, and author Dathan Auerbach expanded his narrative to include additional chapters, eventually gathering enough to form a short novel. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Auerbach was able to self-publish this novel under his reddit name 1000Vultures in 2012.

I stumbled upon this book last autumn while I was scouring the internet for scary novels in anticipation of Halloween, and was immediately intrigued by the creepy-ass cover art. As an avid horror reader, I am well-acquainted with short-form scary stories on websites such as creepypasta. I love them because you can generally finish one installment in about ten minutes. You’re in, you’re scared, you’re out.

Unfortunately, this becomes the main problem with Penpal. The short-form horror format has limitations that make the transition to long-form narrative a difficult one. Penpal often comes off as disjointed. There is next to no character arc. There are major discrepancies between some of the different chapters. The primary meat of the story is preceded by a strange, obviously tacked-on introduction where the narrator explains why there might be discrepancies. And while individually the chapters are creepy and unsettling, the novel as a whole falls a little flat.

My favorite sections were “Footprints”, “Balloons,” and “Boxes”. Auerbach does an excellent job of setting his reader ill at ease using a minimum of words. He takes ordinary things, such as receiving letters from a penpal, and manages to make them exceedingly disturbing. The fact that the narrator is only around six years old for the majority of the novel is compelling. Children this age are largely innocent, and will generally accept any explanation from an adult. So the fact that a six-year old boy is more puzzled than terrified by the events of Penpal is believable.

However, a six-year old boy also has limitations, which Auerbach occasionally forgets. In one chapter, the narrator and his classmate build a functional raft which is capable of floating down a river. Now, I’ve taught kindergarten. Most of my students were incapable of tying their shoes on a regular basis, and became frustrated trying follow Lego instructions. Not to disparage small children, they are brilliant in their own way, but it is utterly improbable that two unsupervised six-year old boys could build a full-sized raft. Speaking of unsupervised, the time period is obviously meant to reflect those glory days of “free-range” childhood, but I’m pretty sure no child of that age would be allowed the freedom of this kid. Mothers may have been less hyper-vigilant in the ’80’s but they weren’t that nonchalant.

Overall, your enjoyment of Penpal will be closely linked to your enjoyment of short-form horror. In individual, unconnected installments, it is effectively creepy and unsettling. However, when viewed as a whole it becomes limited in its ability to scare. The fact that the last chapter is a muddled mess that seeks to “solve” the mystery did not end things on a high note for me.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Penpal here on Amazon or here on BookDepository.

Happy reading everyone!

#19 Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (2018)

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In the near future, Roe v Wade, the United States Supreme Court ruling allowing women safe and legal access to abortion, has been repealed. In its place has been passed the Personhood Amendment, which grants the rights of life, liberty, and property to any fertilized embryo. In a small fishing village in Oregon, four women are trying to come to grips with this new world and how it changes their identity as women and potential mothers.

Red Clocks is an example of a world in which one major change can have a snowball effect on an entire community. Author Leni Zumas does not paint a world as dark and dystopian as The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are not property, they aren’t forced to have sex or made to obey their husbands as gods. Even birth control is still perfectly legal. Instead, Zumas’ vision is of a world where day-to-day life carries on almost the same as it did before. In this way, Red Clocks is somehow more unsettling, because the reader feels that this is a world that could rationally exist in their lifetime. It is, in fact, a world that many in the U.S. are actively campaigning to bring about.

In Zumas’ novel the repeal of Roe v Wade creates changes of a sinister and subtle nature. Once abortion is criminalized, it ripples out in ways that extend beyond the scope of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. In-vitro fertilization is no longer allowed because the embryo can not “agree” to be moved. Adoption is only granted to married couples because they won’t be a “drain” on the system. The border between the United States and Canada becomes a nightmare as women caught trying to cross the border to gain access to abortion clinics are sent back to be prosecuted for attempted murder.

Instead or the outrage and fury that I felt while reading The Handmaid’s Tale, this book instead left me with an overwhelming feeling of sadness.  As a woman who has chosen to remain childless at thirty years of age, I could identify with the struggle of Ro, who feels that her life is somehow lesser because she never had kids. I also loved the story of Gin, the herbalist who becomes the last resort for desperate women.

How much of a woman’s identity is tied to her ability to have a child? How much of a woman’s identity should she be prepared to give up in order to raise a child? Why does society say that women who choose not to have children are somehow inadequate or incomplete? These are just some of the questions raised by Red Clocks.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Red Clocks here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#18 Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (2017)

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Thalassophobia: an intense fear of the sea and what lurks beneath.

After her older sister is lost at sea while filming a monster-hunting style show on mermaids, Tory Stewart agrees to ship out with the crew of the Melusine as they travel to the oceans around the Mariana trench. The goal is to dive to the depths of the Challenger Deep to seek out the mermaids that legends say still dwell in the waters. Hopefully they’ll be able to solve the mystery of what happened to the first vessel. Once there, the group of scientists finds out that looking for monsters and finding them are two very different things.

Mira Grant is one of my favorite authors. Her Newsflesh trilogy, about the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, is utterly brilliant. The Parasitology trilogy, about sentient tapeworms taking control of their human hosts, is equally well written. So when I found out that Grant was releasing a stand-alone novel, I was thrilled. My excitement grew when I found out that the plot was going to be centered around the deep ocean.

Being in the deep sea makes me intensely uncomfortable. This might be due to the fact that I grew up in a landlocked state and never saw the sea until I was seventeen. I’m great on boats, and I’m perfectly happy in shallow water. I’ve even been scuba-diving twice. But the moment that I can no longer see the seabed my heart rate instantly goes through the roof. It’s the same with lakes as well, and it’s a pretty straightforward fear. I don’t know what’s down there. Even worse, I understand enough of marine biology to know what’s down there, and I want no part of it. I went into Mira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deep knowing (and hoping) that it might scare me. Boy was I right.

In the year 2022, humans have polluted the Earth to the point of a mass die-off of both land and marine life. Grant does not try to hide her strong environmental message. Leave the orcas alone, stop dumping things into the oceans and the air. Or don’t be surprised when drought, famine, and fires sweep the planet. The hubris of mankind has brought us low in Grant’s novel, and the main characters are scientists who are just trying to mitigate the damage.

This is a science fiction novel with a strong horror theme. There is one amazing scene where Heather, a young scientist, is taking a personal submersible into the chasm of the Challenger Deep. As the blackness and the pressure mounts, the tension rises to a screaming pitch. It is claustrophobic to the point of being physically uncomfortable. What Heather finds at the bottom of her journey sets in motion the rest of the novel’s action.

The basic plot centers around one simple question. What if the mermaids of our mythology looked, not like this:

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beautiful, nubile, pageant queens of the sea. And more like this:

 

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deep sea nightmare fodder?

Grant’s “mermaids” are carnivorous, intelligent, and, utterly in their element both in and out of the water. The scientists on board the Melusine are so egotistically wrapped up in their new discovery that they never stop to think that the “mermaids” chose to be discovered at the proper moment. Of course, not until it is too late.

One of my favorite things about all of Mira Grant’s books is that she has a very pure idea of science fiction. There is actual science present, but it is accessible to the layman. I always come away from one of her novels feeling as though I’ve learned something; in this case about the Mariana Trench, the Challenger Deep, why the ship is named the Melusine, and more. Her main characters tend to be female, and even better, females in STEM. I love the idea of young women reading this novel and having their imaginations sparked by the pursuit and discovery and danger inherent in the exploration of our world.

I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves suspense, the sea, and the thrill of scientific discovery. I would not, however; recommend it for a trip to the beach. Or on a cruise. Don’t even take it in the bath.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Into the Drowning Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. there is a short prequel novel entitled Rolling in the Deep, which centers around the crew of the first crew. I haven’t been able to find it at my library yet, but if I ever find it I’ll let you know what I think!

 

#17 The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson (2018)

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Somewhere in the near future humanity has been decimated by the combination of nuclear winter and a fatal flu pandemic. Deep in the wilds of the Yukon, Lynn and her family have been forced to learn how to survive in this harsh new environment. Their fragile existence is shattered when a mysterious lone figure shows up at their cabin, bringing with him the shadows of the world they left behind.

This is author Tyrell Johnson’s debut, and he does an excellent job of drawing us in to the cold snows of Canadian winter. The opening chapters are like a post-apocalyptic Little House on the Prairie. We meet Lynn McBride as she is hunting, and are later introduced to the rest of her small family, all of whom work hard to pull their weight in the harsh Northern climate.

As a heroine, Lynn is vulnerable enough that we believe when she is in danger, while also being resourceful enough to hold her own against both her enemies and the elements. She is yet another example of the “bow-and-arrow” girl that has become so popular in YA literature. I get the appeal of the bow-and-arrow girl. The weapon has the feminine undertones of Diana the Huntress while still being effective at bringing home food. It also doesn’t carry with it the negative connotations associated with firearms. The bow is the “sexy” way to hunt. Just once, I would love to see a YA heroine who hunts using a boomerang. Or a blowgun.

There were parts of the novel when I wondered if Lynn was initially written to be much younger than the twenty-three year old that appears in the book. Maybe Johnson re-wrote her character to be older when he decided to make her sexually active? It was more of a curiosity, and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. There are aspects of The Wolves of Winter to entertain both older teens and adults.

This would be a great novel to read while sitting inside sipping a mug of hot chocolate while a blizzard rages outside.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Wolves of Winter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#16 Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#15 The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George (1998)

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Like so many others, I have always been fascinated by the story of the Tudors. As a child, one of my first forays into historical fiction was the story of Elizabeth I from The Royal Diaries series. I have read most of the Philippa Greggory novels, as well as several by Alison Weir. Even though I’m about as familiar with the history of the Tudor dynasty as it is possible for a non-academic to be, I was still excited to sink back into their world when I picked up Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VII.

This was my fourth novel by George, so I was not surprised to see that Henry VIII was over nine hundred pages of small print. All her books are enormous, and in my opinion she could definitely use a more stringent editor. The amount of detail presented in George’s novels is both impressive and frustrating. She obviously does an incredible amount of research for her books. The question is just whether or not the reader needs that much detail.

Henry VIII’s most memorable legacy is undoubtedly the fact that he had six wives, and had two of them executed. Most books about this time period focus on his tumultuous love affair with Anne Boleyn which resulted in England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church. I was therefore surprised to find that this novel was not a love story in any way. Instead of pages and pages about the passionate relationship between the king and the commoner, Henry VIII chooses instead to focus on the religious aspects of the matter. The wives are relegated to the background for long periods. The formation of the Church of England with King Henry at its head is given a lot of attention here. Rather than love, one almost gets the sense that Henry breaks with Rome due to a childish temper tantrum.

The most interesting parts of this novel detail the mental jumping jacks Henry needs to perform in order to justify his actions. The Henry of this book is presented as insecure and lonely, surrounded by sycophants and unable to trust anyone. His early desire for a father figure leads to his close relationships with people like Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey. The fact that he destroyed the lives of both these men (and all of his wives) is important to note. But we are all the heroes of our own narratives, and since this novel is told from the periods of Henry VIII, we are treated to all manner of rationalizations for these actions. The way he tells it, everything happened for a perfectly logical reason.

Why are we so intrigued by the Tudors? Part of me wonders if it isn’t the same reason why people love to watch the Kardashian family bickering, or the drunken antics of the Jersey Shore cast. We love to see privileged people behaving badly. It gives us a sense of moral superiority. In the case of King Henry VIII, his reign also represents a time of extreme religious and political upheaval. After all, Protestantism was able to gain a foothold in Europe due to the actions of one man who loved one girl.

Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII represents another satisfying addition to the historical fiction focused on the Tudors. However, it is far too long. I would recommend it to someone who was incredibly interested in this time period, but it’s definitely an undertaking.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!