Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Stinal Countdown: Goosebumps #1: Welcome to Dead House


In 1992, author Robert Lawrence Stine finished the first two books in a children's horror anthology that he (as well as Scholastic, the publisher) thought wouldn't amount to much other than maybe some okay-ish sales at book fairs. Little did he, or anyone else know that it would turn into one of the most successful book series of all time. That, of course, is Goosebumps. In 2017 and 2018, I covered the original 62 books for my blog, Retro Oasis. Now with a couple years since then and my opinions changing a bit since then, and a George Lucas-ian need to improve on what was fine enough, I figured let's start this blog off by once again covering the original Goosebumps series. And with July marking the 28th anniversary (because let's face it, it's a crap shoot if the human race will make it to the 30th), it's as good a time as any, as well as a great time to start a new blog dedicated to books. 

Goosebumps is the creation of R.L. Stine, an Ohio born author who has had a long history in the book industry with works including some G.I. Joe novels, movie books for Spaceballs and Ghostbusters II, and the success that first put his name on the map, Fear Street. He also wrote for the Nick Jr. show Eureeka's Castle under the name "Jovial Bob Stine". So, get used to me calling him Jovial Bob a lot. Fear Street, the teen-focused horror novel series proved a massive hit. So massive that book publisher Scholastic brought Stine on to write a series of kid-friendly horror novels. Stine accepted, and after reading a TV guide that advertised "Goosebumps Week", he got the name of his book series. Goosebumps began publication in July of 1992 with two books released, Welcome to Dead House and Stay Out of The Basement. The books stood out from most other kids novels on the shelf with their eye-catching cover design of multi-colored slime borders, beveled slimy logo, and, most importantly, the striking artwork, the majority done by New Jersey artist Tim Jacobus. 

Initially, Stine had only signed on for a four-book deal, and didn't expect much from the series. But word of mouth spread, the book numbers were surprisingly strong and Scholastic was thrilled enough to have Stine continue for more books, until eventually entering a seemingly endless run... until it ended unceremoniously in 2000. Millions of copies sold, the franchise became a marketing juggernaut, and it eventually spawned its own TV show to rival Nickelodeon's hit Are You Afraid of the Dark? series. And when I was a kid... I was scared of them. Mainly the cover art which kept me away. But with nearly three decades past, I've now collected a wide majority of the books, and have come to kinda love them in their mostly terrible, but still endearing way. And with the preamble out of the way, let's start our journey yet again.

WELCOME TO DEAD HOUSE
RELEASE: July, 1992
FRONT BLURB: It will just kill you...

COVER STORY

First impressions are important. And for not just the debut of Goosebumps but the debut of Tim Jacobus to many a youth, this cover is great. It's not the scariest, but still invokes a creepy atmosphere. From the broken stairs, the open door emitting a strange orange glow, to, of course, the creeper in the window, it makes you feel scared to see what's inside, but yet you feel compelled to enter that door and find out. I'm also gonna gush a lot of the foliage and trees of Tim Jacobus as they are always a nice touch. Be they old and creepy, or pleasant, working to enhance the nightmarish scene he's created. They always add so much. A solid start all the way.

LOOK ALIVE!

Amanda and Josh think the old house they have just moved into is weird. Spooky. Possibly haunted. And the town of Dark Falls is pretty strange, too.

But their parents don't believe them. You'll get used to it, they say. Go out and make some new friends.

So Amanda and Josh do. But these friends are not exactly what their parents had in mind. 

Because they want to be friends...
...forever.

STORY

The Benson family have moved to the small town of Dark Falls after receiving an old house from their Uncle Charles. Only thing sticking out to them is that they don't know any Uncle Charles. But instead of having this feel like some strange Scooby Doo plot, the family is like "Hey, free house!" Our protagonist Amanda and her younger brother Josh are far less interested. Josh just full on whining about having to move from their home. Not only are the kids bothered, but their usually well behaved terrier Petey. But the family are assured by Compton Dawes, the young realtor, that everything is just really, really fine. Nothing to worry about at all. The family (all but Josh and Petey) enter their new house and find it to be rather quaint. Amanda finishes picking her new room when she notices a boy in the hallway. It's not Josh, but some random blonde kid. But the kid soon disappears, with Amanda chalking it up to perhaps seeing things.

Amanda goes to find Josh, but he's nowhere in sight. The family and Dawes search for him, finding him at the cemetery. Petey had gotten free and seemed to be really fixated on one of the gravestones. But the family pay it no mind, thinking the dog's gone crazy for some reason. Some time passes and the Bensons move to their new house in Dark Falls. But when Amanda arrives, she sees what she thinks is the blonde boy again in her room. She goes to investigate, but get scared by Josh. Ah, the first true fake-out scare. Get used to them, because they'll become Stine's crutch.She investigates the room some more, but only finds Petey. 

Later that night, Amanda falls asleep and we get a rather bizarre dream sequence. One that kinda predates the cover of an upcoming book. Amanda dreams that she and her family are all dead, faces devoid of flesh and eyes, sitting at the dinner table. On the table are piles of bones. She sees her friend Kathy at the door, but is unable to move. This is a weird dream as it really plays no part in the rest of the story. Honestly, it feels more like Stine padding and adding something scary since really so far all we've had is some atmospheric scares, but nothing else, really. She wakes up to see the curtains in her room moving, but the window is closed! She tries to tell her parents about the strange boy, but her parents don't believe her because, and get used to this one, because Goosebumps Parents. Josh jokes that maybe a ghost is behind the curtain. Oh my god, the ghost is TED DANSON!

The next day, Amanda sees another figure, this time of a girl about her age giving off a really evil smile apparently. But when she tells her father, he says that it's just a pile of clothes. After the laundry quandary, she then hears voices in her room. She and Josh are now both bothered by the house and decide to leave, hoping to get their minds off their nightmares. They meet a boy Amanda's age named Ray Thurston, who Amanda recognizes as the boy she keeps seeing, but he denies it. Ray mentions that he used to live in their house, which sets off a couple alarm bells. They soon run into some more kids including a boy named George Carpenter and a girl named Karen Somerset, who also mentions previously living in their house. Suddenly more kids arrive with baseball bats, circling Amanda and Josh. But before we go all baseball furies, Mr. Dawes shows up to break the tension. The kids all go play baseball for a while, until the sun starts to fill the field, causing the Dark Falls kids to leave early to Amanda's confusion.

A few weeks pass by. Amanda still hears noises in her room, but has gotten used to it. After playing another baseball game with the kids, Amanda and Josh notice that Petey has gone missing. They search for most of the day, but to no luck. As for their parents, they've been invited to a potluck by the other neighbors. Amanda is about to call it quits and go to sleep, but Josh wakes her up in the middle of the night realizing that Petey must be in the cemetery. Equipped with a halogen flashlight, the kids make their way to the cemetery, but get stopped by Ray, who urges the siblings to not go to the cemetery. Regardless, they enter. They notice a strange amphitheater at the end of the cemetery, to which Ray tells them that is for celebrations. Before they can ponder why they'd have an amphitheater in a cemetery, they find Petey. Only the dog now looks different and runs away from them. They chase after the dog until Amanda notices a tombstone for a Karen Somerset marked 1960-1972 (1975-1989 for the updated releases). She spots more graves for more kids that she's befriended. She then spots a grave for Ray Thurston marked 1977-1988 (1993-2004 in the updated releases).

Ray admits that this is indeed his grave. He tried to keep them away from the cemetery until it was their time. He also admits to have killed Petey, as dogs can detect the dead. Quick heads up, if animal abuse in fiction bothers you, then Goosebumps is gonna be hell. He also admits to have been the one spying on the Benson family from within their house. He's been designated as The Watcher, to keep the family from learning too much. Panicked, Ray advances on Amanda and starts to choke her, until Josh returns and flashes the flashlight over him. Ray panics, but then suddenly his flesh begins to burn and melt, his eyeballs fall out his head, and he collapses in a skeletal heap. Amanda and Josh run home to try to find their parents so they can am-scray from Dark Falls as fast as possible, but their parents haven't come home yet. However, the rest of the Dark Falls kids are in the house, the titular Dead House, where they have all lived in at one point. 

The house is referred to as the "Dead House" because it is used to lure new people into Dark Falls. Families that can provide the blood the town needs to feed off of. Every year a new family is invited, killed, and live in the town as the undead, awaiting their next feast. Before the kids can advance on them, Mr. Dawes shows up and rescues them. He drives the kids to the cemetery. Josh spots Petey again and gives chase, only to trip over a grave marker. Sure enough, the grave reads "Compton Dawes: 1950-1980" (1966-1996 in the updated releases). Dawes reveals the origins of Dark Falls. It used to be a thriving little town before an accident at the nearby plastics factory caused a yellow gas to fill the town, killing everyone. Yet somehow this poison gas also turned everyone in Dark Falls into vampire zombies of some sort, constantly needing to feed on fresh blood to survive. Dawes grabs Amanda, ready to take her and Josh to join their parents, but Josh recovers and flashes the flashlight on him... which doesn't work. So instead he heaves the flashlight into Dawes' head, crushing part of his skull. He chases after them, but with the sun rising, he hides into the shadows.

The kids run to the amphitheater. They see all the Dark Falls residents enter, including the kids and Mr. Dawes, with the Benson parents tied up in the middle. The only thing that's covering the residents from the sunlight is a giant tree. Amanda and Josh begin to push at the tree, hoping to cause it to budge. It takes a lot of force, but the pair manage to push it down, causing sunlight to fill the amphitheater. All the Dark Falls residents begin to melt away, with their demise being described in gory detail. Amanda and Josh free their parents and run back to Dead House and begin to move out.

TWIST ENDING

As the Benson family get ready to leave however, Amanda spots another family already in their driveway. And she sees Mr. Dawes as well. But instead of warning the family, she jumps in the car and the Benson family leave Dark Falls.

CONCLUSION

As a pilot book, Welcome to Dead House is fine. Honestly, on this re-read, I found myself enjoying it more. Maybe it's because after reading so many modern books beforehand, going back to this felt fresh. A likable protagonist, an annoying but well meaning sibling, a mystery that builds up as the story progresses. Pacing that actually works. And surprisingly gory imagery that we don't really get in any other book. Faces melting, the imagery of the nightmare sequence, and Mr. Dawes straight up getting his head crushed with a giant flashlight. Not to mention a lot of long chapters. As the series progresses, the chapters shrink to only a handful of pages, whereas in this book, there can be 12 pages or more before the break. And while there are a few stock scare chapter endings, they're paced out better. Most of the chapters end with actual build to the mystery. 

Cons, I would say the first half is a bit dry, focusing more on atmospheric scares that don't really hit all the marks. The nightmare scenario feels random, even if the imagery is actually frightening. But those are really the only cons I have. Even the twist, while yeah, Amanda leaves this family to die, still works. In the end, it's a foot in the right direction for Goosebumps as a series, giving us a template that serves to offer a unique book series, as well as a great starting point for not just this re-read project but this blog going forward. Instead of doing the original letter grades, I'll be giving it an overall number rating via the quality of the book, with G's instead of a Star rating.

STORY: GGGG
SCARES: GGGGG
TWIST: GGG
ENJOYMENT: GGG
OVERALL: 3.5 Gs

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