Thursday, September 26, 2013

Childhood Memories: Goosebumps

Hey there boys and ghouls! Halloween season is almost upon us, and while Retro Revelations will be celebrating all through October, this year I'm going to get a bit of a jump-start, right now! So consider this your first of many Halloween 2013 inspired articles to come! 

My reading career as a child was perhaps a bit different from many. While I would somewhat give up caring (for various negative reasons) later into my high school years, as a young child I was one of those so-called "smart kids". I was in the "G.A.T.E" Program for many years (Gifted and Talented Education), as well as many other extra-curricular stuff. Part of that sprung from my learning to read pretty well at a young age. I was reading full books on my own by 1st or 2nd grade, and my grandmother encouraged/fostered this, because she was an avid reader herself. At some point around 1990 or so, I would imagine, we started getting Scholastic brand catalogs in the mail, and since my grandmother regularly bought herself books through a science fiction club of some sort, she was thrilled when I took a more active interest in reading, and had no problem ordering me books on a regular basis.

The first thing I really got into, in the long term sense (beyond my childhood obsession with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), was a children's series called "The Boxcar Children". It was somewhat of a kids' mystery series created by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and written by her and later many other authors. I really liked these for a couple of years, as the four Alden siblings featured in the stories got into all sorts of adventures and mystery solving. They were kind of like the Scooby Doo gang, minus a majority of the supernatural elements. But then in what must have been the summer of 1992, my interest in continuing to get Boxcar Children novels ceased as soon as I discovered a new, and far more enthusiastic literary passion: Goosebumps!




The first ever Goosebumps book, published July 1992.



For a little bit of background, the Goosebumps series is (to this day) written by author R.L. Stine. Stine is an author of mostly stories for children and teens, as well as having been a screenwriter for the Nickelodeon show "Eureka's Castle", a very Muppets style children's show that I also happened to love growing up. He first started writing a series for teens entitled "Fear Street" in 1989, before eventually starting the slightly younger skewed Goosebumps novels in 1992. Goosebumps has been, without a doubt, his most resounding success, spawning a TV series, toys, board games, video games, you name it. But enough about that, let's get back to telling you why I loved them so much.

I must've stumbled upon this new treasure in the Scholastic catalog one day, and (as has been well documented here) being the childhood monster nut that I was, I absolutely had to have it. I can't rightly recall now whether the first book I actually read was the first in the series, "Welcome to Dead House" (pictured above), or the second, "Stay Out of the Basement". Either way, for a 10 (nearly 11) year old, having never really read "horror" novels before, it was quite the experience for me. And long story short: I was in love.




Aside from good readin', these books also had some of the best cover art around.



Take a moment, and just look at that cover for "Stay Out of the Basement" pictured above. That picture right there probably sold me on the book, as did most of the covers. That cover especially really does all it needs to, to draw you in and make you want to find out what's going on. You see a monster's hand, but that's it, and that's all you should see. I've seen a later re-printing with a new cover that shows you WAY too much, kind of a "spoilers" cover, and I personally think that's a horrible idea. The point of cover art for a book or a comic or an album, is to stir your imagination, and give you just a hint of what to expect from the actual material itself. And the original Goosebumps covers did that better than anything this side of comic books. Even that cover further above for "Welcome to Dead House", you take one look at that ominous night shot of a creepy house with something in the window, and you immediately say to yourself "alright I gotta know what the hell's going on." Classic stuff, really.

Naturally the stories themselves, at least to me, were also great, and unlike some books, totally lived up to the cover art. The Goosebumps books really started something with me, where with them especially, I would get one and blaze through it right away. Not so much because I didn't want to take my time to read it and really take it in. But because these things were like word crack to me, total page-turners that kept me up well past my bedtime on many a night, staying awake to read "just one more chapter", because I absolutely HAD to find out what happened next!



Again with the awesome, ominous art that just draws you in.



So while my love affair with these books must've started around the summer of '92, or at the very least late 1992, I kept up with them regularly, and I honestly think I may have had every single one from #1 through at least #30. In fact, I'm pretty sure I had up to #31, "Night of the Living Dummy II", which came out in May 1995. Around this time, my grandmother had lung cancer and was firmly into the throes of chemo-therapy. Either because she was too sick to bother ordering more, or what, I can't really remember anymore, after #31 I didn't really get anymore. I saw some of them on store shelves or whatever once in awhile, and they seemed to get even weirder, with titles like "Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes" and whatnot. For whatever reasons, by summer '95 my love and passion for the books kind of fizzled out, and I more or less lost interest. But let me tell you, for that two or three year stretch, R.L. Stine was churning these things out like a madman, seriously about one per month, and I got them, every single month, #1-31.

The books I did own gave me a lot of great times though. I can't remember them all anymore, but I do have clear memories, say, of reading "Stay Out of the Basement", burning through most if not all of it in one afternoon. Being at the "edge of my seat" (not literally), turning those pages one after the other, just glued to the page. The way that story played out was really gripping, and was for it's time, I think, something very unique that hadn't really been touched upon before. I don't want to spoil it, of course, but let's just say it involved secret experiments and plants and human blood......I mean look at the cover, you can imagine for yourself from there! I surely didn't love each story equally, but none of them were ever dull or uninteresting.




Arguably my favorite book of the series.



The book pictured above is probably the closest candidate I can actively remember for my absolute favorite of the entire series. Why isn't too hard to figure out, but for fun I'll tell you anyway. In the early 90s, I was totally obsessed with several key things: Nintendo, Godzilla, monster/sci-fi/fantasy films in general, Monster in my Pocket figures, a lot of various classical mythology (because of the monsters, duh), Mystery Science Theater 3000, TNT's MonsterVision, and last but hardly least, the Saturday morning X-Men cartoon. Seeing as how I lived with a grandmother who thought comic books were "bullshit" and even tried to tell me once that "anyone other than Jesus who has powers, must get them from the Devil, and therefor they're bad". Right. Moving on, I kinda obviously wasn't really allowed to own comic books (though I did manage to sneak in a nice stash of Fleer trading cards). But because I had a TV in my room from about '91 onward, I WAS able to get away with watching super-hero cartoons, such as Batman, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and most importantly, the one I absolutely loved to death, X-Men.

So, bringing it all the way back around, since I was totally batshit crazy for this cartoon about super-powered mutant people, imagine how I practically shat with glee upon discovering that the next Goosebumps book in line, circa November 1994 (right around my birthday no less), was a story about a kid who was obsessed with COMIC BOOKS, most especially one called "The Masked Mutant" about an evil mutant mastermind who constantly fought with the "League of Good Guys" (real name). "Attack of the Mutant" is an awesome story, but it was especially mind-blowing for my almost-thirteen year old self, reading it fresh and new. The "Masked Mutant" of the title, is a villain with the power to shape-shift into basically any solid form he pleases, be it a snake, a stair-case, or a telephone. Well the kid, named Skipper, finds the Mutant's base in real life, in his home city, and it all goes crazy from there. Not to spoil it too much, but he does wind up getting to fight alongside one of his favorite heroes, the "Galloping Gazelle" (think The Flash with a goofier costume), and it also features one hell of a twist ending.



Again......just look at that fuckin' cover art. I would seriously put that on my wall.



So as I said, from about mid-92 through mid-95, I collected every single one of these books, and while some were better than others, I was almost always entertained, as well as spooked out during the course of the story. Stine, as an author, has a really unique presence that stands out, his storytelling is strong, his ideas are creative, he has a quirky (and dark) sense of humor, and he is able to genuinely chill you with some really evocative imagery. Some of the other standout titles include the likes of "Monster Blood", "Say Cheese and Die!", "Let's Get Invisible!", "Night of the Living Dummy", "The Haunted Mask", and pictured above, "The Werewolf of Fever Swamp". The original run of the series actually carried on for quite awhile after I stopped getting them, in fact it lasted till book #62, "Monster Blood IV", published December 1997.

There's a part of me that wishes that I had kept up with them til the end, as I'm sure there were several gems along the way that I missed out on. Then again, there's a big part of me that wishes I still owned the collection that I did have. As one of many teen-era blunders of mine, I randomly decided one day when I was fourteen to sell (I sure HOPE I didn't give them away) all 31 of my collection to some dumbass friend of my buddy Harold's (M.C. Kids Guy) older sister. Not only was that borderline retarded of me to do, but I'm pretty sure she just turned around and sold them to someone else. I have bought about four of the ones I used to have as a kid, and when I can afford it will likely grab some more (because they're honestly still great reading). But it really sucks that, along with many other things from my childhood, I felt in my teenage stupidity at some point they were someting that I "had" to get rid of. Teens can be really dumb, bottom line.




A clip from the TV show's intro.



My last experience with the Goosebumps brand for many many years, was the television show that came on at some point later in 1995. I don't know if I caught it right when it came out, but what I do remember, at the time, was that I just really wasn't that impressed with it. Having been spoiled by the fantastic kid/teen Nickelodeon show "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" in the early-to-mid-90s, the Goosebumps series, which I was initially excited about upon discovering it, really kind of came off as second rate. And part of that, of course, was caused by the fact that I'd read so many of the books, and your imagination will almost always be better than what they can churn out in a show or movie. It also didn't help that even though the book series was hot enough to even GET a TV show based on it, it just didn't seem to have all that big of a budget. I've gone back and have been watching some of the episodes on Netflix recently, and I've got to say, they're okay. They don't look like SHIT, per say, but I still think the production values, acting, etc., isn't up to snuff with the aforementioned Nick show. One other thing that bothered me about the show upon seeing it, was that for some (if not all) of the episodes, they changed certain things in the story, and while I know "it happens", many of them were just kind of dumb decisions.

One great particular example I can give, perhaps the only episode I might have really watched all the way through, was the one based on book #1, "Welcome to Dead House". SPOILERS, but the ending of the book is incredibly dark and even gruesome for a kids novel. Basically the town this family moves to turns out to be full of "zombies" of a sort, who need fresh human blood to keep on existing, due to some chemical plant accident years ago. The novel ends with most of the family about to be sacrificed in a shaded amphitheater, but then one of the kids who stayed free knocks over a tree (as I remember it), that lets the sunlight in, and the sunlight causes all the zombies to start melting, while the family is able to get away. Well, sufficed to say, they dropped that whole bit from the TV episode, in fact I feel like they changed several things about the story in general, and the ending they came up with was lame by comparison. That alone might have turned me off to really paying attention to the show after that, which ironically enough also ended in 1997, just as the original series did.



He has a little bit of Stephen King to him....except not so creepy.


R.L. Stine has gone on to write many other books, including more than one newer Goosebumps offshoot series. He still churns them out at an amazing pace, even to this day, and while I realize most of his work is just (relatively short) children and teen novels, still, I sincerely wish that I possessed even a fraction of his apparent writer's discipline and productivity. I'm still working on it, but that's a story for another day.

Regardless, he is someone I can honestly say helped, at least to some small extent, shape my childhood, right up there with the likes of  J.R.R. Tolkien, Bruce Coville, Shigeru Miyamoto, Ishiro Honda, Ray Harryhausen, Joel Hodgson and so many others. If you don't know who some of those people are yet, don't worry, keep reading this blog and you eventually will hear about them, probably more than once. But his work had an impact on me, gave me a lot of late-night chills, as well as a hell of a lot of entertainment. There were many things, I'm sorry to say, that were not so great about my childhood. Many things. But I am happy to say that Goosebumps was one of those good things, a happy memory I can look back on, even today. If you've never dabbled, even though they are "kids' books", I would suggest picking up a copy of one of the original series, especially the first 30, because they're honestly really good. And considering October is almost upon us, it's the perfect time to give it a whirl!

Stay tuned for the next in my ongoing Halloween festivities. Happy Haunting!



Edit: I'd like to give a special thanks and shout out to author R.L. Stine, who was turned on to my article on Twitter via one of my followers. He actually wrote me back personally on there and said he thought this was a good piece and that he really enjoyed it. Talk about the kind of thing that makes it all worth it! Certainly one of the coolest things to ever happen to me in my life so far.

If you're on Twitter, please follow him @RL_Stine, because he rocks, and is very fan-friendly.

4 comments:

  1. big fan of these books back in Middle School. I remember reading the entirety of Attack of the Mutant in one night. good times

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  2. My absolutel favorite was One Day at Horrorland. The first one I ever read,too! I've got a one month old daughter now so I hope to track these down in the future and share them with her. My wife and I have been watching some of the episodes on Netflix. She never read them (she's a little older than me) so she doesn't really have any nostalgia for the show, but I sure as heck do.

    Thanks so much for this excellent look at these things! It really is incredible how many of these Stine cranked out.

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  3. Thanks for commenting folks! These books certainly entertained and influenced me as a pre-teen growing up. To have Stine himself actually acknowledge my article, and say that he enjoyed it, was amazing. Really made me week!

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  4. Good piece. I'm a big Goosebumps fan, still am, reading the new series Goosebumps Most Wanted in the breakroom at work currently getting all kinds of strange looks.

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