Friday, October 26, 2018

Dreams and Nightmares: The Worlds of Bruce Coville

It's all built up to this, so for this year's big feature Halloween article, I thought I'd delve into another big part of my childhood...

As much as I have talked about how much video games, cartoons, and movies (among other things) meant a lot to me in my childhood, as means of escapism from what was not a super-fun life, I can't impress enough how books also factored into that equation. As I've mentioned before, I was one of those "smart kids", the kind who had a high school reading level in grade school, etc. My reading was spurred on by my grandmother, one of the actual positive things she did for me growing up, as she herself was a huge reader. Her preferred poison was science fiction, as in practically any she could get her hands on. She even belonged to a sci-fi book club, and would regularly order books for herself (when we could afford it), out of mail-order catalogues.

For me personally, I of course started with children's books, some of which I think I'll probably dedicate an article of their own to someday. Some I only vaguely remember, and wish I could remember what they were called. But somewhere around age 8 or so, I finally entered into the world of Scholastic books. Scholastic are most known for making educational school books, but they also happen to publish fiction books for kids and teens as well. As such, around age 8, for whatever reason, we started getting Scholastic catalogues in the mail, and my grandmother, wanting to encourage my developing reading, started buying me things like Choose Your Own Adventure books and things like that. The one that stands out in my memory is a book I had called Empire of the Ants.

Classic Mystery Goodness.

The first book series, besides being read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was little, was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. These stories were a nice "wading in" point, both for reading more complex stories in general, but also for getting into stories with a bit of a spooky edge to them. Many of the adventures of the Alden siblings, while not really featuring real supernatural elements, still had spooky moments and plenty of tension, as they solved their mysteries. I'd like to say that I got maybe the first fifteen or so of these books, at least, and was a big fan of them for a time. But then in 1992, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series happened, and my new obsession was set. I left the poor Boxcar kids in the dust, because Stine's works featured REAL supernatural happenings, and most importantly to young me: MONSTERS!

But as much as I adored the Goosebumps books, and couldn't wait for each new entry (I legit owned around the first thirty books in that original series), and as big an impact as Stine had on my pre-teen years, there is another author who I'd like to say had an equal impact. In fact, this was an author who was a contemporary of Stine's, and another whose works really exploded in the early 90s. He too, wrote stories that both fascinated, and sometimes terrified me. But as time has gone on, R.L. Stine is a name that people still remember (thanks in part to the Goosebumps movie, etc.), while this OTHER guy, is someone who I find when I bring up to many people, they have no idea who the hell I'm talking about. Even though he too is one of the most successful children's authors in history. So I figured, you know what? It's time to do my little part to help rectify that, because quite frankly, the works of Bruce Coville are every bit as brilliant, and memorable, as Stine's.

My First Exposure.

 The novel pictured above, My Teacher Is An Alien, is the first Bruce Coville book I ever read, or even knew about. I'm sure it was something, like the first Goosebumps book, where I just saw the cover/title in the Scholastic catalogue, and it drew my interest, so I asked to get it. The book first released in 1989, so it's actually entirely possible that I read it before I ever read my first R.L. Stine book. But as I seem to recall, these many years later, I remember reading Coville's books more or less alongside Stine's. Which would place it in 1992. Either way, while this novel is fairly simple and straightforward, compared to how the rest of its series plays out, I was still enthralled from the title onward, and it had my full attention.

The general plot plays out almost like a Twilight Zone episode. At a completely normal elementary school in the sleepy town of Kennituck Falls, a couple of kids, Susan Simmons and her shy, bookish friend Peter Thompson, come back from Spring Break to discover that their regular sixth grade teacher, has been replaced by a strange, blonde substitute. The thing is, something seems terribly odd about Mr. John Smith. And as the story progresses, they learn just exactly what IS so odd about him: he happens to be an alien from another world! The kids do more snooping, and get the notion that ol' Mr. Smith is some kind of advance agent for an invasion of Earth, and as such, they do their best to stop his nefarious plans. Of course, things aren't always quite what they seem, and while they DO thwart his plans (SPOILERS), it turns out that perhaps they misunderstood his motives after all.

The Second Book.

I was hooked after this first book, especially when it ended on a major cliffhanger, where Mr. Smith, actually named Broxholm, took Peter, who didn't have a very happy life on Earth, with him into space! Luckily for me, as it probably was around '92 when I read this, I didn't have to wait long to find out what happened next, because the other books in the series were already out. Next up was My Teacher Fried My Brains, a provocative title to say the least. And surprisingly, while the first book focused on Susan and Peter, from Susan's perspective, the second book actually focused on Duncan Dougal, the asshole kid who bullied Peter all the time! An a-typical choice, to be sure.

It was the beginning of seventh grade, junior high, and Peter had been missing for months. Duncan, unsurprisingly, also comes from a bit of a rough background, and it turns out, while he acts like a major douche-nozzle to kids weaker than him, always looking for fights and so on, maybe he's not such a horrible monster after all. Duncan had also been in on the discovery that Mr. Smith was an alien months prior, and he now came to suspect that his science teacher, Miss Karpou, is ALSO an alien agent. After he is subjected to a demonstration in class on what is supposed to be static electricity, Duncan finds himself feeling smarter. And so believing that static machine did it, he sneaks back into school after hours, and uses the machine again, this time too much so, which does in fact boost his intellect greatly, something he had always felt insecure about.

The trouble is, the boost not only seems like it will be temporary, but Miss Karpou does also in fact turn out to be an alien, named Kreeblim! Duncan gets taken to her house, where she intends to deal with him, but Susan, who becomes aware of what Duncan's been up to, tries to save him. Before all of that can go down, however, Peter suddenly returns, along with Broxholm, and it turns out things are a whole lot more complicated than the kids had believed.


It is from this point on, that the series experiences a serious divide. The first two books, as explained, are fairly simple stories. But after book two, the series takes quite a turn, and gets a WHOLE lot deeper, especially for "kid's" fare. As it turns out, the aliens are on Earth as agents for an interplanetary council, who are worried about the human race's violent history, and the growing possibility of them getting out into space, to spread that violence. In that way, it takes some serious inspiration from one of the greatest science fiction films ever made (and one of my personal favorites), 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. In a similar fashion to that classic, this space council, a body basically dedicated to peace, fear humans getting into space enough, that they are actually considering wiping the entire human race out. And the alien agents there, are trying to determine whether or not humanity can be saved, or are even worth saving! Like I said, quite the turn.

The third book in the series, My Teacher Glows in the Dark, is probably the weirdest, just by virtue of the fact that it follows Peter's adventures out in space, learning about other races and worlds, etc. It takes place basically in between and then alongside the second book. During Peter's space adventures, he is taken aboard the mother ship "New Jersey" (named because it is the same size as the American state), where he is introduced to a number of strange aliens, including Hoo-Lan, a kindly blue alien who will serve as his teacher while he's aboard. Peter learns many things from Hoo-Lan, but the biggest thing he learns, is also one of the most interesting ideas I've ever come across in literature. The idea is put forth, as I seem to remember it anyway, that human beings once long ago had the capacity for Empathy. Not just the concept of empathizing with someone else, but the literal ability to sense, to somewhat FEEL what other people around you are feeling. Hoo-Lan explains that this ability would have made humanity far less chaotic and crazy, a state that being "cut off from each other" has rendered them. He also reveals, to his own shame, that it was actually he, who introduced humans to television, as a ploy to delay their development, as he feared their technology, and thus capacity for greater violence, was advancing too quickly. The entire book is told from Peter's perspective, as he relates his experiences to Susan and Duncan.

Holy shit.

In the fourth and final book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, which takes place right after the second book, it is now up to these three human kids and two kooky aliens (one of whom, Kreeblim, the female, excels at alien curse words), to try and provide the council with evidence that the human race can learn, and change. This fourth entry, by far, is the darkest and most serious, even though it still features moments of levity. I remember thinking, even at the time while first reading it, that this shit was DEEP! As the group fly around the world in their cloaked UFO, looking for cases of human goodness, the reader is shown such horrifying scenes as people who have been tortured in prison camps, and the horrors of war. Specifically, a scene where a man dies trying to shield a child from a falling bomb. The kind of stuff that I guarantee you don't find in much "children's lit", and the kind of stuff that, reading it then as a pre-teen myself, really disturbed me. Not in a "why am I reading this" way, but in a "goddamn, we really ARE messed up aren't we?" kind of way. It was an eye opener, which I think is a good thing for young people, when done right.

Without spoiling the ending, sufficed to say, Flunked was a crazy, and introspective ride for a young person to read. It made me think, but it also made me wish in some ways that what happens in the end, actually would happen. Even though I've spoiled many of the basic plot points for the series, I would say that, if you've never read it, even if you're an adult, these books are very enjoyable and entertaining. Plus you can consume them in a matter of hours, and I'd highly recommend them! I'd really like to see the series get made into movies, or at least a show, so long as they kept the stories and characters as they are.

Good Times.

Outside of the "My Teacher" series, starting in the Fall of 1993, I also got to experience his "Book of..." anthologies. These were a series of short story collections, usually featuring one or two by Coville himself, and the rest by guest authors, including the likes of even names like Ray Bradbury. The first that was actually released, was Book of Monsters, but the one with perhaps the stories that stand out to me the most in my memory, was Book of Aliens. The "feature" story, if you will, was "I, Earthling", a story about a boy whose father is a diplomat to an alien world, and the boy has serious trouble adjusting to his strange new life. The two things that struck me the most about this story as a kid, were: 1. The fact that the aliens fart as a sign of happiness or friendliness, which I found hilarious. And 2. The fact that the boy had a tiny kitten-sized panda bear as a pet, which I very badly wanted for myself!

The second story from Aliens that stands out, is "The Buddy System", by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. It's a really great story that I dearly loved at the time, and still do, because it focused on the kind of friendship/relationship, that I myself dearly wanted (and still do). The story is about a girl named Iris, who is adjusting to life after losing her father. She meets a boy named Kyle, who is something of a hellion, but who also takes an instant liking to Iris, and always behaves around her, almost like she makes him want to be a better person. They become best friends, and pretty much do everything together, including regular swims at Miller's Pond. But one day, while Iris is swimming, something grabs her leg, and pulls her under. She nearly drowns, buy Kyle saves her with CPR, nearly on the state of a nervous breakdown over the thought of losing her, and takes her home. But there was more to Iris' experience than it seemed, as there were flashes of something she couldn't understand. She finds herself drawn to go back to Miller's Pond and face whatever was down there, with a protesting Kyle going along to protect her. And as she braved the terror again, and this time didn't try to resist, she discovered that it was actually some kind of weird, wonderful alien, who hadn't meant to hurt her, and was only trying to communicate. Just a really beautiful, touching story, all around really.

The third, stuck out for a different reason. It was Ray Bradbury's "Zero Hour", which was originally featured in his collection The Illustrated Man in 1951.In that particular story, a bunch of suburban children are all excitedly playing a game they call "Invasion". The children bring all sorts of things from their respective houses, into some bushes where they're all playing, and none of the parents really investigate into what's going on, because after all, it's "just kids being kids", right? Except, too late, when a loud sound is heard, do some of the parents start realizing something is amiss. And then, all hell breaks loose, as an ACTUAL alien invasion begins! Turns out, the kids were being instructed by beings from another world, on how to build a devise that would open gateways to Earth. And just like that, the aliens start going around basically killing the parents, all while the kids laughed, thinking it was some fun game apparently. Me personally? I HATED this story as a kid. The very idea that a bunch of innocent kids would willingly not only turn on their parents and families, but even aid the aliens in destroying them? It was deeply disturbing to me, and made me kinda sick. I've never liked stories like that, to this day, and that includes the slew of modern horror films about innocent families being destroyed by various evil (I'm looking at you, Mike Flanagan).

The first of Coville's anthologies.

Another that I owned.

A later entry.

The ones that I know I owned as a kid, were Book of Monsters, Book of Aliens, and Book of Nightmares. I may or may not have owned Book of Ghosts, and for some reason I almost feel like I owned Book of Magic, but apparently that came out in 1996, so while it's possible, I wasn't really getting Scholastic books anymore by then. There was also one I had never heard of when it was new, Book of Spine-Tinglers. Even within the different volumes, there was a good deal of diversity between the stories. Some were science fiction based, some were more supernatural or even straight up horror, a few were even fantasy, and some were just plain silly. There were stories that were (surely to a 12 or 13 year old) hilarious, such as Will Shelterly's "Brian and the Aliens". While there were others that genuinely scared me, and even left me quite disturbed, such as John Barnes' "Timor and the Furnace Troll". That one, I'm just gonna say, has a pretty messed up ending, that I hated as a kid, and still dislike. But hey, they can't all be happy stories, right?

A wild ride.

Now what I definitely didn't know as a young teen in 1996 and 1997, because as explained I had stopped getting "kids books" through Scholastic or otherwise, was that Coville's anthology series kept going. In fact in those years, there was an entire "Volume II" series, meaning that there was a Book of Monsters II, a Book of Aliens II, and so on, for six more editions. The same deal as before, collections of short stories, some by Coville himself, the rest by other authors. But the one key difference, as I would discover MUCH later (in my 30s, in 2014 to be exact), is that in each one of these "Volume II" editions, there was a Bruce Coville story that was a smaller part of a larger adventure. The parts had their own separate names, such as "Little Monsters" and "Through the Starry Door", but the entire story is called "The Monsters of Morley Manor". The entire story was released as its own separate volume (seen above) in 2001.

In a nutshell, the story is something of a classic "haunted house" type of tale, with a couple of siblings, Anthony and Sarah Walker, attending an estate sale of the deceased Mr. Morley, who lives in a creepy old house down the road. Anthony winds up buying an odd little box for fairly cheap, and inside, he and his sister discover five tiny little figurines of what look like classic monster archetypes: a werewolf, a lizard man, a vampire, Medusa, etc. But when they accidentally get the figures wet, it turns out that water brings these figures out of some kind of suspended state, and back to life! At first the monsters stay tiny, but they eventually get the kids to take them back to the mansion, where they are able to revert themselves to full size. Now I say "in a nutshell", because that is the basic setup of the story. But because there was one part of the story in each of the six "Volume II" editions, there's a lot more to it than that. I suppose to fit each of the books' themes, be it Monsters, Aliens, Ghosts, etc., different parts of the story feature those themes. So for instance, "Little Monsters", as the title suggests, is about them literally finding little monsters. "Through the Starry Door", sees the kids and monsters, being taken to an alien world, being more a sci-fi story. "A Trip to the Land of the Dead", part of Book of Ghosts II, sees the story exploring more of the supernatural/spiritual side of things, and so on.

Now on its face, it might seem as if these disparate parts wouldn't fit together very well. And honestly I do wonder if it was a gimmick to help sell the books suggested by the publisher, or just a neat idea that Coville himself originated. Either way, I can tell you that, surprisingly, while it certainly creates one hell of a weird roller coaster ride, as a story, "The Monsters of Morley Manor" flows pretty well, and it all fits together pretty nicely. All things considered, I remember the "Book of..." series fondly, and still need to go back and read all the stories (as I took it upon myself to buy them all in 2014). I earnestly feel that a lot of Bruce Coville's work would make for good movie/television adaptations, and I feel that an anthology format show, featuring stories from these books, could be really awesome as well.

Another strange adventure.

One other Bruce Coville book I know that I owned before my grandmother passed away (I had stopped getting any Scholastic books later into 1995, once she got really sick), was Aliens Ate My Homework, seen above. It was the first in another series that he wrote in the 90s featuring aliens, but in quite a different, and wackier way. The young hero, Rob Allbright, is in his room, working on a papier-mache science project, when suddenly a small blue alien ship comes in his bedroom window, landing in the mache. Out come several tiny, toy-sized aliens, who proceed to induct him into their mission to capture a notorious alien criminal, who just so happens to be posing on Earth as Rob's most hated school bully. This was the only entry in the series I owned, I'm pretty sure, but the other book titles can clue you in to how bizarre and funny it probably is: I Lost My Sneakers in Dimension X, The Search for Snout, and Aliens Stole My Body.

Great cover art.

One of my childhood dreams, to have a dragon!

Never trust a demon.

He has, of course, written many more books than I myself have ever read, and in fact many of them I should read someday. From fantasy stories like The Unicorn Chronicles, to his Magic Shop anthology, or darker, scarier fare like his Chamber of Horrors and Camp Haunted Hills books. He's also dabbled in more "mature", young adult fare, with titles like Armageddon Summer and Space Station Ice-3. He's even done several kids' adaptations of classic William Shakespeare plays, such as The Tempest, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night.

To me, in my pre-teen years, those "My Teacher" and "Book of..." books, meant as much to me as Stine's Goosebumps series did. They taught me, made me think, scared me, and inspired me. They helped to further grow one gift that I have always had, thanks in part to an "only child" childhood: a powerful and vivid imagination. I honestly wish that I had been able to own and read more Coville books when I was in that 11 through 13 age range, but I was obsessed with those Goosebumps tales, and we only had so much money to spend on mail-order books. But if you've never read any of Bruce Coville's work, whether you're still somewhat a kid yourself, or merely a kid inside, I would highly suggest that you do. Even his "kids books" are usually much deeper and more entertaining than I'm sure many would assume such books could be, and in this man's humble opinion, he's one of the best storytellers I've ever encountered.

So to you, Mr. Coville, I just want to say, thanks for helping to make a shitty childhood better, and to all of you, have a very happy (and safe but spooky) Halloween!

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