At last, our literary haunted carriage ride has ended. Our final day of talking about Goosebumps. It’s time to address the open mummy sarcophagus in the tomb: you can’t write perfect novels 12 times a year. There’s a whole thing, NaNoWriMo, where a community of people try to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month, with the explicit understanding that it’s not gonna be a great 50,000 words. Words are better than a blank page, the thinking goes—turn off your inner editor and write, then edit later. It’s not a bad exercise. 

While it’s totally possible to write a first draft you’re perfectly happy with—Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” was written in five minutes, and the demo vocals made it to the final track—there’s no way Stine got through those original 60-odd books without some narrative laziness or juvenile prose writing. So without being mean or finger-pointy, let’s have some fun with some WTFery. As a positive twist ending, I’ve thrown in grades for the book covers. We’ve gotten this far without really talking about Goosebumps covers, and that art is magical. Mostly drawn by Tim Jacobus, these covers are one of the most quintessential parts of the Goosebumps experience. Let’s celebrate them ... 

Why I’m Afraid of Bees: Everything About Person-To-Person Vacations

The Book: The story of Gary Lutz, a klutzy dork who’s terrorized by his beekeeper neighbor and is such a loser that even his little sister walks all over him. Lutz tries to escape his nightmare life by body swapping with a handsome kid who’s good at sports and ends up becoming a bee instead. 

Why It’s Ridiculous: Negligent, stupid, and uncaring adults is a staple of Goosebumps books. If a parent shows any interest in their child’s welfare beyond whether they’re home for dinner on time or not, that parent is not a Goosebumps parent. Some of the parents of kids who are haunted at least entertain the idea of talking to a therapist, but generally, adults in Goosebumps suck. When I started working on this, I texted my friend Ashley (a Goosebumps superfan) to see if there was anything I absolutely needed to include. Her response was immediate: “Untrustworthy adults!” 

That said, what in the name of Slappy the Dummy is Person-To-Person Vacations? What in the hell kind of oversight is anyone operating with? Where in the history of bad performance reviews will “You accidentally switched a little boy’s brain into the body of a bee and then clocked out on a Friday because you didn’t know how to handle the situation” rank? My kid came home from preschool one day and suddenly knew how to count to 30, we said “thanks, teachers!” If I went to pick him up and he’d been body-swapped with a bee? At minimum, municipal officials are getting involved in some way. What are the zoning laws that even allow a body-swapping service to casually open in a neighborhood with all the corporate structure of Dominic Toretto’s garage? The societal setup of the world of Why I’m Afraid Of Bees might be the scariest thing in Goosebumps.

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

That is the flattest flat top we’ve ever seen.  You could calibrate a carpentry level on that kid’s skull.

Not great. Purely functional: Lutz the Klutz has a facial expression that suggests he earned his nickname. His head is on a bee’s body. It’s a pollen-colored yellow and orange. Gotta be honest, the cover almost made me not want to read the book, but it was at the library, so here we are. We’re off to a great start. C+.

Stay Out Of The Basement: Ending The Daggum Book Like That

The Book: Ever since getting fired from the lab at the university, Margaret and Casey Brewer’s dad has been acting strange—holed up in the basement working on secret plant experiments, not interacting with his family, leaving moist dirt and worms in his bed, eating plant food, and suddenly wearing an LA Dodgers cap. Turns out, he is a plant clone, and the kids must find a way to get their real dad back. They eventually find him and kill the clone—only to have a plant in the garden say it’s their real father.

Why It’s Ridiculous: Stine loves a twist ending that introduces a whole new situation, completely upending what’s already happened and showing the consequences of the plot have even farther-reaching effects than we thought. It’s a very Twilight Zone-esque trick when done right, or 10 Cloverfield Lane/The World’s End-style trick, if you prefer. Most of the time, it’s very fun: suddenly we learn our characters are space aliens, or the last two paragraphs show our narrator adjusting to a new life as a werewolf. There are narrative virtues and flaws to any kind of twist ending, but since these are joke horror books for kids, their purpose is to keep the kids talking after the book ends. Stine’s stated the goal with his books is to get kids excited about reading for reading’s sake, to keep turning the page. These twists are functionally the same as a chapter that ends right as something shocking is happening. 

Stay Out Of The Basement is a bridge too far. I call bs on this twist. Here’s why: we never meet the real Dr. Brewer in the book. Those kids are literal bastard children the entire story, then when they finally think they get their real dad back, they learn their real dad is a flower in the garden. Bogus. You know what this is? A setup to a sequel. Not a book ending. The difference might be kind of a Potter Stewart obscenity-esque “know it when I see it.” Stay Out Of The Basement should smell like a vibrant garden; instead, it reeks of shenanigans. SHENANIGANS, I say!

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

Horror imagery so iconic that we were able to find a movie using it in under 20 seconds of searching.

Excellent cover. Green hand ominously gripping the door, firmly between door and threshold so that you can’t close the door, green enough to be appropriately monstrous without giving away that the monster is “plants.” A title commanding you to stay out of a room is going to invoke Bluebeard—tell me to stay out of the basement, and all I wanna do is go in that basement. Interestingly, this was one of two Goosebumps original covers not drawn by Tim Jacobus but instead by the oppositely-initialed Jim Thiesen. This is not going to become the Tim v. Jim war, though. After all, Jacobus did the bulk of the series. Solid A- cover, excellent stuff from Jim. 

Attack of the Jack-O-Lanterns: Seriously, You Cannot Just End A Book Like That

The Book: Desperate to get back at friend-bullies Lee and Tabitha for previous years’ Halloween pranks, Drew and Walker conspire to get revenge. Their friends Shane and Shana dress up at robe-wearing, pumpkin-headed demons who take the kids to a strange neighborhood and try to force them to trick-or-treat forever. Except the pumpkinheads’ heads…don’t have a head under them! Lee and Tabitha run away screaming, leaving Drew, Walker, Shane, and Shana to laugh about the fact that they know Shane and Shana are secretly space aliens. 

Why It’s Ridiculous: This is similar to Stay Out Of The Basement, in that we learn something totally world-changing in the last couple pages. What’s irritating is that Shane and Shana’s alienness is not hinted at or set up much at all. There’s “Shane and Shana don’t look like anyone else I know” in Chapter 1, but that’s followed by descriptions of the twins as blonde, red-faced chubby kids. You can guess Shane and Shana are the pumpkinheads, because the book does string you along past when you’d expect them to reveal themselves. But when they pull their heads off and start doing all the supernatural stuff—I guess I expected a more supernatural explanation, you know? Horror and sci-fi definitely overlap, but introducing jokey aliens as an explanation for demonic pumpkinheads is too much of a tone shift. 

It reads like Stine wrote himself into a corner, because how scary can you really make pumpkinheads? It’s an awesome image (more on that in the cover section), but what do pumpkins actually do? They’re on fire, okay. But they can be smashed. And a headless body is just…a decapitated zombie. Personally, I would have made Shane and Shana either dead or demons. Space aliens are more of a release, I guess. Even if it’s implied they’re gonna eat Drew and Walker. 

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

Menacing, sure, but we still want to pet that dog.

Ohhhhhh, baby, this is a sick cover. Look at it! I’ve been able to close my eyes and perfectly picture this image for like 25 years. That’s Halloween iconography. I once begged my mom to put me in robes and stick a pumpkin on my head for Halloween. I actually remember us being in church when she, no doubt exasperated beyond comprehension, said, “a pumpkin is too heavy to wear on your head.” I made damn sure this book was on my “30 books” reading list simply because of this cover. It’s a gloriously campy cover. A+, maybe the best in the series. 

How To Kill A Monster: The Grandparents Leave The Kids Alone With A Monster

The Book: Stepsiblings Gretchen and Clark have to stay at their grandparents’ house, and they’re unhappy about it. The grandparents live in a creepy mansion in the middle of the Georgia swamp, and there’s nothing to do and no one to kick it with. Except, whoops! Turns out the grandparents have trapped a swamp monster in one of the rooms and lock the kids in the house with the monster while they drive to go get help. 

Why It’s Ridiculous: W in T actual F with this one, man. Why couldn’t the grandparents take Gretchen and Clark with them to get swamp monster-killing guns? THEY LIVE IN RURAL GEORGIA! GO GET GUNS! THE GUN SHOP’LL LET YOU BRING THE KIDS, HELL, THEY PROBABLY GOT A ‘GUNZ 4 KIDS’ SALE GOING! Negligent adults in Goosebumps, I know, kids getting locked in strange death houses is a fairy tale staple, I know, but why. Why why why could they not take the kids to go get help? 

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

The Fight Club-style step-by-step instructions could probably stand to be more helpful.

I ended up really enjoying this book and the concept of the monster as the swamp but was frustrated by the description of the monster. Scaly and furry? Bridge too far. Taxonomy doesn’t make sense. Similarly, this cover is confusing and could be better. The swamp is too rich a monster playground to leave us with this generic mystery crap. Give us the ten-foot-tall monster housing blueberry pancakes like he’s Matt Stonie deepthroating Big Macs in all his glory. B- cover. 

Beware, The Snowman: Beware, The Ominous Words

The Book: Evil Aunt Greta decides to deprive the Chicago Sky of a hometown hero star basketball player by moving Jaclyn to the Arctic Circle. Once there, they find the village lives in fear of an evil snowman who lives at the top of a mountain. A showdown between witches in the Arctic ensues. It’s a pretty rad book. 

Why It’s Ridiculous: This is a nitpick about prose. Have you ever considered how fundamentally unscary the word “scarf” is? You will after you read this book. Scarves are a wholesome article of clothing: not necessary for protecting modesty but a comfort designed to cover against cold. Throughout the myriad snowman jump scares or snowman threats presented in this novel, the word ‘scarf’ is deployed in conjunction with frightening aspects of the snowman, namely his aliveness and his menacing facial scar. “Scarf” may sound like “scar,” but a physical manifestation of malignancy, it is not. 

Similarly, flip to the beginning of Chapter 11 and read the first few paragraphs, noting the word “shadow.” That’s so many goddamn uses of shadow! Too long to quote here and too many uses in that small space. It’s too many uses, too many uses, too many uses, Jerry! It’s neither played for joke nor anaphora, and I am once again forced to call shenanigans.

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

It’s funnier if you imagine the artist in deep deliberation over whether to add a corncob pipe.

Pretty solid “menacing snowman” vibe. That twisted facial expression and raised stick arms are threatening, and the eerie light glow on the left side gives the sense that some carnage lies just off-page. “He’s got a heart of cold!” is a truly wonderful tagline. The red scarf really pops, plus bonus: red’s the color of blood! That said, ‘scarf.’ Tough problem intrinsic to snowmen monsters, which is why I prefer The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena. A solid B+ cover. 

Vampire Breath: The Name Count Nightwing

The Book: This is my least favorite book that I read, so I’m going to try hard to be restrained here. Freddy and Cara, two best friends who beat each other up all the time, discover a hidden tunnel in their basement that leads to a vampire coffin. A strange bottle labeled “Vampire Breath” smells like death and summons a vampire, Count Nightwing. Not-Dick Grayson accidentally transports the kids centuries back in time, where they have to escape a castle full of vampires. In the end, it’s revealed that Count Nightwing is Freddy’s grandfather, and he comes from a family of vampires. 

Why It’s Ridiculous: Everything about this vampire is stock and feels like Stine wrote it because he got to book 49 and realized he hadn’t written a vampire book yet, but didn’t know what to do. Early on, Freddy says, “We watched a hundred vampire movies. We laugh at them. That was movies. This was real life.” This is exceptionally non-specific and dull writing, even by “supernatural scene-setting for eight-year-olds standards.” Later in the book, the narrator says, “I’ll never complain about having to babysit for Tyler Brown again,” but earlier, it seemed like he loved babysitting Tyler Brown? This was a first-draft novel. 

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

“The dreaded Count Nightwing has finally been stopped. What now?”
“Give him some flowers.  It’s a tomb, not a sty.”

This is certainly a picture of a vampire emerging from a coffin with stinky breath. Accurate to the title. But if we’re going by Spirit Halloween Collective Unconscious Rules Of What Horror Things Look Like—a grading system of how “classically itself” an image of a horror monster is that I would love to see some internet nerd codify—this is a very stock vampire emerging from what kinda looks like a pirate chest, not a coffin. I sort of expect a black sarcophagus with vampires. 

Plus, this vampire has no personality. Just generally vampiric, nothing interesting—kinda like Count Nightwing. Again, the least favorite book that I read for this. I’m probably being biased by my disappointment. This isn’t your fault, Tim “Tim Dragon” Jacobus. Not even Jim “Big Jimbo” Thiesen could’ve saved this cover. I give it a C.

One Day At Horrorland: Okay, So Seriously, Their Car Blew Up?

 

The Book: In an era before GPS and common cell phone usage, the Morris family forgets their map while on vacation and ends up at Horrorland. There, they must navigate a theme park of real-seeming scares with potential danger lurking everywhere. Oh, and by the way, their car explodes out of nowhere in the parking lot. 

Why It’s Ridiculous: I spent this whole goddamn book waiting for an explanation for the car blowing up. It’s not like monsters were hiding in the theme park and the IRA was hiding in the parking lot. It’s not like the car explosion was some sort of illusion caused by the nefarious tricksters who run the park. It’s not like the car had been having trouble on the highway before. The car just blows up, and there’s never an explanation for how quickly that problem goes away. The theme park workers are like, “sorry, we don’t have any phones.” The family decides to go to the theme park anyway. A flat tire is a common mishap, car bombs are at least the leading story on the 6 o’clock news. 

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

No matter how terrifying it is, a theme park with no other cars in the lot is a tough opportunity to pass up.

In a post-Scooby Doo world, it’s tough to draw a haunted amusement park and have it be original. This is a solid effort, though. The theme park itself looks desolate and deserted. We have a knotted tree and broken concrete/dirt patch instead of a functioning parking lot. And the Horrorland monster—what’s his deal? Is he the monster in Horrorland, the book? Or simply a mascot for Horrorland, the theme park? Por que no los dos, as a wise child once asked. The fact that I’m giving this an A- speaks to the impeccable quality of Goosebumps covers. Mostly drawn by Tim Jacobus. 

Monster Blood II: Conan Barber Dunks Evan, Is Friends With Biggie

The Book: The sequel to Evan and Andy’s previous adventures, Monster Blood II sees the gargantuan-making goo fed to Cuddles the Hamster, the class pet for Evan’s teacher bully. Oh, and Evan’s peer bully is named Conan Barder, who is best friends with Biggie. 

Why It’s Ridiculous: I get that these are joke books. I get Stine’s ominous-dark-eyes-dark-glasses combo sits atop a cheek with a tongue in it. But come on, Conan Barber? Biggie??! Not Biggie Smalls, mind you, Biggie Malick, so maybe he’s not supposed to be a nod to the rapper and instead is like the nephew of the guy who directs movies with long shots of tall grass. Either way, these are wild abuses of the time-honored tradition of punning a celebrity name. It’s a small detail, but I can’t let it slide. This book is mostly on this list to talk about how rad the cover is.

What About That Cover Tho?: 

Scholastic Books

Look at this masterpiece; elegant as a Monet.

This cover, more than any other, might represent the R.L. Stine Literary Project the best: an enormous monster, literally bursting the metal bars off of its cage while growing beyond natural size and bleeding green blood…and that monster is a hamster. He looks sufficiently scary, too! I mean, hamsters are kinda scary anyway because they’re aggressively willing to kill their own babies but insist on breeding faster than FLDS patriarchs. But hamsters aren’t scary in a traditional horror sense. Hamsters are intrinsically funny. It’s easy to picture Stine wondering, “what’s so scary about a hamster?” and then having a blast figuring it out. Wait, did that come up in an interview? It did come up in an interview! Golly gee, folks, I swear I’m writing this in real-time. Turns out doing tons of research sticks the weirdest things in your head. Like R.L. Stine wondering about hamsters being scary. A+ cover for Monsters Blood II

Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living in Chicago. He co-hosts The Line Break, a podcast about poetry, is one half of b and the shipwrecked sailor, and is a fiction reader for Cotton Xenomorph. Drop him a line on werewolf communes or sea monster sightings on Twitter.

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