Goosebumps were a phenomenon in the mid nineties. The books, you understand, not the skin condition. Author R. L. Stine has sold something like 400 million copies, and was still publishing new stories as late as 2012. In fact, the original books are still in print.
People collected them as you would football stickers or Pogs. They were cool, and were a symbol of playground status and wealth. You always had the sad kid who showed up to school with a satchel full of “Chillers” or “Gorse Bumps” books, though. Poor bugger.
The covers were always fantastic, regardless of the content. They were playfully grotesque, but never really frightening, sort of like the Halloween section in the supermarket. They were just creepy enough that you felt like a bit of a maverick with them on your bookshelf, but not so disturbing as to give you nightmares.
The artwork was probably the best thing about the books, and certainly will remain in the memory long after the stories themselves are forgotten. The UK got exclusive new covers, and they were great. They usually showed a monster or object from the book sinking in a bubbly, neon-coloured goo.
They were embossed, so naturally you would run your fingers over the cover as if it were Braille to gauge the books’ scariness. To save money on embossing dies, the publisher later replaced the covers with cheaper, identikit ones that simply put the American artwork in a new frame. Boo.
Compare the two species. Below we have a selection of UK books. Note the abstract nature and bright colours.
These covers were clearly deemed too visually stimulating for the Americans, whose books had a distinct, almost puritanical, style of their own:
Goosebumps merchandise was popular, and was plastered with the trademark logo and stock art of many characters. Chief among these was Curly the Skeleton, although to my recollection he never actually appeared in a single book, but was nontheless the brand mascot. I figure that he’s meant to represent Stine himself. He looks pretty smug for a dead guy, anyway. He was your typical, garden-variety skellington in every way except for his tiny Scrooge McDuck reading glasses and his purple Mohican.
Recurring characters included Slappy the dummy (a possessed ventriloquist doll, natch), Monster Blood (more on that in a sec), the Haunted Mask, and The Horrors. These guys, and all the Goosebumps characters for that matter, were quite tame. They certainly weren’t on par with Freddy Kruger or Jason Vorhees. But that was probably the point; you don’t sell many children’s bedsheets that way.
Evan gets shipped off to his estranged great-aunt for the summer, because his parents are going to Georgia to look at houses and we all know that children will spontaneously combust if made to set eyes on a new house.
Aunt Kathryn is an eighty year old widow, profoundly deaf, and never learned sign language or how to properly spell her own name. So naturally she’s a good choice to look after a young boy. Evan spends his days walking his dog, getting duffed up, and going to toy shops with Andrea, the only girl in the neighbourhood.
Evan and ‘Andy’ end up in possession of an ever-enlarging, hungry blob that came from a tin of green slime called ‘Monster Blood’. First it outgrows its tin, then a coffee can, then a bucket, and then the bathtub. It eventually goes on a rampage, a bit like in the film The Blob. Okay… exactly like in the film The Blob.
The twist at the end is genuinely surprising and I shan’t spoil it here in case you’re twelve years old or have only just learned to read.
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
Young Gabe goes to Egypt with his parents. Presumably, they’re there to pick up the Arab Parent of the Year Award, as they promptly leave him alone in the middle of Cairo, and allow him to get kidnapped by a stranger who uses the classic “Your parents sent me to get you” line.
Gabe carries around a tiny little mummy hand in his pocket that he calls his “summoner”. Did the ancient Egyptians make mummies in miniature? Shouldn’t it be in a museum, and not the trouser pocket of a neglected 12-year-old?
Anyway, Gabe is put under the care of his slightly less negligent uncle, and together they get into all sorts of scrapes inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, where they discover an ancient tomb full of treasure and mummies that come to life. Gabe’s family act like he just found some pennies down the back of the sofa, and they all ignore it like it never happened and go for ice cream instead. The end.
One Day at Horrorland
This is probably the one Goosebumps book that I found truly unsettling. It begins with a family on vacation, driving around in the middle of nowhere looking for Universal Studios or something. They come across “Horrorland” instead and decide to go inside.
Immediately, their car explodes so they’re stranded there. The theme park is staffed by “Horrors”, little gremlin things that the family assumes are midgets in costumes. They’re mean and unhelpful, and deliberately separate the kids from their parents in order to expose each to a series of ever more deadly attractions and rides. Each time, the kids and their parents escape death by the skin of their teeth. It’s quite distressing, really. Would you like to think of your mother being locked in a suffocating coffin and sent down a raging river? No, that’s just not funny.
Maybe Stine had a bad experience at Disneyland as a child. Or maybe he really hates his parents. Probably both.
A Shocker on Shock Street
In a way, this book is similar to One Day at Horrorland, as it involves two kids in a theme park (this time an actual parody of Universal Studios) where the attractions go a bit loco. For example, the children get chased by real monsters on the spooky filming set, zombies actually come out of the ground in the haunted graveyard, and the Cave of Creeps has… uh… worms in.
The kids generally spend most of the book pissing themselves in fright, but it’s left quite ambiguous whether the monsters are really real or not. That would be weird – who would build a theme park and fill it with dangerous monsters?
But if it’s all in the kids’ imaginations, that would be weirder still, because (SPOILER ALERT) it turns out that they’re not really kids at all, but sophisticated robots built to test the park. This one left us scratching our heads, to be honest.
How I Got My Shrunken Head
Some would assume that the title refers to the author describing to us how his head had been shrunk. Like “How I Broke My Leg” or “How I Got Dysentery One Summer”. But that’s not the case.
It’s revealed that “chubby” 12-year-old Mark was given an actual shrunken head by his aunt, which isn’t really scary at all. Weird, maybe, but then aunts and uncles are known for giving weird presents.
(One time I was given a “Jurassic Park” basketball shirt my uncle brought back from the Philippines. It was a beautiful shade of purple and about eight sizes too big. Of course, we all remember Jeff Goldblum’s sick dunks from the film, don’t we? – Adam)
Mark’s parents are presumably in Egypt with Gabe’s, picking up their award, as they allow Mark to fly to the jungle island of Baladora (not an island) with a stranger. When he arrives, he’s kidnapped and held hostage. Showing good sense, he flees into the rainforest, presumably intending to live out the rest of his life in the infinite wilds with Tarzan.
On the way, Mark discovers that he has “jungle magic” – a power that he doesn’t seem to have direct control over, nor does it influence his surroundings in any way other than to advance the story. It’s not exactly the Power of Grayskull, is what we’re saying. At the end of the book, when he’s home and safe, his aunt takes away his jungle powers because they’re too dangerous for a boy who lives four thousand miles away from the nearest jungle to have. Except when they weren’t. Because she gave them to him in the first place.
What does it all mean?
We can’t see many kids reading these today, to tell the truth. Times have changed. Most of the adventures described in the above books just wouldn’t be possible in today’s world. Kids tend to Google or Facebook their way out of every situation now. Or at the very least use their iPhones to call the rozzers when kidnappings loom.
Goosebumps had that kind of patronising “Look kids! Reading is COOL!” feel to them. Sometimes it feels like we have to trick our children into picking up books – as if it might be a surprise to them to find that there’s words beneath the shiny embossed covers. But if the hype and the fad got just one kid to go to a library, or become a proficient reader, then it was all worth it.
“Dog Getting Duffed”