Reader Beware!

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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.

dfg

It’s a bit like the end of Terminator 2. But not.

These covers were clearly deemed too visually stimulating for the Americans, whose books had a distinct, almost puritanical, style of their own:

Creepy for all the wrong reasons

Creepy for all the wrong reasons

The Merch

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.

Curly moonlights as a Scout leader

Curly volunteers as a Scout leader in his spare time

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.

The Books

Monster Blood

Monster Blood

Nein! Der Pumpelkins!

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

The_Curse_of_the_Mummys_Tomb

Delete my internet historryyyyyy!

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

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“Tastes like wee”

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

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“Red means STOP, asshole!”

 

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

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Don’t lose your head! Arf!

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.

Or so says R. L. Stine from his solid gold, ruby-encrusted palace. It’s very easy to be philosophical when you’re a bazillionaire.GB_Logo2013

“Dog Getting Duffed”

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Transformer Tuesday #1

Through the magic of time travel (it is 2015, after all. We all have hoverboards and phone booths now) this first edition of Transformer Tuesday comes to you on a Thursday. It may also have something to do with the fact that I only invented the idea this morning and couldn’t be fussed to wait five days to implement it.

Well, yesterday (try and keep up, dear) I got a lovely package from Mr. Postman. I had to sing that old Marvelettes song before he’d give it to me, which I think is very unprofessional and tantamount to abuse. I complied only because my parcel contained a Transformer toy that I’ve literally waited some twenty-seven years to buy. It’s…… FANGRY!

Green... with evil!

Green… with evil!

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It’s Hip To Be Square

By TMW newcomer Sam Taylor.

Oh hello there! I’m new here!

For my first review I thought I would start a bit easy as my writing and reviewing is a little rusty, so please bear with me as I spray it up with some WD40. In fact it has been about six years since I wrote a review for anything. So, I thought I would follow in the great Adam’s footsteps and write about a childhood TV show that sits closely to my metallic heart.

Now I am not very old, but I was raised watching old videos of Muffin the Mule, Camberwick Green and whatever else was on Watch With Mother. I remember there being a lot of Dr Who involved in my bedtime watches as well, however that is a different story for a different day.

To the people of Devon, this man is indistinguishable from the Third Doctor

To the people of Devon, this man is indistinguishable from the Third Doctor

This series is a lot younger than that. I am going to tell you about Cubix, a multicoloured robot that shows you just what you can do with a Rubix cube if you combine it with a Gundam kit. (If you listen closely and point your ears in the direction of the westcountry, you’ll hear Adam slapping his forehead as he only now realises the similarity between Cubix and Rubix. Only took fourteen years!)

I think the one on the far right is supposed to be a toilet. His eyes beg for death.

I think the one on the far right is supposed to be a toilet. His eyes beg for death.

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Make Beast Love, Not War

I underwent my first emotional crisis sometime in the early nineties. I was distraught – Transformers had disappeared. I went into the toy shop one day, and the pegs were empty. For the next year or so, I went in every week and asked the lady at the till if any new ones were coming in. The answer was always ‘no’, and so I gave up hope.

Transformers were dead, and a little bit of me died with them.

Yeah. Bit like this.

Yeah. Bit like this.

Then one weekend in 1996, I was in McDonalds with my mum and dad. I’d finished my Happy Meal and rather than sit down for another half hour listening to my dad grumble over a cup of coffee, I escaped out the back exit and into the adjacent Woolworths.

Browsing the toy shelves, I came across some really cool boxes. They had a wicked dinosaur-skin pattern on them, and said in neon green letters “BEAST WARS”. My curiosity was immediately piqued. They looked to be toy animals. I saw a bat and an alligator at first.

If this were made today, the box would be the size of ten elephants and it'd cost £50

If this were made today, the box would be the size of ten elephants and it’d cost £50

Looking closer, I saw the names “Optimus Primal” and “Megatron”. My heart skipped a beat. Could it be!?

At first, I figured that these toys were knock offs – imitation Transformers designed to cash in on the brand’s former popularity. They certainly didn’t look like any Transformer I had ever seen before. Optimus “Primal” may well have been a cheeky attempt at skirting the copyright, and the factions were “Heroic Maximals” and “Evil Predacons” instead of Autobots or Decepticons.

What can I say? I was naive.

I warmed to them quite quickly once I realised they were the bona fide article. Although I was certainly put off by many of the toys’ orgainic styling at first. It was almost the antithesis of Robots in Disguise – wheels and wings and cockpits were replaced by paws and tails and animal guts. Many of the early toys were quite messy, too; they had all these extraneous animal parts sticking out.reduced-bwterror

The first toys I actually bought were Terrorsaur – because of his superficial resemblance to Starscream – and Snapper, a turtle of the non-teenage but possibly still mutant variety. They cost £5 in my local Toymaster. Not £5 each, no – a fiver for the two. How times have changed.

I loved them dearly, and they were soon followed by Waspinator and Tarantulas. I had a thing for the Predacons at first, probably because they looked a lot more mechanical than the Maximals, being based primarily on insects or reptiles. One toy I steadfastly refused to buy was Rattrap. “Yuck,” I said at the time, “Who wants a robot that turns into a rat?”.

Megatron has difficulty transforming his toy and loses his temper

“Grr! One-step transformation, my ass!”

I’d eat those words, though, because in the summer of 1997 there was a Beast Wars cartoon on GMTV! It was absolutely brilliant. It was CGI, in the vein of the earlier Reboot, but it looked amazing. It says something that, twenty years on, it still stands up to viewing today. In fact, although the computer models might look a tad dated, the actual animation has yet to be bettered.

"Nighty mares!"

“Nighty mares!”

It starred a small cast of characters, about five or six Transformers on each side. This allowed much greater character development than the earlier cartoons. Optimus Primal was wise and compassionate, Megatron was calculating and snobbish. The young and impulsive Cheetor was the Hasbro-mandated kid-appeal character, but many fell in love with the insolent and obnoxious Rattrap instead.

I could write a whole other article about the Beast Wars cartoon, and maybe I will, but for now I’ll just say that it is by far the best Transformers cartoon ever made. It’s action-packed, funny and thoughtful – it can be enjoyed by adults and children alike, and makes most modern cartoons look like programming for idiots.

Pictured: Hasbro's pitch for the 2015 Transformers cartoon

Pictured: Hasbro’s pitch for the 2015 Transformers cartoon

Proving that we’re all of us malleable tools of the media, my interest in the toys exploded after watching the cartoon, and my collection grew to include pretty much all the characters in the show and a few extras that took my fancy. New toys started appearing on the shelves shortly before season two aired. They were called “Fuzors” and “Transmetals”.

The former were two beasts melded into one. An interesting idea, but most of the toys looked pretty naff. Silverbolt the wolf/eagle was the best, but ended up looking less like two animals monstrously blended together and more like a regular (if there is such a thing) griffon. My mum bought me a toy called Torca (wait…), which I didn’t really care for at the time. It was only years later that I appreciated the kooky hideousness of the elephant/orca hybrid.

# And the elephant goes toot.... #

# And the elephant goes toot…. #

The Transmetals were an attempt to win over the stubborn fans who refused to embrace the new organic designs. It threw the Beast Wars concept on its head; the toys were very shiny and very robotic-looking in beast mode, yet maintained gooey insides for their robot modes. Soft on the inside, hard on the outside – ARMADILLOS! (Readers from foreign lands: resign yourselves to not getting the joke)

Pictured: A Westcountry person. Uh, like me.

Pictured: A Westcountry person. Uh, like me.

Like many of my hobbies, Beast Wars was enjoyed in clandestine secrecy, lest I be mercilessly mocked by my peers. We were too old for toys, my friends said. My next door neighbour caved and bought one, but only “because he looks cool on the shelf. I don’t play with him or anything”.

Looking back, I should have done what all teenagers do and just told them all to go and fuck themselves. If your friends are willing to disown you because you like a cartoon, they aren’t your friends to lose in the first place.

Times have changed – Transformers are a pop culture mainstay, and people are generally more accepting of ‘geek’ culture. You can go into Primark and buy t-shirts with Bart Simpson or Adventure Time or Big Bird on them, and wear them with pride. Years ago, you had to get these things from specialists or just make them yourself.

Free ticket for an ass kicking.

Free ticket for an ass kicking.

Beast Wars brought me many happy times. I loved the cartoon, I played with the toys, and it ultimately contributed a great deal to my childhood and adolescence. It was quality stuff, and it fuelled my imagination just as the classic Transformers had done.

Were it not for Beast Wars, then I’m certain Transformers would never have returned in such a big way, and we wouldn’t have all this great merchandise to rekindle fond memories – and make new ones. It’s worth noting that there was a short comic series made by IDW in 2006 (it still seems brand new to me, despite being nearly ten years old now!). The art is astounding, and it ties in nicely with the cartoon with a script by British National Treasure Simon Furman. Pick it up from your local dealer today. Uh, your comic dealer you understand. Not the shady guy who hangs around outside the nightclub.

“Love with the insolent”

Chaos Theory

Throughout my formative years in the 1990s, both my parents worked, so during school holidays or periods of civil disturbance, I was shipped off to my aunt and uncle’s house in a sleepy little village about eight miles out of the city. There was nothing to do or see there, really. Places of interest included The Phone Booth, The Field, and the fabled Zedd Bridge, a small humpback bridge barely wide enough to contain the TNT trucks that used it as a launch pad to gain wicked airtime after being dispatched from the nearby depot.

"I consider it a bad day if I DON'T hit a kid"

“I consider it a bad day if I DON’T hit a kid”

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Master Baiting

I loves Masters of the Universe, I does. I had a handful of toys as a kid, and watched the cartoon occasionally on Channel 4 in the early hours of the morning. It’s a shame that I’m not quite old enough to remember the craze in full swing – the toys had long since disappeared from the shelves by the time I could go and explore the toy shops myself. Most were given to me by older friends and relatives. They were chewed up a bit, and smelled like engine oil and creosote, but I didn’t care.

One more thing I played with as a kid that they banned.

One more thing I played with as a kid that they banned.

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