Tuesday, March 14, 2006

#01 Welcome to Dead House

#01 Welcome to Dead House

Front Tagline: It will just kill you.
Back Tagline: Look Alive!

Official Book Description:
Amanda and Josh think the old house they have just moved into is weird. Spooky. Possibly haunted. And the town of Dark Falls is pretty strange, too.
But their parents don't believe them. You'll get used to it, they say. Go out and make some new friends.
So Amanda and Josh do. But these new friends are not exactly what their parents had in mind. Because they want to be friends...

Brief Synopsis:
Amanda and Josh Benson have been dragged by their parents to Dark Falls, a cheery-sounding town that has a lot of trees, causing a sort of permanent shade all over. Their dad has inherited a large house from his great-uncle who he didn't even know he had, and instead of questioning this development, he simply moves his whole family into the new house. The realtor, Compton Dawes, is a strange man who wears a cowboy hat and a full suit, even though it's the middle of summer. He takes the family to see their new house, but Josh has brought along their dog, Petey, because when you drive four hours to see a house, you of course take your dog with you? The dog freaks out at Dawes, and indeed the dog freaks out at everything in the town. While looking through their new house, Amanda thinks she sees a ghostly boy in her bedroom, but of course there couldn't really be a boy in her bedroom could there of course not how ridiculous.

Josh declines the offer to look at the house and instead pouts outside with Petey. When the family and Dawes comes out of the house, they find both Petey and Josh missing. Dawes drives them around until they see Josh running through the cemetery, chasing after Petey. Dawes drives them all back to his office where they make the final arrangements. The Bensons are officially moving to Dark Falls!

Moving Day for the Bensons gets off to an overcast, rainy start. As they wait around for the movers to show up at their Dark Falls house, Amanda thinks she sees another child roaming around the house and when she goes up to investigate. Upstairs a door opens and closes by itself, and this is the single scariest event in the book, and that's counting two pages later when we discover the door opened and closed because the window in the room was open. Amanda then freaks her brother out by pretending to be dead or something. And we're now at the half-way point in the book. Luckily, RL Stine would later learn valuable time-management skills.

The next few chapters cover some more breezy windows and more mysterious ghost appearances and noises coming from Amanda's room. Amanda eventually gets bored with the paranormal events and learns to ignore them. I think you learn in Intro to Creative Writing that when your characters themselves are bored, the odds of the reader caring are not very good.

One morning Josh is annoying his parents (Josh is a thoroughly unlikable character in this book) and they kick both kids out, telling them to go find some friends. Walking Petey on a leash, they find a young boy wearing long sleeve shirt and jeans despite the heat. He has a baseball cap in his backpocket and introduces himself as Ray. Ray offers to take the kids down to the schoolyard, where the three run into about a dozen kids of various ages. The kids form an ominous circle around Amanda and Josh until Dawes shows up for no reason to say hello. The kids break the circle up and play some softball. It's overcast outside, but once the sun starts to come out, all the kids seem to have sudden lunch appointments back at home.

At some point in all this, Petey runs away. Amanda and Josh's parents don't seem all that concerned, as they are the worst parents in the whole world. The night that Petey escapes, the parents are invited to a potluck dinner party in the neighborhood, and they leave the two kids home alone. Josh wakes up Amanda after midnight and tells her that he's figured out where Petey must be: the cemetery, as that's where he turned up last time he ran away. Josh's plan is to go to the cemetery after midnight in this strange town. I bet this all turns out well.

On the way to the cemetery, the two kids run into Ray, who is just I guess hanging around outside their house. Josh shines the beam of his flashlight at him but he then ducks behind a car and asks what they're doing. Ray tells them that they should avoid the cemetery but the two kids are insistent and the three walk to the cemetery. Once there, Ray shows them a large outdoor amphitheatre behind the cemetery, where they have town meetings and so forth. As he's showing them this, Petey appears behind a tombstone, but acts very weird and indifferent towards his owners. As Amanda chases after the dog, she sees a string of tombstones that read, in order, the names of all of her new friends in Dark Falls. It sure was good planning for the people who worked in the cemetery to arrange those markers in the order that she'd befriend those dead kids. She then of course sees Ray's tombstone, and he cops to being dead.

Ray explains that the town needs fresh blood, so every year they invite a family to their house, the Dead House, to be the town's next victim. He used to live in their house, everyone in town used to live in the house. Ray also explains that the town killed their dog, and that the Petey running around the cemetery is Goosebumps #32: the Barking Ghost. Then Josh accidentally shines his flashlight on Ray's head and all his skin melts off. What.

The two alive kids run back to their house to find their parents, but of course they're still at the potluck dinner. They panic, and then luckily all their dead friends show up inside the house and try to kill them, but not before making a truly excellent joke: "We used to live in your house. And now we're dead in your house!" Holy smokes.

Before the two kids can get murdered by dead people, a knock on the door scares off the entire group of kids. It's Mr. Dawes! He tells the kids that he was at the potluck dinner with their parents. The town formed a circle around the three and luckily they all escaped. He dropped the parents off at the amphitheatre for plot convenience and went to rescue the kids. The two kids get in the car with him because they are the stupidest kids who ever lived. He drives them to the cemetery and that's when Amanda sees his tombstone. He's one of them!

Dawes explains how the town used to be normal, you know, before all the murders, and how one day a yellow gas escaped from the plastics factory and turned them all into the living dead. Then Josh throws the flashlight into Dawes' face, with it embedding itself in his forehead. The two kids run to the cusp of the cemetery and spot their parents, tied to a stake in the middle of the stage, surrounded by the entire town sitting in the bleachers. Amanda comes up with the perfect plan: they'll uproot and topple over a tree that overlooks the amphitheatre, thus ending the shade and causing the sun to reveal itself. Because uprooting a giant tree is something two kids can do.

The tree falls over and the sunlight kills everyone in the town in gory detail. The best part is probably the young girl that Amanda had befriended thanking Amanda for killing her as her hair catches fire and her skin melts off. The two kids untie their parents and the family prepares to leave behind Dark Falls forever.

But the Twist is:
As they are about to leave, Amanda gets out of the car and takes one last look at their old house. As she's about to leave, a red station wagon pulls up, and a new family gets out. On the way back to the car, Amanda spots someone who looks an awful lot like Dawes letting them into the house.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Amanda and Josh Benson, a brother and sister whose friend Ray's face disappears halfway thru the novel.

Questionable Parenting:
Actual line spoken by the naive mother to her daughter: "Boys in your room. Curious blowing. You have to realize that you're nervous[.]"

Confusing Monsterology Alert:
It's not very clear just what the townspeople are in this book. They aren't really vampires, and they aren't really zombies, but one thing they definitely are is boring beyond belief.

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 6/7:
Amanda goes to close her window but it's already closed!

Great Prose Alert:
"I snickered to myself."

I started reading this series when it first came out. I remember how the first three volumes were released at the same time, and I bought all three and couldn't have been more excited about them. As a child I always considered Welcome to Dead House to be the darkest, "scariest" entry of the series. But reading it now it's surprising how dull and artificial the book is, even compared to later successes like the Haunted School or Werewolf Skin. The book is by far gorier than any of the subsequent titles in the series, not including the first couple of titles, and I suspect that's the aspect I responded so strongly towards when I was younger. Reading it now, it's hard to imagine that this is the book that spawned the best-selling children's series in publishing history.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

#53 Chicken Chicken

#53 Chicken Chicken

Front Tagline: It's a finger lickin' nightmare!
Back Tagline: Don't Call Them Chicken Legs!

Official Book Description:
Everyone in Goshen Falls knows about weird Vanessa. She dresses all in black. Wears black lipstick. And puts spells on people. At least, that's what they say.
Crystal and her brother, Cole, know you can't believe everything you hear. But that was before they made Vanessa mad. Before she whispered that strange warning, "Chicken chicken."
Because now something really weird has happened. Crystal's lips have turned as hard as a bird's beak. And Cole has started growing ugly white feathers all over his body...

Brief Synopsis:
Crystal, a tall redheaded girl who is told by a farmer early on that she should be a model, because that is something farmers often say, and her younger brother Cole live on a farm in a small town. Their parents made them move to a farm a few years back, and now the two kids have to do horrible chores like cleaning up after the chickens in the coop.

Cole is a bit of a prankster because this is a Goosebumps book and he's not the main character, so he is involved in hilarious pranks like how he comes down to breakfast one morning with red blotches all over his face, pretends to collapse, and as his mom is dialing for the doctor reveals that he drew the blemishes on with a red Sharpie. Of course the mom and Crystal believe him. I like to think the true prank in this case is on God, considering how stupid his creations are for confusing red permanent marker for blisters.

In this small town there lives a weird woman named Vanessa who dresses in black and is described at the beginning of the book as being roughly the same age as the main characters but at some point turns into an old spinster, and this would probably a much greater source of contention if it weren't for the vast amount of truly insultingly terrible occurrences that pop up later in the book. She's the resident weird person in a small town, so we're introduced to her as a herd of children are planning to prank her good. Cole and his friend Anthony dare Franny and Jeremy (two kids whose full names are given in the book while the main characters remain last nameless. Franny and Jeremy are never heard from again after page nine), to pour water into her mailbox. I don't know, don't ask me. And especially don't ask me why they carried the water over to her house in large pitchers. I'm a city boy, I guess, with my fancy lidded containers for water. The kids pour water into her mailbox and luckily it's somehow exactly as successful a prank as pouring water into a box can be.

Jeremy and Franny run away while Cole, Crystal, and Anthony stick around long enough to get caught by Vanessa, who doesn't do anything. This entire event that starts the book has no bearing on anything that follows. It will be the first of many times in this book that Stine seems to be daring the reader to find any reason at all to continue reading.

The next day, Crystal has to go to the market to buy her best friend Lucy-Ann a CD for her upcoming birthday. Oh, I bet she'll love Album by the Group on CD!

While in town, Cole and Anthony follow Crystal around, tossing an egg between themselves. Eventually the egg lands on Anthony's head and he gets mad because somehow he's the only person in the entire universe who didn't see how this would end. He charges Cole and the two fight for several pages until they knock over Vanessa as she is exiting the grocery store. She falls and her grocery bags rip open, spilling her purchases everywhere. Anthony runs off scared, apologizing as he scatters away. Crystal and Cole just sort of stare at her and she whispers "Chicken chicken" to them. They run away.

Back at the house, Cole teases Crystal about how one of their old classmates once upset Vanessa and she turned his head into a giant sponge. This "joke" about the sponge-head is repeated at least three or four times at the beginning of the book, until it achieves a sort of Quantum Physics moment where it becomes less funny than where it started, at the Least Funny Thing Possibly Ever point.

I'm going to move quickly through the rest of the book, because to dwell would be inhuman. Gradually the two kids turn into giant chickens. This sounds pretty funny, I know, but imagine actually slowly turning into a chicken. The kids grow feathers on their neck and shoulders, which they prick out and leave bloody holes. They continue to prick out their feathers for a span of several days in what amounts to extended periods of self-mutilation. Cole's voice is the first to go, as his singing voice during choral practice slowly devolves into nothing but clucks. I imagine that RL Stine began penning this one with the intention of making the kids turning into chickens scenario a parallel to puberty (voice changing, new hair, etc), but that's something real writers can muster. Stine avoids any chance of there being a subtextual payoff and instead turns the book into a calvacade of unpleasant events:

Crystal is at Lucy-Ann's birthday party when her lips turn into a beak. She locks herself in the bathroom, panics, and sneaks away from the party. At home, her parents won't listen to her or her brother. They're planning a big barbecue and are oblivious to their children. When the guests arrive, Cole and Crystal go into the chicken coop and pick up chicken feed with their beaks as the party guests laugh and ridicule them. This is one of many horrible scenes. I can see how this could be funny, in theory, but it's not. It's needlessly cruel and mean-spirited, making the kids not only freaks but freaks on display. The worst part is that the people laughing at them don't even notice the actual bird-like attributes of the children, thus they are humiliating the children at face value.

Crystal and Cole suffer various other humiliations, including Crystal finally getting a chance to be a star-player in the basketball game, but she can't stop bobbing her head like a chicken and clucking and then growing feathers as she runs away from the auditorium in tears. The two kids visit Anthony, who has had no adverse reactions in the past week except that suddenly he's a great golfer. I guess Anthony's got some sort of Bagger Vance sideplot that got cut from the final book in order to fit in more needless humiliation of the main characters. Then their hideous mutation into a chicken gets worse as their eyes move to the side of their heads and their fingers turn into claws. This isn't scary like a horror movie, it's just grotesque and needlessly sadistic.

Crystal and Cole decide the only way to save themselves is to apologize to Vanessa. They go to her house, and seeing that she's not there, they naturally do the smart thing and break into the witch's house. Crystal sees a book called Chicken Chicken Chicken, swipes it, and the two safely return home only to find out that they've stolen a cookbook. (Pause for laughter, applause) They then go back to the house again, find a magical spell book, and perform various spells that first turn them into twenty feet tall chickens, and then into baby chicks. Vanessa's cat eats Crystal, then throws her up and plays with her. What.

Vanessa finally comes home and sweeps the two chicks up in her hand. She asks them if they like the lesson she's taught them. She points to her bookshelf full of books on manners. Kids today have no manners she tells the chicks, so she turned them into chickens to teach them a lesson about not apologizing when they knocked her over. She fails to mention where deforming children falls on the politeness meter. Crystal the baby chick leaps out of Vanessa's palm and lands on a convenient typewriter and types out an apology. That doesn't do much, so she then types out a Thank You Letter to Vanessa for teaching them the error of their ways.

Vanessa is so impressed that a child would write a Thank You Letter that she turns them both back into normal kids. We've just been taught a lesson. This was about a lesson on manners. How is this any different than the eight-year old kid who gets beaten by his father with a belt for not showing the proper respect? I'm not entirely comfortable with the book's message that these kids deserved to be tortured both physically and mentally to teach them a pithy lesson in saying "Thank you."

But the Twist is:
She offers them some soda to drink, as they are probably parched from all the abuse she's doled out on them. Cole drinks his cup down and then burps. Vanessa whispers "Pig pig" and I literally threw the goddamn book across the room.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Crystal and her little brother Cole, whose chances of not being emotionally and physically scarred for life disappear halfway thru the book.

Questionable Parenting:
Crystal's parents insist on feeding her and her brother chicken for every meal during their transformation. I know, you're saying "But they didn't notice," and my response to you would be that that is hardly a defense against Questionable Parenting.

Questionable Teaching:
After Crystal grows a beak, she still goes to school, where apparently no teacher or schoolmate notices that she's grown a beak.

Early 90s Cultural References:
Lucy-Ann gets a Discman for her birthday.

R.L. Stine Shows He is Down With the Kids:
Finally, a children's book that covers the Egg Throwing fad of the early 90's!

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 6/7:
This is the actual chapter break for Chapter Six: "And that's when all the frightening stuff really started."

Great Prose Alert:
"Her black lipsticked lips were open in an angry cry."

I will be perfectly honest with you, Blogger Beware reader, I had a lot of trouble coming up with things to say about this book that weren't just a string of swears and empty threats against the author. I poke a lot of fun at these books, but that's still in part due to a less than hidden fondness for the material. Some of the books in this series are bad, some more than others, but Chicken Chicken exists on a whole other plane of quality. It's not just a bad book, it's an ugly one.
For anyone who has been craving 112 pages of fantasy child abuse, I think you could do no better than this novel. For everyone else, I can not possibly foresee any other Goosebumps book I read being worse than this.

Friday, March 10, 2006

#21 Go Eat Worms!

#21 Go Eat Worms!

Front Tagline: Homework was never this gross before!
Back Tagline: They're Creepy and They're Crawly-- They're Totally Disgusting!

Official Book Description:
Obsessed with worms? That's putting it mildly. Todd is so fascinated with worms, he keeps a worm farm in his basement! Most of all, Todd loves torturing his sister and her best friend with worms. Dropping them into their hair. Down their backs.
Until one day, after cutting a worm in half, Todd notices something strange. The rest of the worms seem to be staring at him! Suddenly worms start showing up in the worst places for Todd. In his bed. In his homework. Even in his spaghetti!
What's a worm lover to do when his own worms are starting to gross him out?

Brief Synopsis:
Todd loves worms. He loves digging them up on the baseball diamond behind the school after it rains, loves collecting them in an aquarium in his basement, loves tormenting his sister Regina and her best friend Beth with them. Luckily his best friend Danny always gives him a hand in collecting worms, even though he doesn't quite share his friends enthusiasm. Todd's known as that kid who always wears the Raiders cap and loves worms. If you hadn't already guessed, this book isn't exactly setting itself up to be quite the scare we were bewared about on the back cover.

Todd's planning on entering a worm house in the Science Fair. The Worm House is a wood house with worms inside, and between this and his sister's project that involves a giant paper mache bird, this school's Science Fair seems fairly loose in terms of the submissions being science related. On a side personal note, in second grade I entered the school Science Fair with origami made of aluminum foil and placed 77 out of a hundred, which means there were 23 worse science projects than origami made with aluminum foil.

Todd learns that Patrick, a rich blonde good-looking kid, is also entering a worm-related project in the Science Fair. Todd becomes obsessed with finding out what his project is, to ensure that his will be better than Patrick's. Regina tells Todd Patrick's address and Todd and Danny set off late at night to first meet with Patrick to try and get an answer from him, and then later when they see his mansion is abandoned, they decide to break in and see his project. Then an evil spirit dog chases them and they see a corpse inside the house and run away. What.

Todd overhears his sister the next day talking to Beth on the phone about what a great trick she played, sending the two boys to the abandoned mansion where some kids threw a Halloween party a few months ago. Todd gets revenge on her by putting worms in the beak of her paper mache bird, which she's named Christopher Robin. Regina accidentally opens the bird's beak when the Science Fair judges walk by and they land on the head of the judges.

Patrick sets his project down next to Todd's modest worm house and reveals that he has built a massive worm skyscraper, complete with working elevators. The judges spend a considerable amount of time on Patrick's project, mostly ignoring Todd's. Todd is furious, especially since he's the worm expert. He had even refused to let Danny help him with his project, leaving Danny to build a pathetic solar system representation made out of balloons, half of which deflate by the time the judges come around.

The judges announce the winner of the Science Fair... Danny and his balloon solar system, in a moment that is actually funny. Also, at some point in the Science Fair scene, there's a crash and one of the teachers goes, "WAS THAT THE ACID?" All I could think of was how I'd much rather read the book about the kid that dropped the beaker of acid than the book about a kid who likes worms.

Regina, furious over Todd's sabotage of her project, attacks Todd and the two quarrel, knocking over Patrick's worm skyscraper, which falls and lands on the Liquids and Gases project. This is followed by maybe the single best line ever uttered in Goosebumps history, as a girl screams "Look out-- It's Liquids and Gases!" Then, be with me on this, there's an explosion, but RL Stine doesn't even write about the explosion. I guess the previous 40 pages of worm digging were far more exciting than writing about a middle school science fair ending in an explosion. No one's hurt, and no one mentions again in the book that the school gym exploded.

Todd goes back to digging up worms out by the baseball diamond. Danny and Todd have been noticing a low rumble everytime they go out to the diamond to dig, and they even embarrassed themselves in front of the student body by proclaiming they were experiencing an earthquake.

Todd collects a bucket of worms and carries them back to his basement, where Regina and Beth are hanging out. Todd shows them a "neat" trick: he takes a worm and slices it in two. The two halves continue to wiggle forming two worms. Regina tells Todd that the worms in his fishtank are watching him, that they know what he did and they're not happy. That they'll take their revenge on him. The next day, Todd's baseball cap is filled with worms. OH MY GOD, THE WORM'S REVENGE, IT IS SO HORRIBLE!

Now, for those readers who have been craving a book that answers the dramatic question Will there be some worms where there aren't usually worms?, this is surely the book for you. For everyone else though, get ready for 50 pages of Todd finding worms in his bed, his food, his homework, so on. He becomes so convinced that the worms are seeking their revenge that he sneaks down to the basement to apologize to the worms, when he's caught by his father, who is wielding a baseball bat. Todd's father tells him he has to get rid of his worms once and for all.

The next day at school, Todd walks to class in the pouring rain. When he enters the school, he and Danny overhear Regina telling her friends about how she's been the one freaking Todd out, carefully placing worms all over his things to get him back for sabotaging her project. Todd drags Danny out to the baseball field to dig up worms after school. The rain's cleared and all the worms are coming out, the perfect time to grab some worms and get back Regina with... more worms.

As Danny and Todd are digging around in the ground, they feel the rumble again and a giant worm the size of a tree trunk pops out of the ground, grabs Todd, and drags him underneath the soil of the baseball diamond. Danny waves at Regina and Beth, who are walking along the edge of the diamond, to help him. They are busy carrying their paper mache bird, the shadow of which falls onto the baseball diamond, casting the shadow of a giant bird. The giant worm sneaks back out of the soil, sees the bird shadow, and releases Todd from his grasp. Todd decides to abandon his worm hobby once and for all, and he begins to collect beautiful butterfly specimens instead, to the delight of his sister.

But the Twist is:
This is the real ending. I sincerely wish I was kidding though:
Todd is awakened by a giant butterfly holding a huge silver pin who has shown up to take revenge.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Though there is a brother-sister dynamic, this book is one of the few entries to not contain a platonic boy-girl friendship/kinship, as the major relationships are between Danny & Todd and Regina & Beth, whose hopes of winning the Science Fair disappear half-way thru the novel.

Questionable Parenting:
Todd's mom asks his sister if he's "a grunge." What does that even mean.

R.L. Stine Shows He is Down With the Kids:
Two separate characters utter the phrase "Cool move, ace!" Is this RL Stine trying to create slang?

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 19/20:
Todd peels back the slices of his bread to reveal... no worms. But look, let's say there were worms, that's still not a very strong chapter break. "Oh man, I can't wait til the next chapter to see if there really are more worms in this book!"

Great Prose Alert:
"Snails are for babies. We had snails in first grade. No one cares about snails in sixth grade. No way they can compete with worms."
Guess what, no one cares about worms in any grade.

Go Eat Worms! seems to be one of the books in the Goosebumps series that has failed to leave a strong impression over time. I imagine that for most of you reading this entry, this is the first time you've even remembered it existed. So slight is the book that I forgot I was reading it while I was actually reading it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

#15 You Can't Scare Me!

#15 You Can't Scare Me!

Front Tagline: They're coming for you....
Back Tagline: It's Gonna Be A Scream!

Official Book Description:
Courtney is a total show-off. She thinks she's so brave and she's always making Eddie and his friends look like wimps.
But now Eddie's decided he's had enough. He's going to scare Courtney once and for all. And he's come up with the perfect plan.
He's going to lure Courtney down to Muddy Creek. Because Eddie knows Courtney believes in that silly rumor about the monsters. Mud Monsters that live in the creek.
Too bad Eddie doesn't believe the rumor.
Because it just might be true....

Brief Synopsis:
Eddie is on a class field trip out in the woods with many of his classmates. Among his friends are Hat, which is the nickname of a boy who never takes off his--you guessed it, his socks; Molly and Charlene, two girls who are described as interchangeable and indeed, they are. All four of these kids loathe the class show-off, Courtney. On the field trip, which consists of two teachers leading 40 kids into the woods to identify plants and animals, Eddie is embarrassed or one-upped by Courtney several times. First she spots a deer, which is I guess something to envy. Then she teases Eddie for being scared of a garden snake. Then, in what has to be the most inexplicable scene in any Goosebumps book, the class crowds around Courtney as she lets two bumblebees walk across her palm. She then takes the bees and throws them at Eddie. She throws the bees.
Read that again, she throws the bees at him.

The teachers who are supervising this trip think this is all so quaint, either because they're really lousy supervisors who are enamored with Courtney, or because what is the proper reaction to a person throwing bees at someone.

On the bus ride back, the quartet of friends discuss how Courtney and her best friend Denise never seem to be afraid of anything. As the bus drives past the muddy woods, Eddie wonders if she'd even be scared of the fabled Mud Monsters that supposedly live in the woods. His older brother Kevin is making a movie about the legend of the mud monsters in his spare time starring his friends. Based on the descriptions of the film we are given throughout the novel, his brother is working with a budget of approximately thirteen million dollars.

After the field trip, Eddie begins a slow descent into obsession, eventually dragging all his friends with him as he becomes infatuated with the idea of getting Courtney back for... well, she didn't really do anything, which is sort of what makes the whole plot so appealing in the first place. Eddie is completely unjustified in his actions, and Courtney's inevitably unflappable response to every incident only makes the comic novel more pertinent.

First Eddie and his friends come up with placing a rubber snake in Courtney's lunch bag. This would have worked except their schoolteacher Mr. Melvin forgot his lunch that day, and Courtney being the nice person she is, kindly offered to share her lunch with him. The teacher reaches into the bag, freaks out at the snake, and Courtney heroically stomps on the snake until she's torn the head clear off.

On the way home after that failure, Eddie and his friends are approached by a neighborlady. Her cat is stuck in a tree and she needs help rescuing it. Eddie contemplates climbing the tree but decides he's not comfortable with the safety issues. At that moment, Courtney rides by on her bike, sees the situation, shimmies up the tree and rescues the cat for the neighbor. The neighbor then rubs it in by chastising Eddie for not being brave enough to climb the tree. Needless to say, this does little to quell Eddie's feelings of inferiority.

As they leave the neighbor, the group comes up with another plan to scare Courtney. They'll drop a tarantula down her back! Apparently the science room at their middle school has several tarantulas just hanging around. Eddie and Hat will sneak in, steal a tarantula, then race up to the rafters of the gym. Down below, Molly and Charlene will get Courtney to stand directly below the balcony, and Eddie will drop the tarantula into her hair. This plan was described as simple by Eddie, which is interesting given that it is the least simple plan that ever existed.

The book sort of turns into an Abbot and Costello movie for a few pages as Eddie and Hat sneak into the science lab to steal the tarantula. They place the creature in to a cottage cheese container, but as soon as they close the lid, they hear the science teacher entering the lab. They both hide inside a storage locker as they hear the teacher milling about in the room. It's at this point that Eddie notices the lid of the container is open and the tarantula is climbing up his leg. He and Hat both freak out and as soon as the teacher leaves, they discover the locker is locked. Eddie bursts out of the locker and the tarantula goes flying across the room, and there's a mad dash race by Hat to capture it back into the container. This sequence, like the rest of the book, is written with genuine wit and sparkle and other words I don't normally lavish on RL Stine.

From the rafters, they see Courtney is finally in place below them. Hat opens the container and drops the tarantula... into Molly's hair. She freaks out and tears at her head, finally removing the spider and tossing it into the air, where it lands in Charlene's hands and she bats it about like a hot potato. Finally, Courtney calmly takes the creature in her hands and pets it, telling the bystanders that tarantulas aren't all that scary. Eddie and Hat are caught and sentenced to detention, where they are forced to write a 1,000 word essay on why "It's wrong to steal living things and drop them on people's heads." That's not my joke, that's Stine's. Like I said, this book is actually clever.

Eddie's fiery desire to see Courtney get scared continues to eat away at him. He asks his filmmaking brother for tips on how to scare her. He points out that a snake and a spider are too small, Eddie needs something big. Like a ferocious, angry dog.

Eddie runs this idea past his friends the next Saturday afternoon. Charlene suggests that Buttercup, her cuddly St. Bernard, could do the trick. The others are less than convinced, and the name does nothing to help her argument, so Charlene shows them a trick that involves whistling until the dog snarls and bares it's teeth and looks very menacing. When Charlene stops whistling, the dog returns to normal. Eddie is floored and wants to put the idea into motion immediately. He knows that Courtney and Denise had a treehouse built near the creek and that if they were out relaxing in the woods and suddenly a wild dog attacked, they would surely be scared.

But how to get Courtney into the woods? Molly surprises her friends by changing her voice and pulling off a perfect impression of Denise. She'll call Courtney up and pretend to be her and arrange for the two to meet at the tree house. This plan doesn't work so well, as when Molly calls pretending to be Denise, Denise is already standing next to Courtney.

A week goes by before the weather allows for them to try to catch Courtney off-guard in the woods. The gang treks out into the woods, merely hoping that Courtney and Denise will be at their treehouse, and as luck should have it, they sure are. Eddie takes some shaving cream out and smears it on the dog's maw to make it look rabid. Charlene is about to whistle when Buttercup sees a squirrel and goes running off into the thicket after the animal. The group of friends splits up to search for the dog and then we get another inexplicable but amazing scene. Eddie hears a dog growl and turns around to see a giant, pony-sized black dog with coal-burning eyes. Hat shows up and scares the giant beast away. As the four exit the clearing, they spot Courtney calmly playing with both Buttercup and the mysterious beast dog, who is licking her hand. Courtney gives them a lecture about letting their pet go wild in the woods.

The following week, Eddie and his friends lie to their parents and claim to be studying, but instead sit around and think of ways to scare Courtney. No decent ideas come to fruition, but on the way home Eddie gets spooked by the wind and realizes that the reason Courtney wasn't getting scared was because they kept attempting to scare her during the day. They need to scare her at night! See, I thought the reason she wasn't getting scared was because nothing the quartet was doing was scary, but what do I know guys huh nothing that's what.

At school the next day, Courtney tells her teacher that she believes in monsters. She gives proof, such as the photographs of the Loch Ness Monster and the footprints of Bigfoot. Instead of taking these comments and at least feeling superior to her intellectually, Eddie uses them to give himself the most obvious idea of all time that we've been waiting 100 pages for him to think up. Eddie agrees to be his older brother's slave for one month (what is this, My Brother And Me?) if Kevin and his friends will dress up in their mud people costumes and scare Courtney in the woods. He agrees and Eddie tells him to go out into the woods. Now all Eddie and the gang need to figure out is how to get Courtney into the woods. Molly calls her and challenges her to meet them in the woods to see the mud monsters. Molly tells Courtney that she heard on the radio that they'd be rising up from their muddy graves tonite. Again, Courtney is simply retarded, as she takes this as truth and agrees to be in the woods in 10 minutes to prove she's not afraid.

We're given a brief history of the legend of the mud people. Once upon a time there were two neighboring villages, one in the woods and one in the city. The city village hated the woods village and treated the villagers poorly. One stormy night, a rainstorm caused the creek in the woods to overflow and flash flood, burying the entire village in a mudslide, killing all the villagers. Local legend claims that once a year, the townspeople return to form, covered in mud, and go to find innocent victims to drag back with them into the mud.

We all know where this is going, but we're almost there so let's wrap it up. The four friends hide about 100 yards behind Courtney's treehouse and they see her looking out into the creek with binoculars. Suddenly, behind her, three shadowy figures emerge. Eddie's brother and friends came thru, their plan worked! Eddie hears rustling behind him and the friends turn to see three more mud monsters! Eddie's brother apologizes for being late. Wah-wah.

The group turns back towards the treehouse and sees dozens of mud creatures emerging from the ground, all advancing on Courtney and the treehouse. They scream and yell until she notices and all of them make a mad dash run out of the woods, escaping the mud creatures. The next day at school, Courtney is given proof that she was right, monsters do exist. Eddie and his friends are still bitter about not being able to scare Courtney, and they'd love to come up with another way to scare her, but the only problem is they're too scared to try anything else. Wah-wah.

But the Twist is:
No twist, just a satisfying ending, which really is a twist with this series.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Eddie and Hat and Molly and Charlene, who's dog disappears half-way thru the novel.

Questionable Teaching:
When he forgets his lunch, Mr. Melvin almost breaks down in the lunchroom until one of his students shares their lunch with him.

Cry For Help Alert
After one of his scares fails, Eddie tells the reader "I felt so bad. I wanted to sink into the ground with the worms. I wanted to disappear and never be seen again."

R.L. Stine Shows He is Down With the Kids:
Eddie and his friends spend a relaxing Saturday afternoon playing croquet in the backyard. Are these kids staging an impromptu production of the Great Gatsby?

Foreshadowing Alert:
Turns out they really couldn't scare me.

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Though I'm tempted to give this award to the bee throwing scene:
Ch. 12/13:
Eddie looks up to see a horrible monster in his room with dripping blood running down its face. Oh wait, it's just his brother in movie makeup.

Great Prose Alert:
"He giggled his high-pitched giggle and grinned at me."

You Can't Scare Me! is a well-crafted, very clever and often laugh out loud funny (intentionally!) entry in the series. Highly recommended. And also: