Saturday, May 27, 2006

#32 the Barking Ghost

#32 the Barking Ghost

Front Tagline:Bad dog. Really BAD dog.
Back Tagline: It's a Dog-Gone Nightmare!

Official Book Description:
Scared of his own shadow. That's what everyone says about Cooper Holmes. But when the Holmeses move into a new house deep in the woods, scary things really do start happening. Problem is, no one believes a scaredy-cat like Cooper.
But then no one else heard the bone-chilling barking late at night. Or ran into two evil-looking dogs who disappeared into thin air...

Brief Synopsis:
Cooper Holmes and his family have just moved into a new house. At this point, I'm convinced that RL Stine's books are underwritten by Coldwell Banker. Cooper's family has moved from an urban dwelling in Boston to a house in the middle of the woods in rural Maine because of Cooper's mother's job. It's never revealed what job would require someone to live in the woods, so maybe she finally got that much-coveted Owl position at her company. Cooper is something of a scaredy-cat, but not a scaredy-dog. That's a freebee joke I threw in just for the heck of it.

Cooper is so afraid of his new surroundings that he stays up all nite thinking he sees strange, unexplainable things through his window, like a snake (garden hose), a horrible monster (bunny rabbit), or a convincing plot (Goosebumps #32: the Barking Ghost©). He hears some scuffling below his bed and when he goes to investigate, someone tries to choke him. It's his brother, Mickey. This leads to the two boys fighting on the floor, only to be interrupted by their parents, who tell them that fighting is inappropriate behavior for the first night in a new house. It's not that I don't agree with them, it just seems like an odd thing to say in an attempt to break up a sibling spat.

Once Mickey leaves, Cooper hears two dogs barking outside his window. Cooper thinks it could be Mickey again, since he is a champion dog barker. That's not a joke, apparently he is. Still, Cooper believes it could be real dogs, and this scares him because... well, because everything scares Cooper. The next morning, Cooper investigates his back yard and the surrounding woods for any evidence of the two dogs, but finds none. He decides to be brave and go into the woods.

While in the woods, he meets a strange red-haired girl (no riding hood) named Fergie who knows Cooper's name and warns him that he and his family must move away, that their house is haunted. Cooper rushes away to go tell his parents that they have to move, because, and this is his logic here, a mysterious child-waif in the forrest told him so. On the way back to his house, two labradors appear out of nowhere and chase Cooper all the way home. He tries to convince his family of the dog's existence, but they think he's lying. Cooper spends the rest of the day pouting in his room, unpacking his snow dome collection. Reader Beware, You're In For a Zzzzzzzzzz!

That night, Cooper hears barking from the living room. When he goes down to investigate, he sees a bag of potato chips torn open and scattered all over the floor. Mickey shows up and makes fun of Cooper, which is understandable. Cooper picks up and throws the gutted potato chip bag at Mickey, which only moves forward about three inches from where he threw it.

The next morning, Cooper runs into Fergie and she apologizes and admits that the chips in the living room were part of Mickey's scheme to scare Cooper. Apparently Mickey had asked Fergie to tell Cooper that their house was haunted. But once she saw how scared Cooper was getting, she felt bad. Don't worry Fergie, we all feel bad for Cooper.

He asks her if she believes him about the dogs and she says yes and they become friends and then Mickey shows up in the woods, his clothing torn open and blood all over. He laughs when they freak out and mocks Cooper by saying "You always fall for fake blood." You know what Mickey, pretty sure when you ruin your clothes and cover yourself in red food-coloring-laded Karo syrup, the joke is on you for going through that much effort.

Fergie and Cooper decide that they're going to come up with the perfect plan to get Mickey back. Fergie's family is leaving for Vermont so she stays with the Holmeses for a few days. At midnight, the two prepare to deliver revenge on Mickey with their genius plan. Cooper and Fergie tied a fake rat to a string and they're going to dangle it in Mickey's bed. That's their act of revenge. You know, I'm a pacifist and all, but even I want to kick Cooper's ass at this point.

Mickey fools them by hiding in the closet and again, countering a lame prank with a lame reaction is still, you guessed it, what Ashton Kutcher wrote in big letters at the top of his Punk'D Brainstorming Legalpad.

Cooper and Fergie see the two dogs running around the house and Cooper insists that the two go out and investigate. This leads to the two ghost dogs holding them captive outside their house, and then dragging them to a shack out in the woods. Fergie thinks they should go ahead and see whatever it is that the dogs want to show them. The two dogs shove the two kids into the shack, where they fall down a well or something. Then the dogs start speaking to them. Of course they do. The dogs tell them that they're inside the Changing Room and since the two kids took in more than 6 items to try on, they are going to be forced to switch places with the dogs. See, the ghost dogs were originally humans who were turned into dogs and so they've been waiting for two humans to trick into going into the Changing Room so they can take over their human form. Oh of course that's what was going on, it seems so obvious now!

Fergie and Cooper turn into dogs. The dogs turn into Cooper and Fergie. As dogs, Cooper and Fergie communicate telepathically and try to find a way to tell Cooper's parents that they're not really dogs. Cooper tries telling them directly, but it comes out as, let me quote, "Woof woof woof woof woof." The two dogs then try running around and barking some more, which only frustrates the Holmeses. Cooper and Fergie do finally scare Mickey, but it seems of small consolation, given that they're now dogs. In a truly brilliant scene, the ghost dogs re-break into the Holmeses house and Cooper tries to write a letter to his parents but discovers that dogs can't write. The parents show up and ask the dogs "Didn't we just tell you to get out?" Amazing.

In a final act of desperation, Cooper hears the fake-Cooper telling his parents that he hates liver, when infact actual Cooper loves liver. Realizing that this is his chance to convince them that he's the real Cooper, Cooper-Dog runs into the house and eats the liver from the plate. This plan also fails because, well, duh.

Finally, Cooper and Fergie decide the only way to get the two humans back into the Changing Room is to drag them there. So they do, and the parents follow behind the two kids getting dragged away by giant dogs, calmly noting that it should be interesting to see what the dogs want to show Fergie and Cooper. What a wonderful book.

The dogs throw the humans into the Changing Room and two humans and two dogs exit...

But the Twist is:
...but still not the real Fergie and Cooper. Seems there were two squirrels in the Changing Room, so their dog bodies switched places with the squirrel bodies. That's nuts.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Cooper Holmes and Margaret "Fergie" Ferguson, whose successful revenge-calculating skills disappear half-way thru the book with that whole "rat on a string" plan.

Questionable Parenting:
When Cooper and Fergie suddenly show an interest in playing frisbee, maybe that should have been the parent's clue that their son and his best friend were really dogs in human bodies. Oh wait, no it shouldn't have.

Early 90s Cultural References:
Snow domes were the POGS of this generation, right?

Foreshadowing Alert:
Early in the book, Cooper sees a dog's reflection when he looks in the stream. But this makes no sense if you think about it.

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Oh this is a great one.
Ch. 3/4:
"For the zillionth and third time, I gazed out the window. But for the first time, I couldn't believe what I saw."
"I didn't see anything."

Great Prose Alert:
The only two scary books I ever read took place in Maine. In the woods.


"Ghost.... Dog?"

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

#61 I Live In Your Basement!

#61 I Live In Your Basement!

Front Tagline: Talk about a MONSTER nightmare!
Back Tagline: He's Got the Basement Blues!

Official Book Description:
"Don't do this! Watch out for that!" Marco's mom thinks the whole world is a danger zone. She won't even let Marco play softball.
But Marco just wants to have fun. So he sneaks off to a game. And that's when it happens. He gets hit in the head with a baseball bat.
Now things are getting really fuzzy. Really scary. Because when Marco gets home he gets the strangest call. From someone who says he lives in Marco's basement...

Brief Synopsis:
This synopsis is going to be incredibly convoluted and hard to follow, so there will be a flowchart explaining the relation of events to other events in the book at the end of this article.
Marco's mom is incredibly overprotective. She warns him against all sorts of silly things, like not letting a dog lick your face, not running in the house, and not playing with needles you find on the street. Real overprotective stuff. One afternoon, Marco's school lets out early and he sneaks off to go play softball without telling his mother, who would not approve of such a thing since it's not safe and also she's a woman.

As Marco gets ready to play ball with a group of kids, including his best friend Jeremy, Gwynnie, a tall athletic girl hits Marco hard in the head with a bat. When Marco wakes up, he's lying on his couch, his mother asking if he's alright. She scolds him for playing dangerous sports games and tells him the doctor said he'll recover after a few days of rest. Marco's mom leaves the room and the phone rings. Marco answers it and a boy's voice on the other end tells him that he's glad he's alright, because "You're going to take care of me." Marco asks who he is and the boy tells him his name is Keith and he lives in the basement. Marco tries to tell his mom about the spooky call but she informs him that he couldn't have received a call because there's no phone in the living room.

The next morning, Jeremy stops by to visit Marco, who is under strict orders not to leave the house. Jeremy and Marco entertain themselves, but certainly not the reader, by playing pool in the basement. I know that after 60 books, it's a little hard to think of things to write about, but the only thing more boring that playing pool is reading about 12 year-olds playing pool. Marco is worried that the mysterious "Keith" might be hiding in the basement, and the two boys go on to discover a squirrel that they confuse for the mystery boy. I know Marco has a head injury, but what is Jeremy's excuse for confusing a squirrel with a basement boy?

That night, Marco can't sleep, so he goes downstairs to fix a midnight snack. He sees the basement door is open and hears footsteps from within. He calls out to see who is there and Keith calls back, reminding him that he lives in Marco's basement. Marco's mom comes downstairs to use the laundry room and when Marco tries to tell her about Keith, Keith yells from the basement for Marco to "Listen to his mother." At least the mystery basement-dweller has manners.

The following Monday, Marco's mom lets him go back to school. Marco's teacher forces him to stand in front of the class and talk about having to go to the hospital, but Marco can't remember anything about going to the hospital. After class, Gwynnie chases after Marco with a bat and he scampers away from her. Once at home, he walks upstairs and is greeted by a young boy with black hair and sunken eyes sitting on his bed. It's Keith. Marco panics and locks Keith in his room, running down to get his mother.

When Marco brings his mom back, he discovers that he has only succeeded in locking in the family dog. Marco's mom is worried and decides to take him to the pediatrician, Dr. Bailey. The bald doctor informs Marco, after listening to his story, that he's going to need his brain removed. What. He explains that it's an easy procedure, they just crack open his skull and the brain slides right out. Marco's mom agrees with him, arguing that since he's a doctor, he must be right. Marco convinces the two to give him time to get better and they agree to give him a chance. This is immediately followed by what might be the best line I've ever read: "Mom said not to worry about losing my brain."

Back at home, Marco attempts to work on a creative writing assignment but suddenly the screen turns off his word processor and only shows a large picture of Keith's face. Then Marco is choked by Gwynnie, who is in his room... I don't know why, nothing in this book makes sense, I guess why bother trying to figure it out at this point, right? Gwynnie tells Marco that she stopped by to apologize for hitting him in the head with a bat, and that earlier she was chasing after him to apologize. That's a little like OJ Simpson saying he was fleeing in the white Bronco to go turn himself in.

Marco tries to show Gwynnie the computer with Keith's face on it, but it turns out the computer wasn't even on. Okay. Marco convinces Gwynnie to go down with him into the basement to see if they can find Keith. She goes with him, they don't find Keith, and then-- wait for it-- Gwynnie stands at the top of the basement stairs and pulls her entire body inside out through her mouth, the lungs and heart passing past her teeth.

Marco screams so hard that he wakes up in the hospital. Marco's mom is there, and so is Gwynnie. Marco screams for his mom to remove Gwynnie, but she won't, because Gwynnie is Marco's sister. Marco realizes that he had dreamed she wasn't his sister and that it was Jeremy who had hit him with the bat. They leave him to rest in the hospital room, and finally Dr. Bailey enters when Marco is by himself. Except that Dr. Bailey now has wavy blonde hair and a tan. He starts to examine Marco, then begins pulling on his tongue, stretching Marco's tongue out like taffy while Marco screams and screams.

Then Marco wakes up again. Dr. Bailey, this time a 7-foot tall bearded man, asks him if he's feeling any better. He then delivers a handwritten note to Marco. The note is from Keith, telling Marco to hurry up and feel better so he can rush home and start taking care of him in the basement. Marco tries to tell his family about the letter from Keith, but Dr Bailey doesn't seem to know what Marco is talking about. When Marco goes to grab the letter, it's disappeared.

The next morning, Marco is allowed to go home and his mom lets he and Jeremy watch a movie and eat homemade pizza, which features hot dog slices instead of pepperoni. Ballpark frankly, that's more disgusting than someone pulling their insides out through their mouth. After the movie's over, Marco tells Jeremy he's tired and goes upstairs. In his room, he runs into Keith.

Keith tells him that he's real, and he is waiting for Marco to take care of him, to take care of everything he needs. Marco panics and hits Keith in the head with a stone owl. Keith drops to the floor and melts into a gelatinous substance not unlike that pictured on the cover of the book. The gelatinous creature surrounds Marco, enveloping him. Marco struggles with it all the way downstairs, where he slams it against a cabinet, breaking it in two. The two pieces form two monsters and both attack Marco on either side. Marco rolls around on the ground screaming until his mom asks what he's doing. There are no gelatinous creatures on Marco. Marco can no longer tell if he's dreaming or awake.

His mom sends him up to his room, where Keith is waiting for him. Marco tells Keith that he gives up, that he'll do whatever Keith wants. Keith gets very excited and tells him that he's going to go down to the basement and work up a list of all the things Marco will have to do for him. But first, Keith opens his mouth and vomits out all his veiny yellow insides.

The narrator screams and wakes up with his mom comforting him. She tells Keith, the narrator, that he shouldn't' have gone and played softball with Marco, and that just because Keith lives in the basement and looks like a human, he's still a monster and can still get hurt. Keith relaxes and vomits up his insides, which makes him happy.

But the Twist is:
Marco comes downstairs and sees Keith in the basement. Keith tells Marco that it's all a dream, it's all a dream...

Here, as best as I can figure, is the exact relationship between events:

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Marco and his friend/sister Gwynnie, who's insides appear halfway thru the book.

Questionable Parenting:
Marco's mom tells him if that if he doesn't eat a bowl of cereal, acid will eat through his stomach. I'm not a dietician, but I don't think that's how cereal works.

Name Brand Food Alerts:
Frosted Flakes, Corn Pops, Milky Ways

R.L. Stine Shows He is Down With the Kids:
I think he confused kids who like playing in the pool with kids who like playing pool.

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 21/22:
"It wasn't a dream."
"And then I woke up."

Great Prose Alert:
"Dr. Bailey tugged hard on my tongue. It slid out of my mouth, as long as a hot dog."

I dreamed I was dreaming about a dream where I dreamed of dreaming that I had dreamed that I read I Live In Your Basement! But wait... that was no dream! I think that any kid's book that requires an adult reader to write out the exact relationships between events is probably not a particularly effective work of literature. That said, I enjoyed this one a lot more than I anticipated. Written at the tail end of the series (there would be only one more book after), the novel is basically a pisstake, but it's a pretty good pisstake.

Monday, May 22, 2006

#13 Piano Lessons Can Be Murder

#13 Piano Lessons Can Be Murder

Front Tagline: Play it again, hands!
(Is the target audience even going to get this pun?)
Back Tagline: Practice Till You Drop...Dead.

Official Book Description:
When Jerry finds a dusty old piano in the attic of his new house, his parents offer to pay for lessons. At first, taking piano seems like a cool idea.
But there's something creepy about Jerry's piano teacher, Dr. Shreek. Something creepy. Something Jerry can't quite put his finger on.
Then Jerry hears the stories. Terrifying stories. About the students at Dr. Shreek's music school. Students who went in for a lesson... and never came out.

Brief Synopsis:
Jerry and his parents have just moved into a new house. Well of course they have, all houses in a Goosebumps book are either abandoned or newly acquired. Jerry starts out the book by forming clumps of dust into mouse-shapes and then crying like a little girl that there's mice in the new house, which spooks his parents to "hilarious" effect. As you can imagine, it took me a long time to realize that there wasn't a the Other Sister-type story occurring in this book. While exploring the new house, Jerry finds an old piano in the attic. Later that night, Jerry hears piano music playing from the ceiling, but when he goes to investigate, there's no one playing. The next night, he hears music again, goes to investigate, discovers nothing. Repeat this scenario for fifty pages and welcome to the first half of the book.

Eventually, Jerry sees a ghostly woman playing the piano, which has been moved down into the family room. She looks up at him and then her face melts off, revealing a bare skull. He screams hysterically for his parents. Picking up on Jerry's interest in the piano, but ignoring the part where he says he's terrified of face-melting piano-ghosts, Jerry's parents enroll him in private lessons taught by Dr. Shreek. The piano tutor's name is Dr. Shreek. Well of course it is.

Dr. Shreek is a friendly, Santa Claus-looking old man, which can only mean one thing: he's some sort of sicko. And sure enough, Dr. Shreek just can't get enough of Jerry's hands. He dwells on his hands, constantly telling him how wonderful they are. At one point the book turns into Reefer Madness as Dr. Shreek tells Jerry to play "Faster! Faster! Faster!"

Eventually, Jerry gets so good at being hand-fetishized by Dr. Shreek that he is invited to take private lessons at Dr. Shreek's private school at the edge of town. When Jerry tells Kim, the Asian (OMG) girl whose locker is next to his, about his lessons, she freaks out and runs away. It is entirely possible that RL Stine gleaned all he knows about Asian culture from seeing the box cover to Akira Kurosawa's Ran.

Jerry is dropped off at the large, scary looking music school for his lesson and immediately goes inside and sees a monster in the hall. OH I BET IT IS REALLY A MONSTER FOR NO REASON AT ALL. Except, it is a robotic floorsweeper that looks like a monster. Dr. Shreek tells Jerry that the maintenance man, Mr. Toggle (oh come on), is a wiz at robotics. Dr. Shreek then leads Jerry down the long, winding corridors to the private rehearsal room. Jerry hears piano music coming from every room in the building, and as he walks down the halls, he can see the instructors hunched over the pianos, guiding unseen students. After his lesson, Jerry gets lost in the building again and Mr. Toggle comes to his rescue and leads him back to the entrance. He also promises to show Jerry his "private workroom" the next time he visits. It is really amazing how few plot points would have to be tweaked for this to be an episode of SVU.

Jerry returns home and continues to hear the ghost playing her music. Eventually, he goes down to confront her again, and she raises up her arms and reveals bloody stumps where her hands used to be. Jerry screams so hard that he passes out and when he wakes up, his parents tell him they're taking him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist tells Jerry that he's imagining the ghost, but that he's not "crazy." I don't know though, it doesn't really get a whole lot crazier than that, does it?

Jerry is outside shoveling snow when he runs into Kim again. He tries to tell her about the ghost he saw, but she also thinks he's crazy. He asks why she freaked out and she tells him she doesn't have a Green Card. Just joking, she says that she heard a lot of spooky stories about the school and that's why she ran away, because she heard some stories. Then she drinks some hot chocolate and leaves, never to reappear again. Fittingly, the minority character is literally the minority character within the book itself.

Jerry decides that he doesn't want to take lessons again and his parents tell him that since they've already paid for his last lesson, he can go in and tell Dr. Shreek in person that he's quitting. Jerry is dropped off at the school and wastes no time in telling Dr. Shreek that he's quitting his lessons. Dr. Shreek goes berserk and insists that he needs Jerry's hands, grabbing his wrists to force him to stay.

Jerry escapes his grasp and scrambles through the school building until he reaches the auditorium, where there is a crushing cacophony of piano-playing occurring. Jerry runs inside and sees row after row of black pianos, each with a head-nodding instructor, and each piano being played by human hands, but only human hands. Dr. Shreek dives through the air and tackles Jerry, grabbing onto his ankles.

Mr. Toggle bursts into the room and saves Jerry by turning off Dr. Shreek with a remote. It turns out Dr. Shreek was a robot. Jerry asks Mr. Toggle to turn off the pianos and he does that as well. Jerry thanks him for saving his life, but as he turns to leave, Mr. Toggle stops him. Mr. Toggle is the one who needs Jerry's hands, he explains. Mr. Toggle is apparently a brilliant robotician, but he can't make human hands correctly. So he uses human specimens and using computer technology, makes the severed hands play beautiful music all the time.

Jerry tries to escape the auditorium but he runs right into the ghost girl from his house. She screams at Jerry, telling him that she tried to warn him, to scare him away from taking lessons from the school. If a ghost can go through that much effort, why can't she also tell him specifically "Don't take lessons from Dr. Shreek's school." The ghost holds up her bloody stumps and then using ghost-powers, conjures up all of the ghostly spirits from the disembodied hands playing at the pianos in the auditorium. A swarm of ghosts attached to their human hands attack Mr. Toggle in front of Jerry, carrying the robotician off into the woods behind the school, never to be seen again.

But the Twist is:
Jerry's family sells their piano and buys a Big Screen TV... ON THE MOON. Okay, so there's no twist.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Jerry and his pal Kim Li Chin, whose ethnicity never appears in the book.

Minority Alert:
Though never described as such, one can only assume that Kim Li Chin is of Asian descent.

Questionable Parenting:
Jerry appears to live in an emotionally abusive household, as evidenced by this quote from his mother:
"Very funny Jerome... Your father and I sure appreciate your scaring us to death when we're both very nervous and overworked and trying to get moved into this house... Why can't you act your age?"

Early 90s Cultural References:
Bonkers, those cat clocks with the moving eyes and tails

Foreshadowing Alert:
Mr. Toggle "jokes" that he programmed Dr. Shreek. But he wasn't joking, Dr. Shreek is a robot! I WANT MY LAUGH BACK.

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 20/21:
Kim finally hears the ghostly piano music playing, but it turns out to be the family cat. She then laughs at Jerry because he is crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy.

Great Prose Alert:
Well, first of all, another character "goggles" in this book. Secondly, the phrase "her mouth was so wide I thought she was going to drop her teeth" is used not once but twice in the course of a 120 page book, by two different characters.

I've got to hand it to RL Stine, thanks to the fairly grotesque imagery (for a Goosebumps book) and some solid storytelling, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder is one of the better books in the series.