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.


Anonymous said...

Loved it

Anonymous said...

no twist :shock:

Rob said...

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.

These two parts delivered on the morning LOLs. You're so bitter now. Goosebumps has ruined you.

- Kev Mac

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Anonymous said...

"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."
Loved that.


Anonymous said...

What Music is the girl ghost playing?
The haunting music in jerrys house and at the school?

Anonymous said...

great your blog

piano lessons

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old entry and I hate doing this, but I have to mention it...I really do think there is an SVU episode like this. And precisely what you'd imagine, it's about a piano teacher who molests his students for years and years.

Reader beware, you're in for a...please don't touch me there.

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Miro said...

This entry made my day and the Kurosawa reference double-made it.

Great job.

Cynthia Marie VanLandingham said...

My son is 20 now, but boy do I remember those days when he loved to read the Goose Bumps stories. I should get him this book just for fun, since he also plays the piano!

I'm a piano teacher in Tallahassee, Florida, and have long realized the importance of stories in raising children and even teaching piano lessons. That's why I've written some wonderful piano stories to motivate and inspire children in piano.

Children love stories, and they are a great way to teach important lessons and motivate young girls and boys. I find that most young students who are starting music lessons have lots of questions, and all beginning students must learn how to develop good practice habits. Piano Bears Musical Storybooks provide a wonderful way to inspire young piano students and help them succeed. These books use the characters of Little Bear, who is just starting to take piano lessons, his friends and family, and Mrs. Treble Beary, his teacher. In the stories, Little Bear, with the help of his family and friends, learns how to overcome his worries and set positive goals to achieve his musical dream.

In my studio, we give these books to all new students aged six to eleven at their first piano lesson. These fun stories help our students understand what piano lessons are like, resolve their worries about starting something new, and help them begin to develop the practice routines and habits that are so critical to their success.

Piano Bears Musical Storybooks include the following materials.

1. Little Bear’s Musical Garden.

This beautifully illustrated story sets young students at ease and gives them confidence in their own ability to learn piano. The story follows Little Bear as he begins piano lessons and asks questions that all beginning students have. Children enjoy reading the storybook with their parents and grandparents, who learn great ways to encourage their children in piano.

Little Bear’s Musical Garden CD-ROM allows children to hear a narrated version of this story. The CD-ROM also includes a fun, interactive quiz that helps students remember the important story concepts that will help them succeed. (AND BTW - YOU CAN ALSO GET IT ON DVD!)

2. Little Bear’s Piano Goals.

This beautifully illustrated story continues Little Bear’s adventures as he learns how to tend to his musical garden and achieve his musical dreams. Little Bear, with the help of his family and his neighbor Mr. Green Bear, a master gardener, learns how to set and work toward the goals that will lead to his musical growth and success.

3. Piano Bear’s Musical Storybook Journal.

This illustrated journal provides a fun way to keep track of weekly piano assignments and goals. It also provides big keyboard pictures that make it easy for their teacher to indicate hand positions, scales, chords, and fingering. The journal also includes pages for recital photos and achievement stickers, and provides a wonderful memory book for students and their parents to keep forever!

Any teacher or parent can find thesethese materials on my website at

Warm regards,

Cynthia Marie VanLandingham

Anonymous said...

Piano lessons can be spam.

Anonymous said...

That is a really awkward excuse for an advertisement. That's like posting on a blog about a political campaign and trying to sell camping equipment.

Groggy Dundee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

There is a movie kind of like this where I think this guy cuts off kids hands to sew them on his kids hand so they can be better at piano. Then I remember this disturbing scene where he makes this kid play with newly sewn-on hands, but obviously they won't work that well. It's called When the Bough Breaks (1993). Maybe Stine got some ideas from that, but had to throw in robots and ghosts to spice it up.

Brodie said...

I guess this question will forever remain unanswered, but was the Reefer Madness reference one to the awesome musical or the original propaganda film?

TrixRabbi said...

If you haven't already, you must watch the Goosebumps TV series episode for this one.


Ryan Ferneau said...

"This piano plays me!"

John Deering said...

Wow. Out of all the original Goosebumps books, this is the only one I still have a copy of (original edition, none of this 2004 reprint cover stuff).

I just can't believe there's two things you missed out on:

1.) The Addams Family "walking dismembered hand" seen on the front cover.

2.) R. L. Stine's yet-again-repeating of the plot device: the monster started doing ___ and ___, only for the main character to be blamed by his parents and grounded. (In this book's case, the piano starts banging and playing itself out of control, and Jerry can't turn it off.)

However, even though that seems repetitive (Night of the Living Dummy, and later books like Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes, the Teddy Bear short story), it still seems original . . . R. L. Stine was able to take that one concept and make it seem completely fresh and different every time, by using a living dummy, teddy bear, lawn gnomes, pianos . . .

Zach said...

Very nice blog

Anonymous said...

benny here. this one was kind of boring 5/10 okay. i need your hands people.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know the name of the song continuesly playing

Anonymous said...

There is a twist, the last paragraph. After Jerry says that he got rid of the piano and the ghost left his house. He mentions that he joined the baseball team and everyone there tells him how much they like his hands. DUN DUN DUN. Is the coach also a "genius robotician"? Did the coach program all the other players? Is this yet another elaborate scheme to take advantage of Jerry's virgin hands? Find out on the next episode of SVU!

Robin said...

"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'?"

I have the same question about Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an 11 year old comment, but I had to answer the question. I'm not sure if it's mentioned in the book version, but in the tv episode version, the music is Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven