The Top 10 R.L. Stine "Goosebumps" Books (and the 5 Worst)
Some Backstory . . .
In that far-flung time known as the 1990s, long before folks such as J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer were captivating the youth of America, no author was getting kids more into reading than R. L. Stine. The so-called "Stephen King of children's literature" is one of the best-selling authors of recent years (over 300 million copies sold worldwide), and none have proven more durable sellers than Goosebumps.
In the mid '90s, at the height of his popularity, kids would wait with bated breath every month for a new tale of terror under the trademark dripping logo to appear on their local bookstore's shelves. And the series' popularity has proven enduring, especially given that Stine recently relaunched it a couple years ago under the Goosebumps: Horrorland title.
Is Goosebumps Still Good Today?
Yet how do they stack up today? It's true that the Goosebumps series is kiddified and carefully tailored to the younger set, with no gore and very little in the way of deaths. (Compare them, for example, to Stine's companion series for the teenage set, Fear Street, which featured enough graphic murders and bloodletting to match the body count in any of the Friday the 13th film series.)
It's also true that they were quickly written, don't hold much in the way of compelling characters, and likely held great appeal for kids in part because of their many small chapters, which made it easy to keep your place. (One wonders if the same "many small chapters" approach is a reason adults read James Patterson's novels so much.) Yet many of the Goosebumps remain entertaining even today. Here's a list of ten of the best, along with a few that Stine might have wanted to take a few rewrites to, if only he'd had the time to do so.
The 10 Best Goosebumps Books
- Say Cheese And Die!
- Welcome to Camp Nightmare
- The Horror at Camp Jellyjam
- Piano Lessons Can Be Murder
- Deep Trouble
- Monster Blood
- Welcome to Dead House
- Night of the Living Dummy
- The Haunted Mask
- One Day at Horrorland
10. Say Cheese And Die!
The notion of an evil camera has long been a staple in macabre fiction (The Twilight Zone did such an episode, as more recently did Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark?), but few have used it so effectively as Stine did her in one of the first entrees in the series. Four friends, exploring the creepy abandoned house in their neighborhood (in Goosebumps, it was mandatory for every quaint small town or quiet suburban neighborhood to have at least one haunted Gothic manor for the kids to poke around in) find an antique camera that they take home with them.
But soon the camera starts taking photos that seem to foretell bad things to come (one kid takes a photo of his family's new car that shows it totaled and shortly after, his dead is in an ugly car crash). When the lone girl of the group, Shari, vanishes after a photo is taken of her in which she fails to appear, the leader of the group, Greg, realizes he must find a way to bring her back and stop the camera's reign of terror, along with keeping it away from the menacing guy in black who wants it. One of the darkest of the series (it concludes with an actual death and an "uh oh, here we go again" finale), this one is an excellent introduction to the series and is Stine at his best.
9. Welcome to Camp Nightmare
The first of the "summer camp gone to hell" Goosebumps books, this one highlights both Stine's ability to tell a fast-paced and compelling story, while also one of his worst faults; his frequent inability to come up with a decent ending or his taking on a ridiculous "final shock" that just doesn't work.
Young Billy goes to Camp Night Moon for the summer and almost as soon as he arrives, things quickly go south. One of his cabinmates gets bit by a snake. There's no nurse. The counselors and the apparently demented camp director Uncle Al don't seem to give a fart in the wind about their charges. The snakebit kid vanishes. Another cabinmate goes to investigate "The Forbidden Bunk" and vanishes, apparently a victim of the camp's legendary monster "Sabre." Two other kids vanish on a hike. Billy can't call home. His mail home is being withheld. What the hell is going on?
Stine does a masterful job building the paranoia and gradually isolating Billy until he's all alone and scared and we can only wonder, "What's happening and how is this poor kid going to get out of it?" It's great...until the final twist, which is a total cheat to the reader and comes off like something M. Night Shaymalan would reject as "too hokey." (This from the man who gave us The Village's Godawful finale.) Oh, plus a stupid final reveal that was last unique half a century ago on Twilight Zone. Still, until the ending, one of Stine's best.
8. The Horror at Camp Jellyjam
Unlike Nightmare, the second of Stine's summer camp chillers doesn't fall down flat in the finale. Brother and sister Wendy and Elliot, out road-tripping with their parents, get an unexpected shock when their camper trailer gets separated from their car - with them inside it. Fortunately, they end up at Camp Jellyjam, a super-cool sports camp where they can kick back until their parents come to get them. Uber-competitive Elliot fits in perfectly, but Wendy starts questioning things.
Why are the counselors so obsessed with "being the best?" Why are they so oblivious to everything else? (This is most shockingly depicted when Wendy accidentally cracks a bat into a counselor's ribs and he merely advises her to choke up on her swing.) Why do kids who win six gold coins (the prizes for winning competitions) and take the "Winner's Walk" nightly after dinner vanish? And why does the ground always rumble late at night?
The answer is Stine at his most delightfully twisted and campy, as he creates one of his most unique and disgusting monsters. Has the paranoia and isolation of Nightmare, but thankfully, this one pulls off a satisfying finale (though Stine can't resist having a stupid joke to finsh things off).
7. Piano Lessons Can Be Murder
With that title, how can you not love this selection? Protagonist Jerry (one of the best of Stine's Goosebumps leads with his prankish nature) moves with his parents into a grand old house and finds an impressive antique piano in the attic, which he starts playing. His parents arrange for him to take lessons at the local Shreek Piano school, run by the slightly kooky Santa Claus-lookalike Mr. Shreek.
However, Jerry gets more then he bargained for when he learns the piano is haunted by a nightmarish ghost who plays music late and night and appears before him in horrifying visions. Is she trying to warn him away from the Shreek school, where students reportedly go in for lessons, but don't come out? Jerry's search for answers may end in him paying the ultimate price for his "great hands."
This book features some of Stine's grisliest imagery, namely the ghost's appearances (one time she has no hands, another time her face falls off until it's just a skull), but also is one of the funniest of the series, both with Jerry's wise-cracking narration and his homelife (like his ongoing struggle with his family's psychotic and claw-happy cat Bonkers). And it's hard not to sympathize with Jerry when he tries to convince his oh-so-serious parents what's going on. (When, after he sees the ghost for the first time and his dad says, "You don't really believe in ghosts, do you, Jerry," his response is simply, "I do now!")
One of the most enjoyable of all the series, though things do seem a bit rushed at the end (good twist, however, concerning the real threat within the Shreek school).
6. Deep Trouble
Stine's take on Jaws and other tales of terror from the ocean depths, complete with sharks, armed goons and everything else in the Peter Benchley school of watery adventure. Adventurous Billy Deep (convenient name) and his utterly serious sister Sheena are visiting their Cousteau-like scientist uncle Dr. D in the Caribbean when their uncle gets a very unusual assignment; try to find and capture a real-life mermaid. Billy, who's already had an encounter with an apparent sea monster (a colossal misshapen octopus that he barely escapes from early in the book), is game, but he has no idea what his uncle has gotten them into.
Soon he, Sheena and Dr. D are involved in a dangerous adventure involving beautiful, but deceptively dangerous mermaids, peckish sharks and a group of kidnappers aiming to snatch a mermaid for themselves, no matter who they have to kill to get in their way. A fine, snappishly paced adventure, with some tense moments (Billy's encounter with a large and hungry hammerhead shark), a few funny moments (Billy accidentally grabbing onto fire coral) and welcome sympathy for the mermaids (in the end, our heroes decided to keep their existence a secret rather than see them enslaved in captivity).
One only wishes that the impressive sea monster Billy encounters early on would have a larger role in the story. Billy and Sheena would return in a lesser sequel, Deep Trouble II, as well as being players in the Goosebumps:Horrorland series, starting with their centric book Creep From the Deep (which has them and Dr. D battling a ghostly pirate crew).
5. Monster Blood
Arguably the biggest subfranchise within the Goosebumps franchise, this would spawn three sequels (Monster Blood II, III and IV ) and a Goosebumps:Horrorland followup (Monster Blood for Breakfast ), but the first is still the best. While his parents work on getting their new home in Atlanta ready, poor Evan is stuck at his weirdo Aunt Kathyrn's house for a few weeks, alone save for his aging cocker spaniel Trigger. Fortunately, Evan makes a lady friend in outgoing Andy; unfortunately, he also finds a can in the old junk shop in town that contains "Monster Blood," a greenish goo.
The goo soon starts taking on a life of its own and growing larger and larger and larger, eventually becoming a Blob -like entity that threatens to engulf all in its path, unless Evan and Andy can stop it. Evan and Andy are two of Stine's best protagonists (their banter is rather funny) and anyone who loves old 50s B-grade monster flicks with love it when the Monster Blood goes on the attack. There's also a neat twist to the reason behind the Monster Blood rampage that pushes the story from sci-fi style monster tale it full on superanatural horror.
Unfortunately, said twist would be ignored in the progressively worse sequels, all of which featured Evan and Andy. The best sequel is probably Monster Blood II , which has a cute little hamster accidentally eating some Monster Blood and turning into a gigantic monster out of a Bert I. Gordon epic that assualts Evan and Andy's school. Who doesn't like that?
4. Welcome to Dead House
The very first Goosebumps book, Stine came to this without any set rules to play by and the result is arguably his nastiest and grimmest effort. Amanda Benson and her kid brother Josh are forced to move to the town of Dark Falls when their parents inherit a fabulous new home from a distant relative. But the town of Dark Falls is not a pleasant place. Shadows seem to hang over everything. Their dog Petey seems to sense something is amiss and is always barking and howling - until he disappears. And Amanda keeps seeing strange figures moving about in the house, almost as if someone were keeping watch on them.
It isn't until they go looking for the missing Petey that they learn the terrible truth: Dark Falls is a town of living dead (thanks to a mishap at the local chemical plant) and their new house is the "Dead House," the place that houses the living family that must be sacrificed every year to keep the town's undead residents "alive." Nice twist on the whole Night of the Living Dead, this is one creepy piece of work, as Stine steadily brings on the shivers with ghastly visions (a grisly nightmare by Amanda where she and her family are all skeletons eating a dinner of bones) and genuine terror for our heroes' survival.
All this culminates in an apocalyptic showdown with hoardes of undead getting destroyed and reduced to ashes by the rays of the sun (arguably the most gruesome and graphic scene Stine ever wrote in the series). It's a pity Stine didn't continue to follow this dark and gritty path more often in the series.
3. Night of the Living Dummy
Check that, Monster Blood , you're only the second most popular subfranchise in the Goosebumps series. The first is this one, which gave us the series' most popular antagonist in Slappy, the evil living ventriloquist dummy with a habit for wreaking vengeance. Ironically, though, Slappy is only a supporting player in this one and his evil nature isn't revealed until the end of the book. The real threat in this one is his "brother," fellow evil living ventriloquist dummy Mr. Wood, who's acquired by young Kris Powell in competition against her twin sister Linda, who's Slappy's new owner.
It isn't long, however, until Kris finds a slip of paper on Mr. Wood containing strange foreign words, which she stupidly reads aloud. Soon enough, a series of bizarre events start occurring around the house and at school, for which the twins are blamed. They soon discover otherwise and must find a way to get rid of Mr. Wood or spend the rest of their lives as his "slaves."
The foul-mouthed, abrasive dummies are deriative in part of Chucky form Child's Play , but still make for entertaining antagonists and its easy to sympathize with the twins as they plead their innocence in vain to adults who refuse to believe mere toys could be wreaking havoc. And the conclusion is vastly entertaining and gives Mr. Wood a very fitting end.
Slappy, meanwhile, would survive and go on to bedevil new owners in Night of the Living Dummy II and III , as well as the Goosebumps: 2000 books Bride of the Living Dummy and Slappy's Nightmare . True to his enduring popularity, he would return as a villain in Goosebumps:Horrorland as well, starting with the first book Revenge of the Living Dummy.
2. The Haunted Mask
The first Goosebumps book to be set on Halloween, this perfectly captures the spirit of the holiday and the wishes of anyone who's wanted to use the occasion to change into somebody else. One wouldn't want to change quite as much as Carly Beth Caldwell, a shy girl who is constantly tormented by classmates wanting to scare her and make her scream.
Seeking revenge on Halloween night (and wishing to avoid wearing the duck costume her mother made her), Carly Beth visits the new party store in town and finds a room in the back containing a selection of utterly horrific and distrubing realistic masks. Buying one despite the reluctance of the creepy owner, she puts it on and begins terrorizing the town, getting her revenge. But for one thing, the mask changes her, making her wild, angry and ready to attack at a moment's notice. And also, she's finding it difficult to take it off...
The result is a wild plunge into a Halloween nightmare, where Carly Beth's salvation may come from the most unlikliest source. The most fun comes from watching mousy Carly Beth turn into a howling monster, terrorizing everyone from her brother Noah (who early on hilariously attacks her wearing her duck costume) to any poor kid who crosses her path (though one time she almost pays for it when she assaults two little boys in front of their intimidating mother).
This book ends in a nifty showdown and a nice cliffhanger ending, which was unfortunately ignored when the sequel The Haunted Mask II rolled around. Carly Beth and her best friend Sabrina returned in the Goosebumps: Horrorland series as well, starting with their centric book The Screams of the Haunted Mask.
1. One Day at Horrorland
Given that the entire Goosebumps: Horrorland series is based around it, one would have to agree this entrée in the series is something special. And they'd be right, as we step into the gates of Horrorland, the ausement park where "nightmares come to life!" Lizzy Morris and her family meant to go to Zoo Gardens, but thanks to a lost map and some wrong turns, they end up at Horrorland, which seems even better. But then their car mysteriously blows up in the parking lot, stranding them there, which doesn't seem to phase the "Horrors," the monster-suit wearing (or are they?) employees of the park.
Left alone by her frantic parents as they try to find a way home, Lizzy, her spaszoid little brother Luke (one of Stine's best "obnoxious little sibling" characters) and Luke's nervous and nerdy friend Clay are left to explore the park on their own. But after terrfying encounters on such rides as the Doom Slide, House of Mirrors, Bat Barn and the Coffin Crusie, Lizzy realizes things are way too real and way too scary for an "amusement" park. But with the gates locked and bolted and the Horrors on the march, will anyone escape Horrorland alive?
This has the perfect setting, as Horrorland is the type of theme park horror fans dream of, complete with black humor (like "Free Fall: The Only Bungee Jump Without a Cord") and increasing paranoia and dread (cryptic warnings to flee that are sadly ignored). Lizzy is one of the best Stine protagonists and her resourcefulness and courage leaves you rooting for her survival. Climaxes brilliantly, as Stine even makes a possibly ridiculous twist (the Horrors' one weakness) work.
Followed by a lousy Goosebumps 2000 sequel Return to Horrorland, while Lizzy and Luke would return with prominent roles in the Goosebumps:Horrorland series, which further explored the history of the park and its twisted secrets.
And Now, the Hall of Shame . . .
Note that most of these come from late in the series' run, when Stine was no doubt strapped by deadlines and running low on ideas. But even that can't explain some of these . . .
The 5 Worst Goosebumps Books
- Chicken Chicken
- Go Eat Worms!
- Say Cheese and Die . . . Again!
- My Best Friend is Invisible
- I Live in Your Basement
5. Chicken Chicken
Oh brother, is this one lame. A brother and sister upset the reputed neighborhood witch and she promptly casts a spell on them that starts turning them into chickens. The siblings must race the clock to find someway to apologize to said witch before they become only fit for the dinner special at KFC. Zero scares and ham-handed attempt at humor, this seems like an idea Stine dragged out of the bottom of his desk drawer in despreation to make a deadline.
4. Go Eat Worms!
Worms? What, slugs were unavailabe? Weak and mostly "comic" entry has a worm-obsessed kid constantly using worms in every situation, including harassing his sister and entering them as his science fair project. (He still hasn't eaten them, however, which puts him below the How to Eat Fried Worms kids on the creativity scale.) But when he cuts a worm in half for a demo, the worm literally turns and his former squirmy friends seem to gang up on him to seek revenge. Worms holding Sicilian-style grudges? (And you thought Jaws:The Revenge's vengeful shark was ridiculous!) Moronic at every turn, it culminates in a ludicrous attack by a giant worm that's scared off by...a large paper-mache bird. Right...
3. Say Cheese and Die . . . Again!
Everything the original did right, the sequel does wrong in what is arguably Stine's worst followup to any of his works. The orginal's hero Greg (now apparently having dropped 50 or so IQ points since then) submits the story of the evil camera to his jackass teacher Mr. Sauer for a class presentation, only to have Mr. Sauer (big shock) disbelieve him and flunk him. Pressured to prove his tale, Greg unearths the evil camera from its hiding place and sure enough, more bad things start happening again. Unfortunately, while the original was genuinely chilling, this is just stupid, with the photos' results (Greg blowing up like a balloon, while friend Sari gets super-slim) are laughable. Ends in an annoying open-ended climax that seems like Stine just got disgusted with the book and gave it up mid-story. That's fine, but why did you allow it to go into print?
2. My Best Friend Is Invisible
There's nothing remotely original about this one. A sci-fi obsessed kid has the misfortune of belonging to a very scientific family, as his parents and brother look upon him as something of a weirdo. Things get really weird when the kid picks up an unseen friend who at first seems a ghost, but later turns out is merely invisible. The invisible friend proceeds to ruin his life and the kid must find a way to prove his buddy's existence before he's sent to a mental institution. Wow, a kid experiencing a paranormal situation disbelieved by his parents? That's never been done, huh, Stine? Not to mention Stine had already done the whole "invisible" thing with Let's Get Invisible. But what really drags this one down is the moronic ending, which was original about 50 years ago or so. Nice try, Stine, but you're not so clever.
1. I Live in Your Basement
The second to last of the original Goosebumps series (before Stine switched to the Goosebumps:2000 format) and the fatigue shows, as this is an utterly discombobulated mess. A kid tries to escape for his hypochondriac mother and her overprotectiveness by going out to play with his friends and promptly gets bonked on the head by a fly ball. Shortly after, he starts getting calls from some weird kid who claims he lives in his basement and that "you're going to take care of me." Annoyance turns to alarm when the strange kid is revealed as a monstrous freak who can pull all his guts out through his mouth. Lovely. Not so much a narrative as a series of bizarre dreamlike chapters that barely come together to make a plot, right down to another "final twist" that just plain sucks. One of the few Goosebumps not currently in print, which doesn't surprise me. Even Stine apparently knows when to let his dogs lie.