True, Stine’s descriptions of the haunted isle have a lush eeriness. A ritual that purports to raise the dead is odd and hallucinatory, and the hurricane hits with more-than-natural fury. The biblical names of the twins, Samuel and Daniel, ladle on the cosmic resonance, as does a plague-like blood rain that sweeps down over the first scene like a curtain. (“Showtime,” I can imagine Stine whispering.) But this dense, mythy atmosphere evaporates when the action moves to Long Island. A few lurid passages might feel more at home on the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website. (“She made a hoarse choking sound, grabbing frantically at the waterfall of shiny wet organs spilling out. Spilling out of the deep slit across her belly. A gusher of pink and yellow sausage oozing through her fingers.”) And I was disappointed that no one, least of all the author, seemed interested in the most menacing thing about twins: their uncanny doubleness.
By contrast, the newest Goosebumps book, Wanted: The Haunted Mask, is a joy. Spunky Lu-Ann Franklin puts on an enchanted mask and goes on a rampage. Meanwhile, her best friend Devin is spending Halloween at a pumpkin patch his father recently bought to make some extra money. The gourds seem possessed of a strange animation; vines twist like serpents and scratch at the windows. It turns out that the earth beneath the fields houses the bodies of hundreds of Civil War dead, who send their wrath up through the creepers and into the squash.
Angry pumpkins: perhaps, not so scary. And yet Stine makes it work. His vision of the fields by moonlight, of pumpkin leaves that “slap against one another” with a sound “like hands clapping,” collapses two meanings of funny: funny-peculiar and funny-ha-ha. Which is exactly how Horror for Kids should operate, provoking and assuaging fear all at the same time.
I say provoking because, no matter how whimsically or sarcastically Stine handles them, the themes in Goosebumps pulse with native power. Inanimate objects turning malicious are creepy. False faces are creepy. They threaten the integrity of the self, and sometimes, as with Lu-Ann, they blur the line between monster and victim. When I read the first Haunted Mask in the 1990s (the motif figures in at least three Goosebumps books), the idea that I might originate the forces most deadly to me held an aching suggestiveness. It was not an epiphany that seemed immediately relevant, so I stored it away. And then adulthood hit, and I was just a little more prepared than I might otherwise have been.
Relentlessly plot-driven, with fun, smart-alecky narrators my age or a little older, the Goosebumps novels were slightly transgressive (my parents hated them), as well as a hobby to share with friends. (Those covers, queasily luminous, with the letters bulging like an inflammation, made great collectibles.) A new one rolled out every month or so and I’d gobble it up in a sitting, sometimes flipping to the last page first to make sure of the twist ending. Only now do I realize what I was really scanning for: my fears, mostly stabilized and tamed. But not quite defeated.
Red Rain by R.L. Stine. Touchstone.
Goosebumps Wanted: The Haunted Mask by R.L. Stine. Scholastic.