Sunday, May 12, 2013

Goosebumps Review: Stay Out of the Basement

Something's waiting in the dark...
Book number two of the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine is an interesting one and one that started a couple trends among these books. Stay out of the Basement was first published, like Welcome to Dead House, in July 1992. It was the first of many Goosebumps books that would feature a mad scientist and the first of many that would, in my opinion, act as a young adult homage to famous sci-fi or horror movies/books. In this case the movie this book most resembles is The Fly, either version of it, with the genetic splicing and monstrous results. Even the ending seems to pay homage to those movies, particularly the older one with Vincent Price from 1958. I'm reminded of the iconic, "Help me! Help me!" from that movie in the ending to this book.

My memories of this one are all over the place. While it was never one of my absolute favorites, my copy of this book is well read. I remember having a good time with this book even if I didn't understand the references to The Fly back when I first read it. It had a creepiness to it that not many of the Goosebumps books seemed to equal. The funny thing is, for whatever reason, I remember the television version of this book almost as much as I remember the book itself. It is quite possibly the only book I can say that about.

This book certainly hits a much higher mark than the first and improves upon almost everything from Welcome to Dead House. While it may not quite be as gory or repulsive as that book, it is quite creepy, showing a paranoia about one's parent that I have not often seen before in any other book or piece of fiction. It almost seems to have a message that could read, "If your parent is doing something really weird and creepy and wrong, maybe it really is weird and creepy and wrong."

I was always struck by the way the dad in the book acted towards his kids. And I was confused that not more was done by the kids to do something about their nearly absent parental figure. I don't know, but I kind of figure this book was trying to say something even if it never quite had the message absolutely picked out.

Reading it through today, I found it really well done. If I were scoring this one compared to last week's Welcome to Dead House this one is not only improved in almost every way- its narrative, characters, setting, situation, and creepiness- but it also drew me in much more than that first book, which was always a weak one in my memory and seemed even weaker as I read it back. While I wasn't exactly excited to read this book, it was one I knew I wouldn't have any issues with getting through. I knew it wouldn't be a slog and, mostly, I knew it wouldn't be Welcome to Dead House. Sorry, but that was a book I simply do not think is very good at all.

"The dirt was filled with dozens of moving insects. And long, brown earthworms. All crawling through the wet, black clumps that lined her father's bed."

The plot here is pretty simple. Two kids, Margaret (the lead) and Casey (her younger brother), become curious as to what their dad is doing int he basement. He had been laid off from his previous job as a university botanist and for weeks had been toiling in the basement to find a way to get his job back with some experiments with plants. Obviously he is a scientist MAD with SCIENCE. And somehow he makes a weird genetic electronic thing that splices genetic material between organisms. His DNA gets spliced into a plant and vice-versa, and the plot kicks off.

While the kids' mother is away, things start going awry with their father's experiments. He starts acting weird, seems to be becoming a plant, and warns them from going into the basement. The title is even thrown out in dialogue within the first chapter of the story, something which I have to giggle about.  Well, anyway, the kids obviously have to be curious and not listen to their dad. They snoop around, get into some trouble, suspect him of lying and being a creepy plant-man, and ultimately find out that a plant has been imitating their father- but to what end? That we don't know. A lingering question I have is why did he kidnap his boss, Mr. Martinez? And why wouldn't the police be around questioning him about the man's disappearance since it was the last known place he had been? It's a question that seems to be shrugged away, but I was wondering it as I read the book.

Anyway, the book ends with a confrontation between the kids, their two dads, and their mother to figure out which one is the real one. Plant-dad is axed down and all seems well with the world- except that a flower seems to be screaming to Margaret that he is her actual father...

Live Plants... Dead People?

I realize, too late now, that the book also seems to reference Little Shop of Horrors. Okay, I didn't realize it too late. It's an obvious reference, but the plot doesn't seem to follow that plot so much as the plot of The Fly. Again, I'm probably a little wrong for not mentioning this sooner, but it's so obvious that I realized it was a reference back when I was ten. The problem is, it's only a surface reference, with the main plot being very different indeed.

This book is creepy. No, it's not the scariest Gossebumps book I remember, but it has both aged well and works well even today, especially at bringing out the feelings of paranoia- and even more especially in regards to a parental figure. Something about that seems incredibly well done to me, and something, I suspect, that could not be done today in quite the same way, which saddens me. It's upsetting to see that fiction can be influenced by the way the world is, but it's absolutely true. This is a book that could only exist in the 1990s.

All of the characters are fleshed out. They all feel real, and seem like they could live in a real, albeit twisted, world. The kids act and seem like kids that age, both curious and a little hyperactive. The dad is a workaholic and the mother's expressions in the early parts of the book seem to say just as much about her tension as it does about what the kid's perceive. It almost hits on the idea that work could put a strain on a marriage or on a relationship- which is essentially what this book is about already. I find that both intellectually stimulating and that it is amazing these things existed in a horror book for kids. 

The setting- winter in a warm climate- worked well too, although I couldn't exactly say why. Something about a time that is supposed to be bleak being like summer creeps me out, possibly because I grew up and live in New England, where there's no such thing as a warm winter. I guess the whole humidity and warmth thing works well for me, it is exactly what a greenhouse would feel like, and it's also what this book reads like, if that makes any sense at all.

Anyway, while this is not one of the fondest remembered books of the Goosebumps library to me, it certainly works well now that I'm reading it as an adult. It is much better than Welcome to Dead House, and has excited me for more books. I mean, seriously, if a book I wasn't looking forward to made me this happy- then what will happen with the books I really am looking forward to?

So, the next book will be Goosebumps number 3-



No, actually, Monster Blood will not be next even if it will be the next Goosebumps review. See, I mentioned I was going to do R. L. Stine books in some kind of chronological order- and while I don't own all of the Fear Street books like I used to (I didn't like a good portion of them, and sold them off half a decade ago, a thing I still don't regret.), I still have some that I was incredibly fond of back when I was a younger. Actually I read them alongside of the Goosebumps  books, so I find the way I'm reviewing these appropriate.

So, instead of Monster Blood, the next review that you can expect from me will be a Fera Street book. In particular I'm going to start my Fear Street Review series (of the eleven books I'm planning on reviewing from that series) with August 1992's Cheerleaders: The First Evil.

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