There’s exactly one really great Goosebumps book, and nobody ever talks about it
Ermahgerd, herppy 30th ernniversahry, Gersberms
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SPOILERS FOLLOW for The Ghost Next Door.
This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of middle grade novels, but this article isn’t going to be a tribute, not exactly.
It seems to be a rule that when a generation reaches middle age, they declare whatever they liked as kids to be the Most Important Thing Ever (remember back when the Boomers decided the Flintstones deserved a feature film?), but the truth is, I always felt pretty alienated from the “kid culture” I grew up with in the nineties, where everything had to be “radical” and “extreme” and “drenched in slime.” It all seemed transparently cynical: How anarchic could stuff like Nickelodeon and Sonic the Hedgehog really be, given that their continued existence depended on parents opening their wallets?
And before fourth-grade me gave them a shot, the Goosebumps books seemed like the worst of that. Aggressive, and aggressively drenched in slime—the sort of garbage the “cool kids” would bug their parents to buy for them, which they would, because no one says no to the cool kids, and then publisher Scholastic would shrug at the ambivalent parents and say, “At least they’re reading!” and then laugh all the way to the bank. Commence my eye-rolling.
I don’t know, for some reason, I sort of missed the wink-and-nod inherent to the affected badassery of stuff like Goosebumps, until I actually got around to reading one. When I finally picked up One Day at HorrorLand, I remember being surprised by how funny it was. It turned out R. L. Stine—the man whose name we’ve all seen scrawled in blood—was a humorist at heart, a guy who had toiled away in the seventies and eighties writing joke books under the terrible pen name “Jovial Bob Stine,” before accidentally striking it big when he tried his hand at horror. It blew my ten-year-old mind a little bit to realize that something could be scary and funny. And from that moment, I was hooked.
I remember lying on my bedroom floor next to the air conditioning vent, tearing through cliffhanger’d chapter after cliffhanger’d chapter, as the endless summer days flew by. I occasionally wondered if I should feel bad about liking them—they were fun, sure, but they were a tad thin, a tad formulaic, a tad commercial. Like a bag of potato chips, in book form. Should I have been spending my time on Literature™️ instead?
It’s an easy trap to fall into, this idea that everything is either Literature™️ or Garbage™️, Good™️ or Bad™️, Art™️ or Dreck™️. I’m increasingly convinced, though, that every artist—maybe with some very rare exceptions—is trying to make their work as good as they can, given whatever temporal and financial constraints they have. In the case of Goosebumps, they were all remarkably good, given that, at the series’ height, Stine was cranking each one out in a couple of weeks (in a lawsuit, Scholastic alleged that he employed ghostwriters, but he denied it). And I’ve come around to the belief that every book—even the less-than-classic ones—can teach you something. In the case of Goosebumps, the series taught me that “funny” and “scary” weren’t mutually contradictory words.
There was one book in the series, though, that taught me a bit more.
When I got to the end of Goosebumps #10, The Ghost Next Door, I remember my jaw dropping as I set it down it down on the couch—had this book just made me…feel things? I remember immediately running to my English major mother to tell her about this book that wasn’t just scary, or just scary-and-funny, but…bittersweet, not that I knew the word at the time. Haunting, in a sense I was only-just-now learning that word could take on.
Even all these years later, The Ghost Next Door has stuck with me so indelibly that it’s weird to me that no one ever talks about it—I suspect because it lacks a wacky, charismatic antagonist like Slappy the Dummy or Cuddles the Hamster—but it just may have served as my own personal How to Tell a Good Ghost Story 101.
If you haven’t read it, The Ghost Next Door tells the story of twelve-year-old Hannah, who wakes up one summer morning to find that the long-vacant house next to hers suddenly has a family living in it, including a boy her age named Danny. Danny insists his family has lived there for years and that he attends the same school Hannah does, but she’s never seen him before and they don’t know any of the same kids. Other weird stuff is piling up as well: Why does Hannah keep having nightmares about fire? Why is she being stalked by a shadowy phantom? Why won’t her best friend respond to her letters?
*(Once again, SPOILERS follow.)*
It’s possible you’ve already figured out the Big Twist™️—that Hannah is the real ghost—but it blew my eleven-year-old mind a little bit (and remember that The Ghost Next Door was released six years before The Sixth Sense would turn this trope into a massive cliché). It turns out her family died in a house fire years ago (which explains the nightmares), and they’ve been fading in and out of existence ever since (which explains, as Hannah puts it, “why summer has felt so short and so endless at the same time”).
Why hasn’t Hannah been able to “cross over” into the afterlife, though? In the climax, she finally figures it out: she’s been kept on earth so that she can save Danny from suffering the same fate she did. After she fights her way through a burning house to save him, she finally finds herself moving toward the light, calling out to Danny to remember her:
Could he hear her?
Could he hear her calling out to him?
She hoped so.
I mean, damn. Even at age thirty-seven, those last couple lines still leave me misty-eyed.
I’ve spent the last quarter-century pondering what makes The Ghost Next Door work so well, trying to glean as many writing lessons as I can from it. Some of it is pretty Fiction Writing 101 stuff (but nevertheless stuff that some of Goosebumps’ more slapdash entries were missing): Foreshadow your ending. Make sure your main character changes and grows. Have a point, or at least a theme.
More importantly, though, The Ghost Next Door has a canny understanding of what a ghost, as a symbol, represents in the collective unconscious—namely, the fear that everything is ultimately liminal. Ghosts, after all, aren’t monsters—they’re not scary because they threaten death (actually, they contradict death). They’re frightening because they’re a reminder of how little we know and understand: What is consciousness? What is death? What is real?
In The Ghost Next Door, Hannah’s incorporeality becomes a metaphor for the fleeting nature of summer, childhood, and young love. Being stuck in the liminal space between life and death, reinforced by the liminal space of summer vacation, encapsulates the liminality of childhood itself, a time when adulthood seems forever away—and yet, somehow, simultaneously, rushing unstoppably toward you. Hannah reconciles all these contradictions in the climax, when she claims the afterlife—here a stand-in for adulthood—by learning that true love means self-sacrifice, not just mutual affection.
It feels a little weird to be analyzing the Jungian symbolism of a Goosebumps book, but that’s just how much better The Ghost Next Door is than the rest of the pack. Goosebumps as a whole taught me that “scary” isn’t synonymous with “self-serious,” but The Ghost Next Door in particular taught me that spooky stories could be Literature™️—that having scary or fantastical elements doesn’t preclude the possibility that your story can mean something. And it’s one of the books I’ve spent my whole career—consciously or otherwise—trying to replicate.
So, if you’re reading this, Mr. Stine, thanks for the inspiration. Thanks for the Goosebumps, and thanks especially for The Ghost Next Door.
(Can you hear me, Jovial Bob?)
(Can you hear me calling out to you?)
(I hope so.)
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Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
Wait, how did I not know about Anna and the Apocalypse till now? This movie (first released in the UK in 2017) checks every single one of my “favorite genre” boxes:
☑️ zombie movie
☑️ Christmas movie
☑️ teen comedy
I don’t know which of you was supposed to tell me this movie existed, but you’re fired. (Like, come on, there’s an entire discourse about the similarities between zombie flicks and musicals in my debut novel, which by the way makes the perfect gift for all occasions.) I had to learn about Anna from Spotify, which randomly shuffled one of its songs into my “Discover Weekly” playlist—and once I realized what I was hearing, and what sort of movie it was from, I immediately cleared my evening schedule so I could watch this thing right away. And it was amazing.
I don’t want to oversell Anna. Its plot is composed mainly of tropes that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a zombie movie (the rescue mission plot, the wannabe megalomaniac who sees the zombie plague as his big chance, the bitten-but-still-lucid character who sacrifices himself for the group), but the cast is fantastic and the songs really poke at the subtext of the old clichés, wringing new meaning out of old ideas. And the tunes are catchy! I’ve had the album on repeat since I watched it.
And hey, if you’ve got a streaming device that gets The Roku Channel (nearly all of them, I think), you can watch Anna for free. I enthusiastically suggest you do!
I was a fan of Jovial Bob Stine's '80s humor books in my youth, so I was excited when he became a zillionaire with Goosebumps (which I was nevertheless too old to be into by that point). Ghost Next Door sounds interesting...