Friday March 8, 2013
Goosebumps grown up
Review by TERENCE TOH
A children’s horror writer sits at the adult’s table, with mixed results.
Author: R.L. Stine
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 369 pages
WHEN I was a kid, Goosebumps books were the coolest things ever. Yes, looking back, most of them were cheesy, and all adhered to a formula more predictable than a weather report from the South Pole. But I was absolutely enchanted by them. What 10-year-old 1990s kid in Malaysia wouldn’t be?
Their bright, colourful covers, with “Goosebumps” written in an awesome, blood-dripping font at the top and a creepy picture underneath. The kid-friendly writing. The stories which, honestly, were never that scary but were always entertaining all the way to the final page, where some incredible twist would occur.
Yes, R.L. Stine, often called “the Stephen King of children’s literature”, was one of the teenage me’s favourite writers. My childhood was vastly enriched by his captivating tales of monster blood, haunted masks, and evil ventriloquist dummies.
I even tried my hand at R.L. Stine-esque fiction (oh God, why) and while the results may have been awful, it first got me interested in writing, and eventually shaped how I am today.
You can see, therefore, why I was excited to read Red Rain, widely publicised as Stine’s first adult novel. I wanted to like it. Honestly, I did. But I have to admit, I found myself disappointed with the book, mostly due to its weak writing and over predictability.
Red Rain is the tale of travel blogger Lea Sutter, who finds herself caught in a deadly hurricane while exploring the mysterious island of Le Chat Noir. While struggling through the devastation, Lea discovers two boys, Daniel and Samuel, who she falls in love with and decides to adopt.
But when she gets them home, it slowly becomes clear to Lea’s husband Mark, and her two children Ira and Elena, that there is something supernatural about the twins. Possessing dark powers beyond imagination, Daniel and Samuel plan to “rule the school” – and woe betide anyone who stands in their way.
What is most remarkable about the plot is how unremarkable it is. How many times have we seen horror stories about creepy children who are more than they seem? Stine’s novel, sadly, offers nothing new to the genre. Daniel and Samuel also come across as more annoying than frightening most of the time, and their accents (which seem to be some strange Caribbean-Scottish sounding mix) are amusing at first but slowly become grating.
Stine’s writing is competent, although his dialogue occasionally feels stilted or unnatural. Goosebumps fans may feel a tinge of nostalgia, as much of the novel is written in a style similar to his bestselling book series, complete with his trademark twist ending.
Red Rain’s characters are generally unremarkable, with the only interesting character being Pavano, a troubled police officer who finds himself drawn into the investigation. Another character I liked was Harrison, a medical officer with a twisted sense of humour; sadly, however, he only appeared in one chapter.
For those wondering about how “adult” Stine’s adult novel is: there is some sex and lots of violence. Red Rain is heavy on gore, with one particularly memorable chapter depicting a gruesome discovery in a vehicle outside the Sutters’ house. Unfortunately, most of the over-the-top violence seems gratuitous, almost as if Stine was trying to prove himself, the literary equivalent of the former child star turning to sexually charged roles hoping to cement a transition to “serious films”.
Of course, Red Rain also has its good points. There are some genuinely creepy parts, and one particular twist, revolving around the true nature of Revenir, a disturbing ritual carried out on Le Chat le Noir, is cleverly developed.
Indeed, Stine’s novel is most effective when it moves away from the standard horror cliché of creepy children and focuses on one of its more adult themes: the breakdown of a family.
Through Red Rain, Stine explores the nature of parenting, mostly through a subplot involving Kids Will Be Kids, a controversial parenting book written by Mark.
How far do you go when supervising your children? Where do you draw the line between innocent play and unhealthy behaviour?
Another inspired touch is the twins using their supernatural powers to influence the town’s children, changing their personalities and causing them to act out against authority. This metaphor for peer pressure is cleverly explored and executed well.
All in all, maybe Stine is not entirely ready for the grownups table yet. I had hoped Red Rain would take me by storm but it turned out to be more of a drizzle. Stine has always been a good storyteller, though, so I hope to enjoy his next adult novel more than I enjoyed this one.
In the meantime, however, I will take a walk down memory lane and dig up my favourite Goosebumps. I don’t suppose anyone out there has a copy of Say Cheese And Die, do they? I recall it being one of my favourites. What was yours?