Casual fans of Goosebumps can usually expect to find some kind of supernatural creature or other bizarre baddie in these books, but R. L. Stine briefly changed gears toward the end of the classic series. The previous 58 entries covered a wide span of far-out villains and unique scenarios, with each one being weirder than the next. From haunted Halloween masks to sentient ventriloquist dummies to chicken curses, Stine was partial to offbeat horror and the morbidly humorous. In the case of the 59th book, the author pumped the brakes on the creepy funnies and offered a strangely sad story in The Haunted School.
Making new friends is hard for 12-year-old Tommy Frazer after moving to a new town with his father and new stepmother. And he thinks joining Bell Valley Middle School’s Dance Decorations Committee, of all things, is going to make him Mr. Popular. As it turns out, though, fitting in or painting a decent looking bison on a banner are the least of his problems. The real trouble starts when Tommy discovers a hidden room in the school — one filled with twenty-five realistic-looking statues of kids.
As Principal Borden explains to Tommy upon finding him in the off-limits room, the statues are in remembrance of the first class of Bell Valley Middle School. Back in 1947, the twenty-five students all disappeared without a trace, never to be seen or heard from again. With the event being so traumatic for the parents and townsfolk, the original school was boarded up so a new one could be built around it.
At this point, The Haunted School already feels like a far cry from other Goosebumps stories. The straightforward title — not a pun in sight — lends itself to this, well, rather haunting tale of vanished kids. Disappearances have always been a terrifying concept in fiction and a sad fact of reality. In those many real instances where the missing are never found, the mind fills in the blanks. So often the truth is scarier than whatever the imagination comes up with. As for Stine, his answer to the disappearing Class of 1947 is less Picnic at Hanging Rock and more Twilight Zone. A series like Goosebumps has limits to what it can get away with, in terms of content, but The Haunted School makes its point without ever getting graphic.
This Goosebumps book has a sizable cast once things get moving in an eerier direction. There is the closest thing Tommy has to a best friend, Ben, as well as another member of the Decorations Committee, Thalia. Ben is the standard wise guy, whereas Thalia is another new kid who is picked on by her peers for wearing too much makeup. Stine stresses the latter tidbit when the school bully, a tall girl dressed in black named Greta, plays “keep away” with Thalia’s lipstick. Thalia’s over-the-top reaction to this bit of classroom clownery makes more sense later on.
What drew Tommy to the hidden room in the first place was what he thought were other kids’ voices. Telling Thalia about this somehow makes her upset enough to run out of the gym in tears, but Tommy conveniently overlooks the moment. And after the incident with Greta and Thalia’s lipstick, Stine glosses over Thalia altogether in favor of Tommy and Ben’s misadventures in a place later referred to as Grayworld. In search of supplies to fix a banner Greta damaged, the two boys end up inside a secret elevator in the school. One push of a button then reveals what really happened to the Class of ‘47.
Any attempt at humor from this point onward is more out of the characters’ discomfort than Stine’s propensity for twisted comedy in the Goosebumps series. After all, the mysterious elevator brought the two boys to a grayscale parallel world where escape is next to impossible. In this alternate and colorless dimension, Tommy and Ben learn the fates of the missing twenty-five students; a sinister photographer named Mr. Chameleon sentenced them all to this wretched place. The reason why is incredibly petty, but to a man as evidently evil as Mr. Chameleon, it is as good as any to make a bunch of rowdy kids go poof.
Early on, Tommy mentions reading a Ray Bradbury anthology for his book report. And the singling out of The Long Rain is a strong hint of things to come; like the space explorers who find themselves on a planet where rain is eternal, anyone delivered to Grayworld is bound to succumb to their harrowing environment. This reference might be lost on younger or unaware readers, but knowledge of Bradbury’s short makes The Haunted School more fulfilling. Not only does the mention of The Long Rain provide a literary connection, it emphasizes their similar themes.
In Grayworld, the Class of ‘47 has been split up into two distinct groups; the five kids Tommy and Ben meet upon their arrival are struggling to stay optimistic, but the others have given up entirely and gone feral. Seth and his four like-minded peers stay locked up in the school for their own safety. Meanwhile, their former classmates run amok outside, feeding on and spreading black liquid from a nearby pit. Much like in The Long Rain, the displaced characters of The Haunted School struggle to keep it together in a bad situation. Standing in for the sun dome in Bradbury’s tale, a symbol for life, are the inaccessible spectrum of colors representing both life and hope.
Talia’s prolonged absence was necessary to throw the readers off after it is revealed one ‘47er recently escaped Grayworld. Tommy assumes they were referring to Greta, but taking into consideration the lipstick episode and her emotional reaction to the reports of disembodied voices, the runaway could only be Talia. No longer happy with caking herself in makeup to hide her grayness, Talia returns because she feels out of sorts in the colorful world. The red lipstick that helped Talia leave in the first place finally becomes Tommy and Ben’s eleventh-hour way out.
No respectable Goosebumps book ends on a happy note. Tommy and Ben indeed make their way home, but their relief is short-lived as soon as Mrs. Borden has the lost boys pose for a group photo. And pray tell who is the photographer? Why, Mr. Chameleon, of course! The wicked curmudgeon is still lurking about after all these years, ready to send any and all adolescent irritants to that drab little hellhole called Grayworld.
The Haunted School sticks out in the original Goosebumps collection. For one thing, it lacks the silliness that fans love and remember. There is nothing here to laugh about, especially now knowing the fate of the Class of ’47. On the other hand, Stine attempts — and pulls off — a heavier tale with high stakes. It may not exactly be a fun entry, but it is surprisingly unsettling.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.
The post R. L. Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ Goes to a Dark Place in “The Haunted School” [Buried in a Book] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.