I’m Josh, and I’m thirteen years old. I was just leaving my third period maths class with my best friend Stacy at Timber Falls Junior High when this whole mess started. “You’re such a dork Josh… I can’t believe you’ve never even heard the legend of the Timber Falls Vampire. Every kid in town knows that story!” Stacy was always crazy about spooky stuff. I figured her parents let her watch too many dumb movies. She’s the same age as me, with curly black hair, and an ok fashion sense. I guess she’s kinda cute as well. Anyway, she was just about to tell me the legend of the Timber Falls Vampire. “They say his body still rests in a hidden basement somewhere beneath the school…” I told her to quit it, not because I was scared or anything, but because-
At that moment there came from the next classroom a terrifying and blood-curdling shriek. My stomach turned to jelly as somebody screamed in agony “ THE VAMPIRE! HE’S BACK!!!”
We breathlessly ran into the classroom to find…my bratty cousin Norman! He’s a real jerk and he’s always paying tricks on me. “Stop laughing Norm you creep, I wasn’t even scared!” I yelled at him. Stacy was laughing as well, so the whole scene was really embarrassing. “I can’t believe Josh fell for it,” Norman congratulated himself, “ As if we’d introduce the monster in chapter 1! Come on let’s get out of here, I want you guys to meet the new kid in school, he’s from Europe or something…”
Should any of the above seem familiar to you, then it is certain you remember the Goosebumps fad. Above I have recreated the opening of every single book ever written by the prolific (or diarrhoeic) R. L. Stine. (That’s almost certainly a nom de plume, and it really sounds to me like it’s supposed to be a pun or something. Try saying it out loud. R. L. Stine. Nope, still don’t get it.)
The Goosebumps books were seemingly a ploy to get kids to read by using simple language, short chapters, and the promise of big scares within. Each book told a simple and usually derivative spooky story about young teenagers encountering some kind of strangeness. Many of the books were scaled-down domestic versions of classic horror sagas – hence It Came from Beneath The Sea becomes It Came from Beneath the Sink, Phantom of the Opera becomes Phantom of the Auditorium, and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze becomes The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena (it's a loose adaptation, granted). The stories invariably employed the kind of shock ending known as the ‘jar of marmalade’ ending. Bear with me on this one, it requires some familiarity with bad-writing terminology.
A ‘jar of marmalade’ story is a story constructed solely to spring some completely unrelated and silly surprise on the reader; a story constructed only so the author can cry ‘fooled you!’ at the end. Imagine a tale set in a desert of orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable barrier – surprise! Our heroes are actually MICROBES LIVING IN A JAR OF MARMALADE. That kind of thing. (thanks to the Turkey City Lexicon for that one- hey, it's public domain!) For example-
-Warning! Spoilers ahead! -
One of the books features a kid who applies a mysterious lotion to his face and finds that he is suddenly growing thick unsightly hair all over his face and body. The book relates his quest to hide this unfortunate condition from his family, friends and the girl he likes while trying to figure out who made the lotion and how to reverse the process. In the end, however, he finds out that the real reason he is growing this hair is because the entire town is actually a gigantic testing lab and ALL THE KIDS IN TOWN ARE ACTUALLY DOGS WHO HAVE BEEN MUTATED TO LOOK LIKE PEOPLE, BUT NOW THEY’RE TURNING BACK INTO DOGS. The lotion was completely irrelevant. Kudos for originality and willingness to break the mould, but that ending makes the whole book pointless, really.
Regardless, the books were a phenomenon in schools at the time, mine very much included. Kids would collect the books, read them in one night and spoil the endings for everyone the next day in school. Nobody really seemed to enjoy reading them because aside from the premise and the screwed-up ending there was only an interchangeable sequence of events that had nothing to do with the outcome, but everyone wanted to be the first to have read the newest ones.
Encouraging kids to read is not an ignoble goal, and like all good ideas (rock & roll included) it soon got hijacked by the Man. Many other companies saw that there was gold in them thar literary hills, so they started producing their own Goosebumps knock-offs. A quick search through the recesses of my own book cupboard reveals items from several identically themed series aimed at 9-12 year olds -Shivers, Bugs, Max Power. The legacy lives on.
The entire basement filled with a strange glow as Desmond, the vampire-kid from Europe, collapsed and became a heap of rotting flesh. “It’s finally over”, I gasped as Stacy and Norm crawled a safe distance away from the bizarre, decomposing corpse. “We defeated his evil powers!” But Stacy didn’t seem to be listening. Her eyes bulged and turned a fiery red. Eight enormous arachnid legs erupted from within the confines of her dress and spread across the room. “You fools” she hissed, “ Desmond wasn’t really a vampire. This was all a ploy to get you alone down here so I could feed you to my children”. As I was fed to her hideous mutant arachnid progeny my last thought was “Dammit this makes our entire adventure completely irrelevant!”