R.L. Stine has written a huge number of horror books for middle grade and young adult readers. I was a bit old for them when they first came out, though I recollect reading one or two. Now I’ll read some of his works to see how, exactly, Stine took the horror genre and bowdlerized it into something adults would happily buy for their kids, when many of the same gatekeepers wouldn’t let them watch an actual horror movie.
The Goosebumps books are about 23,000 words long, which is only slightly longer than your average Wimpy Kid novel. Goosebumps books are not illustrated, making the books much slimmer (and quicker to pump out). This is broken into 22 chapters, so that averages about 1000 words a chapter.
Reading them as an adult, these aren’t straight horrors. It’s so easy when writing horror to inadvertently tip into comedy territory that you’re actually safer to just write horror comedy. While these books may be genuinely scary for kids (I guess?) they read as horror comedy for an adult. They’re not laugh-a-minute or anywhere near it, but anyone who has seen a lot of horror will recognise the tropes to the point where the whole story feels like a genre parody. Stine has said, “I was very disappointed with The Girl on the Train. I thought it was humorless,” which conveys something of his attitude toward non-comedy genre fiction needing a bit of comedy regardless. (I feel the same way about The Girl On The Train.)
Welcome To Camp Nightmare is Classic Goosebumps #14. It is also part of the Campfire and Fright Light collections. My daughter is about to go on her first ever school camp, so I thought this was a good one to start with.
Voice in Welcome To Camp Nightmare
There’s nothing embellished about this voice. The writing isn’t good (though perhaps a little better than Christopher Pike). Stine does things in his Goosebumps stories that anyone who’s attended any kind of writing class will have been warned against.
The narrator is a first person 12-year-old boy recounting his story to an unseen audience. Some people hate first person for the following reason: At times he steps out and describes himself speaking in a ‘shrill’ voice, or something like that, suggesting that actually third person would probably have been better. (A ‘shrill’ voice is one of Stine’s pet adjectives, at least in this book.) On the other hand, it’s easier to achieve an original voice writing in first person. This voice reminds me of many books I was reading as a kid — Paul Jennings uses a very similar voice — that of the generic 12-year-old white boy, slightly baffled by people around him and also by the crazy world he’s stepped into — an ordinary kid in extraordinary circumstances.
The similes aren’t all that amazing: ‘His eyes were as calm and cold as marbles.’ There’s no particular metaphorical significance to these similes, which you’d expect from more literary fiction. It’s all about surface-level similarities.
The sky is ‘charcoal grey’, birds chirp in the trees, and readers don’t get hung up on the beauty of any descriptions, because there is none.
Thoughts are often italicised, which adds to the melodrama. This technique has fallen out of fashion lately but works perfectly well for Stine.
Stine doesn’t shy away from rhetorical questions to telegraph a scary bit, either.
I mention these things to prove a point — though writers are told not to do them, we can also utilise them to our benefit. Those rhetorical questions telegraph scary bits which actually makes them less scary when they do come. This achieves the optimum level of scariness. Writing rules sometimes assume the writer has only one goal in mind (e.g. to make something MORE scary), and don’t take into account that sometimes a writer might want to pull back on the emotional impact.
In 2017, lack of diversity sticks out, finally. The boys in this book have ordinary white boy names like Jay and Colin and Roger — names which even in the early 1990s sounded old-fashioned. The girls are Dawn and Dori.
Published in 1992, these kids are 12 years old, which makes them my contemporaries. I should recognise this culture, and I do. I recognise the four girls almost cowering at the front of the bus, as the boys completely dominate the space with their loudness and exuberance. I’m immediately disappointed that this is yet another story where boys completely outnumber the girls. Perhaps there will be a reason for this in the plot? This is a very male perspective — as female reader I’m reminded of how just a few girls in a space attracts boys’ attention and leads to show-off behaviour. I suspect this is something boy readers really relate to, even now.
The girls are written in typical 1990s style. In other words, they’re not the pathetic crybabies of the 1950s, but they’re still written in a very male gazey way. When the two girls daringly and dangerously swim across the lake to tell the boys girls have been going missing, we’re told one of them is wearing a ‘blue, one piece bathing suit’ and that she has damp, blonde hair hanging onto her shoulders. For the boys we are never told what they are wearing. Why are young readers told that the girl is wearing a ‘one piece’ bathing suit? Well, ‘one piece’ sounds more wholesome than ‘bikini’ (more common attire for the pretty female victim in an adult horror film), but in fact mentioning it at all makes it gazey. In short, Stine retains some of the stereotypical, woman as victim tropes found throughout adult horror.
Lampshading of Parental Absence
A storytelling challenge for Stine is getting adults out of the way so that the kids can be legitimately scared and make their own way out of trouble. Even in horror stories for adults, writers will often surround the main character with apathetic/useless/evil/disbelieving police officers and officials, who might otherwise be able to help. In a supernatural story this feels quite natural, because why would a police officer believe someone ranting and raving about monsters? This is writers breaking the fourth wall… sort of.
The bus driver wears a prank mask, and when he rips it off it seems like a joke, but then his face changes suddenly and we realise he’s ‘two-faced’ and isn’t the caring adult we might expect from a bus driver hauling kids to camp, so he’s no use. Next we have Larry, the man who is meant to be looking after them at camp. He is equally uncaring — a guy mechanically doing his job. Uncle Al is just as bad. The boys learn there’s no nurse and no infirmary — if they get hurt they’re on their own. We have the trope of the terrible, terrible camp, where kids have to write home to tell their parents what fun they’re having when in fact they’re held captive and terrified.
When people start disappearing, our first person narrator (Billy) gets desperate and he considers calling his parents. If Stine doesn’t lampshade this option, it’ll stick out to young readers who would surely involve caring adults at this point:
I was so eager to hear my parents’ voices, so eager to tell them the strange things that were happening here.
Would they believe me?
Of course they would. My parents always believed me. Because they trusted me.
But when he gets to the pay phone it’s not a real phone — just a prop. Here at Camp Nightmare, nothing is what it seems. Also, that takes care of the parent problem. A few chapters later the boys find a mailbag of unposted letters. So they can’t even write home. Finally, visitors day is cancelled. Many boys have been going missing by this point, so Billy’s last option for parental involvement is scuppered.
The huge benefit to storytelling in 1992 was that people didn’t have mobile phones. The existence of technology would completely ruin this plot in 2017, unless they were so far out in the wilderness that there was no reception. Once that ‘no reception’ problem is solved everywhere on Earth, writers will have to come up with something more inventive.
Billy ends up saving Larry’s life in the river by dragging him to the bank.
Tropes In Welcome To Camp Nightmare
Stine has probably used every horror trope several times over by now. He’s even said of Stephen King’s work that some of King’s ideas were so good he just had to steal them — sometimes five times over. The greatest form of flattery? I’m sure King wouldn’t mind — R. L. Stine is creating an entirely new generation of Stephen King readers.
In this particular story, one of the boys goes missing and the camp adults say he never existed at all. This gaslighting trope is also used in stories like Flightplan, starring Jody Foster, in which flight crew try to persuade her there never was a daughter to begin with. The removal of all traces of someone’s existence is called damnatio memoriae (Condemnation of Memory). Apparently the Romans and Greeks used to consider erasing a person from all records a fate worse than death. (I think we should go back to this when reporting (or rather, not reporting) on mass murderers.)
Sure enough, boys keep disappearing. They’re being picked off one by one. This is the Dwindling Party trope.
The ending is what’s sometimes known among writers as Jar Of Tang.
“For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!” or “For you see, I am a dog!” Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry “Fooled you!” This is a classic case of the difference between a conceit and an idea. “What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?” is an example of the former; “What if the revolutionaries from the sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?” is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas, not [bad] conceits.
Then again, plenty of people love Twilight Zone and don’t mind the Jar of Tang endings.
Melodrama? No problem! Here’s how Stine ends a chapter:
As we goggled in silent horror, the driver tilted back his monstrous head and uttered an animal roar.
Very close. And getting closer.
I can’t get away.
I was halfway up the ladder when I heard Mike scream.
Larry tossed back his head and started to laugh. “Nurse?” he cried, laughing hard. “What nurse!?”
“Those cries,” he whispered. “They’re coming from… the Forbidden Bunk!”
“Leave me a note with your address so I’ll know where to send your stuff.” (This made me laugh out loud.)
How was I to know that the horrors were just beginning?
Walking backward in front of us, Jay locked his eyes on mine. “How about you, Billy? You coming?”
“Here it comes!” he shrieked. “Now it’s coming after us!”
“Here it comes! It’s coming through the window!”
Not a first name or a middle name. No Roger. No Roger at all. (A possible reversal — the damnatio memoriae trope.)
But my attacker quickly clamped a hand over my mouth to silence me.
My heart thudding, my head spinning in bitter disappointment, I turned away from the wall — and bumped right into Uncle Al.
What is going on here? I wondered. What is going on?
Visitors Day has been canceled!
I…plunged into the murky swirling waters to save him.
I had no way of knowing that the scariest part of my summer was yet to come.
To my horror, Uncle Al was staring directly at me. And he was holding a rifle in his hands.
“They won’t get away from us!”
I took a step backward with the rifle aimed at Uncle Al — and pulled the trigger.
Is it okay in a MG novel for an adult to tell a child to shoot other children with a rifle? Well, for a few sentences it appears this is the case, but Stine reins it in a bit and it turns out the rifles shoot tranquilliser darts. Then, when Billy shoots Uncle Al, it turns out the gun doesn’t shoot — the whole thing has been set up as a test of strength and violence, and Billy has passed.
Despite the fact that in real life Billy would be left with PTSD, it turns out this whole thing has been a government testing lab.
Story Structure Of Welcome To Camp Nightmare
Billy is imprisoned at a dangerous camp where boys are being picked off one by one.
Billy wants to go home as soon as possible.
This story follows the formula of ‘nearby opponents’ as well as ‘outside, monster opponents’. The adults running the camp are apathetic at best, murderers at worst. But there are also non-human monsters just outside the camp, waiting to pounce. This combination of human/monster opposition is seen in many popular series. Courage the Cowardly Dog utilises it, as does Spongebob Squarepants.
Right up until p105 (08t of 136), Billy is still hoping his parents will come to save him, marking this out as firmly middle grade fiction. It is only when visitors’ day is cancelled that he realises he must rely on himself.
The battle scene takes place on a choppy river with swirling water and tall rocks on either side. (See more on river symbolism here.) A storm is brewing and of course they encounter rapids. Horror fans will know there’s going to be a storm at exactly the right moment because Billy awoke to a grey, overcast morning with the air heavy and cold. Larry the instructor has thrown them in the deep end, so to speak — it’s as if he’s trying to kill them by making them canoe down these rapids. Then the boys seem to enter a portal:
We rowed past tangles of yellow- and grey- trunked trees. The river suddenly divided in two, and we shifted our paddles to take the left branch.
Crossroads (or forked roads/rivers) are also symbolic. They very often symbolise an important decision, and on a river (which flows in one direction) there is absolutely no turning back.
There are two reversals in the final chapter — ridiculously melodramatic. First, Billy learns he has passed three tests and that he’s brave and moral. The audience has it revealed that this story hasn’t taken place on Earth at all and, like Billy, we learn that the stakes were actually pretty low.
C.S. Lewis famously said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I respectfully disagree. It seems to me that the children’s books that struck me the most as a kid were precisely those I don’t get as an adult.
Billy will be accompanying his scientist parents on a trip to Earth. This turns the story into a never-ending, circular structure, similar to many picture books.