Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns
© 1996 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns turned out to be a pretty solid Goosebumps entry. The premise was exceptionally weird, and it deviated from the standard plot format Stine frequently uses. I found it reminiscent of The Headless Ghost in that regard, and I think it worked well in both cases. I had some issues with how the twist at the end came about, but I ultimately enjoyed what it was doing. The twist would have worked better if Stine nixed the first-person format. I can’t say too much here without spoiling it. There was also the problematic depiction of Lee’s character, which was changed by the publishers when the series was reissued. It wasn’t so egregious that it distracted from the entire narrative, but it was cringeworthy. It’s also worth noting that the TV adaptation made significant improvements here. The ominous ending had far-reaching implications that I wasn’t expecting. I always say I like my RL Stine best when he is unapologetically weird, and this was one of his better examples. With a few tweaks to the characterizations and plotting, this could have been one of the top books in the series. The version of Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns had its flaws, but it was still a lot of fun.
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ERMAHGERD #48: Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns.
© 2023 by Daniel Stalter. All rights reserved.
Photo by Daniel Stalter.
Observations & Spoilers
Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns opens with Drew explaining how her classmates Tabby and Lee have ruined their last two Halloweens. The plot structure of this reminded me a lot of The Headless Ghost which used a similar method of flashbacks. I appreciate the way that the plot gives us a nice in-depth background of our main characters. I also love that it’s not overly reliant on fake scares every other chapter. It’s a great way to embellish a short story idea into a novel-length story without running out of steam. For Drew, everything here is centered around one central idea: revenge.
Drew and Walker love Halloween, but Tabby and Lee have ruined it for them one too many times. Tabby is a perfect little monster of a middle schooler. Anyone who grew up in the suburbs knew this girl, whose self-confidence was synonymous with “having wealthy parents.” Lee is Tabby’s best friend. He is African American and constantly chews bubble gum, so our main character Drew can never understand what he is saying. Lee is the first person of color that I can recall showing up in a Goosebumps book since The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Return of the Mummy. It was a shame that he was pitted as the antagonist. There was also a particularly cringeworthy line comparing him to a rapper on MTV. The most problematic bits of this were removed for the re-issues.
Two Halloweens ago, Tabby and Lee hosted a Halloween party at Lee’s house. Drew and Walker were there with their friends Shane and Shane, who are twins. Then there was a robbery where two men in ski masks came in and made everyone do push-ups. It was decidedly PG. It turned out to be Lee’s older high school neighbor. The four people in on the joke thought it was hilarious, but Drew and her friends thought it was particularly mean. So the next year they plotted an elaborate revenge.
The following year, Drew decided to have her own Halloween party. She had to shut down some of Shane and Shana’s weirder ideas, but the four of them were excited to enact their plans. Everything was ready to go, the party was about to start, and then Tabby called and said she and Lee wouldn’t be able to make it. They got invited to go trick-or-treating in some coveted suburb, and couldn’t turn it down. Then to make matters worse, one of their planned revenge tricks backfired and burned a hole in Drew’s couch. That’s what brings us to this Halloween. Our group of four protagonists is determined to get Lee and Tabby back.
Drew invites Tabby and Lee out trick-or-treating. Her parents almost don’t let her go out because of the news that four people have gone missing one town over from theirs. Drew isn’t worried because they are all fat adults (no seriously) and not kids. Drew and Walker meet Tabby and Lee and start going house to house, but Shane and Shana don’t show up when they are supposed to. Finally, the two show up in really freaky Jack-O’-Lantern head costumes. Drew thinks it’s them but the costumes are really convincing, and their voices are off. Everyone, including Tabby and Lee, is convinced it’s Shane and Shana being weird. The pumpkin heads lead the group of four to a new neighborhood for ideal trick or treating.
They walk through the muddy woods for a long time. Drew is starting to get worried, and Tabby’s princess dress is getting ruined, but they finally emerge to a brightly lit suburb. They hit up several of the houses, hitting the candy jackpot. Things are going great until they decide it’s late and time to go home. The pumpkin heads insist they need to keep trick-or-treating forever. They need to go to more houses. Tabby attempts to call their bluff, but when she removes the pumpkin head, there is nothing underneath it. The pumpkin heads levitate around them and demand they go to more houses. The terrified kids comply.
When they later complain that their bags are getting too heavy, the pumpkin heads tell them to eat the candy they have so that they can get more. Just when the “more houses” schtick was starting to get tired, the two pumpkin heads revealed four new pumpkins. More pumpkin-headed people emerge from houses up and down the block they are on. The two pumpkin heads explain that the four kids will be joining them now so that they can trick-or-treat forever. They Shash two pumpkins down on Tabby and Lee’s heads. Then Tabby and Lee run off screaming.
Shane and Shana finally transform back into their human selves, laughing all the way. You see, Drew conveniently forgot to mention that her neighbors were aliens. They had called in a favor from their alien buddies the next town over. The other pumpkinheads go back into their houses and leave the four kids to revel in the glory of having finally scared their bullies. Drew offers Shane and Shana candy, but they don’t eat candy. Then they casually insinuate that they eat humans, but Drew is too small and scrawny for their tastes. The End.
To summarize the plot badly: aliens who feed on fat people put a pause on their plans to take over the world in order to help some of their brethren scare a couple of high school bullies. It was definitely one of the weirder Goosebumps experiences. I won’t complain about that part. The only thing that really irked me was that it relied on Drew conveniently leaving out the details about her friends being aliens. The TV adaptation made a slight improvement on this point. But the entire twist relied upon a lie by omission, which was similar to The Girl Who Cried Monster.
Mess aside, I was thoroughly entertained right up through the end. I was having second thoughts when the endless trick-or-treating seemed to be overdone, but that was thankfully ended just as I was starting to get sick of it. I feel like there was a missed opportunity to get even weirder with it, and I was left with lots of questions about the aliens’ motives and purpose. There were some nicely disturbing implications with the ending. It was clear that the aliens were responsible for the four missing people, but it strongly implied that Shane and Shana were not above eating their friends Drew and Walker. It’s like “Sure we can be friends until I get hungry.” It was giving me Grizzly Man vibes, and that is high praise.
That’s it. That’s my review. Sometimes I’m not sure how to end these things, and sometimes I’m just on a self-imposed deadline and I run out of steam. Today I’m choosing violence.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each.
I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are:
Concept: the strength of the overall idea
Execution: the mechanics of storytelling
Character: the protagonists, antagonists, and villains
Intent: does it succeed in being the kind of book it wants to be?
Originality: subversion and reliance on genre tropes
Alien neighbors who feed on fat people makes for a pretty wild concept. So is a good Halloween revenge story. The only thing holding it back was the reliance on the narrator withholding information.
I liked the format of the two previous Halloweens going horribly before we got to this one. I felt like the pumpkin head idea ran out of steam pretty quickly, but then the ending came in to save it. But Drew’s lie by omission was the only thing that allowed the twist to happen.
Lee’s characterization was problematic, and Drew got a little grating. But Tabby was a well-done antagonist, and I like Shane and Shana’s weirdness. So it was a mixed bag.
It had a lot of good creepy elements and a nice weird twist. The unfamiliar neighborhood, the Jack O Lantern people, and the implications of the ending gave us plenty of horror to work with.
An entire neighborhood was taken over by aliens who eat fat people all band together in order to utterly scare the shit out of two middle school bullies. I think this was also just the second appearance of aliens in the Goosebumps series.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• It was a smart call to change the casting and avoid the problematic racial elements.
• I think this is the first black female lead I’ve seen in this show.
• Good casting on Tabby and Lee. They were very punchable.
• The lobster claws were a great touch to the Jack O’Lantern people. It’s too bad they couldn’t get the fire inside their heads.
• I love those laser-zapping special effects.
• Oh, they did have fire! They were just saving their budget for the climax.
• The ultimate revenge against Tabby; she also lost all of her candy.
• OK, I really love the aliens’ giant-body-with-tiny-heads situation.
• They did a better job at tying the missing 4 people to the aliens than the book did, but they didn’t have the whole neighborhood for how Shane and Shana pulled off the prank.
• Because we didn’t have first-person narration, Drew’s omission of Shane and Shana’s true nature worked a lot better. Keeping Walker out of the loop also helped.
• Don’t get too plump or we might eat you, too. I love the implications that Shane and Shana think of Drew as someone they are friends with but also couldn’t resist eating. It’s a really dark take when you think about the implications. We’re friends until I get hungry.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #49: Vampire Breath
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Cataluna Chronicles #1: The Evil Moon