I had high hopes for this one. I love stories that play with dreams and a shifting sense of reality. Bad Dreams was all set up to do exactly that… and then it just didn’t. It ended up feeling like a book just going through the motions. Everything that happens here, Stine has done before and he’s done it better. Both of the main characters were irritating. The sibling rivalry stuff led to a few good scenes but for the most part, it was exhausting. Maggie’s boyfriend was useless, which is pretty typical in this series. The “twist” at the end felt lazy and tacked on. The “villain” had completely implausible motives. So was there anything I liked? I liked the lesson learned at the end, which was perfect for the intended audience of these books. I liked Maggie’s unwinding sense of reality as the story went on, I just wish it had gone much further than it did. Ultimately, the stakes never felt high enough, things never got weird enough, and I was bored. Something I am noticing is that when the Goosebumps books are bad, they are still (mostly) entertaining and ridiculous. When Fear Street books are bad, it takes a concerted effort to finish them. Bad Dreams is easily one of my least favorite Fear Street books so far.
Recap & Review
OK, let’s get this over with. The book was boring so I am going to gloss over details and stick to the important stuff. The book opens Maggie and her sister Andrea moving into an old house on Fear Street. They had lived in the affluent Shadyside neighborhood of North Hills, but after their dad died suddenly, they could no longer afford it on Mom’s income alone. The loss of social status is tough on the girls, and so they take it out on each other in classic sibling rivalry. Maggie and Andrea’s relationship forms the core arc of the book around which everything else happens. This means that they fight. A lot. Over everything.
They fight about getting lost on the way to their new house. They fight about taking care of their old dog Gus. And the fight about the beautiful antique canopy bed that Maggie finds in her bedroom when they move in. Andrea wants it, but Maggie calls finders keepers since it was her room. The two of them are also rivals on the Shadyside Swim Team, where they are competing for the top two spots in the 200-meter medley. As exhausting and repetitive as the fighting became, it did lead to some of the better moments in the book. Bad Dreams also deserves recognition for subverting one of Stine’s favorite Fear Street tropes. Gus, the old golden retriever, makes it all the way to the end of the book without getting murdered. Gus survived the Shadyside house-pet curse. I’m sure it was because Gus is a Very Good Boy.
Maggie starts having bad dreams the first night she sleeps in the canopy bed. She dreams about a blonde girl getting stabbed. Night after night, the dreams continue. Maggie starts to see more and more but can never see who the girl is. She feels like the dreams are trying to warn her of something, but she isn’t sure what. Maggie can’t even be sure that she can trust her own sister anymore. Her useless boyfriend Justin thinks it’s no big deal, of course. Boyfriends in these books are about as useless as they come and always dismiss their girlfriend’s concerns. This would be fine if they were ever called out on being shitty, but they rarely are. So Justin writes off Maggie’s dreams as nothing to worry about. Because he sucks.
Meanwhile, at swim practice, there are four girls in the running for two spots in the 200-meter medley. Maggie is in the lead with Dawn being her fiercest competition. Tiffany and Andrea are also vying for the spot but have placed third and fourth in the first qualifying races. Then Someone pushes Dawn down the stairs at school and she breaks her arm. She accuses Maggie of having pushed her, but Maggie knows that she didn’t. Regardless, Dawn can no longer compete. Then someone stabs Tiffany on the pool deck. She survives, but she can no longer compete either. That means that Maggie and Andrea will be repping their team in the big race. Of course, Andrea is excited about this, but Maggie starts to wonder if Andrea has been the one taking their teammates out.
Maggie starts putting together more of the dreams. First, she finally sees the girl’s face. It’s not someone she recognizes, but the location is. The girl was stabbed in Maggie’s canopy bed. Why she doesn’t immediately stop sleeping in that bed is beyond me. She then meets their next-door neighbors who let it slip that a girl named Miranda was murdered in their house some twenty years ago. Maggie knows immediately that this must be who she has been dreaming about. And yet, she keeps on sleeping in the haunted bed. She wakes up to a knife stabbed through her pillow and this it was Andrea. Then she wakes up to Miranda’s ghost standing in her room with a knife. The ghost escapes through the window and no one else sees it. Seems like a ghost escaping through a window might be an important detail here.
Maggie becomes determined to find out the dream’s ending. She comes home to find that her mom got rid of the bed after also sending her to a psychiatrist. NO, ANYTHING BUT A PSYCHIATRIST. Seriously, the way mental health is treated as an afterthought dates these books more than the absence of cell phones. Seriously, therapy is a good thing. Maybe the world wouldn’t be such a mess if more of us sought it out. Anyway, that night Maggie sneaks into the attic where Mom hid the bed so that she can finish the dream. Remember; she’s determined. Only the bed isn’t empty when she finds it. Miranda’s ghost is sleeping in it. Only it’s not really Miranda’s ghost. It’s Gina!
It turns out Gina was Miranda’s sister. She hated her sister and so she stabbed her. When she got out of prison, she returned to the old family house. Then Maggie’s family moved in. Gina relocated to the attic and helped herself around the house while Mom was at work and the kids were at school. Not content with just living in this family’s house, Gina got really invested in Maggie and Andrea’s sibling rivalry. She took Andrea’s side and started taking out the swim team competition for her. She was going to top it all off by killing Maggie, but Maggie got a warning from Miranda in the form of her dreams. Apparently, Miranda has some kind of power that enabled her to do this. Gina confesses this all to Maggie the way villains always conveniently do in contrived stories.
Andrea had followed her sister into the attic and heard Gina’s whole confession. The two girls work together and trap Gina by tying her up in the bed’s canopy. Mom calls the police. No one ever mentions the fact that Gina should have been on parole after being released from prison. I would imagine her old family home, where she murdered her sister, would be one of the first places they’d go to find her after she failed to check-in. Maggie’s family should have at least been warned, but that would have spoiled the twist. Cue eye-roll.
So there was a good sister lesson at the end of the slog, but it did not feel worth it. The twist itself could have worked had Gina’s story been worked into the rest of the book. Like, maybe Maggie could have run into her earlier and thought she was a neighbor I wish the focus had been less on the swimming and sibling rivalry, and more on the creepiness of someone living in their house without them knowing about it. I wish there had been more play with the dreams. Dreams are usually weird and have tons of room for metaphors. Maggie’s dream was the same dream over and over again, and it was very literal. There were opportunities here to make this book better, but they weren’t taken and the book was a bust. Hopefully, the next one I read is better.
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 overall idea), Execution (the mechanics of storytelling), Character (the protagonists, antagonists, and villains), Scare Factor (from a childhood standpoint), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes). Based on GoodReads aggregate ratings, Bad Dreams is ranked 58th of 79 in the overall Fear Street series, and 31st of 49 Fear Street books in the main series, placing the book itself in the lowest tier overall. It should be noted that the series ranking for the Fear Street books is a bit skewed in favor of the later books in the series, most likely due to the drop in popularity in the late ’90s. The books in the latter half of the series have a significantly lower number of ratings, which (I’m hypothesizing) is due to super-fans being unchecked by more critical voices.
The concept had promise but failed to deliver. It had all of the right elements: a haunted bed, sibling rivalry, and a potentially unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, they were all half-baked at best.
The biggest crime of this book is just how dull it is. There was room to get weird with the nightmares and the sense of unreality. The ending felt cheap and tacked on.
Maggie and Andrea were almost fully developed. They had a few good scenes but Andrea needed to be less awful. Gina was about as cardboard as villains come.
Scare Factor: 1/2
Mostly a missed opportunity to go full supernatural and/or get really creepy. It managed a few good scares but nothing too memorable.
Dreams as premonitions, a haunting, and a villain with dumb motives. We’ve seen all of this done before, by R.L Stine, and it’s been done better.
Don’t miss the next post in the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #24: The Thrill Club
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
Sinclair Smith’s Dream Date