© 1996 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
I can tell that Ghost Camp would have been one of my favorites as a kid, right up there with Welcome to Dead House. Right off the bat, it established a really creepy setting. There was a foreboding atmosphere to the camp, and the book delivered some great scary moments. Harry and Alex were solid main characters, and it was nice to have two siblings who got along. Unfortunately, the book fell short of the important details. The big reveals left a lot more to be desired and the ending felt like a cop-out. It left me wanting something more cohesive. I didn’t need an explanation that neatly wove all the threads together, but the ending needed to have stronger ties to the ghost stories told in the beginning. What I’m trying to say is I needed a better explanation for why this “ghost camp” exists and how it came to be. Stine has done a great job with this other book. Welcome to Camp Nightmare comes to mind. Instead, Ghost Camp shares more similarities to The Horror at Camp Jellyjam. Both camps relied on defiance of logic and widespread terrible parenting in order to exist. It’s a shame because this book had some really unique things going for it. Ghost Camp was almost great. I really wanted to like it more than I did.
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Observations & Spoilers
The book opens with Harry and Alex, two brothers on their way to summer camp at Camp Spirit Moon. Their parents had waited too long and all of the good summer camps were filled up. Alex is particularly disappointed in not going to musical theater camp. Alex has a beautiful singing voice, you see. So the bus drops them off in the middle of nowhere. They walk through the woods and find an empty camp. They start to get scared but a camp counselor named Chris appears and lets the boys know they are victims of a traditional camp prank. Everyone always hides when new campers arrive, because that’s normal. Next, they meet the guy in charge of the camp, Uncle Marv. He takes them to their cabin and drops vague hints about the camp’s tendency for weird pranks. He promises that all will be revealed at the campfire in a few hours. At this point, they have still not seen any other children. Definitely not a red flag or anything.
The boys notice weird pools of blue liquid on their cabin floor but head off to the campfire before figuring out what it is. Harry meets a girl named Lucy who shows him where to find the roasting sticks for hot dogs. When Harry’s hot dog falls into the fire, Lucy reaches in and grabs it without burning her hands. Uncle Marv starts some songs, and Harry uses the noise as cover to talk to Lucy. She begs him to help her. They are interrupted before she can elaborate. Uncle Marv then tells them two ghost stories. The first is of a group of campers doing an overnight in the woods. They hear thumping sounds and it turns out to be the heartbeat of a giant monster they are camping on top of. The second story is about a ghost camp, where a mysterious fog settles over the entire camp one night and turns everyone into ghosts. As he finishes the story, a fog descends over the campfire so thinks that Harry can’t see anyone but his brother. This scene probably would have haunted me if I had read it as a child. But I didn’t read it then, so now I’m haunted by different things.
It turns out to be another joke. All of the campers have just returned to their cabins. Hilarious prank. Also, there are still random piles of blue goo all over the floor. Harry thinks he sees his cabin mate Joey floating above his bed that night, but it turns out to be a false alarm after she makes a scene and turns on the lights. The next day while practicing tent setup, another bunkmate steps on a tent pole and Harry sees it go through his foot. But the boy just pulls it out and says it must have missed. They are straight-up gaslighting him now. He decides to cool off and go watch Alex try out for the camp musical. Alex is great, but their bunkmate Elvis has the worst singing voice Harry has ever heard. That night, during a soccer game, Harry and Alex compare notes about the weird shit they’ve been seeing. Harry sees a girl get hit in the head with a soccer ball and get decapitated. But when he goes to check on her, she’s fine. Alex confirms to Harry that he saw it, too. The boys are just about to the point of accepting that something at the camp is very fucked up. The next night, Lucy pulls Harry aside and spills the tea.
It turns out that Uncle Marv’s second ghost story was true. One night all of the campers at Camp Spirit Moon were turned into ghosts by a mysterious dark fog. She explains that the blue puddles he has been seeing are protoplasm, which is a byproduct of the ghosts making themselves visible. Now she wants Harry to help her escape by letting her possess his body. Harry manages to force her out of his mind and run back to the cabins. He finds his brother, who tells him that Elvis just tried to do the same thing to him. They decided to run away into the woods. They get pretty deep into the woods when they start to hear thumping. It’s the monster’s heart. The ground starts to shake. Harry has an idea; if they just repeat to themselves that none of this is real, it will disappear. This sounds enough like the American public response to climate change that I accept the logic.
The monster ends up eating boys, but then instead of getting digested then fall into the woods again. So I guess denialism worked? Before they can celebrate, they are surrounded by a bunch of campers and counselors. Uncle Marv calls the shots and says the boys need to be brought back to camps so they can be possessed. Harry and Alex think to give denialism another try, but Lucy explains that the monster was just a ghost prank and their trick won’t work again. But then the ghosts start fighting amongst themselves over who gets dibs on the fresh bodies. A massive ghost brawl ensues. Harry and Alex are able to slip away in the chaos. The boys run for the highway, and Alex starts humming a song. Harry suddenly realizes it sounds terrible. It’s almost like Elvis is singing. Harry calls it, and Elvis speaks out of Alex’s mouth, promising to never sing again if Harry keeps his secret. The end.
All I wanted from RL Stine here was the level of cultural detail he gave us in One Day at Horrorland and Beast from the East. This book had a few of them, but not enough to make this little ghost commune feel alive. I wanted them to have more rationale for their existence. Striking the sweet spot here is a balance of “less is more” and “the little details count.” It’s unfortunate that there was not a balance here. I was left with so many questions. If escaping was their goal, why did the ghosts wait and pretend there was even a camp? Just possess the boys and get the fuck out! If they are all ghosts, how did they order fresh hot dogs to cook at the fire? Also, how did Harry and Alez’s parents find the camp? Do the ghosts have an advertising budget? Tell me. I want to know. How are the ghosts recruiting human hosts so that they can escape the campgrounds? There’s a story there and that’s the one that I wanted!
I think the thing that bummed me out the most was the ghost fight at the end. It felt like a cheap cop-out that allowed the boys to escape. That and I saw the twist with Elvis coming from the moment Alex said he fought off the ghost’s attempts to take him over. The ending just left me wondering: is Alex in control, or does he now share his body with Elvis? I love a twist that leaves you with questions, but this one just laid bare the large questions that the book left unanswered. I felt like it cheapened all of the good things about the rest of the book. We had a genuinely creepy premise here. There was a lot of potential for something great. Something well within my expectations based on RL Stine’s best works. It’s unfortunate that we did not get that here. I was reminded of my childhood favorite Welcome to Dead House; we almost got to something great here but ultimately missed the mark.
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
The narrative for the two main characters was solid, but the reason for the ghost camp existing was half-baked at best. Fleshing that out would have made a big difference
This was really solid up until the end. The ghost fight that allowed Harry and Alex to escape felt like a cop-out. It cheapened what was an otherwise strong book.
I really enjoyed Harry and Alex. It was refreshing to see two siblings who get along. I know those aren’t common in my real-world experience, but I know they exist.
There were lots of good scares delivered. The setting and atmosphere were great. The ghost trying to take over the kid’s bodies was unsettling. I can’t deny it points here.
This was on the cusp of some original ideas, but they never panned out.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
There was no episode made of this one! This makes sense because it would have been very CGI-heavy.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #46: How to Kill a Monster
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #35: The Face