How I Got My Shrunken Head
© 1996 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
How I Got My Shrunken Head was a very middle-of-the-road and largely forgettable Goosebumps book. On the plus side, the plot moved quickly and we didn’t spin our wheels on endless fake scares for half of the book. The elements were there for a good adventure story, but too much of the plot relied on every adult being a complete idiot in some capacity. That’s not an exaggeration. Mark’s mother lets him go with a complete stranger to a jungle on the other side of the world. All of the other adults had very dubious-sounding jobs doing research in the jungle with no clear vocation. Sounds like a front for a drug smuggling operation to me. It all made for an excess of flat characters who behaved really strangely for no apparent reason. The fantasy aspects did give us some fun moments, but it was all too vague and half-baked to make any sense. Strangely enough, the TV adaptation of this is book is one of the best they made (see my bullet review below). This isn’t the first time a mediocre book made significant improvements when adapted. That’s probably because a lot of the issues in How I Got My Shrunken Head were very fixable. Had they been addressed in the editing process this could have been a much better book.
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ERMAHGERD #39: How I Got My Shrunken Head.
© 2023 by Daniel Stalter. All rights reserved.
Photo and editing by Daniel Stalter with assistance by Lindsay Pacelli.
Background photo by Jacek; Standard Adobe Stock License.
Observations & Spoilers
Mark Rowe loves the video game, Jungle King. So much so that most of his friends are sick of it. He even has a catchphrase he yells every time wins in the game: “Kah-Lee-Ah!” He doesn’t know where it came from, but that doesn’t stop him from using it constantly. His whole life changes one day when Carolyn shows up at his house. She claims to work for Mark’s Aunt Benna and she comes bearing a gift: an authentic shrunken head. Mark hasn’t seen his Aunt Benna in years, but he knows that she somehow makes a living exploring the jungles of Baladora. We will not question how adults make money in this book because we never get any clear information on this. Just know that it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with drugs.
Mark’s mother invites Carolyn to stay with them that night, and some traditional Goosebumps fake scares ensue. Mark also has a sister but she’s so insignificant to the story I’m just going to leave her out. But then he wakes up to find his shrunken head levitating with glowing eyes. No one believes him, but the next morning Carolyn informs Mark that his Aunt needs him to come to Baladora. Mark’s mother does not question this and sends her 12-year-old child to a jungle on the other side of the world with a complete stranger. I mean, would a Goosebumps book really be a Goosebumps book if it didn’t have at least one example of terrible parenting? This one takes the cake, but Abominable Snowman of Pasadena was a pretty damn close second. Maybe when I’m done reading all of these I will do a Buzzfeed-style ranking of the worst parents of Goosebumps.
Mark flies across the world with Carolyn. Once he’s at the edge of the jungle he meets Dr. Richard Hawlings and his daughter Kareen. Then they proceed to inform Mark that they lead him there under entirely false pretenses. His Aunt Benna did not send for him; she has in fact been missing for weeks. So Carolyn and Dr. Hawlings hatched a plan to bring Mark to the jungle because they believe he possesses the secrets of Jungle Magic. Mark has no idea what the fuck they are talking about, and his mother isn’t there to be gobsmacked at the bait and switch. Mark finds one of his Aunt’s journals that was conveniently left around. Gotta love convenient plotting. In the journal, Aunt Benna reveals that Dr. Hawlings and Carolyn are evil and want to use Jungle Magic to destroy the jungle or something. It was vague.
I’ll give you a second to recover from the shocking revelation that the adults who lied to a child in order to lure him to a jungle turned out to be bad guys. When Mark confronts Kareen about the journal, she feigns ignorance. She then helps Mark escape into the jungle to find his Aunt. He eventually falls asleep. Then he wakes up covered in red ants. As someone who has a recurring nightmare about my pillow being covered in spiders, I did not appreciate this. Mark screams his catchphrase “Kah-Lee-Ah” and the ants run away. And thus Mark learns the secret to activating Jungle Magic. He then goes on to get caught in quicksand and his shrunken head bails him out. He even uses the phrase to scare off a tiger, but he falls into a pit in the process.
Kareen comes along and helps Mark get out of the pit. The two of them finally find his Aunt. They are then ambushed by Dr. Hawlings and Carolyn. It turns out Kareen actually sucks and had been working with them all along. We find out that Aunt Benna had hidden the secret of Jungle Magic in Mark when he was only five years old. Then, seven years later, she ran and hid in the jungle to keep the magic she hid with her nephew away from her evil colleagues. Like, what was she accomplishing by hiding in the jungle? As I said, the adults in this book do a lot of shit with very unclear motivations. Maybe there was a love triangle on top of a drug smuggling operation gone wrong? We will never know for sure but that’s the cover story I’m going with.
Carolyn and Dr. Hawlings try to intimidate Mark and Aunt Benna into giving up the secrets of Jungle Magic. They’re threatening to shrink their heads when Aunt Benna attacks Dr. Hawlings and Mark scrambles for his magic shrunken head. He finds it in time and yells “Kah-Lee-Ah!” The magic ends up shrinking Dr. Hawlings, Carolyn, and Kareen. The three mice-sized people panic and run off into the jungle to presumably be eaten by something. Mark gives the Jungle Magic back to his aunt and returns home with his shrunken head. He’s excited to take it to school and tell all of his friends about his adventure. Then his shrunken head speaks to him and tells him not to leave out the bit about the tiger. The End.
My biggest issue with the book was, by far, the nonsensical adult characters. My second biggest issue was Jungle Magic. For something so central to the plot, it was incredibly vague. Aside from helping Mark get out of a few scrapes, it really wasn’t clear what the magic could do. I don’t expect complex magic systems in Goosebumps books, but this one was barely defined beyond having a name. Then it was used like duct tape to cover the holes in an already contrived plot. The makings of a good book existed in these pages, but I found myself almost preferring the batshit nonsense of the messiest Goosebumps books.
If you’re going to have characters with confusing motives, you might as well go all in and make those motives confusing as fuck. Let no logic penetrate their actions. Instead of a vague and kinda boring magic system, give me magic that has no rules and wild inconsistencies. Don’t give me evil doctors trying to steal magic. Give me a mechanical genius who works as a janitor and builds a bunch of robots so he can open a piano school that murders children and steals their hands. Give me a witch who enslaves an elderly deaf woman, and then curses a tub of slime to grow uncontrollably while disguising herself as a cat in order to get rid of the elderly woman’s nephew. Don’t be a snoozefest middle-of-the-road book when you can be a proudly defiant one-star rating.
That’s all I’ve got. Definitely wasn’t expecting this book to then turn into the best adaptation they’ve done for the show, but it was a pleasant surprise.
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
Kinda half-baked. Jungle magic was just too vague to really feel like a complete idea.
It was well-paced and didn’t waste a ton of time with fake scares. The ending was silly, but silly works in these books. Its biggest crime was that it was forgettable.
The main character was fine, but every adult in this was incredibly stupid with very confusing motives. It was an excess of flat characters who behaved really strangely for no apparent reason.
This had some good adventures and good scares. It could have done a lot more to raise the stakes if it gave the villains more plausible motives. It was just too silly to take any of it too seriously.
It was original among Goosebumps books, but not in comparison to other adventure-style books. It lacked the specifics needed to make it feel fresh.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• They eliminated the little sister, Jessica.
• They made some improvements to the reason for Mark flying out to Baladora on his own. I mean only kinda. I still don’t think a parent would let their 12-year-old child fly solo to the other side of the world. Not even sure if it’s legal.
• LOL at Elvis flying the plane. It was smart to introduce jungle magic earlier in the story.
• These dream sequences are ridiculous.
• Carolyn got upgraded to a doctor and now she’s married to Dr. Hawlings.
• Dr. Hawlings and Dr. Hawlings were perfectly cast. They also made them much smarter and more competent than in the book.
• Why does Kareen have an American accent when her parents are clearly British?
• The zombies made from jungle magic experimentation were a good touch.
• The adults in general come across as much smarter than in the book. That is a low bar because they were all idiots in the book.
• Damn I thought maybe Kareen was going to be good in this version but they actually made her worse… and gave her an awful haircut to boot.
• LOL at the flashback of Benna doing hypnosis in a kid’s birthday party hat.
• The CGI was better than most episodes… until they had Mark floating and doing backflips in the air.
• The twist at the end was a massive improvement over the one in the book. Seeing the Hawlings shrunk down in a fish tank was pretty funny.
• Overall this was one of the best adaptations I’ve seen
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #40: Night of the Living Dummy III
Also, be sure to check out the latest from the Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #27: The Wrong Number 2