How to Kill a Monster
© 1996 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
How to Kill a Monster was a bit of a mess, so let me start with what I liked. I liked that the titular Monster showed up early and was particularly grotesque. I also thought Gretchen and Clark were solid characters, not to mention I believe they’re the first step siblings to appear in the Goosebumps franchise. It’s too bad they were stuck in a terrible plot. The entire second half of the book revolves around some very illogical and negligent choices made by Gretchen and Clark’s grandparents. I was hoping for something that might redeem them or explain away their terrible decisions in the end, but RL Stine did not spare me from the cold, hard truth of their stupidity. I think a revised draft of the book could have found plenty of more creative ways to entrap the kids rather than relying on parental negligence that bordered on cruelty. Or maybe that was the entire point? Maybe the master of children’s horror was just trying to instill a deeper fear in his young readers by revealing that the adults in their lives often have no idea what the fuck they are doing. It’s a palatable existential crisis for a YA audience that hasn’t had its dreams crushed yet. No one is going to save you because everyone is incompetent. Get out, save yourselves, and never look back. As evidenced by the dark turn this spoiler-free review has taken, it is safe to say that How to Kill a Monster was a weird one. Unfortunately, I do not mean that in a good way.
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ERMAHGERD #46: How to Kill a Monster.
© 2023 by Daniel Stalter. All rights reserved.
Photo by Daniel Stalter. Photo collaboration with Dierre Taylor.
Observations & Spoilers
Gretchen and Clark are dragged to their grandparent’s house in the middle of a swamp somewhere in Georgia so their parents can go on an emergency work trip. They are step-siblings, and they haven’t seen these grandparents in years. Mostly because Grandma and Grandpa are reclusive hermits who live in a swamp castle without a phone, but also because the kinda-sorta smell weird. Grandpa can’t hear anything very well so they have to shout a lot, and Grandma bakes an obscene amount of food that seems intended for way more than four people. The kids are given free rein in the house, however. They are only forbidden from going into one specific room on the top floor. Obviously, they don’t listen, because they’re kids and a locked forbidden room is basically Checkov’s gun. They’re not exactly going to ignore it. I will say in Gretchen’s defense, she only went in the room because she heard noises and thought Clark was already hiding inside. She made a mistake.
The monster is particularly grotesque, which I really appreciated. It felt unique. He had bugs crawling around on his yellow teeth, had worms living in his eyes, and smelled absolutely terrible. The kids run. Clark blames Gretchen for opening the door. Their dog tries to make a ferocious stand but he’s also too scared to be helpful so they just stick him in the bathroom and hope the monster ignores him. They eventually escape downstairs just in time to see their grandparents driving away in the only car they have. They drive to give chase, but quickly find out all of the doors are locked. Now they are trapped inside with a monster rampaging through the upper floors, but thankfully Grandma and Grandpa left them two notes. That should explain everything.
The first note explains that the monster had just shown up from the swamp a few days earlier, and somehow they managed to trap it in that room. Ever since then, they were stuck frantically baking him food to keep him happy. They were too excited to see their grandkids to tell them not to come, so they mentioned none of this to Gretchen and Clark’s parents. Now they have suddenly decided now is the time to go get help from town. They locked the kids in because the swamp wasn’t safe. I suppose in their world fires also never happen. Also, they decided to leave the kids by themselves with the monster and lock them inside instead of just talking to them. There’s a metaphor in there that I don’t think Stine was trying to make about the lengths people will go to avoid honest conversations. Regardless, the leaps in logic these grandparents make are truly baffling. They are currently the top contenders for my long ongoing list of worst Goosebumps parents.
They don’t read the second note because that would spoil the twist at the end. Gretchen and Clark do manage to trick the monster into falling down a fake stairwell, but they hear him groaning and realise pretty quickly that their plan didn’t work. Then they find rat poison and fill one of Grandma’s pies with it. They then hide in the pantry and leave it out in the open. The monster eats it and collapses. They think they have killed him until he wakes back up. There’s an altercation and the Monster ends up licking Gretchen’s arm. He then exclaims, in English because he has apparently been able to speak this whole time, that he is “allergic to humans.” He then promptly dies because, at this point, why not?
The kids escape with their dog into the swamp and finally remember to read the second note. It’s dark and they can’t find the road but they can read the note. It tells them if they do decide to leave they should stick to the road because there are more monsters like this one in the swamp. Monster groans ensue and thus the ending is reached. I genuinely hope they escaped, that all of the monsters were allergic to humans, and, most importantly, that they found a way to get revenge on their grandparents. We will never know for sure because there is no sequel, but I still hold out hope.
There’s a part of me that loves the fact that the grandparents make such terrible decisions that their grandchildren are forced to reckon with. Could it be a metaphor for how past generations have left our world with a climate crisis that our current generations are failing to adequately address? No. Am I just searching for deeper meaning in a Goosebumps book that was written in a matter of days in order to meet a tough deadline? Obviously. But this one just left me in such a weird headspace. People make terrible decisions all of the time. It’s the root of most good stories. But Gretchen and Clark’s grandparents crossed a line here into the sort of criminal negligence that might cause one to lose their faith in humanity.
With that existential crisis averted, or perhaps it’s just ongoing and eternal, I’m going to close this one out.
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
There wasn’t much of a concept aside from there being a monster in the house and grandparents stupid enough to lock their grandchildren inside with it. There was an opportunity for better reasoning that might have made this a much stronger read.
The pacing was good, and I like that we got to the monster early on. But the entire second half of the book relies on the grandparents locking the children in the house with a monster for terrifyingly stupid reasons.
Tempted to rate this zero because of how awful the grandparents were, but Gretchen and Clark were solid lead characters stuck in a shitty plot.
It had some solid scares with the monster. The scariest part was the neglect and sheer stupidity of the grandparents. Kids would love to assume that the adults taking care of them know what they are doing. This book is an example of when they are not.
I appreciated the change in format, it just really needed a better means of entrapment and some deeper mythos.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• Gretchen and Clark being recent step-siblings was a nice touch, with Mom and Dad away on a honeymoon. They also got rid of the dog, which makes sense. He didn’t add much.
• Less of a swamp castle like in the book, and more of the run-down shack you might expect in a swamp.
• Grandma makes gumbo instead of baking pies.
• The acting was actually pretty solid. Much better than the last episode I watched.
• I really liked the grandparents lying about the room that they didn’t want the kids to go in.
• “All I want to do is get out of here and back to the city where monsters are human.” –Clark
• They kept the grandparents locking them in. They didn’t even bother to explain the reasoning.
• No rat poison pie in this version, just an extra spicey gumbo. I enjoyed the cooking montage.
• The monster exploded in green slime. How very 90s. At least he didn’t randomly speak English.
• It went from day to night with the quickness.
• They made the grandparents seem less like hapless idiots in this but not by much.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #47: Legend of the Lost Legend
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Pulp Horror blog series:
Christopher Pike’s Witch