Piano Lessons Can Be Murder
© 1993 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
This one was really uneven. The scenes with the ghost and the piano playing itself were genuinely creepy. The first two-thirds of the book told a subtle, atmospheric horror story. Then in the last thirty pages, the book skyrocketed into WTF territory. I was reminded of Monster Blood, which had a similar problem of combining two ideas that didn’t really fit. Both books also have villains that defy all kinds of logic. The ending felt less like a plot twist and more like a fever dream. On the plus side, having a villain who makes some truly baffling life choices does go a long way toward making this book more memorable. I also think this could be considered Goosebumps’ first serial killer story depending on how much you read into certain parts of it. Overall, it was messy but it gave me a lot to write about.
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Ermahgerd #13: Piano Lessons Can Be Murder.
© 2019 by Daniel Stalter. All rights reserved.
Photo by Daniel Stalter.
Observations & Spoilers
Jerry finds a beautiful piano in the attic of his family’s new house. The first two-thirds of the book features several creepy sequences where Jerry hears the old piano playing the same sad song every night. His parents never hear it (obviously). This eventually culminates in him catching the ghost in action; it’s a young woman with missing hands who warns him to stay away. Stay away from what is not exactly clear, but Jerry soon finds out when he starts taking piano lessons.
If you think you know where this is going, I can assure you that you are wrong. Jerry starts taking lessons at Shriek School, where the creepy Dr. Shriek seems obsessed with Jerry’s perfect hands. Jerry also makes friends with the school’s janitor, Mr. Toggle. Mr. Toggle likes building robots. According to Dr. Shriek, he’s some kind of mechanical genius. A mechanical genius working as a janitor at a piano school should be a red flag; he’s either got a serious criminal record or something nefarious to hide. During his third lesson, Jerry gets freaked out by Dr. Shriek and tries to run away. He quickly gets lost in the school’s mess of hallways and stumbles into the concert hall. Then shit gets really weird.
Inside the piano hall, Jerry finds a room full of pianos all being played simultaneously by severed floating hands. It then turns out that Dr. Shriek is just a robot built by Mr. Toggle. Dr. Shriek’s purpose is to spot perfect hands like Jerry’s. That’s because Mr. Toggle can’t build perfect robot hands for his collection so he needs to steal them from real people. Then the ghost from Jerry’s house shows up and turns the tables on Mr. Toggle by joining forces with the severed hands. The ghost and the severed hands then carry Mr. Toggle away, and he’s never seen or heard from again. And that’s basically how it ends.
Mr. Toggle reminded me of the villainess Sarabeth in Monster Blood, namely in that their logic and motives are utterly baffling. To summarize this plot badly: a mechanical genius who works as a janitor builds a bunch of robots so he can open a piano school that murders children and steals their hands. I mean, at least we can say that Mr. Toggle knew what he wanted and he went for it. But if we’re asking WHY he wanted to kill people, steal their hands, and make them all endlessly play the piano AT THE SAME TIME… I don’t think there’s an answer to that. The heart wants what the heart wants. And in this case, the heart wants hands.
The book ends with Jerry and his family selling the piano and him taking up baseball. There is never any mention of his return to therapy after surviving a close call with a robot-building serial killer. Jerry doesn’t seem to dwell on the fact that he was saved from the ordeal by a ghost and a bunch of autonomous free-floating robot ghost hands. If I’m not mistaken, I think Piano Lessons is the first instance of a serial killer in a Goosebumps book. That’s a pretty remarkable first, and yet it’s treated like no big deal. There was just a bunch of murder, severed limbs, and a seriously unhinged murderer who almost claimed another victim. There’s nothing to see here. It’s time to move on and take up baseball.
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
This was a mess. I would compare it to Monster Blood in that it never seemed to figure out what kind of story it was. It was a creepy piano-playing ghost story turned mad scientist serial killer who builds robots and steals children’s hand’s story.
On one hand, there was a slow creepy build-up with the piano-playing ghost, Then there was the clunky introduction of the piano school that just seemed too disconnected with the ghost part to really make any sense. It seemed like it was going somewhere interesting, then ran out of time and phoned it in.
I’m giving one point here because Jerry and his family were solid enough characters, and I low-key enjoyed how batshit Mr. Toggle turned out to be. I love a good logic-defying villain.
Scare Factor: 1/2
The ominous piano playing by itself in a big old house had a genuinely creepy atmospheric thing going for it. But the robots at the Shriek School were just too out of left field to be taken seriously.
I mean, it doesn’t make any sense or fit together coherently, but I suppose it’s fairly original.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• They certainly made Jerry a lot more annoying for this.
• The episode didn’t accomplish the creepy atmospheric horror of the book, but it had to move a lot quicker to tell the story in a half-hour time slot.
• They cast a black actor to play Jerry’s neighbor, Kim. It’s too bad she didn’t get more screen time. The show seems to consistently cast people of color as friend but never the protagonist.
• I remember when this episode aired. I must have been in fourth grade. My friends and I all thought the ghost looked just like the orchestra teacher at our school. The same teacher even told me that I had the “perfect hands” for playing the cello.
• Having the ghost be Mr. Toggle’s piano teacher was a huge improvement in connecting the ghost to the robot piano school.
• The piano teacher’s ghost also gave Mr. Toggle a more logical motive. That being said, more logical than the book isn’t really saying much.
• The show still never specified how many hands were stolen off of living human beings. They don’t even touch on the potential serial killer aspect.
• The ending was more satisfying, too. I liked the touch of Mr. Toggle being forced by his ghost piano teacher to endlessly practice as punishment.
Don’t miss the next blog in the Goosebumps series:
Goosebumps #14: The Werewolf of Fever Swamp
Also, be sure to check out the latest from the Pulp Horror companion blog series:
Christopher Pike’s Monster