The Barking Ghost
© 1995 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.
I had heard The Barking Ghost was one of R.L. Stine’s least favorite Goosebumps books, and I can see why. The first act of the story showed a lot of potential and was setting things up nicely. So much so that I was beginning to think that the book’s reputation was misplaced. I was wrong. There was a fun concept hidden, but it was buried beneath a half-baked plot that descended into sheer stupidity by the end. I understand that some kids do find dogs scary. I think those kids were the target audience of this particular book. I was never one of those kids. In fact, I think I wanted to be a dog when I was in third grade. So this whole concept wasn’t exactly scary for me at any age. In many ways, The Barking Ghost was a culmination of some of Stine’s worst tendencies in this series. Too much time was spent on fake scares and not enough time was given to developing the villains or their predicament. This is one of the few instances where the TV adaptation made significant improvements to the book. Which is to say the book really could have been good with a few significant edits. It’s a shame when a good idea suffers in order to meet a deadline. Everything in The Barking Ghost, Stine has done before and he’s done it better.
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Observations & Spoilers
Cooper has just moved to Maine with his family. He’s used to the city and now he lives out in the woods with no one else around for miles. He’s scared of everything. His older brother Micky makes matters worse by terrorizing him relentlessly. On his first night there he hears dogs barking. The next day he meets his neighbor Fergie in the woods. She warns him that he and his family need to move away immediately. She then runs away. Cooper tries to give chase but loses her. He comes across two scary-looking black labs instead. They chase him through the woods until he gets back home. His parents predictably don’t believe his story and never hear the dogs barking at night.
Fergie stops by the house and apologizes to Cooper. Turns out his brother Micky had put her up to it in order to scare him. Cooper forgives her and tells her about the dogs. She believes him. The two start making plans to get Micky back. Cooper sees the dogs again; they steal food from the kitchen and then run through the walls to escape. Fergie ends up staying over for a few days while her parents are out of town, and their plan to scare Micky goes horribly wrong. Micky had anticipated their every move. Later that night (or maybe it was a different night, I don’t care) they hear the barking again and go to investigate. They see the dogs and realize that the dogs want them to follow. They follow the dogs into the woods where they find a creepy abandoned hut. I was with Cooper and Fergie on following the dogs up until this point. This is where you go get an adult.
The dogs end up knocking the kids into the hut, which has no floor. Fergie and Cooper fall into the dark until they hit a dirt floor. They hear human voices coming from the shadows. It turns out that our two ghost dogs were humans once, but a curse was placed on them 200 years ago. That’s literally all we get of their backstory. They see Fergie and Cooper as their chance to be human again. When the kids emerge from the hut in the morning, they realize that they are now ghost dogs. They go to Cooper’s house and find themselves playing frisbee peacefully with Cooper’s parents. They try to approach but all they can do is bark. The parents chase them away, and the 200-year-old cursed dudes who had been ghost dogs longer than they’d been human continue to pass perfectly as present-day pre-teens. They definitely wouldn’t talk weirdly or have strange gaps in knowledge. It sounds totes legit.
Cooper and Fergie make several more poorly thought-out attempts to get their bodies back. They also manage to actually scare Micky for once, which is satisfying but hardly a priority. I’m not going to go into too many details here because this whole third act was a tedious mess. Fergie and Cooper finally manage to pull their parents to the changing hut while in dog form. The imposters who inhabited their bodies went along and got knocked back into the hut. How did this all work logistically? That’s none of your concern! We’re not dealing with a probable situation here, so probable means should not be expected! What I mean is: that they pulled their parents by biting their arms and pulling them into the woods. Seriously. This is the plotting equivalent of a shrug.
Cooper and Fergie emerge from the hut as chipmunks, who must have also slipped inside. It’s not entirely clear whether or not there are now chipmunks also inside their original bodies, or if it’s the former ghost dogs who got away with it all. But Cooper decides they should start looking for acorns because he’s hungry. That’s how it ends. I was reminded of Be Careful What You Wish For… where the ending just felt cruel and undeserved. This whole book read like a first draft that never got proofread, let alone had any revisions made. And I suppose that’s what you get when you’re writing several books a month like Stine was at this point in the Goosebumps heyday. I think the biggest frustration here is that it had some fun elements and ideas, but the plot felt like it was just going through the motions.
I know I read this as a kid but I don’t remember what my thoughts on it were. I just knew I liked dogs and I liked Goosebumps, so reading this was an obvious choice. Anyone who is familiar with labradors will tell you that they are very rare dogs to be scared of. My chocolate lab Tucker weighed 80 lbs and looked like a bear, but a mean miniature dachshund would put his tail between his legs. I can’t tell if the choice of making the ghost dogs labs was deliberate for this reason or if it was just because they are big. If it was the latter, I can think of several large breeds that have a more intimidating demeanor. If Stine was going for the comedic effect of a docile breed being seen as scary, I wish he had made them miniature poodles instead. That strikes me as a far worse curse to be stuck in for 200 years. Basically, I wish the book had committed to being much funnier or much scarier. Instead, it missed the mark on both.
The Goosebumps books were at the height of their fame when The Barking Ghost came out. I am definitely seeing the quality of the books suffers. I’m hoping that things pick back up. If GoodReads rankings are anything to go by, and I’m not convinced that they are, I’m reading my way through a fairly mediocre-to-bad stretch of books. I’m hoping a few of those are wrong.
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 was a fun concept here, but it was half-baked and didn’t make much sense. It was a missed opportunity.
The book was kinda going ok until the third act and then it just got stupid. There was a way that this story could have worked but that’s not what happened.
The characters were fine, bordering on annoying. Cooper and Fergie were really bad at planning things, but I can give the kids a pass. The dogs, or whoever they were before they got cursed, had almost no definition whatsoever.
Being stuck as a ghost dog is kinda scary, but it’s certainly not as shitty as getting stuck inside a chipmunk. There was a creepy element to this with the changing shed and some body horror, it just got lost in the fumbled plot.
Stine has done the same type of story and he’s done it better. It had the right elements but the execution was unimaginative and predictable.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• One of the rare episodes that is actually better than the book.
• Huge improvement right up front by introducing the two men before they got turned into dogs. Kudos to making them dumb pirates at that.
• So did the dogs get stuck as the dumb pirates? That really sucks for them They didn’t do anything to deserve that.
• Good casting. Cooper was a believable nervous nelly. Fergie had SUPER intense eyes.
• Micky was that shitty older brother who is probably closeted and desperate to prove himself.
• They did a good job eliminating the fake scares and getting to the interesting parts.
• The way the dogs got Fergie and Cooper into the changing tree was much better thought out than in the book.
• They improved the scene with the pirates trying to act like normal kids. It was better than any scene in the book. I wish more time could have been spent with it.
• I also thought the ending with the brother was a big improvement on the ending of the book. It felt less like punching down. He was a dick so it came off as funny.
• I appreciate that this took a weak book and made a strong episode out of it.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #33: The Horror at Camp Jellyjam
Also, be sure to check out the latest from the Pulp Horror blog series:
Sinclair Smith’s Dream Date