Goosebumps #28: The Cuckoo Clock of Doom
The Cuckoo Clock of Doom holds the distinction of being one of the sillier Goosebumps books, and yet it pulls off one of the darkest endings in the series that I’ve read so far. I was reminded of Groundhogs Day at more than a few points throughout. Michael was a frustrating main character, but it was fun to watch him struggle as the book took him through an endless series of ridiculous events. Stine is rarely kind to his characters, and this was no exception. Michael’s predicament was relatable, but his lack of agency could be tedious at times. His sister Tara was capital-A awful. I was reminded of my one babysitter’s son from my own childhood. The kid was a straight-up terror, but he was a perfect angel in mom’s eyes and never got in trouble. I had a hard time believing that Michael’s parents could be that oblivious, but oblivious parents are the bread and butter of most Goosebumps books. The time travel mechanics made for some really funny scenes, but the mechanics of how it worked was very inconsistent. It’s something that could have easily been remedied. I was left with some genuine questions at the end. The Cuckoo Clock of Doom might not be the strongest or the most original book in the series, but it did manage to deliver a good balance of fun and scary.
ERMAHGERD #28: The Cuckoo Clock of Doom.
We actually have a real cuckoo clock. It looks nothing like the one on the cover. Photo by Daniel Stalter. Assisted by: Dierre Taylor.
Observations & Spoilers
Michael’s six-year-old sister is terrible. Tara ruined his twelfth birthday. She scratched his new bike, told Mona that he had a crush on her, opened up all of his presents, and then tripped him while he was carrying his cake. Tara gets in no trouble for any of this, which felt like a bit of a stretch. I could see parents letting some of this slide if she were much younger, but she was at an age where she clearly knew better. At the same time, I’ve known some pretty oblivious parents. This whole setup gave me flashbacks to my own childhood. I remember having to let my babysitter’s kid hit me. He was tiny and couldn’t hurt me, but I knew if I hit back I’d be the only one to get in trouble. He was mom’s little angel. Tara seems to fit that same mold in her parent’s eyes, much to Michael’s detriment. Tara shows a complete and total lack of empathy from the jump. She deserves a spot next to Jerry from Go Eat Worms as one of the budding sociopaths of the Goosebumps canon. She gave me Damian from The Omen vibes.
Things take a turn when Michael’s dad gets an old Cuckoo Clock. His dad had been wanting it for years but could never afford it. Then one day the antique store owner put it on sale because he noticed a flaw. Legend has it that the clock was made by a sorcerer and if you can figure out how to use it, you can travel back in time. Right away Tara gets in trouble for playing around with the clock, and Michael sees an opportunity to pay his sister back. He waits until midnight, then he takes the bird’s head and spins it around backward. He goes to bed smugly imagining Tara getting in trouble the next morning. But when he wakes up there is no clock. It’s his birthday all over again. He’s having a true Groundhogs Day moment. The worst part is that he can’t seem to stop Tara from ruining it all over again. She’s still just as terrible and he’s still just as helpless.
It all gets worse from here. Tara embarrasses Michael in front of his friends and gets him beat up at school all over again. This is where I feel Tara makes the jump from traditional sibling rivalry to something more disturbing. Every younger sibling (I speak from experience) likes to be a little shit to their older sibling from time to time. It’s natural. But going out of your way to get your older brother beat up at school… that’s a different level. Michael doesn’t have to worry for long, though, because he keeps slipping further and further back in time at utterly random intervals. It starts out as just a few days whenever he sleeps, then he starts jumping back years. I felt for him when he had to deal with his cowboy-themed second grad wardrobe. Having to deal with a middle-school sense of embarrassment while being forced to dress in your second-grade wardrobe has got to be rough.
Michael realizes that what he did to the cuckoo clock must have triggered something. He tries to get back to the antique store pretty early on. But as he gets younger he has less and less autonomy. The time he does get to the store, either his parents catch up to him or they’re closed for vacation. It isn’t until Michael is a toddler that he finally gets back within this store. His parents are arguing about a dining room table when he sees his opportunity and sneaks away. He has to climb up on some shit to reach it and knocks some shit over in the process. He possibly damages the clock in the process but he doesn’t care. He finally manages to turn the bird’s head back around and suddenly he’s back at his twelfth birthday. He’s so happy to be back that he doesn’t even mind that he’ll have to relive the horrible day. Or will he…
When Michael jokes about Tara ruining his bike, his parents ask him who Tara is. Michael runs and sees that her bedroom is no longer there. When he checks the clock, he notices the year 1988 is missing; the year Tara was born. As if that explains everything. The book ends with Michael saying that he’ll go back in time and get his sister someday… just not today. Easily one of the better, not to mention darker, twist endings in the series so far. And after meeting Tara, I can’t say I blame Michael. I do however have some serious questions about what the fuck actually happened. We can assume Michael damaged the clock by knocking the year 1988 off of it as a toddler, thus causing his sister to have never been born. What’s not clear is whether or not the year 1988 ever happened. Did the clock cause the world to just skip an entire year and not realize it? Did 1987 end with people celebrating New Years Day 1989? Was this plot written by South Park’s underwear gnomes?
I was also annoyed with how time seemed to go backward at incredibly random intervals. It was almost like it made its jumps based on what was convenient for the plot. This could have easily been fixed by having the book take place over a longer period of time and skipping over a few of the insignificant parts. I actually think Michael being stuck in this reverse time loop for longer would have been scarier and even more frustrating to him. I guess this was a clock made by a sorcerer, and no one said anything about him having to be logical. I mean, this is a time-traveling clock that can only go forward and backward in time over a 100-year period. You initiate the time-traveling process by twisting the head of a bird around backward, and if you aren’t careful you might erase yourself from existence. When you factor all of that in, I suppose the mechanics of how time travel works aren’t any less ridiculous. Sounds like it’s time for my favorite meme to use in these posts!
What saved The Cuckoo Clock of Doom was that the mechanics didn’t make or break the story. It was a book that was having fun with its premise, and I didn’t much care about how it worked. I mean, I did, but not to the point where I was annoyed and distracted. The clock as a device makes absolutely zero logical sense, but the things that happened around this chaos engine still worked. I bought the fact that Michael was trapped in something he didn’t understand. I was fine with the fact that that the clock was old and weird, and that no one really knew how or why it was made. I think the book would have been stronger with those things ironed out, but in the end, they were forgivable.
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 overall idea), Execution (the mechanics of storytelling), Character (the protagonists, antagonists, and villains), Scare Factor (from a childhood standpoint), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes). Based on GoodReads aggregate ratings, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom is ranked 28th of 62, placing it almost exactly in the middle of the series.
The concept was simple, and Stine set things up really nicely using the conflict between Michael and Tara as a catalyst. It made for a funny book with a dark ending, which is very much on-brand for the series.
The pacing was fine and we didn’t have a ton of tedious fake scares, so none of the normal issues. But I had issues with the mechanics. Why did it randomly go between jumping days and years? Also, why did the jumps only happen at night? There was a missed opportunity here to make this slightly more clever with the time travel element and I wish it had gone for it.
Michael was annoying and Tara was awful, but in a way that was relatable. Tara very well may have been a sociopath, and it was fun seeing Michael have to go through a series of misfortunate events. He was a complainer, which doesn’t always work, but it worked here.
Scare Factor: 1/2
This one was more fun and silly than it was scary. I suppose being in Michael’s situation would be scary were I to experience it, but I still found it more comical than scary. The ending on the other hand was one of the best and darkest in the series.
This is a tough call. On one hand, this felt familiar. Most time travel stories do. On the other, it never felt stale or overburdened by tropes. This had a “Groundhogs Day but with time travel” feel to it. I want to give it full credit, but my issues with the mechanics are holding me back.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• They managed to make Michael even more of a dweeb than in the book.
• There is not a single camera angle in the world that could have made this episode scary.
• Sometimes 90s haircuts hurt to look at. I probably wanted the same haircut.
• Tara is more terrifying than the clock.
• Tara the Terrible is… a terrible actor.
• The clock moves faster in this rendition. Nice homage to home alone.
• Nice hairpiece, dad. But it’s not as good as Michael’s cowboy pajamas.
• Why did anyone ever think clowns were not terrifying?
• Way to include a creepy pedo asking a random 6-year-old on the sidewalk. What was that for?
• The horrifying anticipation of watching a baby climb some stairs really had me on edge.
• Glad they kept the twist ending largely intact. You don’t mess with perfection.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #29: Monster Blood III
Coming in August 2021.
Also, be sure to check out the latest from the Pulp Horror blog series:
Lael Littke’s Prom Dress