Goosebumps #33: The Horror at Camp Jellyjam
The Horror at Camp Jellyjam contained all of the elements I crave in a Goosebumps book. It wasn’t afraid to go big and get weird. The book opens with Wendy and her brother Evan arriving at the camp when the trailer that they’re hiding in gets unhitched from their parent’s car and they crash in the woods. Part of me was wondering if the whole book was just Wendy’s ICU fever dream because they were not wearing seatbelts. Buddy the counselor was super-creepy, and the sports-based summer camp sounded like a never-ending gym class. That would have been literal hell for me as a child, so I deeply related to Wendy’s disillusionment as the story progressed. The twist at the end was batshit crazy in the best way. Unfortunately, the book fell short of making enough sense to place it in the upper echelon of Goosebumps classics like One Day at Horrorland and Welcome to Camp Nightmare. With a few edits to explain some of the plot holes, or perhaps a significantly longer page count, this book could have really worked. Despite its flaws, The Horror at Camp Jellyjam was fun to read and it leaned into its weirdness. It’s hard to stay mad at the messier parts when I was enjoying the ride.
ERMAHGERD #33: The Horror at Camp Jellyjam. Photo collaboration with Lindsay Pacelli
Observations & Spoilers
The Horror at Camp Jellyjam opens with Wendy and Elliot being extremely bored on their family’s cross-country camping trip. They beg their parents to let them ride in the camper which is trailer-hitched to the back of their car. Their parents give in and let them, which is insane but also believable. All I can think of is the lack of seatbelts because I have an innate fear of car crashes. So they’re riding in the back while their parents drive up some steep mountainous road when they suddenly start moving in the wrong direction. The kids realize that their camper has become unhitched and they are picking up speed rolling downhill. They crash land in the forest and somehow don’t die. That, or the book from here on out is just Wendy’s ICU fever dream.
Wendy and Elliot are startled when someone knocks on the trailer door. They open the door to find Buddy, the creepy-ass smiling guy from the front cover. Buddy heard the crash and came to investigate. Their parents are nowhere to be found, so Buddy invites them to come to join the other kids at their summer camp while they wait. This is where they learn about King Jellyjam’s Sports Camp. Elliot is excited; he and Wendy both wanted to go to summer camp instead of on their boring cross-country camping trip. This was their chance, at least until their parents showed up. Sports camp sounds like a special kind of hell to childhood me, who probably would have been chastised for reading or not caring about who won whatever sport we were playing. Add in the fact that the camp’s slogan is “only the best” and I would be writing many miserable letters home. It sounds like a never-ending gym class. This is the stuff horror movies are made out of.
Wendy and Elliot follow Buddy out of the woods to the camp. A little girl pops out of nowhere and gives Wendy a dire warning to stay away from the camp. The girl disappears before Wendy can ask any further questions, so she chooses to ignore the warning. She and Buddy are split into different cabins. Wendy meets her new bunkmates Dierdre, Ivy, and Jan. They then go swimming, and Wendy learns that they won’t be relaxing in the pool but competing. She lets Dierdre win but gets called out for it later by one of the councilors. This is a camp for WINNERS! There will be no communist participation trophies here, snowflake!
Wendy is happy for Dierdre winning her sixth King Coin, the crown prize for winning events. After you win six of them you get to walk in the Winner’s Walk. Wendy watches her brother win at ping pong and get his own first coin, but after that, she feels the ground start to shake. Buddy tells her it happens all the time and not to worry about it. Later that night Wendy watches Dierdre in the Winner’s Walk, then returns to her cabin with her bunkmates to celebrate Dierdre’s success. Only Dierdre never shows, so the girls go out looking for her. They find some councilors walking off into the woods before running into Alicia, the girl who tried to warn Wendy away from the camp. Alicia seems terrified but disappears while Wendy and her friends are distracted. They return to their bunk and find that Dierdre’s stuff is missing!
The next day, Wendy asks Buddy about Dierdre and Alicia, but he just tells her that both girls are gone. When Wendy decided to call home and leave a message on their home answering machine, she finds that none of the phones actually work. They just play a weird pre-recorded message. Buddy places Wendy on a schedule so she can hit her sports quota. She plays a girl in tennis but loses; the girl Rose wins her 6th King Coin and will be walking the Winner’s Walk that night. A boy named Jeff beats her brother Elliot and wins a sixth King Coin. Wending gets dragged to a softball game where she accidentally slugs Buddy in the chest with a metal bat. He doesn’t even seem to have felt it. Her team loses. And wouldn’t you know, the next morning she notices that both Rose and Jeff are missing after their winner’s walk. Wendy knows something is wrong and it’s time to get the fuck out.
Wendy can’t convince Elliot that they need to leave. He’s too close to winning his sixth coin and he has a race the next morning. Wendy sneaks out again that night and follows the councilors into the woods. They’re all going into some secret building. She follows them in and watches Buddy lead a chant and do some weird hypnosis on the other councilors. Shit is getting very culty. Wendy picks the perfect time to then sneeze and draw attention to herself. She sneaks into the basement to escape, which leads to a cave. Something smells absolutely terrible. That’s when she discovers where all the winners have gone. Do you have any guesses as to what has happened to them? Because I can tell you right now that you’re probably wrong. Because shit’s about to get really weird and exceptionally gross. And I am all about this turn of events.
Wendy spots Alicia and Jeff among a bunch of other kids. All of them are frantically working to hose down and mop-bathe a gigantic gelatinous purple creature wearing a huge gold crown. She spots Dierdre, who sneaks over and explains that the disgusting creature is King Jellyjam. It turns out that only the best are chosen to become his slaves. He needs slaves to clean him constantly because he can’t stand his own stink. His burps are the cause of the earthquakes. He eats the kids that don’t work hard enough. Also, he sweats snails because why the fuck not? Dierdre tells Wendy to run. She does. She gets out of the building and hides in some bushes. Then she falls asleep which honestly, who can blame her. What she just witnessed seems like a lot to process.
When Wendy wakes up, she finds Elliot and distracts him so that he loses his race. He’s pissed but she doesn’t care. She takes him to the building in the woods, down into the basement, and shows him King Jellyjam. Only this time, Wendy has a plan to take the monster. Wendy steps out and tells all the kids to lay flay on the ground. King Jellyjam attempts to grab his slaves, but his fingers are basically mush so he can’t get a grip on them. Wendy failed to take her own advice, so he grabs her instead. Thankfully he suffocates from his own stench before he can do any real harm because as soon as his slaves stopped bathing him it became too much to bear. He melts into a pile of purple goo. Wendy, Elliot, and the other freed children escape the building only to find themselves surrounded by hypnotized councilors. But then the police arrive before they can attack! Apparently, the awful smell had reached the nearby town and the police were sent to investigate. It had absolutely nothing to do with all the missing children who never came home because they got eaten at summer camp.
The councilor’s trance is suddenly broken when a police officer whistles (WEAK). Then Wendy and Elliot are reunited with their parents who were somehow not allowed on the summer campgrounds in spite of having missing children. Two weeks later, a reformed Buddy shows up at Wendy and Elliot’s house and gives Elliot his sixth King Coin. Right after he leaves the kids to smell something terrible and get scared, but it turned out that their mom was just making Brussel sprouts. And that’s it. The book is over. I’m always rooting for these books to take the weird and run with it, and on that front Camp Jellyjam delivered. But there were some missing pieces that would have made the book so much more cohesive.
There needed to be some sort of mechanism allowing the camp to exist, and it just didn’t exist. Horrorland was run by the Horrors, who were very entertained by scaring humans. Camp Nightmare was a military testing facility and was designed to be scary. Campy Jellyjam was a word cult built around some kind of alien slug that smelled terrible that left more questions than answers. How did King Jellyjam come to be and how had this cult formed around him? What kept Elliot and Wendy’s parents from bringing in the Feds on their really fucking weird missing children case? Why didn’t more parents question the fact that their star athletes never came back from summer camp due to their being enslaved or eaten? Unless this camp had been a normal camp at the start of the summer and something had gone horribly wrong, the camp’s name and customs seem to imply it has been around for longer than that. And what happened during the camp’s off-season?
I wanted the full alien slug cult experience. Maybe this was a normal summer camp one time, but some kids found an alien slug who grew stronger and took control. It could have been just earlier that summer. You’d have to get into how the alien managed to control the minds of the councilors. Maybe he had control over the town that depended on the camp for economic reasons. Maybe the councilors could have been aliens too. There were lots of possibilities here that all would have given this book the extra oomph that it needed. The fact that Wendy and Elliot were able to remain at the camp for days while their parents were somehow kept from campgrounds to look for them just doesn’t make sense. This is one of the few Goosebumps books that I wish had been longer. The ending felt rushed, and that’s frustrating because the book was so to being one of the greats.
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 Horror at Camp Jellyjam is ranked 43rd of 62, placing it in the middle-low tier of the series.
The concept here is really fun and weird. It’s what I want in a Goosebumps book. Its downfall was that it just didn’t go the extra mile to make a whole lot of sense. A few edits and it could get there.
The pacing and setup were actually done really well. Where things fell apart was the logistics of how a camp could be disappearing children en masse and not have been found out. It left way too many unanswered questions and probably would have needed to be a lot longer to address them effectively.
Wendy and Elliot were great leads. I liked how creepy Buddy was. My issue here is how the councilor’s spell was just broken at the end. I wanted to know their history. What broken lives they might be returning to? What did they do in the off-season? Buddy’s turnaround at the end did not feel earned.
Scare Factor: 2/2
A sports camp whose slogan is “only the best” sounds like a version of hell for me. I appreciated the slow build of things that were “wrong” about the camp, and the body horror bit at the end was fantastic. Scent can be a tough thing to use in a book, but Stine did so here in disgustingly good fashion.
Props where props are due. A summer camp whose sole purpose is to make children into slaves who work around the clock mop-bathing a giant slug that sweats snails. It might not hold up logistically, but this one leaned into the weird and I will never complain when Stine does that.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #34: Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes
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Richie Tankersley Cusick’s April Fools