Goosebumps #1: Welcome to Dead House
I remember this being one of the scariest books in the series as a kid, and for the most part, I can see why. The book opens with Amanda and her family moving to a creepy old house in a new town, which is a real-life fear that I think most kids could relate to. Combine that with the abundance of trees everywhere that block out the sunlight and the strange behavior of their new friends, and you have some of the perfect elements for a good (if not wholly original) horror story. The ominous atmosphere that Stine carries throughout the book is probably the strongest feature. Amanda and her family were largely unremarkable characters, but their situation was bizarre and unpredictable enough that it kept things interesting. The use of the family dog in the plot provided both a sense of foreboding as well as some real emotional impact. The story would have benefited if it went into more detail on the culture and creepy rituals of the people in Dark Falls (beyond their tendency to form weird slow-walking circles around Amanda and her brother). It’s also not clear exactly what the people of Dark Falls are. Overall, the book accomplishes what it set out to do, and is deserving of its place as one of the better-rated books of the series.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Ermahgerd #1: Welcome to Dead House. Photo by Naomi Abney.
Observations & Spoilers
A distant Uncle of Mr. Benson, whom he didn’t know he had, dies and leaves him a big old house in his will. Somehow this is not suspicious and the family packs up to move there so they can sell their old house and Dad can pursue his dream of becoming an author. This is how Welcome to Dead House begins, and it establishes that Mr. and Mrs. Benson are fairly clueless parents.
Right away there are a lot of dead giveaways that something is off about this town. For starters, Petey the dog won’t stop barking at everyone they meet, which is very unlike him. I can’t say I blame them for not paying that too much mind. I’ve lived with dogs my whole life and their reasons for barking at things are rarely good ones.
I said before that Petey’s storyline is what brought this book to another level for me. He’s the one who first brings the kids to the all-important town cemetery. After the kind folks of Dark Falls ‘take care’ of Petey by turning him to one of them (still not all that clear on what that is), his response to seeing his family is to run away from them – almost as if he were ashamed. Not only was their dog made undead, in the end, had to leave him behind when they fled the town. It really helped give the story a much needed emotional angle.
Which brings me to the people of Dark Falls. I was never entirely clear on what they were. From what I gather they were some kind of zombie/vampire/ghost hybrids? Their condition was caused by a chemical explosion. They couldn’t go out in sunlight. Their eyes occasionally glow red. Some of them appear and disappear like ghosts. It was never really clear exactly what they consumed from their human visitors. Was it their flesh? Their blood? Their souls? I think the latter would have been the creepiest.
All of this is to say: the town and its people were creepy and weird. I would have loved some more depth to their rituals and culture. I know, it’s a kid’s book, and there likely wasn’t much time to show much more than he did. But a girl can dream.
Speaking of kid-appropriate, it’s as good a time as any to talk about the gore factor. The most shocking instance of this is probably when Josh melts their friend Ray with his halogen flashlight. The scene was described in pretty explicit detail and reminded me of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Only instead of melting nazi’s, it was a melting child in a cemetery. Kudos to Stine for respecting his audience and pulling no punches.
The story ends when Amanda and Josh knock over a huge tree in the cemetery and all of the town people present disintegrate. Yet somehow at the end Amanda thinks she sees Mr. Dawes showing their house to another unsuspecting family. I’m not sure how one recovers from disintegrating in sunlight, but I imagine it’s painful. Like the ending of almost every book in the series, Stine likes to keep the reader wondering: is it really over?
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, Welcome to Dead House is ranked 2nd best in the series, placing it at the top of the top tier. I rated it a 3.5.
A small town is turned into vampire zombies that crave human blood (or maybe flesh) after a chemical plant explosion changed them. There’s a lot there, but it would have been cooler if the town had developed their own sort of rituals beyond encircling their victims and pulling real estate scams to get new blood.
Things progressed nicely, from the typical “gotcha” chapter endings up until things started to get serious. Also, kudos to Stine for launching a children’s book series with a book that kills the family dog. This made for one of the darker (and gorier) books in the series.
Amanda and her brother are developed solidly enough, they just aren’t particularly interesting. Thankfully they are put through a series of interesting events. Had this been character-driven, this would have fallen short.
Scare Factor: 1/1
The overall creepiness is probably this book’s strongest point. I remember this one scaring me as a child and I can see why it did. Moving to a new town, a very real threat of death (and eternity stuck in a depressing creepy town), plus they not only killed the dog but his ghost was afraid of them after. Oh, and there was a child who melted with the beam of a halogen flashlight.
I like that they clearly weren’t zombies or vampires or ghosts, but this could have been so much stronger with a better definition of who they were as a town and culture. I realize that’s a level of detail you can’t necessarily expect from these books, but I think even a few more details here could have elevated the story and made it more unique.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• This series has not aged particularly well, and it was certainly made on a budget. The 90s was not the golden age of television that we are currently living in. I remember not caring for it as a kid either. I guess it didn’t live up to my high expectations set by the production quality of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? Anyway – it’s been fun to watch the episode adaptations after I read each book (you can too if you have Netflix).
• The acting wasn’t awful, but it also wasn’t great.
• Overall this one was disappointing given its strong source material and having 2 parts to tell the whole thing.
• The town really wasn’t that dark and gloomy, and neither was the exterior of the house. It could have been easily fixed with some color filtering or doing exteriors in more gloomy weather.
• The best element of the book – the creepy unsettling atmosphere – just wasn’t there.
• I liked the added bit of the ugly family heirloom protecting them from harm and throwing a wrench in the townspeople’s plans. I would say it’s the one major improvement the adaptation made on the original.
• They took one of the scariest and most impactful parts of the book (Petey’s death and having to leave him behind) and turned it into an awkward freeze-frame ending. I am thankful that freeze-frame endings are largely a thing of the past.
Don’t miss the next post in the Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #2 – Stay Out of the Basement
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #1: Party Summer