The ooze was loose! And we wanted to swim in it. Whether it was Nickelodeon slime, Monster Blood, or that troublingly viscous concoction Tom Rodak made during lunch by mashing everything on his cafeteria tray together, ooze held a special place in all of our hearts, especially mine. It seems odd looking back that ooze was such a cultural staple for eight-year-old me, but then again it represented exactly what the adults wanted to conceal. Ooze seeped. It lurked. It was freaking disgusting.
Gak attack! And the world, we were discovering, was full of it, this strange, suppurating, uncomfortable mass. If nothing else, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books testified to the ways in which such strangeness could, and all too often did, glomp into the lives of kids just like me. While I was a couple years younger than your average Goosebumps protagonist—for sure this was part of the appeal, since these books gave me entrance into the experiences of those older, cooler kids, the 7th graders—I could easily relate to their plights and missteps, stumbling into a forbidden attic or wandering through a no man’s land where they’re confronted by previously unimaginable horrors and then, by luck and pluck and the occasional deus ex machina, surviving to tell of it. Except nobody believes them.
“Monster Blood is real!” Evan blurted out angrily.
The kids laughed again.
Early in Monster Blood I, Evan Ross forlornly peruses his great aunt Kathryn’s bookshelves and thinks, “Nothing here for me to read,” a line that’s like an eyeball popping through the fourth wall to wink right at us. R.L. “Master of Fright” Stine’s books, with their creepy, cheesy covers, relatably hapless heroes, and aloof, at times petulant adults, were meant just for us. These fright fests came to dominate kid-dom in the mid ’90s, which is commendable given that, at the time, most of us would have said I don’t like to read. Goosebumps became a currency of coolness (“Are you brave enough to read this??”)—in the hallways of Terry A. Taylor Elementary, in the leaf-strewn backyards when we were supposed to be tending to chores, and on the school bus, the seats of which had lighter burners in them thanks to those older, cooler kids, no matter where we were we read voraciously. Even now I can trace those lighter scars with my fingertip before I turn the page.
While they weren’t as illicitly enticing as Mortal Kombat or Jurassic Park, these books offered the thrill of being “off limits,” of courting disapproval. I thought if the adults only knew what I was reading, if they could taste the Monster Blood too, then yeah–surely these terrifying tomes should be banned. I mean, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena!? This Middle Grade literature certainly was not safe or healthy. And can’t you hear Mrs. Ingersoll saying, “Why don’t you read something of merit”? The adults chided us for not choosing novels that were proper, didactic, and virtuous. But we can’t read Anne of Green Gables all of the time. And anyway, how else were we supposed to get exposed to the ooze? A couple parents, Elisabeth Haslett’s mom especially, railed against Goosebumps. It’s hard for me to recall the particulars but it definitely had something to do with the devil, the devil and his minion-helpers and how they wanted to infest our souls. Nobody worried that Anne of Green Gables was going to infest our souls—so you know Goosebumps were the books we bragged about reading, talking them up quantitatively the same way we counted ketchup packets during a cafeteria condiment-eating contest. “I’ve read twenty-four Goosebumps books! How many have you read?”
Not only did they make us feel a year or two older (and at that age a year was as long as a lifetime), they also confirmed our suspicions about adults. Adults, whether they were parents, teachers, or that lackluster relative (Uncle Steven), weren’t everything they were chalked up to be. When Evan’s mom leaves him stranded with his oddball great aunt (who, it turns out, is bewitched by her pet cat Sarabeth) or when Evan’s science teacher Mr. Murphy gives him an earful and says he’s too short to make the basketball team, well, that’s because adults (and adulthood) are a disappointment. Nobody ever tell this truth to nine-year-olds, nobody save for R.L. Stine. We were taught to trust adults (except for the undeniably creepy ones—like, umm, Ben Court’s stepdad). And we were told that adults were, when push came to shove and some gray-haired curmudgeon was chastising me for roughhousing with my twin sister, always right and kids were always wrong. Except this was never a question of being right or wrong or knowing the answers to the ten questions on Mr. Fitch’s long division quiz. It was about power. Adults had it. And we didn’t.
“The Monster Blood—it’s up over the top,” Evan cried.
“Shove it down,” Andy instructed.
Goosebumps affirmed this undeniable power imbalance. The real horror wasn’t the gargantuan hamster or villainous lawn gnome or abominable snowman. It was the realization of our own utter helplessness, of how little agency we, as kids, had. I’m reminded of Mary Karr’s quote:
Childhood is terrifying. A kid has no control. You’re three feet tall, flat broke, unemployed, and illiterate. Terror snaps you awake. You pay keen attention. People can just pick you up and move you and put you down.
Goosebumps keyed us into this reality. Even when we did find Monster Blood growing at an insane rate in our basement hang-outs, what did it matter if nobody took us seriously? I would have let Monster Blood devour the world just so I could have said to Mrs. Ingersoll, “Told you so!”
We passed these books around like unsigned Valentine’s Day cards—Goosebumps were the sacred texts of our elementary school samizdat.
Back in the day, I read R.L. Stine’s classic series out of order. I started with Monster Blood II for a very good reason: it had a hamster on its cover. That’d be Cuddles, Mr. Murphy’s classroom pet. Monster Blood II begins with a dream-within-a-dream (inner dream: Monster Blood is back!), followed by a simple dream (outer dream: Evan gets angry and chucks Cuddles out the window!), and it’s not until Chapter 3 that we’ve left Evan’s fuzzy, snoozy red head and actually get into the story of Monster Blood’s revenge. While this layered dreaming is a cheap story-telling trick, it also asserts that no matter how many times we “wake up,” no matter how assured we are that we’re finally in firm contact with “reality,” really we’re just deluding ourselves. We are always still dreaming.
Monster Blood, which, according to a recipe at the end of my copy of MBI, can be made by mixing together lime jello, grapefruit juice, and green food coloring, is first discovered in the backroom of a toy store. That backroom, the classic horror trope, where pernicious mystery is waiting for us, whispering our name. Don’t enter! the sign says. But who of us would heed such a warning? The backroom is a metaphorical space, the hidden zone in the adult world that was not intended for us and where we were not supposed to look—which meant it was the only place worth exploring. Anything that bore the parental stamp of approval was automatically not interesting. How could it be? Our time was better spent skirting the edges of the forbidden and the dangerous, wandering through the woods behind Greg Markant’s house and staying out thirty minutes too late, risking disapproval to rub our fingertips against whatever it was they wanted to deny us. Goosebumps confirmed what we already knew: something strange and slimy and green oozed just below the surface of our lives. We nicknamed it Monster Blood.
Now what? Evan wondered.
Now what’s going to happen?
Come back tomorrow for Part II of “And So Join Me In This Toast To Monster Blood” …. if you dare!