Hello, everyone! This is Ensis of dontreadbooks.com here to do a guest review on the esteemed Topper’s Books! For those of you who read my blog, you know it focuses mostly on the opening pages of a book and how well it hooks the reader. Our host, Topper has a more comprehensive method of reviewing, so today I wanted to do something a little different.
And so, without further ado, here is:
The Haunted Mask
By R.L. Stine
“A children’s book?” you ask, incredulously. “From 1993?” you continue. Stay with me, dear readers; I know many of you have read this book and many more from the series, but have you ever paused to really examine this little tale?
I, like many young adults, have a soft spot for YA literature and I recently picked up this old classic once again, surprised by how well it holds up. But perhaps a bit of background, first. The 1990’s gave rise to a big surge in children’s literature, and Goosebumps was arguably at the forefront of this wave, due in large part to the prolific writing habits of their author, R.L. Stine. Did I say prolific? I meant PROLIFIC. I mean, if books were babies, R.L. Stine would be an unwed teenage mother who was shagged by a tribble.
But he’s arguably best remembered for Goosebumps: a series of mostly unrelated novellas regarding light horror for children. Now any of you who read Goosebumps in the nineties will know that they weren’t all great. Many had deus-ex-machina endings, some had no endings, and some just seemed kind of thrown together. But of all of the Goosebumps novels, I think The Haunted Mask shines as Stine’s best. Exploring themes of identity and fear while touching on the real life perils of growing up, The Haunted Mask is probably as close to literature as Goosebumps gets.
(There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t read it—do so; it’s a quick read and available for a buck fifty at most secondhand bookstores.)
So firstly, the premise: We start with our main character, Carly Beth—a runty little girl who’s earned a reputation for being afraid of everything because her ‘friends’ at school continue to mercilessly scare the living daylights out of her. So, with Halloween approaching, Carly Beth hatches a plot to wear the worst, most foul and terrifying costume there ever was to get her revenge. At length she finds the eponymous mask, but (spoilers) upon putting it on, finds it changes her personality.
And she doesn’t like who she’s becoming.
While at first the Mask is everything she hoped it will be, she is soon shocked at her own behavior and feels she is no longer in control of herself. And every time she reaches to take off the mask it gets a little bit harder to remove, until finally she is unable to remove it at all.
Now Stine really shows off his knowledge of his audience in this one. Carly’s struggle mirrors that of many middle-schoolers in that she is having a crisis of identity and feels powerless to change.
In finding the mask Carly starts to break the rules of her own life (a developmental milestone for teenagers), and Stine initially presents it as wish fulfillment. She wants to be different? She gets to be different.
Essentially it is a plot of temptation; at first the wish fulfillment is great, but as Carly deals with the consequences her values gain definition. Yes, she wanted to be different, but not THIS different, and now she doesn’t know how to get her old life back.
An interesting thing to note is the conflict of the three Carly Beths in this work: Carly Beth as her mother and friends perceive her, Carly Beth as she perceives herself, and finally Carly Beth as she wishes she were, i.e., the monster. Watching them vie for position through Stine’s use of (albeit, not so subtle [but hey, it’s a kid’s book!]) symbolism is fascinating and a struggle with which we can all relate.
Ultimately, Mask takes a universal issue for kids and turns it into a cautionary tale about trying to be something you’re not and getting in over your head. One could draw all kinds of parallels from this be it gangs, drugs, or bullying. But that’s the great thing about literary fiction—it uses a lie to teach truth—and that’s why I think The Haunted Mask is the best Goosebumps book AND a work of literature.