Stay Out of the Basement
Posted by Tracy Poff on August 20, 2011
Margaret’s father is a botanist, and until recently, he worked at PolyTech in California. Margaret isn’t sure why, but he was fired, and now he spends all his time in the basement, working on his plants. Margaret’s friend Diane says he’s a mad scientist, but those only exist in movies… right?
The second book in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, Stay Out of the Basement has a bit of a science fiction feel to it. When Margaret Brewer and her brother Casey sneak down into the basement, they see plants everywhere, and a machine that looks like phone booth, with wires everywhere, attached to another similar device. As their father later explains, he’s been trying to integrate animal DNA into plants.
Does this device make anyone else think of The Fly? Any good scifi fan would know how dangerous this setup is. It’s a pity Dr. Brewer isn’t so well-informed. Margaret notices her father beginning to exhibit some unusual behavior, and when his baseball cap is knocked off, see that he has leaves growing out of his head. He claims that it’s harmless, merely a side effect of his work, but Margaret isn’t so sure.
In some ways, this is superior to Welcome to Dead House. There’s much more constant suspense in this book, and the scifi elements are fun. It might not occur to kids, but the book raises some interesting ethical questions, too. If we can create plants that are nearly indistinguishable from humans, including how they speak and act (except for some minor quirks, like eating plant food), then can we really just treat them as plants? Dr. Brewer thinks so, and destroys the semi-human plants apparently without any concern. I’m not so sure.
Like Welcome to Dead House, the protagonists in Stay Out of the Basement are a twelve year old girl and her eleven year old brother, although the story is told in the third person rather than the first person this time. It’s limited to Margaret, though, so I’ll call this one another children’s book with a female protagonist. I wonder how common this was in the Goosebumps series. The Girl Who Cried Monster also has a female protagonist, as, I think, do One Day at Horrorland and The Ghost Next Door. I’ll tally them up at the end of my review series.
Stay Out of the Basement spends quite a bit of time focusing on the characters’ emotions, which I think is fantastic. We see how Margaret’s mother is saddened by her husband’s recent inattention, how Casey is concerned about why their father would lose his job, and, more importantly, how Margaret comes to be frightened of her father, as the book progresses. At last, when her father is advancing on her with an axe, and she is desperately clinging to the hope that he’s not a monster, all this really pays off.
The resolution of that scene is a little facile, but it might have been seen as too much for kids, to leave them wondering if Margaret has killed her father. The final scene, with a small, yellow flower claiming that it is Margaret’s real father, and begging her to help it, is odd. I guess that maybe it’s supposed to be funny, but for me, it just raises the same ethical questions I mentioned before. If that flower really believes that it is Margaret’s father, then what a horrible fate it’s been condemned to. I think it’s safe to assume that the flower isn’t really her father, but as far as the poor flower is concerned, it’s (he’s) narrowly escaped being killed and having his corpse burned while his daughter watches. Much more horrifying than what was intended, I guess.
I think that, overall, Welcome to Dead House was the better book, but Stay Out of the Basement is a solid entry in the Goosebumps series. It’s also available on the Kindle, as Classic Goosebumps #22, so if you’re looking for a fun, quick read for kids, you might consider picking up a copy.