Judging a book by its cover:
If I was going to guess the plot of the book by looking at the cover I could only assume it was about Thing from The Addams Family finding his long lost brother and them becoming world renown pianists. Also assassins. Pianist assassins. Wait, no, that makes them sound like they kill pianists...
Regardless, on the cover we have disembodied hands tickling the ivories. The tagline reads "Play it again, hands!" I assume this is a reference to "Play it again, Sam" from the movie Casablanca. This is great for two reasons. 1) They never actually said it in Casablanca. It's one of the world's most popular misquotes. This makes it so you can't get sued, brilliant! 2) Kids just LOVE Casablanca. I'm sure all of them get the reference perfectly and chuckled heartily.
Anyway lets move on. I am predicting either there will be a haunted piano or a scary piano teacher. Possibly both. Will that be what happens? Lets check it out!
This book's star tween character is Jerry who is just moving into a new house with his parents. He starts things out by scaring them into believing some dust balls were really mice. It seems like every Goosebumps book has to have a character that loves scaring or playing tricks. I guess it's a really simple way to make sure people don't believe it when something genuinely scary happens... as if you need a reason not to believe super natural things are happening.
More certainly intricate to the plot is the piano Jerry and his dad discover in the attic. It's a good quality piano which makes it a mystery as to why it got left behind. The first night in the new house Jerry hears sad piano music from the attic but when he goes upstairs no one is there. He plonks a few keys himself, waking up his dad who then suggests piano lessons. Jerry thinks it might be cool. He could get some synthesizers, and maybe compose music and make it big with a rock band. Jerry thinks big, and that is actually some pretty good character description that makes him feel slightly different than all the other generic Goosebumps stars. I'll take what I can get.
The potential villain of this book is Dr. Shreek, Jerry's piano teacher. He was the only one advertising piano lessons in the news paper which is as solid of credentials as anyone needs. Despite having a "spooky" name, his looks are likened to that of jolly old Santa Claus. At first they just have a short lesson so he can meet Jerry. He compliments his hands, which is slightly weird but hey, he's a pianist!
The next lesson doesn't go as well. Dr. Shreek keeps going on and on about Jerry's hands. They are alive! Each finger is alive! Move them faster! He keeps playing the same song faster and faster, his hands going out of control. It, of course, is a dream.
Nightmares aside, Jerry also has to deal with the spooky piano music at night. On night he goes down there to check it out and is tackled by Bonkers the cat which wakes up and pisses off his parents. The next time he investigates he sees the ghost of a woman who tells him to stay away from her piano. His parents think that perhaps instead he should stay near a psychiatrist.
Back at school Mr. Toggle shows Jerry a bunch of his inventions. He has stuff like big robots, surveillance monitors, and interesting musical instruments powered by air compression. Also, there is a desk drawer murmuring help me. Never to worry though, he's got Toggle's assurance it's just some damaged equipment.
To further the schools reputation, later Jerry runs into a girl from school who shares lots of stories about Shreek's school. Apparently there are bizarre monsters in the basement. On top of that, there are kids who have gone there and never returned. You'd think someone would report them to the Better Business Bureau.
Another night of piano music has Jerry freaking out and needing to investigate one more time. The ghost reveals bloody arm stumps and tells him the stories about the school are true. His parents find him absolutely freaking out, screaming at the top of his lungs. He tells them he wants nothing to do with the piano. This is ok with them he just has to have his one very last lesson because ya know, they already paid for it. This is what we call good parenting. If your kid is freaking out about pianos to the extent that he screams bloody murder about them in the night and needs professional therapy about them, hey why not send him to one last lesson?
When Jerry lets Dr. Shreek know its his last lesson, the good doctor flips his shit. He asserts that he needs Jerry's hands, and chases him around the school. Eventually they end up in the auditorium where thunderous piano playing can be heard. Pianos are all over each with an instructor and a pair of disembodied hands playing. Finally Mr. Toggle comes in and saves the day by deactivating Dr. Shreek. Yes, Dr. Shreek is a robot, and the whole school is filled with Toggles creations. There is only 1 problem. Mr. Toggle can't make hands. He can however cut off kids' hands and use computers to control them. All this hand harvesting is for 1 purpose. Good music. The only thing wrong with piano music is human error. Why he doesn't just have a computer generate music instead going to the trouble of hand stealing? Who knows.
Anyway, guess who shows up to save the day. Go on, guess. THE GHOST. Ghost lady shows up stumps and all and summons all the other piano person ghosts. They take their hands back and carry Mr. Toggle off. He's never seen or heard from again. The end.
What I thought:
First thoughts, "well that's odd." I guess that's probably the reaction he was going for. These books are supposed to be odd, but still... It seems like a genius that can build a legion of intelligent robots would have loftier goals than harvesting human hands. Where does he get his funding anyway? It can't be from piano lessons because they only seem to have a couple before the harvest takes place. For that matter, why is no one investigating all the missing children? This novel is pretty dark when you think about it. Mr. Toggle has murdered dozens, perhaps hundreds of people and reanimated their hands. What is he doing with the corpses? Why is a children's book making me ask these questions?
So I always do this, I read til the end and then just want to talk about the end when it's over. Lets discuss some other things, like Jerry. There is some good characterization to Jerry. He always likes to think big. When they move into the house he imagines each room in the perfect state as he sees it. Big tvs, work out equipment, whatever it takes. When he started piano lessons he immediately starts imaging himself in a grander and grander state like starting a band, composing music, being a rock god. This trait is unlike Goosebump characters I remember so far and makes him unique. It is also a pretty accurate depiction of a kid. I think a lot of kids think this way. In fact one thing Stine does well is pander to kids. The plot of moving to a new house is something a whole lot of kids can relate to. Something spooky about the new place is something kids can probably relate to as well. A robot piano teacher that wants to cut off your hands is something kids can probably relate to too, right?
Of course there are a lot of things about Jerry that aren't unique. He is 12. Pretty much every character is 11, 12, or 13. I suppose that makes sense as it is kind of the age his readers are. Probably even slightly older which is wise. Kids like reading about people they can relate to but look up to. Also in the not unique column is Jerry's love of the practical joke. It seems like in every book there is one jokester who scares people for kicks. It's an over-used device that is used to conjure up false scares. It also makes it so there is a reason for people not to believe them. Ya know, because it's hard to find a reason not to believe in piano ghosts.
I was kind of surprised at how I remembered exactly 0% of this book. Usually as I'm reading things that happen later on in the book start coming back to me. Not in this book. I can predict what happens based on my knowledge of Goosebumps but actual memories are sparse. I suppose this isn't the most memorable book in the series though. Overall, it's an acceptable but forgettable Goosebumps book.
My rating: 2 1/2 hands out of 5
The Werewolf of Fever Swamp is next up on the list. I am actually pretty interested to see RL Stine's take on werewolves. I know there are at least a couple werewolf books and this is his first. Will there be full moons and silver bullets? Check back next time, same Goosebump's time, same Goosebumps channel.