"Please, call me Johnny; Mr. Paradise Press Editor was my father. Anyway, I have a suggestion for your next big book, Spenser."
"I'm all ears, sir!"
"Great. Remember that crazy masterpiece, Creepy Clothes?"
"Well, it was perfect! We need even more of those!"
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea, sir. I wasn't exactly sober when I wrote that, and I did get in a bit of trouble for such adult themes..."
"Perfect, I love it! The ratings were through the roof, and-"
"Through the roof! So write a dark book on pain and torture and human nature, add some sexual themes, and voilá! The perfect book."
"It's so crazy, it just might work!"
When I read, I fold the page corners of pages that strike me as really joke-worthy. I folded thirteen pages, which is actually a new record. That being said, it's not a bad book; on the contrary, I love it. Not only is it undeniably brutal, but it has a story that I genuinely liked. It's one of those stories that starts at an intense moment near the end before starting over and working its way there. It all starts as Billy and his family are trapped in a large prison cell with hot wax dripping from the ceiling. This may seem crazy, but I actually wanted to find out how they got there. Maybe that would have changed had I known the main characters at the time, but I really was a little curious.
Anyway, the mom character, whom we'll just call "Mom" for simplicity's sake, is cradling Crissy, Billy's six-year-old sister, and Dad is going insane in the corner, attempting to make a key out of wax. Then it goes back to the beginning, where Billy describes his family. This is gold, by the way, because Billy is the single most holier-than-thou human being who has ever narrated a story. Normally it would be excruciating, but much like Paul Alberti from Shriek Home Chicago, it's just too amusing to be obnoxious. This is one of those Shivers reviews that writes itself.
Billy's dad is cheap. We know this because he says it over and over again in many different ways. Sometimes it's just "We wouldn't be in this mess if he weren't so cheap." Sometimes he uses little anecdotes, "He's always going around the house turning off lights," or he'll give an example, "I say, trying to study in the dim light of one of the 60-watt light bulbs he buys in bulk because they're way cheaper that way." And to finish it all off he says, "that's how cheap my old man is." Subtlety is not M.D. Spenser's strong point.
Because of Dad's cheapness, Billy has to wear cheap clothing. As he says, "I'm the No Name-Brand kid." I can actually relate to this, so that's fun. I mean, I didn't not wear name-brands because my parents wouldn't buy them for me, I didn't wear name-brands because I didn't want to. I hate spending extra money on clothes; why not spend it on something important, like video games or inflatable women? Here's a little Jonathan trivia for you: As a kid, 50% of my shirts had classic rock bands on them, and the other 50% were either bought with coupons, were presents, or were "cute" shirts my mom thought I would like. Not that I cared; I loved my classic rock shirts. Now that I think about it, I guess my indifference was a blessing for my parents, because my sister easily bought enough for the both of us.
Now I see why people come to this site: to see me talk about my personal life. You're welcome, audience. Getting back to the book, here's one of my marked phrases: when people make fun of Billy for his clothes, he says "'What are you looking at, morons?' I snarled. 'You guys are so stupid you think two plus two equals your IQ.'
If there's one thing I can't stand, it's stupid people. My dad's a tightwad, but he ain't raising no fools."
He's gonna get shanked. I hope he gets shanked. But it gets even better, "Ugly people turn me off, too. That's because I'm pretty good looking, myself. Before bed, I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror, turning my head from side to side trying to figure out which is my best profile. Left. Right. Front. Even from behind, I'm pretty darn handsome." Does this character ever stop getting relatable? Seriously, though, how can reading about someone this vain not be fun?
Another example: "So we're always riding around in some second-hand heap Dad picked up at Charlie Ryan's World of Pre-Owned Autos. Crissy and me, we call it Cheapo Charlie's World of Rust Buckets." Ha ha, ha ha ha, ha. Ha ha ha. So not only is our protagonist intelligent and attractive, he also has an amazing sense of humor. Stellar.
I just realized that I spent six paragraphs on the characters, which is more than M.D. Spenser does in most of his books.
The plot progresses when Dad announces that the family has been invited to go to Mad Mac's History in Wax Museum, which isn't even the name from the title so I'm still baffled that such a large continuity error could occur. One other thing I like to laugh at is that M.D. Spenser uses fake brands to illustrate how cheap Dad is. Crissy plays with Darbies, Billy plays on a Game Guy, etc. And how about this little dialogue treat here: "'Hey, Prissy, your Doll's shedding,' I say, holding up a long strand of white plastic hair, 'What's she got –– bald dolly disease?'
'No, she's pretty,' Crissy replies.
'Pretty dumb or pretty stupid?'"
Oh, and here's M.D. Spenser's attempt at song lyrics: "I gotta can of tuna. It's shaped just like a balloona. I took it to Palona. To eat with my balogna." Balloona? And just to top it off, Billy listens to this on his "WalkKid." Eventually, they get to Mad Mac's, where the other goers are introduced, "There's Father and Son Jockheads. They wear numbered jerseys so they can remember their IQs."
"And The Nerdroids. Are horn-rimmed glasses hereditary? And The Cretins. Lots of in-breeding going on in that family." Wow. "And The Church Mice. They look meek as heck. The mother carries a thick leather book under her arm, and the father uses a crutch. Oh, and best of all, The Prepmeister Clan. Proof that money can't buy brains." Here's the thing: each character completely conforms to his/her role as part of whatever group he/she is in and, for the most part, shows no other personality, but that's marginally better than the usual plot-device character so I love it, and it also makes the dialogue very amusing.
Anyway, the group is greeted by a man in a black hood whose face is covered up. The death-like guide asks them to follow him when the preppy kid makes a snappy comment. The guide reacts by revealing information about him, like that his name is Huntington Snider the Second and that he gets poor grades, but it doesn't matter because his father will just buy his way into a good college. Wait... Huntington Snider the Second? Congrats, M.D. Spenser, you succeeded in making the name most fitting for "a Prepmeister."
The guide calls the Jockhead son a big baby before continuing with the tour. As they walk, one member of each group says something stereotypical, which includes my favorite line from any book ever, "I hear his little sister whisper, 'Mommy, are these heathens?'
The look of disgust on the mother's face answers the question before the words leave her lips, 'Yes, dear.'"
Mommy, are these heathens? I'm not joking, this is the most serious I've ever been in my life; This one phrase excuses the entire existence of The Terrible Terror Book. Not Camp Fear; which just may be impossible, but The Terrible Terror Book is up there for worst Shivers books and you just completely made up for it and then some. This whole book is a work of art.
In the first room, which has nothing in it but the smell of something dead, one of the church mouse kids makes a fart joke, which was actually pretty good considering that it followed the statement where the guide describes the awful smell as "the purest essence of mankind." In one of the best moments of Shivers history, the guide says, "I imagine you picked that from the many hours you spend in those Internet chat rooms you're so fond of, Jeremiah. Not the one called X-dreams, of course, where you pass yourself off as someone much older and more experienced than you are. Or many of the others where you assume adult identities long after you parents have fallen asleep." This is literally the happiest I've ever been in my entire life. Did... did M.D. Spenser just suggest that this super religious kid watches porn while his parents are asleep? I can't believe... I'm so happy. The mom responds by hitting him with The Bible while calling him a "filthy boy," which is probably another uncomfortable reminder of the pornography.
Speaking of X-dreams.com, the website doesn't exist, but Xdreams.com does, and it's actually about decoding dreams. Strange, that domain name has so much potential. After that drama, the tour guide begins talking about how mankind loves public punishment and torture, and then he gives examples of torture. He says that what separates mankind from animals isn't our superior brains, thumbs, tools, ability to raise crops, etc., but our cruelty toward each other. Not that I haven't heard all this before, but it's still a pretty interesting theme for M.D. Spenser to be playing with. Especially, you know, because he's a children's author.
After this speech, the guide starts a conflict between the fathers who went to college and the "cretin" redneck guy. He then leads the group into a dark room where images of men being beaten, bombed buildings, riots, dead bodies, etc. begin flashing on the walls. I thought that was bad enough, until this description showed up: "Blacks killing whites. Browns killing blacks. Red killing brown. Brown killing yellow. Yellow killing black. White killing black, brown, red, yellow. On and on. Over and over." Public torture, heathens, pornography, and racial violence, what doesn't this book have?
Eventually, the video ends, and someone cracks another joke, because "nothing is so bad you can't cure it with a joke." The guide then shows a sculpture of wax people huddled against a wall while wax men shot them. Oh, so he's one of those "tortured artist" types. Then the guide screws with people some more before bringing them to an exhibit with one caveman murdering another. Everybody's having a good laugh looking at the invention of murder when a bright light flashes and the Merlins, a.k.a cretins, disappear.
Next, they go to an exhibit where a wax man is being pulled apart on one of those limb-stretching torture racks. Is this OK for a children's book? It must at least be a stretch.
There's also a man being whipped and a man sleeping under a bed of spikes, and we find out that it's the Spanish Inquisition. After a brief history lesson and a couple jokes, the hooded man reveals someone getting burned at the stake for heresy, and the church mouse father responds with "the wicked get what they deserve... burn now, or burn later." I'm going to be mad if he doesn't burn, now, because that genuinely made me angry, as I'm sure it's intended to. Then the guide exposes Crissy's love of playing with fire for no reason and the Nedleys, the nerdy family, disappear in a flash.
They then walk into the French Revolution, where the Sniders, the rich family, go missing. Then a slave trade castle, where Bobby notices that one of the slave's eyes are moving, which the guide dismisses as robotic eyes. Robotic eyes. There is then a debate about religion, and I think M.D. Spenser's either a closet Atheist or just really into his characters, because he not only raises some good points about religion but had the religious father respond the way someone like him would; it's amazing, colorful, fantastic, god I love this book. At this point, the athletes are gone, they disappeared in the middle of the slave trade castle.
The group is then brought to an exhibit with religious murders throughout time. Honestly, M.D. Spenser, I agree with you about all the pain and suffering religion has caused, but this is some seriously risky stuff you're dealing with here. Bobby eventually makes contact with a wax Palestinian girl who is throwing a rock at a Jewish soldier (way to include current events, Spenser). The Farrises, the religious family, then disappear, so the final family makes their way to a wax concentration camp, where there's this really cool scene where the guide tells the story of how Dad's father was a soldier who found a concentration camp and how it influenced him and it was completely unnecessary, but it added to the depth of the story. It's something like that that I feel has been missing from other Shivers books.
Oh, and then Bobby recognizes one of the tour-takers in one of the wax prisoners, so he tries to alert his family but there's a flash and they're in the dungeon, being rained on by hot wax. Bobby soon figures out that the dungeon itself is wax, which is kind of lazy but whatever, and breaks through the bars before breaking the wax on his body and saving his family. He then goes off alone to save the others, and the whole party meets in the lobby. The fathers and mothers are easily defeated by the guide's wax powers, which really shouldn't happen because as superpowers go, the ability to shoot wax is pretty weak.
Crissy ends up defeating the guide by lighting him on fire. Apparently, he melts, because he's wax, and so does the entire building. Two years later, all the families are on vacation together, and have been doing it every year since they escaped. Bobby says that humans aren't unique in their cruelty, but their compassion and kindness, and they all live happily ever after, sitting around a candle shaped like a hooded figure.
Insight into the Complex Minds of Characters:
"Any better than this? I think. Eating spinach for breakfast is better than this."
"She's a short little butterball. Six years old and already growing her third chin. She thinks sugar is one of the major food groups."
Of course, who doesn't remember playing Smokemon on their Game Guy or listening to some tunes on their WalkKid.
If Every Other Family Had a Role...:
What would our protagonists be? The dad's a rocket scientist and the mom used to be a model, by the way. Maybe they would be the tools?
This is the only Shivers book that I would want to read a full-length novel of. The characters defied expectations (which doesn't say a lot, but still), I enjoyed the jokes and even laughed at a couple, the narrator was enjoyable, and it's one of the most well-written of the series, maybe even the most well-written, partly because it doesn't have annoying and excessive chapter-ending cliffhangers or ridiculous synonyms. I'm not sure it works well as a children's book, it might have been better as a tween or teen book because it has some pretty dark themes, though M.D. Spenser handled them very well. This might be my favorite so far because I think this is the kind of book that M.D. Spenser enjoys writing most of all, it felt like he was in his element, and I think he put much more effort into this book than any of the others because of it. Great job, M.D. Spenser, please write more stuff like this.