Writer: R.L. Stine / Artist: Kelly & Nichole Matthews / Boom! Studios
If you’re a 90’s kid like myself, the moment you see the name R.L. Stine you instinctively recall Goosebumps and your introduction to the horror genre when you had the ability to read on your own right along side the TV series Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Those two anthology series really sparked an interest in speculative fiction more than horror, but I do think fondly of both series regardless. In particular, I am thankful for the miniature worlds that R.L. Stine was able to create in manageable chunks. I was also very grateful for the Choose Your Own Adventure spin offs as well.
So, when I saw the news that Disney+ had ordered an eight episode series of Just Beyond by R.L. Stine, I was intrigued. Then, when I actually started reading the latest middle grade horror graphic novel, I realized that I had to remember it wasn’t a Goosebumps story. This was something new, even if there was a veritable laundry list of familiar/similar elements.
The premise of The Horror of Happy Landings is pretty self-explanatory; a family camping goes awry when some Martians make an accidental pit stop in Ohio. Various shenanigans ensue over the course of a hundred pages. I think the biggest differentiating factor that Just Beyond has from Goosebumps is that Just Beyond is a little bit more fantastical and comical in its approach. The entire premise of The Horror at Happy Landings hinges on a happenstance, which is not entirely unheard of when it comes to children stories. But the narrative feels a tiny bit too incidental as an inciting factor given that the tone shift happens so suddenly between the end of chapter 1 and the start of chapter 2. Once the two disparate intros are welded together in chapter 3, I think the story hits its stride, but there are a lot more jokes and a lot more comedic beats than I was expecting.
Rather than a horror story geared for children, this book reads more like a comedy with elements of horror to texture it. There are a lot of fish-out-of-water, “what is this?” exaggerated moments and jokes of that nature, the horror part kinda gets lost at times. There were some truly frightening moments, but I also felt that the majority of that was driven courtesy of Kelly and Nicole Matthews’ artwork rather than the writing. I will concede that part of it definitely stems from the fact that I’m not the intended audience for this particular book, but I also think that this skews towards a bit more of a younger audience than I was expecting.
The book does get stronger the more pages in you get, but there were moments that personally drew me out of the story and definitely disrupted my pace. Although, the ending did land: if only because it felt very much like the R.L. Stine I remembered from childhood. It’s a weird compromise. I think the lack of textual/tonal ambience gave the story a more comedic bent, but that same atmosphere can’t be replicated as readily in the comic book format. The colorful artwork also skewed more towards “happy” than “horror”, but did have some strong horror beats that I did appreciate.
I can see why Disney+ wanted this material for an anthology. It’s a very classical comedy with just enough horror to distinguish it from other series in its catalog, and a story like The Horror at Happy Landings would translate very well to the digital screen with just enough CGI. As an adult comic book reader, I definitely enjoyed the art more than writing, but I recognize that I don’t have the same tastes or preferences that I did when I was younger and neither does R.L. Stine. This very much geared towards middle school readers and I do believe they will enjoy this and that’s really all that matters.
8.0 “Jolts” out of 10