R.L. Stine Has Been Giving Us Goosebumps for 20 Years

The Atlantic
R.L. Stine Has Been Giving Us Goosebumps for 20 Years
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R.L. Stine Has Been Giving Us Goosebumps for 20 Years

If you're an adult of a certain age in America, of course you know the name R.L. Stine, you know it like a delicious shiver down your spine, and of course you've heard of Goosebumps and Stine's teen horror series, Fear Street. Likely, you grew up reading these books, turning pages furiously under the bedcovers with bulky old-world flashlights to guide you through the thrills, staying up into the wee hours to see what happens before finally closing your eyes and attempting to sleep. Maybe you're still reading those books every now and again, a nostalgic adventure. Or maybe now, as a grownup, you're one of his 54,000 Twitter followers, kept amused by 140-character missives frequently focused on the bizarre and strange.

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But just because Stine is a generational touchstone for many doesn't mean he's not also enticing new readers. As he once told me, "The thing about writing for kids is there's a new generation about every two weeks." If you're a grownup, it's quite possible you're buying new installments in the series you used to spend sleepless nights poring over, so that your children might do the same. Goosebumps is middle-grade and not "Y.A." as the publishing terminology goes, but Stine's is a name that resonates with both kids and adults, particularly adults who knew him way back when, whether he was killing off teens, writing about vampires before Stephenie Meyer, or eschewing zombies for more interesting character fodder.

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Stine has been writing Goosebumps books since 1992 with Goosebumps: Welcome to the Dead House, which makes this year the series' 20th anniversary. According to his publisher Scholastic, more than 300 million books in 32 languages have been sold in that series alone, which means it's one of the best-selling of all time. Over the years, along with the stories themselves, quite the array of book-related merchandise has been produced—sneakers with faux bones as soles, bedsheets, and even, at one point, a chocolate Goosebumps Advent calendar from a manufacturer in Britain.

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Stine may be the most prolific of the kid authors as well as one of the most sustaining. In a 2007 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King called him "perhaps the best-selling children’s author of the 20th century.” And even compared to massive series success stories like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, Stine has by far written the greatest number of books—at one point, he was on a schedule that had him writing a book monthly.

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Since then, he's pared down, with a writing schedule that keeps him on pace to deliver 6 Goosebumps books a year. In the spare time thus provided, he's written an adult horror novel, Red Rain, and kept plenty busy with other projects, like his TV series The Haunting Hour on The Hub, now going into its 3rd season, and books written for other publishing houses, like his recent "Groundhog Day for kids," for Macmillan, It's the First Day of School Forever. "I've always had two publishers," he says. "It's a great thing. I've worked for everybody!"

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I first met Stine via the Internet, when I "borrowed" one of his tweets following the November 2010 election and used it to inspire a post for the Village Voice about why New Yorkers should be pretty thrilled to live here. After that, we had lunch, and started to keep in touch by email. Recently, I paid him a visit to talk about the 20th anniversary of Goosebumps—an occasion celebrated with cake at Book Expo America in June and with the publication of the first hardcover edition of the series, Wanted: The Haunted Mask, which came out July 1 and includes a "petrifying poster." Escaping the office to visit Stine at his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side on an afternoon of one of the many heat waves so far this summer somehow felt appropriate, horror-wise. 

Upon my arrival at at his apartment, the first stop is a peek in the "billiards room." Yes, Stine has a pool table that he says, laughingly, they had to rearrange the whole apartment to accommodate—and then it turned out, he was terrible at pool. We make a stop in the kitchen for water and then head to his office. On the way he explains that there are a couple guys in the other room trying to repair some problem with the cable. (Toward the end of our visit, the cable will finally be fixed, at least to some degree, and Stine will profusely thank the men, who've been there since 9 a.m., and also give them books, which he signs, to their pleasure.)

What's in the office of a man who's made his life's work writing scary books for kids? Books, of course, and more books (I luckily come away with a few as well). Stine's office is full of them, mostly paperbacks but some hardcover editions as well, by both himself and others. There are also vintage posters and comic book covers and photos of family interspersed throughout. Plus, old-fashioned radios, which he collects; a skeleton clad in silk Goosebumps boxer shorts and a version of the haunted mask featured in the series; a large, fake cockroach from a theater production that was given to him as a gift; a couple of ventriloquist dummies. The cockroach sits on the cage of his dog, Minnie, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Minnie sits on the floor, interrupting us occasionally for some attention of her own. Overall the effect is a kind of 1960s horror schtick surrounding, of course, a functional writing office. It's comfortable, quirky, friendly, and exactly what you'd hope for from the office of the guy who terrified you as a child.

There we sit and talk for about an hour and a half, on matters ranging from the relatively newfound popularity of Brooklyn ("Before, everyone who grew up in New York, they were desperate to get out of Brooklyn. Now everyone's going back," he says)—to BEA ("The last couple years had been like the Great Depression, people gloomy, no one there. This year it looked great!")—to e-Books (Stine has a Kindle for traveling convenience and for "instant gratification" but says, as far as his business goes, "Children's books haven't been affected that much, not as much as adult publishing. You don't see too many kids walking around with an iPad.")

For the record, he has not read Fifty Shades of Grey, and says he probably won't ("I think the idea's pretty awful"). And in response to my query about all the recent "zombie" news, he says, "People eating each other's faces! How can that be?" He adds, "I don't get zombies. I recently wrote a Goosebumps called Why I Quit Zombie School; he's enrolled in the wrong school so has to pretend to be one. But I didn't write zombie books because as a character, they're so unsophisticated; they just stagger forward and try to eat people, and you just hit them with a shovel or shoot them. There's so little you can do with them as an author."

In 20 years, there have been a lot of changes in the publishing industry, perhaps most so with regard to the decline of the paperback model. "People ask me how children's books have changed," he says, as we discuss the latest, first hardcover edition of Goosebumps. "That's how it's changed—it used to be a paperback business. Especially if you look at a Y.A. books, they used to all be paperbacks. Goosebumps is sort of a relic in that it's a paperback series; it comes out 4 or 6 times a year. They don't want that, now it's all hardcover series. And everything's a trilogy." 

Stine calls himself a "paperback guy," and he remains a fan of that model, even as he acknowledges that it's "pretty much doomed." He says, "I grew up writing series. I like one a month; kids are waiting for the next one. I also liked it because kids could afford it. They'd come into a bookstore with five bucks and buy four different books. Now a book is $16 and a kid can buy one." This change goes for adult mass-market paperbacks as well, which, he says, "used to support the business"—now those books are often kept hidden because stores don't make enough money on them. 

Stine's adult book, Red Rain, is out in October, and it's also in hardcover—it's his second for adults, following a novel he wrote 10 years ago called Superstitious. He told me that his inspiration this time was his former kid readership, now grown up, people he keeps in touch with on Twitter: "I hear from them all day, saying, 'Why don't you write a book for us, why don't you write a book for us?' So that's what I did, trying to reach my old audience." He adds, "Twitter is great for my ego. Jane [his wife] has to keep me humble."

It was a bit of a shift for the master kid author to go grownup again. "Writing scary stuff for kids is totally the opposite of writing horror for adults," he explained. "I have to be very careful that kids know it's not real, that it's a fantasy and can't happen. I don't put in real issues, real-life things ... but when you write horror for adults they're not going to buy the story at all unless every detail is real. It all has to be believable or it's ludicrous. So for the first time in my life I had to do research! To me it's a very different process." Red Rain took four months—the whole of last summer—compared to Goosebumps' average one because of this. Writing Goosebumps is "like sitting down and having fun," he says. "But I thought I needed a challenge." One main difference readers of both may see: "The adult book is much scarier because it's so real."

Stine has mixed feelings about the 20th anniversary, which he told me by email makes him "feel old," but admits that scaring a new generation is pretty exciting: "I get 7-year-olds and 8-year-olds and 20-year-olds, and I hear from so many who grew up on Goosebumps and say they're saving them for their kids to read, or that their kids are starting to read the series."

That's a lot of adults and kids. Over the years, by his count, he's done about 115 Goosebumps books and about 80 of the Fear Street series, along with his other projects—all in all, a rewarding pursuit he's very much proud of. "Everywhere I go, the parents pull me aside and say, 'My kid never read a book in his life and then he discovered your books, and now he's a great reader,'" he says. "You never get tired of hearing that."

I asked Stine, who'd told me previously that he never gets scared, if maybe he'd found something new to scare him (like his adult book? New news reports of a Florida zombie surge?). He said no. It's nice to know that some things never change, and that, for Stine, the ability to think of new ways to terrify kids is one of those things. "Luckily, there are a million things people can be scared of," he says, then pauses. "How lucky is that, to still be able to be doing this 20 years later?"

Lucky for his readers, new and old, as well.

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