R.L. Stine Is Sorry For Scaring Generations of Children: “I Only Ever Wanted To Be Funny”
— Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Goosebumps Wiki/TheBumpster1994
Although several generations of kids surely remember the phantasmagorical covers of the Goosebumps series, the author of those legendary books, R.L. Stine, insists he never really wanted to scare the sh*t out of kids. The cover of Night of the Living Dummy might give kids nightmares, but Stine says there’s one feature of all of his books that keeps things safe. “I have one real rule that I stick to with these scary books, and that is that the kids have to know, the reader has to know, it’s a fantasy,” Stine says.
Thirty-one years after the first Goosebumps book was published in 1992, a new TV adaptation of the mega-popular series has hit Disney+. Because Stine is a member of SAG, we didn’t get into the specifics of that show. (Although Fatherly has your full guide to which episode is which book right here.) Instead, we spoke about his incredible career as a writer of not-quite-horror for kids. Stine was on a video call from his home in New York City, but talking to him feels like you’re in his living room and he’s your dad. Or rather, he’s your coolest, funniest dad friend. Stine’s self-deprecating humor creates that perfect feeling of being both on your toes and at ease at the same time. It’s a comfortable chat, but if you ask silly questions, he’s going to tease you. When I tell him that his 1985 Find Your Fate book; James Bond in Win, Place or Die is one of my favorite 007 books not written by Ian Fleming, Stine snorts a laugh and says, “Now you’re just trying to embarrass me.”
Stine has four books for kids out this year alone. The middle-grade novel Slime Doesn’t Pay, a new Goosebumps book called House of Shivers, a scary story collection called Stinetinglers, and a picture book with illustrator Marc Brown; Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? If you think Stephen King or James Patterson are the most prolific writers in America, clearly, the output of R.L. Stine blows them all away. But how does he do it? More importantly, why does he do it? Fatherly tried to peel back the slime and mummy wraps to reveal the real R.L. “Bob” Stine and the result was delightful.
I’m loving all the new books. But, with some of them — like House of Shivers — I’m impressed by how contemporary it seems. “Scariest. Book. Ever.” How do you reinvent your style for different generations of kids?
Well, I try to listen a lot. I think you have to always be listening. I try not to just be someone stuck in his ways. But it’s tricky. I guess I work very hard at keeping up. And [in my writing] not trying to sound like some old guy trying ot hip.
Okay, from James Bond chapter books in the ‘80s to the horror of Fear Street or Goosebumps, you’ve sort of mastered how to bring non-kid stuff to kids. But how?
Well, horror, the way I do it is by not really doing horror. It’s all a tease. It could never really happen. And if I establish that in the book, I can go pretty far with the scares because I don’t have to really worry about scaring them. They know they’re just reading this fantasy.
Scariest. Book. Ever. (Goosebumps House of Shivers #1)
But do you draw on any horror writers for your techniques?
You won’t tell anyone, promise? I’m not really into horror. [Laughs]. I don’t read a lot of horror. When I was a kid, I loved horror. We had all the great old horror comic books, Tales from the Crypt. And every Saturday morning, my brother and I would go to this little theater in our neighborhood and they would show a Tom and Jerry festival of cartoons and then a horror film. So I saw all the great horror films back then. I have a background. I mean, I can remember all this stuff, but I don’t [it] read a lot.
And to be honest, I don’t think anybody reads a lot of horror. That’s the problem. I am a real admirer of Stephen King. I think he’s a great storyteller, and I’ve stolen many plots from him, I have to say. But think about it. I read mostly mysteries and thrillers. I was on the board of the International Thriller Writers for years, so I got to know Lee Child Michael Connelly Harlan Coben and all those people. But there are many, many mystery and thriller writers who are all bestselling authors. But how many horror writers are truly bestsellers? How many can you name?
Other than YOU?
Ha. Well, I’ve never planned to be scary. My whole career was funny. I only wanted to be funny. I wrote dozens of joke books for kids, and I did a humor magazine for ten years called Bananas. That was like my life’s dream, my own humor magazine. And then the scary thing sort of came as a big surprise.
Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? feels very much in the vein of that. Are kids funnier than adults?
No, they all have horrible knock-knock jokes. Horrible. [Laughs]. But, sure, kids can be very funny. Here’s an example of kids being funny, right? I did a book signing and a talk at Barnes and Noble Union Square two weeks ago, and my grandson Dylan came along, afterward, I said, “Dylan, did you like the ghost story I told?” And he said, “I liked it when you told it last year.”
What’s the real connection between horror and humor?
Well, it’s a close combination. Horror makes me laugh. Something missing in my brain where a scary movie or scary book, it makes me laugh. I don’t have that feeling of being scared. And people say to me, “Oh, I read your book. I had to turn on all the lights. I locked all the doors.” I’ve never had that feeling. I always think it’s funny. There is this close combination. When you sneak up behind somebody and you go, “Boo!,” the first thing they do is gasp, and then they laugh. It’s the same reaction. It’s all tied together.
Indiana Jones and the Curse of Horror Island (Find Your Fate)
Okay, I have a very serious question. In Indiana Jones Find Your Fate: Curse of Horror Island, there’s this part where a panther is attacking and you have to choose the whip or the pistol. In one choice, the artifact you’re after turns out to be fake, but in the other choice, it’s not clear if it’s fake. So, like this artifact fake in all versions? You see what I mean?
You shouldn’t believe anything in those books. I can’t believe we’re talking about this book. I have no memory of it. It was like 40 years ago! Those are just puzzles.
I’m sorry the children of the eighties and nineties want to know.
Well, each story, it’s got 40 different endings and it’s sort of 40 different stories. So you cheat one way or the other. You don’t really have to keep everything true. I did it for fun. For two years, I wrote books that didn’t have a beginning, middle, or end. And people still say, why I don’t do more Give Yourself Goosebumps. And for some reason, nobody wants to publish them.
Did you learn anything from writing those books though?
Well, maybe some plotting lessons, because you have to do so many different stories. When I wrote them, you had to do 25 different endings. I saw them all as punchlines. I would write the ending. I’d come up with the ending first, and then I would do pages to get to it. It’s like writing a joke. But I do Goosebumps that way too. Every chapter ending in Goosebumps is some kind of shock or some kind of cliffhanger, and I know how the chapter’s going to end, and then I just write the chapter to get to the ending.
Do you ever read specific kinds of books for research?
Ha! Research. I had a book with a mummy recently, so I did a bit of reading about mummies. That’s about it. Come on. I never research.