R.L. Stine: Introduction to Horror Geekdom

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Often these days whenever I’m talking with other horror geeks, I hear the common response that they never read RL Stine when they were children. They were instead reading Stephen King. Well, for some of us who went to middle school, the folks that ran it often felt King was beyond the comprehension of most of its students. That never stopped me of course from reading “It” and grabbing amazing books like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” That book, while touted to children, was grotesque, disgusting, gory, and featured some truly scary stories that I continue to remember fondly. I’m mad at myself for not keeping my original copy which was pretty worn out by the time I was in middle school.

I can still recall sitting in my grade school class in the middle of the day in a crowded noisy room sweating and panting while reading the story of the babysitter getting calls from a man who she later discovers was calling inside the house of children she was babysitting. I can still think of myself trying to figure out what a human being would taste like in one of the stories that involved cannibalism, and yes, I can still remember cringing at the gruesome often disturbing but absolutely amazing illustrations from Stephen Gammell whose vivid paintings and pictures of clowns from the ground and eyeless corpses made for some sleepless nights. The fact was that my gateway drug was RL Stine, the man who wrote such book series as “Goosebumps” and “Fear Street.” Whenever we had our yearly Scholastic sponsored book fair at our school, his books were always the hot buys for every student.

Every one of my fellow classmates buzzed around his table looking for his latest installments and quite often, they were gobbled up before anyone else could buy them. Filled with pop up full color art that depicted scenes from the books, Stine offered an alternative for kids and parents that involved stories that straddled the line of edgy and safe while also displaying a keen sense of intellect that never talked down to his readers. While there was hardly any blood splatter to be had, he always had a really excellent surprise ending to add to every single book he gave us prepubescent readers and that’s why we continue to love him. Sure, I watched “Twilight Zone,” and in my single digits age I saw films like “Misery,” and “Creepshow,” and often I indulged myself in “Halloween,” and “Monster Squad,” but Stine kept my eyes glued to books, and I was at a time where I often found reading to be quite annoying. I never did it unless I absolutely had to, but whenever Stine had a book in the shelf of our school library, I’d pick it up and read it as fast as I could.

Later he released his more adult and mature “Fear Street” books, which were not as popular or commercially appealing as “Goosebumps,” but were much more steeped in violence, sexual themes and his usual surprise endings and twists. “Fear Street” was often about a certain street where every single horrific thing occurred involving vampires and serial killers, while “Goosebumps” often set down on mild mannered suburban neighborhoods where something out of the ordinary often happened, thanks to the curiosity and ill-advised children whom were often punished for their nosiness or for displaying a mean spirit that signaled their comeuppance. “Goosebumps,” in spite of being the most commercially appealing of Stine’s legacy, didn’t exactly add up to a wonderful television series when FOX had the bright idea to turn this popular franchise in to their very own flagship show based on Stine’s name appeal to the youth.

Granted, the show did have its major high points including its adaptation of “Night of the Living Dummy” which was quite creepy at times, and the episode involving the mask that would turn you in to a monster, but at the end of the day the show “Goosebumps” that aired on FOX Kids daily didn’t quite live up to the clout of the superior children’s horror show “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” from Nickelodeon. That was an anthology series that brought with it more twists, more solid production qualities and much edgier storylines involving vampires, cannibals, and zombies, three of which “Goosebumps” never really touched upon. Nickelodeon’s series was most often a show based around classic urban legends and age old dilemmas like the Monkey’s Paw and the search for eternal beauty, all the while engaging in some genuinely horrific storylines one of which involved a blood bank and a starving vampire.

It’s not surprising since Stine’s series aired during the day on a major kids channel while the latter aired every weekend during primetime on Nickelodeon, a channel that was then still in the midst of blossoming in to a juggernaut, and was also the only kids network on cable. So they were allowed to do much more and pulled off better scares, in the end. “Goosebumps” was charming, but “Are you Afraid of the Dark?” often prompted kids to shut the lights off after seven o’clock, bunch together under the sheets and shiver at the latest frights that would inevitably appear to lull them to sleep on Saturdays. Every episode was a weekly event while “Goosebumps” was just amusing in its own little way and nothing more. Stine seemed to know though that kids would seek out scary stories, whether their parents held them back or not, and that’s a constant fact.

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Kids, like everyone, love to be scared and will do whatever they possibly can to seek out new forms of scaring people, even reading books that offer them new yarns and ghouls, and Stine relied on such a massive craving by providing us with meals that were appetizing but healthy. Stine of course also offered up the classic storyteller warning “Reader Beware: You’re in for a Scare” which always kept his audience wanting more and more. The television series, while entertaining enough, never did accomplish what our imaginations did for us, which was offer a much darker and dreadful world than G rated television shackled down by the censors ever really could. This is a channel that censored “Spider-Man”! So any hope of an edgy “Goosebumps” series was a pipe dream. Stine relied on our imaginations to do the work for us (with the help of the book’s illustration on the cover), and more times than not that’s what kept us going back. We wanted to genuinely see what he could scoop in to the young horror fan’s mouths, and he did it quite well with vivid writing and clever twists that often relied on the classic horror tropes of Karma and getting exactly what you wished for.

Stine gave us some ingenious cappers to some rather twisted stories and this is the hook that made these series of books so damn addictive. Who can forget the big surprise in “The Girl Who Cried Monster” in which we learn the young girl’s teacher who happens to be a predator is really just the prey in the end? Or “Night of the Living Dummy” that provided a second jab at our young heroes once they’ve defeated the demonic dummy? There’s an endless array of punches to the gut that keep the readers on constant guard, and Stine reveled in such big reveals until the commercial viability of the series wore off. While Stine still makes appearances on television through old episodes of “Goosebumps,” television movies “The Haunting Hour” which were entertaining enough considering they aired on Cartoon Network a cable channel devoted to keeping things safe and tame, Stine still has the literary power within the nineties kids who grew up with his books and realized that storytelling is still a very volatile skill that can inspire many kids to indulge in literature and not look at it as some sort of chore.

Hopefully with the proposed film franchise in the works, kids will be drawn back to his books, allowing for a new generation of readers and horror lovers to engage in tales of “Fear Street” and “Goosebumps,” and discover that the horror genre is one filled with many surprises and wonderful gifts that can be handed to them by a man like R.L. Stine, who showed a cynical generation that reading can be cool, and was a precursor to J.K. Rowling’s storming of the gates who also made reading addictive again in a world of internet devotees who have grown to hate reading as a hobby and admit they hate reading with pride. That’s just heartbreaking. I owe a lot to many of the horror meisters for making me the sick bastard that I am today, and RL Stine is definitely one who kept my eyes glued to the printed page, at a miserable time of my life where I viewed reading as nothing more than an intrusive and tedious waste of time better spent watching TV, or scooping up comic book. There’s still a place for Stine in this horror fan’s heart.