Books

How ‘Goosebumps’ author R.L. Stine became the king of kids’ horror

R.L. Stine, the author of the astoundingly successful “Goosebumps” series for kids, never planned to be scary. “I always just wanted to be funny,” said Stine.

When Robert Lawrence Stine was 9, he found a typewriter in the attic of his family’s home in Columbus, Ohio, and started writing goofy stories and joke books for his friends at school. At Ohio State University, he edited the school’s humor magazine, The Sundial. Later, after a move to New York, he was hired by Scholastic Books as the editor and main writer of “Bananas,” a humor magazine for children. His first children’s book was called “How to Be Funny.”

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But after a few more similar releases, including “Miami Mice” and “101 Wacky Kid Jokes,” a serendipitous assignment sent him in a new direction. His boss at Scholastic suggested that he try a different genre: horror for teen readers.

The immediate success of the creepy “Blind Date,” about a high schooler who goes out on a first date with a young woman who may have been killed in a car accident, eventually led to Stine creating the “Fear Street” series, aimed at teenagers, and later the “Goosebumps” series for ages 7-12, ultimately making him the best-selling author in America. In total, the “Goosebumps” books have sold more than 400 million copies in 32 languages. The books were adapted into a four-season Fox TV series in 1995.

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Now Stine is entering a new world of pop cultural renown. A character named R. L. Stine is at the center of the new film “Goosebumps,” which will be released by Sony on Oct. 16. Played by Jack Black, Stine is a mysterious author of children’s horror books — whose monstrous creations come to life. Only he, with the help of his daughter and some neighborhood kids can, you know, save the world. Fans will be pleased, or freaked out, to see the likes of Stine favorites the Abominable Snowman, the ventriloquist’s dummy Slappy, and an army of garden gnomes. One neat moment near the end features Black, as Stine, saying hello to a high school teacher named Mr. Black, played, in a cameo, by Stine.

R. L. Stine (right) with Jack Black, who plays a character named R. L. Stine in the new film “Goosebumps.”

Hopper Stone/SMPSP

R. L. Stine (right) with Jack Black, who plays a character named R. L. Stine in the new film “Goosebumps.”

Stine, 72, who still cranks out “Goosebumps” novels — “Night of the Puppet People” was released on Sept. 29 — spoke about the books, the film, and his career by phone from his apartment in Manhattan.

Q. What was the turning point that got you to change from humor to horror?

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A. When “Bananas” finished up at Scholastic, I was having lunch with Jean Feiwel, who was the publisher and editorial director of the Book Club Division. She said, “I need someone to write a teen horror novel. Go home and write a novel called ‘Blind Date’ for teenagers.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I ran to the bookstore to see what people were doing with teen horror novels, to see what the genre was. Then I wrote “Blind Date,” and it became a number one bestseller on the Publishers Weekly list.

Q. What do you think Jean saw in you?

A. We were good friends and she knew I had written all kinds of books. I’d written G.I. Joe books and James Bond books. She knew I could write anything. Actually, she’d just had a fight with a teen horror author, and she was angry when she came to lunch. She said, “I’m never working with him again. You can do it.” So I wrote “Blind Date” in 1986, and I thought, forget the funny stuff. Kids want to be scared!

Q. Your “Fear Street” horror series for young adults started in 1989 and was a hit, then the “Goosebumps” books, for younger kids, began in 1992. But it didn’t exactly take off at first.

A. No, what happened is still a mystery. The first contract was for four books, and we brought one out every two months. But they just sat around. There was no advertising or hype. I didn’t do any appearances. This was all before social media, so it was kids discovering the books and kids telling kids. It was entirely the secret kids network. The second contract was for eight more books, and then it took off. They started selling like crazy, and soon I was writing one “Goosebumps” book every month and one “Fear Street” book every month.

Q. The titles of your books mince no words about the plots — “The Haunted Mask,” “Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes,” “Stay Out of the Basement.” Which comes first: story ideas or titles?

A. I never look for ideas. I sit and think of titles. A new “Goosebumps” book just came out called “Night of the Puppet People.” So I got the title, and I thought, “OK, it’s going to be puppets; do I want to do kids turning into puppets or evil puppets some kids find in an alley?” It’s that simple.

‘This was all before social media . . . kids discovering the books and kids telling kids.’

R. L. Stine, on how he became a best-selling author  
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Q. Is it true that there’s been interest in making a “Goosebumps” movie for a couple of decades?

A. That’s right. The books started in 1992, and around ’94, ’95 and ’96, I was the best-selling author in America. We sold 4 million books a month at that time, and we had a movie deal with Fox, but no one ever got a script they liked, and no one knew what book to do. Then somebody suggested that we put all of the monsters in and to use R.L. Stine as a character. Once they had that idea, they started getting scripts they liked.

Q. Were you involved in the process all along?

A. No. I didn’t even think that the movie was alive. Then I got a call from Deborah Forte, who was president of Scholastic Media at the time, and is a producer on the film. She said they wanted to use me as a character in the film, but had to get my permission. Then they started sending me the script because I had to approve how they treated me in it, and that was the first time I was included.

Q. Did you have any discussions with Jack Black before filming started?

A. I met with him a few times. The first time we had lunch he just wanted to look at me and try to figure me out. He said, “What’s true in the script about you?” I told him not too much was true. [Laughs] It’s a good character, but he’s very mean at the beginning. He’s a lot more of a sinister character than I am.

Q. If you could speak directly to parents, would you tell them there’s an inappropriate age for kids to see the film?

A. In the beginning there was big resistance to the books, because no one had ever done a horror series for 7- to 12-year-olds. And the covers were scarier than the books. But now it’s been around so long, people are used to it. And, you know, kids are really smart. Kids know if they’re ready for this movie or not. They don’t need their parents to tell them. There are kids who love “Goosebumps,” and there are kids who know that “Goosebumps” is too scary.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.
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