AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It's that time of year when we celebrate the scary stuff, you know, ghosts and mummies and monsters. But most of us are amateurs of fright compared to a man who has spent the past 30 years dedicated to scares - R.L. Stine, author of the mega-popular children's book series "Goosebumps." Over the years, the franchise has spawned TV shows, movies and, of course, more books. NPR's Andrew Limbong recently visited him to talk about how he's kept kids reading for decades.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: To get to R.L. Stine's home, you have to go all the way to the back of a lobby and get into this old elevator. It's quiet, unnerving, really, just you and the creak of the cables moving and the gears turning. And when the door opens, something attacks.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
R L STINE: How are you?
LIMBONG: OK, OK, OK, if you're mad at me for opening this piece up with admittedly a cheap, jokey misdirect, you cannot blame me. It's the sort of thing Stine has built a career on.
STINE: I don't really want to terrify kids. It's not really what I want. If I think a scene is getting too scary, too intense, I throw in something funny.
LIMBONG: A typical "Goosebumps" cliffhanger will go - and then I saw something creeping on the other side of the window. And then the next chapter, it's just the annoying little brother.
STINE: These cheap teases.
LIMBONG: Yeah, but they're not...
STINE: Yeah. Well, that's - "Goosebumps" is mostly teases.
LIMBONG: We're sitting in his home office filled with "Goosebumps" books, memorabilia, merch and other creepy knickknacks.
STINE: How many offices have a three-foot cockroach? You don't see that every day, right?
LIMBONG: Stine's at his desk, where he still sits down every day at 10 in the morning and tries to write 2,000 words.
I don't know how many times someone I imagine, like, my age has come up to you and been like, oh, yeah, I loved reading this stuff as a kid and all that stuff. And...
STINE: I'm nostalgia.
STINE: I'm nostalgia to you and you're - everyone. That took a while to get used to.
LIMBONG: It's the 30th anniversary of "Goosebumps." Stine's made it long enough that his original fan base is now sharing the series with their kids.
STINE: You know, you get old. That's a tough pill to swallow, getting old. Terrible. But what a thrill. I get to scare a lot of generations, don't I?
LIMBONG: Stine is from Ohio. He moved to New York with big dreams of becoming a writer, just not the type of writer he became. In the '80s, he was working at a humor magazine, and his friend Jean Feiwel, an editor at Scholastic at the time, was working on a teen horror book. Problem was the author just dropped out.
STINE: And she said, I'll bet you could write a good horror novel for teenagers. Go home and write a book called "Blind Date." She gave me the title and everything. And I didn't know what she was talking about. What's a horror novel for teenagers?
JEAN FEIWEL: I was kind of desperate because I was on a timeline.
LIMBONG: That's Jean Feiwel. She's a publisher at Macmillan these days.
FEIWEL: I said, you know, like any blind date, it could turn horrific. So I'm sure you could find the horror in it and the humor. Because I didn't want it to be too intense.
STINE: So I ran to the bookstore, and I bought books by Christopher Pike, Lois Duncan, people who were writing teen horror, so I could find out what it was like.
FEIWEL: And I think he literally wrote it in - I don't know whether it was a week. It was very, very quickly. And I said, oh, my God, you've got a whole new career here.
LIMBONG: What did you see in him that made you think, like, oh, he could do this?
FEIWEL: He is a very facile writer. Stories come to him very quickly and he just writes.
LIMBONG: And writes and writes. While "Blind Date" was a hit for teens, Stine shifted to writing a series aimed younger, what books industry people call middle grade. It's an interesting age - before you've realized that growing up is kind of awful and you're just on the precipice of not wanting to be a kid anymore. The first "Goosebumps" book was published in the summer of 1992. It was called "Welcome To Dead House."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOSEBUMPS")
BENEDICT CAMPBELL: (As Mr. Benson) Amanda, what is it?
AMY STEWART: (As Amanda Benson) I saw someone.
ELIZABETH SAUNDERS: (As Mrs. Benson) Who?
STEWART: (As Amanda Benson) I don't know. It was...
LIMBONG: It's about a family who moves into a creaky old house in a small town. Early on, that narrator, Amanda, goes out looking for her little brother, Josh, who's gone missing. She finds him in a graveyard, of course, but for some reason, he's running.
STINE: (Reading) Gripped with fear, I suddenly realize why Josh was darting and ducking like that, running so wildly through the tombstones. He was being chased. Someone or something was after him.
LIMBONG: Stine says he thinks this book is actually too frightening. He hadn't quite perfected the balance between jokes and scares, but it had an effect on readers like India Hill Brown.
INDIA HILL BROWN: "Welcome To Dead House" - I remember reading it as a kid. It was so scary. And I remember reading it as an adult, and it was so scary.
LIMBONG: Brown is the author of two horror books for kids, "The Forgotten Girl" and "The Girl In The Lake."
BROWN: And I remember one time, maybe a couple of years ago, I was just, like, having writer's block.
LIMBONG: She was working on her first book.
BROWN: And I was like, I'm going to read "Welcome To Dead House." Like, I'm just going to put my own book out of my mind and just kind of focus on what made me love middle grade horror.
LIMBONG: It took a while for the "Goosebumps" hype train to take off, but when it did, it took off big.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACK LENZ'S "GOOSEBUMPS THEME SONG")
LIMBONG: It had its own TV show, with a theme song that still holds up. There were lunchboxes and thermoses and other merch, and to a certain type of superfan, the books themselves were collectibles.
BRIAN STELTER: I remember scouring bookstores every month when the next "Goosebumps" was supposed to come out - Borders and Waldenbooks, all these chains that have seemed to disappear from our landscape.
LIMBONG: That's Brian Stelter, formerly of CNN, where he was chief media correspondent and host. As a kid, he ran a fansite called The Bumps.
STELTER: Which I called the No. 1 unofficial "Goosebumps" website.
LIMBONG: But it wasn't the only website. Stelter had competition.
STELTER: And I hope for Stine, it also showed the power and reach of his books, that there were all these fan websites that were obsessed with his creations and wanting to talk and share even more about them.
LIMBONG: According to Feiwel, the former Scholastic editor, with "Goosebumps," Stine accomplished a spectacular feat. He got kids, boys in particular, reading. For Stine, his success comes down to a guiding principle.
STINE: My one rule for writing for 7- to 11-year-olds is they can't think it's going to be real. They have to know it's a fantasy. And then I can go pretty far with the scares.
LIMBONG: In 1997, a small group of parents in a Minneapolis suburb tried to get "Goosebumps" pulled from elementary school libraries. Here's a little bit from an old NPR piece on the controversy, where you can hear parent Margaret Byron make the case at a meeting.
MARGARET BYRON: The reality is that we sell violence, irresponsible sex and materialism to our children. I don't believe "Goosebumps" foster healthy values in our children.
LIMBONG: You could maybe argue the materialism point, but no one in "Goosebumps" is at risk of serious harm. And there isn't any kissing or canoodling in the books, much less sex. The push to ban "Goosebumps" failed partly because Stine had help warding it off.
STINE: We had so much support from teachers and librarians and reading teachers who saw that kids really went for them and kids really wanted to read them. It helped us a lot back then. They were always right behind "Goosebumps."
LIMBONG: Now would be the part of a profile where I tie something Stine said to a bigger story going on in the news, like the recent rash of book burnings, or maybe land on a tidy summation of his work that points to a deeper meaning, like how "Goosebumps" stories - like all good horror - is actually about deeper, eternal fears. You know, do my friends like me or are my parents acting weird? But "Goosebumps" for the past 30 years has consistently, stubbornly avoided deeper meanings or bigger lessons. Stine never wanted to teach kids anything other than you just got to keep reading to find out what happens next. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
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