Mention the name “R.L. Stine”, and most people will envision scenes of horror. Sinister creatures lurking in the shadows. Evil ventriloquist dummies. Monster blood and haunted masks. His bestselling Goosebumps and Fear Street horror series, after all, have been scaring readers for generations.
It’s difficult to believe, therefore, that Stine never wanted to become a horror writer. Instead, when he started, Stine wanted to write comedy: he created a humour magazine called Bananas, and wrote many joke books for kids under the name “Jovial Ben Stine”, among other things.
But one day, Stine’s editor at Scholastic, the publishers where he was working, asked him to write a scary book. That book, Blind Date, was warmly received – and the rest is history.
“I never planned to be scary. I wanted to be funny! I never wanted to be a horror writer, it was an accident. I always tell kids: you can’t plan where you’re going to end up. There’s no way to know,” Stine, 71, says with a laugh, during a recent interview via Skype arranged by Scholastic.
Sound advice: Stine’s Goosebumps books, after all, are filled with unbelievable scenarios and unpredictable endings. And with their brightly-coloured covers, relatable kid protagonists and deliciously spooky monsters, they are also a delight to read, offering young readers safe scares with ample doses of humour.
Starting in 1992, the Goosebumps brand and its various spin-offs (including Give Yourself Goosebumps, Goosebumps Series 2000, etc) have over 350 million English books in print, plus an additional 50+ million copies in print in 32 other languages. The books are one of the biggest-selling children’s series of all time, and in the mid-1990s, were selling at the rate of four million books per month.
They also spawned a popular television show in the 1990s, also called Goosebumps, which was nominated for several awards, including a Director’s Guild of America award.
“I don’t think anyone thought Goosebumps would be that popular! I think I was more amazed than anybody that it took off like that. I originally signed on to do three books, and that was going to be it,” Stine says.
“No one had ever written a scary series of books for seven- to 12-year-olds before. And I said, let’s just give it a try, we’ll try three of them. And I can’t believe it’s 23 years later!” the effervescent Stine laughs yet again.
I started typing short stories and joke books – and I loved it! My mother begged me to go outside and play. She couldn’t get me out of my room! I just kept typing away!
If you’ve ever wondered what the “R.L.” stands for – no it’s not “Revenge Lurks” or anything sinister like that – it’s “Robert Lawrence”, the name given to Stine upon his birth in 1943 in Columbus, Ohio. He is the oldest of three children; his father, Lewis, was a shipping clerk, while his mother, Anne, was a homemaker, according to rlstine.com.
Even at an early age, Stine seemed destined to be a writer. According to Biography.com, he was writing by the age of nine, crafting stories on an old typewriter that he had found.
“I started typing short stories and joke books – and I loved it! My mother begged me to go outside and play. She couldn’t get me out of my room! I just kept typing away!” Stine says at rlstine.com.
He graduated from Ohio State University in 1965 with a degree in English, before embarking on his writing career. He now lives in New York with his wife Jane and his dog Minnie, according to Scholastic.com. He has one son, and a grandson.
Over the computer screen during our interview, Stine comes across as a bit of a kindly uncle: open and candid, sharing fun little anecdotes as he answers questions from his New York apartment.
“I met Stephen King last April, at the Edgar Mystery Writers Awards. We had a short conversation, it was very nice. He said to me, you’ve used every amusement park theme anyone can do. There aren’t any left! I think that’s pretty funny,” Stine says, referring to his Goosebumps Horrorland series, which is set in an amusement park.
Asked about his writing habits, Stine says that while he was initially able to write for about seven hours a day, he has cut down to four, due to age. He adds that it usually takes two to three weeks to write a Goosebumps book, with planning the outline being the most challenging part. This involves laying out chapter endings – as most Goosebumps readers know, most chapters end with a “hook”, keeping the reader in suspense.
“The chapter endings are very important. That’s what gets kids to keep reading. They come to a chapter end, and say, ‘Oh I just need to read one more!’ So I concentrate a lot on them. I outline every book before I write it, and put the chapter ending in the outline,” Stine explains.
What does he think of the Goosebumps movie, which opened recently?
“I’ve seen it three times already, the last time with the film’s music by Danny Elfman. I like the movie better every time I see it. It’s a lot of fun, a great kid’s movie,” Stine says.
The movie is not an adaptation of any particular Goosebumps tale, rather, it tells the story of Zach (Dylan Minette), a teenage boy who moves to a new town. There he meets his new neighbour Hannah (Odeya Rush) and discovers her father is R.L. Stine (Jack Black) himself!
In the movie, however, all the monsters Stine writes about in his Goosebumps series are real and are locked up by the author in his manuscripts. When they are accidentally released, Zach, Hannah and Stine must team up against iconic monsters to save the day.
“Jack (Black) and I are twins, right?” Stine laughs. “It’s unbelievable. He’s a more evil version of me. He’s very mean at the beginning of the film, and then he kind of mellows out. But Jack is very funny. And the three teenagers in the movie are wonderful. They’re very real, very believable and very funny!”
As he was a character in the film, Stine had to read the script and make sure he was portrayed correctly. This included removing several jokes he didn’t feel he would make.
“I think my main job was reading the script and making sure it wasn’t straight horror. It had to have humour in it, which is what we try to do in the books as well,” Stine says.
If all his Goosebumps monsters were indeed released into the world one day, Stine says the one to fear most would be Slappy, the living ventriloquist doll from Night Of The Living Dummy.
“Slappy’s the most evil of them all, and he’s very smart. And he’s very evil in the movie,” Stine says.
Any monster we wouldn’t have to worry about?
“There was a book I wrote called Egg Monsters From Mars. It was a a pretty funny one, about eggs that came to life. But they didn’t make the movie, so I wouldn’t be worried about them!” Stine laughs.
Might we be seeing more movies set in the Goosebumps world soon? The author is tight-lipped but does drop hints that we could expect something related to Fear Street, his bestselling teenage horror fiction series.
“I hope to have a really big announcement about Fear Street really soon, maybe in a couple of weeks. That’s all I can say. I’m not allowed to talk about it, I can’t tell you what it is. But it’s going to be a lot of fun!” Stine says.
Stine was true to his word. On Oct 9, roughly a week after this interview, 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment announced they would be working on a movie adaptation of Stine’s Fear Street stories. We can’t wait!