Like millions of other kids in the early 1990s, I regularly subverted bedtime rules and took a flashlight under my covers to consume the latest book in R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. Stine, who is Jewish, has been called “the Stephen King of children’s literature,” and his legendary villains, like Slappy the Dummy and The Abominable Snowman, haunted my nightmares. They also ignited my abiding love for all things spooky.
As a traditional Jewish gal and devoted horror buff, I often get a little wistful around Halloween—if there’s one pagan-oriented ritual with Celtic influences that I’d want to wholeheartedly partake of, this holiday would so be it. This year, though, I was more than happy to make do by catching up with the master himself, Robert Lawrence Stine—who goes by Bob—on the eve of the eve of Halloween.
“It was never my plan to be scary at all,” Stine, who recently turned 71, told me after I finished excitedly crediting him with my love of horror. “I only wanted to be funny.”
Stine initially pursued comedy and wrote nearly 100 joke books for kids under the pen name “Jovial Bob” and edited Bananas, a humor magazine for Scholastic, in the 1970s and ’80s, eventually creating and writing for the early ’90s Nickelodeon show Eureka’s Castle. But a casual lunch with his Scholastic publisher helped turn the tide of children’s literature forever.
“My publisher had just had a fight with an author of hers who wrote teen horror novels, and she was fed up and told me, ‘You could write these books!’” recalled Stine. “She even told me what the title should be: Blind Date. I was at that point in my career where you don’t say no to anything, so I did exactly what she said.”
Blind Date was an instant bestseller, an achievement Stine said he had never came close to before. His second horror novel, Twisted, achieved similar results. “I thought, forget funny, kids like to be scared!” More than 300 books—and 350 million copies sold—later, his lunch date is probably feeling pretty proud right now. “I’m actually a little embarrassed that switching to horror wasn’t my idea,” said Stine, who fondly remembers reading horror comic books like Tales from the Crypt at 9 years old—the same age he began writing his own jokes and stories.
In 1989, Stine began the Fear Street book series, keeping them pretty kosher—they contained no overt references to sex, drugs, or rock ‘n’ roll, purposely differentiating his work from that of other teen horror novelists like Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan. Goosebumps, a series for younger children, followed in 1992.
Stine mastered the art of taking regular staples of childhood—a game of tag, summer camp, an amusement park—and lending them a sinister element, bringing terror to the typical. An ordinary-looking camera in Say Cheese and Die turns out to be a harbinger of terrible accidents for anyone who uses it. A Halloween mask becomes monstrously permanent in The Haunted Mask, a book that was actually inspired by Stine’s son, Matt, who, as a child, tried on a green rubber Frankenstein mask and found himself unable to get it off. “I probably should have helped him, but I was too busy taking notes,” Stine admitted.
Not that his son would’ve known. “His claim to fame was that he never read my books,” laughed Stine. “He knew it made me crazy, but I know so many authors with similar situations. I’ve met Kurt Vonnegut, who told me his daughter wouldn’t read his books for anything. And he’s Kurt Vonnegut!”
But plenty of kids did read Stine’s work, which spawned a Goosebumps television show which aired from 1995 to 1998, several video games and novels for adults. He recently revived his Fear Street book series after a 20-year hiatus, a move that was met with rabid excitement from childhood fans.
Stine’s days are filled with writing and book touring; he’s even working on Halloween, when he’ll ring the NASDAQ closing bell. “Greed keeps me going,” he joked. “But really, I don’t have time for burnout or writer’s block. I have so many more books to write.”
He admits, though, that his productivity has dropped somewhat following his embrace of social media. “Oh boy, I’m on Twitter all day,” he said. “It’s a terrible distraction but also the perfect way to keep in touch with my 90s readers, now in their 20s and 30s.” Stine has 135,000 followers on Twitter (his bio reads, “My job: to terrify kids”), and feels gratified hearing regularly from fans who credit his books with having gotten them through a tough time as children, or with the fact that they became librarians or writers. “It’s great for my ego, and my wife, Jane, has to bring me down and keep me humble,” Stine said. “She’s pretty good at it too.”
Stine had a fairly traditional Jewish upbringing—he attended Hebrew school almost every weekday and on Sundays growing up, and celebrated his bar mitzvah. He still celebrates some Jewish holidays, hosting a seder in his New York City home each year for his immediate and extended family on whatever day of Passover they can all make it.
Stine informed me proudly that he isn’t the only writer in his household; Jane writes a haggadah for each seder based on the events of the previous year, complete with pop culture references like Bruce Springsteen songs. At the end of the seder, Stine hands out kazoos to play to the tune of Dayenu: “Because nobody knows all the words to that, right?”
“You should write a Goosebumps-themed haggadah!” I blurted out, unable anymore to contain my excitement at talking to a childhood hero. “I promise, it’ll be a best-seller.”
Stine laughed, though he demurred at the suggestion. But if any of you see a haggadah this year featuring monster blood and Egyptians zombies, you’ll know who helped inspire the idea.