R.L. Stine on Scaring Children and Teens
R.L. Stine is one of the most popular children’s authors in history, with more than 400 million books sold to date. In 2005, Stine concluded his beloved Fear Street series, assumedly for good. But, in a very Stine-like twist, Fear Street is back from the dead with the newly-released Party Games, just in time for the scariest month of the year. Stine took a small break from touring and terrifying children and teens to talk about Halloween, reviving the series, and what people may be surprised to know about him.
mental_floss: If you count every spin-off and miniseries in addition to the original series, Party Games is the 153rd Fear Street novel.
R.L. Stine: It is?! How is that possible? I thought there were like 80. Are you including the Sagas and Ghosts of Fear Street? I’m going to go take a nap! I can’t believe that.
Fear Street was the first horror series for young adults. Did you know that when you were writing the book?
Everyone said [a young adult horror series] couldn’t be done. There were a bunch of people writing teen horror when I started, but they were doing individual titles, and I was doing individual titles for Scholastic. I’d only been funny up to then. I was writing joke books and was the editor of a humor magazine for kids. I only wanted to be funny. And then this editor asked me if I would write a teen horror novel, and even though I had no idea what she was talking about, I wrote Blind Date. It was a number-one bestseller, and I thought, "Wait a minute—I’ve struck a chord here. I’ve found something kids like!"
A year later, [my editor] wanted another one, and so I wrote Twisted. And it was a number-one bestseller, too. But she only wanted one [book] a year, and I thought, "You know, forget this funny stuff. I’ve got to write these scary books. That’s what these kids want." Kids like to be scared, and I just sort of stumbled into this. I said to her, “It would be nice to do more than one a year—maybe we can do more if we can think of some way to do a series.”
But publishers didn’t want a series because you couldn’t have these horrible things happen to the same kids over and over. That would be ludicrous, right? So I don’t know how I came up with it, but this title just popped into my head. It was the first one I thought of: Fear Street. And I thought, "That would be a place where bad things happen. It’ll be a very normal, suburban town, but there’ll be this one street that’s cursed. People who go to Fear Street or people who move to Fear Street, terrible things would happen to them. And that would be a way to do a series." And that’s how it started, by basing it on the location and not the characters.
You’ve written hundreds of books. Do you worry you’ll run out of ways to scare people?
Stop! Don’t say that! No, no, no. So far I’ve been very lucky. Every time I need an idea, I get one. It may be the same idea six times, but at least I have one each time. You can do the same idea differently.
Are any of those ideas inspired by real events?
Yes, I’ve had a horrifying life. It’s all true. No, no, I make up everything. It’s all made up.
How close to reality do you let yourself get?
The older you get with the audience, the more I think has to be real. The more real you have to be, or they’re not going to buy it. I did a few adult novels and every detail has to be real, everything has to be researched or no one’s going to go along with your story. And so for teenagers it’s sort of in-between. You can get away with a lot of stuff that seems like fantasy, but it has to be much more real than the kids’ stuff.
Is there a scary storyline you’d never include in Fear Street?
Oh, yes. All sorts of things. I wouldn’t write about drugs or child abuse, ever. I don’t even talk about divorce that often. That’s the kind of reality that ruins a story. It’s better if the fears are less real.
I’ve decided that what separate Goosebumps from Fear Street are a haunted thousand-acre woods and hormones.
That’s it! And deaths. There’s not much death in Goosebumps, but there are a lot of deaths over on Fear Street. I kill off a lot of teenagers. It’s kind of my hobby. I was wondering why, recently; Why did I love killing teenagers so much back in the Fear Street days? And then I realized: I had one back at home. Teenagers are tough!
How many more new Fear Street titles are coming?
I’m signed up for six. I’ve written two and just started thinking about the third one. They’re not like monthly paperbacks anymore, like the old days. These are hardcovers, so they’ll come out more slowly, one or two a year.
I just signed on for three more Goosebumps, so I’m continuing both series. And we have a Goosebumps movie coming out in August, so there will be a whole bunch of Goosebumps books coming out next summer to go along with the movie.
Could you even imagine way back in 1992 that you’d still be writing Goosebumps in 2014?
22 years later? No! What series lasts 22 years? When the books first came out, they just sat there for three or four months and no one was buying them. They were a flop. And we thought, "Oh, well, that didn’t work." If it had been today, the bookstores would have taken them off the shelves. It would have failed. The books just didn’t move. But something happened, and I don’t know what or why, but all of a sudden they just took off. It’s this big mystery. There’s this secret network of kids telling kids about the books, and really, that’s what saved it. Just word of mouth. That’s how it happened. Kids just discovered it. It took off all at once.
Kids are great for starting trends. Does the volume of fan mail ever feel overwhelming?
I get a lot of mail. A lot. It’s very funny. I get wonderful mail. A couple of weeks ago I got a letter that said, “Dear R.L. Stine, You are my second-favorite author.” And that’s all it said! That was the whole letter. Talk about suspense!
Any memorable meetings with fans?
Someone had me sign a potato chip once. That’s the strangest thing that I’ve signed.
What are you doing for Halloween?
I love Halloween! I can’t tell you how many Halloween stories I’ve had to come up with, and I have to say it’s my favorite holiday. I think I’ve done every possible Halloween story you could do. The current one is Zombie Halloween, that’s the one that’s out now. And then I have one for next year called Trick or Trap .
When I was a kid down in Ohio, Halloween was three nights long. We used to go out all three nights. The first night was the UNICEF penny drive. We would go around and collect pennies in a little paper milk carton to send to UNICEF. And the next night would be Halloween Eve, and we’d go out trick-or-treating for candy, and the next day was Halloween and we’d go out again.
My family was very poor, and I wanted to be a vampire, or something really scary. But they came back from Kresge's, the dime store, with a costume for me...and it was a duck costume. A fuzzy duck costume, with the yellow tail, and it was awful. And they couldn’t afford to buy other costumes, so I had to be a duck every year! It was embarrassing. I used it in The Haunted Mask. The mother comes home with a costume for her daughter, and it’s a duck costume. She’s so miserable because she wants to scare the other kids.
You also just released The 12 Screams of Christmas, which is the newest Goosebumps book.
I’ve never done a Christmas book before. I’ve had this title for years—I love it, The 12 Screams of Christmas . I just love it, and I’ve written maybe four different stories that no one liked with that title, and so I kept reusing it until I got one that worked.
I hear revision is the harder part.
I’m struggling with that one now. I’m having to do a lot of revising. It’s hard to get the same energy up for revision as you have for writing, you know? It’s just harder. You get it done and you don’t really want to revisit it, and you don’t want to patch it up. It’s just hard.
And I have very tough editors. You know I’m married to my editor [Jane Waldhorn], and she’s a tough one. She’s like a hockey goalie—nothing gets past her. Nothing . She once handed a manuscript back to me and up at the top it said, “Psychotic ramblings.” That was the only comment on the manuscript!
I had no idea your wife was your editor. What else do most people not know about you?
People seem to think that I’m just into horror, or that if I’m interested in horror I can’t be interested in anything else. So they’re shocked when I say that I’m an opera fan. I go to the opera all the time. Or that I’m a fan of country music, I’m not supposed to be into that. Or that I like quaint British novels. Books by P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie and all that. That kind of thing is all wrong!