Before J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, R.L. Stine helped usher in the blockbuster age of children's literature with his best-selling Goosebumps series. Stine's short, suspenseful tales of everything from a haunted Halloween mask to an evil dummy spawned a cottage industry that included board games, computer games and a popular children's TV series, making him the Stephen King of the YA set.
Now, he's making his first appearance in the Triangle at the North Carolina Literary Festival, where he expects to greet multiple generations of fans. "I usually have people in their late 20s coming up to me at signings going, 'I've been reading your books since elementary school,'" says Stine in a phone call from Long Island, where he's vacationing.
Stine will appear at the main stage for children's authors at the festival from 2:40 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 12. "What I usually do is an interactive thing where I write a ghost story with the kids," Stine says. "That always gets them screaming. Then I tell them a Halloween story or some scary story about when I was a kid and read from the new Goosebumps HorrorLand books I'm doing, and finally I'll answer some questions if there's time. My talk changes a lot, but I've been talking to kids as long as I've been writing for them."
Stine first came to prominence in the 1980s, heading the children's magazine Bananas (his wife, Jane Waldhorn Stine, headed the similarly themed Dynamite) and co-creating the Emmy-winning Nickelodeon series Eureka's Castle. "That was back when I was funny, before I got scary," Stine says with a laugh.
In 1989, he entered the YA suspense realm with such books as The Babysitter and the Fear Street series. But Goosebumps, geared toward a younger audience than his usual horror work, catapulted him to a new level of prominence, with more than 300 million books in print.
Stine is prolific ("Altogether, I've written about 300 books"), though modest ("I've still got a ways to go before I catch up with Isaac Asimov"). He credits his success in part to the fact that his books appeal to both sexes.
"When we started Goosebumps in 1992, there had never been a series that had been as equally read by both boys and girls," Stine says. "There were boys' series and girls' series, and we were amazed when the fan mail came in, and half was from boys and half was from girls. I think that was the real secret of Goosebumps."
Another key to his success might be that for all the horror he inflicts on his young protagonists, they inevitably defeat the evil forces bedeviling them. "You have to have a happy ending!" Stine says. "Kids demand it."
The one time he didn't have a happy ending was the Fear Street book The Best Friend, which ended with the good girl headed to jail and the bad girl triumphant. "Kids hated it! They turned on me! Every school I went to, they went, 'Why did you write that book with the bad ending?' They absolutely could not accept an unhappy ending in this kind of book, so I never did it again." (The follow-up, The Best Friend 2, rectified the first book's ending.)
"People always ask me, 'Is there a moral to your books? Are you trying to teach kids anything?' And the truth is, I'm not," Stine says. "The main motivation in writing these books is to entertain kids and show them they can turn to books for entertainment, and get them reading! But the thing that occurs in all the books is that the kids are on their own, and they use their own imagination, their own wits and their own skills, and they always defeat the monster."
Stine, who recently finished his 100th Goosebumps book, says his biggest challenge in his current writing is "not to repeat myself—to find new ways to scare kids, and new cliffhanger chapter endings." He can't cheat—"My wife is one of the editors, and she'll say, 'You already did that in Book No. 36.'"
We couldn't resist asking Stine about why horror is so huge with younger readers, particularly Twilight and its ilk. "Well," Stine says, "it's sort of an interesting time. These kinds of dark fantasies, I think, take over a bit when the real world is kind of a scary place." In that case, would he do a Goosebumps about the current economy? "That's too scary."