Imagine you’re at a party. Doesn’t matter what kind—house, cocktail, dinner, children’s birthday, anything. At some point, someone is going to ask what you do for a living. Standard question. Now imagine answering, “I’ve written hundreds upon hundreds of books, all specifically designed to terrify young children. By the way, this place is haunted, trust me, I’m an expert.”

That’s how I picture R.L. Stine at parties, anyway, blood in his glass instead of wine. Stine is the mastermind behind the spooky and spine-tingling book series Goosebumps, which itself spawned a series of spin-offs (seriously, the list on Wikipedia is exhausting). My name is Chris Corlew, a writer with the tiniest of a fraction of a percent of Stine’s writing credits, and I’m going to be your horror host over the chilling course of the next five spooky articles as we wander the ghastly gallery of Goosebumps books. Picture me as a combination of the Crypt Keeper and Elvira, but all the wrong parts of both ... 

From “Jovial Bob” Stine To “The Stephen King of Children’s Literature”

Before he shocked the shelves of the Scholastic Book Fair with terrifying tales, R.L. Stine was a humor writer. He wrote joke books for kids under the name “Jovial Bob Stine.” He even started a humor magazine called Bananas, which we have to assume was like Cracked except with fewer-to-zero dick jokes. Stine’s humor could charitably be described as Dad jokes; the dude relishes the goofy and corny. It’s delightful. His website has an old Bananas cover where Darth Vader asks, “What’s red and squishy and wears a black mask? Darth Tomato!” That’s the exemplary cover this unimaginably famous writer chose to advertise his comedy chops. 

RLStine.com

Still better writing than Attack of the Clones.

In 1986, Stine said, “forget the funny stuff. Kids like to be scared!” and wrote his first horror novel, Blind Date. The rest was history. A couple more scare-the-teen books followed, then Goosebumps in 1992. That’s right, article plot twist: Goosebumps is 30 this year! Don’t you feel old, dear reader? Don’t you long for the simple times of yore, when the best day at school was Scholastic Book Fair Day and Night Of The Living Dummy scared the shit out of you? Yeah, we’re all Crypt Keepers now! I myself, at 34, am now old enough to be one of the many shockingly negligent adults in a Goosebumps book. I’m going to assume all of you have been afflicted with some ancient curse that has made you my same age whenever you read these articles. 

Back to Stine: he became, in terms of output and popularity, the Stephen King of children’s lit. Goosebumps has been translated into more than thirty languages and sold over 400 million copies worldwide. But those humble humorist beginnings are important. Side-splitting laughs and spine-tingling scares are similar emotions. There’s a reason that so many of us here at Cracked are horror fans. Humor serves a practical purpose for Stine, too: any time a scene gets too intense, he can “throw in something funny.”

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The Powerful Spell Cast By The Scholastic Book Fair

It’s a testament to my terminal nerdiness, how cool I think this next sentence is. In the 80s, school book fairs were a cutthroat industry. Across the wild and lawless highways of America, roving trucks of books written to entertain elementary-aged kids prowled public schools, vying to be champions of children’s literature. It’s like if season four of The Wire took place in post-revolution Cuba. Only one true hero could emerge, and Scholastic became the king of turning auditoriums into pop-up bookstores. 

1000Photography/Shutterstock

No other sight can make your heart soar at the endless purchasing power of twelve dollars.

For the kid who loved to read, the Scholastic book fair was paradise. Libraries are wonderful, libraries are amazing, but the Scholastic book fair offered rows of gleaming new books you knew were aimed at you and that you could own. The book series you gravitated toward became part of your identity: I was an Animorphs and Goosebumps kid, my brother was a Series of Unfortunate Events kid. My wife was an Amelia Bedelia and Babysitter’s Club kid. It’s not like these were serious cliques like jocks v nerds or anything, but certainly, an early way to attach to friends based on preferences. Or you could symbiote with your homies: I never owned a Boxcar Children book, but I read a lot of them because my friends and I would swap books. Nostalgia for Scholastic book fairs is predictably easy to find if you search the corners of the internet where Millennials live.

Since Stine already had a working relationship with Scholastic through his Jovial Bob years and Bananas, the book fair was ripe for a prolific series to flourish like an open can of Monster Blood. And Goosebumps, with its once-a-month release schedule and eye-gripping covers, emptied a lot of elementary school kids’ wallets. 

30 Years, Over 300 Goddamn Books

After an initial contract of just four Goosebumps books, word of mouth amongst readers got around, and soon a new Goosebumps was coming out every month. The original series—which is exclusively what we’ll be focusing on—ran 62 books from 1992 through 1997. From there came spin-offs like Give Yourself Goosebumps (a choose-your-own-adventure series), Goosebumps 2000 (everything at the turn of the century got the ‘2000’ tag, it was very futuristic), Goosebumps SlappyWorld (Slappy the dummy is the mascot of Goosebumps). If you feel like every suburban white kid you know had a goth phase, boxes full of books covered with barbecuing skeletons, hooded ghosts looming over beachside cemeteries, and Halloween masks that wouldn’t come off probably contributed to that. 

Scholastic Books

Decades later and we’re still looking for this good of a time.

Between Goosebumps and its many iterations, there’s Fear Street, Garbage Pail Kids, The Haunting Hour, Mostly Ghostly, and more. Stine’s said he has written books in 10 days. He’s said he likes to think of a title, then let the title guide the story. That makes perfect sense for a book like The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and probably sounds insane to any writer laboring under the “two years and cut 10,000 words” model of contemporary publishing. 

Speaking as a writer with one short story publication and two novels, three short story collections, and two poetry manuscripts firmly “in progress,” reading about Stine and re-reading his work was really eye-opening. Obviously, he and I are writing for different audiences with different expectations. There is something joyous in imagining Stine at his proverbial old typewriter thinking, “is the werewolf already in Fever Swamp, or does the werewolf come to Fever Swamp? Should the blob eat everyone…in a postmodern way? Why would an abominable snowman be in Pasadena?” It kinda gave me a lesson in being less precious about my writing—sure, you wanna explore the human condition, but at the end of the day, we all gotta say cheese and die sometime. Throw in some jokes and scare the kids. 

A Professional Writer Completes R.L. Stine’s Writing Program

I’m always fascinated by how such prolific writers maintain their output. Obviously, there has to be a formula, or else the writer’s brain goes off the rails, and the brand becomes inconsistent. Dan Harmon has his story wheel, Rivers Cuomo has his spreadsheets, and R.L. Stine has a bag of tricks that he’s made available as a 17-page course for 3rd through 8th graders. Let’s dive in. 

RLStine.com

Feel free to follow along/freak yourself out with multiple images of that creepy dummy.

The way Stine talks about the Idea Store is a useful way to think about writing. Every writer has their own weird analogy for how writing happens, and Stine’s is pretty straightforward and simple—which is sometimes best. Keep your fundamentals tight, your foundation sound. I like his emphasis on details in short events: standing in one place for 10 minutes, picking one event, or describing one hour of your life. I like that he has you revise by hand—I do my best revisions with a printed-out copy of my story, making pen marks in my own little editing code and asking questions of my past self for my future self to answer. It’s also never a bad idea to write in different mediums—writing on a computer is different from writing on your phone is different from writing in a notebook. Keeping cheat sheets for your characters is super important. Regarding outlining: personally, an outline definitely helps me finish a project, even if I’m not using a three-act structure or telling a traditional narrative. Finally, revising—it is a part of the writing process like Stine says. Revise revise revise. Or get famous like Stine and have editors do it for you. 

My one quibble with his “Memories” section of the Idea Store is I like to change names and characters so thoroughly that they’re unrecognizable. It’s never a fun experience to pick up a piece of writing and realize the writer wrote very obviously about you, and personally, I don’t want my friends and family walking on eggshells around me thinking anything they say or do will end up in a story. It might, but I personally feel icky writing something that very obviously parallels my own life. 

That’s what the “What If” section is for, and there’s one Stine quote that will stick with me for a long time: “Your imagination isn’t magic. It’s the result of everything you see and hear and feel and remember—with the extra level of wondering, What If?” That’s the pure joy of writing, taking all of these disparate ideas in your head and creating a little world on paper. It’s clear that Stine loves writing, which made diving into his work really fun. We’ll talk about writing more in the fourth installment of this series. For now, let’s read some spooky books. 

Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living in Chicago. He co-hosts The Line Break, a podcast about poetry, is one half of b and the shipwrecked sailor, and is a fiction reader for Cotton Xenomorph. Drop him a line on werewolf communes or sea monster sightings on Twitter.

Top image: Scholastic Books

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