Cracked's History Of 'Goosebumps': 30 Books In 30 Days
In second or third grade, a friend bragged that his sister read a Goosebumps book a day. I remember being awed by the idea of reading a book in a single day, then finding it pretty easy to do and not having anything else to read until a new Goosebumps came out. That’s how I remember it, anyway, who knows if kids actually remember anything?
As an adult and parent to a four-year-old, reading one book in one month is a minor miracle. Well, I should say that reading Should I Share My Ice Cream eight times a day is easy. Finishing Maria Dahvana Headley’s wonderful Beowulf translation with anything resembling timeliness is hard. This month, I’m going to try to finish books. 30 Goosebumps books. In 30 days. Because it’s the 30th anniversary of Goosebumps. And I am a 30-something.
What follows the harrowing, haunting, terrifying tale of my progress. No lives were lost, but plenty of notes were taken during this arduous journey of literary achievement. What follows has been edited down from mountainous pages of madness, written whilst in the clutches of the hairiest horror one humble internet comedy writer can handle. I shall hereby state that this article was pitched; my editors, being humans of good heart, merely approved but did not assign this task. Beware! Only the brave dare continue reading…
Welcome To Dead House (1): Stine thinks this is too scary for kids. Some really gross, more mature-reader descriptions of skeletons. Lotta Goosebumps narrators are Cassandra figures. Stine doesn’t seem afraid to kill a dog. Is body horror especially affecting to kids? They barely understand anything about their body; of course, they’re afraid of their skin peeling off.
Stay Out of The Basement (2): Plant monsters are a wild choice for Book 2. Great scene where Margaret discovers her dad eating plant food over the sink, and as she’s holding back puke, her brother Casey walks in and asks, “What’s for lunch?” Margaret makes Casey a sandwich twice; kids are never too young to be toxic misogynists. Initially, I wrote “Maybe the most rushed climax in literary history?” but Goosebumps books tend to resolve big issues really quickly, I learned. I will quibble with how underwritten Mr. Martinez is, he’s not even a character.
Thoughts: Read the first five books in order, then jump around. Get started progressing along as Stine did. Going from reading either toddler lit or adult lit to the in-between of chapter books for 10-year-olds is rough. Lotta one-sentence paragraphs. Two books a day is harder than I thought. This would be way easier if my kid were in school. It’s August, and beautiful beach weather outside. I am indoors, reading children’s horror.
Monster Blood (3): Stine has a knack for double entendre openings, where something innocuous sounds spooky. This book starts with “don’t make me stay here.” R.L. Stine is not afraid to make dogs suffer in these books, which is nuts. A lot of people will allow for anything to happen to a human character, but hurting an animal is beyond the pale. I’m not one of those people, but boy, do I wonder what those people think of Goosebumps. This book also has a dream within a dream sequence. I imagine right after you age out of Goosebumps is exactly when you start getting mad at whole scenes being brushed away by “it was all a dream.”
Thoughts: already feeling the pressure of getting this done while doing things like, I don’t know, living life. My kid is a really fun age for going to playgrounds or the beach, but not a fun age for sitting through a chapter book (dude lasted about one page read aloud before asking if he could go outside). Gotta remind myself to enjoy the ride. These books are fun.
Say Cheese and Die (4): The fact that a child disappears for two whole days is just nuts. I liked this book as a kid. Reading this as a parent? Watching Stine gloss right over Shari’s parents’ reactions because the book is from Greg’s POV, and he’s got his own problems? That was terrifying in a different way. Stine is really great at describing adults as they appear to kids. I don’t really have a picture of villainous Spidey in my head, except for an ominous freakishly gaunt and skinny but somewhat Old World refined guy — villain cliches the kids could’ve picked up from TV. When Spidey monologues at the end, he talks openly about being evil, which normal people do not do. This book literally ends with bullies cheerfully passing the camera’s curse back and forth.
Thoughts: still feeling stressed about the monstrosity of this project but invigorated. I really enjoyed Say Cheese and Die. It’s also the first of these books I read in a physical copy, my favorite way of reading.
Thoughts: Goddamnit, I already burned one. No books today because my kid had a doctor’s appointment, and we had friends come to visit from out of town. Fun day, but I spent it thinking about how I should be reading Goosebumps.
The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb (5): “I saw the Great Pyramid and got thirsty” is a great opening line. For some reason, I read it in Steve Harvey’s voice, like a bizarre Family Feud category. I like the idea of having an Egyptian-American narrator, an immigrant kid going back to visit family, but it’s not really explored beyond character description. There’s a “they have Classic Coke, not New Coke, in Egypt” joke in Chapter two. I wonder if the Duffer Brothers liked Goosebumps. They had to, right? Lots of Goosebumps books have a conversation where a character asks another character if they’re “chicken.” Aside from firmly placing these books in the 1990s, I wonder if Stine has a checkpoint on his story outline that reads “‘are you chicken?’ conversation.” Stine uses the word “perspire” a lot, it’s off-putting.
Thoughts: either I’m panicking too much or getting the hang of these books because I breezed through this. Really enjoyed it, too, almost like a long short story pleasantly devoured like a picnic at the beach, like picking at chips and fruit salad until the burgers come off the grill and before you know it, sunset, time to go home. This was a really pleasant experience.
How I Got My Shrunken Head (6): I remember liking this one as a kid. Absolutely not my favorite now. Mark sucks. He’s whiny, he doesn’t listen to his friends/sister, he’s dumb enough to give the secret word to jungle magic to Kareen, and everything good that happens to him is the result of “Jungle Magic,” which opens a whole can of worms about post-colonialism. Baladora is a real region in Sri Lanka, which is a multiethnic democratic socialist state of 22 million people that happens to never be mentioned by name in this book. It’d be a little less cringe if this was “generic island,” but even our Western conception of “generic island” is rooted in the goddamn East India Company. This book is a relic.
Thoughts: What do I want in a Goosebumps protagonist? How much social responsibility do I expect a Clinton-era children’s book writer to have? These are big questions I imagine I’ll keep wrestling with, but here goes: I would prefer if protagonists had some smarts, if they could be described by a blurb writer as “intrepid,” if they’re able to somewhat navigate the situations they find themselves in without being full-blown Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Crucially, they’re better with some allies. Mark pushes his friends away, makes fun of his sister, and is sarcastic to Kareen (before he knows she’s evil). He’s unpleasant. Bad vibes kid.
As far as social responsibility, I get that Stine is writing these once a month. I get that they’re for 10-year-olds. But 10-year-olds sop up knowledge like a biscuit in gravy. Giving the island a name sets the book in Sri Lanka. That means you have an opportunity to give a bunch of mostly American kids a first impression of Sri Lanka. The only character we see besides the researchers is a pilot named Ernesto. We’re given no other info on Ernesto, if he’s from the island, nothing. He’s just a pilot for a couple pages. I don’t know. I think if Stine hadn’t given the island a name, especially since there are no inhabitants, I wouldn’t be having as much of an issue. But there are no humans around, no history of the island except “exploring places no one has been.” Doesn’t sit well.
Why I’m Afraid of Bees (7): Gary Lutz is a 12-year-old Gregor Samsa. All the kids hate him for no reason other than he’s clumsy, his parents are oblivious, his sister’s better at opening jars than he is, he’s got bullies his mom doesn’t care about, and this shadowy Person To Person Vacations office is just ALLOWED TO EXIST DESPITE NOT NEEDING PARENTAL CONSENT FOR KIDS TO DO BODY SWAPPING. We’ll talk more about this later. Twist at the end slaps.
Thoughts: This one is really good, even if Lutz starts out grating. He’s an example of what I didn’t like about Mark. Lutz uses his smarts and resourcefulness to navigate being a bee and comes out the other side a more confident person. If Lutz can improve, we all can improve.
Beware, The Snowman (8): We’re doing a snowman unit! Three-fourths of this is book cosmic horror. I was cheering for there to be no snowman, the cave was terrifying enough. Planet Earth is so good at providing viscous, merciless reminders that humans are insignificant and powerless in the face of nature. Empire Strikes Back is plagiarized, a good in-joke for adults. I could never figure out the “one of them is lying” riddle.
Thoughts: I happened to re-read the email Cracked Managing Editor Cyriaque Lamar sent when he approved this. He declared, “will you just breeze through them in like five hours because they are not long.” Go live in a frigid blizzard mountain with an evil snowman, Cyriaque.
The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena (9): Jordan is a really aggro-dumb guy. It’s interesting that he describes Kara and Kyle—two vicious bullies who mess up his shirt, his and his sister’s bikes, and then drop a (fake) rock on his head—as “ love practical jokes. They’re worse than I am.” Nah, dude, they’re full-on bullies, what do your practical jokes usually consist of? How is it possible the dad doesn’t know how to use a compass? Jordan accepts that people have seen the abominable snowman (“otherwise what are we doing here?”), while Nicole wants facts. Jordan definitely grew up to be Q-pilled and might’ve been at that 2016 Anaheim KKK rally. The diner scene with Arthur describing the snowman attacks while eating is a great example of how good Stine is at controlling pacing and setting a scene. Love so much how nature wins: the snowman isn’t a bad guy, he’s just a dude who thrives in his temperature. As a dude who can barely move in winter and spends every summer completely manic, I understand the snowman.
Thoughts: I remember the line “I used to think had a zoom lens for a nose” from when I was a kid. This book really holds up, I had fun. A fun, good amount of scary final act. Artist to artist, I feel bad for the dad. But I can’t bring myself to feel bad for a Boomer trying to exploit the wonders of the natural world (on stolen land, no less).
The Haunted Mask (10): Halloween day! The basic, underlying idea of Halloween is an inversion of norms. Dualities get messed with, up is down, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Between the mask and the plaster of Paris face cast, Carly Beth’s meek mouse personality vs. cackling evil Carly Beth with the mask on, Carly Beth running in freedom then running in terror, there’s some solid exploration of dualities and binaries here. We’ll talk more about The Haunted Mask later.
Attack of the Jack-O-Lanterns (11): Raddest cover, first of all.
Jack-O-Lanterns are such good Halloween iconography. Halloween is a good playground for Stine. You can just throw a bunch of spooky imagery and atmospheric shit at the wall. The first 30 pages or so are two different flashbacks, an interesting choice. All that said, Jack-O-Lanterns are just so not scary. They … swirl around? They have some fire shooting out of their Jack-O-Holes, which is a cool effect, but still. And then that ending. Good God, that ending.
Thoughts: I like grouping these three books together, then the Slappy books as a group of three. It’s interesting to see how Stine treats different monsters/settings in different books. I’m getting better at reading these books, and they’re getting fun, too.
One Day At Horrorland (12): This book was so fun. The story is breakneck, spooky shit after spooky shit over and over. It’s like a roller coaster, which, you know. Intentional, I’m sure. This book came out two years before George Saunders’s CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, which means it’s unlikely Saunders was influenced by Stine. But I would pay to see both of those dudes on a panel.
Night of the Living Dummy (13): Not enough pop culture twins bicker and rib each other. In Chapter 9, Mr. Wood is talking on his own, and Lindy says, “I think so. I’m all mixed up!” Love the slight little nod to the feeling of “Wait, am I the crazy one here?” How much pea soup vomit is too much? Was the mom reading Carrie? Stine once again has no problem hurting dogs. Love that Slappy is Jason Voorhees the whole time.
Thoughts: I can’t believe I have two more Slappy books.
Night of the Living Dummy 2 (14): Haven’t re-visited the “what do I want out of a Goosebumps protagonist” question in a while. I’m still not sure, but I’d like to celebrate a few things: 1) they’re all quintessentially 90s. Stine’s dated references to kids’ fashion and interests are adorable. 2) they’re all dorks and losers, but not totally friendless and uninteresting. They’re usually just into something that’s slightly out of the mainstream. They probably all grew up to have Tumblrs. They’re easy to root for, is what I’m saying, even when they’re being whiny. Is Slappy the ultimate Goosebumps villain because he makes adults not believe kids? Love that we get a description of Slappy’s boneless walk.
Night of the Living Dummy 3 (15): Third straight appearance of the termite joke. Logical horror franchise progression of having multiple dummies. Slappy was found in a trash can, not a pawn shop. Thrown down a sewer before emerging the last book, and down a well before emerging this book. Problem with Slappy stories is they’re the same story re-skinned with different narrators.
Thoughts: I don’t wanna get too cocky, but I’m breezing through these now. Getting the hang of things. I’m ready to be done not because the task seems daunting or because I hate these books, I’m ready to be done because they are pretty fun, and I’m excited to write about them.
The Werewolf of Fever Swamp (16): Werewolf unit! It is hilariously “white people scared in the 90s” that Grady clarifies he’s not a Raiders fan, he just likes their colors. This is absolutely the best way to end a werewolf story. We’ll talk more about this book later.
Werewolf Skin (17): R.L. Stine loves ranch-style houses. Is R.L. Stine Mr. Shein? If so, I like his description of himself as resembling a pear. Sean and Arjun challenging Alex if he wants to take a picture of a real werewolf is so rad. I’d do the same as Sean and Arjun. I don’t bully people, but if I had access to a werewolf, would I bully people into seeing the werewolf? Maybe. I love that this one also ends with the main character turning into a werewolf. I was expecting the aunt and uncle to be werewolves but not expecting the Marlings not to exist. That was a nice twist.
Thoughts: I can’t be objective about werewolf books. I loved both of these. It rules that the werewolf population increased.
Vampire Breath (18): Count Nightwing is a shitty vampire name. Come on, Stine. Does this book only exist because Stine got to book 49 and realized he hadn’t written a vampire book yet? I do like that the vampires are gross, Nosferatu-looking skeletons who morph into bats. Gross vampires need more representation in contemporary fiction.
Thoughts: Just one today. I went kayaking on Lake Michigan this morning, and it was awesome. It was the opposite of Vampire Breath.
Monster Blood II (19): Monster Blood is the book with the most sequels in classic Goosebumps. How is that possible? Love opening with Evan exasperatingly asking Trigger if he ate Monster Blood again. “It was such a frightening, amazing story. Evan was sure his new friends would find it really cool. // But, instead, they just thought he was weird.” I don’t think you’re weird, R.L. Stine. I think your stories are frightening and amazing. Don’t let those mean kids get you down, Jovial Bob. Naming the bully Conan Barber is the children’s version of Pussy Galore.
The Ghost Next Door (20): “‘Give me a break! What’s the big deal if I like bright colors?’ / Bright colors like flames / “‘Hey dream, get lost.’” I like Hannah. The black shadow with ruby eyes is legitimately creepy. Hannah learning she’s a ghost and being all alone in her house is one of the sadder passages I’ve ever read. WHOAH, DANNY IS THE BLACK SHADOW FIGURE. Great twist. This book rules. Love the detail of Hannah knowing she’s a ghost but still feeling the heat from the fire, having to remind herself she can’t die. She hasn’t gained magic ghost powers just by realizing she’s a ghost. You’d think if God was sending Hannah on this mission to save Danny’s life, he’d at least give her a heads up about being a ghost. But the Goosebumps God, much like the Christian God, is a cruel God.
The Headless Ghost (21): Are Duane and Stephanie the bully kids that are always minor antagonists in Goosebumps? “We put some chicken bones in her mailbox—just because it’s creepy to reach in your mailbox and feel bones.” Is Annabel an Edgar Allan Poe reference? I like that the sea captain's ghost decays. Every kid in Goosebumps can sneak out of the house. “Why do people suddenly start laughing when they’re terrified? I guess it’s because if you don’t laugh, you’ll scream. Or explode or something.” - Thesis statement for Stine’s whole life.
Ghost Beach (22): “I don’t remember how we got to the graveyard”—it has to be tempting to start every book with this, right? Look, I’m a beach person. I live two blocks from a beach, and most of my vacations involve “is there a beach there?” I also think ghost is a perfect word, just a great word to say and look at. I’m not going to not read a book called Ghost Beach, okay? The kids wail, “we never had a chance to live,” yeah, you settlers, neither did the Indigenous People whose land you stole. Love the ending: “Now what do we do with the kids?”
Thoughts: Ghosts are such a versatile horror villain, and I enjoyed reading three quick ghost stories in three different settings. All of Stine’s characters are suburban white kids with few exceptions. I’m not going to knock Stine for writing what he knows when he’s got a novel-per-month workload. It would be cool, though, to have a series like this penned by a team of people. Not a team of people all operating under the Stine name, like James Patterson or most of the comics industry does, but like three or four different writers from different backgrounds operating as a collective or something.
Deep Trouble (23): Very on board with Billy’s eagerness about the ocean, very not on board with stepping on coral. Coral reefs are rapidly disappearing, and we knew that in the 90s, you Gen X dips**t. Be mindful when you’re in the ocean! When the mermaids come to save Billy and his family, but he thinks they’re there for revenge, I wanted it to be true. Just one Goosebumps book where the ocean kills a protagonist, please. Just one.
Piano Lessons Can Be Murder (24): Reading this book for my mom. She tried to make me take piano lessons when I was 10, and I refused. Three years later, I picked up a guitar, and I’ve been wishing I could play piano ever since. I’m poorly, poorly self-taught. I’ve told her before that she was right and I’ve regretted not doing it ever since, but my mother deserves a public apology.
Thoughts: I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I kinda hope it’s Satan calling me home to the afterlife. I didn’t dislike any of these books, I just didn’t care about them. I love the ocean and sea monsters, and I love piano, but I can’t say I’m stoked about any of these.
A Night In Terror Tower (25): It occurs to me that the first time I read this, I was six years away from my first trip to the U.K. I assumed England was made of castles at that age, and that’s only half-right. We’ll talk more about this book later.
The Blob That Ate Everyone (26): I don’t usually go for Blob monsters, but enjoyed this one as a nice twist on the “what the writer writes comes true!” genre. I was worried the blob would come out of the typewriter because of the lightning fire. If Zackie is a Stine stand-in, I love that she’s scared of everything. It’s adorable.
Thoughts: We’re back, enthusiasm-wise! Terror Tower messed with the formula in interesting ways, and Blob got me excited to take Stine’s writing course later. He seems passionate about kids loving books, and him having a writer as the narrator is probably a fun peek behind the curtain for an eight-year-old.
Welcome To Camp Nightmare (27): Another one I wish I’d read earlier. Stine does a great job handling a larger cast of characters than usual, and it feels like he has fond memories of summer camp? This book is a joy, we’ll talk more about it later.
Legend of the Lost Legend (28): The premise of the Goosebumps movie is Stine as a writer whose stories are coming to life. It seems like Stine takes his role as a writer writing toward kids who are learning how to read and process the world seriously, so I’m going to assume he takes this narrator character seriously. It’s not the best practice to read a book as a writer projecting, but Stine’s other work seems to point to this being something that at least passingly preoccupies him. I love that this book has stories spiraling out of stories, almost like 1001 Nights. Makes you never really sure whatever you’re reading is real. This book starts in Antarctica and then goes to a wooded campground with maybe a wolfdog, it’s not exactly some suburban house. Action-packed, and I enjoyed this twist.
Thoughts: Today was the first day my wife said, “You always have a Goosebumps book to read.” Made it 18 days without her getting so annoyed that she said something. Shoutout to supportive partners.
How to Kill A Monster (29): Finally, 29 books in, a guidebook. Been waiting for this. Do I accept a furry monster with a scale-like head? Is this acceptable? Confusing taxonomy. Grandparents are Peak Boomer, trapping the swamp monster and then locking the kids in the house with it. There’s a book in here I want to read. I like the idea of a swamp monster allergic to humans, like the land fighting back against humans. Maybe that’s a writing prompt.
Bad Hare Day (30): Saved this for last because I figured I’d be pretty fatigued by now, so why not read a deliberately silly one at the end? This book is … IDK, man. If magic’s your thing, cool. I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters, the ending is rushed, and my spine wasn’t tingled. A project like this could only go out with a whimper, remembering the highs and forgetting the lows. I don’t need to read Bad Hare Day again. It’s a skip.
Thoughts: Joy and indifference, what a way to end. Goddamnit. Never again. But my kid will be Goosebumps reading age soon and already loves spooky stuff, so now I know which ones I’ll be reading and skipping if he ever gets into the series. This was worth it for that.
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.