Okay, ghouls and gals and every soul specter in between, we’ve talked about R.L. Stine. We’ve talked about scaring the crap out of kids. We’ve Sealey Challenged Goosebumps. Now, let’s do some rankings: what’re the best books from the original Goosebumps series? 

Is this a definitive “best of” list? No, “best of lists” are for Rolling Stones albums in the aughts. This is my opinion, based on the 30 books I read plus general knowledge/remembrance of the rest of the series. “To rank is human,” as my dear friend Anuj once sighed while he and I were trying unsuccessfully to convince otherwise intelligent humans that Scottie Pippen was better than Rick Barry. You might think How I Got My Shrunken Head is better than The Headless Ghost, I might disagree with you, and it doesn’t really matter because they’re both good books anyway. Just like it doesn’t really matter if you think Rick Barry is better than Scottie Pippen. We’re just gonna have some fun with Goosebumps, and hit me up with your favorite Goosebumps in the comments or on Twitter

One more thing we’re going to do: dig into these books with tools from R.L. Stine’s “writer’s toolbox.” Every writer has reliable tricks and tics, unique ways they use language/plot/character, and certain particular flourishes. R.L. Stine is really great at a lot of things: pacing and scene setting, wild ideas, viscerally gross descriptions, showing adults as kids see them, capturing the disinterested parents/‘you kids go ride bikes’ ennui of Gen X, and that’s just the stuff off the top of my head. We’ll explore more here, so writers, get your ideas crankin’. Stine would love it. 

The Haunted Mask

The book: Carly Beth is scared of everything, all of the time. To get one over on her schoolmates who pick on her, she wants a really scary Halloween mask, which she finds in the back section of a Halloween store after closing time despite being warned by the harbinger shopkeeper that the masks are not for sale. That shopkeeper, by the way, has an insane backstory involving failing chemistry class, but in this book, all that matters is he’s a rare good adult in Goosebumps. He does everything he can to dissuade Carly Beth from buying the mask, but she does it anyway. A normal Goosebumps adult would’ve been like, “sure, kid, have fun,” and let her stay haunted forever. 

Scholastic Books

In fairness to Carly’s decision making process, that mask absolutely slaps.

Anyway, she puts the mask on, can’t get it off, and finds that it changes her personality. She steals the plaster face her mother made of her, is mean to her friends, terrorizes children, and sprints through the night, relishing the rush that evil gives her. When she discovers the mask is fused to her face, she freaks out. Desperate to return to normal, the shopkeeper tells her the mask can only be defeated with an act of love. She uses the plaster of Paris face her mother made to get the haunted mask off, and all is well until her brother puts it on, TWIST! End of book. 

Favorite element of Stine’s writer’s toolbox: The terrifying hook in the mundane. It’s just…a Halloween mask you can’t get off. That’s it. But not only is Carly Beth stuck with a different face, she can feel herself turning into a different person. I alluded to the shopkeeper’s backstory earlier, and sure, you can build out a world of sequels based on this hook and this one character if you want to. But I didn’t read any of those, and they’re not necessary. This is a cool one-off based on one spooky hook. 

Writing prompt: Something interesting I learned about Stine doing this is he often starts a book with a title, letting the ideas unfurl from there. This book was thought up when Stine’s kid had a mask he couldn’t get off. It’s also the book Stine’s most proud of, which makes my Dad heart flutter. I think it’s an interesting way to start a story, so I tried a couple of flash fiction pieces this way. I’m terrible at titles, so they’ll all have to be changed later, but it’s not a bad exercise: start with a title, throw some imagery and characters and setting on the page, and let the writing take you away. It’s definitely something I’ll keep in my own writer’s toolbox for when writer’s block strikes, sort of like taking a wrench to a stuck hose spigot. 

A Night In Terror Tower

The book: Taking a tour Terror Tower in London, Sue and Eddie get separated from their tour group while exploring a room where a prince and princess were once locked away awaiting execution. That’s a little thing called foreshadowing. The kids are approached by a scary man dressed in black—The Lord High Executioner—who cases them all around the tower, back to their hotel, and back through time. Sue and Eddie are actually Princess Susannah and Prince Edward of York, and their whole “being alive” status stands in the way of their uncle taking the throne. Their tour guide is also in the past and is revealed to be Morgred, the king’s sorcerer. Mongred sent the kids into the future with wiped memories to protect them from execution. After more escape-the-executioner drama, the three once again escape to the safety of the 1990s. 

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Presumably empowering this guy to be the first person in history to complain about millennials.

Favorite element of Stine’s writer’s toolbox: A true parentless world. These are kids at their most adventurous. They’re free to move through the world like adults: vacation means no being home for dinner or school obligations the following day. Just stay with the tour group … and they can’t even manage that. Being preteens, they’re resourceful enough to grab a cab back to the hotel but not resourceful enough to pay the cabbie. There’s an inherent tension in thinking you’re old enough to manage on your own but being so young that no one would mistake you for an adult. I remember being that age, wanting to go off on my own and explore for myself without the set schedules of parents, teachers, and chaperones. My brother and I accidentally snuck into Epcot one time trying to find a bus station. 

Writing prompt: A Night In Terror Tower is based on Princes In The Tower, so you can have conversations about adaptation and getting inspiration for stories. Obviously, A Night In Terror Tower is fictionalizing historical events, adding a magical element to ease the horror of state-sponsored execution of children. A fun writing exercise is to take a historical event, throw in some fictional characters, and add magical elements. The trick is: the magical element cannot be a deus ex machina that solves all the problems (Stine does this, obviously, because this is a kids’ book). Throwing magic at historical events is how we got Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and the world is a better place with both books in it. 

One Day At Horrorland

The book: When Dad forgets the map to Zoo Gardens at home, the Morris family vacation hangs by a thread. What, no GPS in the 90s? They come across Horrorland and decide to go in, which is good because their car explodes in the parking lot. Separated from their parents, who are looking for a car or phone, the kids explore the park. Lizzy, Luke, and Clay find the Doom Slide, Coffin Cruise, and a straight-up bat attack a little too scary. They reunite with their parents, who, for some reason, I pictured as Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman from Matilda, and then all of them are captured by the Horrorland Horrors (employees). Before the Horrors can kill the Morrises and Clay, Lizzy remembers a “no pinching” sign and discovers that pinching the Horrors deflates them. The Morris family pinches their way to freedom because this book is for 10-year-olds. 

Scholastic Books

It’s worth mentioning that this predates the Simpsons episode with this premise by 8 months.  Sorry, Simpsons; Goosebumps did it.

Favorite element of Stine’s writer’s toolbox: Stacking scares on top of scares. Stine is really good at having a bunch of spooky situations before the main spooky situations, and it keeps his books page-turners. One Day At Horrorland is R.L. Stine’s Cabin In The Woods. No wonder he ended up devoting a whole series to the park: it’s literally a playground for the horror writer. You know how much casually gross stuff you can just slip in as a side attraction in a haunted amusement park? It’s a dream. This is why so much of Scooby-Doo took place in abandoned amusement parks. 

Writing prompt: Find a world as rich as an amusement park and write in it. Maybe a mall, a zoo, a cruise ship, a hotel, or someplace where there will be a large cast of characters and settings, but it’s still in one defined location. George Saunders is excellent at this in his collections CivilWarLand In Bad Decline and Pastoralia. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is excellent at this in his collection, Friday Black

Night of the Living Dummy II

The book: That’s right, a sequel makes the list! Amy is an aspiring ventriloquist with severe middle child syndrome. Her old dummy, Dennis, is falling apart, but luckily, her dad finds Slappy at a pawn shop. Predictable mayhem ensues, and Slappy tortures Amy through various sneaky ways: destroying her sisters’ art, insulting her parents, hurting a little kid at a birthday party gig Amy booked to perform her ventriloquist act. No one believes her when she blames Slappy. Eventually, the family debates whether they should send Amy to a psychiatrist or punish her for two weeks. They choose the latter. Just when it seems like this is never going to end, the family discovers Slappy’s treachery and set a trap to kill him. Jed, the younger brother, disguises himself as Dennis and bashes Slappy’s head into a bedpost, breaking the dummy cranium in half, which is just a wonderful detail to include in a children’s book. Except, of course, it wasn’t Jed who killed Slappy…

Scholastic Books

Somehow the evil dummy is still the least unpleasant part of this room.

Favorite element of Stine’s writer’s toolbox: Capturing the feeling of being a kid. I felt genuinely miserable for Amy this whole book. She’s an eccentric little kid—she wants to be a ventriloquist—but mostly, she just wants respect and validation from her family. Instead, she’s constantly getting in trouble for things that aren’t her fault. That “world is against me” feeling comes across on the page. Stine may never be scary to adults because the books are such self-conscious cartoons, but he’s really good at wrangling real “this has got to be devastating to these kids” feelings. In a series where the reader spends a lot of time inside the heads of preteens, this book stands out. 

Writing prompt: Write a story from the perspective of someone a lot older than you or a lot younger than you. If it helps, read some stories (fiction or nonfiction) with first-person narration from someone in that age group. For kids’ narration, Aimee Bender writes them very well in her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and the story collection The Girl In The Flammable Skirt. Try to resist anything that feels “easy” and push yourself to really get inside the mind of your narrator. 

Welcome To Camp Nightmare

The book: Billy is going to Camp Nightmoon, a sleepaway camp out in the woods. As soon as the bus drops the campers off, weird stuff starts happening: no one meets them at the bus stop, wolves attack, they’re saved by a guy with a rifle calling himself “Uncle Al.” When the kids get to camp, the counselors seem indifferent, kids start disappearing and are never spoken of again, and there are dangerous creatures in something called a Forbidden Bunk. Bad times all around. Finally, Uncle Al says two campers have escaped from the girls’ camp, and he gives the boys rifles to hunt them. When Billy refuses, Uncle Al leaps at him, and Billy shoots him…with a blank. Uncle Al laughs, says Billy has passed the test—he’s been part of a government training program this whole time, readying him to join his scientist parents on a scientific exploration of a strange new planet: Earth. 

Scholastic Books

Yup, that sounds like how science works.

Favorite element of Stine’s writer’s toolbox: The insane twist ending. Nowhere in the novel is it hinted that these kids are aliens, except for the weird creatures sprinkled throughout. It’s a really fun way to make this weirdo camp work. An adult book would have it that these kids were being sold into child slavery or something. Instead, we get wish fulfillment. The twist at the end really works, too—this isn’t a kinda dumb reveal of Attack of The Jack-O-Lanterns, this is more of a Twilight Zone-type twist. And boy, Stine predicting aliens would need rifle training before visiting Earth even though this takes place before the era of mass shootings—here’s a guy with his finger on the pulse of America, amirite? 

Writing prompt: This book feels, as a reader, like Stine had fun. There’s something about the writing here—he’s relishing the big cast of characters and all the camp descriptions in a way that’s basically the opposite of him writing Vampire Breath, which is written like an army of editors, lawyers, and publishers are holding rifles to his head, firing-squad style. So the prompt is opposites: find a topic you’d love to write about and a topic you’d be totally indifferent towards. Write one page on each. As you re-read those pages, think about how you felt writing both. What’s good and bad about both? What was difficult and what was easy about both? Now blow the one you’re indifferent towards out into a full story. How did you feel doing that?

Don’t worry, we’ll get back to joy because: 

The Werewolf of Fever Swamp

The book: I don’t actually know if this book is good, I just know I can’t be objective about werewolf books unless they’re really atrocious. This book rules. It’s got a werewolf and a swamp, and honestly, who cares what else? Grady is forced to move to Fever Swamp because his dad’s doing an experiment to see if South American deer can live in Florida’s swamps. He meets a local boy, Will, and a dog, Wolf. There’s a swamp hermit. One of the deer gets killed mysteriously, and everyone thinks it’s Wolf. The swamp hermit warns against trusting Wolf. Of course, being a good doggo, Wolf is not a werewolf—but he is a great companion to Grady after Will turns Grady into a werewolf. 

Scholastic Books

He is the goodest of both bois and horror genres.

Favorite element of Stine’s writer’s toolbox: Having the main character embrace the horror. This is absolutely the way to end a werewolf story, and I’m not just saying that because I secretly want to be a werewolf (it’s so easy to manage, just put reinforced steel in your garage so you can lock yourself up during transformations. You can be a high-functioning werewolf! Fight me). Being turned into a werewolf does alter you, but it’s not like your soul is automatically damned, like being a vampire. As a werewolf, you are simply a different part of nature now. Remember in Nope, how OJ learns to deal with the aliens by understanding them as part of nature? At the end of this ordeal, Grady’s mostly happy he can explore the swamp with his dog. Good for him. Sure, the last line is “I’m ready to hunt,” but we’re just gonna gloss over that. Everybody has to eat. 

Writing prompt: As you can see, my personal affection for werewolves clouds my reading of the book. Writing and reading should be fun, though. Take a blank page and indulge your obsessions for a little bit. Throw a bunch of stuff you love on the page. Go nuts, be your weirdest self. The details of your obsessions and idiosyncrasies will be what define you as a writer, whether you like it or not. I mentioned Nope earlier. One thing I love about Jordan Peele is he seems like a dude who makes movies because they’re what he wants to see on screen. Sure, his films have social commentary, but watch a Jordan Peele movie and picture him as one of the Key and Peele valets, talking about movies purely in terms of what’s awesome about them. Every time I watch a Jordan Peele movie, I get the feeling that a part of his true self is that valet, talking about his own movie like “YOU SEE WHEN KEKE PALMER DID THAT SIDEWAYS MOTORCYCLE SLIDE??!” Find your inner valet and write around it. Then, find some extremely trusted friend, show your writing to them, and ask them where you need to tone it down. Because trust me, you’re gonna need to tone at least something down. But don’t worry about that while you’re writing, that’s a problem for Future You. And your Very Trusted Friend. 

And that’s my Goosebumps Top 5 Plus One. Could’ve been a longer list, honorable mentions to Say Cheese and Die, How To Kill A Monster, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and The Ghost Next Door. Do you, an adult reading this, need to go revisit the Goosebumps series? Probably not. But these books are seriously fun. If your kid is into them, read along a couple times. If you’re an educator, stock these in your classroom. Or if you just want some fun goofs around Spooky Season, read these while the yellowed leaves fall and you have to turn your collar up against a cool breeze from the sea. But do not give in to fear, dear reader. Wrap a wooly sweater over your arms’ goose pimples. Embrace your inner werewolf! Defeat a slavemaster dummy! Stave off the executioner!

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.

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