If you were born anytime after 1980, chances are that the last thing you saw everynight before you went to bed was the page of an R.L. Stine book. Stine, the master of horror for kids and pre-teens has been at it for 20 years, churning out over 100 “Goosebumps” books, a TV series, and now Hub TV’s R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour.
Last week I had the chance to chat with Mr. Stine, armed with questions crafted by myself and my newfound partner in crime, Anne Sisk, and I got to ask the King of Spookiness what scares him, why we want to be scared, how it is writing children’s books in the internet age, and all about the challenges of writing his adult novel, Red Rain. Here is what Mr. Stine had to say:
Is it harder to scare kids now and have you changed your style at all with kids increasingly moving away from books and turning to TV and the Internet and that kind of thing?
I don’t accept that, kids are reading a lot. Years ago the children’s book business was tiny, it was a very small part of a publisher and now it’s a billion dollar industry. Kids are reading. Children’s book sales are up eight percent for this year so I think kids are reading which is a really wonderful thing.
I really haven’t had to change much, when you write scary books you don’t have to change much because the fears never really change. You know; being afraid of the dark, being afraid of what’s under the bed ready to grab you, being afraid that you’re being chased, that never changes so that’s kind of lucky for me.”
Why do you think we want to be scared by spooky stories when we’re little and even now as adults?
Well, I think kids like to be scared a lot, but they have to know they’re safe at the same time. It’s really fun to go out and have these creepy adventures and fight the monsters and battle all this adversity if you know that you’re safe reading in your room at the same time. And I’m very careful with my books, like with the Goosebumps, that kids have to know that this is a fantasy. This is fantasy horror, this isn’t going to happen, this can’t happen to you. Yeah, it’s very creepy, but they have to know that it can’t happen and it’s not going to go too far.
Has there ever been a fear or a theme or an image where you’ve started to go in that direction and then you’ve had to pull yourself back, you didn’t want to go that far. Is there anything you consider “off-limits”?
Very rarely, I’m kind of conservative with it. A lot of times my editors are saying “Hype it up. Make it scarier, make it scarier.” I hear that a lot more. Every once in a while I will, like the very first Goosebumps book is called Welcome to the Dead House, this kid moves to a new town and all these kids come up to him and say “I used to live in your house” and it was the very first one I did and they’re all like zombie kids and they’re out to get him and right now I think it was too scary. I think that book went too far, the first Goosebumps book.
And after that one I kind of realized it and I pulled back and I started adding a lot more humor.
Is there still a challenge for you? You’ve been doing this for so long.
I find it much more of a challenge cause it’s twenty years of Goosebumps, twenty years, it’s over one hundred books and so I guess I’ve done every story you could possibly do, right? So to find new scares and new plot lines and not repeat myself has become a lot more of a challenge, but that’s kind of fun for me.
How do you, just as a writer I have to ask, how are you that prolific? How are you able to day in and day out pump out high quality material like that for such a long period of time?
I don’t know, it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, you can ask my wife really. It’s the only thing I’m competent at and I just love it, I’ve been doing it since I was nine years old and I still look forward to getting up and sitting down at the computer and banging out ten more pages a day and getting new stories.
I don’t know what else I would do all day, but the writing is fun for me because I do so much planning first. I do all my planning before I write.
I chart out the whole book; I do very complete outlines of every book I write before I sit down to write, so by the time I’m writing I know everything that’s going to happen in the book. And then I can just fill out the outline and have fun with the writing and enjoy it and that helps me I think to turn out more books than having to plot it as I go.
I noticed in the ‘Weeping Woman’ episode of the Haunting Hour series, I noticed a bit more social commentary and implied marital trouble, are kids these days responding to that kind of stress more? Can you now add those kinds of pressures?
I don’t do it much, but the Haunting Hour is sort of aimed more for teenagers and for families and so they’re pushing it a little farther, the writers. They decided to make the Haunting Hour a bit darker then the Goosebumps books and they’re teenagers instead of kids involved so they’re getting into some of those issues that I wouldn’t do in the books.
In the ‘Weeping Woman’ the basis of the story is the myth of La Llorona, so you kind of have this cross-cultural terror happening. Do you find yourself pulling inspiration from different cultures like this or is it more like these are certain fears that undercut all cultural differences?
I think the fears all are the same, but there are wonderful legends in all these cultures and it would be nice to be able to explore them. But that’s the same fear, that statue is not very much different from Lilly D, that doll that came to life is it?
You just released Red Rain, which is a novel that’s targeted for adults. What’s the bigger challenge: creeping out and scaring kids or scaring adults?
Oh for me scaring adults because I’m not used to it, so it’s a much bigger challenge and I just wrote it because I thought I needed a challenge. Kids’ books are a lot of fun and they’re so easy, they really are a pleasure for me and I thought why not do something hard? Why don’t I do something a little more ambitious?
And then I have all my readers from the 90s who’ve grown up, all those Goosebumps/Fear Street readers who were 10 back then are all in their 20s and 30s, and they’ve been telling me “write for us, please write something for us”. So that’s why I wrote Red Rain, but I found it was a challenge.
How long did it take you to write it?
Five months and I did research for a month, mainly on that island. You know, it takes place on an outer banks island off South Carolina and I’ve never been there, so I just sort of deliberately did it as a game for myself to see if I could really research it and get it right and get all the details right; the vegetation, the birds and do it right. So, I spent about a month doing research and then five months writing it which is a lot for me because the Goosebumps books take a couple weeks.
Is that something you want to continue to pursue. do you want to keep writing for adults or mix and match?
If people like it, yeah I’d enjoy doing more. I love writing for my original audience, I mean those are my kids, those are my people from back in the 90s and I love writing for them, but it just depends if it’s a hit or not. If people really buy it and enjoy it I would love to do more otherwise nobody will ask me to do more.
I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
They won’t answer my calls.
What scares you?
I have no good answer for that, I don’t get scared. I have normal adult fears of course, but horror doesn’t scare me at all. I go to a scary movie or something I don’t know what that feeling is of being scared, I always laugh. When I read a horror novel it makes me laugh, I always find horror funny.
People say “Oh, I was up all night because of your book, you scared me so badly” — I wish I could feel that. I’ve never had that feeling I always find that funny.
Who is your favorite horror writer? If you have one.
Steven King is, I think he’s a wonderful story teller and there are a couple of Steven King books that I think are amazing. Pet Cemetery is one and Misery is another book I just think are brilliant, maybe the best book ever written about writers and editors.
R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour airs on Hub TV at 6PM ET on Saturdays and you can learn more about the show here. If you want to pick up a copy of Red Rain, you can get it at Amazon.com and wherever fine books are sold.
Special thanks to Nick Bungay for all his transcription help.