Today marks the seventy-fifth birthday of the man responsible for millions of nightmares and even more thrills and chills accompanied by tween grins. If you don’t know him for his Goosebumps empire, perhaps you are familiar with his creation of the Fear Street franchise, or maybe you go truly old school and remember watching the beloved kids’ show Eureeka’s Castle on Nickelodeon. Stine was the co-creator and head writer for one of the most popular children’s shows of all time.
The man who has made quite the living scaring kids the world over wasn’t even interested in being a horror writer at first. Stine went by the name of “Jovial Bob Stine” and produced numerous humor books for kids and also created a magazine called Bananas before getting into the world of creepy.
During his time on Eureeka’s Castle, Stine began penning horror novels for young adults. His first one was Blind Date. Thus, an unexpected career was born. Soon, Stine would be one of the biggest selling authors on the planet, and all it would take was some Monster Blood.
1989 saw the beginning of his wildly successful Fear Street series. The books were aimed at young adults, between eighth grade and high school but some of us (like me) ventured into Stine’s world at a much younger age and if the fantastic covers didn’t get you, the chilling tales would. High schoolers smoked, skipped school, engaged in smooch sessions.. and got ruthlessly murdered. Damn, those were awesome books! The franchise continues to get revivals from Mr. Stine every once in a while and there were talks of a film being made a few years back but nothing really came from those rumors up to this point.
For some folks, one massive book franchise just isn’t enough. The horror world thanks their lucky stars that Stine continued, this time taking aim on a younger crowd with a book series called Goosebumps.
For those of us who grew up craving all things creepy and weird, Stine delivered in a monumental way. The books were written with children as the main characters and while the kids always seemed to get out of trouble, there was so much tension and youthful fright within the book that the reader was always uncertain – maybe this was the book where the kids DIDN’T make it?
Stine managed to do the almost impossible – he created scary books for kids without upsetting parents. His series was completely void of death – if the monster got a character during the story, they’d most definitely return at the end of the book, albeit either dazed and unsure of what happened or covered in slime, once the monster was cast away. The books also kept drugs and gratuitous violence out of the picture. Sure, the books were full of evil gnomes, ghost dogs and angry ventriloquist dummies but they weren’t low brow and Stine took great pride in that.
As a kid, though, the last thing I wanted was to read this awesome scary book and then get beaten over the head with a lesson high in moral fiber. Thankfully, Stine steered away from that, too. He famously stated that he did not attempt to wedge a moral lesson into his books, rather preferring his novels to be “strictly reading motivation”.
Here’s the thing – I can discuss the incredible number of sales Stine has enjoyed with his Goosebumps series (over 400 million) and I can run down his list of achievements (including managing to be on the bestseller list as a children’s horror writer) but as the day comes to a conclusion and Stine is undoubtedly enjoying the most non-horror writer evening on this, his seventy-fifth birthday, I want to get a little personal.
It was a rainy afternoon in northern Illinois and school had just let out. A chubby, overly energetic boy sloshed through the puddles to the car waiting for him across the street from Glenwood Elementary.
In the driver’s seat, my mother greeted me. I noticed my younger sister wasn’t in the backseat and I asked what gave. Turns out, Ma had grocery shopping to do before she picked me up, so she left my sister at home with my father. This meant I’d be tasked with carrying in grocery bags with Ma. Not a favorite responsibility for any third grader.
That’s when my Ma pulled a small plastic bag from the center console of the car and offered it to me with one of her patented spooky grins. She reserved this smile only for when she would ask if I wanted to watch a scary movie with or if she was suggesting a hooky day from school. I knew something was up and I grabbed the bag with just a little hesitation, but mostly excitement.
It was a book. Soft cover and… amazing.
The sickly blue and green hues captured my attention immediately. The enormous monster hiding behind a sign that looked like it may have been written in blood stared at me from the cover. It was called One Day At Horrorland. Before I had even read a sentence, it was my favorite I owned. Maybe because of the cover, but some twenty-plus years after receiving it, I know the real reason I love it so much is because my Mom, my horror hero growing up, got it for me.
From that point on, after devouring the book faster than I’d ever read before, it was a Goosebumps marathon in the Hamelin home. I read all sixty-two original titles like my life depended on it. Because it did. Visits to my grandmother’s house were suddenly so much cooler – I saw our visits to the book store every weekend as a chance to pick up a new book. My grandmother saw it as a chance to encourage my reading and writing. Again, looking back, these were some of the most formative days of my childhood.
I had the school supplies stamped with images from the book, I was an avid fan of the television series and I’ll never forget where I was when the show premiered with The Haunted Mask (at my grandmother’s house for a sleepover, with a bucket of popcorn wedged between my sister and myself).
Then the big, big day came.
At a bookstore near my grandmother’s home, I was lazily scanning the shelves when I found my Holy Grail. The last Goosebumps book I needed to complete my collection (of 46 books, at the time). The cover featured a hammerhead shark preparing to chomp an unsuspecting swimmer – Deep Trouble. I can still remember my heart skip a beat and my hands begin to shake as I pulled the book off the shelf and rushed to my grandmother, asking if I could get the book. I’d do all the dishes in the world if she had four spare bucks to part with. Grandma, of course, said yes and God bless her I had the entire collection. This was such a big deal, in fact, I felt the need to create a sign for the occasion and my grandmother snapped a photo that can only be described as “absolute childhood euphoria”.
I continued to collect the books until the first series finished at sixty-two titles. Soon I graduated to the Fear Street novels and then King, Poe and all sorts of other terror scribes. But it all started with Stine and I will never forget where I came from or who started me down that path.
The second Hollywood motion picture based on Stine’s work comes out this week. You can bet your sweet, language-free, death-free loving ass I’ll be there reliving my childhood all over again.
Happy Birthday to the one and only R.L. Stine. The master of young adult horror!