R.L. Stine: "I love killing teenagers"

The man who gave us Goosebumps on his prolific tweeting, "Gone Girl" and how YA has changed since he started

Published October 31, 2014 4:50PM (EDT)

R.L. Stine
R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine spends a lot time doing two things: tweeting and killing teenagers.

Stine, 70, began his career writing humor books, then fatefully took an editor’s advice to try horror. In 1989 the first Fear Street book came out and chronicled the horrors of Shadyside High. The young adult author preceded to write hundreds of books and has since sold more than 300 million of them. Through the Fear Street and Goosebumps series, he became an icon for a generation of under-the-bedcovers readers. He also worked under the pen name Jovial Bob Stine on Nickelodeon’s "Eureeka’s Castle."

A recent wave of '90s nostalgia reignited the author’s popularity. Five seasons of the Goosebumps TV adaptation are available on Netflix, and an upcoming big-screen reboot of the series stars Jack Black. At a recent Comic Con, he signed books for three hours.

His fans, whom he interacts with almost daily on Twitter, demanded new Fear Street books. At first, no publisher showed interest. In a post-Harry Potter and Hunger Games era, they told Stine that young adult literature had changed. They couldn’t see a Fear Street revival working. The author took to Twitter, letting his more than 132,000 followers know there wouldn’t be any more books in the series. Then, within 10 minutes of his tweet, a publisher at St. Martin’s contacted him to set up lunch. “It all happened because of Twitter,” says Stine. “I’m back to killing teenagers.”  He recently tweeted an entire short story, to the delight of his followers.

The new book, "Party Games," tells the story of Rachel Martin, a senior working as a waitress to help her family pay bills. Rachel crushes on the wealthy and brooding Brendan Fear. For Brendan’s birthday, he invites a bunch of “cool” kids to an overnight party at his parents’ mansion on a secluded island. Needless to say, things go downhill from there. 

How was it getting back to Fear Street after 20 years?

I love killing teenagers. I really enjoy it. I think everyone does, right? In Goosebumps no one ever dies, because the books can’t get too scary. The scares are mostly a tease. Those books are mostly funny. I have a lot more freedom in Fear Street, so it’s nice to be able to do real drama and real thrills and suspense.

"Party Games" turns into a story about a young girl fighting to save herself.

It’s the old story of how they’re trapped on this island. They’re trapped in this house, and they can’t escape. Someone is killing them off one-by-one. But then I tried to turn that around, when you find out no one is killing them one-by-one, and it turns into a kidnapping story. I tried to do a twist there. There’s some surprises. When I read I love to be manipulated, and I think people do. That’s why "Gone Girl" is such a huge hit, because it’s totally manipulative. It makes you think one thing and then it twists you around and makes you think something else. I think that’s really enjoyable when you’re reading. I try to have one or two places in every book where it’s all turned around. It’s not what you think it is.

The book has some humor and also deals with violence.  

I get in trouble with my opinions about violence, because I think violence is good in kids books. I believe in violence. Kids are really smart. In all these years writing for kids I’ve found they’re smart. They know the difference between fictional violence in a book and real violence in the real world. There’s no question. If they’re reading a very violent thing or watching a violent cartoon or playing a violent video game, that’s one thing. But then if they leave their house, and they see a fistfight going on on the sidewalk, they have a totally different feeling. I think violence is a really good escape outlet for kids. Kids have a lot of pent-up energy and pent-up violence. Reading about it is a really good way to get it out.

In this book, all the violence is inflicted on kids by adults.

I don’t always do that but, yeah, that’s true. It is.

I think it’s interesting because, like you’re saying, there’s so much violence in the real world. But in the book, we’re at-least seeing people escape from those situations.

They are going to triumph. I have to do happy endings. Once in a Fear Street – I think it’s called "The Best Friend" – just for fun, for me, I gave it an unhappy ending, which I had never done. In the end of the book, the good girl is carried away by the police accused of murder. The murderer gets off scot-free, and the book ends. Kids hated this book. They turned on me immediately. I started getting mail saying: “R.L. Stine, you moron. How could you do that? R.L. Stine, you’re an idiot. Are you going to write a sequel to finish the story?” They could not accept the fact that one of these books ended unhappily. I’d do school visits, and that book haunted me. Every time I’d answer kids’ questions, someone would raise their hand and say, “Are you going to finish that story. How could you do that?” So, I actually did write a sequel. Really, they just hated the unhappy ending, so I’ve never done it again.

I think that reaction shows the relationship people have with the books.  People grew up reading you.

It took me a while to get used to the fact that my readers have grown up. When I do book signings I get 7-year-olds and 10-year-olds and then 28-year-olds. I always ask, “What are you doing here. Why are you here?” I didn’t realize it. It’s really a nice thing. I hear from them all day on Twitter, and so many of them were collectors of Goosebumps. I was so lucky back then and so lucky now. They say, “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be a librarian or a writer today. I had a tough childhood, and thank you for helping me get through it.” It’s so rewarding. It’s very good for my ego, and my wife has to bring me down after a day of that. You know, keep me humble.

You’ve said to write a scary scene you need to get in the narrator’s head. The dialogue in "Party Games" is funny and really "teen."

The hard part of the job is not sounding like an old man. For a long time my son was the right age, and I would spy on him and his friends to see what they wore, the way they talked, and what language they used. That was very convenient. But that’s the hard part. I have to keep up with kid culture, what they’re into, just so these books don’t get out-of-touch. I want them to be able to identify with what’s going on.

I’m scared of almost everything, but I did read Goosebumps as a kid. 

A lot of kids couldn’t read them. They were just too terrified. They wouldn’t go near them. People are always asking me, “What’s the message in these books?” And I always say there is no message. The main reason for Goosebumps was reading just to get kids to read. As the series went on I did realize that there was a message that I didn’t even really think about. I don’t like books with messages – especially for kids. What happens in Goosebumps is they’re almost always about a very normal kid – very average, not a special kid in any way. These horrible things start happening, and their parents are useless. The parents never believe them, and they never help. They’re just not there. The kids had to use their own wits and their own imagination to defeat the evil or the monster or whatever it is. That’s basically what it is – you can do it. You can use your own brain and get out of a mess.

I recently watched “The Haunted Mask” episode of Goosebumps on Netflix. Carly Beth was problem-solving and figuring it out.

That was the very first TV show we ever did, and it really was one of the best.  I’m very proud of that show and the book. Someone on Twitter was asking me, “What happened to Carly Beth.” So, I tracked her down. Kathryn Long was Carly Beth, and she is still working in the arts in Toronto. It was all Canadian. It was a totally Canadian production, all Canadian actors. At book signings kids would ask me, “How can I be on the Goosebumps show?” I’d say, well, you have to be Canadian. Every time the kid would say, “What’s that?” It’s a great tribute to our schools, right? They didn’t know what a Canadian was.

Ryan Gosling was on the show too. Acting on the show is a perk of being Canadian.

Yes, he was. We used every Canadian kid actor that was up there. It’s so funny when you watch “The Werewolf of Beaver Swamp.” It takes place in the Everglades, and they all have Canadian accents. I love that.

Can you tell me about your cameo in the upcoming film adaptation?

They did a smart thing with the movie. They didn’t just choose one book to do. Practically all the monsters like Slappy the Dummy and the lawn gnomes are in the movie. We’re all through filming it, but they have to put in all the monsters. I’m the main character in the movie, which is really bizarre. I’m played by Jack Black. Jack and I are twins, right? R.L. Stine in the film has retired, and he’s this grouchy guy. He’s like a recluse and moved to a small town. He’s hiding out, because all the monsters are escaping from my books. There are monsters all around town. Some kids discover who I am, and they come to me, and they say, “You got to write one more book to round up all the monsters.” That’s basically what happens. And there’s a lot of chasing.  You got to round up all the monsters. Jack is hilarious. I’ve seen just a tiny bit, and I was down there with him for a while. I think he’s going to be very funny, and I think it’s going to be pretty good.

You two must be great together.

I always just wanted to be funny. I never really planned to be scary at all. It was sort of an accident. I do comedy nights here in New York. I’ve done Upright Citizens Brigade. I’m usually the straight man. We do improv comedy night where I’ll tell a story, and then the comedians will do like 20 minutes on my story. I’m doing one Nov. 8 at a theater on the West Side. The comedians are really talented.

I read that you always say “yes” to projects – like writing horror – so I had a feeling you’d be good at improv.

I’m not good, but it’s really fun. I get interviewed, and they do a story. They are really talent. These people are much funnier than anyone on television. I’m just the straight man.

You’re funny on Twitter.

Well, I try. Thank you. It’s a great distraction, isn’t it? I used to write a lot more pages before Twitter.

A while ago, you retweeted this story about a cobra that got its head chopped off then bit someone. The story scared me out of my mind.

It’s creepy. [My editor] tweeted me this morning, and said I should do this story about a spider that entered a man’s body through an open scar from an operation or something. It climbed in him then traveled all over his body. I thought that was just too disgusting for anything. I told her it was too yucky.

Do you have any advice if I wanted to scare, say, my 12-year-old brother in real life?

I don’t ever scare anyone in real life. Maybe show him some really creepy movies.

Do you ever get tired of people asking you to be this “scary” person?

No, I love talking about myself. There’s one question that people always ask. It’s “what scares you?” Everyone asks that. After all these years of doing interviews, I don’t have a good answer for it.

By Tyler Gillespie

Tyler Gillespie is the palest Floridian you’ll ever meet. He’s a graduate student in Journalism & Media Studies at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. This series focuses on profiles + portraits of Floridian lives. If you – or someone you know – represent a facet of FL culture and want to be featured, feel free to email tmgillespie@mail.usf.edu. You can read more of his work at TylerMTG.com or on Twitter: @TylerMTG

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