Who's Afraid Of R.L. Stine?
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself in the children's department of a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Denver, listening to a group of kids talk about . . . shrunken heads. Actually, they were discussing How I Got My Shrunken Head, book No. 39 in R.L. Stine's mega-popular Goose-bumps series of horror books for children. The 15 or so kids, who appeared to be 8, 9, and 10 years old, sat on two long benches, clutching soon-to-be-purchased copies of Goosebumps titles while Carol Wagstaff, the store's merchandising manager, presided over the monthly gathering. Most of the children's parents had disappeared to other parts of the store.
How I Got My Shrunken Head is typical fare from Stine, who last year sold more books than any other American author. In it, a short, chubby 12-year-old named Mark describes his adventures on the fictional island of Baladora, where he attempts to rescue his missing Aunt Benna from the evil Dr. Hawlings. It's a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark for kids, complete with red ants, quicksand, a tiger, and a shrunken head whose eyes glow.
Wagstaff read passages from the book, then asked a few questions about the plot and characters, such as, "What did Mark bring with him to the island?" Fifteen hands shot up in the air; the kids knew just about every little detail of the book. Skipping ahead to the end, Wagstaff read a section in which the shrunken head actually talks. Hearing this, one boy was so excited he couldn't contain himself. "Oh, cool!" he said, as the other kids nodded in agreement.
After the discussion, I asked the boy--Douglas Simon, an 8-year-old with straight brown hair and crooked front teeth--why he likes Stine's books. "Because they're mysteries," he said. "They chill you. They're sort of spooky, but not so spooky. They're funny sometimes." His cousin turned him onto Stine last year; now, he has about 20 Goosebumps books, and eventually he hopes to collect all of them.
"Do you read any other books?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said, "but I mostly like to read Goosebumps."
A 9-year-old named Sean, who was wearing a black Goosebumps T-shirt that he got for Christmas, told me he has all but about four or five of the books. "I'm having a little trouble keeping up with it all," he said.
Sean isn't the only one having trouble. Stine's books are so popular that bookstores can barely keep up with the demand. The 52-year-old author is a virtual one-man horror-book factory, churning out one new Goosebumps title a month. (His Fear Street books, aimed at children ages 9 through 14, are published at a slightly less-frantic pace.) He sells a mind-boggling 1.25 million books each month--more than John Grisham, more than Stephen King, more than Anne Rice. According to USA Today, Stine wrote 15 of the 100 best-selling books of 1995. No other author came close. It's largely because of Stine's popularity that Scholastic Inc., which publishes Goosebumps (but not Fear Street, published by Pocket Books), enjoyed a 60 percent jump in sales from 1993 to 1994. "The sales gain," Publishers Weekly reported, "was enough to boost Scholastic from the eighth-largest children's publisher to number five."
Goosebumps, it seems, are everywhere: bookstores, supermarkets, drugstores, even airport gift shops. There's also a Goosebumps television show, which debuted last October on the Fox Children's Television Network and quickly became the most-watched TV show for kids.
And that's not all. Last fall, Stine--a mild-looking man who lives with his wife and 15-year-old son in a three-bedroom apartment in New York City--published Superstitious, his first adult thriller. Reviews were mixed, but that didn't prevent Stine from selling the movie rights to Miramax Films.
Meanwhile, kids like Douglas and Sean are devouring Stine's books. "His books fly out of here," said Linda Spina, manager of The Bookies, a Denver bookstore that specializes in children's fare. Holly Ruck, a saleswoman at Tree House Children's Books in Peoria, Ill., told me: "They're extremely popular. We have kids calling up all the time asking, 'When is the next Goosebumps book coming out?' " And it's not just boys; girls, too, have fallen under the spell of R.L. Stine. Christopher Pike may have started the whole children's horror-book phenomenon back in 1985, with Slumber Party, but Stine has become the indisputable king of the hill.
Most parents seem to have adopted a philosophical attitude toward the cult of R.L. Stine. "I would much prefer that he do this than a lot of other things, like Nintendo," Sean's mother, Carmin Hunter-Siegert, told me. Others shrug their shoulders and say, "At least my child is reading something." A mother of a 10-year-old boy said, "I don't think they're bad books. They don't seem evil to me. The important thing is that he's reading."
Yet critics abound. Teachers have been known to ban R.L. Stine books from their classrooms. Last fall, author Diana West, writing in the second issue of The Weekly Standard, a new conservative magazine, accused Stine of writing "shock fiction for the young."
"In this literary landscape," West wrote, "narrative exists solely to support a series of shocks occurring at absurdly frequent intervals. Push-button characters serve as disposable inserts to advance the narrative, shock to shock." Her conclusion: Stine and his ilk should be taken to task for "desensitizing the very young, stunting the life of the mind before it has even begun."
Reading West's high-minded essay, I found myself coming to Stine's defense--even though I hadn't read any of his books yet. I wanted to say to West, "Lighten up. Stine's books may not be works of great literature, but, then, neither is The Shining or The Bridges of Madison County. If parents can read trashy books, why can't children? Besides, at least Stine is getting kids hooked on reading. Isn't that a good thing?"
But maybe West was onto something. A lot of kids, I discovered, are practically obsessed with Stine's creations, to the point where they won't have anything to do with other books. That doesn't seem particularly healthy. And what about nightmares? Stine calls his books "safe scares," but surely some of them are too disturbing for little minds to handle. At Barnes & Noble, I asked an 8-year-old boy named Sam if he ever got nightmares after reading Goosebumps. His answer: "Sometimes. When I was reading The Headless Ghost, I had a nightmare about a ghost named Andrew, who didn't have a head. But then he picked up his head and held it in front of his stomach. When I woke up, I was breathing hard."
"Did you tell your parents?" I asked.
"No," he told me. "They wouldn't believe me."
I decided to conduct my own investigation into the scary world of R.L. Stine. At the Tattered Cover Book Store, which has a huge children's department, I selected, more or less at random, a handful of Stine titles--Cheerleaders: The New Evil and Truth or Dare, both part of the Fear Street series, and Welcome to Dead House and How I Got My Shrunken Head, from the Goosebumps series. I went home, brewed a pot of coffee, and started reading.
The world of Goosebumps, I discovered, is quite different from the world of Fear Street.
The two Goosebumps books were pretty tame stuff. In Welcome to Dead House, which is the first book of the series, 12-year-old Amanda and her family move into a strange house in the town of Dark Falls. Naturally, the house is haunted--or so believe Amanda and her little brother, Josh. They hear creaky doors and mysterious voices in the middle of the night. But their parents don't believe them. "See if there are any other kids your age around," their mother says. So Amanda and Josh try to make friends--but there's something odd about the other children in Dark Falls. Maybe it's because they're . . . dead.
Welcome to Dead House isn't exactly The Tell-Tale Heart, but as a ghost story for kids, it's not bad. For one thing, Stine does a good job of getting into the mind of a typical 12-year-old. The parents stay mostly in the background, which allows Amanda and Josh to make discoveries on their own. There's plenty of gore but no real violence to speak of. Stine moves the story along nicely, ending each chapter on a cliffhanger. (This, I learned, is a Stine trademark.) He also puts in just the right amount of humor. In the end, of course, everything turns out OK. Amanda and Josh save their parents from the living dead, and the family hightails it out of Dark Falls.
How I Got My Shrunken Head is more of an adventure saga than a ghost story, but it follows the same basic formula of Welcome to Dead House and, I presume, the other Goosebumps books. Is it art? No. But it's an engaging story with just the right mixture of danger and levity. The Goosebumps books, I concluded, are pretty harmless stuff--at least for children 8 and older. For younger kids, who may have a harder time separating fantasy from reality, they might be too intense.
Stine's Fear Street books, on the other hand, are more problematic. They're targeted for older kids, so it's no surprise that they contain more blood. But I wasn't prepared for the gory descriptions I found in Cheerleaders and Truth or Dare.
In the first book, the cheerleaders of Shadyside High School are being tormented by "the Evil"--an undefined supernatural force that keeps causing mysterious "accidents." Example: A screwdriver finds its way into the neck of Rochelle, who has just been named to the cheerleading squad. Corky, the book's main character, lets out "a horrified wail" when she sees "the bright gush of blood spurting up from Rochelle's neck."
She saw the blood. And then she saw the screwdriver. Stuck deep into the back of Rochelle's neck.
"Ohhhhh no!" Corky knew at once what had happened. The screwdriver had fallen from the bleachers above.
It had dropped straight down.
And now it lay embedded in the back of Rochelle's neck.
The blood poured out over Rochelle.
The hairbrush fell from her hand.
She slumped forward until her head hit the floor.
She didn't move.
Not even the boys' basketball coach is immune from the Evil. After a game, Corky makes this gruesome discovery:
The Tigers coach lay with his arms stretched out. The neck of an enormous green water bottle from a cooler had been shoved into his mouth.
The huge bottle rested on his face. Empty.
The water had all drained out into his body, Corky saw.
The coach had drowned. His belly and chest were bloated. Like a big water balloon.
In Truth or Dare, a group of teenagers spends a snowbound weekend at a house in the mountains. During a game of Truth or Dare, Dara, whose parents own the house (naturally, they're not around), is about to reveal something embarrassing about Josh, described as "quiet and shy." Suddenly, the boy charges at her with a fireplace poke:
Dara let out a frightened shriek. She shot out her hands as if to shield herself.
Josh stopped inches in front of her, breathing hard. He heaved the poker to the floor. And with a furious cry he spun around and ran to the hallway door leading to the left wing.
Thirty pages later, Dara suddenly turns up dead. April, who narrates the book, and her friend Ken discover the body:
I brushed snow off my eyebrows and followed Ken to the [ski] locker. He reached for the door, but the wind blew it open farther.
Ken and I both cried out, startled, as something toppled out of the ski locker and landed in the snow with a thud.
"Noooo!" A horrified wail escaped my throat as I stared down.
Stared down at a blue face under a tangle of streaked blond hair.
Stared down at a stiff, lifeless body.
Stared down at Dara's frozen corpse. . . .
Squinting through the white, gauzy curtain of snow, I saw the dark stain on the shoulder of her parka.
The dark puddle of dried blood.
"Ohhhhh!" Another cry escaped my throat as I saw the hatchet. Buried between her shoulder blades.
Buried so deep that just a glint of the metal showed above the parka.
Murdered. Dara was murdered with a hatchet.
Dara. Murdered in the snow. So cold. So cold she's blue.
My stomach lurched. I started to gag.
Considering that Stine's Fear Street books are aimed at children ages 9 through 14, such violence seems unarguably gratuitous. Yet it's not simply the violence that makes these books so disturbing; it's the way violence seems to come out of nowhere. In Stine's world, violence--or evil--doesn't necessarily have a cause; it simply is. It's random, and it can happen to anyone at any time. In Cheerleaders, for instance, Corky manages to destroy the Evil, but not before her friend Kimmy--for no apparent reason--drowns in an icy river. And in Truth or Dare, Dara turns out to have been mistakenly murdered by Ken's girlfriend, Jenny; the intended victim was April because she happened to know about a summer fling Ken had with another girl. No matter that April and Jenny are best friends. On Fear Street, your best friend may turn out to be your worst nightmare.
I wanted to give Stine the opportunity to defend himself, but he declined to be interviewed for this article. Last year, however, he told Publishers Weekly, "My thinking is that these books are entertainment. I'm very careful to keep reality out of it. The real world is much scarier than these books. So I don't do divorce, even. I don't do drugs. I don't do child abuse. I don't do all the really serious things that would interfere with the entertainment."
Asked to explain why his books are so popular, Stine replied: "I think [kids] like the books because they're like a roller coaster ride. They're very fast. They're very exciting. You think you're going to go in one direction--they take you off in another direction. So they tease you. They fool you."
I called Perry Nodelman, a professor of English at the University of Winnipeg and the author of The Pleasures of Children's Literature. In his book, Nodelman talks about how Stine, like other genre writers, offers his readers "slight variations of a basic formula, without major surprises." Adults, he goes on to say, tend to look down on such books.
"Many people," he writes, "call them 'trash' and believe that they hinder children from learning to enjoy good literature--that is, literature that less obviously fulfills a reader's expectations. As it happens, however, I've been told by many people who have become ardent readers of serious literature as adults that they spent part of their childhood absorbing every book in a popular series. Young readers of formula books may be learning the basic patterns that less-formulaic books diverge from."
Not that Nodelman isn't troubled by Stine's books. After reading about 30 of them for a paper he delivered at a conference last spring, he concluded that they are utterly lacking in a moral framework. In them, he told me, "being good or bad has nothing to do with how things turn out. So what you get is a sense that the world is a random place. I find them morally reprehensible, but they represent what we really believe and how we really act." In other words, Stine isn't trying to teach his readers anything; he's simply trying to confirm their suspicions that the world is indeed a scary place. "They tell children what they already know is true," Nodelman said.
Yet he admits that Stine's books make for compelling reading. "They're not great literature," he said, "but they're better written than some of the other popular series, like 'The Baby-Sitters Club.' There's certainly something imaginative going on in these books. And there's something unique about the way kids respond to them, but I'm not sure I have a handle on it. I think it has something to do with forbidden pleasures."
I asked him if teachers should be concerned about the Stine craze. "I worry about the kids who don't read anything but Goosebumps--and they're proud of it!" he said. "But teachers don't do enough in general about teaching literary strategies. They have an obligation to discuss these books with their students. Kids need some ways of thinking about them."
Patty Campbell, who writes a column on young adult fiction for The Horn Book Magazine, a bimonthly publication devoted to children's literature, shares none of Nodelman's ambivalence about R.L. Stine--at least not anymore. Two years ago, however, when the children's horror-book phenomenon was just starting to get noticed by the mainstream press, Campbell wrote in her column that the books were "not as bad as their reputation or the covers would have readers believe." Yes, she admitted, they contain gory scenes of violence. "It is easy to focus on these scenes and condemn the whole genre," she wrote, "but to do so is to miss the qualities that make them so popular--tight, suspense-filled plots with an irresistible page-turning pull. These books are compelling to read, even for an elderly critic like me who detests Stephen King and horror books in general. Teens are addicted to them for good reason."
Two years later, Campbell seems fed up with the whole craze, and her feelings about Stine are much less charitable. "I think he's wicked," she told me. "I think he's extremely destructive. He preys on the absolute worst instincts of the human soul. He's also an extremely bad writer. If any of his books were turned in as a 5th grade essay, he would get a D minus."
His books, she added, are "a type of pornography. Kids get a physical rush from reading them. It's not necessarily sexual, but it's visceral." (Diana West, in her Weekly Standard essay, makes the same point. After reading 30 books by Stine and others, she says she detected "an unmistakably pornographic pattern of means and ends.")
Campbell doesn't buy the theory that kids who read Stine's books will eventually move on to other, more refined, works of literature. "That's nonsense," she said. "I haven't seen that happen. What they move on to is Stephen King books. It's like eating cotton candy and potato chips all the time. After a while, you lose your taste for anything nourishing."
Susan Demanett, who teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English at the Pine Hill Waldorf School in Wilton, N.H., used the same metaphor, describing Stine's books as "Dorito literature." Regarding their undeniable popularity among children, she offered a different comparison: "They've spread like measles."
At Pine Hill, Demanett tries to steer her students away from such fare. "We try to encourage in our children a discriminating taste in literature," she said. "I don't think we have to rely on these. There are so many good children's books available these days."
Demanett realized what she was up against recently when she ordered some volumes from Scholastic for a book fair. The publishing company took it upon itself to add a box of Goosebumps titles to the order; reluctantly, Demanett offered them for sale. "They started going like hot cakes," she said. Her 9-year-old son, Rudy, wanted to buy a copy, but she put her foot down. "I really believe that the role of adults is to guide children," she said. "And sometimes adults need to say no to their children."
She asked, "Are Stine's books harmful? I don't know. But I think we should also ask, 'Are they helpful?' " She didn't answer the question, but I had no doubt what her answer would be.
For many teachers and school librarians, R.L. Stine has become one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't quandaries. When librarians choose to stock his books, they face criticism from parents. Yet schools that take a hard line also run the risk of angering parents. That's what happened at St. Thomas Catholic School in Peoria, Ill.
Last September, Pam Cohen's 10-year-old son, Blake, came home with an order form from a book club. His 5th grade teacher had passed them out, but she told the students that they weren't allowed to order any books by R.L. Stine. But that's exactly what Blake, already a Goosebumps fan, wanted to order, and his mother thought he should be allowed to. "It made me mad," Cohen said. "I thought it was censorship."
Cohen told her son to go ahead and order the Stine books anyway, but a few days later the school's principal called and repeated the teacher's policy. Cohen, still upset, called the president of the school board, who urged the principal to change the policy. Eventually, Blake was allowed to order the books.
Before her son discovered Goosebumps, Cohen said, "he didn't really read much at all. It was a struggle to get him interested in books." Now, he has about 25 Goosebumps titles, "and he's always looking for ones that he hasn't read."
"I just wanted him to get the reading bug," she said. "I didn't really care about what he was reading. And I never objected to the teacher not wanting the kids to read the books in class. I just wanted them to be able to order them and bring them home."
(I wanted to talk to the principal at St. Thomas, but she didn't return my phone calls.)
I figured if anyone was going to object to Stine's books, it would be Timothy Hamilton, an exceptional teacher who uses children's literature extensively in his 2nd grade classroom. Yet Hamilton, who teaches at a public school outside of Nashville, is surprisingly unbothered by the whole phenomenon. "If they turn kids onto reading," he said, "then I don't have a problem with them. But I'm not going to promote them in the classroom. Kids need to increase their appetites for other things. They can't read Goosebumps forever."
Hamilton admitted that Stine's books "aren't very inventive," yet he isn't surprised by their popularity. "Kids love to be scared," he said. "But in the end, they want to know that they're safe." Stine, he said, knows how to fulfill both of these desires. "Besides, we all like a good roller coaster ride. And when you get to the end, you want to do it again."
He added: "Stine isn't killing off children's literature by any means. There's too much good stuff out there. It's kind of a fad, anyway. Something will come along and take its place."
Hamilton suggested I call Rosemary Oliphant Ingham, a professor of children's literature at Belmont University, in Nashville. Much of what she said echoed what I had heard from Hamilton. "I don't think Stine's books are harmful," she told me. "I think they're wonderful. They're not going to hurt the kids at all. Children are much brighter than we give them credit for. If left alone, they'll move on to something else. But if a parent pulls the book away, they may stop reading altogether." She added: "As long as the child is reading, it doesn't matter what they're reading."
Ingham, who teaches in the university's department of education, encourages her students to read Stine's books. "I think that prospective teachers need to know what children really are reading," she said, "not necessarily what we think they should be reading."
R. L. Stine may not be the devil, but he's no saint, either. I'm still bothered by the random violence depicted in his Fear Street series, but having spoken with Hamilton and others, I feel certain that Stine is not killing children's literature as we know it. "Generally," asserts Stephanie Loer, children's book editor of The Boston Globe, "the consensus is that these books are not good literature, but they are not harmful. Enticing, recreational reading, they can be a hook to get reluctant readers into libraries where they will find books of more substance."
Stine is probably right when he says that kids love a good, safe scare. My son, who is almost 2 years old, loves Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, even though he finds it scary. He loves to say "Boo!" and he loves it when my wife and I say "Boo!" to him.
"People have always told scary stories," writes Diane Goode in the introduction to her Book of Scary Stories & Songs. "And others have loved to listen. Ghost stories are among the oldest of supernatural tales. They helped explain the unknown and, in a world where there has always been so much to fear, to make it seem less frightening. In a story, you have a sense that you have some control over your fright. At the movies, with their combination of horror and delight, you can always pull your coat over your head and scream and hope for the best--or the worst! Or around the campfire, where the dark lies outside the safety of the circle, a scare can be fun."
Kids, no doubt, will eventually grow tired of R.L. Stine, and some other author will take his place at the top of the best-seller list. "One thing, however," notes Loer, "will remain the same. There will always be a new audience of children coming along, and scary stories inevitably will cast their spell on the younger set."