Getting Goosebumps : Popularity of Scary Stories Pleases Some, Perturbs Others

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ryan Grabow has read every one of the 37 scary stories that make up R.L. Stine's wildly popular Goosebumps series.

Not just read them, devoured them. That much was clear as the Port Hueneme fifth-grader easily answered trivia questions about the quirky plots and sinister characters that litter each of the youth-oriented books.

"What was the name of the haunted house in No. 36, 'The Haunted Mask II,' " asked Tim Pompey, recently leading a monthly Goosebumps fan club meeting at Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Ventura.

"The Carpenter mansion," Ryan answered casually--his fifth correct answer--as other boys and girls threw their arms up, competing to shout out the right answers too.

The 10-year-old turned to one of the few adults in sight and stated the obvious: "I know almost everything about every book."

It is that kind of devotion that is fueling a Goosebumps mania sweeping through classrooms in Ventura County and across the nation. Talk to just about any boy or girl between 8 and 12, and you'll find that Goosebumps is the hottest children's book series since the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew thrilled youngsters two generations ago.

Speak to teachers and they confirm, often with a sigh, that Goosebumps books are about the only ones their most recalcitrant readers will finish. Many parents say they're just glad their children are reading at all.

And booksellers are wild with the prospects of a Goosebumps No. 1,001. Stine, incredibly prolific, turns out a new book each month.

Other barometers of the books' phenomenal appeal abound: Fox Children's Network is launching a weekly, half-hour Goosebumps television series this week.

The network kicked off the series, based on Stine's books, with a one-hour prime-time special last week. Other marketing tie-ins include Goosebumps buttons, posters and backpacks.

And--perhaps the most telling sign that Goosebumps has thoroughly penetrated the mainstream--a Goosebumps spoof is selling in bookstores: "Gooflumps," by "R. U. Slime."

But even as many adults give measured acceptance to the latest craze in children's books, some question whether students should be prodded toward more classic fare.

With their simple language, easy-to-understand plots and formulaic structure, Goosebumps may be luring some readers toward a future of junk-food literature, said Jody Shapiro, owner of Adventures for Kids bookstore in Ventura.

"We're really into thinking that kids should eat more than McDonald's hamburgers," Shapiro said, who hopefully stacks award-winning children's books next to piles of Goosebumps.

"We like to think after Goosebumps, or along with Goosebumps, is there something else we can challenge them with? Is there life after Goosebumps?"

But champions of the series--and there are many--dismiss such hand-wringing as the overreaction of literary snobs. Margit Hoffman, whose 8-year-old son, Martin, often takes Goosebumps to read during free time at Glenwood School in Thousand Oaks, said the books are good, wholesome fun.

"At that age, they start reading a book, but you have to make them finish them," said Hoffman, a Thousand Oaks resident. "And these books really keep them motivated to read them through to the end."

Hoffman said she also likes that none of the titles she has scanned include any "bad" words. Some of the plots seem to encourage positive values, such as taking care of a brother or listening to a parent, Hoffman said.

"It gives them some of that message too," she said.

It's only been about a year since the Goosebumps rage reached Ventura County, educators and parents here say. But the books have been building a national audience since July, 1992, when the first two editions were printed, said Bill Wright, a marketing spokesman for Scholastic Inc. publishers in New York City.

Today there are more than 83 million copies in print, Wright said. And the books sell at a rate of 1.25 million a month, he added.

Stine, who lives in New York City with his wife and 15-year-old son, has carved a niche by offering adolescents an appealing mixture of humor, the macabre and the flat-out gross, said Judy Newman, Scholastic's vice president of marketing.

And the stories always respect the preteen mentality, she said. Consider this scene from "The Haunted Mask II," with protagonist Steve Boswell, a sixth-grader, and his best friend, Chuck Green:

"Chuck and I took bets on who could scare Carly Beth the most and who could make her scream. I guess it was kind of mean.

"But it was funny too. And sometimes when you know that people are real easy to scare, you have no choice. You have to scare them as often as you can."

The books' covers, with a blood-dripping Goosebumps title and pictures of skeletons, ghosts and melting heads, are an important part of the appeal, said Pam Chasse, principal of Glenwood School.

"The covers attract kids, even younger kids," Chasse said. The educator nonetheless hesitates when asked if she would let her 4-year-old daughter read the books when she is older.

"I don't think my daughter would be attracted to the covers," she said. "She doesn't like ooey-gooey things."

Although Goosebumps attracts both boys and girls, boys seem to be a little more interested, many teachers and booksellers say. About 60% of the kids who show up for the monthly book club are boys, Barnes & Noble's Pompey said.

"It appeals to the beast in us," he said. "This is what guys like. They like scary stuff and anything gross."

It is an achievement any time pre-pubescent boys are motivated to read much of anything, said Shapiro, because they are a much harder sell than young girls.

"Girls read everything," she said. "Boys don't. Boys wouldn't read the Baby-sitters Club series, for instance, and that was very popular. For younger boys, this is the first time we have seen them lining up to buy books."

Jeffrey Davis, 8, said he likes the books "because most of them are really funny."

"And really gross!" shouted his best friend, Michael Swaidan, also 8.

Michael has 23 Goosebumps titles in his collection, said his mother, Chris Swaidan. He shares them with Jeffrey, a classmate at Poinsettia School in Ventura, Michael said.

"I'll keep reading them until R. L. Stine dies," Michael said.

Chris Swaidan said she brought the boys to the Goosebumps fan club meeting because of their mutual interest. Another mother, Pam Yarrow of Oxnard, said she brought her two sons because she had heard a rumor that Stine himself would be making an appearance.

Stine was not in sight, but Yarrow said she was not disappointed. Her sons enjoyed the trivia games, raffles and ghost stories that accompanied a reading of one chapter of a Goosebumps book.

And she found time to pick out $30 worth of new Goosebumps titles, Yarrow said, clutching the colorful tomes.

"If we weren't here, we'd just be home watching TV," she said.

Goosebumps, perhaps?

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