Q&A: R.L. Stine reveals his most gruesome scene ever
R.L. Stine has finally outdone himself. After close to 30 years of scaring kids and killing teenagers in the pages of his “Goosebumps” and “Fear Street” books, the horror writer has come up with his most gruesome scene ever. Spoiler alert, it involves horses.
On the heels of the infinitely less grim “Goosebumps” movie, we interviewed the monster maker whose books have crowded the shelves of YA sections for years. The film brings almost all of his beloved “Goosebumps” creatures to life, from Slappy the ventriloquist dummy to the Abominable Snowman from Pasadena. And, yes, that even includes the ghoul maker himself; a character named R.L. Stine, played by Jack Black, is a major part of the film.
But before there were the slime-covered “Goosebumps” paperbacks, there was the blood-stained “Fear Street” series. A noteworthy horror series in its own right, “Fear Street” rode high on the great wave of YA horror novels, which also included the authors Christopher Pike and Richie Tankersley Cusick. Stine would continue to find readers as the generation of 1990s-loving horror fans aged out, and the group of younger “Goosebumps” readers appeared.
Do you know right now how many books you’ve published in your entire life?
R.L. Stine: If I say the number, I’ll have to go take a nap. I don’t know. I only guess. It’s around 330. ... There were a hundred joke books before I got scary, back when I was funny. It’s about 330, I guess. That’s insane, right?
You even worked on movie novelizations as well, “Ghostbusters II,” “Spaceballs”?
There were days when I would do anything. I wrote G.I. Joe books. I’ve never touched a gun in my life. I did “Rocky and Bullwinkle” coloring books. There’s a point in your career where you just say yes to everything. You’re afraid to say no.
What would you say to yourself when you were writing coloring books? Would you want to say anything to the younger writer version of yourself?
No, I don’t think so. It all turned out OK. I don’t think I have any advice for myself. I started writing when I was 9 years old. I started typing stories and doing little comic books and things. I always knew what I wanted to do and I was so lucky I got to do it.
Why was it horror that helped you find your place in the writing world?
I think it’s because kids like it. I didn’t understand it at first. I did a humor magazine for 10 years and then my friend Jean Bridewell at Scholastic said, “I need you to write a scary novel for teenagers.” It wasn’t even my idea to be scary. Now, that’s embarrassing.
I wrote this book for her. It was “Blind Date.” It was a teen novel and it was a No. 1 best-seller. Then I did a second one called “Twisted.” Also No. 1. I’d never been anywhere near that list. I’d been writing for 20 years and I thought, “Wait a minute, forget the funny stuff, kids want to be scared.”
I would go to schools and I would say, “Why do you like this? Why do you like these books?” And they every time they just said, “We like to be scared.”
There are all these basic fears that we all have, for one thing. Fear of the dark, fear of something in the basement, something lurking somewhere in your house, that kind of thing. For me it’s not just the unknown, it’s fear of being really surprised. Really shocked. That’s why I try to do so many surprises in my books. It’s always some point in a “Goosebumps” book or in a “Fear Street” where something happens and it turns everything around and you say, “Oh, I didn’t realize that. I had no idea that was happening.”
You’ve killed off a lot of characters in really creative ways. Do you have a favorite or a ridiculous death scene that sticks out in your head?
Well, yeah. There’s a new “Fear Street” that’s coming out next month called, “The Lost Girl.” It has...I should be ashamed of this one. It has, no seriously, the most gruesome scene I’ve ever written. It involves, I don’t want to spoil it for anybody. It involves horses eating a guy.
While his daughter watches. Yeah. I’m actually very proud of this scene.
Okay, that definitely tops Corky Corcoran’s being boiled in the showers [“Fear Street’s” Cheerleaders series “The First Evil”].
Oh, I know. Poor Corky. My brother-in-law is a doctor and when I was writing the Corky scene, I had to call him and say, “How would she die? Would she suffocate? Would she be scalded?” He said, “I’ll give you advice, but don’t let anyone ever know I helped you.”
Why did you decide to make “Fear Street” set in the same town?
When we had the idea of trying to do a horror series, the normal thing would be to have continuing characters, but that would get ridiculous if the same characters are being horrified book after book. You can’t do that. That’s how we got the idea that it should be a place. That there would be one street, one horrifying street in a very normal town, and then whoever would venture over there could get into trouble. That seemed to make more sense than continuing characters.
Did you ever think, when you first started, that many years later you’d be doing the “Fear Street Saga,” which is basically the origin of the street and the whole witch background, and the warring families.?
Yeah, it’s sort of evolved. … I started doing just regular scary books, and then it seemed that there was the Fear family that moved to Shadyside and had to figure out why they were so evil and why there was a curse on the street. It seemed to make sense. The three “Sagas” are my favorite “Fear Street” books. When you go back in the past, you can be a lot more gruesome. There’s a lot of really horrible things that happened. More than I think you can do if you’re doing a contemporary book.
Do you think “Goosebumps” could ever become all one world, like it is in the film? Can it ever be continuity-based and can ever have characters that you’ll weave in and out of each other’s lives?
I don’t know. That’s too hard. When we started “Goosebumps Horror Land,” I took a break in “Goosebumps.” We did 67 of them or something, and then I did some other stuff for a while. Other series. Then we came back and started the “Goosebumps Horror Land.” It had a continuing serial in the back.
There were two stories in every book, and it had a lot of the monsters showed up in “Horror Land” in this serial, but I found it really hard to write. It’s hard to keep track of what happened in previous episodes and get it right. No, I like starting all over again with every book. I like the idea of, you have a fresh start every single time. Of course, there are recurring characters. I have to keep writing Slappy books.
Do you get tired of writing Slappy books?
No, it doesn’t get easier, it’s just the story… I’ve done just about everything you can do with a ventriloquist dummy.
Altogether, people say, “Oh, it must be so easy now that you’ve found the formula for these books.” What formula? I wish I knew the formula. What’s the formula? I don’t know. It’s actually gotten a lot harder because I’ve done every story a person can write.
That’s the real challenge. That’s why I’m so proud of myself when I think of the horses scene. I’ve thought of something new. It’s good. The thing about Twitter is, it’s absolutely the best way to keep in touch with my original audience from the 90s. It’s all twenty and thirty-somethings. They’re the kids who grew up on “Goosebumps.” I’m nostalgia to them.
What are people most nostalgic for?
The idea of the books, and being scared, and going to the bookstore every month to get the next one. That kind of thing. Twitter’s just wonderful for me, because I hear from these people all day and they say, “Oh, I wouldn’t be a librarian today if it wasn’t for you,” or “I wouldn’t be a writer today,” or sometimes they say, “Thank you for getting me through a really tough childhood.” It’s really wonderful.
That’s very nice.
Yeah, it’s really nice. Good for my ego. … My wife has to keep me humble.
I also read a lot of Christopher Pike when I was young. Did you ever sit down with this author?
Yeah. I just heard from him last week.
How is he?
Kevin? He’s good. He’s in Santa Barbara. He’s working. I hadn’t heard from him in 20 years, suddenly I got a Facebook thing from him. He’s working on a book that he really loves. He’s still doing it.
Did you guys ever feel competitive with each other?
No. I don’t think writers feel competitive. It’s hard in so many ways, and I think writers are always very supportive of each other. I’ve never run into a writer that was competitive or that way. I spent one day with Christopher Pike. His real name is Kevin McFadden. Some Simon & Schuster thing at a book convention. We spent the day together and we had a great time. It was really nice.
How long ago was that?
A long time.
It was back in the 90s. Before Twitter.
I always wondered if you guys were friends.
He actually was doing young adult horror before I was. When Scholastic asked me to do a horror book and I didn’t really know ... I ran to the bookstore. This is true. I bought a lot of Christopher Pike, and I bought Lois Duncan, and there were two or three other authors who were already doing it. I think Richie Tankersley Cusick. There are a whole bunch of people and I bought their books just to see what it was all about. I read them and then I tried to figure out what I would do that would be different from what they were doing.
The “Goosebumps” movie was in pre-production for a long time.
Only 20 years. The first “Goosebumps” movie deal was 20 years ago.
Well, it didn’t exist as far as I knew. I never even thought about it. I was just here writing the books. It originally was at Fox. Tim Burton was supposed to be the producer. We had a meeting with Tim Burton 20 years ago. Nothing came of it, and then I didn’t hear ... I think there were 19 or 20 scripts. Then they finally had this idea of ... putting all the monsters [in one movie].
Since you’re the creator of these worlds, were you the one who gets to pick what, “We have to include the Abominable Snowman. We have to include him,” or something like that?
No one asked me.
Nobody asked you?
No. This is not good interview material. No, no one ever wants to talk to the writer. You know that.
Yeah, you’re the worst person on the set, right?
The writer’s the last one. I’d love to know who came up with the basic idea of this because it just works so well. Wonderful. I don’t know. I was not involved in the script or in choosing. They used almost all the early monsters from the early “Goosebumps” books. All the early ones are there. Which is a really nice thing. No, they didn’t ask me to choose.
What was it like watching the “Goosebumps” movie, what kind of experience was it?
I have to say, it was really exciting. It’s very strange to be a character in the film. I enjoyed it. I think it’s a great kids movie for one thing. It’s a lot of fun and there are over a hundred monsters in the film, and the special effects are amazing. They’re wonderful and Jack [Black] of course is hilarious. He’s a much more sinister version of me.
Yeah, he’s a ”Get off my lawn” kind of R. L Stine.
He’s very mean in the beginning. He’s very mean, but then he softens up. He doesn’t really want anyone to know who he is, and he’s very upset about all the monsters escaping from his books. He’s mean in the beginning.
Did you give them any advice? “Well, he has to wear glasses at the very least,” or something like that.
No. Jack came in to New York. Actually flew in in a blizzard last winter and we had lunch. He came just to look at me. It was kind of weird. We hit it off right away. We had a nice time, but he just wanted to look and see, figure out what he could do. They had to clean him up a bit. Make him look more square. We gave him short hair and he had to wear the black costume like I wear, that kind of stuff.
If you could pick one of your books -- let’s exclude “Goosebumps” since it’s being turned into a movie -- that you would like to see as a good, old-fashioned horror film, what one would it be?
You know I did those four babysitter books? They’re just called “The Babysitter.” “Babysitter II.” This poor girl Jenny, who’s terrorized. It’s your basic babysitter horror story. Those would be good.
How many teens have you killed in your books?
Well, we started out we would only kill one a book. Then it lost control. Then we’d be killing two or three in a book. We’ve killed hundred of teenagers. Everyone loves it. They love it when you kill teenagers.
What do you think your bloodiest book is?
Remember that one scene [from “The First Horror”] when the boy puts his hand down the garbage disposal? And somebody turns it on? People bring that up to me all the time. And they bring up Reva Dalby, who’s the real horrible girl in “Silent Night.” She’s the rich girl who’s haunting the department store. Somebody put a pin in her lipstick and she goes to put on lipstick and she cuts her lips up. People bring that up to me a lot.
“Goosebumps” the movie is the translation of these books that are for younger kids. They have heart, and they have charm. What was the most important thing that you wanted the film to capture, the essence of “Goosebumps”?
The combination of scariness and funniness. When I read the script, I did give comments to make sure that it never gets too scary. If something really frightening starts, something funny happens. I think all my books have that kind of balance between funniness and scariness. I just wanted to make sure that the movie has that balance, and it does.
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