Goosebumps and giggles: R.L. Stine balances humor and horror

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Scaring children may seem like an odd way to make a living, but Goosebumps author R.L. Stine has a knack for it.

“You just sort of feel it,” says Stine, an Ohio native who grew up in Bexley. “In the beginning of writing a book, you have to decide how scary to go. If it’s not scary enough, the book is boring. If it’s too scary, it gets silly or ludicrous. It’s a fine line when you’re dealing with 7- to 11-year-olds.”

Stine is something of an expert at walking that line. Long before the children’s and young adult book markets were overrun by wizards and vampires, Stine launched a horror series for teens (Fear Street) in 1989, followed by Goosebumps in 1992 — and soon came to a realization that helped him strike that balance. “They like to be scared,” he says of his young audience. “I didn’t understand that when I first started doing these things. But people just like to have a scary adventure when they know they are really okay, and kids do know that. That’s the thing about Goosebumps — they know what to expect. There will be twists and turns, and it will all end up okay.”

Powerhouse franchise

Stine’s spooky empire has since grown to massive proportions. An insanely prolific writer, he has published more than 300 books and sold somewhere in the ballpark of 400 million copies — making him one of the all-time best-selling authors of children’s books, right up there with Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling. The Goosebumps series has spawned comic books, audiobooks, a TV series, numerous spin-off series, a musical, a theme park, board games, video games, and a 2015 full-length feature film.

There are also three films based on his Fear Street series (set in Shadyside, Ohio) in the works, and he’s published two picture books, The Little Shop of Monsters (2015) and Mary McScary (2017), illustrated by Arthur creator Marc Brown. Stine also scripted a new Man-Thing series for Marvel Comics.

Hometown influence

Stine

Although he’s known for being scary, Stine has always been just as interested in making people laugh, which is evident in some of his more absurd Goosebumps titles like The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and Planet of the Lawn Gnomes.

His writing is also heavily informed by his upbringing in Ohio, and the majority of his books take place in suburban Midwestern neighborhoods. “I often think back to Bexley when I create those neighborhoods, and I use the places of my childhood to set the stories in,” Stine says.

Stine and his brother went to Saturday matinees at the Esquire theater on Broad Street and the Drexel on Main, where they laughed at the low-budget horror movies that later would greatly influence Stine’s books. He also spent much of his free time as a kid writing and drawing his own comic books.

Jovial Bob from Bexley

While Bexley is known as one of the wealthier communities in Columbus, Stine describes his upbringing as poor. “We lived in a brick house on the edge of Bexley, and on the next block were these huge mansions. The governor’s mansion was two blocks from us. As a child I always felt like an outsider because we didn’t have money. That sort of turned me into an observer. That’s one of the reasons I’m a writer.”

He launched his writing career editing the humor magazine (The Sundial) at Ohio State before moving to New York in the late 1960s. He landed a job at Scholastic, where he wrote joke books for children under the name “Jovial Bob” Stine and eventually launched Bananas, a humor magazine for kids that was published in the 1970s and 1980s. He also occasionally contributed to Dynamite magazine, another Scholastic publication that was edited by his wife, Jane (who also co-founded Parachute Press, the company that originally launched both the Fear Street and Goosebumps series).

Giving back, getting back

Although he doesn’t get back to Ohio often, Stine does maintain ties to Columbus. He provided an endowment for the Bexley Education Foundation’s R.L. Stine Creative Writing Workshops. Earlier this year, he made a personal appearance at the Drexel Theater, and afterward spent part of his evening palling around with old friend Fred “Fritz the Nite Owl” Peerenboom, whom he has known since his college days.

And he’s still able to snack on his favorite pizza from Rubino’s (something of a Bexley institution), which he has frozen and shipped to his Manhattan apartment. “That’s the one thing I miss about Ohio,” Stine says. “I’ve been a New Yorker for a long time now, but Columbus has the best pizza. Even my wife, who is a real New Yorker, admits that Columbus has better pizza.”

Brian Albright is a freelance writer from Cleveland Heights.