R.L. Stine offers family frights in “The Haunting Hour”

Timmy's about to get an unwanted Christmas surprise in "A Creature Was Stirring."

By Stacey Harrison

Back when R.L. Stine was known as Jovial Bob Stine and writing joke books for a living, not many people could have foreseen that he would one day revolutionize the young-adult horror genre. Not that there really was much of a young-adult horror genre before he wrote Blind Date back in 1986.

One day an editor friend of Stine’s took him to lunch and told him she needed a horror novel for teens. Though he’d always been a fan of the genre, he’d never considered writing it himself, so he researched what was out there and came up with a book that became an instant best-seller. A few years later he created the Goosebumps series and has become one of the most recognizable names in the industry.

Television has been kind to him as well, with Goosebumps being translated into a successful anthology series. Now, a new R.L Stine series is back on a brand new network. The Hub, which is run by some of the same people involved with getting Goosebumps on the air, will air R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, a weekly frightfest beginning with two episodes at 8pm (“A Creature Was Stirring”) and 8:30pm (“The Dead Body”) on Christmas Day.

As he was typing away on an all-new Goosebumps book, Stine took some time to talk about his strange route to literary superstardom, how he likes the new series, and why kids are so horribly disappointed when they meet him:

How do you feel about television adaptations of your work? Have you been satisfied?

I’ve been very lucky. The shows that have been done of my work have been really good. With television, that’s just luck. I’ve happened to fall in with good people, and the producers of The Haunting Hour — Dan Angel and Billy Brown — they worked on all the Goosebumps shows. I’ve been very, very happy. It’s exciting for a writer, I think, to write these books and then pass it on to somebody else and you see how somebody else adapts your work and where they take it. I always find it really exciting.

Is there something they understand about your work, because they’ve been doing it for so long with so much success, that other people might not?

What they get is that my books, especially … Goosebumps and The Haunting Hour — they’re not just scary, they’re also funny. You know, I was funny all those years [before I started doing horror]. I try to bring a lot of humor to the books as well. That’s what they get, and you not only get the scares, you get the laughs, and that’s very tricky.

Has much changed from the Goosebumps days, or is The Haunting Hour pretty similar?

I always say, kids don’t change at all. What we’re afraid of doesn’t change. The only thing that changes really is the technology, all the tools we use. That’s changed a lot. But we’re still afraid of the dark. We’re still afraid somebody’s under our bed, and when we get up they’re going to grab us by the ankle. There’s somebody hiding in the closet. Those fears never change. They’ve been the same for hundreds of years.

The first episode is a Christmas-themed show called “A Creature Was Stirring.” What can you tell us about it?

That’s my first Christmas show ever. I’d never done a Christmas one before. I’m not sure why. It just occurred to me that the most popular Christmas story of all [A Christmas Carol] is a ghost story. A short while ago, I thought that you don’t think about ghosts at Christmas and you don’t think about scares. That’s Halloween. But it is true that the scariest story of all, the creepiest ghost story, is a Christmas story. So that kind of inspired me. [“A Creature Was Stirring”] is about a very strange gift from Santa Claus. This is about a family that’s not getting along. They’re having a terrible Christmas, they’re at each other’s throats, and Santa decides to give them a present that’s really going to shake them up and really make them look at themselves and see what’s going on. This is a present from Santa that you would never want to open.

How involved are you in the TV adaptations ?

I do read the scripts and make suggestions. My wife [and editor, Jane] is very involved, and makes a lot of suggestions as far as the direction, and just to make sure the stories on television reflect the stories in the book and that it has the right tone, that it doesn’t go too far. When you’re doing visual stuff, it’s scarier in a lot of ways. When you can actually see the monsters on the screen, sometimes it’s scarier than the book. So we try to be careful, just to maintain that balance.

So it sounds like you’re pretty pleased with The Haunting Hour so far.

I’ve seen four of them so far, and I think they’re terrific. There used to be a lot of scary shows on TV for kids, anthology shows, and they just sort of disappeared after the Goosebumps show went off. It’s kind of nice to have a nice, scary anthology series are back. These guys are really good, they just know how to scare kids, and they know how it should be. It’s family viewing. The parents will like it, too. I’m very happy so far. And then, it’s exciting to be on a whole new channel. We worked with [Hub CEO] Margaret Loesch before at Fox Kids, and I have tremendous respect for her and what she does.

How do you go about writing scary stuff for kids? Obviously there are limits as far as language and gore, but in general, what works and what doesn’t?

One thing kids like about my books are all the surprises. The books aren’t linear at all. It’s not a straight story. It’s sort of like a roller coaster, there’s all kinds of twists and turns and suddenly you’re going this way and you’re going that way. And you can’t really — you know you’re OK, you know it’s going to end up OK, but you don’t really know what’s going on in the middle. That’s one of the real appeals of The Haunting Hour short-story book, or a Goosebumps book, is that you don’t really know where it’s going to go, and I think kids like that. There’s a teasing quality to my books. My one rule is, everyone always says, “Well, how do you know not to go too far?” Because you don’t really want to terrify kids, right? We want to give them shivers, but we don’t want to give them nightmares. My one rule is, make sure it never gets real. Make sure the kids know it’s a fantasy. I think this is a very scary world for kids right now, and you want to make sure these stories are an escape from that. So all these things that are really frightening for kids never end up in my book. They have to know from beginning to end this is a fantasy, and this could never really happen. And then you can go pretty far.

You have a big presence online. How has that affected how you interact with readers?

It is easier to keep up. Before there was just fan mail. That was it. Now I’ve got a big message board on my website. I’ve got “Ask R.L.” on my website, they can ask me questions directly. I get hundreds of e-mail messages, and I try to read them all. I’m on Twitter every day, so I’m in touch with people. It’s so much easier to be in touch now, and I think readers feel closer to authors than they did when all they could do is write a letter and hope to get an answer.

What do fans want to know when they write to you?

Every single letter, they want to know where I get my ideas. I think every author gets that. That’s the most popular question. I always want to say, “Where do you get your ideas?” We all get ideas. But we don’t always know where they come from. I didn’t take it seriously for a long time, but then I realized kids have to write more than any living human. They have to write book reports, and they have to write school essays, they’re constantly writing. So they think if there’s some kind of trick, if there’s some way of getting ideas, it will really help [them]. So I did take it seriously, so I did a 16-page writing guide, which is free on my website, and it has all my secrets in it for getting ideas, for not getting stuck in the middle. It has all the ways I work, and it’s free to be downloaded by teachers or anybody. It’s got all my writing tips.

I imagine you got a pretty good response from that.

Teachers use it a lot. Sometimes I go to schools and we do writing workshops and I do some of the stuff in it with kids and we write a ghost story together.

How do kids react when they get to meet you?

They’re horribly disappointed when they see me. Horribly! I go into a school or I do a book festival, they expect somebody really creepy wearing a cape with fangs, and them I’m just this guy. I walk out. It’s horrible.

Throughout all the stops along your career, starting out with jokes and humor books, then getting into the teen horror genre, and then getting into kids’ books with Goosebumps, has every change been part of a master plan?

No. I always tell high school kids, “Don’t think you can plan anything.” Because it always ends up differently. But I just wanted to be funny. I did a humor magazine for 10 years. Doing Blind Date wasn’t even my idea. I was a freelance writer at the time, and I had lunch with an editor, and she said, “Go home and write a scary book. I need a scary novel. Go home and write one.” And then I wrote Blind Date, and it was a No. 1 bestseller, and I thought, “Wait a minute. I found something kids like!” So we did another scary book, and they liked that, so I thought maybe we should try a series of scary books for teenagers, and that’s how Fear Street got started. It wasn’t planning, it all just sort of happened. Gee, we got this amazing reaction, and no one had ever tried doing a younger series. No one has ever tried doing scary books for 7-to-12 year olds. It just didn’t exist. So that’s how Goosebumps got born. But it was sort of one accident after another. Then I just got lucky. It just took off.

Now that you say that about Blind Date, that you didn’t really know how a book like that might be written, it occurs to me that a lot of your writing has a sort of off-the-cuff feel to it. Is that something that evolved from kind of learning on-the-go with this, or is it something that’s just natural to you?

A lot of it is narrated by kids. Most of it’s first-person, so that’s the style. I try to make it sound like a kid could be telling the story. But you’re right, I didn’t know what I was doing on that first teen novel. What I did was run out to the bookstore and I bought up a bunch of other teen horror novels just to see what other people were doing. There were a bunch of people who were writing teen horror at the time, so I read all these books to find out what it was and to try to figure out what I could do differently. What I decided to do was to make them younger than the other ones and make them easier to read. And that’s what I’ve done all along.

It’s an understatement to say you’re very prolific. How long was it before you really developed the system you need to keep up the pace you’ve established?

I’ve always been very prolific. I was in magazines before books, so I was used to a fast pace. I’m just lucky. Writing has always been the one thing in life that’s easy for me. It’s the only thing I’m competent at, you can ask my wife. I can always write 10, 15, 20 pages a day. It’s something I could always do. I didn’t really have to get geared up. I look back, and I was doing Goosebumps every month, and a Fear Street every month, so I was actually writing a novel every two weeks. I don’t know quite how I did it. But, I think, I had been writing for 20 years and nobody noticed, then suddenly to have this kind of amazing success is very exhilarating. It kept me going, and I think that’s how I was able to do it. [But] I have to say, people have written more books than me. Isaac Asimov wrote 550 books, so I’ve got a ways to go.

With such a vast library, do you reflect much on your past work? A lot of writers tend to cringe when they look back.

That’s one of my big failings as a writer: I don’t cringe. I should probably cringe a lot, but I’m very proud of what we’ve done, and of course very proud of all the millions of kids who have gotten to read through these books. That’s the biggest thrill from it. I still never get tired of parents coming up to me and saying, “My kid never read a book in his life until he found yours. Now he reads all the time.” That’s just always thrilling to me.

A more practical question, I guess, is how do you keep from repeating yourself?

It’s a problem. Luckily, I have very good editors. I’m married to my editor. Jane is my editor, for real. She has a very good memory, and she can say, “Well, you already did that one twice.” That kind of thing. That’s the real challenge for me now is to come up with new kinds of scares, and new chapter endings. In my books, every chapter has to end with a shock or a cliffhanger, and to come up with new stories.

Can you pick up a book of yours at random and remember writing it, or do they kind of run together after awhile?

No, I remember. I remember almost all of them.

With all your success, are you able to do what you want, or do you still get a lot of input from publishers?

I do a tremendous amount of revising. I need a lot of help, so I have about four or five editors altogether. You’d be surprised how much goes into it. I do an outline of every book before I write it, and I have to have the outlines approved, and we go over it sometimes and I’ll do two or three versions of the outline sometimes to get them ready. I want them to be as good as they can be. It’s hard when you write so many books, because people think you’re just churning them out. You don’t get taken as seriously. “He’s written 300 books, how good could they be?” Every review of a Joyce Carol Oates book mentions how prolific she is first before it talks about the book. I want to make sure every book is as good as it can be.

Could you ever have envisioned this kind of longevity?

We were all amazed. It just came as a shock to everybody. No one ever dreamed that it would take off like this. I did a book tour in China last year. Goosebumps is suddenly huge in China, millions of books. It’s the first time it’s been offered there. I just had a wonderful time there. We visited five cities, and the kids were just amazing. They were so excited, I was just mobbed. Who would ever believe it? I’m just constantly shocked.

Photo: Courtesy of The Hub