Stine, R. L. 1943-
R. L. StineINTRODUCTION
(Full name Robert Lawrence Stine; has also written under the pseudonyms Eric Affabee, Jovial Bob Stine, and Zachary Blue) American short-story writer, autobiographer, and author of juvenile fiction and young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Stine's career through 2004. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volume 37.
Having written several hundred books for young audiences, Stine is one of the most prolific children's authors of the twentieth century. At the height of his popularity, during the mid-1990s, the sales for Stine's "Goosebumps" series of young adult novels included seven of the top fifty and fifteen of the top one hundred books on the New York Times best-sellers list. In 1995 he had ninety million books in print, with an estimated 1.25 million children buying his books every month. By the end of 2004, he was estimated to have sold over three hundred million books. Despite his incredible sales figures and revolutionary impact on the juvenile book market, Stine remains a controversial figure. Stine's critics decry that his novels—particularly his juvenile horror titles—pander to young readers' basest instincts and instill poor reading habits, while his supporters argue that any book that gets a child to enjoy reading serves a positive role in that child's development. Regardless of such critical debates, his books continue to see strong sales figures. In the words of critic Silk Makowski, "No single author has played a greater role in the democratization and juvenation of the horror genre than R. L. Stine."
Stine was born on October 8, 1943, in Columbus, Ohio, to Lewis and Anne Stine. A devotee of Edgar Allen Poe and Ray Bradbury, Stine was a dedicated follower of the pulp horror genre—particularly such notorious comic books as Tales from the Crypt. He began writing at the age of nine and continued throughout high school, joining his school's newspaper. He attended Ohio State University, where he joined the writing staff of the school's parodic humor magazine, The Sundial, serving as editor for three years. After graduating in 1965, Stine was determined to find a job that would actively showcase his writing abilities. He moved to New York City and was hired by Scholastic Books whose writing department employed him for the better part of sixteen years. His various responsibilities included a stint as the head writer for the preschool children's television show Eureeka's Castle in the early 1990s. In 1969 Stine married his wife, Jane, with whom he has one son, Matthew. Scholastic eventually asked Stine to develop a series of magazines, highlighting the underutilized humor genre in children's periodicals. Stine went on to manage four magazines for Scholastic, including two—Bananas and Maniac—that he created himself. As editor of Bananas, he took the pseudonym "Jovial Bob" Stine, a name borrowed from his days at The Sundial. Stine began publishing a series of humorous texts for young readers under this nom de plume in 1978, beginning with The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Flyswatter and How to Be Funny: An Extremely Silly Guidebook. In 1983 he released a series of four thematic books under the series name "Everything You Need to Survive" that semi-seriously covered topics ranging from first dates to living with siblings. He also served on a writing staff that compiled entries in the "Twistaplots" book line for Scholastic and the "Choose Your Own Storyline" series for Ballantine and Avon Books (often under the pseudonyms Zachary Blue and Eric Affabee). In 1986 Stine was approached by Scholastic editor Jean Feiwel, who convinced Stine to try writing a horror title for young readers. The resulting text was Blind Date (1986), which became a best-seller and ushered Stine into the literary genre that would eventually define his career. Based upon the success of Blind Date, Stine released several additional young adult horror novels that followed the same pattern of simple plot development and narrative style, each achieving respectable sales. On the strength of Stine's growing reputation, Scholastic gave the author his own imprint—the "Fear Street" series—in 1989, which was soon followed by a second imprint, "Goosebumps," in 1992. "Goosebumps" remains Stine's most popular series to date, and by the mid-1990s, his novels had become a pop culture phenomenon with incredible sales figures. "Goosebumps" has since inspired a wealth of merchandise, theme park attractions, and a popular television program for young viewers. The series also held a place in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2000 and 2001 as the world's best-selling children's book series. At his peak, Stine was releasing several titles a month, until his sales finally slowed during the late 1990s. Still actively publishing novels, Stine continues to author several different young adult series—some of them ghostwritten by other writers working under the "R. L. Stine" imprint—including "The Nightmare Room" and "Mostly Ghostly."
Stine's work as "Jovial Bob" ranges from the nonsensical to the informative. For example, How to Be Funny: An Extremely Silly Guidebook functions as a joke book in the form of a how-to text, describing such comedic techniques as the "10-Step Bumbling Classroom Entrance" and "How to be Funny with Soup." Another "Jovial Bob" work, The Pigs' Book of World Records (1980) offers a barnyard-centered spoof on the Guinness Book of World Records. Stine's thriller and horror titles, which are commonly praised for their fast-paced action and inventive plots, characteristically feature normal teenagers who suddenly find their lives in danger, occasionally from supernatural forces; nearly every book features a murder, sometimes of the protagonist. In Twisted (1987), for example, a sorority pledge loses her mind when she finds herself at the center of a bizarre set of deaths, while the hero of Blind Date discovers that losing one's memory can have deadly consequences. Stine's "Fear Street" series also offers mystery and mayhem, describing a variety of bizarre happenings in the lives of students at the fictitious Shadyside High. "Fear Street" titles such as The New Girl (1989), in which a boy falls in love with a young woman who may be a ghost, or The First Evil (1992), which follows a murderous supernatural force as it stalks a cheerleading squad, have proven particularly popular with teen audiences due to their cliff-hanger chapter breaks. His "Goosebumps" imprint focuses on more horrific themes, utilizing such pulp horror plot device staples as monsters, madmen, and murderers. Famed children's literature critic Perry Nodelman has noted that, like the "Fear Street" series, "the publishers of Goosebumps reuse successful ploys developed by marketers of popular series for children over the past century or so. Each book ends with an excerpt for the next volume, a preview clearly designed to encourage further reading of the series." In the "Goosebumps" title Night of the Living Dummy (1993), the conniving Mr. Wood unleashes a maniacally evil ventriloquist dummy named Slappy on a group of unsuspecting teens. Slappy would go on to become one of Stine's most frequent recurring antagonists in the "Goosebumps" series—in fact, the 1999 title Slappy's Nightmare is narrated from the dummy's perspective. These returning characters have allowed Stine to develop smaller series within the scope of the larger "Goosebumps" imprint. For example, the 1992 title Monster Blood—about a boy who buys a can of creepy green monster blood at a mysterious toy store—has since spawned three sequels. While "Goosebumps" remains Stine's most successful and iconic series to date, the author has continued to found new imprints, targeting his special brand of macabre juvenilia to both younger and older teen audiences. In 2000 Stine partnered with HarperCollins to establish "The Nightmare Room" series, starting with the thriller Don't Forget Me! (2000) and including such titles as Liar, Liar (2000), They Call Me Creature (2001), and Shadow Girl (2001). "Danger-ous Girls" and "Rotten School" represent two of Stine's most recent new series—Dangerous Girls (2003) focuses on two teens, Destiny and Livvy, who encounter a vampire at their summer camp, while the first volume of "Rotten School," The Big Blueberry Barf-Off! (2005), emphasizes gross-out humor in the story of the world's most disgusting boarding school.
Stine's overall critical reception has represented a dichotomous blend of critical derision and steadfast reader devotion. Labeled "literary junk food" by some scholars, Stine's narratives remain a point of contention for critics, many of whom have argued that his salacious storylines hold little merit as works of children's literature. Several reviews have been surprisingly blunt in their appraisals of Stine's writing ability, with Roderick McGillis declaring, "I think of Stine's books as camp because they are so artificial, so formulaic, so predictable, so repetitive, so bad." Further, a number of Stine's latest series, such as "Ghosts of Fear Street," have seemingly capitalized on their creator's name rather than his talents, utilizing a series of ghostwriters whose contributions are not always made clear. Generally, most reviewers have recognized Stine's novels as trivial, though entertaining fodder for young readers, with some praising Stine's ability to keep his audience captivated with his recurring series. Randi Dickson has suggested that, "It's not so much that young people should be discouraged from reading R. L. Stine, as they should be encouraged to seek more places for the same kinds of gratifications they get from Stine's books." However, Stine has not been without his own critical supporters. Silk Makowski, for example, has argued that Stine has "developed a style that is unique, being gracefully and grammatically written in a simple vocabulary that does not talk down to readers but is pleasing and satisfying while providing a fast, easy read. His characters are well developed and believable. His plots, his finest points, are excellent, worthy of O. Henry at his best." Other commentators, such as Perry Nodelman, have surmised that, while Stine's horrific serial novels do not represent the best writing available to children, they can still serve as an important facet in a child's literary development. Nodelman has commented that, "If the popularity of Goosebumps distresses us, then, it should not be because they represent an aberrant outbreak of the monstrous in otherwise benevolent world of children's culture. Their immense popularity with children should tell us how very ordinary this particular form of the monstrous already is to them; and that information ought to lead us to want to help children develop strategies that will allow them to become aware of the monstrousness and, I hope, to defend themselves against it."
Dangerous Girls Series
Dangerous Girls (young adult novel) 2003
The Taste of Night (young adult novel) 2004
Fear Street Series
The New Girl (young adult novel) 1989
Halloween Party (young adult novel) 1990
Missing (young adult novel) 1990
The Stepsister (young adult novel) 1990
The Surprise Party (young adult novel) 1990
The Wrong Number (young adult novel) 1990
The Overnight (young adult novel) 1991
The Secret Bedroom (young adult novel) 1991
The Sleepwalker (young adult novel) 1991
The Best Friend (young adult novel) 1992
First Date (young adult novel) 1992
Prom Queen (young adult novel) 1992
The New Boy (young adult novel) 1994
The Boy Next Door (young adult novel) 1996
Killer's Kiss (young adult novel) 1997
Fear Street Cheerleader Series
The First Evil (young adult novel) 1992
The Second Evil (young adult novel) 1992
Fear Street Super Chillers Series
Party Summer (young adult novel) 1991
Goodnight Kiss (young adult novel) 1992
Silent Night (young adult novel) 1992
Broken Hearts (young adult novel) 1993
Ghosts of Fear Street Series
The Bugman Lives (young adult novel) 1996
Fright Knight (young adult novel) 1996
Nightmare in 3-D (young adult novel) 1996
Monster Blood (young adult novel) 1992
Say Cheese and Die (young adult novel) 1992
Stay out of the Basement (young adult novel) 1992
Welcome to Dead House (young adult novel) 1992
Be Careful What You Wish For (young adult novel) 1993
The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (young adult novel) 1993
The Ghost Next Door (young adult novel) 1993
The Girl Who Cried Monster (young adult novel) 1993
The Haunted Mask (young adult novel) 1993
Let's Get Invisible (young adult novel) 1993
Night of the Living Dummy (young adult novel) 1993
Piano Lessons Can Be Murder (young adult novel) 1993
Welcome to Camp Nightmare (young adult novel) 1993
The Werewolf of Fever Swamp (young adult novel) 1993
You Can't Scare Me (young adult novel) 1993
Attack of the Mutant (young adult novel) 1994
Deep Trouble (young adult novel) 1994
Ghost Beach (young adult novel) 1994
Monster Blood 2 (young adult novel) 1994
One Day at Horrorland (young adult novel) 1994
Return of the Mummy (young adult novel) 1994
The Cuckoo Clock of Doom (young adult novel) 1995
The Haunted Mask 2 (young adult novel) 1995
The Horror at Camp Jellyjam (young adult novel) 1995
Monster Blood 3 (young adult novel) 1995
The Night of the Living Dummy 2 (young adult novel) 1995
Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes (young adult novel) 1995
Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns (young adult novel) 1996
Ghost Camp (young adult novel) 1996
How to Kill a Monster (young adult novel) 1996
Night of the Living Dummy 3 (young adult novel) 1996
Say Cheese and Die—Again! (young adult novel) 1996
The Blob That Ate Everyone (young adult novel) 1997
Don't Go to Sleep! (young adult novel) 1997
Monster Blood IV (young adult novel) 1997
My Best Friend Is Invisible (young adult novel) 1997
Give Yourself Goosebumps Series
Escape from the Carnival of Horrors (young adult novel) 1995
Tick Tock, You're Dead (young adult novel) 1995
Diary of a Mad Mummy (young adult novel) 1996
Night in Werewolf Woods (young adult novel) 1996
All-Day Nightmare (young adult novel) 2000
Mostly Ghostly Series
Have You Met My Ghoulfriend (young adult novel) 2004
Who Let the Ghosts Out (young adult novel) 2004
Freaks and Shrieks (young adult novel) 2005
Ghouls Gone Wild (young adult novel) 2005
Let's Get This Party Haunted! (young adult novel) 2005
Nightmare Room Series
Dear Diary, I'm Dead (young adult novel) 2000
Don't Forget Me! (young adult novel) 2000
Liar, Liar (young adult novel) 2000
Camp Nowhere (young adult novel) 2001
The Howler (young adult novel) 2001
Shadow Girl (young adult novel) 2001
They Call Me Creature (young adult novel) 2001
Rotten School Series
The Big Blueberry Barf-Off! [illustrations by Trip Park] (juvenile fiction) 2005
The Good, The Bad, and the Very Slimy [illustrations by Trip Park] (juvenile fiction) 2005
The Great Smelling Bee [illustrations by Trip Park] (juvenile fiction) 2005
As Jovial Bob Stine
The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Flyswatter [illustrations by Bob Taylor] (juvenile fiction) 1978
How to Be Funny: An Extremely Silly Guidebook [illustrations by Carol Nicklaus] (juvenile fiction) 1978
The Pig's Book of World Records [illustrations by Peter Lippman] (juvenile fiction) 1980
The Beast Handbook [illustrations by Bob Taylor] (juvenile fiction) 1981
Everything You Need to Survive: Brothers and Sisters [with Jane Stine] [illustrations by Sal Murdocca] (juvenile fiction) 1983
Young Adult Fiction
Blind Date (young adult novel) 1986
Twisted (young adult novel) 1987
Broken Date (young adult novel) 1988
The Baby-Sitter (young adult novel) 1989
Beach Party (young adult novel) 1990
The Boyfriend (young adult novel) 1990
Curtains (young adult novel) 1990
Baby-Sitter II (young adult novel) 1991
The Girlfriend (young adult novel) 1991
Snowman (young adult novel) 1991
Beach House (young adult novel) 1992
Hit and Run (young adult novel) 1992
The Dead Girl Friend (young adult novel) 1993
Halloween Night (young adult novel) 1993
Hitchhiker (young adult novel) 1993
It Came from Ohio: My Life as a Writer (autobiography) 1997
Nightmare Hour (short stories) 1999
The Haunting Hour (short stories) 2001
Roderick McGillis (essay date fall-winter 1995–1996)
SOURCE: McGillis, Roderick. "R. L. Stine and the World of Child Gothic." Bookbird 33, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1995–1996): 15-21.
[In the following essay, McGillis identifies the precursors to Stine's series of young adult Goosebumps novels in such popular genre materials as comic books and movie serials, a trend he does not necessarily find to be a positive development.]
… a deep sympathy modified by revulsion
My epigraph derives from a 1964 essay by Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp.'" The notion of a "camp" sensibility is long out of fashion,1 but I wish to resuscitate it for the purpose of talking about a recent series of books for young readers, Goosebumps by R. L. Stine, published by Scholastic. In order to discuss a sensibility, "to draw its contours and to recount its history," as Sontag says, one needs to have "sympathy modified by revulsion."2 I like this because it captures my response to Stine's books. I hope to draw the contours of the Goosebumps series and to trace its brief history, and in doing so I suspect that both my sympathy for and my revulsion to these books will become apparent.
First, however, my own note on camp. I think of Stine's books as camp because they are so artificial, so formulaic, so predictable, so repetitive, so bad. "Epicene" is a word Sontag uses to describe camp, and it suits the books of the Goosebumps series because they are, if books can be such, androgynous, appealing to both male and female readers and treating both male and female protagonists in much the same way. They manifest a decadence that goes nicely with our fin-de-siècle mood. And although it might appear perverse to speak of "style" in the context of Goosebumps, I think it true to say that in these books style—if by style we can mean predictable quirks and repetitions of language and speech act performances—does take precedence over content. Indeed, the content of the Goosebumps series is thin in the extreme.
Stine the Collectible
Before taking up these aspects of style and content, I need to say something about the history of these books. As I write, 36 books in this series are in print, although by the time you read this the list will undoubtedly contain one or two more titles. Stine began writing Goosebumps, a series of horror fiction for 8- to 12-year-old readers, in 1992, and the books have been appearing at the rate of nearly one a month. This in itself is phenomenal. Since the series began, few changes have occurred in the look of the books. The spines are now slightly more dramatic, utilizing the ghostly script that appears on the cover, title pages, and chapter numbers. Stine's name on the spine appears in larger leading now than it did early in the series. Recent books contain gimmicks like scary tattoos or glow-in-the-dark stickers. A Goosebumps fan club now offers readers the opportunity of participating in the ghoulish fun: several objects such as backpacks, packets of monster blood, and hats are available. And in the note "About the Author," we learn that Stine's son has grown from 12 to 15, and that the number of Stine's scary books has increased from "nearly two dozen" to "over three dozen." (This figure of three dozen hardly comes close to the huge output Stine has managed since he first began writing for adolescent and younger readers in 1985. Actually, his career goes back even further: as "Jovial Bob Stine," he had begun writing comic novels for children in 1978.) All this, plus the raised and bumpy lettering on the covers, means that these books are commodities as much as they are books; the reader collects Goosebumps the way my generation collected comics or sports cards or maybe bubblegum wrappers that contained jokes. Indeed, I recall hearing a secondhand bookseller in my city telling a customer that Goosebumps never come in to her store because these books "are keepers." The series must be one of the most successful marketing achievements in the history of the book world. Recently it has spawned other similar series—the Ghosts of Fear Street (with Stine's name on the cover, this series purports to be a junior version of Stine's Fear Street series for adolescents), Shadow Zone, and House of Horrors.
I suspect Goosebumps serves kids today the way that comics and movie serials served an earlier generation. Although Stine's books do not offer continuity in story line from book to book in the manner of comics and the film serial, they do offer repetition book after book, and the series contains within it miniseries, as it were: the three Monster Blood books or the two Mummy books or the two Living Dummy books, for example. The repetition works as it always does: it brings familiarity the way the recurring patterns in fairy tales do. Readers know what to expect, or at least they ought to know after reading the first few books. I mention fairy tales, but the true precursors of Goosebumps are the many popular retellings of the Gothic world; the books remind me of many of the films I grew up with such as The Day of the Triffids (1963), The Fly (1958), The Blob (1958), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958), The Wolfman (1941) and its sequels, Dracula (1931), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and so on. Also invoked are the early film serials that always ended with a cliffhanger, a sort of advertisement for next week's installment. Goosebumps also end with an advertisement for the next installment: each book contains material from the next book in the series to entice the reader on.
Problems of Coherence
Despite the variation in narrative focus and plot from book to book, Goosebumps does offer a coherent world—a style as it were. Take a look at the film serials again or the hokey sci-fi and monster films from the 1950s and you will see that these too offered a style, a coherent world. In Stine's Goosebumps world we find strange and fantastic scientific substances such as maglesium harposyrate and ribotussal polythorbital (Monster Blood III ); in my day we had simpler but no less intriguing substances such as monium, death rays, radium, magnesite, culebra plants, and of course the ubiquitous invisible rays, inks, cloaks, and all. And just as the world of 1950s schlock contained a delightful array of creatures familiar from myth, legend, and literary tradition, so, too, does Goosebumps. Here we find zombies, vampires, werewolves, blobs, and creatures from below. Dolls, ventriloquist's dummies, masks, kitchen sponges, garden gnomes, plants, worms—all might manifest the spirit of the imp. Yet none really threatens to overturn our sense of safety.
My invocation of old films would be incomplete without a nod in the direction of Ed Wood, whose Revenge of the Dead (a.k.a. Night of the Ghouls, 1960) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) are so inept that they prove irresistible. We might say the same about the Goosebumps books. When charm emanates from something inept we have camp, or as Sontag says: "Pure Camp is always naive" (282). And I get little sense that Stine writes with the verve of irony or wit or parody. He does attempt the ironic ending, but in the context of Goosebumps we know that the ostensibly unsettling ending is just that: ostensible. Never do we have the sense that the world is an inextricably evil place and that humans can never find safety. If Goosebumps can claim the "post-modern" tag, it does so by virtue of a naïveté that knows no principle. This in itself is problematic and paradoxical. The paradox is that although the reader knows that the surprising and sometimes unhappy endings are purely conventional—part of the fun, so to speak—he or she also learns to accept a world in which people can become plants or werewolves or vampires, and in which aliens, garden gnomes, malevolent sponges, and other wild monsters of the imagination abound. In other words, Stine's books present a world that at one and the same time is both safe and decidedly unsafe.
This lack of principle, whether it be aesthetic or thematic, is evident in Stine's comments to Time Magazine a few years ago. His challenge, he says, is "to find new cheap thrills … I mean disgusting, gross things to put in the book that they'll like: the cat is boiled in the spaghetti, a girl pours honey over a boy and sets ants on him. They [his readers] like the gross stuff."3 With a rather cynical turn, Stine goes on: "The pets are dead meat … If the kid has a pet, he's going to find it dead on the floor" (54).
Although this formula might characterize Stine's fiction for adolescents, the Goosebumps series contains no dead pets. In fact, nothing much horrific actually takes place in these books. For example, number 16 in the series is One Day at Horrorland (1994), a story about the Morris family (who remind me of the Simpsons on TV) on an outing to a theme park. Instead of arriving at Zoo Gardens, they become lost and find a rather different sort of theme park: Horrorland. The book begins with a bang. At the end of the second chapter, the Morrises leave their car in the Horrorland parking lot, and as they walk toward the entrance a huge explosion takes place, exploding their car "into a million pieces" (14). Herein begins the tour of Horrorland with its wild rides, frightening exhibits, and monstrous attendants. Never mind the destroyed car; what's a car when the delights and chills of Horrorland await! Off go the Morrises from chapter to chapter and from fright to fright. Most chapters, as in all the books, end with what is supposed to be a chilling moment: "Reader beware—you're in for a scare" reads the back of every book. But the reader soon learns that the chilling moment is deceptive; what appears scary is in reality only something safe and familiar. A passage in One Day at Horrorland puts it nicely: "Horrorland was too scary, I decided. It was fun to be scared. But it was too hard to tell whether the scares here were for fun—or for real. Were there dangers in this place? Or was it all a big, scary joke?" (47)
The questions in this passage are typical of the style of these books, but the binary real danger/pretend danger is fluffy. The book in fact wants it both ways: these are real dangers and yet these are not real dangers. At the end of One Day at Horrorland, the Morrises escape from Horrorland in a purple and green bus, careening away from this terrible place, but when they arrive home they find one of the Horrorland monsters clinging to the back of the bus. He explains that the family had not received their free passes for next year. Cute. But at least the adult reader is left perplexed by this kind of genre waffling, and I suspect children are as well. But no matter if the total package itself is gratifying.
In fact, nearly all Goosebumps books end on a nifty turn, one that is unpredictable and sometimes unprepared for, as in Welcome to Camp Nightmare (no. 9 of the series, 1993) where the reader learns on the last page that the characters in this seemingly earthbound book are actually from another planet. I suspect the intention is that the reader will find this funny, surprising, and unpredictable.4 The implications of the end remain blank. The same is true of stories that conclude with the protagonist becoming a werewolf, or with a father turned into a plant, or with a whole town surviving as vampires. Just what will ensue in the world the book envisages remains unquestioned. Frankly, the world that gothic fiction, of whatever quality, imagines is a world beyond our grasp. We cannot know what evil lurks in the hearts of men or garden gnomes. We cannot rid our streets or even our houses of hidden evil.
A glance at the covers of the books will substantiate much of what I've been saying. Many of the covers show familiar and even suburban scenes—a playground, a kitchen sink and cupboard, stairs leading up to a suburban house's bedrooms, a spiral-bound homework book, garden gnomes, a Halloween mask, a pup tent—but the colors are usually shades of lurid orange and red and green and puce and purple. Garish. And inevitably a monster is concealed in a shadow or behind a sign or in a window, or it presents itself directly and boldly to the viewer. But this isn't all. The tone of wryness, the scent of playfulness is always evident in the short tag line on each cover: for example, "It's a monster blood drive!" (Monster Blood, 1992), "Homework was never this gross before!" (Go Eat Worms, 1994), "It's the little camp of horrors!" (Welcome to Camp Nightmare, 1993), and my favorite, "It's warm! It's breathing! And it doesn't do dishes!" (It Came from Beneath the Sink! 1995). Exclamations abound! The world as exclamation point is the world in constant crisis, in constant danger, everywhere.
The Appeal to Children of Transgressive Acts
I don't know whether children who read these books know this or not, and I wonder what it is that attracts them to these books. Clearly, some of what I have already noted accounts in part for the books' appeal: their collectibility, their brevity, their use of the conventions of horror for fun, their surprises. But more must be going on here, and perhaps it is this: As so often in children's books, the plots show children coping with difficult and apparently dangerous situations alone, without their parents' help. The parents sometimes refuse to accept their children's claims that something terrible is happening or they simply don't clue in to what is going on; for example, both parents in It Came from Beneath the Sink! refuse to believe that the dried out old sponge under the sink can be a monster, and Evan's mother in Monster Blood III (1995) remains blissfully unaware that her son has grown into a giant. The child's relative independence from adults is always a satisfying feature of children's books, addressing itself to the child reader's desire for control, even if this means facing threats in the form of monstrous creatures.
The situations in which the child characters of these books find themselves force them into transgressive acts such as staying out late at night, making forced entry into a neighbor's house or some other forbidden place, defying adults. In the world of child gothic anything goes. Generalization is difficult because the focus and direction of the stories change so much, but these books do strike a blow at the adult's world. If nothing else, they set aside the reality principle. Nothing is real/realistic in these pages. Because of this, these books resist the adult world into which their readers are moving. Note how often the books mock adult activities: scientific experimentation, flower and vegetable gardening, house cleaning, the selling of real estate, training camps, holiday rituals, the education system. But mostly science. In this, these books are regressive; they do not ask their readers to question either themselves or their world.
It would be easy from an adult perspective to criticize Goosebumps as formulaic, repetitive, thin, blandly written, short on character development, unrealistic, cynical, and even downright nasty. In other words, it is easy to be revulsed by these books. And I think a little revulsion is salutary here. These books are not examples of fine writing, and they do glamorize what Stine himself refers to as things "gross." But so did EC Comics in the 1950s, those comics that raised the hackles of the redoubtable Dr. Wertham. The invocation of EC Comics is useful because they too exhibited something of what Goosebumps offers: what Perry Nodelman calls a "weird sort of randomness." For me, this has its attractions, and we ought not to lay the real charge against the series on its randomness or its grossness. If anything should disturb us about Goosebumps, then it is the competitive edge to the books that Perry Nodelman notices, its indulgence in an open market of fear. As Nodelman has it, the person who scares best wins. Or in the formulation of Steven Shaviro, "Transgression reinforces the order being transgressed."5 These books satisfy a desire for the ghoulish and the gross, while leaving the reality principle undamaged. These books encourage a system (can we call it a system?) of interpersonal relationships based on fear, and the way to deal with this kind of community of the scary is to be the best at frightening your peers. We are a long way from the politics of understanding. We are a long way from a kinder, gentler world than any we have yet had. But we are very close to the world of commercial competitiveness. These books are preparing the young reader to enter the marketplace. And it's scary out there.6
1. For non-native English speakers (and those who came of age after the 1960s), the dictionary defines camp as "having deliberately artificial, vulgar, banal, or affectedly humorous qualities or style" (The American Heritage Dictionary, 3d ed. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992]).
2. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Dell, 1966), 276.
3. Paul Gray, "Carnage: An Open Book," Time, 2 August 1993, 54.
4. Cf. Mary Lois Sanders, "R. L. Stine," in Something about the Author [vol. 76], ed. Diane Telgen (Detroit: Gale Research, 1994), 219-24.
5. Stephen Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 6.
6. I am indebted to Perry Nodelman for suggesting I write this essay, and then for generously sharing with me his ideas and even his notes on the Goosebumps series. As always, Perry's thinking is stimulating, intricate, and clear-sighted.
Perry Nodelman (essay date fall 1997)
SOURCE: Nodelman, Perry. "Ordinary Monstrosity: The World of Goosebumps." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22, no. 3 (fall 1997): 118-25.
[In the following essay, Nodelman considers how Stine's Goosebumps series utilizes marketing and stereotypically "normal" backgrounds for its lead characters to appeal to a broad core of readers.]
When R. L. Stine's Goosebumps books first appeared, only a few years ago, many parents, teachers, and librarians viewed the mere existence of the new series as a monstrous intrusion into the well-intentioned world of children's publishing, and the content of the novels themselves as an equally monstrous intrusion into the ordinarily innocent minds of young readers. But as time has passed and the series has continued to be phenomenally popular with young readers, it becomes harder and harder to find adults willing to be more than mildly distressed by Goosebumps. When asked about children's apparently insatiable enthusiasm for these books, most adults I've spoken to lately tend to say something along the lines of, "Well, at least they're reading something."1
Comments of this sort clearly express dismay about children's enthusiasm for writing that strikes many adults as being not only unchildlike but also without merit—in a word, trashy. But the comments also acknowledge the undeniable presence of the books as an important and unavoidable part of children's literature, not so much an aberration as a somewhat off-putting aspect of the normally expectable, like traffic jams or tight shoes or a bad cold. The ordinary has expanded to include this one particular form of the monstrous.
Intriguingly, this change in adult attitudes replicates what happens in the novels themselves. In each of the Goosebumps books, something or someone monstrous and impossible intrudes into an otherwise ordinary world. Its presence causes fear and distress for the twelve-year-old child or children who must deal with it. But, by the end of the story, normalcy reasserts its primacy. Somehow or other—as I'll show later, it happens in a variety of ways—the boringly ordinary world manages to absorb the impossible and to continue on in its boringly ordinary way. What at first seemed like a serious aberration from logic and order has come to be acknowledged, expected. It's upsetting, perhaps, but nothing to be especially concerned or alarmed about.
Nor is it only the plots of the novels that replicate this pattern. There are a variety of ways in which the Goosebumps books invite their young readers to confront that which is usually identified as frighteningly monstrous and horrifically abnormal and to accept it as normal, not just in the world the novels describe but in their own lives and characters.
Marketing: The Invitation to Monstrosity
Before Goosebumps appeared, there was little that might be identified as horror fiction for young readers. Within a short time, the books in this series absorbed so much of the market that they might well be described as the books young children most often read or bought.2 Once more, the monstrous became merely ordinary. The success of the series represents a merchandising triumph. How does it work?
To begin with, the publishers of Goosebumps reuse successful ploys developed by marketers of popular series for children over the past century or so. Each book ends with an excerpt from the next volume, a preview clearly designed to encourage further reading of the series. And not just reading, either: ownership. These previews are always preceded by a page that urges readers, "Add more Goosebumps to your collection." Each volume has a number prominently displayed on its spine, and the volumes all share the same graphic design, with different titles in the same fonts and different pictures in the same boxes. Like all collectibles, each book looks similar enough to the others to be part of what is clearly a set, but is different enough to make the set incomplete without it.
In Attack of the Mutant, Goosebumps #25, the main character, a comic book collector, has a conversation with a girl who collects a different and to his mind inferior kind of comics, and who tells him, "I don't want to sell them. And I don't care what they're worth. I just like to read them" (20). He scornfully replies, "Then you're not a real collector." The collectability and popularity of the Goosebumps series reflects the degree to which children already share or are willing to learn similar attitudes about the gratification of ownership. It's interesting, then, that the girl who wanted only to collect for the pleasure of the reading turns out not to be a human child at all, but a villainous alien, the mutant of the title in disguise. It is inhuman, it seems, not to want to have things—and even, perhaps, essentially human to define one's being in terms of what one owns.
Goosebumps signify membership in the community of acceptable, non-alien children. A number of parents have told me that their children ask for Goosebumps even if they don't particularly enjoy reading them. Just to own them gives one status in the culture of the playground, and not owning any or not having read any marginalizes children within that culture. To have Goosebumps is to be acceptably "normal."
Nor does it hurt that so many adults have expressed dismay about the books and still tend to consider them trash. Their value in the culture of childhood increases exactly in relation to the amount of adult concern and disapproval. The more adult anxiety, the more fun it is—and the more important it is in maintaining your communal status—to read them.3
Young children defy their parents and teachers by reading Goosebumps just as older children (and adults) defy authority by listening to rock music. Both the Goosebumps and the music are the products of highly profitable economic ventures, their success orchestrated by business interests that represent the exact opposite of rebellion against mainstream practices and values. And both Goosebumps and rock encourage rebellion only in order to coopt and absorb it. For one thing, rebelliousness has been deflected into the consumption of consumer products and sustains the economy; the anarchic and aberrant has come to uphold the very forces of normalcy it purports to oppose. For another, if reading the books or listening to the music is itself an act of rebellion, then rebelliousness is expressed and satisfied in the mere acts of reading and listening. The power structure is safe from any actual efforts to change it.
The particular form of rebellion against adult assumptions that Goosebumps represent emerges from the fact that they are horror stories. They are supposed to be terrifying. Adults try to arrange the lives of children so that they will be safe from fear; but in the culture of the schoolyard, to acknowledge fear is to be defined as a weakling, and to test one's fearlessness an ongoing activity. Not surprisingly, then, the marketing of Goosebumps often implies that the books offer such a test. The teaser on the cover of One Day in Horrorland, #16, does so explicitly; it says, "Enter if you dare…."
All of this suggests that Goosebumps encourage the most widely held values of contemporary consumer culture. Their marketing supports self-indulgence and the importance of gratifying desire; the belief that adult concerns are authoritarian and the encouragement of rebellion against them; the importance of status with other children, and the lack of importance of pleasing or agreeing with conventional adults and with conventional adult ideas about behavior or morality or literary excellence; the importance of ownership in defining self-worth and one's worth in the eyes of others; and the superiority of tough-minded fearlessness over a theoretically cowardly refusal to test oneself in the face of a loathsome danger.
But these are exactly the values that parents and teachers often work to discourage children from sharing. Parental and educational discourse both with children and about them—and also, the kinds of books for children that adults most often recommend—tend to privilege the opposite viewpoints. The books that get starred reviews in library or education journals and win important prizes praise moderation rather than indulgence; concern for others rather than self-gratification; charity and self-sacrifice rather than ownership and self-aggrandizement; thoughtfulness rather than willfulness; responsible, safe behavior rather than foolhardy defiance of danger. In allowing and encouraging children to indulge in the opposite of what we would like to consider admirable and acceptable, Goosebumps once more make that which is aberrant and monstrously self-indulgent acceptable—merely normal.
The Normal World in Goosebumps: The Ordinary as Monstrous
The world the Goosebumps books depict as normal—the place where the characters live as it is before the monstrous aberration appears within it—confirms the values engaged by their marketing. The main characters are "normal" to a degree that makes them decidedly unconvincing as possibly existing human beings.
They are sometimes male, sometimes female (and gender doesn't seem to be much of an issue because these characters tend to share personality traits whatever their sex); but they are always twelve. They usually describe themselves as being more or less average in appearance, and their clothing represents fairly current mainstream young adolescent fashion: baseball caps, Doc Martens, jeans, and T-shirts.
The tastes and interests of Stine's protagonists are similarly mainstream. Unless they have a specific hobby, such as playing the piano (Piano Lessons Can Be Murder, #13) or worm-collecting (Go Eat Worms! #21), that is required by the plot of the book, they tend to do only what we usually assume typical children normally do: they go to school, hang around with each other, watch television. While the plots sometimes separate these children from their parents, they almost always live in two-parent families. Grandparents or other relatives are rarely present. The protagonists often have younger siblings and occasionally older ones—and if they do, they constantly squabble with them. They usually have one or two close friends, but are neither especially popular nor especially unpopular.
The families of these children aren't rich, but they enjoy enough material comfort not to need to comment on it. There's a similar lack of detail about the settings, but they usually sound like suburbs or small towns. While some books take place during farm or beach vacations, the children never actually live on farms or in urban apartments. Nor do they often live in clearly definable areas with distinctive geographical features or specific regional accents. There's also almost no mention of race or ethnicity unless the plot demands it—as it does, for instance, in two books about mummies, which specify their protagonists' Egyptian background. These children seem to be white de-ethnicized mid-Americans, devoid of any consciousness of a specific cultural heritage. And they never express any sort of interest in sex or gangs or drugs.
For all the tank tops and Doc Martens, the world the books describe sounds more like a nostalgic portrait of a sitcom America of the fifties than a representation of today. In light of the focus on multiculturalism in contemporary pedagogy and children's publishing, the whiteness of Goosebumps is especially noteworthy. But most of the things that usually create problems for children—differences in race or appearance or economic status, family upheaval or religious conflict or sexual confusion or lack of popularity—simply don't exist in the "normal" world of Goosebumps.
In this way, Goosebumps represent a version of a popular ploy of contemporary commercial culture: to persuade us that "normal" means, not what people normally do or are, but a desirable ideal, what you need to do or be if you want to think of yourself as being normal. For instance, fashion magazines persuade many readers that to be normal is to be much thinner than most women are. Those persuaded of this view will work hard and spend a lot of money to achieve "normalcy."
If child readers accept the idealized fictional world of Goosebumps as an accurate representation of reality—and surely that's the intention, if the readers are to appreciate the ways in which the various horrors diverge from normalcy—then they are learning or confirming a decidedly limited view of what's normal. In Goosebumps, furthermore, this identifiable norm is not just an empty space. The protagonists share not only external circumstances but a character. They tend, in fact, to display all of the characteristics that I earlier suggested the marketing of the books encourages. Consider some typical passages:
She's jealous, Lindy realized. Kris sees that the kids really like Slappy [a ventriloquist's dummy] and that I'm getting all the attention. And she's totally jealous.
I'm definitely keeping Slappy! Lindy told herself, secretly pleased at her little triumph.
(Night of the Living Dummy #7, 15)
Andy pushed past him and took the can [of Monster Blood] from Evan's hand. "Oooh, I want one, too," she said, turning the can around in her hand.
"There's only one," Evan told her.
"You sure?" She began searching the shelves….
"I need one, too," Andy said to Evan.
"Sorry," Evan replied, taking the can back. "I saw it first."
"I'll buy it from you," Andy said.
(Monster Blood #3, 33)
"Hey, Eddie—was it you who put that dumb snake in my lunch?"
"Of course not," I exclaimed. I kicked the grass with my sneaker….
"I thought maybe it was you," Courtney said, tossing her hair behind her shoulder. "I thought maybe you were trying to pay me back. You know. For the green snake thing."
"No way," I muttered. "No way, Courtney."…
Finally, Courtney raised her feet to the pedals and rode off down the street.
"We've got to find a way to scare her," I said through clenched teeth as soon as she had ridden out of sight. "We've just got to!"
(You Can't Scare Me! #15, 33-34)
These scenes describe typical Goosebumps children. They are decidedly egocentric. They rarely report any feelings about others except insofar as those others' actions affect themselves. They are very conscious of the power of ownership. They often express envy over someone else's possessions or enjoy the envy created in others by their own possessions. They are also, and most notably, incredibly competitive. They compete for parental attention and about who will have the best science fair display and just about anything else. And in all of these competitions they are less interested in what they might win than in the mere fact that they have won. But most significantly, these children compete to see whether they can scare each other. These books focus almost obsessively on the effort of children to frighten other children and on the importance of not being frightened.
All of this material is presented without question or comment, as normal—as what children usually are, and as what readers are invited to identify with and imagine themselves to be. Nor, as we might expect from our reading of more critically acclaimed children's fiction about similarly hardnosed, self-involved, and self-trusting children, do these children find their values particularly questioned by the events of the plot. In "Most Intriguing: R. L. Stine," People quotes Stine as saying, "I have no crying, no hugging, and the kids never learn anything about themselves." And that's true—his children lack both the emotional vulnerability implied by crying and the concern for and interaction with others implied by hugging; and they never change enough to learn anything about themselves.
Anything new, that is. The children's books that adults tend to admire most often encourage identification with characters as an invitation for readers to change as the characters do and learn to be better—to grow up. Consider just about any Newbery Medal winner. Goosebumps apparently encourage identification to reinforce the idea that no change is necessary. Once more, Goosebumps seem to be in the act of confirming values that do perhaps govern mainstream culture and that are of great value to commerce: egoists and competitors are excellent consumers.
But as I suggested earlier, it's exactly values like these that adults often work hard to dissuade children of, to make seem aberrant and monstrous. In allowing these monstrosities without comment, Goosebumps once more work to make the theoretically aberrant normal.
The Horror: The Monstrous as Ordinary
Into this world comes a more obvious horror. Each book in the series describes how a child confronts something obviously and undeniably monstrous. Being monstrous, the monsters of horror are by definition unnatural, abnormal. As Noël Carroll suggests in his Philosophy of Horror, "the monsters of horror … breach the norms of ontological propriety presumed by the positive human characters in the story…. The monster is an extraordinary character in our ordinary world" (16). It isn't much of a stretch to conclude that monsters represent that which our conceptions of normalcy exclude or deny—what we see not only as aberrant or deformed, but as frighteningly so, come to life and interfering with normalcy. Most theoretical considerations of the meaning of horror focus on the significance of that disruption.
From a psychoanalytical point of view, horror represents a return of the repressed. The psychoanalyst Ernest Jones once suggested that the imagery of horror is repulsive but entertaining because it manifests forbidden or repressed wishes. The disgust we feel for the monsters of horror masks a desire for that which we are not supposed to desire—hence the thrill of engaging the disgust and the pleasure we get from it. Speaking of fantasy in general, Rosemary Jackson offers a similar dynamic, but puts it in the context of cultural forces:
fantasy characteristically attempts to compensate for a lack resulting from cultural constraints: it is a literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss…. The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made "absent."
In this light, it is revealing that something like horror fiction first appeared in the late eighteenth century; in a time when Enlightenment thinking celebrated the triumph of reason and order, the "Gothic" novels of writers such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe explored the disordered emotions and irrational possibilities that the culture generally worked to suppress as primitive or counterproductive.
Seen from these points of view, all fantasy is subversive; in her subtitle, Jackson calls it "the literature of subversion." Horror, the kind of fantasy that focuses on monstrosity, ought then to subvert readers' conceptions of monstrosity. If what passes as normalcy in Goosebumps is frighteningly combative and self-seeking, then the monsters might well represent something readers might find more comforting—a way of moving beyond the egocentric values of consumer culture. The monster might in fact be a means of expressing subversive and desirable alternatives.
If they are alternatives, though, that doesn't necessarily make them subversive. According to Jackson,
In expressing desire, fantasy can operate in two ways … it can tell of, manifest or show desire (expression in the sense of portrayal, representation, manifestation, linguistic utterance, mention, description), or it can expel desire, when this desire is a disturbing element which threatens cultural order and continuity (expression in the sense of pressing out, squeezing, expulsion, getting rid of something by force). In many cases fantastic literature fulfils both functions at once, for desire can be "expelled" by having been told of and thus vicariously experienced by author and reader.
Stephen King, the most successful contemporary writer of horror fiction for adults, offers a theory of fantasy that focuses on this kind of expelling. According to King,
horror fiction is really as Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit. The story is always the same in terms of development. There's an incursion into taboo lands, there's a place where you shouldn't go, but you do, the same way that your mother would tell you that the freak tent is a place you shouldn't go, but you do. And the same thing happens inside: you look at the skeleton man or Mr. Electrical or whoever it happens to be. And when you come out, well, you say, "Hey, I'm not so bad. I'm all right. A lot better than I thought." It has that effect of reconfirming values, of reconfirming self-image and our good feelings about ourselves … the creator of horror is above all an agent of the norm.
(Qtd. in Carroll, 199)
From this point of view, the whole point of horror is that it comes to an end. The monstrous is evoked only in order to be expelled.
King's own novels confirm his theory; in the ones I've read, normalcy always returns at the end. Furthermore, ordinary people, often children, have a hand in making that happen: the normal actively works to conquer and expel the monstrous.4 That's a pattern anyone familiar with children's literature will recognize: fiction for children often ends with an expulsion of danger and a return to normalcy. But Goosebumps books don't necessarily follow that pattern.
Sometimes the horror just disappears, or is destroyed quite by accident. In Night of the Living Dummy, #7, for instance, one of the evil ventriloquist dummies that have begun to exert control over the girls operating them is suddenly and accidentally run over by a steam roller; and in Go Eat Worms!, a giant papier-mâchébird just happens accidentally to scare away a threatening giant worm. Sometimes the children do something to defeat the monster—figure out a defense, as in The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight, #20. Sometimes, in fact, they don't defeat it—it gets them, as at the end of Be Careful What You Wish For, #12, where the main character turns into a bird. Sometimes, the children become the thing they fear: they turn into monsters themselves, a werewolf (The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, #14) or an alien (The Girl Who Cried Monster, #8) or a dog (My Hairiest Adventure, #26). And sometimes one horror disappears—perhaps defeated by a child—only to be replaced at the end by another (Ghost Beach, #22). If Goosebumps are in the business of expelling subversive ideas, they are going about it in strange ways.
Indeed, and paradoxically, King's adult novels read like fairly straightforward and highly formulaic wish-fulfillment fantasies, in which unheroically ordinary underdogs triumph over grossly perverse monsters, clearly represented as evil and in need of being expelled, in order to regain (and celebrate) the norm; whereas the theoretically simpler Goosebumps represent a much more unsettled and more complex state of affairs, one in which underdogs sometimes appear to lose and in which the monstrous is not always in fact expelled. Are Goosebumps then actually subversive of normalcy in ways that King's own novels are not?
I can begin to answer that question by returning to the context in which horror arises: normalcy as Stine represents it. The world of Goosebumps is already filled with questions of fear and horror and monstrosity even before actual monsters enter it. As I suggested earlier, a majority of the characters are practical jokers, busily engaged with their friends or siblings in a game of scaring and being scared. And as Stine continually makes clear as he describes these competitions, he or she who scares best wins power—is recognized and admired as a victor by the victims and by others. As a result, the protagonists often wish that they could scare the wits out of someone who is always scaring them, or who gets at them in some other way. In this context of feigned monstrosity, the actual monster is often indistinguishable from and at first confused with the jokes. The monster's power seems less an aberration from normative values than a hyperbolic expression of them.
That monstrosity might be merely normal seems to be confirmed especially in those Goosebumps in which child protagonists actually become monsters themselves. Having tried to win power over their friends by pretending to be monstrous, and having then had to acknowledge (merely by being frightened) the fearful power of real monstrosity, these children finally become as scary as the original monsters that scared them—frightening to others and, therefore, triumphantly powerful. These books then offer a double vision of the monstrous. It is both what one fears (because it is frightening to oneself) and what one must learn to desire (because it is frightening to others). The characters in these books often actually express this double attitude; readers must always experience it in order to enjoy fully the pleasure the novels offer.
Carroll suggests that horror fiction engages its audiences by putting readers and viewers in the position of characters to whom horrific things happen so that "the emotional reactions of characters … provide a set of instructions, or rather, examples about the way in which the audience is to respond" (17). If Carroll is right, and if a child reader accepts the invitation to identify with a protagonist early in these novels, then the instructions that Stine gives have unsettling implications. These books offer child readers a variation on Darwinism, based on the survival of the scariest: in a world where fear is power, you must learn to be the most frightening of all.
That dynamic seems to account also for another group of Goosebumps books in which the protagonist is actually defeated by the monster. Here, horror triumphs. We have no choice but to feel tricked or unhappy and dissatisfied, or else to withdraw our identification from the protagonist and view the protagonist's defeat as a happy ending, thus again confirming the power of horror.
In books in which the child does defeat the scary thing, furthermore, the victory tends to involve doing something scary. In Stay Out of the Basement, #2, for instance, a child must wield an axe to cut down a mutated plant that looks like and might actually be her own father. This axe-wielding potential father-murderer is easily as frightening as the horror she attacks. Indeed, she must be willing to be frighteningly single-minded in order to win. Thus, scariness triumphs again—once more confirming the power of horror.
In some other books, finally, the horror ceases without any action being required on the part of the protagonist. It just ends, or an accident does it in. This ending also confirms the power of horror. Its essence is its anarchic ability to upset norms, defy expectations. Horror comes of its own will and goes of its own will. Mere normal mortals do not, in fact, have any power over it.
Thus, these different sorts of endings share similar implications. In a world of fear, being monstrously frightening is not only normal but necessary. Furthermore, whichever one of these things happens in any particular book also seems to be entirely a matter of random choice. I could easily imagine each of them actually happening in each of the books, had Stine chosen that day to make that happen. And this sense confirms a peculiar randomness that is one of the most distinctive qualities of the series.
The most typical characteristic of series fiction is its adherence to formula. It offers readers pleasure by following a common pattern of events and by always focusing on the same kinds of characters, events, and interests. But for all the stereotypical normalcy of their characters and settings, Goosebumps are oddly unformulaic in plot. While the plots always involve some child being scared by something, they develop in apparently random ways, without adherence to a specific sequence or pattern. It often seems at the end of a chapter that something truly horrific has happened—and then, at the beginning of the next chapter, it turns out just to be some ordinary object lying on the floor that looked like a monster. But only sometimes. The next time around it actually does turn out to have been a monster. Or maybe it doesn't. Sometimes a scary event turns out to have been a dream. Or sometimes it doesn't. A reader can never really know which.
And that seems to be the point. Fear emerges when the unexpected happens; in the context of reading a horror story, the unexpected sometimes happens when the unexpected doesn't happen. If it didn't, we would learn to expect it and cease to be frightened by it. In this context, the apparent randomness of Stine's endings merely confirms the apparent randomness of earlier events. No matter how any one of the books ends, the series as a whole suggests that horror never stops, that normal order is never firmly established. This is a random world we live in, and it continues always to be so.
Even the provenance of horror—what accounts for its existence—is random. Stine sometimes offers scientific explanations for monstrous events or creatures (as in Stay Out of the Basement or in Piano Lessons Can Be Murder ), sometimes supernatural ones such as witchcraft (Monster Blood, #3) or ghosts (Welcome to Dead House, #1), and sometimes none at all. There is no cohesive system of knowledge or faith or ethics that has the power to contain and control the randomness of reality. Once again, the disruptive anarchy of horror is less a disruption of normalcy than an exaggerated expression of it.
In King's novels, the opposite is true: horror represents the opposite of normalcy. Indeed, it represents an opposition to normalcy. King often insists that his monsters derive their power from the willingness of some of his characters to give in to their own antisocial tendencies, to indulge in excessive violence or illicit lust or uncontrolled anger.5 Not surprisingly, then, the power to dissipate the disruptive monstrosity most often comes from the ability of other characters to resist antisocial tendencies and to act upon the values that we like to believe bind normal families and communities together: love, optimism about the power of humans to be good, self-sacrifice, concern for the needs of others.
Stine's world is neither so innocent nor so meaningful. Since horror doesn't necessarily represent anything evil or antisocial, or emerge because people have fallen away from an ideal, it can appear at any time for no reason whatsoever. And while some kinds of faith or action can sometimes defeat a specific manifestation of horror, sometimes they can't. In such a world, being innocent, or trusting ideals of love or concern for others, or having hope or optimism are not particularly wise choices. It's no wonder that Stine's children manifest none of these values. Since how you act or what your ethics are has little to do with whether or not horror happens to you, your only wise choice is to be prepared for anything by fearing nothing, by being fearsome, by being the scariest monster in a monstrously anarchic world. In their egocentric self-seeking desire to be frightening, Stine's children define the best response to horror in a horrific world. Once more, horror is merely the way things normally are.
If Stine's monsters merely confirm the monstrosity of what he depicts as normal reality—what, indeed, he appears to believe is normal and perfectly acceptable reality—we might ask why he bothers to write horror fiction at all. If the world is itself already horrific, what can possibly be gained by introducing actual monsters into it? Isn't it scary enough already? The answer, I think, is that it's too scary. According to one of Stine's characters, in fact, "People need to create monsters…. It helps us to believe that the real world isn't quite as scary" (You Can't Scare Me, #95).
As I hope I've shown, the dynamics of Goosebumps replicate the desirability of exactly the behavior that is taken for granted by their protagonists and encouraged by their marketing: be egocentric, be fearless, be a winner. These might well be "normal," even desirable, characteristics in the market-oriented consumer society contemporary children are growing up in. But they are not the values the adult establishment usually works to encourage in children. Nor, as the popularity of King's novels with adults makes clear, are they the values many North Americans hold as ideals, claim allegiance to, and like to imagine operating in our lives—or in the lives of children. Stine's books reveal a tension between what we claim to believe (and would like children to believe) and the values many of us actually act on (and often unwittingly encourage children to act on).
If that's the case, Goosebumps represent a particularly interesting case of the expression of what Jackson calls "the unseen and unsaid of culture": not, as Jackson implies, that which has been declared disorderly or illegal or forbidden, but that which has been declared disorderly or illegal or forbidden to notice or to acknowledge or to celebrate. As I read them, Goosebumps do in fact notice, acknowledge, and celebrate the forbidden, through the clever stratagem of presenting it not only as fantasy, but also as monstrous and horrific—and then celebrating the power of the monstrous and the horrific so that it comes to seem both fearful and desirable, both the most antisocial evil and the ultimate social good. According to Fredric Jameson, "the aesthetic act is itself ideological, and the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal 'solutions' to unresolvable social contradictions" (79). The Goosebumps books represent such a solution.
The problem being solved is this: in an atmosphere of declared allegiance to principles of charity and societal regulation, we must at least pay lip service to the principle that the kind of fearless and frightening egocentric competitiveness that might increase one's personal capital in a world of feared negative behavior—horrific, in fact. And we have a particular obligation to teach children our declared ideals. On the other hand, and though I'm sure most adults wouldn't acknowledge it, I'm convinced that many of us also want children to know exactly how very theoretical these ideals are and how little they do or should govern their actual behavior. Even if we don't believe or aren't aware that our adherence to the ideals is theoretical, the push to make adherence to them merely theoretical is certainly a fact of mainstream ideology. In order for that which has power to maintain itself in our consumer culture, children must grow up to be good consumers, that is, self-gratifying competitors with the will to win enough money and the power to indulge themselves at will—people whose actual commitment to self-sacrifice or concern for others is minimal.
As I've described them, Goosebumps solve this "unresolvable social contradiction" in a number of ways. First, they present egocentric behavior, and particularly the competition to frighten others, as an inevitable given in the behavior of the "normal" children they invite readers to identify with. Furthermore, the books are silent about the moral or ethical implications of this behavior. It is simply the way things are, and presumably the only way things can be; as Stine says, he doesn't try to change his readers. Then, and most significantly, after establishing this norm of conduct and the wish to be frightening as a typical goal, the books represent the theoretically antisocial as monstrous, a move that seems to separate the typical and therefore non-monstrous child protagonists from what they have desired and to make its supposedly antisocial danger clear. But the separation also makes the monstrous fantastic, a clear intrusion of the imaginary into normal reality that divests it of its relevance as a real concern in terms of a reader's own desire or behaviors. If the monstrous is, after all, only a fantasy, it is not something to really be concerned about in one's own life. Having thus been divested of dangerous relevance, the fearful power of the Goosebumps monsters can be enjoyed without any conscious awareness of the implications of their various triumphs. The readers who respond as Goosebumps invite them to respond both desire that which is theoretically monstrous and fearful—they value fear—and are not aware of that desire.
In other words, for these readers, the monstrous has become normal. The monstrous has become allowable. Goosebumps are merely ordinary.
Should adults approve of children reading Goosebumps, "as long as they're reading something"? The answer to that question depends on the degree to which the adults in question themselves accept what Goosebumps invite young readers to believe and to become. Do we share these values ourselves? And do we want young readers to share them also?
Whether we do or not, I think it's safe to postulate that, for most child readers, Goosebumps are more likely to confirm and to amplify their already existing sense of themselves and the world than to challenge them. That seems likely simply because of the astonishing popularity of the series. Best-selling fiction, almost by definition, is that which tells readers what they like to hear, what they know already.6 If Goosebumps follow the norms of best-selling fiction, then, they are more likely to affirm their readers' existing assumptions or wish-fulfillment fantasies than they are to challenge them or to offer new or different ideas. The books are likely to be inherently conservative and to work to confirm attitudes that maintain the status quo. They are likely to encourage readers to believe that what they already know about themselves and their world is the complete and only truth.
And they do exactly that. The values of Goosebumps are the most common values of the playground (at least once adult eyes are turned). They are also, I suspect, the values adults in contemporary North America most usually have to cope with and act by in their daily lives, despite hypocritical claims to tolerance and concern for others. And perhaps just as significantly, they are the values represented in popular television shows and movies and toys directed at audiences of children. By the time most North American children get around to reading Goosebumps, they will have already spent a lifetime immersed in cartoons and commercials and tie-in toy sets that mirror the monstrous normalcy of the world of Goosebumps. They will know the place already and feel quite comfortable in it.
If the popularity of Goosebumps distresses us, then, it should not be because they represent an aberrant outbreak of the monstrous in the otherwise benevolent world of children's culture. Their immense popularity with children should tell us how very ordinary this particular form of the monstrous already is to them; and that information ought to lead us to want to help children develop strategies that will allow them to become aware of the monstrousness and, I hope, to defend themselves against it. Yes, children should be reading Goosebumps—but with an active critical awareness that prevents the world they describe from seeming merely ordinary and merely the ways things always and inevitably are.
1. I'm basing these observations on presentations on Goosebumps that I've made in a variety of forums, attended by parents, teachers, and librarians, and also on surveys done by students in various of my courses exploring the attitudes of a wide variety of adults toward the series.
2. In a May 1994 listing of "Children's Best Sellers," The New York Times Book Review reported that "the most popular books on these lists are, overwhelmingly, the new Goosebumps' series … Sales for the Goosebumps' series are nearly equal to the total sales of all the other 15 ranked series combined." A year later, at one point during the fall of 1995, according to a People magazine article naming Stine one of the most intriguing people of the year, The Headless Ghost, Goosebumps #37, was the best-selling book in all categories. In October 1995, in fact, Marc Silver suggested that "the 38 paperback volumes might be literature's most popular series, selling more than 1 million copies a month." As I write in the summer of 1997, the popularity of Goosebumps has finally begun to wane a little, after four years of unprecedented success and huge sales.
3. The same marketing ploy that successfully launched Goosebumps is represented in more extreme fashion in the Barforama books, launched during the summer of 1996. The success of the series, which consists of theoretically hilarious stories about children vomiting and excreting and otherwise eliminating various forms of bodily waste, depends exactly on the degree to which adults express disgust with it and with children's enjoyment of it.
4. I'm thinking particularly of It. But unheroic humans defeat horrific forces in almost all of King's novels.
5. The willingness of "typical" Americans to give in to various of the seven deadly sins allows fantastic monstrosity to enter an otherwise nonfantastic world in, to name a few, Cujo, The Shining, It, and Needful Things.
6. In discussing his reading of such literature, John Cawelti suggests that "its purpose is not to make me confront motives and experiences in myself that I might prefer to ignore, but to take me out of myself by confirming an idealized self-image" (18). Paradoxically, here, being "taken out" of oneself is a matter of not having to consider the uglier implications of being one-self as one already is—and therefore, of not actually being taken anywhere, of remaining exactly where one is already. This confirms, curiously, Stine's observation that his readers "never learn anything about themselves."
Carroll, Noël. Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
"Children's Best Sellers." The New York Times Book Review (May 1994): 26-27.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London and New York: Methuen, 1981.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
"Most Intriguing: R. L. Stine." People.http://pathfinder.com/mZemcgUAxDkDL9b6/people/951225/features/stine.html. 27 October 1996.
Silver, Marc. "Horrors! It's R. L. Stine." U.S. News and World Report 23 October 1995: 94-95.
Stine, R. L. The Goosebumps books. New York: Scholastic, 1992.
Silk Makowski (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: Makowski, Silk. "Horrors! We've Closed the Gender Gap with Horror!" In Serious about Series: Evaluations and Annotations of Teen Fiction in Paperback Series, edited by Dorothy M. Broderick, pp. 40-7. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998.
[In the following essay, Makowski defends Stine's sensationalistic style of writing, commending him for creating good, accessible books that children enjoy.]
Because of the immense popularity of his Fear Street series, which has become a classic in the horror genre, R. L. Stine is the author best known to most young adults today. Many people credit Stine with single-handedly transposing horror, formerly an adults-only medium, into a YA genre. He certainly was the first to do so with purpose and in volume. Before condemning Stine for popularizing the horror genre with teenagers, however, we must remember that horror always was popular with them; Stine was simply the first to bring it down to their reading level. Any high school teacher of English will tell you that horror has been a favorite reading genre of YAs for a long time. Witness the perennial popularity of Edgar Allan Poe in junior and senior high school English classes—an assignment that invariably sent boys scurrying to the library for more. This unaccustomed male enthusiasm for literature always made English teachers and librarians smile. But, until recently, until Stine, that is, there was little more in the genre that could be offered to teen readers to fan this flicker of interest into a white-hot flame. Edgar was simply unique.
Then, adult horror author Stephen King appeared on the scene. It was probably no fluke that Stephen spent many years as a high school English teacher before he scored big with his eye-popping, mind-riveting tales of terror. The only trouble was that King was, and is, an author writing for adults. Although librarians booktalked his novels in high school, much of his material remained too heavy and too long for junior high readers. Cujo, Firestarter, and Pet Sematary, his most popular titles with YAs, are less popular due to story than to size. And there were adults who lamented rather than applauded the fact that fifth and sixth graders were walking out of libraries with the latest edition of The Baby Sitter's Club under one arm and the latest horror novel by Stephen King under the other. They felt that horror somehow was not appropriate for this tender age group, especially horror as written by Stephen King. Consternation increased when Dean Koontz, another adult horror author, was added to the list of writers of high interest to teens and tweens.
Then, Hollywood entered the picture. The film industry, which for years had capitalized on the seemingly endless appetite of teenagers for low-budget horror films in which teens are the victims of mayhem and murder committed by slightly more than—or less than—human ghouls, suddenly found itself with a series hit on its hands. A certain half-human monster with a scarred face and razors for fingertips decides to wreak vengeance against all the teenagers, especially the babysitters, who live on a particular street. Consequently, in every film, at every slumber party, neighborhood dance or teenage tryst, you know that Freddie is going to appear and "clean house" in spectacularly bloody style. Film producers were amazed that no matter how many times they repeated this basic plot, teenage moviegoers flocked back for more. A low-budget, low-brow movie series was born. And, at its heart, was the theme of mindless violence against teens.
But, it was violence with a twist. Violence laced with black humor, and violence that was, at its heart, moral. Teens who became victims were teens who were shallow, egotistical or hard-hearted. Plucky heroes and heroines, with more admirable qualities to offer, survived by their wits, their physical skills, or their meager stores of learned knowledge.
Mention series and success and the ears of every publisher in the United States automatically perk up. It did not take long for canny editors—and authors—to figure out that if Hollywood could do it, they could, too; that here was an untapped teenage market for books. Especially series books. The formula was simple. Teens like horror, they like it even more if it is directed against their age group; they want horror that separates the weak from the strong, the virtuous from the dirty, the high-minded from the shallow. They like monsters and the supernatural. And they want lots of gore. In short, they want a morality play.
Once they had figured out the formula, publishers let loose a juggernaut of horror fiction that swept all other genres before it, that emptied library shelves and bookstores, had librarians and parents pulling their hair and shaking their heads, publishers smiling all the way to the bank, and kids yelling for more. They left no part of the YA audience unserved. They wrote for fifth-graders, third-graders, pre-teens, young teens, and high schoolers. Fifth-graders read it for goosebumps; high schoolers read it for laughs. But everyone reads it.
Quite simply, horror fiction has achieved something that no other genre except the mystery novel had ever managed to do—and even then camps of readers were divided by whether the detective at work was male or female. It is not politically correct today to refer to "boy books" or "girl books" but every librarian and every teacher tacitly understands that such divisions do exist and have to be attended when providing teenagers with books.
Horror, on the other hand, is asexual. It affects all readers alike, male or female. It does not matter whether the protagonist is Jack or Jill or Joan or Jerry. What they all have in common is terror before the unknown, the unthinkable, or the unspeakable. The way that horror fiction has swept all other fiction genres aside in the 1990s proves what a powerful thing literature can be when the subject matter appeals to both male and female readers alike. Do you realize what this means?
Horrors! We've closed the gender gap—with horror!
The "Stineway" of Horror
No single author has played a greater role in the democratization and juvenation of the horror genre than R. L. Stine. Perhaps because of his work with juvenile magazines, he realized which way interests were tending long before his contemporaries did and, consequently, got the jump on them. But it was more than just getting the jump on your fellow authors; it included being very good at that particular kind of writing. If we perceive Stine as the "Father of YA Horror Fiction," therefore, or perhaps, more appropriately, the "Stineway" of teen horror, it has to be an honorific, not a pejorative title, for he certainly is the best in a field that is crowded with poor imitators.
Stine's years of experience with children's magazines helped him develop a style that is unique, being gracefully and grammatically written in a simple vocabulary that does not talk down to readers but is pleasing and satisfying while providing a fast, easy read. His characters are well developed and believable. His plots, his finest points, are excellent, worthy of O. Henry at his best. In the final analysis, it is probably the quality of these plots that make him stand head and shoulders above other horror writers.
Had Stine been a less excellent craftsman, it is possible that horror would not have gained the foothold that it did among YA readers; had he been less prolific, it may have proved to be a short-lived phenomenon. As it was, Stine provided the talent and the productivity almost single-handedly to keep readers interested in horror while other publishers were scrambling to find horror writers and series of their own.
Like Hollywood with its teenage slashing ghoul on Elm Street, Stine chose the vast stage of a suburban street on which to base his horror series. Taking a cue from Charles Dickens, he was not subtle in naming this street from hell; he wanted no one to have the slightest doubt about what was going to happen there. It was quite simply, Fear Street. And any family that moved there may as well kiss their teenagers goodbye!
The fact that something evil inhabits Fear Street and that this force hates teenagers is, of course, a delicious secret shared only by reader and writer. Those luckless teens, who live on Fear Street or happen to move there with their unimaginative families, never seem to put two-and-two together when they are, one by one, maimed, killed, crippled or driven insane by forces beyond their comprehension. Meanwhile, the omniscient reader watches with fascinated horror and sometimes a macabre kind of humor as male and female protagonists stumble blindly and inexorably toward their destined end—to provide victims for Fear Street. It becomes a sort of inside joke for the readers, a "how are they going to get it, this time" feeling of goosepimply anticipation.
The mastery of Stine's technique is that he manages to make each teenage victim, by one means or another, seem to deserve their fate. For one thing, they are not perfect, which, in a YA novel, is the kiss of death. If they are shallow, mean to their friends, if they lie or cheat or make out too much—they are dog meat. The only question is, where and how will it happen?
On the other hand, Stine does not insult the intelligence of his readers. His imperfect characters also have enough redeemable qualities to make the reader wonder, will he or she develop enough character and moral fiber to divert disaster before it happens? Can they escape the curse of Fear Street?
The most important element in Stine's writing style, however, the one that endears him to millions of teens and preteens and sets him apart from all the other horror fiction writers, is—(drumroll)—his sense of humor. As the English have known forever, and Alfred Hitchcock made a fortune showing us, horror and humor go hand-in-hand. We giggle, and then we scream. Quite simply, Stine allows us to see the humor in horrible situations. For instance, this scenario:
When Margaret Casey, whose scientist father has been doing plant experiments in the basement, stares across the dining table at the green leaves peaking out from under his baseball cap—where hair ought to be growing—and wonders if this is really her father or a plant mutation of him, it's a situation that is hilarious. And horrible. All at the same time. (Stay Out of the Basement, Goosebumps, No. 3.)
Often, the humor is in the plot itself. In First Date, Chelsea, a slightly overweight teenager, moves with her family to Fear Street. Her father owns and operates a small diner on the edge of town, a fact that fills Chelsea with shame. In order to make ends meet, Chelsea herself must work long hours at the diner, a fact that fills her with even more shame and self-loathing. What if someone from school comes in and she has to wait on them? Chelsea's feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt are further compounded by the simple fact that she has yet to go on her first date, and she is a senior in high school! Then, several things happen in quick order. Chelsea's father is robbed and beaten at the diner and hospitalized with head injuries. During his absence, Chelsea must run the diner alone with only the head cook to help her. Shortly afterward, a tall, dark and handsome young man roars up to the diner on a motorcycle and begins to "come on" to Chelsea in alarming fashion. He speaks little, just watches her with intense, brooding eyes, and from time to time grabs her hand, insisting, "Let's go out, let's be wild." Chelsea is fascinated but frightened by him. Then young punks attempt to rob the diner again and are thwarted by the intense young man on the motorcycle who singlehandedly faces them down. Chelsea is grateful but still afraid of his advances.
Then, a new student enrolls in Chelsea's class at school. He, too, is tall, dark and handsome. He sits next to her in several of her classes but is so shy he cannot look her in the face without blushing. He, too, asks Chelsea for a date! Enter the police. They question Chelsea one night at the diner, telling her they are on the trail of a tall, dark, handsome young man who has left a string of dead coeds across the country. All they can tell her is that he is in his early twenties but looks much younger, about eighteen. They caution her to keep her eyes open for such a man, then go on their way. What does Chelsea do? Both her young men fit the description given her by the police. Which one could it be? The passionate young motorcyclist or the blushing student at school? You guessed it. True to all Stine novels and the demands of Fear Street, Chelsea turns the wrong young man over to the police and goes on her first date with the killer. It makes you laugh, sure. But it's horrible.
In Goodnight Kiss, two teenagers, a boy and a girl from Fear Street, go to a weekend resort for a good time of sun, surf and romance. Unknown to them, two vampires, a man and a woman, are also at the beach that same weekend and have entered into a contest to see which one can seduce and kill a teenager first. Naturally, from all the hundreds of teen couples on the beach that particular weekend, the vampires select—(you guessed it)—the teenagers from Fear Street.
The boy is the first to figure out what is going on. He struggles with the female vampire, manages to overcome and dispatch her, then runs to save his sweet-heart from the clutches of the male vampire. He arrives in time to find her swooning and helpless in the monster's embrace. After a second manly struggle, the teen hero kills the vampire, then rushes over to revive his fainting girlfriend. It would not be a typical Stine ending, however, or true to the curse of Fear Street to allow such a happy, cliched ending. The boy hero discovers, much to his horror, that all his struggles have come to naught. His teen sweet-heart is already a vampire and he is going to be her first victim!
What you see in these plots and these situations has to be Stine at his best. There is another side, however: Stine at his worst. And it usually happens when he forsakes the single novel, where he can formulate a single plot with black humor and a twist, and attempts to enter the world of trilogies, as he did in his truly awful Cheerleaders series, or the world of Gothic horror, as he did with the Fear Street Saga which was also a trilogy. I am not saying, mind you, that these were not popular with teenagers. I am simply saying that, by Stine standards, they were awful.
In the Cheerleaders series, he traces the disastrous high school careers of sister cheerleaders who move from sunny Iowa to dismal Fear Street. Their talent and their looks break up a happy cadre of cheerleaders already in place at the school. They seem to let loose a horrible force that is determined to kill them all. Bodies stack up like cordwood as cheerleaders are thrown from overturning schoolbuses, lamed for life, dropped on their heads during cheerleading stunts, and/or boiled alive under malfunctioning showers in the locker room. One wonders why any sane teenager with half a brain in her head would go out for this particular cheerleading squad?
In the end, the action becomes simply unbelievable, the characters are too thin and uninteresting to sustain the readers' interest across the span of three books, and Stine himself seems at a loss to define or describe the type of nemesis that is stalking the cheer-leading squad. At one point, he insists that water cannot kill it; in another book, he has the heroine drown herself in order that the evil spirit in her body will drown also, a confusing contradiction that is totally unlike this skilled writer.
Had Stine stayed with his familiar and trusted format, one book and a surprise ending with a twist, this saga of a cheerleading squad gone berserk could have been suspenseful, taut and interesting. By spreading it needlessly over three volumes, he succeeded only in thinning down the action and the characters to the point that you just wanted it to end already. Another observation: Stine's cheerleaders are so uniformly unpleasant and unlikable that you can't quiet the still, small voice in the back of your mind that observes, when the bodies start falling, "This couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people."
The Fear Street Saga, a trilogy in which Stine tried to set the background for the curse that haunts Fear Street, begins in a Massachusetts colony in 1692. A beautiful young girl, Susannah Goode, is accused of witchcraft by the Fier family and burned at the stake along with her mother, who is also innocent. This legal murder was planned and carried out by the wealthy Fiers to keep their son from marrying Susannah, whom he loved, but who was poor. In a typical Stine plot twist, we discover that Susannah's father really did dabble in the black arts, and he pulls up a curse that will haunt the Fier (later Fear) family throughout their lives and the lives of their children.
Unfortunately, this plot summary sounds better than it reads. Stine races through his generations and his three volumes at breakneck speed, not bothering to make any of his characters well-rounded or believable. They are simply paper dolls, one dimensional, being pushed around on a stage, as he says to readers, "See? This is what happened to the Fiers at this particular time in history, and, later on, so-and-so happens." It all races by like a kaleidoscope, offering little opportunity for reader involvement. There are a few good surprises in the plotlines, just to remind you that after all Stine is doing this, but the rest is very forgettable. And probably would not have been read—or published—at all, had Stine not written them!
Two unfortunate miniseries cannot dull, however, the overall quality of this enjoyable and prolific author. When he is on top of his form, he is unbeatable. If you can afford only one horror series for your YA collection, by all means, let it be R. L. Stine's Fear Street. It is and he is, quite simply, the best.
Timothy Morris (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Morris, Timothy. "Goosebumps: What Was Series Fiction Doing in the 1990's?" In You're Only Young Twice: Children's Literature and Film, pp. 58-86. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Morris examines how Stine's Goosebumps series became a literary and cultural phenomenon, while attempting to explain the innate strengths and weaknesses of Stine's prose.]
I grew up collecting and reading series novels. I really liked Dig Allen Space Explorer, the Kid from Tomkinsville, and TV tie-ins like the novelized versions of Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Most precious of all, I read and collected the Hardy Boys books. I had a complete set, which I kept up- to-date until I outgrew them—though in important ways, I have never outgrown them (Morris, "Returning").
My memories of grade school book collecting came back to me vividly as I watched my son, as a first and second grader, collect R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series. The most immediate connection was the physical appeal of collecting a uniform set of objects. Textual experience is important, of course. We would not collect these books if we didn't enjoy reading them. But textual experience is only partial. Just as important is accumulating the set, feeling the weight of the books, comparing their same-but-different covers.
The Hardy Boys books, in the 1960s, were published with hard blue covers. A growing list of all the titles in the series was printed on the back of each book along with the crucial name of the very next book to be published in the series. An exciting illustration of Frank and Joe Hardy meeting some peril appeared on the front of each. Goosebumps books, in the 1990s, were published in paperback, with a faux-gruesome illustration of a beastie on the front and the same illustration on the back, above some copy about the contents. Every other month, the books had tear-out trading cards and bookmarks bound into the middle. Every book had a joke on the front cover, a small ad or two for some spin-off product or the Goosebumps TV show, and an injunction not to miss the next book in the series. I think that children would agree with me that the revelation of the next series title is probably the best thing about getting the new book each month.
But it isn't the covers that matter most when you're collecting a series; it's the spines. The blue spine of the Hardy Boys series, with portraits of Frank and Joe, or the multicolored spine of a Goosebumps book, with the trademark dripping letters, make the whole effect of the series. Best of all is the effect produced by stacking one spine after another after another on your bookshelf, with the numbers in perfect order—that is as close as a young book collector can get to heaven.
To ask what the children's series novel was doing in the nineties entails asking what it was doing in the decades before. How much was the series in the nineties of a piece with previous conventions in the form? Where did it innovate, where did it extrapolate trends? I can't comprehensively study this issue here. Instead, I will look at how the issue touches me most directly. I will compare the Goosebumps series, which affected me strongly as a parent, with an example from two series that affected me as a child—the first Hardy Boys series of the twenties and thirties and the radical reworking of that series into the books that I loved in the sixties.
The Hardy Boys and Goosebumps series share a particular vision of America. In both cases, it is a white America, where the default-value American is a white youngster who confronts corruption in the body politic. In the Hardy Boys novels, the corruption consists of crooks, rogues, and ne'er-do-wells. In the Goosebumps series, the problem is hideous manifestations of the occult. The America presented in these series is becoming blander and more generic all the time, even as a nominally progressive political consciousness shows up in later and later forms of the series.
The original Hardy Boys titles began their run in the late twenties. In the late fifties and early sixties, the series continued to add new entries at the end, but did not drop the earlier titles. Instead, the early titles survived as newly rewritten versions of themselves. At first, the rewritten titles began with an acknowledgment of their status, claiming that author Franklin W. Dixon had revised them to bring them into touch with today's modern science of detection: "In this new story, based on the original of the same title," the overleaf of the title pages said, "Mr. Dixon has incorporated the most up-to-date methods used by police and private detectives" (F. W. Dixon, Chums vi).
But it seems clear that a concern for accuracy in criminological technique was the least of his worries. For one thing, of course, "Mr. Dixon" (unlike R. L. Stine) did not exist. He is and always was the corporate fabrication of the series creator, Edward Stratemeyer. The books themselves are written by various ghost writers who are sworn to secrecy about their identities (see "Tex W. Dixon"). For another thing, the advances in sleuthing amount to updated transportation and gadget choices. The boys travel in planes instead of trains in the newer books and have more technological paraphernalia, but their preferred investigative method in both originals and rewrites is to wander into the bad guys' hideout and look for "clues" until the bad guys find them and commence a fistfight.
The main function of the rewriting in the series is to remove racist material. In the twenties and thirties titles, the Hardy Boys live in a decidedly multicultural, but stratified, America: the boys, Anglo-American, are the upper crust of the social order. Most good hard-working Americans of every economic class, in the originals, are also Anglo-American, as are many of the bad guys. But the novels are shot through with comic and villainous types who represent, in caricature, other American ethnic groups.
Hunting for Hidden Gold (1928; rewritten 1963) is the fifth novel in the original series and the first in which the boys venture beyond the confines of their native Bayport, a city on the Atlantic Coast that is sort of Boston but not really. The 1928 original has a strong sense of region: "We've never been more than two hundred miles from home," says Joe Hardy (1). They are boys of the Northeast, adept at ice-skating and other New Englandy recreations. Their father, the famous private detective Fenton Hardy, is investigating a desperate gang of toughs in Montana, and so exotic is that Western locale that to the whole Hardy family it seems like he has gone off to the dark side of the moon.
The boys find plenty to keep them busy in the Northeast. In fact, while they are out skating they get lost in the woods near Bayport and come upon a cabin buried in an avalanche. The cabin's occupant turns out to be a genuine Montana prospector. He is a victim of the same gang of robbers that Fenton Hardy is tracking down out West. With the penchant for coincidence that the series is chronically prey to, this misplaced sourdough enchains the boys in a string of adventures.
The plot is unimportant, however. Striking in this twenties evocation of the United States is its cultural and social geography. In between avalanches, the boys engage in less dangerous activities, like sledding. Their sledding is cut short, however, by the interference of Officer Con Riley, policeman and killjoy. Riley, a stickler for the letter of obscure ordinances, forbids them from sledding in a public park (42-46).
When Riley interrupts the young people's fun, they get back at him by luring him into an ambush and pelting him with snowballs. The assembled Hardys and their friends pummel Riley unmercifully with the snowy spheres (I am slipping into the idiom of the series here myself). But an ethnic dynamic is at work. The Hardys and their friends the Shaws, the Mortons, and the Hoopers are a cross-section of WASPy America. If they aren't Mayflower descendants, they might as well be. Con Riley is, on the other hand, the stereotypical Irish-American cop: buffoonish, self-important, prone to outsmarting himself. The Anglo-American teenagers smack him with snowballs and impunity. As long as they hurt his pride but not his person, he seems powerless to retaliate.
The 1928 version of Hunting for Hidden Gold never explicitly calls Riley Irish. His name is a giveaway, of course, but there is no other explicit signal of his ethnic identity. Both the text and the implied reader take for granted the stock humorousness of the Irish cop. This is an America so shot through with ethnic stereotype that the stereotypes don't even have to be underlined. A name, an attitude, an occupation can be the trigger for a whole automatic series of slurs.
The anti-Irishness of the text is mild compared to its racism. The 1928 version has several "negro" characters who disappear completely from the 1963 revision. When the boys take a train for Montana, the porter speaks in an eye-dialect that immediately types him as black, even though his color is not identified. In the 1928 novel's logic, his color probably doesn't have to be identified. If he's a railway porter he must be black. He obliges the reader by saying things like, "All ready, sah, jes' as yoh asked" (64). This porter shuffles about for several pages, condescended to by a conductor who speaks in unmarked Standard English, is presumably white, and solves problems over which the porter has been able only to wring his hands (65-68).
A few pages further on, the boys are waylaid by "toughs," but "an enormous negro" comes to their aid, declaring of the toughs, "You's the speeders what run oveh mah chickens!" (77). This "enormous" and beneficent "negro" is helpful, but fixated on the usual stage-Negro concerns with cheap foodstuffs and paltry possessions. He is foolishwise, telling the boys, "Ef yoh wait deah foh a train foh Chicago yoh'll wait yeahs and yeahs, and even den yoh won't get no train" (78). Frank Hardy wins him over completely by "slipping a five-dollar bill into the hands of the big driver, who beamed with gratification" (80).
This novel verges on carnival, a carnival run for the benefit and amusement of the central privileged group. The ground rules of this carnival are too well-known to have to be spelled out for white child readers, who (the author assumes) will have been schooled from infancy about the leverage these "humorous" caricatures make available to their own privileged position. That the books might be read by black or by white ethnic children seems not to have crossed the minds of series creators. Or maybe the assumption is that nonprivileged children reading these books should become ashamed of their own identities and seek to shed them.
As he rescues the boys from the toughs, the enormous driver shouts after the fleeing scoundrels, "White trash!" (78). Here's another country heard from, a fault line between quality and trash. How would a poor white kid feel reading this book in 1928, or since? The incongruity of my question points to another social dynamic revealed in these texts. No one, however oppressed, it seems, identifies with the appellation "white trash." No one can be offended by the hurling of such an abusive term, because poor white Americans (in the author's implicit logic) are in a continuous state of assimilation. White readers try to distance themselves from "trash" and never seek to forge positive identifications with working-class, rural, undereducated, or oppressed white Americans. Nobody identifies with Judd Travers in Shiloh, either; the whole novel is a guide for escaping his fate.
By contrast, in the 1963 version of Hunting for Hidden Gold the American ethnic landscape is suddenly airbrushed clean. Everything is sparkling, even stray linguistic details. Instead of striking out for Lucky Bottom, Montana, as in 1928, the Boys head for "Lucky Lode" (5-6). Evidently this change removes the slightest hook for a childish smutty thought to catch at. Montana in the 1963 version is superficially more colorful, more "Western" than in the 1928 version. In 1928, the boys capture a prosaic bunch of crooks by unremarkable methods, basically by walking around trying to locate them. In 1963, they ride around on horses and encounter gunfighters, ghost towns, tommy-knockers, and spectral pianola playing. Instead of the gritty matter-of-fact West of 1928, which is of a piece with the rest of the culture in the book despite its remoteness, the West of 1963 is a place you can reach in a few hours by airplane but which has been gussied up and Disneyfied. It's cartoon exotic.
I will not speculate at length about the reasons for the changes in the texts. Various factors combined to compel the revisions, including the need to reach a wider audience of readers and the need to play to the sharpened sensibilities of white readers in an era of civil rights consciousness. The long-term effect of the changes has been dramatic, however. In just thirty-five years, social discourse in America changed so decisively that the 1928 version of the Hardy Boys was felt to be hopelessly out of date. Thirty-five years further on, the 1963 version of Hunting for Hidden Gold was still in print and going strong. It seems barely to have dated at all. The revision has been poised for longevity by the strategic removal of nearly every social reference except for the dead-plain neutral terms of generic family, generic city, generic airport.
As the Hardy Boys moved across the American mid-century, covering the tracks of their origins in ethnic burlesque, a later series started from the conditions evolved in the sixties Hardy Boys novels. As we move to Goosebumps, we encounter a fictional America where all but the barest markers of social location have been boiled away at the outset. In their stead we find a construction of America even weirder than the monsters that lurk beneath its sinks and in the cabins of its loathsome summer camps.
R. L. Stine's Goosebumps novels were, in the mid-nineties, the best-selling American books of any kind. "Sales stand at 4.5 million books monthly," says a marketing report from late 1996 (Warner 38). In 1995, the year that the Goosebumps series held a near-stranglehold on the children's book market, the scale of its dominance was difficult to comprehend. Publishers Weekly's annual review of children's book sales for 1995 reported:
The first 27 paperback backlist titles on our list are all Goosebumps.
The phenomenon is even more astounding when the sales figures are added up. Scholastic sold 19,125,700 copies of Goosebumps frontlist titles in 1995, and 12,906,800 backlist titles, for a grand total of 32,032,500 copies sold.
As high as their sales were, the Goosebumps books were only the leading edge of their own marketing phenomenon, which in turn was only the main entry in a mobilization of children's publishing to produce, and then to meet, demand for scary kids' stories.
In 1995–96, Goosebumps novels were everywhere and on everything. The marketplace was saturated with images related to the books and their trademarks. Bernhard Warner reports that "over the past year  the apparel line alone has generated, by some estimates, more than $40 million in sales. Some 40 licensees have combined to create a powerful mix of toys, multimedia titles, a top-rated children's television show, audio books via Disney, and video cassettes that have made the property a year-round revenue generator rather than just a Halloween phenomenon" (38). Reports on merchandising tie-ins in Publishers Weekly conveyed a sense of the Willy Wonka-like proportions of the Goosebumps industry, as if hordes of Oompa-Loompas were at work somewhere to produce the necessary stuff: "Six million Goosebumps toys will be given away with Taco Bell Kids Meals between September 23 and November 1 …. A series of three 20-page mini-books by Stine, collectively called the Goosebumps Thrillogy, will be packaged in 32 million bags of Doritos" ("Children's Bookbag"). Somewhere in my house is one of those toys, a glow-in-the-dark chattering skull on friction-driven wheels. Somewhere too is one of those minibooks, delivered from its salty womb of MSG and cool ranch flavor to provide minutes of fun for the whole family. If statistics are correct, similar objects are somewhere in your home too—maybe everywhere.
Yet one really got a sense of the impact of Goosebumps by visiting the bookstore. Though one didn't even have to go that far. Goosebumps books were sold in supermarkets, gift shops, discount stores, and toy stores and through direct catalog sales and traveling book fairs in schools. "For many independent book fair operators, the series has become a rallying point, defining a certain type of book fair" (Rosen 135). Goosebumps functioned for fair operators either as the mainstay of their sales or as the one product line they were determined not to carry.
My son and I bought these books at chain superstores and independent bookstores (including Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington D.C., where we no doubt unwittingly rubbed elbows with Monica Lewinsky on her shopping rounds). We bought them at Target in suburban Fort Worth, at a knickknack shop on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, in the large bookstores of downtown Chicago, in a discount supermarket in Bristol, Tennessee. Sometimes, we bought them secondhand, but such coups were rare at the peak of interest in the novels in 1996 and 1997. At the height of the series, kids didn't let their parents get rid of these books. The Book Rack near my home in Arlington, Texas, carries a huge selection of traded-in children's books, including vast tiers of Sweet Valley High that lard the lean earth of the prairie strip mall as they accumulate. In 1997, the Goosebumps books available in the Book Rack consisted of three or four beat-up copies kept by the front register, and they disappeared daily.
In new bookstores in the midnineties, the prominence of the Goosebumps novels was, as their characters would say, "awesome." The success of the series was made vivid in a marketing writer's description of finding Goosebumps books in the only bookstore serving the elderly of Catalina Island: "A large display merchandised Goosebumps books together with glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts. When questioned, the store owner remarked that customers frequently seek out the books when their grandchildren come to visit" (Benezra 48). (In case you are wondering, we have the boxer shorts too, scored at a Borders in Dallas after a frantic scene at a school book fair that had sold out of its allotment. They still glow after many washings.)
If thus Catalina, how much more the superstores of child-stocked suburbs? Goosebumps books anchored the children's sections of these retailers, with rack after rack of the series novels, their various spin-offs, and their various accessories (boxed toy sets and other novelties) stacked around. Audio books and video cassettes extended the experience into other media, with the occasional board game threatening to turn Goosebumps from a series into a lifestyle.
Series novels exemplify that endless Darwinian struggle of retail: the competition for shelf space. As a series grows, it crowds non-series titles out of the way. My local Barnes & Noble, like many of these stores, has entire sections, six feet high and from four to six feet wide, devoted to Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, or the Babysitters Club. The Goosebumps series at its peak of Darwinian fitness merited two such sections, with many titles turned cover-out to grab attention. Before and after that peak (reached in mid-1996), the Goosebumps shelves featured mostly the spines of the books, shelved more matter-of-factly. Growing at the rate of two or three titles a month—the one-per-month flagship titles written by R. L. Stine himself plus the ghosted accessory titles like Give Yourself Goosebumps, Goosebumps Presents TV books, postcard books, Scare-a-Day calendars, and such like—the series threatened to expand, like one of its own creepy burgeoning substances, to take over the entire store. Then, gradually, like an alien microbe exposed to some insalubrious earth substance, it shrank back into a smaller and smaller niche.
One constraint on the aggrandizement of Goosebumps novels was competition for the same niche in the bookstore ecology. Sally Lodge catalogued various "knockoffs" that rose to do battle with the original:
Sisters Annette and Gina Cascone (who use the pen name of A. G. Cascone) have contracts to write 17 Deadtime Stories, which will be published monthly through December 1997 [by Troll]…. Shivers titles [from River Publishing] are … written by a team of authors under the pseudonym of M. D. Spenser, the series has 2.5 million copies of its inaugural 12 titles, released in September , in print…. Among Bantam's entries in the kids' horror genre are the Graveyard School series by Tom B. Stone and the Choose Your Own Nightmare series…. Random House Children's Publishing … is taking a classic tack with its newly renamed Random House Chillers Line…. At Harper Paperbacks … is Betsy Haynes, whose Bone Chillers, launched in Spring '94, now has 12 titles and 1.5 million copies in print…. Taking a different [sic] approach … is Avon's Spinetinglers series, whose 16 releases have been created by various writers, though all carry the pseudonym M. T. Coffin…. Aladdin last spring  issued the first in its Scaredy Cats series…. Grosset & Dunlap president Jane O'Connor also opted to start up a series for younger readers…. Aimed at children six to eight, Eek! Stories to Make You Shriek will include eight volumes by Spring '97.
They were really all out there, sometimes springing up out of a dump to horrify you as you rolled your supermarket cart around the corner of an aisle. But as Paula Kempf, manager of a Maryland Borders, reported, children were just as good at adults when it came to telling a knockoff from the real thing: "Kids head straight for the Goosebumps display and don't look to the right or the left at any other series" (Lodge 26).
Then, just past the height of their popularity, the Goosebumps books were gone. The series closed with Monster Blood 4 (number 62) in December 1997. It started over again in January 1998 as a knockoff of itself with a new book 1, Cry of the Cat. Like a bedraggled phoenix, the series rose out of its self-cancellation and took the form of Goosebumps Series 2000. In most ways, the second series was the same—same monthly publication routine, similar format, similar content, some of the old sequel threads carrying over into the new series. But by being the same, it also wasn't the same—much like New Coke supplanting Coca-Cola. You had to start collecting all over at number 1. You had the vague suspicion in the back of your mind that Stine had stopped writing the books and had turned them over to ghosts—a suspicion that is unfounded, but is aggravated by the series taking on the guise of an imitation of itself.
The detumescence of Goosebumps left my son and me bemused. It points to a key dynamic of the juvenile series. The series is ephemeral, and it is always with us. The series is dead; long live the series. The actual long-term cultural impact of the Goosebumps series, despite its millions upon millions of units sold, may be next to nothing. The books may be slightly more treasured than Pet Rocks, but they will soon clog the used bookstores like so many juvenile series before them. As paperback-only titles, they will be more ephemeral in the long run than the Tom Swifts and Nancy Drews one can still find holding up shelves at antique malls. But some series or other—Sweet Valley High the day before yesterday, Goosebumps yesterday, Animorphs or something stranger tomorrow—is central to children's culture at any given moment. It is a rite of passage, an obligate stage in the ontogeny of the adult reader. What I want to understand here is the particular nature of that stage for the juvenile readers of the nineties.
R. L. Stine is a writer of considerable talent, a talent perhaps best seen in short stories like "Strained Peas," "How I Won My Bat," and "Click" from the collection Tales to Give You Goosebumps (1994)—sardonic little tales that can stand with the best things from a more highbrow juvenile horror writer like Australia's Paul Jennings. It's true that in a series of over sixty monthly novels there are some dogs here and there (not just the spectral kind). There are quite a few cases of Goosebumps novels imitating themselves. But, highbrow literature professor that I am, I have more than once been caught up in a Goosebumps novel even after reading my child to sleep.
The Goosebumps series is above all a formula. One novel is pretty much like the next. Every one has to be just different enough to offer a modest justification for its separate existence, but not too different. The paradoxes involved in such a relentless fulfillment of formula illustrate the terms of the conventionality of culture industries discussed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. "The constant pressure to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions when any single effect threatens to slip through the net. Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight" (35). In late twentieth-century American society, this sameness in cultural representations produces a children's literature that reflects what Paul Monette calls "the peculiarly American obsession that everyone be the same, once the pot has melted down" (30). Despite occasional references to other ethnicities and cultures, the central characters in the Goosebumps formula are always white, middle-class, unmarked Americans. Their adventures are the controlled and processed dark side of white America, the bad dream that the culture industry has so that we don't have to have it, geared to a third-grade reading level and rated PG.
What happens in the typical Goosebumps novel (which is to say, in every Goosebumps novel)? A twelve-year-old child tells the story.1 He or she (about half the narrators are of each sex) has a ten- or eleven-year-old sibling. The younger brother or sister is annoying, makes lame jokes, and generally embarrasses the narrator. The narrator has been relocated to a new home, a new city, or maybe sent to stay with indifferent or eccentric relatives. His or her parents are for some reason absent: dead, divorced, workaholic, off on business, just plain distracted, or obsessed with some aspect of the occult. For whatever reason, the parents don't pay much attention to the narrator.
The narrator develops problems that cry out for attention. He or she finds a strange object, explores a mysterious empty house, discovers a weird substance, meets an eldritch new playmate, or senses the presence of a monster. The younger sibling tags along and compounds the trouble. The trouble deepens and becomes desperate, but the adults in the story are indifferent to the children's plight or actively hostile to them. Finally the children are sucked, sooner or later, into an alternate dimension filled with surreal horrors, where everything goes wrong. Some unlikely plot twist saves them from this trouble, and order is restored. Then, on the final page of the final chapter, the trouble reappears in a slightly altered form: the magic talisman resurfaces, the monsters regroup for another attack. The "happy" ending—what one might call the return to stasis—is revealed to be a dream or a misprision or a temporary respite. We are sent back by a twisty path to the original horror.
That plot fits nearly every Goosebumps novel. The novels run from 110 to 140 pages, but have become somewhat shorter in the later volumes in the series. The chapters are short. There are many of them, twenty-five to thirty in each book. The sentences are short and the paragraphs are short too, sometimes only one short sentence long. (The chapters, paragraphs, and sentences have become shorter in the later volumes too.) Each chapter ends with a terrify-ing situation: a fright, a menacing attack, a dilemma from which there seems to be no escape, a horrifying realization that …
This cliffhanger is resolved in the opening sentences of the following chapter. The quality of the cliffhangers changes as each novel progresses. In the early chapters, the cliffhangers are invariably false. The novel always begins with a dream, prank, "gotcha" (the word the younger sibling invariably utters when some phony scary trick has worked), or just plain mistake that renders harmless the first fright (or first several frights) of the book. As the novel goes on, the cliffhangers become more difficult to resolve. The twist ending is in a sense the ultimate cliffhanger, perhaps promising a sequel. Several of the novels have developed into series-within-the-series of sequels.
Goosebumps sequels, like Beethoven's 2nd, are not so much continuations of an ongoing story as instant remakes of the same story. The same characters meet a very similar nemesis in an identical plot situation. Say Cheese and Die—Again! (number 44, 1996) gives us the same terrifying photos that come to life; Monster Blood 2 (number 18, 1994) and Monster Blood 3 (number 29, 1995) and Monster Blood 4 (number 62, 1997) give us more of that icky magic goo; The Haunted Mask 2 (number 36, 1995) involves another haunted mask; and so on. Within the formulas of the series industry, the sequel allows for cloning of the original plot devices.
After the end of the final chapter, before the end-sheets on which various Goosebumps paraphernalia are advertised, comes a thrilling preview of the next book in the series, several chapters long. Goosebumps novels never exist as individuals but are marked within their own pages as elements of a series. Goosebumps books resist closure. Even the final series entry offered a preview of the successor series. There are no happily-ever-afters here, or even sad farewells. There is only the literary equivalent of that twentieth-century mantra: "Tune in again next time."
Goosebumps books are never illustrated, except for one highly stylized cover picture on each book. The cover illustrations of the original series were done by Tim Jacobus, who gained celebrity in his own right as a result. Jacobus's pictures served as icons in the marketing campaigns that promoted the books. The covers do not closely render scenes from the stories. Only rarely do they reveal the protagonists of the books. The cover of number 6, Let's Get Invisible (1993), showing the narrator, Max, as he gazes in horror into the magic mirror that will turn him invisible, is an exception. Usually, the illustrations depict monsters of some kind or only parts of the child hero (his feet, as on number 52, How I Learned To Fly , his torso underwater, on number 19, Deep Trouble ). Sometimes, and doubly scary, they show only part of the monster.
The functional reason for this lack of illustration might go like this: horror is scarier if you use your imagination than if you have a loathsome creature like King Jellyjam shown to you. "I can imagine the characters and places in my mind to look how I want," says one child reader (Rud 23). The lack of illustrations also entails a reading dynamic. If a reader has no idea what the hero is supposed to look like, it can be easier to identify with that hero.2 Not only are the scary bits scarier if you have to imagine them, but the familiar bits become more familiar if they're not fully drawn, either.
Boy narrators alternate with girl narrators from book to book. Within a given book, a boy narrator is likely to have a girl for a best friend, and vice versa. When a group of friends is the focus of part of a story, it's usually a mixed-sex group. Furthermore, the characters don't do things that are particularly stereotyped by gender. Here is a great contrast with both the twenties and the sixties Hardy Boys series. In those earlier books, sexual segregation is total. The boys share their adventures only with their masculine "chums." They venture into the company of girls only for innocuous dates or for the odd day of recreational sledding. In Goosebumps novels, however, both sexes share the scary adventures. They play similar sports and participate in similar school activities. Neither boys nor girls lock onto gender-specific role models.
In at least one case, the narrator's gender remains unspecified throughout an entire Goosebumps novel. The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight (number 20, 1994) is told by a twelve year old named Jodie who has an eleven-year-old brother named Mark. Jodie has long blond hair (1), but that is the extent of the physical description the narrator offers. Jodie's best friend back home is named Shawna (61). Jodie wears "faded denim cutoffs" and "a sleeveless blue T-shirt" (67). None of these details helps definitively to specify Jodie's sex, and at no point in its 122 pages does the novel use a gender pronoun in relation to Jodie or have the narrator make a gendered self-reference.
What should one make of this indeterminate gender situation? In some books for younger children, like Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, the characters are constructed entirely without gender. An ambiguous name makes for easy gender cross-identification in a picture book like Anna Grossnickle Hines's Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti (1986). Hines's book conveys a progressive message that gender doesn't matter in child-care and work roles. In Spaghetti, a young child named Corey, who has longish red hair and indeterminate preschool clothing, is actually pictured on each page but remains gender unspecific.
One way to read The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight, then, might be to see it as a progressive, ambigendered text. Whether deliberately or not (the result is the same regardless of the author's intention), the text allows readers of either gender to identify readily with its narrator. We might choose to celebrate Scarecrow as a kind of tour de force of gender neutrality. Or we might see the book as a culmination of an ideological trend that is neither progressive nor liberating in terms of gender.
There are good reasons for hesitating to claim The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight as a progressive text. The novel's villain is a retarded man named Stanley. The narrator pokes fun at Stanley even while being scared of him. Stanley makes silly remarks and can't do things competently. Stanley unleashes the scarecrow monsters who terrorize the narrator's family when he reads magic spells out of an old book that he cannot understand and then is incompetent to control them. A novel that would portray Jodie's indeterminate gender as politically positive would presumably not resort to such a crude stereotype of a disabled man to provide its terrors.
Every other character in Scarecrow, in fact, reinforces gender stereotypes, unlike the caring cooking dad and the office-working mom of Hines's Spaghetti. Jodie's grandfather is competent, wise, and full of stories, the grandmother is sentimental and bakes all day, eleven-year-old Mark is highly strung and full of boyish mischief, and Stanley's son Sticks, a little older than Jodie, is a figure of power and male decisiveness, a gaunt, laconic figure Jodie can't quite place as good or evil (he turns out to be good). Stanley is a cliché of bearish retarded male power who recalls Lennie in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, without any of the dignity.
The construction of genderless Jodie is significant as the limit of a trend present in other Goosebumps books. Difference is systematically drained out of the characters, to the point where a character ends up lacking even those most basic of defining linguistic features, gender pronouns. Difference is avoided rather than discussed or critiqued, avoided rather than carnivalized in the manner of the early Hardy Boys books. This tendency to remove distinctive features that might prevent readers from identifying with the characters is an ideology of avoidance.
The narrators of Goosebumps novels, with their spare self-descriptions and their lack of typed behaviors, construct a liberal sense of self, in two senses of the word liberal. One is a neutral, gender-blind sense in which distinctions between male and female are inappropriate or meaningless. Gender does not matter in these Goosebumps stories because it is an irrelevant concept. Boys and girls do exactly the same things, participate in mixed-sex groups, and inhabit a world where there are no gender barriers.
The second sense of liberal is the classical one, in which the individual economic agent participates in the market and in politics free from limitation by qualities that might constrain his or her scope for choice. In pure marketing terms, you can sell more books if you can sell them to boys and to girls too. Goosebumps novels say that America is a place where men and women are economically and socially interchangeable, because it is a place where boys and girls have an equal chance to be scared out of their living wits by evil ventriloquist dummies.
Men and women are interchangeable, these stories tell us; but they are interchangeable within social and psychological orders that deny the existence of history. In no Goosebumps book is any current gender equality predicated on a consciousness of historical gender roles, much less on any kind of feminist struggle against historical constructions of separate gendered spheres. We simply take for granted a current America where men and women have an equal right to consume and produce the stuff of culture. And then we don't discuss it any further. It is no wonder that the most stereotypical of gender roles, as in The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight, are always ready to reemerge in the middle of the weak gender clearances of the text.
The Goosebumps novels are as free from religious markers as they are from gender markers. Everything in the books is secular. The characters never go to church. They never go to a synagogue, either, even though Stine discusses his own Jewish childhood in his memoir (written with Joe Arthur) It Came from Ohio! (1997). Church activities, even church build-ings, are unrealistically absent from the communities. Those monsters that might have some potential for religious construction—vampires, for instance, or werewolves—are relentlessly secular. (In number 5, The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb , the usual mummy movie cult is depicted, but it is totally stylized, bears no resemblance to any possible world religion, and is set in a picture-postcard version of Egypt.) The draining of religion from Goosebumps stories presents a disturbing tendency. It is as if no potentially divisive topic could possibly be raised within the world of these fictions. If Stine could avoid gender and race as easily as he can avoid religion—by sheer force of silence—he might be tempted to do so.
The neutrality of the social world of Goosebumps extends uneasily to questions of race and ethnicity. The narrator is almost always white. The narrator's friends sometimes include African-American and Hispanic children. In number 48, Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns (1996), the narrator, Drew, has another of those unspecific names that allows us to forget her gender for pages at a time. Drew's nemeses are Tabby and Lee, best friends who torment Drew at Halloween time. Tabby is a white girl. "Lee is African-American, and he sort of struts when he walks and acts real cool, like the rappers on MTV videos" (4). That's the extent of Lee's role as an exemplar of African-American culture. For the rest of the novel, he becomes indistinguishable from the other child characters, all of whom are white or presumptively white.
Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns takes place in the same blank suburban setting as so many of the other Goosebumps stories do. (In fact, one of the nicer touches in the book is when the children, out trick-or-treating, pass into an alternate universe that is a suburb even more blank and uniform than the one they actually live in.) There is nothing like an African-American community in the novel. Lee's ethnicity is for the most part completely irrelevant to his character; he might as well be from any hyphenated- and long-assimilated white ethnic group. It becomes hard to remember that Lee is black, just as it's hard to remember that Drew is a girl. Still, one becomes uneasy in the later chapters, when the children are terrorized by spectral jack-o'-lantern creatures: "I saw Lee step back in fear. His knees seemed to buckle, and he nearly dropped the trick-or-treat bag" (81). Or, a few chapters later, when "Lee still gripped the other pumpkin head between his hands. But he dropped it when the jagged mouth began to move" (86), Lee begins to take on elements of that racist archetype, the "Negro" scared of "haunts."
In number 56, The Curse of Camp Cold Lake (1997), the narrator, Sarah, has a bunkmate named Briana, who is named as African American. Like Lee, she is given one quick ethnic marker: "She shook her head so hard, the beads in her cornrows rattled against each other" (6). After that, Briana is not marked as black for the rest of the story. Though she plays a major role, first saving the narrator from a ghost and then, in the twist ending, revealing that she herself is a ghost, her color becomes invisible—as indeed does her gender and everything except her plot function. Such invisibilities are due in part to the exigencies of quickly written series fiction. Even at their best, Goosebumps books are not really notable for character development. But there is also something more socially significant at work here: a denial of diversity.
Hispanic characters in the Goosebumps series are even less visible.3 Freddy Martinez, the narrator of number 49, Vampire Breath (1996), is generically Hispanic. He and his best friend, Cara Simonetti, "both have wavy black hair, dark eyes, and round faces" (3)—that is the extent of their supposed non-Anglo characteristics. As the story progresses, Freddy finds a vampire in his basement and at the end of the book, the twist is that he and his parents have really been Eastern European vampires all along, a conclusion that somewhat dampens any hope of seeing Vampire Breath as a positive image of la raza.
As with the books' construction of gender, these racial and ethnic images are not progressive in any way. They constitute a superficial tokenism that conveys the idea that the history of race matters even less than the history of gender. The communities portrayed in the Goosebumps novels are places where all the marked American identities are like peel-off labels stuck onto stock white characters. The texts, now and then, refer to nonwhite people, gesturing vaguely at things that they cannot be allowed to express.
Sex is one of those things. An interesting feature of the series is the number of best-friend pairs who are boy and girl: Freddy and Cara in Vampire Breath, Zackie and Alex in number 55, The Blob That Ate Everyone (1997), Cooper and Fergie in number 32, The Barking Ghost (1995), Greg and Shari in Say Cheese and Die—Again! Clark and Gretchen (who are step-siblings) in number 46, How to Kill a Monster (1996), Gabe and Sari (cousins) in The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb. These pairs of friends are always twelve years old, as old as they can plausibly be without being sexually mature. Therefore they act and think and talk almost like adults and have a lot of freedom from adult supervision. But their relationships are never even protosexual.
If you think back to when you were twelve—or indeed, if you happen to be twelve and reading this—this lack of sexuality in the Goosebumps series will strike you as one of its falsest notes. Twelve (or even earlier) is the age when ignorance, innocence, and curiosity drive people to think persistently about the sexuality that some of them are entering and all will be involved in soon. Yet like many series books, certainly like both manifestations of the Hardy Boys, Goosebumps novels simply don't mention this growing sexuality. Mild and asexual ploys to get the attention of someone of the opposite sex sometimes enter the plots—How I Learned to Fly is an example—but there is no realistic portrayal of preteen attitudes about sex.
The characters in Goosebumps stories are balanced, perpetually, in novel after novel, on the cusp of an adulthood they never quite reach. There is a constant stream of twelve-year-old protagonists on tap in the series. The protagonists in some of the sequels age to a ripe old thirteen, but they never escape their serial preadolescence. The standard-issue protagonist of the Goosebumps series remains frozen at age twelve. One can see that eternal twelve year old as the projection of an adult desire to retain a core self unthreatened by sexuality, family responsibility, or work.
Goosebumps books deliver not so much a picture of twelve year olds as a powerful fantasy for eight and nine year olds (the core target audience for the series) that also includes elements of fantasy for thirty-eight and thirty-nine year olds. This fantasy, extrapolating the concerns that one has when nine to the greater freedom and independence of a twelve-year-old hero, is akin to the dynamic of most genre fiction, in which we unprepossessing adults read about heroes who are spies, detectives, cowboys, or athletes and imagine ourselves in their bodies. The location of the children's series at the border between childhood and puberty is a backward-looking fantasy, too. Many adults, particularly those from comfortable suburban homes, remember the step into puberty as a fall from self-containment into a world of problematic responsibility. In children's series fiction, the fantasy reaches back to confer power on that moment of autonomy and to let an adult reader live again in the singular heroism of being twelve. It's almost as good as becoming a dog.
This fantasy is extended to the Goosebumps heroes. Children who in one way or another lack the structure, the emotional support, and the organic interdependence of a family become protagonists in miniature versions of adult genre fiction. Harassed by siblings, misunderstood by parents, ignored by daffier relatives, these protagonists strike out into a world of horrors. Sometimes they find a pal of the opposite sex with whom they forge a nuclear partnership that remains comfortably asexual and cannot threaten to become a new family in its own right. The individuals' freedom, and their essential purposelessness, are preserved.
Such alienation is of course archetypal in children's stories. In being thrown onto their own resources, the child heroes of series fiction are not much different from the children who win out over adult enemies in fairy tales. There is a strong fairy tale appeal in Goosebumps stories, complete with the uncanny magic that works for or against the hero. But Goosebumps books lack fairy tale rites of passage into adult responsibilities. They resemble other series like the Hardy Boys in which the protagonists are eternally young. Nor does any Goosebumps hero inherit half a kingdom upon marrying a prince or princess. Another thing that distinguishes Goosebumps stories from the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers, let's say, is the commitment to banal settings. Rather than represent some fantastic realm in the middle distance, the Goosebumps books are set here and now, albeit a washed-out here and now, located in the blanker than blank suburbs of Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns.
The main factor in the alienation of Goosebumps protagonists is the alienation of their parents. These parents are upper middle class and provide for Goosebumps children the basic accoutrements of suburban life: their own rooms, their own stuff (electronics, bikes, and major toys), their own pocket money to buy haunted masks and Monster Blood. But these parents provide the trappings of suburbia at the cost of a sense of community. Frequently the setting for a Goosebumps novel is a family relocation. When the family moves to a new house it is sure, of course, to be haunted.
"Josh and I hated our new house" is the sentence that begins the whole series (Welcome to Dead House 1). Their new house is not in fact new. It is a legacy from their shadowy Uncle Charles and located in a town called Dark Falls. Why the parents in the story have taken on this unpromising item of real estate is never quite clear. Josh and Amanda's dad had "been looking for an excuse to quit his boring office job and devote all of his time to his writing career. This house—absolutely free—would be just the excuse he needed" (4). It's a flimsy excuse, because Dad could just sell the place and invest the proceeds. Of course, since the house turns out to be the abode of the living dead, he might not have been able to find a buyer.
Like this dad, parents in Goosebumps novels are distracted professionals or harried business people. They have economic objectives that are opaque to their children, who see their behavior as a sort of impatient indifference. For the purposes of the series narratives, only the children's perspectives exist—another resemblance to fairy tales. Pursuing their blurry goals, the parents uproot the children from the communities they're accustomed to, or dash off on business, while leaving the children in someone else's care or shipping them off to camp or to their grandparents' house for the summer.
So, Evan has to stay with his eccentric Aunt Kathryn when his father is suddenly "transferred to Atlanta" (5) in number 3, Monster Blood (1992). Stripped of context, that commonest of American corporate phrases, "transferred to Atlanta," takes on weird, evocative resonances. The transfer is never explained, never given narrative reality. Why Evan must stay behind while his mother and father leave for Atlanta is never clear. Cooper, in The Barking Ghost, sees the fact of relocation like an awful sentence when his family leaves Boston: "I had no choice. We were moving. Mom's new job landed us in Maine, and there was nothing I could do about it" (4). In number 59, The Haunted School (1997), Tommy finds himself relocated because his father has remarried and asks, "Can you imagine what it's like to suddenly have a new school, a new house, and a new mom?" (2). Even less motivated is the relocation in number 53, Chicken Chicken (1997), when the parents
dreamed of leaving the city for good and living on a farm near a small country town…. The whole town is three blocks long. We have a cute little farm with a cute little farmhouse. And even though Mom and Dad are computer programmers—not farmers—we have a backyard full of chickens.
Cluck. Cluck. That's their dream.
In How to Kill a Monster, "Mom and Dad had some kind of work emergency in Atlanta" (1), so Gretchen and Clark have to stay with their grandparents, who also have a voracious monster staying with them. In number 51, Beware, the Snowman (1997), Jaclyn has to move from Chicago, where she starred in sports and had many school friends, to a village on the Arctic Circle called Sherpia. "Why did we have to move from the United States to this tiny, frozen mountain village?… What kind of name is Sherpia? Can you imagine moving from Chicago to Sherpia?" (3-4).
Frankly, no. That relocation is probably the weakest in the entire series. The pattern of displacement, however, means several things in the Goosebumps world. In functional terms, the relocation of the family and the displacement of the child enable the isolation that drives the adventure plot. The new home is haunted, the new village is full of weird creatures, and the spooky events begin.
These relocations are also a realistic feature of corporate American life. Kids do have to move when their parents get transferred, and the sudden break with old friends and homes is traumatic. One can read the ensuing scary situations as a reflection of the difficulties of coping with a sudden move. In Monster Blood Evan's mother realizes that "he needs to learn how to get along under difficult circumstances. You know, moving to Atlanta, leaving all his friends behind" (5). Cooper, in The Barking Ghost, misses his friends in Boston terribly and has no way to make new ones. He eventually befriends a mysterious girl named Fergie and is turned, along with her, into a spectral chipmunk.
Well, I said that these plots were projections of anxieties, not that they made any sense. The sense that these anxious relocations, sometimes coupled with abandonments, make is more ideological than mimetic. But it's not the psychological sense of the fairy tale alienation, the young hero against the world of Joseph Campbell's formulation. In the Goosebumps novels alienations like leaving home and friends behind are the normal postmodern condition. Under these conditions, the child's task is to master the distortions inflicted on his or her life rather than return to the older, familiar situation, even a better version of that situation (as in the fairy tale or mythic return). Goosebumps stories rarely end with the status quo reasserted. Though the child may long throughout for his or her old home—Chicago, Boston, anywhere that is not Sherpia—the novels are far more likely to end with the child mastering the new situation than being restored to the old one. At least until the twisty ending, when all is thrown into uncertainty again.
The Goosebumps kid accepts the changing ground rules of the American corporate landscape and flourishes in the entrepreneurial field that that landscape provides. Goosebumps child characters make instant new best friends, learn new neighborhoods, and slay the demons that assail them. Or at least they cope with the permanent anxiety of their disrupted existence, out of balance forever in a land of horrors, after the twist ending.
The archetypal Goosebumps move is a move out of the city. I can't imagine that even the Atlanta-bound white corporate types of Monster Blood are moving to the inner city. More likely, they are bound for the antiseptic housing estates of Marietta or someplace even whiter. Goosebumps parents pack their kids off to the Maine woods, to European forests, to remote summer camps, to Dark Falls, to the swamps of southern Georgia, to chicken farms in Goshen Falls, to Sherpia. Somewhere here is an anxiety over, or even an odd nostalgia for, American white flight in the twentieth century. Life will somehow be better out in those wide open spaces, but for the children, at first, life becomes simply terrifying. Knocked free from their moorings in stable urban communities, these families cannot return to their homes, physically or emotionally. Horrors confront them on both sides. In the suburbs, the theme parks are full of monsters out of control, the lawn gnomes are enchanted evil trolls, the trick-or-treaters are aliens from space who eat children. Back in urban settings, the old houses are full of malevolent objects like haunted cameras or antique lamps that turn you invisible and drag you into a parallel dimension. The venerable school building is undermined with secret underground passageways or sealed-off tomblike wings and is haunted by the Phantom of the Auditorium.
The space between city and suburb is narrow, but it is the one that the Goosebumps plots and characters aim for. These books celebrate the conventions of repetitive mass society, packaged as home, a home without traditions, memories, or knowledge, where the dominant cultural style is annoying your parents, where the occasional child older than twelve is imagined, like Rich in number 24, Phantom of the Auditorium (1994), as someone who "spends most of his life being grounded" (4). In number 6, Let's Get Invisible! (1993), Mom (they never have names, these parents) fixes lunch for the narrator and his pals: "Canned chicken noodle soup and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches" (40). She disapproves vigorously of the cool haircut that Zack, the narrator's friend, has gotten at Quick Cuts, but tries to feed Zack chocolate cupcakes all the same, for dessert. Of such rare and soul-destroying moments is the novels' only sense of home constructed. One would almost prefer to surrender and become fodder for the Blob That Ate Everyone.
Of all the sinister venues in the Goosebumps stories, the epitome of horror is the evil summer camp, a staple of the series from its second year (1993) with the publication of number 9, Welcome to Camp Nightmare. More camp novels appeared in 1995 (number 33, The Horror at Camp Jellyjam ), 1996 (number 45, Ghost Camp ), 1997 (number 56, The Curse of Camp Cold Lake ), and in Goosebumps Series 2000 in 1998 (number 8, Fright Camp ), each time in early summer, to take advantage of the seasonal connection. (I detect no puns here, by the way. These are not campy camps.)
Goosebumps novels were popular from their introduction, but the publication of The Horror at Camp Jellyjam in July 1995 marked a quantum leap in the visibility and popularity of the series.4 In its first six-and-a-half months on sale, Jellyjam sold 1,354,700 copies. It was the year's top paperback children's bestseller, outsold among children's books overall only by two hardcover versions of Disney's Pocahontas (Roback S26; see Disney's Pocahontas; Ingoglia). Marketing efforts featured the cover of the book, with its grinning, Mad Magazine-like caricature of a camp counselor (a picture corresponding to no scene or character in the book). This picture of summer camp gone mad is central to the whole cultural work of the Goosebumps series.
Kids in Goosebumps stories rarely want to go to camp. Alex in Ghost Camp wants to study music instead of going to Camp Spirit Moon, even before he realizes that his fellow campers are all undead zombies. Jaclyn in The Curse of Camp Cold Lake speaks for many Goosebumps protagonists: "I don't like to be outdoors. I hate the feeling of grass brushing against my ankles. I don't even like to touch trees. And I certainly don't like getting wet" (1). These children of indoor climate-controlled spaces are served up their worst nightmares by being sent to camp.
The kids in The Horror at Camp Jellyjam aren't even shipped off. On vacation, the narrator, Wendy, and her brother, Elliott, are riding in a trailer that comes unhitched from their parents' car. The trailer rolls down a hillside and stops outside King Jelly-jam's Sports Camp. The parents disappear. Only 114 pages later do the children see the parents again. The parents explain vaguely, "The police checked every-where, trying to find you two" (126). They are as distracted as any child who has been entrusted with a responsibility and instead wandered off to play. Here we have the ultimate distillation of summer camp. Without warning, your parents vanish, leaving you out in the woods at the mercy of sadistic counselors.
Camp Jellyjam is an evil venue. A children's sports camp where the essence of the experience is competition, a ritual pitting of the skills of children against one another, it is a parent-free world for the testing of children. The counselors incessantly repeat the camp catchphrase, "Only the Best," as they exhort the children to win races and games and collect King Coins, the prizes for winning.
The competitions in Camp Jellyjam don't really involve adults at all, even in the sense that the abandoned children are somehow angry at their parents or determined to succeed in spite of them. Instead, they express a curious resignation, as if nothing thicker than a trailer hitch had ever connected Wendy and Elliott to their mom and dad. Suddenly landed with a crash in an inexplicable workplace, Wendy and Elliott barely register surprise. Instead, they set about the pointless task of winning sports events and collecting King Coins.
That occupation is more sinister than it seems, because the reward for success—collecting six King Coins—is to be honored in the Winners Walk. At this ceremony, the winners are abducted and made to serve the hideous slime monster King Jellyjam in his underground lair. This noisome, ravening beast is continuously washed and fed by captive children and occasionally turns over, shaking the ground on which the camp is built. King Jellyjam could be iconic for success in capitalist enterprises generally—the amassing of pointless achievements leading to greater and greater service to a blind unreasoning monster—if indeed he were sufficiently elaborated to mean much of anything. For the purposes of the novel he's just another scary creature.
The tone of this novel helps define the cultural gesture of the entire Goosebumps series. Far from being robust characters who enjoy adventure, Wendy and Elliott are detached and distant. Elliott so immerses himself in winning King Coins that he loses all personality. He seems to forget that he has been deserted by his parents and is being held prisoner. Wendy is more resistant, but still untroubled by the demands made on her to fit into the Jellyjam routine. One could imagine several different types of affect for the novel's bizarre situation, ranging from nonstop panic and efforts to escape all the way to embracing the zany camp atmosphere in an attempt to declare freedom from their parents' boring lives. None of these alternatives is even posited. The children of Jellyjam are spiritless suburban creatures whose all-child venue strangely recapitulates the texture of the adult world outside. Wendy and Elliott have fallen out of a stereotypical family vacation into a vacation from that vacation, which turns out to be a rehearsal for corporate America.
The parents are similarly bland and ineffectual. They do not know what is best for children. They are intellectually and emotionally lazy and are generally helpless to solve the children's problems. In the relatively weak way Goosebumps stories represent struggles for power in adult-child relationships, at least on some grounds the children seem to win. By being cut adrift from parents and triumphing over their own problems, the children reconstitute (though almost always temporarily, given the necessity for that twisty ending) a world where balances are reasserted. The children gain power through recognizing that their parents cannot and do not maintain such balances by themselves.
Unlike those in the archetypal children's story, the adults in these novels are not so much oppressors to be vanquished or role models to emulate as they are twelve year olds themselves. The recurrent settings and resolutions of Goosebumps novels relentlessly co-opt representations of children in the service of reasserting the anti-intellectualism, self-absorption, and greed of both kinds of twelve year olds as normal. The adults are as peremptory, as fixated, as immature as the children.
I am not sure what children "get out" of these books—or any books, for that matter. I know, for instance, that my own son, at ages six through eight, read these books, or had them read to him, with an all-consuming attention. I have described children's reading tastes as addictions (Making the Team 169). Perhaps a child's devotion to a favorite set of books is a wholesome direction of addictive tendencies. Perhaps not. Perhaps all that will come out of reading Goosebumps novels is a mindless, soul-deadening consumerism.
Gary Cross discusses action figures and playsets of the eighties and nineties, but his comments apply equally well to children's series fiction: "When toys lost their connection to the experience and expectation of parents, they entered a realm of ever-changing fantasy. Indeed, the parent's gift to the child became not the learning of the future or even the sharing of a joy of childhood. Parents instead granted children the right to participate in a play world of constant change without much guidance or impact from adults. The events of the 1980s did not bring this change by themselves. But they seemed to have closed the door on the past" (227). Books don't work the same way. They wear out less easily than toys, and many literary cultures can co-exist in a single present moment. But series novels of any period are less about the communication of cherished cultural values than about an escape from cultural communication. Recent series novels are just getting better at providing such an escape and linking that escape back to a brisk trade in merchandise.
Goosebumps novels present a world that is alienated, cut off, blank, and fantastic. It doesn't arouse my ire; it's hard to get excited over it as either bad or good. It is a world that beyond a certain point I do not enter. My son has moved beyond Goosebumps Series 2000. He reads the inexplicable kid-SF series Animorphs to himself, when he is not constructing action worlds on the floor by himself out of action figures. How can I manage, surround, engage in such play or such reading? Was my own reading of the Hardy Boys series much different? If the content changes while the form remains the same, is series fiction anything but a filter for culture, a filter that affects us generation after generation in much the same way no matter what attitudes and ideologies it happens to trap?
The dynamic of reading and collecting may ultimately be of more cultural importance than anything in the "content" of these series. The way we buy and save these books may effectively be their content. But at the same time we can study what the filters trap and what they don't: what we tell ourselves and are afraid to tell ourselves. Classics like The Secret Garden and Peter Pan, my next subject, tell us richer stories. They make culture rather then merely record it as it passes. But they too are intricately connected to the same dynamics of power and desire. Whatever the material setting, we cannot escape these dynamics when we encounter children's cultures.
1. Some initial volumes in the series, including number 2, Stay Out of the Basement (1992), number 3, Monster Blood (1992), and a few others, are told in the third person. They have as their principal reflector-characters twelve year olds similar to the ones who narrate the other series novels. First-person narration becomes the invariable rule later in the series.
2. At least one entry in the series plays with its own lack of identifying illustrations or descriptions. Number 57, My Best Friend Is Invisible (1997), presents a typical Goosebumps family described with the usual neutral economy of detail. At the end of the novel, the twist is that they have been five-eyed many-limbed and tentacled creatures all along. They think that humans are disgusting monsters. The complete blandness of the narrative allows for such a twist, which is no twist at all because the world of monsters is conceived of as identical to American suburbia.
3. Several of the Goosebumps titles have been translated into Spanish and marketed under the series title Escalofríos in the United States. These books, starting with Bienvenidos a la casa de la muerte (Welcome to Dead House, 1995) are not adaptations of the originals to Spanish-language cultural settings, but instead are mechanical, phrase-by-phrase renditions of the English originals. (So mechanical are the Spanish versions that no translator credit is given.)
4. Since the books are always released a few weeks before their publication date, this volume went on sale in June 1995.
Sandra Soares and Julia Tiede (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Soares, Sandra, and Julia Tiede. "Goosebumps by R. L. Stine." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985–2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 176-81. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Soares and Tiede debate the literary merits of Stine's Goosebumps series, particularly the novels' usefulness as "transition books" between picture books and young adult fiction.]
The Goosebumps books are a series of 63 horror novels for children, written by R. L. Stine between 1993 and 1998. These narratives fall somewhere between The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock, and the silly spook tales that children make up around the campfire. (I am reminded of the "Lardass" story from the Rob Reiner film Stand by Me.) The tales all have some elements of the supernatural, most contain some gratuitous slime, there are a number of false scares (usually one kid scaring another, then making fun of the fraidy-cat), and every book puts children in a position of fright, danger, and loss of control. But the Goosebumps books do not contain much in the way of real violence. People do not bleed in these books—though they may occasionally be covered with stinking goo—and it is rare to find threats from human sources, such as kidnappers, burglars, murderers; danger is more likely to come from a mummy, a ventriloquist's dummy, a monster. The stories are scary, but the sources of the scares are so patently unreal that they cause more frisson than fear.
I can't defend the Goosebumps series on the basis of literary excellence; the books are not terribly well written, the plots are simplistic, the characters are flat, and the special effects are often, as a kid might say, gross. But the books do have redeeming merits. My granddaughter, Julia, nine and a half years old, defends them and explains her reasoning:
They are fun to read because you don't know what is going to happen next, so you keep reading. The stories move; like you go into this creepy house and down in the basement there's something really scary. The books are a little scary, but I like scary stories, and I know it's fake. Little kids might have bad dreams about them, and they might think that there are monsters under the bed; the books tell about how bad the monsters are. But even little kids should know that the stories are fake.
Kids who don't normally read might read them because they're not like regular stories. Boys don't usually read, but they think these kinds of stories are fun.
Reading is better than no reading. You should always read, because then your reading skills are getting better. And you can read anywhere; you can carry a book in your backpack, but you can't carry around a T.V. Another nice thing about reading is that you can make up what you see.
From an adult standpoint, there are a number of reasons to defend this series. Julia is right when she says that "reading is better than no reading," and Goosebumps actually represents an important transition in reading. One day when Julia and I were in a bookstore, when she was about seven and a half, she asked me to buy her a "chapter book." She felt that she was ready to leave behind books that consisted of a little text and a lot of illustration and move on to books that relied on text for their interest. Goosebumps are clearly "chapter books." Except for the covers, they contain no illustrations, and in fact the descriptions in the books are so vivid that no illustrations are needed. For this reason alone it is worth allowing kids to read Goosebumps. Despite the fact that the main characters of the novels are always twelve years old, the main audience for the series is third and fourth graders (according to a librarian I consulted). I suspect that Goosebumps, and other series like them, are the first nonillustrated books that many children read, preparing them for more serious reading later—and proving to them that words on a page really do have the power to stir the imagination.
Stine seems to prefer first-person narration. Of the seven Goosebumps that I have read, six are told in the first person. This point of view involves the young reader instantly; the narrator pulls in the reader in the same confiding way that Holden Caufield does at the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye. "Josh and I hated our new house" (Welcome to Dead House 1); "My name is Amy Cramer, and every Thursday night I feel a little dumb. That's because Thursday night is 'Family Sharing' night at my house" (Night of the Living Dummy II 1). The younger reader instantly relates to the main character's feelings. Another ad-vantage to first-person narration in a book meant to scare the reader is the reassurance that the main character has lived to tell the story.
In structure, most of the Goosebumps stories are fairly straightforward. Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns, however, contains two flashbacks at the beginning. In The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, Stine uses prefiguration; the main character repeatedly has trouble keeping one of his shoes tied, and he is ultimately left behind in a dark tunnel as he stoops to tie that shoe. The Blob That Ate Everyone is constructed as a modified Chinese box: it begins with a scary episode that turns out to be a story that the narrator has written to frighten his friends. At the end we discover that the whole book is a scary story written by a "blob" to scare its blob friends. I believe that for the young person just beginning to read novels these narrative devices are a good introduction to adult literature, which requires keeping track of various episodes and characters. When I first red Glinda of Oz, I remember being intrigued by the three plot threads and the switching back and forth between them from chapter to chapter.
The endings of the books bear mentioning as well. In the Goosebumps books I have read, there are two types of endings. One is the happy resolution, generally involving the family. At the end of Welcome to Dead House, the family moves out of the town of the "living dead." The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, in which the narrator's parents have been absent throughout the story, ends with a knock at the door: "The sound of ancient, bandaged fingers struggling with the lock…. Two shadowy figures lumbered into the room. 'Mom and Dad!' I cried. I'll bet they were surprised at how glad I was to see them" (132). These endings are comforting after all of the anxieties the characters—and the reader—have faced.
The other type of ending is the "endless loop." In both of the Night of the Living Dummy books the nasty ventriloquist's dummy is destroyed only to be replaced by another dummy who comes to life. The Beast from the East ends with the beginning of another scary game. In Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns, the narrator discovers that his two young pals, who are aliens, "'only like to eat very plump adults. So you don't have to worry for now'" (113). These endings add a special little scare; they also invite sequels, of course, handy in a long series like this one.
In content, Goosebumps books contain a number of themes that preadolescent children can relate to. Sibling rivalry is often present in the stories, and it is very bitter. Jealousy and competition for recognition from parents is a common plot thread; generally it is happily resolved, even if the ending of the story remains up in the air. When the crisis comes, the competing siblings find themselves finally united against whatever menace threatens them and (often) their family. Parents are generally shown as distant and lacking understanding, and of course they are unbelievers when it comes to the supernatural forces terrifying their kids. Again, these conflicts are usually resolved, and the family stands together in the end. Adults are, however, usually outsiders to the bulk of the plot, which is normal for kids' books for this age; this population is just beginning to spread its wings. The narrator of The Blob That Ate Everyone confides to the reader, "My parents are the kind of people who get upset very easily…. So I never tell them much. I mean why ruin their day—or mine?" (29).
The most powerful theme of the books is fear, but it is not simply fear of monsters or the supernatural. Over and over the main character of a book, who is generally the narrator, is given bogus scares by another kid (or occasionally an adult), who then unmercifully, and often publicly, teases the frightened child. These episodes cause a great deal of humiliation and, often, anger. Many of the kids admit they are cowards. In The Blob That Ate Everyone, Zackie, the twelve-year-old first-person narrator, is afraid of everything—the dark, mice, big dogs, going to the basement when he's alone in the house, "a lot of other things" (48). But he writes scary stories. Why? "I don't know. Maybe I write better stories because I know what being scared feels like" (48). Zackie's schoolmates repeatedly play tricks on him and mock him for his fear. In The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb the main character, who gets lost in the Great Pyramid of Egypt, is also afraid of the dark, and he is teased for that by his uncle and his snippy girl cousin. So one of the main fears found in Goosebumps is the fear of being discovered to be a coward. I think, however, that the books contain a certain reassurance that it's really all right to be afraid. Being scared can even be fun; why else read these books?
Another fear prevalent in the Goosebumps I have read is the fear of loss of control. In both The Night of the Living Dummy and The Night of the Living Dummy II, a ventriloquist's dummy comes to life and is clearly malevolent. In the first Dummy novel, the dummy speaks for itself during performances, insulting neighbors and a teacher for being old, fat, ugly (and certainly this is the way that children often see adults); the dummy expresses the inner thoughts of the child. In the second Dummy book the bad dummy repeatedly trashes the room of the narrator's older sister, of whose painting talents the narrator is extremely jealous. The narrator is punished for acts she might have liked to commit but never would have actually committed. We all fear saying what we really think, doing what we wish to—but must not—do.
Loss of control occurs over and over in Goosebumps, and that is a very common fear. In Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns, a group of children are forced to trick-or-treat "forever," also being forced to eat more candy than they want in order to make room in their bags. (This is one of the few books to have any clear moral, a warning against greed and gluttony.) One of the corollaries of loss of control is getting lost, and this happens often, too. In Welcome to Dead House, the main characters become lost in their new neighborhood. In The Beast from the East, the main characters get lost in the woods, with scary consequences. In this book the lost children are sucked into a strange game, where the monsters make up, and seem to constantly change, the rules. This situation is a real one for children, not only in their own games, but in the game of school, of life.
Darker fears appear, as well. Welcome to Dead House, which takes place in a village of the living dead, exploits the fear of death and the dead. The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb touches upon the same fear.
The novels work nicely in this way; while children are getting "goosebumps" from the scariness of the plot, they are also working through some of the problems and fears in their everyday lives. And even though some of the fears touched on by the books are far from superficial, the way in which the fears are treated keep them light:
We both screamed again as the Blob Monster bounced into the room.
[Its] body heaved up and down. The creature panted, its entire body bouncing. White slime puddled on the floor around it.
And then I saw the purple tongue leap. It rolled out of the Blob Monster's open belly like a garden hose.
"NOOOOOO!" I opened my mouth in a terrified wail as the tongue stretched across the room. Reached for me….
Reached for me….
(The Blob That Ate Everyone 104-105)
It's pretty hard, even when you are eight years old, to take a bouncing gooey monster too seriously; the characters are indeed frightened, but the reader really has more the feeling of fear associated with a ride on a roller coaster: screaming is fun. Similarly, it is difficult to construe the few magic spells and incantations found in this book as satanic. They are about as satanic as "abracadabra!"
There is not much overt moralizing in Goosebumps. There are a few lessons—it's not nice to tease, and too much Halloween candy could make you sick—but, basically, it is not didactic children's literature. Really, it's all a game. Goo is more fun than blood, and an evil monster may scare you, but it can never harm you in the way that real people could. I think that the little theme at the end of "The Twilight Zone" is the feeling that most kids must have at the end of a Goosebumps book. And these books do get children to read.
Stine, R. L. Attack of the Jack-o'-Lanterns. New York: Scholastic, 1996.
――――――. The Beast from the East. Scholastic, 1996.
――――――. The Blob That Ate Everyone. Scholastic, 1997.
――――――. The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb. Scholastic, 1993.
――――――. Night of the Living Dummy. Scholastic, 1993.
――――――. Night of the Living Dummy II. Scholastic, 1995.
――――――. Welcome to Dead House. Scholastic, 1992.
Molly S. Kinney (review date October 2004)
SOURCE: Kinney, Molly S. Review of Have You Met My Ghoulfriend? and Who Let the Ghosts Out?, by R. L. Stine. School Library Journal 50, no. 10 (October 2004): 178.
Gr. 4-6—Stine's newest series is sure to delight his fans. In Who Let the Ghosts Out? readers meet Nicky and Tara, who are trying to figure out why they are suddenly ghosts and what has happened to their parents. They live in the closet of a boy named Max, a would-be magician who is having parent, brother, and teacher troubles. The three team up to help one another try to solve their individual and collective problems and take on an evil spirit named Phears. In the second book [Have You Met My Ghoulfriend? ], Phears returns and tries to force Max to help him capture the ghost siblings. Stine's forte has always been taking ordinary characters and placing them in weird situations, and these two stories are no exception. This time, however, there is more humor than in the author's previous books. The mood is much more lighthearted and the pacing is slower with fewer terrifying events.
THE HAUNTING HOUR: CHILL IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT (2001)
Frances Bradburn (review date 1-15 January 2002)
SOURCE: Bradburn, Frances. Review of The Haunting Hour: Chill in the Dead of Night, by R. L. Stine. Booklist 98, nos. 9-10 (1-15 January 2002): 859-60.
Gr. 5-8—For Stine fans, this collection of 10 short stories [The Haunting Hour: Chill in the Dead of Night ] is a must. Most are contemporary, about mundane events transformed into horrific situations. A brief introduction by the author explains the personal experience that triggers each story. A museum trip in which Stine narrowly escaped a classmate's prank became "The Mummy's Dream." Arguments with his sister on family trips were the inspiration for "Are We There Yet?" a story that harks back to "Hansel and Gretel." An embarrassing duck costume evolved into "The Halloween Dance." A creepy illustration introduces each story, capturing the eeriness and tension of the selection. It's typical Stine.
DANGEROUS GIRLS (2003)
Kimberly L. Paone (review date August 2003)
SOURCE: Paone, Kimberly L. Review of Dangerous Girls, by R. L. Stine. School Library Journal 49, no. 8 (August 2003): 166-67.
Gr. 7 Up—As this story [Dangerous Girls ] opens, Destiny and Livvy are completing their summer jobs as camp counselors. Their mother committed suicide only months before, and they found the camp a healing environment. Little did they know that one of the other counselors, a mysterious and very handsome young man with an Italian accent, would be the cause of much tragedy and distress for the twins in upcoming weeks. While at camp, Renz had drawn each teen away, revealed his true identity, and then sucked her blood. His ritual was interrupted with Destiny, however, and she did not reciprocate, making her a neophyte. Renz then followed her home to await the full moon and another opportunity, but animals and even some of the twins' friends turn up dead while he waits—all of their blood completely drained from their bodies. This is standard fare for Stine—short chapters each ending with a hook, very little character development, and predictable story lines. There are a few surprises, but nothing particularly innovative. However, teens will immediately gravitate to the teenage girls on the cover and the enticing title, and Stine's many fans will be satisfied.
THE TASTE OF NIGHT (2004)
Cindy Welch (review date 1 September 2004)
SOURCE: Welch, Cindy. Review of The Taste of Night, by R. L. Stine. Booklist 101, no. 1 (1 September 2004): 109.
Gr. 6-12—Stine may have his critics, but what he does, he does well. Short dialogue and quickly moving action carry this entry [The Taste of Night ] in his Dangerous Girls series. Livvy and her scientist father believe they can reclaim Destiny, Livvy's sister, from the vampire life, but Destiny chose her fate freely, and she is unwilling to come home. As Destiny's hunting brings her ever closer to people in her old life, Father prepares for his role as a vampire hunter, and Livvy hatches a dangerous plan to save her sister—and herself. Stine's vampires are more reminiscent of Anne Rice's Lestat than Annette Curtis Klause's Zöe, but there's none of Rice's complex characterization or plotting. However, fans of vampire tales will be attracted by the cover and read on thanks to the fast pace.
Coats, Karen. "The Mysteries of Postmodern Epistemology: Stratemeyer, Stine, and Contemporary Mystery for Children." In Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural, edited by Adrienne E. Gavin and Christopher Routledge, pp. 184-201. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2001.
Examination of the series fiction of Edward Stratemeyer and R. L. Stine, as well as other popular series fiction over the course of the twentieth century.
D'Ammasssa, Don. Review of They Call Me Creature, The Howler, Shadow Girl, and Camp Nowhere, by R. L. Stine. Science Fiction Chronicle 22, no. 11 (November 2001): 44.
Alleges that Stine's They Call Me Creature, The Howler, Shadow Girl, and Camp Nowhere "were ghost written by George Sheanshang, as he is prominently thanked."
Dickson, Randi. "Horror: To Gratify, Not Edify." Language Arts 76, no. 2 (November 1998): 115-21.
Details the potential appeal of the Goosebumps series as a part of the larger horror genre.
Hicks, Deborah, and Tami K. Dolan. "Haunted Landscapes and Girlhood Imaginations: The Power of Horror Fictions for Marginalized Readers." Changing English 10, no. 1 (March 2003): 45-57.
Recounts a discussion of Stine's books with a series of fourth graders.
Jones, Patrick. What's So Scary about R. L. Stine? Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1998, 249 p.
Bio-critical overview of Stine's career that reviews the Goosebumps phenomenon and the incipient controversy over his place in children's literature.
Stine, R. L., and Laura Deutsch. "Beyond Goosebumps." Writing 27, no. 1 (September 2004): 8-11.
Stine discusses his writing career and his plans for the Goosebumps series.
West, Diana. "The Horror of R. L. Stine." American Educator 19, no. 3 (fall 1995): 39-41.
Expresses frustration with the use of lurid shock fiction to encourage children to read, citing Stine's Goosebumps series as her primary example.
Additional coverage of Stine's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 37; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 105; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22, 53, 109; Contemporary Popular Writers; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 31, 76, 129; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement, Vol. 1.