What Scares R.L. Stine?
It's five days before Halloween, the first truly cold fall afternoon in New York. I've just arrived at the home of one Robert Lawrence Stine — R.L. to his millions of readers, Bob to his family and friends — to interview him about the reboot of Fear Street, his best-selling novels about legions of hot teens getting slaughtered at and around Shadyside High. Despite pop-culture portrayals to the contrary, Stine does not hide out in a haunted mansion, typing feverishly by moonlight, nor does he abhor visitors. In fact, he invited me here, to the Upper West Side, where he lives in an elegant condo building near the river.
Stine's doorman greets me with a smile, asks who I'm here to see, then points me to the elevator. A lifelong claustrophobe, I've always hated taking elevators alone; I have an illogical, extremely inconvenient fear of getting stuck inside for nearly 48 hours like that dude in The New Yorker and going slowly, permanently insane. Stine's own Elevator to Nowhere is at least partially to blame. My standard coping mechanism is to either take the stairs or wait for a friendly stranger who'll ride up with me and, in the event of a days-long crisis, ideally stop me from consuming my own arm. I ask the doorman where the stairs are, and he kindly informs me he's “not supposed” to let me use them.
Because I'm early and because I'm hoping a benevolent stranger will appear magically out of thin air to accompany me upstairs, I loiter in the bathroom for a few minutes. When I emerge, a jolly maintenance man appears like a mirage before me in a previously empty hallway. “I'm Elliot,” he says, grinning exuberantly but not disingenuously. “Come with me to the service elevator. We'll listen to Sinatra on the way up.” How Elliot has found me, or knows exactly where I'm going and what I needed from him, is never revealed; it feels as if Stine himself is stage-managing the entire experience. The two of us ride the elevator in a comfortable silence, save for Sinatra's vibrato. Elliot drops me off at Stine's back doorstep and disappears.
I've been imagining my meeting with R.L. Stine since my childhood, when I was a macabre weirdo with an imagination so wild I alienated all but two friends. I consumed Stine's Goosebumps novels like jelly beans and, in between, typed up my own little horror books and asked my dad to take me to cemeteries so I could wander about the grave sites and pretend I was a misunderstood Stine protagonist solving some great paranormal mystery. I clearly wasn't the only oddball kid finding something like solace in Stine's books: Since writing his first horror novel in 1986, a teen-targeted thriller called Blind Date, Stine's sold 400 million books internationally, spawned several TV series and a feature film based on his work, and seen his relevance only surge as he approaches his third decade of scaring the shit out of children.
There's just something about Stine — is it his dependably non-patronizing tone and rapid-fire book-release schedule? His innate trust in kids' abilities to differentiate fiction from reality? The cushiony space he created for all of us to exorcise our darkest fears? — that's turned him into a touchstone for multiple generations. In the days leading up to my interview, every grown adult I told I'd be meeting Stine had some version of a conniption fit. What I want to ask Stine is how he stays relevant to 29-year-olds and 9-year-olds simultaneously, how he writes compelling horror for a generation raised on the Saw franchise and currently surviving the existential nightmare that is the Trump candidacy, what he thinks of modern horror films, and how he keeps it all fresh. Basically, and not unselfishly, I just want to know: Who the hell is this guy, and why are we still so obsessed with him?
R.L.'s wife and editor, Jane Stine, a redhead wearing bright sneakers, opens the back door, which, delightfully, is decorated with a “Beware The Haunted Mask” sign. “Why'd you come up this way?” she asks me by way of greeting. The irony of revealing my childlike fears immediately upon meeting the Stine family is not lost on me, but I half-explain myself as she ushers me inside.
The Stines' apartment is labyrinthine and massive, with spacious living rooms winding in and out of each other, hardwood floors, high ceilings, custom artwork, and built-in bookshelves stuffed with hundreds of books and overlaid with ladders. I gawk at everything like a tourist and ask how many rooms the apartment comprises. “Eleven,” says Jane matter-of-factly, as if she's been asked this thousands of times.
R.L. is waiting for me in one of the long hallways, near the front door. I suppress the urge to hug him and/or sob. At 73 years old, he's got about half his hair left, and he's wearing his trademark dark brown frames, plus a pair of gigantic dad jeans, a roomy button-down shirt, and black socks. “Why'd you take the service elevator?” is the first thing R.L. Stine says to me. “I hate elevators,” I begin, deciding to lean into my role as The Unhinged Reporter. “What? Seriously? Elevators?” he asks. “I've never heard of that. My mother was afraid of escalators, but elevators?” Jane gives him a look as she hangs up my coat. “Bob, people are afraid of elevators,” she says. “And why aren't you wearing any shoes?” R.L. shrugs. “I've just never heard of it,” he says. The shoes go unaddressed.
I follow Stine down the hall. His dog, Minnie, a tiny King Charles Spaniel, yelps angrily at me. I peek into one of the three bedrooms, where I spot a thirtysomething man typing on a laptop. He stops typing and we stare at each other for a moment. “This is my nephew,” says Stine. “He's doing a drop-by.” The nephew nods.
R.L. leads me into his office. “This is my shrine to myself,” he says dryly. “It's good, right?” It is good. It's stocked wall-to-picture-window with Goosebumps and Fear Street paraphernalia. Slappy the Dummy, a cross between a vaudevillian act and an insult comic who's one of Stine's favorite villains, sits in a chair next to a dummy version of Stine himself. Slappy is wearing Stine's baby grandson's clothes, because Stine's baby grandson borrowed Slappy's clothes for Halloween, as one does. A massive papier-mâché cockroach rests near the window. “I tell everyone I caught it under the sink,” says Stine. Dozens of miniature monsters line shelves stuffed with Stine's books and board games and family photos. A to-scale skeleton wearing a baseball cap stands casually near the window. In the middle of all of it is Stine's glossy desk, which holds both a laptop and a desktop monitor and sits between two cozy chairs facing one another. After Stine tells me a pleasant story about how he attends a yearly thriller writers' conference at which the main objective is to debate the difference between a thriller and a mystery (“I don't know!” says Stine when I ask him what it is. “That's the debate.”), we sit down across from one another. He looks at me, patient but expectant.
I start by sharing my stories of Goosebumps-devouring and cemetery-dwelling, thinking Stine will be on the same page and we will immediately become best friends, filling all of the six-foot holes left over from my strange childhood. “Cemeteries?” he laughs. “I never did that growing up in Ohio.” “But you were a weird kid, too, I thought!” I say, the unspoken truth being that I have read nearly all of his press over the years. “I wasn't weird,” he protests. “Well, I stayed in my room typing. I guess that was kind of weird. My parents didn't understand it at all. ‘What are you doing in there? Go outside and play!’ I don't know why I thought it was so cool.”
I tell him I think that's a common theme in his books, the parents having no clue about anything. “Oh, the parents are useless,” he agrees, laughing. “They never believe the kid. They never help in any way. They're irrelevant. In all of the books, the kids have to use their own wit and imagination to defeat the horrible monsters.” He thinks for a moment. “That's the only thing in Goosebumps,” he adds with a wry smile. “There's no other lesson of any other kind. There's no morals.” Startled, I vocally disagree with him. As a child, I explain, I felt like there was a common thread in the books about being misunderstood, about having nobody who really “got” you, about having to sort of explore your identity via these occult adventures. “That's true,” he says. “That's good.”
We move on to the Fear Street books, i.e., the reason I'm even here. “That's actually a really good story,” says Stine. “I wrote 80 of ’em back then, and thought maybe I'd killed off enough teenagers. But you can never kill enough teenagers, right?” Stine and I both chortle joyfully, our twisted minds finally meeting. He explains that, after about 20 Fear Street–free years, during which he wrote other books, he decided it might be fun to journey back to Shadyside. But no publishers were interested, because, as they told Stine, “YA books have changed, they're not like that anymore, that's too old-fashioned.” Fortunately, Stine was on Twitter by that time, where he was getting constant Fear Street–centric requests from his adult fans. “So I just decided to be honest,” he says. “I tweeted, ‘I'm really sorry, but there aren't going to be any more Fear Streets, because publishers don't want it.’” Ten minutes later, St. Martin's editor Kat Brzozowski reached out with an offer.
“I have to say, it took me a while to get used to being nostalgia,” jokes Stine after sharing this story. “Would you want to be nostalgia? I don't think you'd like it. It came as sort of a shock to me. I do book signings, and I have 7-year-olds and 12-year-olds and 30-year-olds. I say, ‘What are you doing here?’” But after last year's Goosebumps movie, which starred Jack Black as a more sinister, Orson Welles–esque version of Stine, made $150 million worldwide and increased his book sales exponentially, “I got used to it,” says Stine. “It only took 23 years to do the movie, because that's when all the ’90s kids grew up. But then they all brought their kids, too. So it worked out all right.” (Stine also recognizes that, as of late, nostalgia is sort of a thing. He's watched the first half of Stranger Things, for example, which he says was “really well-done,” but admits that “my only problem with it is there isn't one new thing in it. There's not one original moment, not one new thought. Which is maybe deliberate.”)
Though Stine has managed to come to terms with inducing sentimentality, he's occasionally thrown off course by the very thing that's helped him stay relevant: technology. He hates that he has to include references to Facebook and iPhones in his books, so he does so as little as possible. “Cell phones have ruined mysteries,” he says. “The old plot where the girl is getting these threatening phone calls — now she looks on the phone, sees who's calling her, the story's over. Or there are 16 kids trapped in a cabin with a murderer, they call from a cell phone, say, ‘Help, we're trapped with a murderer.’ All over.”
He's gotten around this particular roadblock by essentially pretending it doesn't exist. “In Party Games, the first of the new Fear Street books, they're all going to a birthday party on Fear Island. And when they arrive, the host says, ‘OK everyone, give me your cell phones. This is a no-cell-phone weekend,’” says Stine. “Then when they go to get them, they're gone. I had to get 'em out of the way fast, or it ruins everything.” He avoids slang for similar reasons, to keep his stories alive in a kind of time-space vacuum. “The kids are saying ‘seriously’ a lot recently.” He laughs. “‘Seriously?’ At school visits, I hear that all the time.”
For the record, here is the number of words Stine writes in a day: 2,000. That number used to be doubled, he says, before he took to Twitter (“I'm too stupid to turn it off when I write”) and before he got “too old.” Stine writes these words six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 2:30. “It's like factory work,” he says. “Then I quit. No matter where I am.” This schedule means he writes a book about every two weeks. He never gets writer's block because he outlines everything in advance, and because Jane, a principal and founder at Parachute Publishing, takes a critical pen to his notes and his final copy before any of it sees the light of day.
R.L. describes Jane's job, in part, as keeping him humble in the face of his decades of literary fame. She does so by “insulting me, not letting me get away with much,” he says. “Here's her biggest insult: ‘You'll be from Ohio for the rest of your life.’ That's good, huh?” Stine dissolves into laughter. Jane is also particularly good at pointing out when R.L. is repeating himself, something that happens more often now that Stine has written hundreds and hundreds of books. “That's the real challenge now, in writing all of these, is not doing the same stuff over again. She'll say, ‘You already used that title,’” he says. “That's bad, right?”
Potential solutions to this problem manifest themselves in bizarre and occasionally unhelpful ways. “I was writing a Fear Street once, and I had the flu,” says Stine. “And I turned it in to Jane, and she said, ‘Why is every single teenager drinking tea? They're all drinking tea and having hot soup. Every single one.’” Stine starts laughing loudly again. “That wasn't good. That wasn't good.”
The Dead Boyfriend, the newest Fear Street installment, is one of Stine's favorite things he's ever done, partly because it's one of his first forays into meta-horror, a story that concludes with a sort of commentary on itself. “It's really crazy,” says Stine. “It's totally nuts.” Having read The Dead Boyfriend, I can confirm that it goes off the rails somewhere near the end but still hews to the classic Stine structure Jack Black described while playing Stine in the Goosebumps film: “Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the twist.” I ask Stine if this principle is something he thinks about every time he writes. “I actually never said that.” He laughs. “I don't know who wrote it. But I love it, and I say it now all the time.” It's accurate, too. “I write the twist first,” says Stine. “I always have to know the ending so I can keep the readers from getting to it, so I can fool them.”
Stine thinks the twists are what's missing from most of modern horror. “Horror has become too linear, and people don't really think about surprises,” he says. “They know how to do thrills, how to have something jump out at you, somebody stabbing people, blood spurting — but they don't think of having witty moments, or turning things around.” Unsurprisingly, the witty meta-horror films of the aughts are some of Stine's favorites; he specifically name-checks Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods and Orphan, both of which have last-act twists worthy of a Stine novel.
Of course, the aughts also saw the onslaught of torture porn like Hostel and Turistas and The Human Centipede, and I wonder aloud if Stine feels he's had to up the fear factor in his books because of films like these. Stine shakes his head vehemently, explaining that he hates those sorts of movies and doesn't make any effort to engage with them. Nor does he think that they indicate a need for increased scariness. “Fears never change,” he says. “You're afraid of the dark, afraid of a basement, afraid of going somewhere you've never been. That never changes.”
Because of basic truths like these, Stine is optimistic that his books will keep trumping Snapchat. “These books are mainly reading motivation. I want kids to know that they can turn to books. A lot of people are really pessimistic about it — ‘Oh, kids aren't reading anymore, they're just looking at screens.’ But look at the children's book business. It's a billion-dollar industry. When I started, it was so small, the children's division would be in the back of the company. Now they make all the cash for the publishers. Somebody's buying all these children's books!”
I ask Stine if he's afraid of anything, knowing that he's traditionally said no to this question but wondering if he's evolved (or devolved, as it were) in this particular way. He says no. “Horror makes me laugh,” he says. “There's something missing in my brain.”
At my request, Stine gives me one last whirl around the apartment, and we stop by the living room, where Jane and R.L.'s nephew are sitting alongside a sleeping Minnie. I want to confirm with Jane that something is, in fact, missing from R.L.'s brain, because I can't believe a human could be alive in the age of Harambe memes and not fear anything. Jane confirms that R.L. is, in fact, afraid of nothing.
I tell her this is impressive, but both disagree with me. “It's weird,” says R.L. Then Jane relents a bit. “I suppose he's afraid of things that aren't scary, like all of us are,” she says. “You know the most unusual thing about Bob? Most writers like having written, but they don't really like writing, because it's really hard. He actually likes writing. He really does enjoy the process. That's very, very special, and very lucky for him.”
This reminds me of something R.L. said just before we left his office, something I didn't register as a “fear” until Jane's reframing. “I've never set a book in New York City,” he told me. “It's kind of a superstition. I started out thinking that, since most kids had never been here, they couldn't picture it. But I just never have since.” I'd asked him what he thought might happen if he did set a book here. “I don't know!” he'd said. “You don't ride elevators; I don't do books in New York.” It all makes sense to me, suddenly: Stine's only fear is of losing that lucky, special something.
Satisfied to have finally found a common phobic ground, I say my goodbyes. R.L. asks me if I “seriously want to take the stairs all the way down,” and I say that I do.
I take the stairs down to the first floor, push one door open, then find myself stranded between that one and the door leading to the street. I shove the second door as hard as I can, but it won't open. Panic begins to settle in. “Uh, how do I get out?” I ask aloud, to no one in particular.
Suddenly, there's Elliot again, appearing next to me as if he'd oozed straight out of the walls. “You met Stine?” he says, eyes gleaming. “Yeah,” I say, startled. “Isn't he the best?” he effuses. “I've worked here 23 years. I brought my kids to meet him when they were little and they freaked out. They're in their thirties now. He's such a nice guy. Did you get a signed book?” I tell him I didn't, and didn't think to ask. “Tell you what, I'll ask him for one for you,” Elliot says, effortlessly pushing the door in front of me wide open.
I walk out onto the cold sunlit street. Before I can turn around to thank him again, he's gone.