by AURORA ROJER
Robert Lawrence Stine is winning. Literally. With his ghosts, werewolves, monkeys in lab coats, and cursed Halloween masks, the author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series bestowed nightmares and fantasies for an entire generation of children—and made bank in the process. His books have sold over 400 million copies in 32 languages worldwide and in 1997, Stine placed 36th on Forbes List of 40 best-paid entertainers with an income of $41 million for the fiscal year. USA Today named him America’s Number One Best-Selling Author for three years straight during the nineties, and Stine even won a Guinness World Record for being the best-selling children’s book series author of all time—a title he held, until some British upstart purloined this badge of honor with a series about wizards. So what is it that makes Stine so special?
First is sheer volume. Stine has written at least 379 books and is still going strong; he claims in an interview with the Village Voice that “at one point I was doing a novel every two weeks. I had two series going … Now I do seven Goosebumps a year, and that’s a lot.” Everyone born after 1980 has read at least one of these books although, more than likely, they’ve read somewhere around 12.
Stine learned how to churn out print at his first job out of college. He worked for a woman who owned six magazines about movie stars but never went to the movies and, as he describes it, “never left her apartment and dressed in a brown robe.” Stine’s job was to make up interviews with celebrities. “I’d come in in the morning and she’d say, do a [made up] interview with Diana Ross. I’d say okay and type type type. She’d then say, do an interview with The Beatles. They were sold as real interviews. No one ever complained in those days. You learned to write really fast. I had to write five or six interviews a day.”
But Stine does not work alone; his wife Jane is his editor and another factor allowing him to embrace the scary story machine that he is. As Stine puts it, “the only thing we fight about [is] plots. Nothing gets past her. She finds holes in the plots and always thinks of better stuff. I’ve never been right. I’ve been married 40 years and have never won a bet. She’s always right.” Jane is also a writer, causing many to wonder if the two have ever tried to write together. They have, but, as Stine recounts, “She locked me in a closet and left the apartment, that’s how bad it got. We didn’t collaborate after that.” Perhaps those furry green paws on the cover of How to Kill a Monster are based on true events.
Another key to his success is that Stine is funny. Whether it’s an annoying little sister who gets kidnapped by aliens or a monster with overactive mucus membranes, Stine knows how to get his readers laughing. He actually got his start writing humor, not horror. At age nine, he created his own humor magazines, typed up on a clunky typewriter and distributed beneath desks when the teacher’s back was turned in class. He then wrote a humor column for his high school’s newspaper and, while attending Ohio State University, he edited and contributed to a humor magazine under the pseudonym Jovial Bob. Stine keeps up his humor for his older fans with his hilarious twitter, tweeting gems such as, “Was I swindled? Someone sold me a set of e-ashtrays to go with my e-cigarettes” and “Am thinking of turning to a life of crime. Does anyone know where there are any internships?”
His humor also helps balance out the scary in his books. One of Stine’s greatest talents is making a story just scary enough that you have to bite your lip as you turn the page, but not scary enough to induce permanent damage. Besides the comic relief, Stine explains that he does so to “make sure that the kids know that these books are fantasies. I keep the real world out. So, I don’t do real serious subjects. I don’t even have divorced parents. I wouldn’t do child abuse, or drugs. I wouldn’t do anything in the real world. They have to know that these are just fantasies and that they’re not really happening. Once you’ve established that, you can get pretty scary.”
Naturally, some adults have still expressed that they believe his books are too much. People have complained that his series is too scary, too violent, poorly written, depicting occult or satanic themes, and even that it might provoke harmful thoughts or behavior and encourage disrespect for people and property. But Stine brushes off this criticism like a monster shakes off lagoon slime. He explains, “People who go after violent things for kids just don’t like kids. People are always trying to punish kids, and if there’s something kids really like, people will find something bad about it.” In contrast, Stine is “always in favor of good violent things. I think violence is good for kids and good for people. It gets it out. I also think that even kids know the difference between real violence and fantasy violence.” This respect for kids surely explains the hoards of elementary school students who keep buying, reading, and trading his books.
Another reason Stine is so successful is that he genuinely loves his fans. And when he isn’t busy spreading the joy of fear through his books, Stine responds to every piece of fan mail he receives. All of them. So if he’s a robot (very likely), at least he’s a robot with a heart. Some of his favorite letters include, “Dear R. L. Stine, I love your books. Your family and friends are proud of you, no matter what anybody says,” and “Dear R. L. Stine, you are my second-favorite author.” (“That was it, no explanation.”)
And—last but not least, Stine is legendary because he knows how to stay relevant. Not only is he still writing (new novels as well as tweets), but he’s also about to win a lifetime achievement award from the Horror Writer’s Association (apparently a very big deal) and watch his work hit the silver screen in 2016, with Jack Black slated to star in a Goosebumps movie. You can also catch Victoria Justice starring in MTV’s new TV drama adaptation of Stine’s Eye Candy. But even if Stine had faded into nineties oblivion along with Tamagotchis and Furbies, he still would have been relevant—Stine got a generation of kids bogged down by Nintendo 64s and Gameboy Colors to look up from their screens and grab a book. He got kids who had previously only read for school to stay up late with a flashlight under the covers. Stine opened up the world of reading to millions who may not have found it otherwise—and to the rest of us, he threw wide the gates of our imaginations and let us run free with the monsters and the slime and the talking dummies. He got us to face our fears and to laugh at them in the face. So, thank you for that, Robert Lawrence Stine. We’re not afraid of the dark anymore.