NEW YORK -- R.L. Stine, the most successful horror writer you've never heard of, is dressed in black today, trying to live up to his terrifying reputation. It's a tricky act for a nice Midwestern guy with glasses, receding hairline and a pleasant smile.
And it's not even close to his young fans' expectations, which run toward a monstrous visage -- maybe one more eye, or a few less teeth. But you have to work with what you've got, and in Mr. Stine's case, that's black clothes, a plastic skeleton he keeps in his office and his shadowy initials.
"The kids want to meet someone more like Dracula," Mr. Stine shrugs. Or someone less like Dad, at least. Yet Mr. Stine's distressingly normal appearance doesn't keep him from being mobbed at book stores, or put off the thousands of kids who write each month, desperate to know everything about the mind behind such classics as "It Came from Beneath the Kitchen Sink" and "Go Eat Worms!"
If you don't have children, Mr. Stine is probably a complete mystery. And even parents who have watched their children devouring his series books, "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street," might not realize how large an empire can be built on one man's fervid imagination.
Mr. Stine has long enjoyed a kind of invisible success, his books flying off the shelves well beneath the radar of many traditional best-seller lists. That changed last year with USA Today's weekly list of 150, which lumps all books together on the basis of sales -- no dis-tinction between paperback and hardback, fiction or nonfiction, adult or children's books.
Now Mr. Stine has two or three books in the top 50 in a typical week, and he's no stranger to the No. 1 spot. He claims an estimated 90 million books in print, although it's hard to keep count, because they keep coming at a rate of two a month, 24 a year, with sales of more than 1.25 million per month.
"Fear Street," for the junior high school crowd, was his first series. But it was "Goosebumps," launched in 1992 for grade school kids, that propelled Mr. Stine to his current superstar status.
Consider this recent scene in the Gallery mall at the Inner Harbor. A group of Catholic school students from St. William of York, downtown for a field trip to the National Aquarium, rushed into B. Dalton to see if the newest Mr. Stine book had hit the shelves.
"They are horror, but you know they're fake, and you really get hooked," explains Robert Perilla, 11, who buys at least one of Mr. Stine's books every month. "You have to finish them before you go to bed."
Spinoffs of "Goosebumps" have followed, but Mr. Stine finally had to relinquish the writing duties for those. "I can't write more than two a month," he says, almost apologetically.
2,000 letters a month
He also apologizes for not reading all his fan mail, which requires a staff of five. He receives 2,000 letters a month from his fans, and to a child, they ask the same questions, in the same order. Dear R.L. Stine: What does R.L. stand for? (Robert Lawrence.) How old are you? (52 as of this month.) How much money do you make? (A lot.)
There's a Fox television version of "Goosebumps," which began airing last week, and a fan club with all the attendant merchandising opportunities. His first adult novel, published this fall by Warner Books, earned Mr. Stine $1 million and a movie deal.
Of course, he needed more than two weeks to write this tale of a literal demon lover -- four months of outlining and three months of writing, with no time-outs from his regular monthly output of "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street."
"Superstitious" began with the title, suggested by his 15-year-old son, Matt, as he listened to the Stevie Wonder song of the same name. Mr. Stine worked backward from the title, his usual method, filling in details. A small college in Pennsylvania, a beautiful young woman on the run from a bad relationship, a beguiling professor -- and, oh yes, a series of gruesome murders.
The body count starts early. By Page 7, the reader has been treated to a scene in which a young woman is scalped. The description of what follows is at once clinical and rather homey in its choice of images: "Her eyeballs make a soft plop plop as they are pried out. The top of her head feels pulpy, like wet paper towels."
The reviews have provided a different kind of horror. "Breathless, brain-dead," according to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "May be the most incredibly bad book ever written," pronounced the Dayton Daily News. At least Mr. Stine's hometown paper, the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, gave him a relatively gentle review: "Choppy but glib could use a good deal more humor."
" 'Superstitious' has gotten killed," Mr. Stine admits, laughing.
"But you know, it's very hard for a children's writer to cross over," he adds. "A lot have tried, and I can't think of any who have succeeded. Even Judy Blume tried it. So I didn't expect it to be taken seriously."
If reviewers aren't taking him seriously, fiction writer Diana West is. In a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, the new conservative magazine, the cover featured a tombstone, with this epitaph: "Here lies Children's Literature, Murdered by R.L. Stine, America's Best-Selling Author."
Ms. West writes: "Shock fiction launches a beginning reader, pinball style, into a vapid quest for actual physical gratification, a bodily experience of accelerated pulse rates and queasy stomachs. And so, reading becomes a crude tool of physical stimulation, wholly devoid of mental, emotional or spiritual engagement."
Take that, "Monster Blood" and "Monster Blood II." Again, Mr. Stine just laughs, and declines to pick up the gauntlet.
The reading habit
"It's not harsh, in that it's so silly," he says. "First of all, the kids who write to me, they're not just reading, they're reading and reading and reading. They've developed a reading habit."
Sammie Allen, youth services coordinator at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, says plenty of children come to the library intent on finding the next book in the series. "But if it's not there," she says, "it does give us an opportunity to introduce them to other books. The vital thing is, he addresses their needs."
The simple fact is, some kids read only Mr. Stine's books, while others are more eclectic in their tastes. The aforementioned Robert Perilla, for example, says he reads nothing but "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street." But Andrew Huff, a fourth-grader at Cathedral School, is omnivorous, devouring everything from Mr. Stine's books to classics like "Treasure Island" and "Little Women."
"I didn't really think these books were so cool at first, but I gave myself a chance to read them and really liked them," Andrew says of the "Goosebumps" series. "I like reading mystery, action, adventure, the Hardy Boys. I'm a really good reader."
Mr. Stine discovered his own r ea ding habit while growing up in Bexley, a well-to-do Columbus suburb. His family was poor by local standards, living three doors from the railroad tracks yet only two blocks from the governor's mansion.
Bobby, as he was known then, began writing at age 9. A lover of comic books, he wrote joke books, which he also illustrated. Later, at Ohio State University, he edited the campus humor magazine.
When he graduated, he moved to New York -- to Greenwich Village, because that's where would-be writers went in 1965. A ++ life-long lover of magazines, he found work at everything from a fan magazine to a soft drink publication. Now that was horrifying.
"I wrote articles about new syrups and flip-top cans and new kinds of openers. I'd go to bottling conventions," he recalls. "It was a horrible year."
He ended up working for Scholastic Books, editing Bananas, a Mad-like humor magazine for young people. The magazine had a long run, but when the end was in sight, a Scholastic editor suggested he try horror books for young people. "Blind Date," published in 1986, was a best seller.
Wife and editor
From there, it was a short trip to "Fear Street," now approaching 60 entries. His wife of 26 years, Jane, works on that series as part of her role at Parachute Press, which also produces "Goosebumps" for Scholastic. (They and Matt share their modest Upper West Side apartment with a King Charles spaniel, Nadine. But they plan to move to a larger apartment, thanks to "Superstitious.")
"Oh it's hard being married to your editor," Mr. Stine mock-complains. "We have all these fights about 'Fear Street.' It's always about plots. And she's always right."
While the "Fear Street" books do include slayings, they are not as graphic as the murders in "Superstitious." The "Goosebumps" books are gentler still, scary in a reassuring way. A ghost is glimpsed, but vanishes without hurting anyone. The evil camera claims only one victim, a man who dies of fright.
While "Goosebumps" seemed a logical extension of the "Fear Street" franchise when it started three years ago, no one realized how big it was going to be. That's because Mr. Stine and his publishers assumed "Goosebumps," like most series, would be read primarily by girls. But boys loved them, too, doubling the potential audience.
"Goosebumps" are so popular that they have inspired parodies, written under the pen name of R.U. Slime. "Say Cheese and Die," for example, a story about a spooky camera, became "Eat Cheese and Barf," which is more interested in lactose intolerance than ghostly inhabitants.
But R.U. Slime is not as prolific as Mr. Stine. Who is? "You'd cry if you saw my schedule," says Mr. Stine, who pays sly tribute to the super-productive Joyce Carol Oates in "Superstitious." He likes to say his five-city book tour for "Superstitious" has put him a week behind -- for life. A week, after all, equals half a "Goosebumps."
Detailed outlines account for his speed, although many still refuse to believe he has written all the "Fear Street" and "Goosebumps" books on his own. When Mr. Stine applied for a co-op apartment in New York recently, the board wanted to know if his staff of 25 would be dropping by every day. Nope, the only bodies in my office are me and Nadine, Mr. Stine explained. (And the skeleton, of course.)
Those who accept him as the author of all the books that bear his name believe he must have a secret formula that allows him to churn out prose so quickly. "I wish I had a formula," he says. "It would make it so much easier."
Which brings us, inevitably, to the other question every child asks R.L. Stine: Where do you get your ideas?
It's not a question Mr. Stine particularly likes. Perhaps it's because it requires him to look a gift horse squarely in the mouth.
"Where do I get my ideas?" he sighs. "Where do you get your
ideas? I have to have ideas. I have to have 24 a year. I just have to and so far, I've been really lucky. Every time I sit down and I need one, I get one. One day, maybe, I'll sit down and need one and that will be it."
Already, rumors are afoot that his retirement may be sooner, rather than later. His young readers worry the adult book will mean the end of "Goosebumps." One very specific rumor had Mr. Stine quitting at No. 36, although No. 37 is already done and No. 38 is under way. Why No. 36? Why did a previous generation think "Abbey Road" played backward revealed the chant: "Paul is dead?"
The Beatles comparison is not so far-fetched. On the road to promote "Superstitious," Mr. Stine was one of the top draws at bookstores, largely because children dragged their parents to see him. In Dallas, Mr. Stine says, a little boy presented with a signed bookplate told his mother: "I'm the luckiest man in the world." He says little girls shake in his presence, and apparently not from fright. He caused a traffic jam in his hometown.
All heady stuff. But people have a way of keeping you down to earth. On a trip back to his old school in Columbus, Mr. Stine was introduced by his kindergarten teacher, Miss Barbara, who told the students: "He isn't R.L. to me, he'll always be my Bobby."
"Oh, it was awful," he says. "Here I am, supposed to be the horrifying R.L. Stine, and she calls me Bobby."
That's about as bad as it gets in the real world of R.L. Stine, as opposed to his fictional world, where even cheerleaders are evil. He is, he says, "the least bitter person you'll ever meet." And why not?
"I've achieved everything I've ever wanted to do," he says. "More. All I ever wanted in life was to have my own national humor magazine and I had that when I was 28. Everything else has been extra. You can't plan for success like this. It's like winning the lottery."
It's like winning the lottery by playing the number 13, over and over again.