November 4, 2014

R.L. Stine at McNally Jackson


R. L. Stine (via Wikipedia)

R. L. Stine (via Wikipedia)

The crowded downstairs space at McNally Jackson Books in New York City on Thursday October 30, 2014 was a mismatched crowd of 20- and 30-somethings, and young elementary school children and their parents, all huddled together talking furtively amongst themselves and tapping their toes impatiently for the man of the hour to appear. What or who could have brought this motley crew together in such a confined space, you ask? Ultimately, fear, but more specifically, the one man legend of horror books written for children and teenagers: R.L. Stine. Over the last 25 years, Stine has brought horror books to life for a younger audience—he started publishing in 1989—and his popularity hasn’t waned since. Last Thursday I got the pleasure of listening to him speak about his inspiration and the joy it brings him to scare the piss out of young kids and teenagers alike–what a treat.

Growing up in the 1990’s, if you weren’t reading R.L. Stine, you were clearly the most uncool elementary/middle school student alive. Even the kids who didn’t like to read read these books and participated in the almost cult like following that R.L. Stine conjured from his innate talent of scaring children. I loved the Goosebumps books when I was a little bit younger, but the year I was finally allowed to read Fear Street was the best year of my life (ok, I might be exaggerating, but it was still pretty awesome). The Fear Street books scared me more than I care to admit but for some reason, I kept going back to them. I just loved reading about the teens of Shadyside High: the mysterious girlfriends who didn’t actually exist; violent threatening phone calls telling a girl to cancel a party “…or else”; people being stalked; parents going missing; murders; kidnappings and so much more. Sadly, after writing over 50 Fear Street books, Stine stopped in 2005. Fear Street was gone, but not for long: the teens of Shadyside High returned in September in a new Fear Street book, Party Games.

Fear Street’s return has created quite the stir amongst fans of R.L. Stine. In fact, the entire comeback was a result of an unofficial Twitter campaign launched by older fans who remembered reading the Fear Street books when they were younger. As Stine explained during his appearance at McNally Jackson with his new St. Martin’s editor Kat Brzozowski, he loves Twitter, so it was the perfect excuse to start the series again. You know what else R.L. Stine loves? Fan mail from the kids, teenagers, and adults who love his books. Or, in the case of some kids who write to Stine, the people who don’t love his books but keep reading them anyways.

Bob (as his editor and the booksellers at McNally Jackson call him) had a great time on Thursday recounting some of his favorite fan mail, including one where a young boy wrote to him: “Dear R.L. Stine, I have read 40 of your books and I thought they were all boring.” Bob had a number of these memorized and laughed as he told the audience about each of them. He also, somewhat worryingly, enjoyed remembering his favorite gruesome Fear Street scenes from past books, including one where a character reaches into a garbage disposal and someone flips the switch without his knowledge, rendering his hand a useless bloody stump (I remember this scene and still won’t put my hand down a garbage disposal. Ever. Seriously, scarred for life). He had tales from his years of writing, both funny and poignant, just as you would expect from an author with the longevity of Mr. Stine, and was happy to share them all. When asked about why he “likes killing teenagers” he alluded to the potential that having a teenager of his own at home could have been a contributing factor, especially one who refused to read anything that his father wrote, but continuously asked him to include characters resembling his friends in each story. (Bob is convinced his son was selling character placement for money at school).

Along with inspiration from moody teenagers, Bob also attributes his love of writing to his introduction to the work of some wonderful authors in his very young years. He cites Ray Bradbury as having been a huge influence  and even told the story of meeting the man once at a book conference after he had established himself as well-known author. Bob’s wife forced him to go say hello when he saw Bradbury eating a hot dog in a publishers booth and so, pushing aside his nerves, he went up to the author and immediately blurted out “Mr. Bradbury, you’re my hero!” Apparently, after recovering from the somewhat embarrassing opening line, Bradbury and Stine had a wonderful conversation in which Bradbury assured Bob that he too was a wonderful author and important influence for his readers.

Bob ended the evening at McNally Jackson by taking questions from the crowd. The youngsters wanted to know what his favorite Goosebumps monster was and the adults wanted to know what it was like writing Fear Street after an eight year hiatus. His response? To the kids: King Jellyjam from The Horror of Camp JellyJam, because he was so smelly. And to the adults? Not much has changed. Cell phones and technology render some situations different for the characters of Shadyside High, but the fear is the same. People are still afraid of the dark, afraid of being chased, afraid of the unknown and as long as he can keep writing to those fears, he can keep scaring his readers, both young and old alike.