Entertainment March 2012

Horror for Kids

How Goosebumps outlasted Harry Potter by terrifying fourth-graders and mocking their parents
Zohar Lazar

In the very, very near future, everyone—you, me, Barbara Kingsolver, V. S. Naipaul—will write a zombie novel. Julian Barnes? Booker Prize–winning zombie novelist. The tremulous laptop-tickler at your local Starbucks? Working on a zombie novel. It was Colson Whitehead who showed us the way last year, with his book Zone One, in which an armed-to-the-teeth narrator picks his way through zombie-toppled America, limpidly recalling the zombificent TV shows, the zombificent jobs, the general setting-in of obsolescence and undead vibes that preceded the actual zombie apocalypse. Brainy prose, the damned in hordes: Whitehead, a MacArthur genius, had dived dazzlingly off the parapet of highbrow and into a pile of zombies. We rejoiced, and reviewed Zone One very favorably; some of us even bought ourselves a copy. And in our excitement, we entirely failed to notice the publication of Why I Quit Zombie School, by R. L. Stine (aka “Jovial Bob Stine”), who, over the course of his career, has sold more than 350 million books.

It’s true that Why I Quit Zombie School does not perform at quite the level of Zone One. We do not find Stine, for example, describing his zombies as “muddle-minded and peckish.” He sketches in broader strokes: “Behind me, they grunted and groaned as they forced their dead legs forward.” Or: “No blood. The leg cracked off, but the boy didn’t bleed.” Then again, it should be noted that his readership is in fourth grade. Goosebumps, the absurdly successful series under whose umbrella Why I Quit Zombie School appeared, is aimed without mercy at 9- and 10-year-olds. Precocious second- or third-graders may be interested, as may fifth- or even sixth-graders with a retro sensibility. But fourth grade—that’s the demographic bull’s-eye.

Goosebumps celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The scale of Stine’s production—the Day-Glo sprawl of it, the trashy superfluity—is hard to get one’s head around. Between 1992, when he inaugurated the franchise with Welcome to Dead House, and 1997, no fewer than 93 brightly colored Goosebumps books and spin-offs were published. Ninety-three books in five years! The titles were glorious, a B-movie bonanza: Vampire Breath, Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes, Egg Monsters From Mars. Each about 120 pages long, and constructed (for the most part) according to the same horror-cheese specifications: Two kids, the narrator and his or her bratty younger sibling, are sent to a new school, or move to a new neighborhood, or visit their grandparents in a swamp. (Sometimes a beloved dog—Petey or Barky—accompanies them.) Thus displaced, they come under attack from some hallowed strain of low-budget weirdness—a witchy old woman, say, or a shuffling monster—of whose reality they have difficulty convincing their parents. Their parents literally cannot see what is going on. In Chicken Chicken, Crystal and her brother, Cole, offend a local sorceress, who puts them under a chicken curse. Crystal’s lips distend and harden into the beginnings of a beak. “Yuck!” comments her mother. “Those are really chapped!”

The tone of the Goosebumps books is boisterous and grotesque, the language plain but vivid (“A flash of lightning made his bald onion head glow”), the narrative spring-loaded with sleights and teases: The hand laid horrifically upon the narrator’s shoulder at the end of Chapter 6, for example, will often be revealed at the beginning of Chapter 7 to belong to the bratty younger sibling. Or … it was all a dream! (Cheap chicanery for us, but a white-knuckle ride—let’s not forget—for a 9-year-old.) Moreover, there are few happy endings: the standard Goosebumps story concludes, rather, with a gelatin-wobble of Roald Dahl–esque irresolution, as another spell is cast, or the narrator’s parents explain that they are vampires, or the ventriloquist’s doll rasps into villainous autonomous speech.

The first five years of Goosebumps were the Golden Age. As fast as Stine could bang the books out (eight days to write a book, he once claimed), the kids in their millions snapped them up. Tim Jacobus’s glowing cover art, sumptuous as a daydream, didn’t hurt. A Goosebumps TV series was made and blasted around the globe: the avidity of the Goosebumps consumer appeared to be without limit. Then a squabble over merchandising rights coincided eerily with the onset of the Harry Potter Age, and the brand tanked. (When the newly depressed sales figures were announced in February 1997, Goosebumps’ publisher, Scholastic, lost 40 percent of its market value overnight.) But Stine resurged with more series: Goosebumps Series 2000, Goosebumps HorrorLand, and lately Goosebumps Hall of Horrors, of which Why I Quit Zombie School is No. 4. Next month sees the publication of The Birthday Party of No Return, the 170th (I think) Goosebumps title. The brand lives on: you don’t have to look far in any school or public library for a goblin’s hoard of Goosebumps books, and fourth grade quivers afresh, year after year, with the frissons of new Goosebumpers and Goosebumpettes.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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