Entertainment March 2012

Horror for Kids

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

How has Stine kept them on the hook? How did Goosebumps—goofily unfantastic, for all its supernatural elements—survive the mass swerve into wizard-waffle, into the 700-page overdose of Horcruxes and tottering syntax, triggered by the boy magus Harry Potter? There are no salvational allegories or cosmic showdowns in Beware of the Purple Peanut Butter. No, the secret of Goosebumps’ longevity, I suspect, is in passages like this one, from Attack of the Mutant:

I pulled the juice box from my lunch bag. Then I tossed the apple in the trash. I keep telling Mom not to pack an apple. I told her I just throw it away every day. Why does she keep packing one?

Because she loves you, you little snot. But our hero, young Skipper Matthews—a comic-book collector who characterizes himself as a “dark, chubby mole”—is not to know this, of course. Like most of the Goosebumps narrators, he communicates in the catchy and well-beloved American idiom of my-parents-are-crazy, an idiom that was defined by Holden Caulfield, that achieved a punk-operatic paroxysm in 1983 with Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” (“And she goes ‘What’s the matter with you?’ And I go ‘There’s nothing wrong, Mom!’ She goes ‘Don’t tell me that! You’re on drugs!’”), and that is currently being enjoyed by readers of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Stine’s enviable rapport with his audience and high-speed recycling of carnivalesque horror tropes has led, naturally enough, to comparisons with Stephen King—“the Stephen King of children’s literature,” and so on. And indeed his Night of the Living Dummy pays special homage to the master, as the twins Kris and Lindy come across their mother “in bed, reading a Stephen King novel.” The engrossed Mrs. Powell utters “a short cry” as her two daughters loom toward her. “Oh. You startled me. This is such a scary book, and I think I was about to fall asleep.” What could Mrs. Powell be reading? Cujo? Carrie? Or something from King’s glinting meta-textual side, one of those books like The Dark Half in which an author is possessed by his own alter ego? Transgressions of this nature are not unknown in the Goosebumps oeuvre. In Attack of the Mutant, Skipper finds himself crossing over into one of his comic books and finally (squeal of terrified strings) bleeding ink. And in last year’s The Five Masks of Dr.Screem, Monica Anderson and her (sigh) annoying little brother tremble to discover themselves written about, their every action anticipated, in a yellowed tome called The Hallows Book.

Wait a second: Hallows? Are they, by any chance, deathly? Could Stine, shameless impresario, be making a late grab for the Potter crowd? The maleficence of Dr. Screem is Voldemortian, un-Goosebumps-ian, in scale. (“‘Screem is all evil,’ she said. ‘His evil is beyond anything we know.’”) Well, we all must chase our readers, or lumber after them. Goosebumps, past its prime, lurches on, feeding on pop-cultural scraps, the formula unchanged. Readers will continue to prize their tattered stashes of Goosebumps titles (until they grow out of them), and now and again, as if by accident, an image of pure, horrifying American desolation will occur, an image worthy of Colson Whitehead. “I stayed at the curb,” narrates Monica in Dr.Screem, “and watched him ring the doorbell. A girl in a Dora the Explorer costume appeared at the door. Shivering, I hugged myself.”

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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