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.

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.”