“I don’t understand why I’m popular,” RL Stine quipped, recalling a book signing at Gramercy Books this past October where the line was three blocks long and the police had to close the street. But he is popular, wildly popular, with readers across the county, and of all ages. And we do mean all ages.
Known first for his ineffably-popular series of children’s horror books, Goosebumps, it might surprise you to know that the author actually cut his teeth in the world of humor. But there’s another fact about Stine that’s likely even more disarming to local readers.
Even before writing for Ohio State University’s publication, The Sundial Humor Magazine in the 1960s, Stine got his start just east of Downtown Columbus, in Bexley.
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“I’m trying to remember my 614 phone number. You know, they had exchanges when I was a kid in Bexley and it was Evergreen 7042,” he said. “How do I remember that?”
Even after more than sixty years, some parts of home are still fresh to the author, Like the house he grew up in.
“I lived on the very last block of North Columbia from the railroad track. It was in this tiny little white brick house, five of us jammed in, and we were very poor, on the edge of this very wealthy community. And two blocks from our house was the governor’s mansion over on Parkview.
“We used to trick or treat at the governor’s mansion on Halloween,” he recalled. “They gave out apples, and we’d get furious, furious, and we’d just take them, heave them down the driveway, roll them down the driveway. I don’t know why we bothered to go.”
While his sense of humor served him well throughout his life, Stine wasn’t particularly social as a boy. “I was a very shy, very shy kid,” he admitted. “It was weird being poor in Bexley. I was very self-conscious about it, so I didn’t hang out that much.”
What he did do was ride his bike, write stories and jokes, read comic books, and watch movies. Every Saturday morning, Stine and his brother could be found at the Drexel Theatre to watch “Tom and Jerry’s” cartoons and a horror movie. “I saw all the great horror movies, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and It Walks Among Us and Creature From the Black Lagoon,” he recalled. “They had to be very influential, of course.”
And then there were the comic books: Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. “They were really bloody, disgusting comics, and I loved them,” Stine said. “I just loved them. But I wasn’t allowed to bring them in the house. My mother stopped me at the door; she said ‘We can’t have these. These are trash.’ That’s where I began to realize how good trash could be.”
So, every Saturday morning, Stine would also visit the barber shop, where a big stack of those comics waited. “I would get a haircut so I could read these comic books. I had less hair when I was a kid than I do now,” he said, laughing.
One day, visiting the Bexley Public Library, he found the librarian waiting for him. “Bobby, I know you like comic books,” she said. “I have something else I think you’ll like.” And she led him to a shelf of books by Ray Bradbury.
“I couldn’t believe how great they were,” Stine said. “They’re so beautifully written and so imaginative, and they all had great twist endings. Ray Bradbury turned me into a reader, and that librarian really, really changed my life.”
His real ambition, though, was to have his own humor magazine. After high school, he enrolled at Ohio State to study English, but he felt the program had little to offer him. He admits that he probably actually majored in “beer and pizza.” Instead of going to class, he poured all of his energy into The Sundial Humor Magazine, which was staffed by OSU students, and spent three years as its editor.
“I learned how to work with people. I learned how to have a staff. I learned how to get a magazine out every month. I learned everything. It was invaluable,” he said.
In those days, the editor of The Sundial received 23% of its profits, Stine said. He turned it into a profitable magazine, by his own count, and it paid his way to New York after graduation.
From there, he embarked on a career in humor and, eventually, horror writing that eventually led to the Goosebumps series in the early 1990s.
“I was 49 when we started Goosebumps,” he recalled. “I had been writing for 20 years and nobody had noticed. That’s the truth. And I think to have that kind of success, that kind of amazing sales suddenly where a book just takes off all over the world, I think that was so exhilarating that it kept me going.” For a few years, Stine was turning out one Goosebumps book and one Fear Street young adult horror book every month.
If the settings in Goosebumps feel familiar for Columbus locals, there’s a good reason. “It’s like Bexley,” Stine admitted. “I grew up there, and that was my childhood. That’s how I pretty much picture [their settings].”
While there are a lot of books—62 in the original series and more than 250 riffs on them in total—Stine’s favorite of the Goosebumps books is probably The Haunted Mask. “Carly Beth wants to be scary and puts on this scary green mask, and it sticks to her face and becomes part of her, and she can’t get it off, and it turns her evil. I think that’s my best. Best of the Halloween books anyway,” he said. He went on to admit that the first book in the series, Welcome to Dead House, was much too scary for young audiences, but he quickly learned how to break up the scary parts with funny material.
He’s far away from his time writing for humor magazines, but for Stine, the parallels between humor and horror come naturally. “Writing Goosebumps is like writing punchlines,” he explained. “It’s the same visceral reaction. If you sneak up behind anybody and you go ‘Boo!’, what’s the first thing they do? They gasp, right? And they laugh. Or you go to a roller coaster, hear people screaming and laughing at the same time—it’s all the same.”
“I never get scared at things,” he continued. “There’s something missing in me. I always thought horror was funny. When you go to a horror film, and something awful is happening, I’m the one laughing. People come to me, they say ‘I had to leave all the lights on, I had to lock my doors after I read your book.’ I’ve never had that feeling. I don’t know what that is.”
Still, he believes that reading horror is scarier than watching it. A story is more intimate and real when it’s happening in your own head.
One of the hardest parts of the author’s job, he says, is switching between audiences, especially with younger readers. “You have to spend a lot of time spying on kids just to see what they wear now, what electronics they’re using, and what their haircuts are, and, their language, the way they talk, the music,” he said. “That’s a really important part of the job, trying to keep up a little bit. You don’t want to sound like some old guy.”
With a dizzying array of works that includes everything from The Sundial to 1970s Bananas Magazine to more recent works like the new Goosebumps House of Shivers series, horror comics for adults, a children’s picture book about monsters, and even a few funny Garbage Pail Kids books, Stine’s audience over the past sixty years is vast.
While the beloved author has made New York his permanent home, he does come back to Columbus quite a bit. Even having frozen Rubino’s pepperoni pizza overnighted to his home in New York (he always has a stack of them in his freezer, he said) doesn’t replace the real thing. Besides, he has ties here. He funds an annual scholarship for a creative writing student at OSU, as well as a two-week-long writing workshop in all three Bexley elementary schools. He does speaking engagements, book signings, and school visits. His impact on readers will last for generations, and, for that reason, his popularity is, in fact, very understandable.
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