The run-up to Halloween sees a horde of books and films aiming to terrify: “Sinister” and “Paranormal Activity 4″ are drawing moviegoers with promises of gore and suspense. Justin Cronin’s “The Twelve” and Patricia Cornwell’s “Bone Bed” are flying off bookshelves into the hands of those hankering for scary stories. Add to their ranks a giant of the genre with his latest: R. L. Stine is treating fans to yet another of his horrifying tales. But you’ll want to wait until the kids have gone to bed to dig into “Red Rain”—rounding out his extensive young adult and children’s book oeuvre, Stine’s latest is for adults. He spoke to Bookish about why he set his scary sights on grown-ups this time.
Bookish: Why did you decide it was time to scare adults?
R.L. Stine: Here’s the real truth: Like most everything I have done in my career, I wrote it because someone asked me to. I started writing horror because an editor said, “Can you write a teen horror novel?” I said yes, even though I had never read a single teen horror book. Then another editor suggested that I write a teen horror series, and I said it was a bad idea. But I did it, and that was my YA series “Fear Street.” Same thing with “Goosebumps.” I thought it was a bad idea to compete with “Fear Street.” But I did the new series and it worked out fine. “Red Rain”–same story. Someone asked me to write an adult book, but this time it wasn’t an editor. I wrote this book because my readers who loved “Goosebumps” and “Fear Street” when they were kids are now grown up, and they sent me so many letters and emails asking for a book for them that I couldn’t say no anymore.
Bookish: Was “Red Rain” harder for you to write than teen fiction?
R.L.S.: Mostly, it was very different for me. It was like a runner who has always been a sprinter who then decides to try a marathon. Your training and skills are useful but you need new shoes. You have to train yourself to follow a different rhythm. You use new muscles. You have a new regimen and a new mindset, and all of that is a challenge. But, I have to admit that after writing so many books for kids, I did have fun writing the world’s most evil kids.
Bookish: Some scenes are very gruesome. Is there a line you don’t cross?
R.L.S.: Interestingly, the lines are really the same for me, whether I am writing for kids or adults. I want the scares to be fun…not disturbing. I often use the example of a roller coaster. If you listen to people riding a roller coaster they scream and they laugh. They are scared but, rationally, they know that they are safe. But, if you were on a roller coaster and you looked up ahead and saw that the track was broken, you would be scared in a way that is far too disturbing to be fun. Clearly, adults can take a bit more reality in their scary books but the idea that you are always safe still marks the difference between scary fun and unpleasant panic.
Bookish: What is it about twins that makes them so scary?
R.L.S.: When I started working on “Red Rain,” it became clear that fascination with twins and fear of twins is practically universal. Many cultures seem to have superstitions, myths and taboos about twins. I have to say, it gave me chills when I read about how many cultures associate twins with weather–with rain and storms and floods. For example, some Indians of British Columbia believed that twins control the weather–and they prayed to rain and wind to “calm down the breath of twins.” Other tribes said that twins must be buried near wet ground–-because if they are buried in dry ground, the village will also be dry and the crops will die. They also believed that all the wishes of twins are granted, which makes them a formidable enemy. And that’s pretty much the way it goes down in “Red Rain.”
Many tribes in Africa have taboos about twins–some even separate the twins at birth. Others believe that twins have super powers throughout their lives. And in many cultures, legends say that twins are part animal–unlike other infants, they start out as animals and eventually grow into humans.
So why are twins so creepy? The best answer I got is from a psychologist who answered the question this way. She said, “We all know that even though we are good people, we have our own unseen ‘twin’ inside of us. He’s the evil twin who cannot be trusted. So we keep him locked up inside us, out of sight, safely hidden from the world. Then we allow the law-abiding, go-to-work, nice twin to go into the world.” But when we see twins on the street or in the movies or even in books like “Red Rain,” we are scared because we see that clearly both twins are out. And since we know, subconsciously, what would happen if the twin who lives inside us ever got out…the mere sight of twins starts our fear alarm blasting. It makes sense to me. That’s the story of “Red Rain”: The evil twins get out and they cause a lot of trouble–and, I hope, a lot of creepy fun.
Bookish: What is the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?
R.L.S.: My wife and I went away for a long weekend at a charming inn in Connecticut. When we checked in, it was immediately clear that the place was rather empty. We told ourselves that people were probably out doing sports or hiking, or seeing the sights. But that evening when we went to the inn’s large dining room, it became clear that we were the only guests in the whole place. It was creepy, but then it got worse. In the middle of the night, we were awakened by the sound of a key turning in the lock of our room. I called out, “Who’s there?” And someone murmured: “My room… My room…” The next morning we were again the only guests in the dining room. No sign of our night visitor. We checked out immediately. But who knows? I might have missed my only chance to meet a ghost!
Bookish: The ending of the book is surprising. Did you have the ending in mind before you started?
R.L.S.: For all my books, I always come up with the ending first because if I know where I am heading, the plotting and writing are easier. It puts me in control. Then, my main job is make sure that I distract and fool you enough that you don’t know where you are going and you can just take the ride.
Bookish: Who’s your favorite writer of adult books?
R.L.S.: My absolute favorite writer is Ray Bradbury. As a child, he showed me the vast world of creative writing and imagination and turned me into an avid reader. Agatha Christie is a hero of mine, too, because no matter how many of her books you read, she always fools you. P.G. Wodehouse is simply the best plotter ever–and hilariously funny. My other favorite is Vladimir Nabokov–a great genius but also a great comic writer. I think “Pale Fire” is the funniest book I have ever read.
Bookish: How do you celebrate finishing a book?
R.L.S.: By starting another one.
Bookish: Did you always know you want to be a horror writer?
R.L.S.: I started out writing humor, but I loved horror as a kid. My favorite reading materials were EC comics–“Tales from the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror.” That was all I read. My brother and I used to go to the movies every Saturday. Our favorites were always the horror movies. As you have probably noticed, a lot of the “Goosebumps” titles are take-offs of the great titles of horror movies from my childhood. Even my biography is titled: “It Came From Ohio!”
Bookish: What is your writing process like?
R.L.S.: I generally think of the title first. I know that’s weird, but it is something I have to do. If I don’t have a title, I cannot start. Then, I figure out the ending and I do a very detailed plot outline. Once I do that, I can enjoy the writing because I have a map. I write every day and I set a goal for a certain number of pages each day, and I don’t get up until I reach it. I always say I do piece work. People always ask me how I can be so disciplined about writing–but the truth is, writing is what I like to do. When had I just started my career–writing joke books (classics like “101 School Cafeteria Jokes”)–an older writer said something very important to me. He said, “Most writers like having written but they don’t really enjoy writing. What about you?” When I said I really enjoy the writing part, he told me he thought I would have a happy and successful life. It was a very important moment for me. I never forgot it and, luckily, he was right.
Bookish: What are the main ingredients for writing a horror novel?
R.L.S.: Worry, shock, surprise and humor.
Worry: A good horror book or film makes you worry right from the beginning. Either you’ve seen something bad that’s going to be trouble for your main characters. Or things are too nice, which makes you think something really unspeakable is going to happen. However the writer does it, the readers have to worry about the main characters and the readers have to worry for themselves. Waiting to see the monster is much scarier than actually seeing it.
Shock is the close-your-eyes-and-scream moment that you always remember. A friend of mine was so scared when she saw “Jaws” in a movie theater that she bent down to avoid seeing the shark and broke her nose on the seat in front of her. Now that’s a good response to shock!
Surprise comes either from a plot twist or from a development that is so out-there that you just go with it and enjoy.
Humor: To me, horror and humor are close bedfellows. If you jump out of the dark and shout BOO at someone, he or she will scream and then laugh. The two are always close. And as a writer, the way you set up a scare is just like setting up a punch line for a joke.
Bookish: Why do you think the “Goosebumps” and “Fear Street” series have been so popular? What do you enjoy most about working on them?
R.L.S.: You know, I have been asking kids the same question for years, and they all say the same thing: “We like to be scared.” And I think that’s the basic appeal. The books are scary but not disturbing. I love working on “Goosebumps” and “Fear Street” because the readers are so communicative. They write wonderful, touching letters–also furious ones. Letters that make me feel so proud and happy, and letters that bring me back down to earth. A few recent ones:
Dear R.L. Stine… You are my second-favorite writer.
Dear R.L. Stine … I like your books, but how come the endings never make any sense?
Bookish: What are your favorites from those two series?
R.L.S.: My favorite “Fear Street”s are the “Silent Night” books because they star Reva Dalby. She was the meanest character I ever created… so much fun to write. I also love the “Cheerleader” books. Everyone seems to remember what happened to Corky in the shower. Yuck. My favorite “Goosebumps” is “The Haunted Mask.” That’s why I did a new “Haunted Mask” book to celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Goosebumps.” It’s called “Wanted: The Haunted Mask,” and it’s the first hardcover “Goosebumps” novel ever–and I think it’s one of the best.
Bookish: What are your top three scary movies?
Bookish: What are your top three horror novels?
R.L.S.: “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” by Ray Bradbury–a creepy masterpiece; “Misery,” by Stephen King–an amazing tour de force with one of the greatest villains of all time–and “Rosemary’s Baby,” by Ira Levin. His books are so concise–not an extra word. Reading Levin’s books is like taking a course in how to build suspense.
Bookish: What are you working on next?
R.L.S.: I am writing six “Goosebumps” books a year. The newest series is called “Goosebumps: Most Wanted.” I am very proud of “The Haunting Hour” TV show, which is seen every Saturday on the Hub TV Network. As to a new adult book, I guess it will depend on who asks me… and typically, how much of a fight I put up…before I say yes.