The Everlasting Joy of Terrifying Children
Pop-horror writers like R. L. Stine see fear and storytelling the way the Victorians did.
In childhood, when the hours unravel slowly and answers to questions are often unsatisfying, literature is a rejoinder for restlessness. For the generation of readers that devoured R. L. Stine’s serialized horror, the witching hour meant binge-reading campy paperbacks with titles such as One Evil Summer, The Wrong Number, Bad Dreams, and Truth or Dare.
Stine accomplished something that is still rare now, but was radical in a pre-Hogwarts world. He made kids read obsessively, in part by making reading a social activity. “I never get tired of it when parents come up to me and say, ‘My kid never read a book in his life until he found yours. I caught him reading with a flashlight under the covers,’” Stine told me in an interview. “I still hear that all the time. It’s so wonderful.”
For a stretch in the 1990s, when Stine’s Fear Street and Goosebumps series had exploded in popularity, the author was writing at least a book a month. Debates raged about whether pulp-horror stories were too scary for young readers. Libraries and homerooms were overrun with his work. His name stayed perched high on the New York Times best-seller list for what seemed like an eternity.