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R.L. Stine has more than three hundred million books in print, yet at the height of his popularity in the early 1990s, most adults were not even familiar with his name. This best-selling author’s success is based on his popularity among children and teens, who, in the mid-1980s, and through the 1990s, purchased the titles in his ”Fear Street” and ”Goosebumps” horror series at a rate of more than one million copies each month. During that period, a new book in each series was released every month, making Stine one of the most prolific authors of all time. His success did not please all critics, some of whom dismissed his work as insignificant. But teachers, librarians, and parents reported that many youngsters who were previously uninterested in books turned into avid readers after becoming hooked on Stine’s works.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Life’s Ambition
Robert Lewis Stine was born October 8, 1943, in Columbus, Ohio, son of Lewis Stine, a retired shipping manager, and Anne Stine. Growing up, Stine never wanted to be anything but a writer, and by the age of nine, he was creating his own magazines filled with short stories and jokes. He attended Ohio State University, where he earned a B.A. degree in 1965 and worked as editor of the campus humor magazine for three years. After graduating, he taught social studies at a junior high school for one year and then set out for New York City in search of a job in magazine publishing.
In 1968, Stine began a sixteen-year stint as an editor for Scholastic Inc., which publishes many classroom magazines and children’s books. Stine worked on several titles before finally becoming editor of Bananas, a humor magazine for children aged twelve and older. He was thirty-two at the time and felt that he had achieved his life’s ambition.
His Own First Book
Greater success than Stine had ever dreamed of was still in store for him. For all his work in publishing, Stine had never published a book. His work on Bananas impressed an editor at Dutton, who asked him to create a humor book for children. Thus, Stine’s first book, How to Be Funny: An Extremely Silly Guidebook, was published in 1978. The book was successful and led to a long string of funny books, many of which were published under the name ”Jovial Bob Stine.”
In 1985, due to financial difficulties, Stine was let go from Scholastic. Stine stepped up his career as a book author, turning out action-adventure and “twist-a-plot” stories (which allowed the readers to direct the action) in addition to his humorous story and joke books. Only a year later, the editorial director at Scholastic asked him to try writing a horror novel for young adults. She gave him a title to work with: Blind Date (1986). The result was his first young adult horror novel, a pleasantly surprising success.
Even Greater Success
During this time, young-adult horror was a fast-growing genre, and Stine proved he could duplicate the appeal of Blind Date with two subsequent scary tales, Twisted (1987) and The Baby-Sitter (1989). Stine’s wife Jane, who is also involved in the publishing industry, suggested that he try to come up with an idea for a series. Thus, ”Fear Street,” a horror series designed for readers aged nine to fourteen, was born. Fear Street is a place where terrible things happen and where ”your worst nightmares live,” according to copy on the covers of the early titles. The main characters change from one book to the next, but all attend Shadyside High—a fictional school with an appalling frequency of murder.
After ”Fear Street” came the idea for ”Goosebumps,” a less gory, but still spooky, series for eight- to eleven-year-old readers. Both series rely on cliffhanger endings in each chapter to keep readers turning the pages. Stine focused on making his fictional characters speak and act like real, modern kids in order to connect with his audience. In addition to listening to his teenage son Matt for inspiration, Stine also read young adult magazines and watched MTV. In a Time magazine article by Paul Gray, Stine freely admitted to using ”cheap thrills” and ”disgusting, gross things” to pump up the appeal of his stories.
Between 1988 and 1993, Stine had over fifty books published under his name, most of them in the teen thriller genre. In 1995, he took another big step in his career: publishing his first novel for adults, a horror story called Superstitious. Contrasting the book with Stine’s young-adult offerings, a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that in the new novel, ”several characters . . . curse, enjoy X-rated sex and die gruesomely detailed deaths.”
By the end of the 1990s, Stine’s publishing career seemed to be slowing down. The popularity of young adult horror, particularly the formulaic brand of which Stine had been one of the most popular and prolific authors, was waning. Nevertheless, he has continued to write and to be known as one of the most popular children’s book authors of all time. Stine’s latest innovation is a series of twelve books entitled ”Goose-bumps Horrorland.” Each book in the series contains two stories, the first of which stands alone, and the second of which is part of a longer story that is carried out over all twelve books in the series. His film Mostly Ghostly, written in part by his son Matt Stine, appeared in October 2008 on DVD.
Works in Literary Context
Stine began writing young adult horror novels largely in response to the genre’s growing popularity in the 1980s. Somewhat comparable to today’s magic- and fantasy related novels for young people, horror and thriller novels were exceedingly popular from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, with authors such as Stine selling millions of books, often with similar characters and structures.
Young Adult Thriller
The young adult thriller is a branch of young adult fantasy, or writing that involves characters or events that could not or probably would not happen in ”real life.” As opposed to realism, it aims to excite the reader through suspense, and to entertain by providing an escape from everyday life.
Stine’s novels have been called ”formulaic” for their reliance on typical young adult horror plots and stock characters. He has also admitted that he is not above mentioning something disgusting or grotesque just to increase the horror value of his stories. However, Stine’s books are unique in that they have a comic edge—something that many novels in the genre lack. Many of his books are filled with characters playing practical jokes which, more than often, backfire or have unexpected tragic results. In this sense, they can be viewed as offering a message to young readers about the dangers of misbehaving.
Works in Critical Context
Stine’s work has not been a favorite among critics, yet because of his novels’ overwhelming success among young people, many have turned to them again to find out why. Some critics are willing to offer begrudging praise. Patrick Jones has noted, ”Some [Stine novels], of course, are better than others, but considering they are chucked out almost once a month, the actual quality of them is quite surprisingly good.” Nevertheless, the overall consensus among critics seems to be that Stine’s work, though at times fun to read, has little to no literary merit. Roderick McGillis stated: ”I think of Stine’s books as camp because they are so artificial, so formulaic, so predictable, so repetitive, so bad.”
When Blind Date, Stine’s first horror novel, was published in 1986, reviewers not yet jaded by the coming deluge of young-adult horror accepted it for what it was: a book that should be seen ”as entertainment only,” as a reviewer for Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide puts it. Stephanie Zviria, in a review for Booklist, states, ”Not for the squeamish and riddled with contrivances, the story is well paced and has a TV-ish flair that is likely to appeal to teens.” In her review for Voice of Youth Advocates, Mary I. Purucker writes, ”The unsophisticated will like this for its dark twists and turns, but mystery buffs will recognize the hoary and convoluted had-I-but-known style.” Judie Porter sums up critical opinion of this and most other Stine works in her review for School Library Journal: ”It’s mindless entertainment.”
- ”Fantasy in Contemporary Literature.” Contemporary Literature Criticism. Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffery W. Hunter. Vol. 193. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005, pp.137-250.
- Porter, Judie. Review of Blind Date. School Library Journal vol. 33, no. 3 (November 1986): 108-109.
- Purucker, Mary I. Review of Blind Date. Voice of Youth Advocates vol. 10, no. 1 (April 1987): 33-34.
- Review of Blind Date. Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide vol. XX, no. 6 (September 1986): 18.
- Zviria, Stephanie. Review of Blind Date. Booklist vol. 83, no. 2 (September 15, 1986): 121.
- ”About Scholastic: People and History.” Scholastic Online. Accessed November 19, 2008, from http:// www.scholastic.com/aboutscholastic/people/ index.htm. Last updated in 2008.
- ”Elements of Horror.” Notes from Noel Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror, Dark Cloud Press Online. Accessed November 19, 2008, from http://www. darkcloudpress.com/blog_files/horror.pdf. Last updated in 2008.
- ”News.” R. L. Stine: The Official Website. Accessed November 19, 2008, from http://www.rlstine. com/#nav/news. Last updated in 2008.
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