If I can credit anyone with breeding an interest in me for flesh-eating zombies, demons, and blood-sucking creatures of the night, it would be R. L. Stine, creator of the kids’ horror book series Goosebumps, a franchise which turns twenty this year.
James Parker has a piece in the March edition of The Atlantic in which he dissects Goosebumps‘s popularity, describing the books as made for readers in Grade 4, which was, in fact, when my obsession with Goosebumps went from something privately held to something I disseminated amongst my peers like a virus. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but I had so many Goosebumps books that I brought a plastic bin of them to my school one day, created a sign-out sheet, and started my own Goosebumps class library. This was, contrary to all the rules of the preteen universe, seen as an act of coolness.
Then I discovered Stephen King when I borrowed a copy of Desperation from my mom. I devoured that book, my little brain spinning with the sex and swear words and gore. I can’t believe they’re allowed print this stuff, I thought. Suddenly those thin R. L. Stine books with the textured titles, cartoony covers and predictably false cliff-hanger endings (“And a knife came shining out of the darkness…but it was just his mom, cutting him a slice of cake!”) seemed juvenile and beneath me. I shed Goosebumps, snuggling into my newfound horror skin in King.
I bought most of my Stephen King in the books section of the local Save-on-Foods grocery store where I grew up. Glamorous they were not, but these few shelves of books that smelled faintly fishy from the nearby seafood section served the utilitarian purpose of delivering me my weekly dose of horror. My mom would take me grocery shopping at which point I would peel away and she would find me sitting cross-legged in the aisle where King’s books were, thumbing some new pulpy masterpiece.
It’s always struck me as odd that someone so riddled with anxiety should also be so completely drawn to the realm of horror, especially at such a young age. I’m afraid to call and order pizza over the phone, but I’ll read a book about a swamp creature slowly dismembering an entire town and wearing their body parts as hats no problem. Goosebumps were the first books I read that got my adolescent heart palpitating, my hands greasy with sweat. So what if I needed my bedroom door open all the way and the hall light blazing in order to sleep at night?
King is one of the only authors from my childhood that I still read even now, more than fifteen years after my fingers found their way between the pages of Desperation. All other authors have come and go in popularity, but King and his band of horrors has somehow managed to hitch a ride with me wherever I go, and I have R. L. Stine to thank for that.