Author R.L. Stine remembers being a kid, wanting to dress up as something scary for Halloween. A skeleton. Maybe a mummy.
One year, his parents went out to a local dime store and bought him a costume. He opened it, anticipating a fright.
“I opened the box, and it was a fuzzy yellow duck,” he told GBH’s Morning Edition co-host Jeremy Siegel. “We were really poor. I had to wear it more than one year. It was humiliating to be a duck for Halloween.”
Years later, as a children’s horror author, he used that very experience in a story.
“I wrote this Halloween book, ‘The Haunted Mask,’ which I think is my best Halloween story, about this girl who wants to be scary at Halloween time,” he said. “And I have her parents bring her a fuzzy yellow duck costume. So I got to use it.”
October is Stine’s busy season, he said. This year, he is releasing a guidebook on writing horror stories for kids called “There Is Something Strange About My Brain” on Halloween.
His path to writing scary books for children started when he was a child himself. Stine was a "weird kid," he said. When he was 9 years old, he remembers spending his playtime typing stories in his room in Bexley, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.
“My mother would stand outside my door and say, 'What's wrong with you? Why are you typing all day? Go outside and play,'” he said. “They didn't get it. That's incidentally the worst advice I ever got in my life: From my mother telling me to stop typing.”
His initial work was more humorous, he said. Stine started off writing joke books and a Scholastic teen humor magazine called Bananas.
“All I cared about was being funny,” he said.
Stine was a fearful child, and he felt like an outsider, growing up poor on the edge of a wealthy community. All those feelings later turned to inspiration.
The person who encouraged him to write scary stories was Jean Feiwel, then the editorial director at Scholastic. She had told him about a fight she had with a teen horror author.
“When she came to lunch, she said, 'I'm never working with him again. You could write a good, scary novel for teenagers. Go home and write a book called 'Blind Date,'” Stine said. “I didn't know what she was talking about. What's a scary book for teenagers?”
“Blind Date,” released in 1986, was a success. So was his second teen horror book, “Twisted.” Then came the juggernaut Goosebumps series.
“Then I said, forget the funny stuff. I've been scary ever since,” he said.
In decades of writing scary stories for children and teens, he said, he’s learned that kids like to learn about what it feels like to be scared in a safe way.
“I realized they like to be scared when they're at home in their room and they know they're safe,” Stine said. “I always call them safe scares. They're having these creepy adventures, but they know they're just home and they're fine, you know? And I think that's a big part of it.”
Still, he likely won’t be fulfilling his childhood dream of dressing up as a skeleton or mummy this Halloween.
“I have to work this season,” he said. “People always say, What are you dressing as for Halloween? What? I'm always out working. I'm selling books and things.”