Here's how Devin O'Bannon, one of the protagonists in the newest Goosebumps novel, knows the pumpkin farm he's staying at is haunted. After a night of bad dreams, he wakes, stretches and lowers his feet to the floor.
"I expected to feel the hard floorboards," he tells us. "But instead, my bare feet sank into something warm and squishy," a "round puddle" of "drippy orange-yellow goo." Pumpkin guts! A loony rewrite of Kafka! Classic Goosebumps: funny, icky and just a bit menacing.
R.L. Stine's fiendishly popular children's series arrived in 1992, with "Welcome to Dead House." By 1997, Stine had produced 93 of the kiddie horror books, to be followed by scores more in relaunches like "Goosebumps 2000," "Goosebumps HorrorLand," and "Goosebumps Most Wanted."
The novels are still around, delivering mild chills to anyone who hasn't been lured away by boy wizards and dreamy Byronic vampires.
They have names like "The Werewolf of Fever Swamp" and "Piano Lessons Can Be Murder."
Stine said that he always begins with the title. His favorite to date is "Little Shop of Hamsters.")
Once, they propagated through bookstores like an alien mold; now, the series is more like a dormant monster, sleeping quietly, biding its time.
The books are still paragons of children's horror, ghoulish cartoons aimed at the sweet spot between alarm and delight.
In Goosebumps books, the monster's powers were so diminished by goofiness and snark that at times it seemed his true role was to initiate you into the lifelong practice of stress management.
Skeletons kept losing appendages. Ghosts popped out of the closet with the predictability of a jack-in-the-box. The strange, subtle thing about being a kid, though, was that you never quite trusted Stine's reassurances.
You feared that the playfulness, the safety nets, might vanish in an instant, leaving you alone in the dark.
They never did, of course, but the possibility glowed over every page like a will-o-the-wisp.
Relentlessly plot-driven, with fun, smart-alecky narrators my age or a little older, the Goosebumps novels were slightly transgressive (my parents hated them), as well as a hobby to share with friends.
(Those covers, queasily luminous, with the letters bulging like an inflammation, made great collectibles.) A new one rolled out every month or so and I'd gobble it up in a sitting.
Sometimes I'd flip to the last page first to make sure of the twist ending.
Only now do I realize what I was really scanning for: my fears, mostly stabilized and tamed. But not quite defeated.
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