Horror Inc. Speed-writer: R.L. Stine churns out children's horror at a frightening pace. But he assures us there are no skeletons in his closet.

October 30, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- R.L. Stine, the most successful horror writer you've never heard of, is dressed in black today, trying to live up to his terrifying reputation. It's a tricky act for a nice Midwestern guy with glasses, receding hairline and a pleasant smile.

And it's not even close to his young fans' expectations, which run toward a monstrous visage -- maybe one more eye, or a few less teeth. But you have to work with what you've got, and in Mr. Stine's case, that's black clothes, a plastic skeleton he keeps in his office and his shadowy initials.

"The kids want to meet someone more like Dracula," Mr. Stine shrugs. Or someone less like Dad, at least. Yet Mr. Stine's distressingly normal appearance doesn't keep him from being mobbed at book stores, or put off the thousands of kids who write each month, desperate to know everything about the mind behind such classics as "It Came from Beneath the Kitchen Sink" and "Go Eat Worms!"

If you don't have children, Mr. Stine is probably a complete mystery. And even parents who have watched their children devouring his series books, "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street," might not realize how large an empire can be built on one man's fervid imagination.

Mr. Stine has long enjoyed a kind of invisible success, his books flying off the shelves well beneath the radar of many traditional best-seller lists. That changed last year with USA Today's weekly list of 150, which lumps all books together on the basis of sales -- no dis-tinction between paperback and hardback, fiction or nonfiction, adult or children's books.

Now Mr. Stine has two or three books in the top 50 in a typical week, and he's no stranger to the No. 1 spot. He claims an estimated 90 million books in print, although it's hard to keep count, because they keep coming at a rate of two a month, 24 a year, with sales of more than 1.25 million per month.

"Fear Street," for the junior high school crowd, was his first series. But it was "Goosebumps," launched in 1992 for grade school kids, that propelled Mr. Stine to his current superstar status.

Consider this recent scene in the Gallery mall at the Inner Harbor. A group of Catholic school students from St. William of York, downtown for a field trip to the National Aquarium, rushed into B. Dalton to see if the newest Mr. Stine book had hit the shelves.

"They are horror, but you know they're fake, and you really get hooked," explains Robert Perilla, 11, who buys at least one of Mr. Stine's books every month. "You have to finish them before you go to bed."

Spinoffs of "Goosebumps" have followed, but Mr. Stine finally had to relinquish the writing duties for those. "I can't write more than two a month," he says, almost apologetically.

2,000 letters a month

He also apologizes for not reading all his fan mail, which requires a staff of five. He receives 2,000 letters a month from his fans, and to a child, they ask the same questions, in the same order. Dear R.L. Stine: What does R.L. stand for? (Robert Lawrence.) How old are you? (52 as of this month.) How much money do you make? (A lot.)

There's a Fox television version of "Goosebumps," which began airing last week, and a fan club with all the attendant merchandising opportunities. His first adult novel, published this fall by Warner Books, earned Mr. Stine $1 million and a movie deal.

Of course, he needed more than two weeks to write this tale of a literal demon lover -- four months of outlining and three months of writing, with no time-outs from his regular monthly output of "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street."

"Superstitious" began with the title, suggested by his 15-year-old son, Matt, as he listened to the Stevie Wonder song of the same name. Mr. Stine worked backward from the title, his usual method, filling in details. A small college in Pennsylvania, a beautiful young woman on the run from a bad relationship, a beguiling professor -- and, oh yes, a series of gruesome murders.

The body count starts early. By Page 7, the reader has been treated to a scene in which a young woman is scalped. The description of what follows is at once clinical and rather homey in its choice of images: "Her eyeballs make a soft plop plop as they are pried out. The top of her head feels pulpy, like wet paper towels."

The reviews have provided a different kind of horror. "Breathless, brain-dead," according to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "May be the most incredibly bad book ever written," pronounced the Dayton Daily News. At least Mr. Stine's hometown paper, the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, gave him a relatively gentle review: "Choppy but glib could use a good deal more humor."

" 'Superstitious' has gotten killed," Mr. Stine admits, laughing.

"But you know, it's very hard for a children's writer to cross over," he adds. "A lot have tried, and I can't think of any who have succeeded. Even Judy Blume tried it. So I didn't expect it to be taken seriously."

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