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The master of scary books for kids, R.L. Stine, brings his special brand of humor and fear to Camp Red Moon, a new Audible Original collection. Find out what (if anything) is scary for him, why he loved writing for audio, and why you won't catch him at a campsite no matter how many scary stories he tells.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
ST: This is Audible editor Sean, and today I have the great pleasure of interviewing the one and only R.L. Stine. R.L. has shaped the minds of young readers for decades with hundreds of scary stories for kids, including The Fear Street, Goosebumps, Rotten School, and many other series. His new Audible Original, Camp Red Moon, is a collection of short stories he's curated about a particularly haunted camp. He's also single handedly responsible for my generation having an irrational fear of ventriloquist dummies, so thanks for that, R.L.
RLS: Now you're going to send me your shrink bills, right?
RLS: Why are dummies scary? Someone has to tell me. Right now, we're doing the Goosebumps book series called Goosebumps: Slappy World, and every other story is a Slappy story.
ST: They work. They all work.
RLS: I've done 14 of them now, and I have to admit, it's a little hard coming up with another plot about a dummy who comes to life, and no one knows it, and then they do know it. It's hard.
ST: There's such a good flow to them, too, because the first one's about Slappy and Mr. Wood, correct?
ST: Third one is the whole family of dummies, this huge collection in the attic.
RLS: Yes. Right.
ST: Yeah. Just escalating terror.
RLS: No, I'm running out. I'm telling you. I'm running out of Slappy stories. A recent Goosebumps book was called The Ghost of Slappy. I killed him. I killed him, but then I had to bring him back.
ST: Yeah. So why do you think they are so scary?
RLS: I don't know. Honestly. They don't scare me. When I was a kid I was always fascinated by dummies, and puppets, and that kind of thing, but I always liked them. And I don't know why an evil dummy. I have no theory as to why people are scary. I gave a talk in Vancouver last Halloween and 40 people in the audience were dressed as Slappy.
ST: You're kidding me?
RLS: Forty. We brought them all up on stage. There were 40 Slappys in the audience, and I looked at that crowd, and I realized that I had sold every red bow tie in Canada.
ST: That honestly, to me, sounds terrifying. I don't know why they're so scary. I think for me it's because they are just close enough to looking human that it's unsettling. You know what I mean?
RLS: I think, seriously, you don't want inanimate objects coming to life.
ST: Especially if they look human.
RLS: Yes, that's right. And, anyway, I wished I'd had the red bow tie concession.
ST: A royalty on bow ties sold.
RLS: What a thrill for me, right? They all send me their pictures and put them on Twitter. Thousands of kids went out as Slappy last Halloween.
ST: That is so cool.
RLS: It's wonderful.
ST: As a kid-lit author, that's got to be a dream come true.
RLS: Well, it is. But then I get pictures of people who have gotten Slappy tattoos.
ST: More than one?
RLS: Yeah. One woman had an entire sleeve on her arm -- entire sleeve. It was a scene from one of the Slappy covers on her arm.
RLS: And I don't know how to react.
ST: No, I don't either.
I always have a happy ending, and then a little twist at the end to make you wonder what's going on.
RLS: I guess I'm supposed to be honored.
ST: Yeah. I would be. That made an indelible impression in so many kids' minds. My friends would pass that book around back and forth till everything was dog eared, and the cover was starting to rip off.
RLS: But you don't have it on your arm.
ST: No. Maybe after this, I don't know. So does the first story in Camp Red Moon, the one that you wrote, "Werewolf in the Woods," set the stage for the rest of the audiobook?
RLS: Well, I hope so. I tried to set the scare level and the humor level, and to just set it up for the other writers that I knew would be writing later episodes, and let them know what the camp was like. What was scary about it, and where they could go with it.
ST: [You] developed the mythos for them to kind of build on?
ST: Cool. That's really interesting.
RLS: Do you want to know a secret?
ST: I do, yes.
RLS: No one's listening, right?
ST: No, nobody.
RLS: Oh, okay. I've never been to camp. That's the secret.
ST: Well, because it didn't come off that way.
RLS: Well, I've written maybe 20 camp books that take place in camp, and then now we've done this series with the scary camp. And... I hate camp. I'd never go. I never went. And my son went to camp up in Great Barrington, and we'd have visitors' day. I didn't want to get out of the car. There were bugs out there, and there were foxes running around.
ST: You're speaking my language. I'm from Minnesota. Everybody goes camping. I would rather stay home and read, or write, or play video games.
RLS: Yeah, me, too. I think I touched a tree once. I don't know. I don't go outdoors. But I've written all this stuff, but that makes it scarier, I think, the fact that I would hate it. It allows me to think of all the scary things that could happen, and all the things that could happen at Camp Red Moon. All the things that could go wrong and all the things that could terrorize kids. I think it helps.
ST: That makes sense to me. If you go out and you experience it, and all of these fears or disproven in one good camping trip, maybe it's harder to be creative?
RLS: Maybe, I don't know. We should've had a dummy show up at camp. I just thought of that. We'll have to do some more episodes.
ST: It might be a bit much for me. Yeah. Well, I suppose if you've written enough stories about camp stories, and given the amount of readers who have read these stories, I wonder if maybe that might influence what camps are actually like. Maybe there's more campfire stories.
RLS: I'd hate to think. I wonder if they still tell campfire stories. I don't really know. When my son went to a pretty old-fashioned camp where they did it all. He went to a very low rent camp.
ST: Low rent?
RLS: Well, they had archery, but the only had one arrow.
ST: They had to share the arrow?
RLS: Yeah, you'd shoot it, and then you'd have to chase after it.
ST: Well, it sounds like it's doubling as exercise.
RLS: Yeah. I actually wrote the very first Goosebumps camp book, Welcome to Camp Nightmare, about his camp.
ST: Oh, as the basis for the story?
ST: Oh, wow.
RLS: Yeah. That's about his camp.
ST: How does he feel about being kind of immortalized in your stories in some ways?
RLS: My son's claim to fame is that he's never read a Goosebumps book.
ST: You're kidding.
RLS: He's never read one. How horrible is that? Just to make me nuts. He knew it would make me crazy.
ST: I feel like maybe he has, and just never told you. No?
RLS: No, that's what a nice person would say. But no. He was the right age, too, and he never read one. He read only Garfield comics. That's all he read. His whole childhood.
ST: Garfield was my speed, too. I read a lot of Garfield as well.
RLS: And my wife and I were so happy. One night we looked into his room. He had graduated to Calvin and Hobbes.
ST: That's a good graduation.
RLS: He used to bring Goosebumps in to his friends at school, and he would sell parts in the books. Matt would come home and say, "Dad, you have to put Jamie in the next one."
ST: Oh, my gosh.
RLS: "Dad, you have to put Alison." I think they paid him $10 to be in the next Goosebumps book.
ST: So, entrepreneurial spirit.
RLS: Yeah. And he never read one.
ST: Wow. Well, actually I'm glad you brought up comics.
RLS: I'm doing comics now. When I was a kid, I was the world's biggest comic fan. That's all I read was comic books when I was a kid.
ST: Me, too.
RLS: My friends and I just carried big stacks of them around, and we traded them, and read them. And, of course, when I was a kid, there were those great horror comics, Tales from the Crypt, and The Vault of Horror, and I just loved all that.
And now I'm really excited and I'm doing my own graphic novel series called Just Beyond. I've never written comic books before so I'm having fun with that.
ST: Well, I'm glad you brought it up because I wanted to know how is it different writing a traditional novel versus writing a comic book manuscript versus writing for Audible for this audio play?
RLS: Writing a comic book is a lot like writing an audio script. A lot, and it's kind of nice for me because I'm not good at describing things. I'm just not good at description. I don't really have the writers' eye. I don't see everything going on.
ST: I feel like some people, like myself, might disagree with that, but I get what you're saying.
RLS: Thank you, but when you write a comic book, when you write an audio script, you don't really have to describe anything. It's all dialogue.
ST: That's true.
For me, I don't know, horror always makes me laugh. There's something missing in my brain where I don't get scared.
RLS: I love that. And you write a comic book and you say "He flies across the room." That's all you have to say. Then the artist has to do it, right?
ST: Yes. And you can go the other direction, too. Having written a couple of comic books where you give so much scene direction, the illustrator comes back and says, "Cut it out. Leave some room for me."
ST: So actually I wanted to ask you a little bit about what the differences between writing, say, scary stories for kids, so middle grade, versus writing scary stories for young adults. Because I know that Fear Street was a YA series, correct?
RLS: Yeah, it still is. We actually have three Fear Street movies in production right now.
ST: You're kidding.
RLS: Three at the same time. For next summer.
ST: Oh, wow. Are they going to be standalone or part as a series or one film?
RLS: It's binge movies. They're coming out in theaters next summer, June, July, and August. Supposedly.
ST: That's really cool.
RLS: They're down in Atlanta filming them right now.
ST: Why do you think Fear Street has lasted so many decades and remains popular with kids in every single generation?
RLS: A lot of people like killing teenagers. I enjoy that.
ST: [Laughter] At least on paper.
RLS: I think it's not a good time to be killing teenagers. I think it's bad, but they like that. And I've killed off a lot of teenagers. I think I've written about 80 Fear Street books.
ST: Do you think it's like a release valve for tension or pressure?
RLS: Yeah, I think so. I was talking to a child psychologist-- just to get serious--in Los Angeles, and he had a patient, a girl, who would come in every week and just recite Fear Street plots to him. And she would just tell him the plots of these books she was reading, and he thought they were helping her a lot get over some of her fears.
ST: Right. Like to make the terrifying familiar maybe?
RLS: Maybe that's why horror is so popular for a lot of people. and scary books, and why these things have been so successful. I think they help. Goosebumps, especially, because, for one thing, kids go out, they have these terrifying adventures. There's always a happy ending always.
ST: That's true. Yeah.
RLS: There's always a happy ending. The kids are normal kids. Their parents are useless in every book. The parents don't help them in any way.
ST: The kids are empowered.
RLS: Yes. The kids have to solve it on their own, and they do.
ST: So it's funny you mention the endings because one of my favorite endings is in Welcome to Dead House. Correct?
RLS: The very first book.
ST: Yes. Oh, man. I love that one because the ending, and I hate to ruin this for anybody who hasn't read it yet or listened to it, but you should ... Is that Mr. Dawes we think is this gone, dead and gone. Like literally dead and gone again, but then we see him at the end as a hint that maybe he's still continuing his mischief forever. I love those twists.
RLS: How'd you like that?
ST: I love that. It leaves so much to the imagination.
RLS: I always have a happy ending, and then a little twist at the end to make you wonder what's going on. Once, just for fun, once, in a Fear Street book, I put on an unhappy ending just for me. Yeah, just for fun. And in the end of this Fear Street book, the good girl is taken off as a murderer, taken away, and the murderer gets off scot-free. And I thought it was funny. I just thought it was just a different ending.
And the kids, the readers, turned on me immediately, and immediately I started getting mail, "R.L. Stine, you idiot. How could you do that?" "R.L. Stine, you moron. Are you going to finish the story? Are you going to write a sequel and finish the story?"
ST: Did you give in? Did you write a sequel?
RLS: I had to. I'd do a school visit. Every single time, a hand would go up. "Why did you write that book? Why did you do that?" It haunted me, and so, yeah, I had to write a sequel to make it right. They absolutely wouldn't accept an unhappy ending.
ST: That's awesome. That reminds me a lot of what kids are like, so it makes sense.
I've tried to write scary stories for kids, and it just hasn't worked out for me. I either veer too creepy or just too, to be honest, my cousin has told me boring, but whatever. I don't believe him. What do you think? How do you straddle that line between, say, being safe and appropriate, and good for kids, and not leaving them in the dark without a hand to hold versus actually letting them feel scared?
RLS: Yeah. I didn't answer your question before. You asked me the difference in writing Goosebumps in middle grade and older, and that sort of the same.
For middle grade, for Goosebumps books, my rule is they have to know it couldn't happen. They have to know it's a fantasy, and it couldn't happen to them. And when you establish that, then you can go pretty far with the scares because they know. The world's a scary place to kids these days, and I leave out just about everything that could be really scary.
When you write for older, for adults or for teenagers, every detail has to be believable or they're not going to go with the story. They don't want to know that it couldn't happen. It has to seem very real to them, and the details have to be real. And it's the opposite.
Writing for the two age groups, it's kind of the opposite of each other.
ST: You do both so well. What are the hallmarks of a good scary story? What transcends both those differences?
RLS: For me, surprises. For me, it's all about twists. And when I read something, I want to be shocked. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries, and I want to have a turnaround.
My friend Harlan Coben writes thrillers that have maybe 40 twists in them, and you're dizzy all the time.
ST: And they're all surprising but fair, right?
RLS: Yeah. Yeah, they all work, and you say, "Oh, no, I couldn't have guessed that."
In every Goosebumps book, there has to be some point in the book where the kid says, "I didn't guess that. Oh, I didn't realize that at all. Oh, man." Some kind of twist. We tried to do that in the Camp Red Moon books, too. Tried to do that same kind of thing where you're going along, you're going along, and then suddenly there's a shock. Suddenly, you don't really know what had happened here.
ST: Yeah. I don't want to ruin any surprises for anyone who hasn't listened to Camp Red Moon yet, but I've got to say that I found some of the ways that you used sound cues and sound effects, and I think even, in one case, creepy music to great effect, to kind of set the stage for those surprises. So I wanted to ask you what are the tricks that you used in writing for an audiobook that you couldn't use in other formats?
RLS: Well, just what you said. I couldn't use music. You answered that one. You can't use music. But I also was always conscious while I was writing the Camp Red Moon episode that they can't really see what's going on, so it has to be kind of simple. It can't be really complex. There can't be a lot of things happening at once. They have to be able to focus.
I'm a huge radio fan, and I have been my whole life. I actually have a collection of old radios, but I also listen to old radio shows all the time. I love them. I grew up with them. All the old mysteries, and all the comedy shows and that, and they've been very important to me, all the old shows. And I could bring that up while I was writing Camp Red Moon and think about what would they do on The Shadow or Gangbusters or some old westerns? What would they do here? What could they do? And it's in my head just because I'm such a big fan.
ST: Yeah. No, it shows because I used to work on dialogue driven property, so only dialogue. Exactly what you're talking about. And the biggest struggle for writers has always been not to tell the expositions, to actually show it to reveal information about the scene through dialogue in a way that feels natural. Man, I'm going through there, and I've always got that editor's mindset, and I didn't find anything. And I'm thinking, "Oh, man, this is a cheap way to set the scene." It's all very earned. It's all very genuine, and both the speakers are filling in the pieces in a really organic way. It was super effective.
RLS: I tried. We tried. We try to do that.
ST: I did want to ask you, where's the overlap between comedy and horror and scary stories? Because I know you got your career started writing humor for kids and for adults.
RLS: Yeah. I never planned to be scary. I always wanted to be funny, but the scary stuff sold. The joke books didn't do as well.
ST: Do you think that humor translates to effective scary writing?
RLS: It has to. You have to have it. For me, I don't know, horror always makes me laugh. There's something missing in my brain where I don't get scared. I don't get scared at horror movies, or if I read horror novels. People come up to me and they say, "I had to leave all the lights on after I read your book." "I had to lock the doors, I was so scared." I've never had that feeling. I don't know what that feeling is.
ST: Was that always the case, even before you became so versed in writing?
RLS: Yeah, partly I think because of those EC horror comics I was talking about. Tales from the Crypt and The Witch's Cauldron. They all had funny, twist endings, so I grew up thinking, "Oh, horror is funny." They were all ghastly, bloody, horrible, disgusting stories, and then they all had a funny ending.
ST: That's true. Tales from the Crypt did follow that formula, yeah.
RLS: Right. Very influential on me. And I use humor in Goosebumps. If I think a scene is getting too scary, I'll throw in something funny just to make it less intense.
ST: Like that emotional rhythm, that kind of ride you're on.
RLS: Yeah, and just about every single chapter ending is like a punchline in Goosebumps. I think of the chapter ending before I write the chapter. It's like the punchline, and it gets you reading onto the next one.
ST: You're blowing my mind because now I'm thinking of all these examples of chapters I remember being my favorites and how, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That's probably why I was turning that page.
RLS: Yes, that's the trick. A lot of authors think that's a really cheap gimmick. They think it's a really cheap trick. But, for me, the kid has to say, "Can I read just one more chapter? Can I just stay up? Can I read one more? Just one more chapter?" That's what it does.
ST: I'm sure they're going to be doing this with their phones, and listening to this series of stories, because it does have that.
RLS: Yeah. They're all in four parts.
ST: And each one ends with a cliffhanger.
RLS: I tried to do that same thing, so you have to go onto the next part.
ST: And it's good because it breaks up those sessions, because I know that kids these days are typically listening to shorter and shorter stuff, so I love that part of it.
RLS: Right. I will say that it was just exciting for me, being such a radio fan, to get to write something that's acted out by actors, and that's like an old-time radio show, but also something that's modern and really creepy for kids to listen to. For me, how wonderful. I'm doing all these things that I loved when I was a kid, and it's very satisfying for me. I'm very proud of Camp Red Moon. I think it's a nice next thing for me to do.
ST: I think it's amazing, so I agree.
Well, I just want to thank you for your incredible contribution to the minds of kids everywhere. As readers, as listeners, even me, I can say with all honesty that if it weren't for writers like you, like Stephen King, these authors that kind of got me interested and pulled me out of comics, which I loved, into traditional fiction and listening to fiction, I can say that I probably wouldn't be a voracious reader. I definitely wouldn't be a writer. So thank you.
RLS: Oh, my pleasure. And I really enjoyed talking with you, Sean.