When I think back to my love of books and storytelling, there are two names that come to mind immediately.
James Patterson and R.L Stine.
These are the authors whose books I ingested religiously as a child. I was reading “Goosebumps” books from the tender age of 5. They satiated my hunger for spooky twisted stories. This led to me picking up the more adult, mystery/thriller novels of James Patterson only a few years later. By the age of 8, I was already reading books like “Along Came a Spider” and “Kiss the Girls”.
And despite the adult themes in these books, my parent’s never discouraged my reading them. They trusted that, even at such a young age, I could handle it, and appreciate it for what it was. A story.
I still loved the kid friendly horror of “Goosebumps”, but had somehow, in a few short years, outgrown them. And so, sensing this change, my mother found a book for my sister and I that seemed to be a perfect union of my old love of “Goosebumps” and my newfound love for adult fiction.
“Superstitious” is Stine’s first foray into the world of adult fiction. Published in 1995, this “by the numbers” horror novel did not do very well. Not many copies were sold and critical response was lukewarm at best.
Since writing “Superstitious”, R.L Stine has written at least 3 more adult fiction novels, but I only read his first. And although I read it, and was happy to do so, I did not remember very much about the story – looking back on it, save for a few choice scenes. This got me to wondering, why didn’t this book leave an impact on me? Furthermore, how does a wildly successful writer of kids horror, shift to an adult audience? Why wasn’t he successful?
As this was Stine’s first foray into the genre, I thought it would be fun to read this book over again and compare it to one of his books aimed for kids. What storytelling devices would he use? How does he change his style? Or, does he change his style at all? And is this reason his first adult novel underperformed?
Searching for answers, I decided to start from the beginning and read Goosebumps #1 “Welcome to Dead House”.
Welcome to Dead House
“Welcome to Dead House” follows the story of the Benson family; Amanda, Josh, their parents, and their dog, Petey. After being willed a house by a great-uncle they never knew they had, the Benson’s leave their home to relocate to their massive new home in the town of Dark Falls. Despite Josh’s incessant whining, and their dog Petey’s strange, obstinate behavior, Amanda does her best to adjust to life in the new house. However, her attempts are marred by the constant appearance of strange children in the house, and no one seems to notice them but her.
Reading through a Goosebumps book for the first time in a few decades, I was able to pick up on a few things that I could appreciate more, now as an adult, than I ever would have as a child. Specifically, this authors willingness and general comfort writing in the voice of a young girl. While doing my research, I learned that the Goosebumps series was originally intended to appeal to young girls. However, upon it’s release, Stine was surprised to learn how much young boys also enjoyed his books despite having many of the main characters being female.
This was something I never realized as a kid. In actuality, I remembered more often the stories being told from a male perspective and assumed most of the stories were. Yet this story, and the next novel I would read are both told from the point of view of very young women (Amanda being 12 and Sara being 24).
It was also interesting to note that Stine did not shy away from death, killing, or disturbing imagery even in a book intended for young children. Despite the story being about a family that is surrounded by many undead people, I wasn’t expecting any of the Benson’s to actually be hurt, yet, there is a casualty. Their dog, Petey, is killed and is later found to be an undead monster. Amanda is also haunted with a disturbing dream in which she and her family are dead and turn into horrifying skeletal corpses. Although, kid friendly t.v series could make this imagery seem a bit hokey, to a child with a vivid imagination, reading it could actually feel pretty intense.
I was able to remember what it was like, reading these as a kid and why I loved them so much. But even as a I read, there were things that felt off. However I will address these issues in more detail a little later. For now, I will continue with my re-read of Stine’s adult novel.
“Superstitious” follows the character, Sara Morgan, a graduate student who has started over at her old alma mater after leaving her job and abusive boyfriend behind. With the help of her friend Mary Beth, Sara is able to secure a job as a graduate assistant to the Dean of Students and meet the charming Irish professor, Liam O’Connor. Liam is extremely superstitious and lives with his “sister” Margaret, to whom he is very close, and Sara is drawn to him immediately. Yet, as her whirlwind affair with Liam takes off, the campus is marred by grisly murders.
Re-reading “Superstitious” was fun for a number of reasons. I was able to recall scenes that made no real sense to me as a child and understand them a little better. I could also see the wear and tear on the book from years long passed, when I would secretly read the “naughty” and “gruesome” scenes over and over again. Granted, these scenes – when compared to other adult novels – are relatively tame. But to an 8 year old girl, those few little paragraphs were enough to get my ears tingling.
It was also interesting to see where my limit reached as a child as far as comprehension and the ability to objectively evaluate the stories I was reading and it’s characters. As a kid, “Superstitious” was a great book simply for the fact that it was an adult novel by an author I recognized. But if asked why I liked the story or whether I could relate to the characters, I probably wouldn’t have had much to say. Reading this story over as an adult, and as a storyteller myself, this is no longer the case.
While reading through these two stories, I experienced a deep wave of nostalgia. Reading them transported me back to a time in my youth, when I would sequester myself in my room or in a quiet corner and read. What was even more interesting, though, was reading through both of these books and realizing just how much my own writing style was influenced by this author. The way Stine structures sentences and describes his characters and settings is similar to a lot of my early writing.
Unfortunately though, along with my nostalgia, I also felt a twinge of pain, as I realized that I truly had outgrown this series, and possibly this author. Despite being able to spot my own writing characteristics in Stine’s work, I also noticed a lack of depth, that, while suited for younger readers looking for a quick “spooky” or creepy story, felt a little hollow to me as an adult.
In both “Welcome to Dead House” and “Superstitious”, Stine does very little to elaborate on his characters or setting. He often starts by giving a brief description of what the character looks like, what they are wearing, and a few personality traits. This trend extends to his settings as well. Long free flowing descriptions of places and and their history are nowhere to be found in these books. Rather, Stine appears to focus more on dialogue between characters and inner monologue.
This was actually one thing I found a bit distracting while reading, more so while reading “Superstitious”. In general, the story is told in the third person. However, Stine frequently switches to a first person inner monologue without warning. For example, this segment at the very beginning of Part 6 of the novel reads:
The panic, making it so hard to breathe, bringing up the waves of nausea, tightening her muscles, tightening every muscle until they ache, until they feel about to burst, my whole body about to burst, my legs so heavy, so heavy I can’t move away, can’t move away from this… thing… this thing that I used to hold, that used to hold me, that used to touch me. This hand.
Notice, there is no indication that we are switching perspectives. It simply happens mid sentence. Granted, this scene happens during a moment where the main character has realized something horrible and is panicking, however, this actually happens frequently in both “Superstitious” and “Welcome to Dead House”.
Another issue I had reading the story as an adult was the cliffhanger-type stingers at the end of chapters. These stingers teased that something scary or violent was about to transpire, yet as you moved on to the next page, it was something completely innocent. A fake out. A jump scare. These may be harmless in children’s books and t.v shows just before a commercial break, but become repetitive and tiring in an adult novel.
The issues that I point out, in my opinion, seem to correlate directly to an issue of “knowing your audience”. Adults are not frightened of monsters on the same visceral level that children are. Any monster story meant for a mature audience must tap in to some deeper psychological paranoia or societal fear. In these stories, the monster is meant to represent something larger than it’s own sharp teeth and claws.
The monsters of “Superstitious” are not very complex. They are horrible, brutal monsters that appear whenever Liam breaks a superstition and they kill someone who happens to be associated with him. But they do not represent anything greater than that. We never learn how the curse started or why they pass from father to child. We never learn why they target the people distantly associated with Liam or why they’ve never just killed Liam in the past. They just exist. They are hollow.
The undead residents of Dark Falls are the same. There is not much of an explanation of why they need to sacrifice a family every year, or how they manage to operate an actual real estate business capable of luring people to Dead House. One of the boys Amanda and Josh befriend seems to feel bad about what will happen to them, but still attacks them anyway. This boy then appears grateful to be destroyed, but there is no explanation of why. Are the residents compelled? Is there some even more evil presence controlling them? What is the point of frightening Amanda and risking scaring the family away before they can be sacrificed? We never find out. They are simply meant to be spooky. And for a young reader, this might be enough. After all, as a kid, my ability to stay engaged in a story could often be tested if the author appeared to be going off on a long exposition dump or waxing poetic. But writing for adults (and older kids) is different.
Although I was far more forgiving of “Welcome to Dead House”, by the end of “Superstitious”, I was a little annoyed. I never grew to like the main character. I wished that Stine had chosen to shift his focus to Liam and his “sister”/wife Margaret and the horrors of living with a monster that could potentially kill them both at any time. I didn’t understand the need to introduce the detective character since he accomplishes nothing in the story except to provide the reader with occasional updates on the police investigation (which goes nowhere). And at the end of the the story, I was confused as to why Liam would give up his life in an attempt to save Sarah but not Margaret. I was annoyed that I couldn’t connect to any of the characters on a deeper level. They all seemed superficial and pretty terrible.
How could this happen? I was so confused by my disappointment. But as I sat and thought about it more, the answer was very simple.
If you tone down the gore, remove the sex, and reduce the page count by about 100 pages, you’d have a Goosebumps book. And unfortunately, not a particularly noteworthy one.
A grown -up Goosebumps book is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a lot of promise in the Goosebumps series. They are best-sellers for a reason. But “Superstitious” would have been better served if it felt like a Goosebumps book, rather than reading like one. Writing a horror novel for adults that feels like a Goosebumps book, requires maturing the writing style so that it creates the same effect in it’s newer audience.
Although I grew up reading Goosebumps books, this whole process has made me wonder about Stine’s other adult novels and his Fear Street series. Would these stories showcase stories more palatable to older readers, or would it be more of the same? Either way, I’m glad I took the time to revisit these books and this author. It has helped me gain valuable insight into my own progress as a storyteller and a writer.
But for now, I think it’s best to leave my old faves in the past.