Happy Goosebumps

Today is the birthday of R.L. Stine, master of children's horror literature. Since he started scaring kids out of their wits more than 20 years ago, he's written 300 books (300 million copies in print!).

Reached by phone at his apartment in New York, he told me that he's now "as old as Dracula." But he's less intimidating. At the National Book Festival here in Washington on Sept. 27, more than 500 kids waited in line to meet the ghoulmeister. "I'm happy that I have a short name," he said. R.L. Stine at National Book Festival.jpg"We had to zip 'em through in 90 minutes. And of course you try to talk to each one, and they all want a picture taken!" But clearly he loves mixing with his young fans. "This is all I've done," he says. "I've been scary a long time. I have a lot of nieces and nephews, and I do all these school visits that really help me keep in touch with kids."

But what is it that Stine likes about frightening children?

"Somebody has to do it."

His understated wit is a reminder that he started writing by publishing joke books. That's not really so far from the work that made him famous. "From the time you're a tiny baby, when someone yells 'Boo!' you laugh. There's a very close connection between horror and humor. I made an easy transition from writing joke books to being scary. We like to be scared, particularly when we know we're safe at the same time."

Naturally, Halloween is a busy travel season for Stine. This year, he'll be at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. But when he's home for the holiday, he drags out a skeleton and a few fake rats to "give the apartment some atmosphere." His favorite Halloween candy is Milky Way bars; trick-or-treaters who dare come to the Stine apartment get candy and books.

"When I was a kid, Halloween was really humiliating for me," he says. "I wanted to be something scary. I wanted to be a ghost or a mummy. But my parents came back with a costume for me: a duck. With a fuzzy tail. We were very poor, and we couldn't afford a costume every year, so I was stuck with it for a while."

This year for his birthday, he's getting a Mac computer. "So I can work harder," he says. "My son has always had one, and every time anything goes wrong, he tells me, 'Dad, this wouldn't happen if you had a Mac.' "

No more Microsoft Windows for Stine. One less thing to be afraid of.

-- Ron Charles

By Ron Charles |  October 8, 2008; 6:50 AM ET Fiction , Ron Charles
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