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Saturday, 31 October 2015

Editorial: The Joy of Goosebumps

Editorial: The Joy of Goosebumps.

We all know Goosebumps. That's not me using hyperbole, that's just a logical extrapolation from the fact that they were bestselling books in Europe, Australia, and the US; and moderately well selling books in Canada, most of Asia, and significant chunks of Africa. 

RL. Stine's children's horror novels, originally intended as a six book series but later ending up with nearly a hundred books (if you include the Choose Your Own Goosebumps books and the Goosebumps 2000 books) redefined what bestselling is, selling not only copies in the hundreds of millions, but also spawning a television adaptation, comic books, and several video games. There's even an upcoming film based on the series.

Which is odd, because actually, they weren't very good.

Put the pitchforks away, it's true. The defining feature of the Goosebumps books was that if you had read one, you had functionally read them all. A white middle-class American kid (or two) discovers something that seems wondrous (it could be a location, an item, or occasionally a person), but who actually turns out to be sinister some time around the end of the second act. The either vanquish the sinister item/person or escape the sinister location using some kind of painfully obvious trick (yes, I do remember the Evil Comic Book story where the solution was just dipping the comic in water so that the ink ran), and then there's a hint at the end that the evil is not truly gone and will be returning at some point to cause havoc once again.

Perhaps the series' most baffling feature was its attempt to translate the horror film convention of Cat Scares - where there's a build-up to something scary happening, culminating in a jump scare that is revealed to have actually been some regular, non-scary thing - into literary form. The first six or so chapters would always end on something ominous, like 'And then a monster rose from the closet, screaming,' before the next chapter would begin with '... But it was actually just his Dad, dressed as a monster.' It got to the point where even its audience, primarily composed of small children, were rolling their eyes a bit.

So, why was it so popular?

Well, for many children, it was our gateway to horror - a foundation on which later, slightly more serious novels like the Point Horror series would build upon. Goosebumps books used tried and true horror plotlines, but did so in a way that wasn't really scary, wasn't really threatening, and was perfectly suitable for children. 

It was deliberately, cleverly defanged horror, developing an interest in the genre in children without ever really pushing their boundaries - and while it is important to have children's media that pushes and challenges them, it's just as important to give them media which is safe, friendly, and harmless, where they can develop their tastes. 

Which is not even mentioning that in a children's literature market saturated with moralising books about how to do right (which are important, mind, but which can be overwhelming if they're all you have), Goosebumps never tried to push a moral agenda on its reader. If there was ever any message, it was things like 'Maybe just burn the evil, talking puppet,' or 'Summer camps aren't fun if everyone is dead,' and frankly those are common sense messages that anybody can appreciate. Goosebumps didn't need to justify its presence by being a positive influence on children: It was just fun, with no expectations attached to it.

(Which did not remotely stop people in the US trying to get it banned, on the grounds that it was somehow encouraging Satanism.)

Goosebumps may have never been structurally amazing, or great literary works of art, but they not only got children reading, they kept them reading - children who read Goosebumps inevitably graduated on to other, more difficult books, and a large part of that was that Stine's books (which were simple, fun, and short enough to read in a single sitting) had given them a fantastic place to develop their reading skills and their love of literature.

The best part is that Stine is still writing: The last Goosebumps books came out in 2012, and while the man takes long breaks quite often, he eventually always starts putting out more work, so that new generations of children can enjoy his stuff. The man is basically a one-man factory, churning out admittedly sub-par works on a schedule that would make most authors weep.

So, here's to RL. Stine and Goosebumps. You may not be high art, but your work is truly appreciated, not just by me and by an entire generation of people worldwide, but also by Scholastic, since you make up something like fifteen percent of their revenue and are their most successful series. That publishing house will literally die without you, Stine. They will actually perish.

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