Ginger Nuts of Horror
I’m both an author and an adult. Due to these factors, I often find myself asked to list the books that made me the man I am today. Because, yes, even for those who don’t write professionally, certain reads can shape us into who we grow up to be. There are Lee readers who became the Atticus’ and Scouts of the real world; just as there will be a generation of Rowling devotees who’ll grow into strong, resourceful Hermiones constantly saving our asses. The weight of literary influence is a beautiful thing, and it’s important to accept the scars such influences leave behind. Scars that stay with you for life. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Let’s begin at the beginning.......
I wasn’t much of a reader. In fact, I don’t think I knew what I was. I certainly wasn’t a budding athlete. I couldn’t catch, and my swimming was only a notch above floating. I guess I was just an open void, gifted with a sense of humor and an attentive ear—enough to see me through. Sure, teachers tried to give me things to read, not that any of them stuck. Sorry, but Bridge to Terrabithia didn’t do it for me; I didn’t care where Blyton’s five went hiking together.
And so on I went, day after day. The proverbial ‘blob’.
One little book changed this. My deep cut. Though for the longest time the scar it left was deliberately hidden. I just didn’t think it was cool enough. I hid it in my own inner black box, accessible only after the inevitable crash that comes to us all. And there my deep cut remained… until about five years ago, when I thought to myself: fuck it, I am an adult! I’m an author! I can love what I damn well want.
So here it is, folks. The truth laid bare:
It was Stay Out of the Basement by R.L. Stine. My first Goosebumps book. I still remember the cover—a grotesque, weedy hand reaching around a door. And of course, above this, the telltale dripping text spelling out the series’ name. Yes, this tale of mad scientists and pre-pubescent sleuthing had me hook, line, and Stine.
Reading that book, and the subsequent Goosebumps stories, changed words for me. They were not just a random assembly of ink splatters on the page, like some kind of Rorschach test in which all I ever saw was boredom. No, this was different. Those words were coming together. Believe it or not, they were forming sentences. Sentences, I tell you! Things were clicking, a wonderful sensation. It didn’t end there. My head started to fill with imagery—why, it was just like a movie, only I got to choose the cast, the music, and even on special occasions, the ending.
I don’t think I can accurately convey how important this revelation was. See, I was no longer just ‘the blob’ anymore. Stine had lent me an edge, defined me somehow, as he did an entire generation (it turns out). All of a sudden, I didn’t have to be able to catch a ball from ten yards; I didn’t have to risk drowning for the sake of a little blue ribbon congratulating both my participation and survival. I could read now. And I was getting better at it by the page.
I collected every Goosebumps book I could find, and I remember the fervent anticipation of the next. What possible craziness did the author have in store for us? What would the cover be like? So many questions, questions filled by nightmare-inducing answers.
For a long time, I was satisfied. But eventually the novelty faded. I moved from Goosebumps to Stine’s formidable Fear Street, where—gulp—teenagers sometimes died. I was excited again. This kept me going for quite some time.
But that muscle, damn it. That troublesome muscle needed more weight behind it in order to keep on growing. So again, I moved on. I had to. Stine faded from my bookshelves, though not from my memory.
This brings us to today. I’m sitting in a crowded room, surrounded by people in designer eyewear, people with intimidating haircuts. Some of them are my friends. “So what’s the book that got you into reading?” they ask, leaning forward, bringing with them a tide of expectation.
Do I dare tell the truth? It’s a loaded question, after all. In asking, people often expect gravitas, not the gutter (because let’s face it, that’s what so much of the world thinks horror is).
But I shrug my skepticism off. I don’t care what people think anymore. As we’ve established, I’m old enough to buy my own beer. I’m just talented enough to get my books on shelves around the world. The scar my deep cut left behind isn’t half as ugly as I once thought. In fact, I’m kind of proud of it. Stine’s popularity is on the rise again. He’s received awards and commendations for his contribution to the art of writing over the years. It’s suddenly become public knowledge as to how formative he’s been to many people.
Now there’s a Goosebumps movie on the horizon, too.
Speaking of which, that trailer looks perfectly fine, albeit a tad lite. I hope the filmmakers remember what it was like to be a kid with a torch reading those books in bed. It was sincerely scary. Personally, I see no reason why kids shouldn’t be exposed to occasional dollops of terror. It’s developmental. A little trauma goes a long, long way. I say this as a child who survived repeat viewings of Return to Oz—though it did leave me with an unfair prejudice against headless women (though on the other hand, I’ve never passed a couch I didn’t think I could turn into a flying device). Staying scared has kept me resourceful. The bottom line is that kids can handle it. We live in Post-Pixar world, after all. If nothing else, Stine taught the kids of my generation that nothing sucks more than being underestimated.
Deep down, I wish Joe Dante was behind the directorial chair on this one, but I’m hopeful, nonetheless. Hopeful, too, that the filmmakers also remember that the original Goosebumps lovers are adults now. So let’s make sure this film is as layered as they come; a veritable parfait of subtext. So the gauntlet’s thrown down, Hollywood. Are you listening?
So worst case scenario is that the film doesn’t live up to expectations. That’s okay! We’re lucky to have it at all. It’ll be fun. Also, let’s not forget that it isn’t alone. There was the great Goosebumps television series from the mid 90s, with its instantly recognizable theme song (dom-dom-doh-doh-dum!) and thinly disguised Canadian accents. In addition, there were a handful of excellent direct-to-video features, such as When Good Ghouls Go Bad, a film so earnest it staggered me. The upcoming movie isn’t a deal-breaker. Nor am I one of those people who think bad films ruin good books.
No. The good shit sticks.
So what made me the person I am today? Well, demonic dolls did, as did renegade garden gnomes. Scarecrows walking at midnight. Abominable snowmen in the suburbs. Alien jack-O-lanterns. Haunted houses. A rotisserie of uprooted kids screaming at surrounding adults to (please, please!) believe them…
Learn to love your scars. They’re with you for life. And worthy of praise.
I write professionally now, a job I truly love. But I would have never put pen to paper were I not a reader first. And I’m a reader because of Goosebumps. I know that as much as anything.
So, yes, my black box has been gladly opened for you all. I’m happy to let the truth be known.
I’m a second-generation Stiner. And I’m just as scared as I ever was.
Aaron Dries is the award-winning author of House of Sighs, The Fallen Boys, and A Place for Sinners. When he's not writing, he's busy working as an illustrator and filmmaker. Drop him a line at www.aarondries.com or tweet him at @AaronDries