The Scarier the Better

updated 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

'I don't write about drugs, abuse or divorce'

ON HIS WAY TO A BOOK SIGNING AT Borders Bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, last April, author R.L. "Bob" Stine got caught in a snarl of traffic so thick that the police had to be summoned. "I thought there had been an accident," says Stine, 51, "until I realized the cars were all filled with kids, and they were coming to see me." That evening Stine settled in for a five-hour marathon, scribbling autographs for about a thousand prepubescent fans. He has since given up book-signing appearances. "This may sound horrible," he says, "but too many kids come. It's just not fair to keep them waiting so long."

Horrible maybe, but not as horrible as the fate of Todd Barstow, who gets trapped in a tub of creepy crawlers in Go Eat Worms, or Claudie Walker, who is buried up to her neck on a beach at high tide in Sunburn. With plots like these and an abiding interest in his young audience, Stine has become the Stephen King of Nickelodeon's Snick set, churning out horror stories that are selling at the shocking rate of 1,250,000 paperbacks a month. The 26 titles in his Goosebump series, where "no one ever dies," are spooky fantasies aimed at 8-to 12-year-olds; his 30 titles in the Fear Street series, where "the mortality rate at the high school is unbelievable," is written for 9-to 14-year-olds. "I've had parents come in here who say, 'My kids never read a book, and now they do,' " says Polly Murphy, proprietor of the Children's Bookshelf in Linglestown, Pa. "Stine is a hero to these kids."

He is a hero who knows that horror is hard work. "For one thing," says Stine, who writes one book every two weeks, "the plots have to be logical. If they get too scary, they get silly, and nobody will believe it. But if they're too believable, then they'll be boring. The hard thing is to make them scary without going over that edge." For inspiration, he says, "you have to try to remember what scared you as a kid."

Stine's boyhood memories are still fresh in his mind. The eldest son of a warehouse shipping clerk, he grew up on the poor side of upscale Bexley, a suburb of Columbus. "We lived in this tiny house three doors from the railroad tracks, surrounded by big houses owned by wealthy people," he recalls. "I felt like an outsider." With a degree in English from Ohio State, Stine moved to New York City's Greenwich Village in 1967 and landed a job with a fan magazine. "The editor would come by in the morning and say, 'Do an interview with the Beatles,' so I'd make up an interview with the Beatles." In 1968 he met his wife, Jane, 48, who now owns a children's publishing company, and took a writing job at Scholastic magazines, which eventually led to the editorship of Bananas, a humor publication for kids. After it folded in 1985, Scholastic's editor-in-chief Jean Feiwel, the creator of the Baby-Sitter's Club concept, suggested he switch from humor to horror. No problem. "People have tried to imitate his work, but it's not easily done," says Feiwel. "Bob really understands kids."

Maybe that's because he hangs out with them. "I spend a lot of time with my son Matthew and his friends," says Stine. "I spy on them, listen to their music, see how they dress." He incorporates 14-year-old Matt's antics into his stories and has even lifted names for his characters from his son's school directory. Matt, in turn, gets back at his old man by refusing to read most of his books. "I'm insulted by that, but that's why he does it, of course," says Stine. Matt's peers, however, can't get enough of R.L. Stine, a fact that has stunned the author. "The money is beyond my wildest dreams," he says. "I don't know what to do with it. Really! How many times can I send Matt to college?" Although Stine's lifestyle hasn't changed with his riches—he still works six days a week and lives in the same three-bedroom apartment he has rented for 23 years on Manhattan's Upper West Side—he concedes that success is pretty cool. "I'm writing more books than Stephen King, and no one over 14 has ever heard of me," he says with a grin. "I like that."

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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