In July 1992, R.L. Stine’s first three Goosebumps books (Welcome to Dead House, Stay Out of the Basement and Monster Blood) appeared. “It was the point in my career where I would say yes to anything,” Stine recalled, and he and his wife Jane, founder of the development agency Parachute Press, inked a lucrative contract with Scholastic, Inc. The market for children’s horror was virtually nonexistent, and Stine still considered himself a comedy writer, having published various books and a comedy magazine as “Jovial Bob” Stine. But in publishing Goosebumps, Stine and his publishers struck kid lit gold.
After graduating from Ohio State, Stine moved to New York and bounced between jobs. He wrote for a soda company’s house publication (“a horrible year,” he reflected, “but I was making $140 a week, and I was rich”); he freelanced for various periodicals, including a stint writing erotic fiction for a men’s magazine. For Scholastic, he penned joke books, G.I. Joe tie-in novels, and novelizations of Ghostbusters II and Spaceballs. Jane often collaborated with Stine in these early years, although her brutal honesty (she rejected one of Stine’s manuscripts with the assessment, “psychotic ramblings”) occasionally strained their professional relationship.
Granted, Stine wasn’t exactly struggling in the early ’90s. Although his comedy-writing career burned out (pun-ravaged children’s books like Miami Mice enjoyed only modest sales, while the comedy magazine he edited, Bananas, folded after a respectable nine-year run), Stine co-created the successful Nickelodeon series Eureeka’s Castle with Judy Katschke (which he describes as “like Sesame Street, but we weren’t teaching kids anything”). At his editor’s suggestion, Stine wrote his first teen horror novel, Blind Date, in 1986. Its success encouraged Stine to dive further into the genre; he created the Fear Street series in 1989, already a best-seller for St. Martin’s by the time Goosebumps came along.
Still, when Stine signed a six-book deal with Scholastic in April 1991, neither he nor his publishers anticipated the result. After sluggish sales for the first few books, their popularity skyrocketed; a mixture of word-of-mouth and heavy promotion turned Goosebumps from a risky venture to a phenomenon. Its author became a celebrity, heralded as “Stephen King for Kids,” while its publisher (already bolstered by Nancy Drew, The Magic School Bus, The Baby-Sitters Club and other popular series) achieved unparalleled dominance in children’s literature. Where there’s success, there’s money – and where there’s money, inevitably, there are conflicts.
For years, Goosebumps enjoyed a ubiquitous cultural presence. In the mid-to-late ’90s it was impossible to visit bookstores, libraries, book fairs and even supermarkets without encountering the latest book, with its Tim Jacobus cover art and signature spooky font with raised bumps. Young readers found adolescent protagonists much like themselves battling a variety of malevolent foes: the ever-growing Monster Blood, the body-stealing Haunted Mask, and the series’ breakout star, Slappy the Dummy, who first appeared in Night of the Living Dummy and returned in eight sequels and his own spin-off series. Over 350 million Goosebumps books have sold in the past three decades, making it the second highest-selling children series ever.
Stine’s success didn’t come without controversy. Goosebumps became notorious for frequent bans and challenges from libraries and parent groups who felt the books inappropriate for kids. One Florida woman complained that “these books do absolutely nothing to edify our children, or to promote decent morals, or kindness to one another.” Diana West of the Weekly Standard accused Goosebumps of “stunting the life of the mind before it has even begun.” These challenges did little to stem the series’ popularity; if anything, they granted the books a rebellious allure. More open-minded teachers and parents appreciated that something, even books crawling with werewolves, vampires and evil dummies, inspired their kids to read.
True, there wasn’t much to commend Goosebumps to mature readers. The stories were formulaic, the scares silly rather than threatening, the prose ranging from purple (“It was darker than the darkest night”) to absurd (“Mom said not to worry about losing my brain”) to inexplicably erotic (“He stood very erect, sweat rolling thickly down his emerald body”). Adult characters were invariably menacing or useless; racial and religious minorities were virtually absent. And Stine admits to ignoring character development and moral messages: “I thought it would be great to write a bunch of kids’ books where no one learns and no one grows.”
None of which bothered the target audience. The best Goosebumps delivered exactly what Jacobus’s covers promised: tense, unsettling atmosphere; recognizable settings, from suburban homes to schools to summer camps, invaded by supernatural menace; and protagonists every 12-year-old kid found relatable. If, after awhile, the books seemed silly and predictable, well, that was part of their charm. Alissa Nutting argues that Goosebumps “respect[s] children enough to confirm what they already know: that the world is not always safe. That at times they will be misunderstood. That even well-intentioned adults can inevitably fail children without meaning to…it…helps readers to have more confidence the next time they’re truly afraid in life.”
And books were only the tip of the iceberg. Beginning in 1995, Fox Kids aired a Saturday morning Goosebumps TV series, which proved an instant success (though better-remembered for Jack Lenz’s creepy theme song than its dodgy production values). Around that time Fox also announced a film adaptation, with Tim Burton tapped to produce. And the books inspired mountains of merchandise: video games, trading cards, Halloween costumes, clothing, watches, calendars, notebooks and school supplies, action figures, stage shows, theme park rides, snack food tie-ins – a veritable bonanza for Scholastic, who netted $60 million from merchandising between 1992 and 1996.
Most impressive of all, though, was the sheer volume of Stine’s output. From 1992 through 2000, he produced a new Goosebumps book almost monthly, along with short story collections (Tales to Give You Goosebumps) and a choose-your-own-adventure series called Give Yourself Goosebumps. All this, and Stine found time to publish Fear Street (until 1999), a spin-off called Ghosts of Fear Street, and standalone books like his adult novel Superstitious (1995).
To those who wondered at this productivity, Stine responded that “I’m a machine…I work six days a week. I sit down at the computer, maybe 10 o’clock, and I write 10 pages a day every day.” Jane Stine also had an explanation. “You know the most unusual thing about Bob?” she asked an interviewer. “Most writers like having written, but they don’t really like writing, because it’s really hard. He actually likes writing. He really does enjoy the process. That’s very, very special, and very lucky for him.”
This suited Richard Robinson, Scholastic’s president and CEO, just fine. Son of the company’s founder, Dick Robinson was devoted to Scholastic’s image and reputation; as a former teacher, he took Scholastic’s educational prerogative to heart. Robinson took pride in the company’s affiliations with school book fairs and essay contests, calling the experience “intensely challenging and gratifying.” Though this served a dual purpose: Susan Katz, a HarperCollins executive, lamented that Scholastic “so dominate[d] the book club and book fair market that it gives them an incredible edge” in book sales.
For Robinson was also a shrewd businessman, who’d spent much of his tenure expanding Scholastic into foreign markets and electronic learning programs. “Profitability is not in high-quality hardcovers,” he noted. “The paperback series are where you make the money.” Throughout the Nineties the variety of new series followed, from K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs to Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants, all targeting the same young adult demographic as Stine. But Goosebumps became a victim of its own success, with tensions mounting behind the scenes.
Parachute and Scholastic negotiated a series of interlocking, often-contradictory contracts as the series expanded. On March 2, 1995, just as Monster Blood III hit stores, Parachute licensed non-publication rights to Scholastic, including rights to movie adaptations and promotional campaigns, receiving 6 to 8 percent of the book sales. This netted Scholastic forty licensing deals with a variety of sponsors, from Twentieth Century Fox and Disney to lucrative food brands like Hershey and PepsiCo. They earned over $100 million from Goosebumps in 1995 – little of which made its way to Parachute.
Here, Jane Stine (“she’s like a hockey goalie,” Bob once said, “nothing gets past her”) took charge. On March 5, 1996, she and partner Joan Waricha confronted Robinson at Scholastic, Inc.’s New York headquarters. Stine had known Robinson since their time working together in the ’70s; if she counted on their friendship smoothing negotiations, it didn’t work out. Instead, their meeting devolved into acrimony and threats of legal action, as Stine’s demands that Parachute regain merchandising rights fell on deaf ears. A Scholastic employee who witnessed the scene recalled that “World War III began that day.”
Over the next several years, consultant Woody Browne commented, “Goosebumps was held hostage” as Scholastic and Parachute locked horns. Business deals and merchandise tie-ins fell through; the movie adaptation collapsed; disputes raged over use of the Goosebumps logo (designed by Scholastic employee Holly Rubin) and Stine’s public appearances. The Stines retained entertainment attorney Robert Thorne, best-known for representing child stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Thorne played hardball: he pitched to incredulous Scholastic executives a settlement to grant Parachute $10 million dollars, control of merchandising and a seat on Scholastic’s board of directors. Unsurprisingly, Scholastic refused.
The resultant lawsuits seriously damaged Scholastic: stock prices fell, as did book sales across the board. The atmosphere at the publisher became toxic; massive layoffs occurred along with a cutback in business operations, and recriminations raged. One Scholastic editor told Robinson, “If you hadn’t brought all these tchotchkes in here, we’d be selling books now.” These reverberations expanded outside the company; Glenn Sanislo, a trade writer, noted that Scholastic’s sudden decline “threw the whole juvenile trade segment out of whack.”
Then, in 1997, Scholastic played their trump card: a counter-suit alleging that Stine engaged outside writers to complete Goosebumps manuscripts. As Goosebumps fans have long speculated over whether, which and how many books were actually written by Stine, the relevant court documents make for eye-opening reading. If true, and in fairness there’s significant doubt, the claims are remarkably damaging to Stine.
Per Scholastic, Stine only wrote the first sixteen books, everything through One Day at Horrorland. Afterwards, “the outside writers received a 10-page outline from Stine and converted them into 100-120 page books…The outside writers made the majority of creative and stylistic choices for developing the story lines, the characters and the dialogue. Stine would review the manuscripts and suggest certain changes, which were often minimal.” This violated stipulations in their initial contract that Stine would be the sole author of Goosebumps. Instead, “Scholastic characterizes his role as that of an editor, rather than a writer.”
In his rebuttal, Robert Thorne did not dispute that Stine received assistance. He admitted that Parachute “hired assistants whenever needed to prepare draft manuscripts fleshing out Stine’s 10-12 page outlines,” but insisted that Stine retained creative control over any submissions, “contribut[ing] to the tone, style and humor of each books.” To the degree ghostwriters were involved, Thorne asserted, it was Scholastic’s fault, due to “a monthly delivery schedule, Stine’s need to devote energy to creating new story lines and to his frequent promotional appearances.”
Stine denied then, and continues to deny these accusations. “I wish I had a ghostwriter,” he Tweeted in 2017, but “it’s all me. Every book.” In a Reddit AMA he admitted to receiving help with outlines but insists “I wrote all the GB books myself, believe it or not.” However, Stine did use ghostwriters for other, non-Goosebumps works. The Ghosts of Fear Street books of the late ’90s were largely written by other authors. The difference, of course, is that Ghost of Fear Street writers are credited, whereas each Goosebumps book proclaims Stine its sole author.
Ghostwriting, of course, is common practice in children’s literature. K.A. Applegate, for instance, admits that she employed a rotating team of twelve ghostwriters for Animorphs. In an AMA, Applegate describes her process with bracing candor: “We wrote outlines…and then got all bitchy when we didn’t like what we got…We tended just to sort of slash and burn. Basically without meaning to be we were probably horrible assholes to work with.” Other cases are more elaborate: Nancy Drew was penned by various authors over several decades, all under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene.
More direct evidence concerns two short stories published in Tales to Give You Goosebumps anthologies. Carolyn Crimi, author of numerous picture books for children, lists “Fun With Spelling” (about a girl who uses a magic book to seek revenge on a class bully) on her website along with several Give Yourself Goosebumps adventures. And freelance writer Kathryn Lance blogged about her experiences writing a Christmas-themed story, “Why I Hate Jack Frost,” for More & More & More Tales to Give You Goosebumps.
In fairness to Stine, the evidence is murky and inconclusive, tainted by the acrimony of a bitter lawsuit. If Scholastic’s account is accurate, Stine not only violated his contract but, by submitting others’ work as his own, acted unethically. Being more charitable, it’s possible that Stine substantially wrote most, or all official Goosebumps books while farming out subsidiary material (short stories, etc.) to freelancers. Considering the time constraints he worked under, few would blame him; though it’s still difficult to condone denying his assistants credit or recognition.
Nor were these the only legal issues Scholastic encountered. Tim Jacobus, whose spooky, stylish cover art graced 60 of the original 62 Goosebumps books, was slapped with an intellectual property suit in 1997 by artist Gregory Speirs. Speirs accused Jacobus of stealing Curly, the franchise’s skeleton mascot, from a character he’d created called Skully. The Judge sided with Scholastic after a year-long investigation, accepting Jacobus’s explanation that he’d created Curly first and that the skeleton’s design was, at any rate, too generic to warrant detailed scrutiny.
In December 1997, the original Goosebumps wrapped up with Monster Blood IV; nonetheless, Scholastic engaged Stine for further collaborations. “It is quite unpleasant,” Jane Stine said, “but we still work with them every day.” Behind the scenes, she and Bob argued over the lawsuit and his decision to continue working with Scholastic. On one occasion, Jane said, “I threw him in the closet…and left the apartment.”
The Scholastic-Parachute collaboration finally collapsed with Goosebumps Series 2000. This series, which began in January 1998, attempted to recapture Goosebumps‘ now-older readers with darker, more violent story lines. Stine encountered more interference from Scholastic editors, who threw out his manuscripts and constantly pressed him to make the books “scarier.” It didn’t work; by 2000 annual Goosebumps sales dropped to 200,000 books, far from the four million copies a year during the series’ heyday. “The kids got tired of them,” Stine admitted sadly.
In early 2000, Scholastic terminated Stine’s contract and abruptly ended Series 2000 (originally slated for 40 books, only 25 were actually published). Dick Robinson concluded that “we’ve learned to be wary of phenomena and run our business carefully…We’re being more cautious with the merchandising and licensing programs and letting it build.” Despite Scholastic’s short-term losses, they recouped by focusing on series which debuted less frequently, maintaining kids’ attention without burnout. Among them was Harry Potter, the only kid lit franchise bigger than Goosebumps.
Scholastic and Parachute finally reached a settlement in January 2003, in which Scholastic received all rights to Goosebumps in exchange for a $9.65 million payout to Parachute. Jane Stine announced that “I’m happy with the way things turned out and excited about the future,” as her husband plunged into new projects like The Haunting Hour and Mostly Ghostly. Robinson proclaimed himself “pleased that Scholastic will be able to continue to develop the franchise for years to come”; reprints of the original books racked up respectable sales from new readers and nostalgic Millennials alike.
In 2008, R.L. Stine and Scholastic collaborated to bring Goosebumps back. The resultant series, labeled Goosebumps HorrorLand, differed from the original books in having an over-arcing story line to connect the books and characters. The first book, Revenge of the Living Dummy, sold 184,000 copies; bolstered by internet sales and promotions, subsequent books continued the pace. Though the HorrorLand arc finished in 2011, Stine continues to produce Goosebumps – though at a more leisurely pace than the monthly schedule of the original series’ heyday.
With Goosebumps still going strong eleven years later, it appears that the bad blood between R.L. Stine and Scholastic has been resolved, or at least muted. Dick Robinson remains in charge at Scholastic and seems happy with a franchise whose revival has inspired increased sales, a fresh wave of merchandise and two successful films. As for Stine, for all the accolades, sales and occasional controversy, he’s most happy to have fulfilled his wish of helping kids “have a really good time reading.”
Note: Thanks to Mikey/Spongey445, Goosebumps aficionado and curator of the Out of Context Goosebumps Twitter account, for the inspiration and encouragement. Many of the articles linked here were found through the Goosebumps Wiki.