Here is other knowledge of mine renewed during a pandemic year: a haunted mask that merges with the skin of the wearer; a box of something called monster blood; a ventriloquist dummy comes to life. I met them within the hour before going to sleep each night, in the pages of the “Goosebumps” books. I started resurrecting these monsters a year ago, after reading an old Times profile of Stine, and have made steady progress on the series despite my guilty conscience that I had surpassed their target readership there. is over ten years old. But revisiting them in the depths of the quarantine-induced doldrums, I quickly developed a serious appreciation for their variety (there are over 200 books) and their extreme readability (they seem made to be devoured in one sitting). . The wildly imaginative monsters don’t condescend to the sensibilities of a 10-year-old – or a 24-year-old. Instead, they offer a sort of escape that has proven to be especially needed lately.
Thanks to Goosebumps, I was able to replace some of the real horrors of the past year with fears that were wacky enough to laugh at. In large part, that’s because my old terror of Stine’s monsters has softened into an appreciation of their nightmare logic. My favorite among the “Goosebumps” books, for the disgusting factor and the absurdity, is “The Horror at Camp Jellyjam”, about a drop of underground mud called King Jellyjam that sweats snails and leans on the care of pre-teens summer campers to keep themselves clean. He eventually succumbs to his own stench when campers refuse to continue wiping off his snail sweat. The story reminded me of the unspoken rule of the “Goosebumps” books: monsters mostly stay in their own hell circles – the ghoul in his mansion, the swamp thing in his swamp. (King Jellyjam never leaves his underground lair.) This separation means that the horrors of a “Goosebumps” book are carefully circumscribed, that the stories are imbued with a sense of narrative coherence more commonly associated with tales of fairies. Reading them is like watching a magician see his assistant in half, sure you know to trust Stine, the magician. No matter how bad things may look in the middle of the act, you are sure that it will all be resolved in the end.
My parents, scientists by training and disposition, remain confused by my fascination with goose bumps. But what they don’t understand – and what I haven’t realized until recently – is that books really are a bulwark against the dullness of the weird and the scary. In general, age had a smoothing effect on fear. The things that scare me have become less shocking, more intrusive; as a result, the boundaries between the real and the horrible have become more porous. Mittens and monsters under the bed have long since been replaced by more pedestrian concerns: dark alleys, shouted insults. My responses to these fears have also diminished. I let my worry eat away at me until I can be disturbed to change my walking route. I fake deafness and move faster on the sidewalk. You can learn a lot about people by the things that scare them. I think elementary school would be disappointing me today – When did I get so boring? So timid? – but she might come to understand that a lot of really scary things tend to be mundane and are terrifying because they are so banal and probable.
Still, she would have wanted me to fear imaginatively and imagine equally imaginative ways to overcome those fears. The Goosebumps books have been helpful for this purpose. At night, before I fall asleep, I revisit a small army of fantastic horrors who have started to look like old friends – King Jellyjam and his cohort. Their stories kept me awake until the early hours of the morning. Now they put me to sleep.
Madelyne Xiao is a graduate student at Princeton University.