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"How do I make hamsters scary?"
These are the types of thoughts that occupy the mind of writer R.L. Stine, and with good reason.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Stine's beloved children's series, "Goosebumps," boasts more than 100 titles. To dig into new ideas, Stine will start with the name of a book and then flesh out the story, which occasionally means asking some tough questions.
"I was walking the dog in the park and this title popped in my head, this 'Goosebumps' title, 'Little Shop of Hamsters.' Great title, right? I don't know where it came from. ... I'm just walking the dog and then I had to start thinking, 'How do I make hamsters scary?'" Stine said.
Since the first book, 1992's "Welcome to Dead House," Stine and "Goosebumps" have become household names.
The series' tone of campy creepiness was inspired by Stine's diet growing up of "Tales from the Crypt" comic books, authors such as Ray Bradbury and episodes of "The Twilight Zone."
"If you look at those comics from the '50s, those horror comics, they're a complete blend of horror and humor," Stine said. "They all have funny twist endings and all kinds of plays on words and hidden things in the drawings and they're a great combination, and it's basically what I do."
Today, Stine's name can be found attached to more recent TV shows and book series, including "R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour" and "Rotten School," respectively.
When he first began writing "Goosebumps," it was a four-book deal that Stine said "sat on the shelves." At the time, Stine's credits included several books such as his "Fear Street" series and serving as head writer for the Nickelodeon show "Eureeka's Castle." Then, out of nowhere, "Goosebumps" came to life.
At its height, "Goosebumps" was selling 4 million books each month, and Stine said kids spreading the word to one another were to thank.
On April 21, Stine will take part in the Bethesda Literary Festival, crafting a ghost story with young fans, telling his own "true" ghost story, reading and signing books at Bethesda Elementary School. Running from April 20 to April 22 at various locations in Bethesda, the free festival also will feature authors such as Thomas L. Friedman, Judith Viorst and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson.
Stine said children enjoy "Goosebumps" because the books promise "safe scares."
"They know they're going to have this creepy adventure. They're going to go out and have fun and it's going to be pretty scary," Stine said. "But they know it's never going to go too far."
In the past, Stine has been careful walking the tightrope of child-friendly terror. In an early "Goosebumps" tale, "The Girl Who Cried Monster," Stine was told by his editors that he might have raised a hair too many.
"When I first wrote the book, she sees a librarian eat a kid and she realizes he's a monster [and] 'I've got to tell people.' But my editors felt that was going too far," Stine said. "That was one case they thought that was too much, so we changed it. The librarian, in the final book, he's got a bowl of live turtles on his desk and every once in a while she sees him reach over, pop a turtle into his mouth and crunch it and eat it."
"Goosebumps" is a monster that refuses to die. Its current incarnation, "Goosebumps Hall of Horrors," takes place inside HorrorLand, which Stine sees as the anti-Disney World.
The classic villains of "Goosebumps" can be found in the series before "Hall of Horrors" that bears the name of the evil theme park. The most famous villains also will be featured in the series "Goosebumps: Most Wanted" this fall. One of Stine's favorite characters is Slappy the Dummy.
"Slappy the Dummy is really fun to write because he's incredibly rude. You can write all these insult jokes and he's just so mean," Stine said. "He's just a really fun character to write. You can go a little bit further with him, because he's a dummy."
Another favorite evildoer, The Haunted Mask, will be the subject of the series' first hardcover "Goosebumps Wanted: The Haunted Mask," which is scheduled to come out in July. Stine also keeps a haunted mask and fake skeleton in his office to help with his writing.
"I have a giant two-yard-long cockroach. Maybe not quite two yards, maybe four feet long. ... And I have a skeleton, and the skeleton is wearing The Haunted Mask," Stine said. "I can see it every minute."
In October, Stine will release an adult novel for the fans he attributes with his initial rise in the '90s. Titled "Red Rain," the book follows in the footsteps of Stine's previous mature fare like "Superstitious," and documents "extremely" evil children and their unsuspecting parents.
"It's a real novel for adults. It's very violent and it has sex; it's not a book for kids. That was fun for me. It was a nice change of pace," Stine said.
Although his first readers have aged, the things that go "bump" in the night have not.
"When we started writing 'Goosebumps,' people didn't walk around with phones in their pockets and they weren't online," Stine said. "All the technology has changed, but your basic fears all the stuff that we write about in 'Goosebumps,' the basic fears of being afraid of the dark, being afraid that somebody's lurking under your bed ready to grab you, something in the closet those things never change."