Welcome to 52 Fear Street, McNally Jackson’s month-long celebration of R.L. Stine. Join us on October 30th for an evening with Mr. Stine himself and his Fear Street editor Kat Brzozowski, and follow the #52FearSt tags on tumblr and Twitter to hear what authors, booksellers, and editors have to say about Fear Street and Goosebumps.
Today’s post comes to us from Kate Milford, McNally Jackson Children’s Book Specialist and author of The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and Greenglass House, which has just been named to this year’s National Book Award long list. You can order a signed copy of Greenglass House via our website.
Traumatized and Elated
I read RL Stine for the first time for this post, and here’s what happened: in basically every single way, the house of horrors won.
It was awesome.
Somehow I missed RL Stine as a kid. No idea how that happened. It wasn’t like I wasn’t the right age at the right time, because basically anyone who’s been 13 and up anytime in the last thirty years was the right age at the right time. Who knows? I was definitely reading scary stuff in those days. That was during the phase where I wanted to be a writer of horror and suspense tales in particular. They were dark days, the days of years twelve and thirteen. My songwriting career hadn’t taken off the way I had hoped—Debbie Gibson wasn’t returning my letters—and my epic fantasy novel just wasn’t progressing past the first couple of chapters. Plus, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I was probably never going to meet and fall in love with that Jordan kid from New Kids on the Block. I was feeling drawn to Lovecraft and Poe, but more because I knew they were supposed to be scary than because I really grasped the horrors they described. I would have loved RL Stine.
But whatever. No use mourning the youth I could have had if I’d gotten my hands on these books sooner. Here I am, twenty-odd years later, and along came Cristin Stickles and this assignment: read an RL Stine title and write a thing about it. I picked 99 Fear Street: The House of Evil, The First Horror. I picked it because I thought, oh, hey, I just spent a lot of time writing about a cozy, wonderful house in which mysteries happen. Spending time with that house’s evil twin sounds like fun.
In the course of reading this book, I learned that it is actually possible to write a book for young readers in which EVERY BAD THING HAPPENS AND NOTHING GOOD HAPPENS AT ALL, NOT EVER, NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT. Why didn’t anyone tell me this? This is a game-changer.
All right, yes, Cally does kiss Anthony at one point. I suppose that counts as something good. Then they have dinner together, although Cally’s twin sister Kody tags along because poor Kody is just always stuck in perfect Cally’s shadow. Then, like a page and a half later, Anthony’s hands get sucked into the DISH DISPOSAL AND HE LOSES TWO FINGERS THAT CALLY HAS TO REACH IN AND FIND AMONG THE REMAINS OF DINNER. That’s right. There’s a bloody, pulpy, down-two-fingers hand maybe three pages after Cally smooches Anthony. Awesome.
Here’s what else happens. Backing up to the beginning, Mom and Dad buy a fixer-upper house for their family of five without ever letting the kids see it. Not surprisingly, the kids hate it—which should not, you know, surprise anyone because it is, after all, the aforementioned House of Evil. Then there’s a bunch of stuff that really ought to tip everybody off that getting out of there would be a good idea. There are unnaturally aggressive rats in the basement. A window attempts to crush Kody’s hands (and this is even before she starts getting really whiny and makes us all wish we could shut a window on her). Some invisible presence wrests a ladder from Cally and knocks it over while Kody’s at the top. Dad stabs himself in the side with a carving knife. Little brother James’s new puppy goes missing, although everyone can hear it barking all the time as if it were right there.
Then, as Cally and James are roving the neighborhood searching for the absent pup, they run into Anthony, the dreamboat from the local greasy spoon. Under duress, Anthony clues Cally and Kody in on the truly horrific history of 99 Fear Street. Assorted late-night knockings-on-doors and blood-colored paint spatters later, the shit hits the fan. Not literally, although foul-smelling goo does come bubbling up out of the bathroom sink. While that’s being dealt with, Mom shows up in a blood-spattered nightgown. It’s not her blood—it’s coming down through the ceiling of her room. When Dad goes to investigate the attic, he finds three unattached heads that are not there to be found when the cops show up.
Dad goes pretty much nuts. There’s the thing with Anthony’s fingers. Then James disappears. Like the missing dog, he can be heard calling desperately for help, but he’s nowhere to be found. They try to follow his voice to no avail, and during this frantic search Mom falls down the stairs and breaks her arm so badly the bone skewers through the skin. Dad, meanwhile, is still rushing around in pursuit of James’s disembodied voice and can’t be bothered to care about his wife’s smashed arm. Following his son’s cries, he drags a ladder into the living room, where he’s certain James is somehow up in the ceiling. As he climbs up, a misty spectral presence, a shadow hand, reaches down through a hole in the ceiling and wraps itself around his face, blinding him instantly. And that brings us to the part where Cally dies.
Yeah, Cally dies! In fact, she dies horribly, drowning in a pool of some terrifying protoplasmic black tarry stuff that opens up at her feet. Kody tries to save her but can’t (live with that for the rest of your life, Kody). As Cally dies, she gives in to the evil of the house, so that when she emerges, she’s a furious, vengeful ghost. The family moves away after her funeral, but James is never found, Dad’s still blind, and poor Kody you just know is going to be in therapy forever. We close as ghost-Cally watches the next family move in, and starts plotting horrors to visit upon them. The house…wins.
I mean, this is only the first of the House of Evil books, so it’s entirely possible that in the next book, or the one after that, Cally is somehow redeemed or the house at least is neutralized and burned to the ground or something, or maybe the next family manages to find their kid after the house sucks him into the walls. But in this one, the house wins. I finished reading at one in the morning both traumatized and elated. Nobody told me you could get away with this kind of thing in kidlit. RL Stine, where have you been all my life? I really feel that I could have borne the traumas of my middle-school years a lot better if I’d known there was some properly cathartic, properly horrifying literature right there at my fingertips. Even now, I’m kind of itching to raid Cristin’s stash of Fear Street books in search of 99 Fear Street: The Second Horror.
But what if the good guys win this time? I think if that happens, I might actually be a little disappointed.