It’s plain to see that 90s kid lit is enjoying a renaissance right now, and the king of the paperbacks back in the day was R. L. Stine. Writing at a breakneck pace, he churned out sixty-two mainline Goosebumps books as well as dozens of spin-offs and other titles. Stine’s series made horror accessible to audiences too young for R-rated fare, taking a variety of terror tropes and giving them young adult twists.
With the second Jack Black-starring Goosebumps movie set to hit theaters, we pulled out the library card and reacquainted ourselves with the freaks and beasts of the original book series. Here are definitive picks for the eleven absolute best.
Dark Falls Zombies
The very first Goosebumps book, Welcome To Dead House, came roaring out of the gate with a high-end group of monsters. The entire population of the quaint little city of Dark Falls are actually undead zombies who need to feed on fresh blood. One house in town is rented out to newcomers — in the book it’s the Bensons, who move in to a creepy house in the neighborhood. The kids quickly make friends, only to discover that they’re all dead — the murdered residents of that very same house, who now need to kill and devour someone new every year to maintain their eldritch existence. The fear of moving to a new town is something kids are very familiar with, and giving it a supernatural twist was a stroke of genius.
Amorphous foes are always terrifying, and the green ooze known as Monster Blood is a great example. Debuting in the third Goosebumps book, Monster Blood is a gelatinous substance found by Evan Ross and his buddy Andy in an old toy store. But this is no Silly Putty – anything the slime engulfs, it eats, and when it eats it grows. When his dog Trigger eats some, we learn the second fact about Monster Blood: if other creatures ate it they’d grow to massive size. A number of sequels followed with different permutations of the stuff being eaten by classroom hamsters and growing fangs. The sheer weirdness of Monster Blood made it an irresistible Goosebumps foe.
Goosebumps went to summer camp multiple times — it’s a classic location for scary stories, as Jason Voorhees will happily tell you. In “The Curse Of Camp Cold Lake,” Sarah Maas is a fairly unwilling camper who makes a new friend — a mysterious girl named Della who is a little transparent. You see, Della is a ghost who perished at the camp years ago and haunts the place every summer, trying to lure other girls to their death so they’ll be friends forever. Let’s just get this out of the way right now: if you murder me, I will not be your friend. Sarah manages to get away from Della but the book has a particularly nasty twist ending.
Traditionally mummies are… not all that scary. They’re slow, stupid and susceptible to open flame. But Stine managed to wring a copious amount of terror out of The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb. When young Gabe and his family travel to Egypt on an archaeological expedition, they disturb the tomb of the princess Khala (even stealing her hand!) Needless to say, the mummy maiden isn’t happy from beyond the grave and she deploys a host of staggering, indestructible bandage-wearers to get it back. Throw in a duplicitous member of the excavation team and you’ve got serious danger indeed. The mummies are used sparingly in the story, making them that much more threatening.
When the Morris family gets lost on their way to Zoo Gardens, they take a wrong turn and wind up at a very different kind of theme park. HorrorLand is completely deserted with the exception of the employees — all of whom are bizarre monsters. They have to contend with deadly rides, malignant games and eventually the threat of being tortured to death on live TV. Like many of the best Goosebumps monsters, the Horrors have a ridiculous weakness — being pinched makes them immediately deflate into nothingness — but they’d show up time and again in the series.
R.L. Stine loved to play bait and switch with his young readers, and “Beware The Snowman” is a textbook example. From the cover, you’re thinking that a bunch of kids are going to have to face off against a sentient ice creature, but the truth is far stranger. When Jaclyn moves in with her aunt Greta in a small Arctic village, she remembers a nursery rhyme about a cave-dwelling snowman. Surprise! It’s real and it also claims to be Jaclyn’s father. When the snowy coating melts, the beast is actually revealed as a bizarre demonic lizard-beast that thirsts for blood. He’s stopped by the timely intervention of a real snowman army, but things got pretty hairy there for a minute.
One of the most iconic monsters in the Goosebumps franchise, Slappy is also one of the few who has anchored more than one book. Unsurprisingly, he’s also the antagonist in both movies. Carved out of coffin wood, Slappy seems like an ordinary puppet. When a poor sucker reads the words “Karru Marri Odonna Loma Molanu Karrano,” it brings Slappy to life and sets him on a path of horrific revenge. Once animated, Slappy has the power to control the minds of his owners, letting him get them into all sorts of trouble. His cinematic incarnation is responsible for releasing all of the other Goosebumps monsters into the world as well. Despite being destroyed multiple times, Slappy continues to return to bedevil unsuspecting children.
R.L. Stine had a definite formula for many of the Goosebumps books, where he’d hold off on anything supernatural until the final act and let his main characters twist in the wind as they wondered if they were losing their minds. The Scarecrow Walks At Midnight does just that, with city slickers Jodie and Mark coming to their grandparents’ farm for the summer and meeting farmhand Stanley, who at first seems slow but actually worked dark magic to animate the farm’s terrifying scarecrows. Of course, once you’re walking around you might as well murder people, and the book’s climax is tense and thrilling.
The Haunted Mask
In a particularly gory detail for this age group, the titular Haunted Mask in the book of the same name is actually made from human skin. When scaredy-cat Carly Beth Caldwell shops at a mysterious costume store, she comes away with a grotesquely deformed full-face mask that causes her to go on a rampage, strangling a classmate and terrorizing little kids. When she gets home, she finds the mask has fused itself to her face forever, and when she returns to the store owner he tells her the backstory of the cursed thing. She manages to remove it, but Stine would bring the mask back in multiple sequels.
The Werewolf Of Fever Swamp
Stine tackled lycanthropy a number of times in the books, but never as well as in Fever Swamp. When Grady Tucker moves to Florida, he makes friends with a nice fellow named Will, adopts a big dog named Wolf and clashes with a strange hermit in the swamp. When a mysterious beast starts slaughtering deer and causing mayhem, naturally Grady suspects the hillbilly but the truth is far stranger. The werewolf in this book is brutal, violent and merciless, and the ending — where Grady gets bit, put under the lycanthrope’s curse and runs into the swamp to live the rest of his days — is a serious downer.
Yes, Keith. The antagonist of I Live In Your Basement is a spectacularly weird monster, coming fairly late in the series’ run. When young Marco gets clocked in the head with a baseball bat, it starts him on a post-concussion journey of wild hallucinations and memory lapses. It also introduces him to Keith, a little boy who lives in his basement that nobody else can see. Keith just wants to be Marco’s friend, but when Marco starts to question him things get really weird, with the story climaxing as Keith essentially turns himself inside out and spills all his guts on the basement floor. Yuck city.
Ps. Support a struggling genius boy wonder artist by buying his highly collectible NFTs.