Another Stab at Chills!

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Just a couple of years ago, R. L. Stine was the most popular children's author in publishing history. He sometimes received 2,000 letters a week from his readers, and young fans mobbed his appearances at bookstores, eager to glimpse the scary grownup, dressed all in black, who churned out monthly novels for creepy series called "Goosebumps" (aimed at readers 8 to 12) and "Fear Street" (10 to 14), which in turn led to scads of merchandising goodies, a hit kids' TV show on the Fox network and an exhibit at Disney World.

Then, something appropriately eerie happened to Stine. He didn't exactly disappear or, as a "Goosebumps" book might put it, "Vanish without a trace!" (It's hard to be invisible when there are more than 300 million copies of your books in print.) But he did all of a sudden turn pretty ectoplasmic, a ghost of best-sellers past, bumping around in the publishing basement, listening to the patter of tiny feet as his millions of former readers rushed to buy the latest Harry Potter.

Stine, 56, could easily have rested on his residuals and remarkable achievement. He is enshrined in the Guinness World Records 2000 Millennium Edition as the author of the world's top-selling children's series. At the peak of his fame, he realized that the success of "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street" was transitory. "Kids move on," he told an interviewer for the New York Times in 1995. "In 10 years, they won't be buying these books anymore. They'll be into something else. I think I'll be doing some other things too."

Stine's prophecy got the drift of the future right but erred on the details. It took far less than a decade for droves of young readers to desert his two series; and the other things he foresaw himself doing turn out to look spookily like the things he was doing before.

This week Stine is launching yet another series of chill-inducing novels for adolescents and precocious younger siblings. He has a new running title, "The Nightmare Room," and a new publisher, HarperCollins. Stine insists that he is not in the business of repeating himself: "I always describe 'Goosebumps' as a roller-coaster ride, all the twists and turns and crazy things jumping out at you. I see 'The Nightmare Room' more like a fun house. You step inside this place, and everything seems normal at first. And then you look and you see, ah, the floor is tilted. And then it looks like the walls are closing in on you... You're not in your old reality."

Roller coaster or fun house, the first two books in the new series, "Don't Forget Me!" and "Locker 13," read like slightly more sophisticated installments of "Goosebumps." Stine's prose is, as usual, simple, his dialogue attuned to the speech of the young ("awesome," "totally lost it," "Duh"). The plots of both involve Stine's trademark: teenagers being frightened witless in a context assuring readers that nothing truly dangerous will occur. As he admits, "There's more teasing than horror in my books."

"Locker 13" is a formulaic combination of junior-high athletics and supernatural intimations. The whole tale seems as overheated as its young hero Luke Greene's reaction when he learns he has been assigned the unlucky locker: "My breath caught in my throat. I started to choke."

But "Don't Forget Me!" shows Stine's knack for unearthing and exploiting the primal emotions of childhood, in this case sibling rivalry. Danielle, 15, can't understand why her parents and friends find her pesky little brother Peter, 9, so endearing. He's always trying to horn in on her fun. When Danielle and a chum are practicing a mock-hypnotism act for a school skit, Peter -- natch -- insists that Danielle hypnotize him. Uh-oh. Not only does little brother go into a trance and come out of it with an alarming loss of memory, but also strange voices start emanating from the basement, calling Peter's name. What has Danielle done to her brother, and will she be able to save him before Mom and Dad return from a short business trip?

The answer to the latter question is never seriously in doubt, but Stine offers a battery of heavy-breathing, vicarious shocks along the way as Danielle struggles with such basic bugaboos as guilt, abandonment and helplessness. And he adds a neat twist at the end suggesting Danielle's strange ordeal may be getting its second wind.

This sort of thing has obviously worked wonders for Stine in the past. Will the "Nightmare" series propel him back to his former sway over kiddie lit? Valerie Lewis, co-owner of Hicklebee's Children's Books in San Jose, Calif., thinks not. "His popularity peaked at 'Goosebumps,'" she says. Of the new books, she adds, "We'll have them in the store. But we probably won't be having big displays of them." Yet Camilla Corcoran, a children's books buyer for Barnes & Noble, is bullish on a Stine revival with "Nightmare": "We are definitely expecting it to be big."

J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter have, of course, shaken up the landscape of children's literature and publishing. Rowling's books are more ambitious and challenging than Stine's. That simply means the two authors do their jobs in different ways, but Rowling's method is currently the gold standard. Stine professes himself "thrilled" by Rowling's success and not at all envious, but expresses impatience at those who have praised the Potter books for finally enticing boys to read: "It surprises me that people have such a short memory. It was only a couple of years ago when boys were going nuts for 'Goosebumps.'"

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