Calling R.L. Stine was frightening.
It's strange to think that he really exists – with hundreds of books under his belt, he's always seemed more like a monument than a real person, though he's enough of a real-person monument that Jack Black will play him in a movie next year.
Also it's weird to hear a voice that has always been inside your head.
Like millions of kids born in the mid-eighties and beyond, I grew up reading Goosebumps, the scary novellas Stine has been publishing for more than two decades, before graduating to Fear Street, the teen horror series with covers like bloodier tampon ads.
I borrowed them every week from the public library (it makes me sad now to think of the Nancy Drew collection my Mom put together for me, then watched me ignore).
Talking to Stine, it turned out, wasn't scary at all – quite the opposite – although I got off the phone feeling sadder than nostalgic.
This week, Stine published his first Fear Street novel since the nineties.
His Twitter followers had been at him to revive the series; when Stine said he couldn't find a publisher, an editor got in touch, and Party Games, the first of a six-book revival, was born.
The story is narrated by Rachel Martin, a 17-year-old whose crush, Brendan Fear (spelled "Fier" historically), invites her to his birthday party on secluded Fear Island.
It is incredibly scary.
"People always [ask], 'Have kids changed in all the time you've been writing these books?' And I say, the
technology has changed, a lot, but the kids are the same," says Stine, who seems kind. (When I asked him what per cent evil he is, he laughed big and said, "100.")
"And luckily for me, the fears all stay the same. Afraid of the dark, afraid somebody's under your bed, afraid somebody's lurking in the closet, afraid some horrible creature's gonna come out of the woods. That never changes."
Stine started his career as a comedy writer, penning joke books for kids under the name Jovial Bob Stine and editing a "zany humour magazine" called Bananas.
He wrote his first horror
novel, Blind Date, on a suggestion from an editor, and while he's stuck to the genre ever since, his books are still jovial. ("When I go to a scary movie, I'm always the one in the theatre who's laughing," he says, and never so hard as at Evil Dead 2.)
When he feels like a Goosebumps scene is getting too real, or too intense, he'll throw in a joke to leaven it.
The Goosebumps books are legitimately frightening – kids see their loved ones transform into monsters, or learn that they've been ghosts all along – but there's an important distinction between scaring kids and freaking them out.
"I leave out a lot of the real world in Goosebumps," Stine says.
"You know, there are all kinds of issues that kids have to face that I wouldn't put in a Goosebumps book because it's supposed to be entertaining. I don't even have divorce in Goosebumps."
Fear Street is less fantastical – the older the reader, Stine says, the more realistic the world has to seem – and unlike Goosebumps, its characters die in action ("I get to kill off a lot of teenagers; that's always fun"). Still, the books have very little to do with what teens actually deal with.
In Party Games, Rachel's ex-boyfriend Mac, who has anger-management issues, stalks out of the dark and grabs her from behind, but the greater menace is someone's dead aunt.
Stine, who is 70, was raised by blue-collar parents in Ohio.
"I was very fearful and very shy, which is a terrible way to go through life as a child, and I think the reason I stayed in my room typing all the time."
His idols were TV comics such as Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, but every Saturday, he would go to the cinema with his brother to watch monster movies.
"The Brain that Wouldn't Die. Attack of the Crab Monsters. The Creature Walks Among Us," his voice rises a little, like a kid's. "Creature from the Black Lagoon. I loved all of those." I asked if being fearful by nature heightened the appeal.
"Yeah. I think it was the same kind of escape that my readers get. The fact that you're seeing these monsters and these horrible things and you're okay at the same time."
Stine admires The Hunger Games, but prefers "kitchen horror" to the dystopian subgenre, which is both too real and not real enough.
"I always say my books are safe scares," he says.
"Because you're having these horrible adventures, and horrible creepy things are happening, but you're home, and you're reading in your room. You're safe at the same time."
It's scarier, on a gut level, when a book's premise could play out in your own backyard, but there's comfort in a novel that reaffirms the familiar.
In dystopian books, "the world is falling apart. And I like to read books where the world is still there."
Here is where the sadness is. There's raw nostalgia in cracking the spine of a Goosebumps book and feeling the lettering across the cover, but more crushing is the phantom reassurance – remembering those books brings me back to a feeling of basic okay-ness, the sense that my world was as it would always be.
As a kid, I had moments of panic at the dinner table thinking about the world going on without me, but in an R.L. Stine book, death wasn't actual death.
The concept of a ghost is really very comforting, and so, I see in hindsight, is the idea of the world going on without you.
I was lucky to get to believe it would; I was born just in time.
It's nice to know that kids are still scared of the dark.