This past summer, I found an old paper wasp nest in my bedroom window, in the space between the glass pane and the screen. I called the exterminator, who extracted the wedge-shaped lump of pulp with a crowbar and asked me if I wanted to keep it. “OK,” I told her. (Saying no seemed rude somehow, like refusing a gift.) I put the nest on my night stand and shuddered every time I looked at it.
On the day that I finally threw it out, I’d just read “Why I’m Afraid of Bees,” an entry in the “Goosebumps” series of B-horror books for kids by R.L. Stine. In this particular tale, a milquetoast underdog named Gary Lutz exchanges bodies with a bee through a mishap reminiscent of “The Fly.” Like Stine’s other stories, this one has a neat resolution. Gary regains his body, and along the way secures a measure of respect from the neighborhood bullies.
The cover of the book features an illustration of a boy’s shocked face on a bee’s body, below the tagline: “He’s no ordinary human bee-ing. … ” The first time I saw it, I laughed out loud. I am mortally terrified of bees and wasps, but absurd body horror made my terror manageable, even funny. For a moment, I imagined that the nest on my night stand was once occupied by bewildered bee-people, victims of botched body swaps, and that, like Gary Lutz, the whole hive had evacuated unscathed: no ordinary human bee-ings. I saluted them as I tipped the empty nest into the garbage.
Here are some other acquaintances of mine renewed in the course of a pandemic year: a haunted mask that melds with its wearer’s skin; a can of something called monster blood; a ventriloquist’s dummy, come to life. I’ve been meeting them in the hour before I go to sleep each night, in the pages of “Goosebumps” books. I started resurrecting these monsters a year ago, after reading an old Times profile of Stine, and have made steady progress through the series despite my guilty awareness that I aged out of their target readership more than a decade ago. But revisiting them in the depths of quarantine-induced doldrums, I quickly developed an earnest appreciation for their variety (there are more than 200 books) and extreme readability (they seem made to be devoured in single sittings). The monsters, wildly imaginative, don’t condescend to a 10-year-old’s sensibilities — or a 24-year-old’s. Instead, they offer a kind of escapism that has proved especially necessary in recent times.
Thanks to “Goosebumps,” I’ve been able to replace some of the real horrors of the past year with fears outlandish enough to laugh at. In large part, this is because my former terror of Stine’s monsters has mellowed into an appreciation for their nightmare logic. My favorite among the “Goosebumps” books, for sheer gross-out factor and absurdity, is “The Horror at Camp Jellyjam,” about an underground-dwelling slime blob called King Jellyjam that sweats snails and relies upon the ministrations of preteen summer campers to keep himself clean. He eventually succumbs to his own stench when the campers refuse to continue mopping up his snail sweat. The story reminded me of the “Goosebumps” books’ unspoken rule: Monsters mostly stay within their own circles of hell — the ghoul in its manse, the swamp thing in its swamp. (King Jellyjam never leaves his subterranean lair.) This separation means that the horrors of a “Goosebumps” book are carefully circumscribed, that the stories are imbued with a sense of narrative coherence more commonly associated with fairy tales. Reading them is like watching a magician saw his assistant in half, secure in the knowledge that Stine, the magician, is to be trusted. No matter how bad things might seem in the middle of the act, you feel certain that all will be neatly resolved by its end.
My parents, scientists by training and disposition, remain confused by my fascination with “Goosebumps.” But what they don’t understand — and what I didn’t realize until recently — is that the books are really a bulwark against the dulling of the weird and fearsome. In general, age has had a flattening effect on fear. The things that scare me have become less shocking, more pervasive; accordingly, the boundaries between the real and the horrific have become more porous. Boogeymen and under-bed monsters have long since been replaced by more pedestrian concerns: dark alleyways, shouted slurs. My responses to these fears have become diminished, too. I let my worry gnaw at me until I can be bothered to change my walking route. I feign deafness and move more quickly down the sidewalk. You can learn a lot about people by the things that scare them. I think that elementary-school-me would be disappointed in today-me — When did I become so boring? So timid? — but she might come to understand that many truly scary things tend to be banal, and are terrifying because they are so commonplace and probable.
Still, she would have wanted me to fear imaginatively, and to devise equally imaginative ways to vanquish those fears. The “Goosebumps” books have been useful toward that end. At night, before drifting off to sleep, I revisit a small army of fantastic horrors that have begun to feel like old friends — King Jellyjam and his cohort. Their stories used to keep me awake into the early hours of the morning. Now they lull me to sleep.
Madelyne Xiao is a graduate student at Princeton University.