From ages 0-5, I watched a lot of after-school cartoons, like Duck Tales and Tale Spin. I even watched Day of Our Lives with my mom. When I was around 4 or 5 years old, while I was watching the intro to Duck Tales, the tv went blank. It wouldn’t turn on or off anymore, I couldn’t change the channel. The tv was done. We didn’t get another one until I was in middle school.
During that time period, we moved from the small town of Lovelock to the bigger small town of Winnemucca. But rather than find a house within city limits, my family opted to move to a house 30 minutes out of town. We moved to a street that wasn’t even maintained by the county, and it had only one other house on it.
We moved, literally, to the middle of nowhere.
Without a tv and without even a real neighborhood, there wasn’t much for me to do other than read. I read the usual suspects for a girl my age — The Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. And then I read the things that weren’t the usual suspects — Fear Street, Goosebumps, anything Christopher Pike, L.J. Smith, and/or any fictional book that featured a bloody knife or a dead body or anything that looked remotely frightening. What I’m waxing nostalgic about specifically is all things R.L. Stine.
People have a nostalgia for Goosebumps. I read them, too, but by the time Goosebumps came out, I had already read every Fear Street book available at the public library. Goosebumps was dismally tame in comparison.
Goosebumps was too kiddish for me. It was more science fiction lite than spooky, and it didn’t scare me or hold me in suspense the way that Fear Street did. The possibility that my gym teacher or parent could be an alien just didn’t scare me. A ventriloquist dummy that could talk, act, and kill people on its own? Yes, I had a stake in that. That shit was scary.
For my horror reading pleasure, I had some criteria. I preferred the spooky, the supernatural, the unexplained. I could also go for an old-fashioned horror murder mystery — something with more edge/murder/blood than Agatha Christie, but with elements of a whodunit. I liked trying to figure out who the killer was. I needed a little bit of romance and some making out (even if the romantic interest was eventually murdered or turned out to be the murderer). I preferred women as my protagonists, even then. I enjoyed a twist ending as much as the next person.
Now, I said that Goosebumps was more like sci-fi lite. I actually really like sci-fi. I’m not a nerd about it or anything, but I grew up watching the original Star Trek, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine. Obviously, TNG was my favorite because of Deanna Troi, Data, Geordi La Forge, Captain Picard, Commander Riker, etc. (I could probably write a whole thing about TNG, but that’s for another time.)There was a stretch of time when my favorite shows were mostly all on the SyFy channel. I love Firefly and begrudgingly adore Farscape.
Maybe what I mean is that Goosebumps just didn’t have the edge I needed. I needed something dangerous, irreversible, and final. There needed to be something from which there was no coming back. I needed death or something close to it.
I’m no expert, but to me, sci-fi seems to center itself around exploring questions like, “What does it mean to be human?” and how the answers to those questions can build different worlds, different societies, different ways of being. I love all the different ways sci-fi explores humanity, lack of it, otherness, alien-ness, and the darker side of sentient natures.
Horror and the spooky explore what it means to be alive. Not human, but simply alive. It dives into the fight to stay alive and what happens when you don’t win. Sometimes horror explores how we deal with grief and loss, or how the way we treat people can come back to haunt us (literally).
Maybe trying to differentiate between the two is futile. They ask the same questions, but explore them in different ways. I do think, though, that sci-fi explores life, and horror explores death.
My love of horror doesn’t seem to translate to the literary world so much anymore. I don’t know at what point I veered away from reading “genre” fiction and went more toward “literary” fiction. Maybe it was becoming an English major. Maybe it was because there was nothing to transition to. After Fear Street, there didn’t seem to be a more “adult” horror alternative that captured the fun of Fear Street.
(Some of you might be yelling, “Stephen King!” at this point. Yes, I know. I actually really love Stephen King as a person and I like how he talks about writing, but I’ve only read The Stand. I KNOW.)
I’m halfway through the horror short story collection Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt. It’s so fucking creepy, otherworldly, and good. There’s an entire story that’s told in found-footage style, and it doesn’t sound like it should work, but IT DOES.
Greener Pastures reminds me that horror as literature can be so effective and creepy. It activates the imagination in ways that film rarely can. For me, reading creepy shit transforms normal night noises into potential intruders, ghosts, poltergeists, demons. It’s the images in horror lit that have me avoiding mirrors in any dimly lit setting, and spending as little time in darkness as possible.
I don’t have a good conclusion or place to end. I started out wanting to write about Fear Street vs Goosebumps, and ended up thinking more about the difference between sci-fi and horror, and then horror as literature.
At the end of this, I’m going to revisit what Fear Street and Christopher Pike books I can. I just discovered that Fear Street is being reissued with new covers. I’m glad for the re-issues, but I wish they’d leave the covers — they’re so 80s/90s and some of my favorite covers of all time.
After I reread Fear Street and Christopher Pike, I’ll write a follow-up post. (Oh my god, y’all, I’ve forgotten about Diane Hoh and her Nightmare Hall series! WHAT. So many things about myself and my aesthetic are starting to make sense.)
If anyone has suggestions for more horror for me to read, leave them in the comments below.
P.S. Also, there was a teen horror Christmas book — I think the cover had a bloody wreath on it? or a wreath with a bloody knife? — that I really loved but can’t remember the title or the author or anything about it other than a make-out scene in a theater? If anyone can give me any leads, please. Do. It’s starting to bug me a lot.