Adults Beware: On the Wisdom of the Goosebumps Books


R.L. Stine’s horror adventures for kids, Goosebumps, are apparently the second best selling book series in history, right behind the exploits of the world’s most famous wizard.

As a lifelong Goosebumps fan, I find this endlessly puzzling.

It is not like I am alone in my adoration. Stine has his share of devotees. Goosebumps recently got a movie and will soon get a second one. The first film, starring Jack Black as a cursed RL Stine, is exactly the gooey mashup of random monsters, dorky characters, and screwball humor Goosebumps fans find palatable—or are compelled to appreciate after reading too many Goosebumps early on.

… And yet.

Compare the state of the Goosebumps fandom to their main commercial rival, Harry Potter, its ending lines inked on countless forearms all the world over, its jewelry hanging from the necks and wrists of not a few respectable adults I know. Harry Potter has turned England into the kind of theme park that would make Jean Baudrillard, with his Disneyan America, break into heavy breathing. People cue at King’s Cross to take pictures as they cross to Platform 9 ¾. Shops all over Oxford sell Gryffindor hoodies and full-size Hogwarts banners. Hell—J.K. Rowling has a double West End show that is honestly overpriced, especially considering every child in England is going to sonic-attack their parents and go on hunger strikes until they are sedated or brought to the play.

Goosebumps merchandise does exist, but it is, unfailingly, kid’s stuff, phosphorescent plastic monsters and lunch boxes, mostly originating in the forgotten folds of the 1990s.

Let me put it this way: would anyone spend somewhere between $110 and $350 to see a double Goosebumps show on Broadway? The idea is ridiculous (although I would do it).

C.S. Lewis famously said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I respectfully disagree. It seems to me that the children’s books that struck me the most as a kid were precisely those I don’t get as an adult.

No matter how hard one tries, childhood is bound to remain inaccessible, except in glimpses, bouts of genuine nostalgia, the occasional moment of awe. As such, to really reread the Goosebumps books past 13 you need to be the kind of adult who is comfortable playing with Legos—and even then, chances are you’ll feel as if you’re playing with your old toys. Some will be beautiful, some will be crap toxic plastic, but the magic you had endowed them with and the tales you had inscribed in them will be forever gone. They are never coming back. Reader beware indeed.

But it seems to me that my extensive experience with Goosebumps between the age of eight and 13 taught me many of the lessons I still hold dear when approaching literature of all kinds, and dare I say it, while living the rest of my life too. I was recently bored by HBO’s Westworld, whose entire plot and major twists—minus the constant philosophical essay-fodder—is condensed in the 100 pages of A Shocker on Shock Street. I have never met an unreliable narrator able to trick me for long, not since I accompanied Billy throughout Welcome to Camp Nightmare only to find out he was an alien all along. So here, then, is an apologia for R.L. Stine’s work, in the form of a list of lessons I learned reading Goosebumps.

1. No One Cares
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest weaves an elaborate reflection on the dangers of solipsism and self-absorption. On how we are unable to talk meaningfully about vast horrors—depression, werewolves—because our interlocutors, being human, will be too focused on their own inner lives, and on their own personal horrors, to fully open up and listen.

You find plenty of that all over Goosebumps. Even the most basic message—mom, there is a monster in the kitchen, could you come into the kitchen to see the monster that is in the kitchen?—is nigh impossible to deliver. You stutter or don’t make sense; people are too troubled to listen; they have their own personal miseries to think about, their prize-winning gardens and creaky kitchen cabinets turned into all-consuming worries.

This, incidentally, is a rare instance of a Goosebumps theme that speaks to you louder as an adult, once you have had the chance to mumble your way through a couple of job interviews, declarations of love, coffees with high school friends who won’t stop looking at their phones, and you know how hard it is to say the simplest things.

2. The Greatest Horrors Are Small-Scale
Like most kids, when I was little I was convinced my hometown was the center of the universe. A walk to the city center was not something undertaken lightly. Trips to the countryside or to gargantuan Milano had the overtones of quests. My school was a castle, its unexplored corridors holding potential mazes and monsters.

In time, this conviction crumbled away, but when it was there it was made all the more stronger by being instinctive, and unquestioned. It is one of the genius features of Stine’s Goosebumps that its horrors are often very limited, confined. The local librarian turns into a monster at night. Something wicked lives in my basement. The bullies at my school have a terrible secret.

When all of your world is confined to your town or neighborhood, the idea that even a small corner of it is given up to the unknown is terrifying beyond belief. And the fact that these dangers are local and observable rather than absolute and invincible makes it all the more hideous when everyone fails—again—to care.

This, by the way, is one of the key points of Stephen King’s It—spiritual godfather of all Goosebumps books.

3. Assumptions Will Get You Nowhere
On a basic level, this teaches you not to trust the surprisingly nice girl you met at Summer camp. Sure, it has something to do with the basics of narrative suspense: the old man living in the swamp who everyone says is a werewolf is clearly not going to be the werewolf that’s killing all those deer.

Beyond this, Goosebumps—like much horror literature—are a crash course in suspended judgment and unreliable narrators. They teach you that the supposed All-American kid telling you her life story may well be an alien, a monster, a ghost, or a dog. In doubt, question what you’re being told. Use your head. Keep that in mind when you pick up Pale Fire.

4. Adulthood Is a Scam
Michael Chabon’s essay “Faking It”—from Manhood for Amateurs—confirmed a suspicion I have harbored all my life: that being a father and adult who knows how to fix furniture, handle emergencies, and ensure the safety of the entire household, is mostly a matter of pose.

This suspicion was first instilled in me by Stine. Adults in Goosebumps, where not evil, are unfailingly hopeless. The series unfailingly resonates with anyone who was picked on by a teacher (justly or unjustly is besides the point) only to be ignored by their parents.

Adults invest so much belief in this scam they call adulthood that, in order to stop the International Children Revolution, they will occasionally side with the evil piano teacher who’s going to murder little Jerry, rather than acknowledge he may be on to something.

5. It’s Okay to Be Bad
It’s actually okay to be full-fledged Evil. If you are going to grow fangs in a few years and eat people, listen: you do you. People will call you a monster, but you know what? If you accept what you are, chances are you’ll be alright. Monsters are always happy at the end of Goosebumps books; it’s the people who obsess over normality that end up miserable.

6. Be Careful What You Wish For
As in the classic Goosebumps book, Be Careful What You Wish For. Children’s longings can reach unbearable magnitude. I really want that game; I will burst into flames and die if I have to wait the 10 full days that separate me from Christmas.

But longings are bizarre things, liable to bite you on the ass. You wanted to be a stage magician? Now you’ll see the stages of the whole world…as a white rabbit. You wanted to go to sleep in that bizarre bed in your home’s attic (admittedly not the most enlightened incipit in the series)? Expect bad shit.

7. Life Is a Game Where You Don’t Know the Rules
And it’s not one of those progressive modern board games where the point is to have a lovely time and bond. The point is to manage your resources, outsmart your opponents, and win. It will happen that you don’t get the rules. It is going to be humiliating, and to harm you.

The more straightforward staging of this theme occurs in The Beast from the East, where the main characters are literally caught in a game played by blue monsters whose rules are way past their grasp. The loser gets eaten.

A subtler, more useful variant can be found in all the Goosebumps—and there’s many—where characters have to navigate a new environment, like a school or neighborhood. You won’t understand why everyone is so scared of the cave out of town. No one’s sure what’s the deal with the director of this Summer camp. But be assured that you need to figure that out, and quick.

What Goosebumps do not tell you is that what in grade school may look like a temporary situation—so I don’t get why some things have to be the way they are because I am a kid!—never really stops. The age of 30, once a bit of anecdotal nonsense, is starting to loom on my horizon like a terribly certainty. I still haven’t found life’s rules manual.

8. Two Final Maxims
It doesn’t matter if things seem to work out and everything seems to make sense. It doesn’t matter if you are happy, serene, satisfied. Something horrible is going to happen to you.

Also: not only do monsters exist, not only are they literally everywhere, but if you think about it a while, you may realize you are one of them yourself.

The Madness of Venice


I lived in Venice for two years, and I hated it. In conversations I used euphemisms and turns of phrase (among my favorite either you love it or hate it! and it’s a… difficult city), but I was lying through my teeth. I fucking hated it.

I came there from Milano to get my Master’s at Ca’ Foscari University. I consider it part of my cultural heritage that I look at Life in all its forms with the deepest skepticism and contempt. It is a marvelous thing and a disgusting horror how Milanese my age–think the cultural region rather than the municipality–feel the need to question everything, cannot physically accept a statement without looking for a fight, usually through that ready verbal sword: yeah, but.

There’s the small things you don’t quite expect. Garbage collection will have you get up at seven to take down your trash, with little care for your sleep habits. You’ll be going to bed early anyway: everything tends to close down early around town. Getting to classes or work in the morning sometimes feels like playing hopscotch, as you avoid both trash bags and the killer seagulls feasting on them. The seagulls are vicious; they will attack you. I have seen them steal sandwiches and do all sorts of perverted things.

There’s absolutely no traffic, so that yeah, there’s no smog and little noise, but the pizza guy can’t get to you, and you’ll have to go and collect your pizza yourself—an outrage.

Venetian cuisine is delicious, alternating luscious aristocratic treats with genuine popular dishes, soups and stews that will make your forearms grow hairy. It is also a well kept secret. Very common in its place are those checkered-tablecloth tourist traps where you’ll get microwaved pasta someone scribbled with a pen and called spaghetti al nero di seppia.

Historically, Venetians have had to exploit every useful inch of land. Their houses tend to be very close to one another. I have spent weeks stuck in a timeless limbo, unaware of weather conditions, every hour of the day turned into a perennial dusk by the building in front of my windows, until the need for pizza drove me outside and straight into Venice’s number one major no-joke problem.

All those hordes of tourists, turning into sheer madness a place that already, by its very nature, sounds like a pretty whacko idea.

The most perceivable sign of the locals’ growing lack of patience with tourists is the No Grandi Navi movement, its banners ubiquitous around town. They oppose cruise ships gliding by the town, a literal stone’s throw away from St Mark’s, the Doge’s palace, the houses and shops of 50,000 people.

Top all of this off with the threat of global warming, and its implication of rising sea levels. There have been attempts at building dams, barriers, other high wizardry from Northern Europe. Corruption has eroded all of that faster than any killer algae.

All of this mess is not theoretical: it is never in the back on your head. You have it forcefully-injected in your system when you get stuck on a congested tourist route. You feel it pierce your insides when you look for an apartment in Venice’s saturated, tourist-oriented market. You have it spread over your body when you are pressed, car wash style, between enraged locals and oblivious tourists, you innocent soul, just out looking for a pizza.

How peculiar that Venice, so proud of its independent heritage and never too far from dreams of secession, is enshrouded in a quintessentially Italian air: that of an immense beauty cursed by an impending doom, marred by a lethal combination of incompetence, carelessness, and somebody else’s fault, which will one day soon lead to the inevitable total collapse.

I first heard of Ascension at a presentation in a fancy Venetian hotel. Golden stucco in every corner, frescoed ceilings, people everywhere with one surname too many. Gregory Dowling introduced his 18th-century adventure by commenting on how happy he was to be living in what was, after all, the most beautiful city in the world.

YEAH BUT what do you know. You’re from Bristol.

He proceeded to illustrate the reasons why he had written the novel. Established Venetians complimented him for his historical accuracy. The sexual habits of the Venetian nobility was discussed. I decided to read the book.

Venetian fiction abounds. Not even Yours Truly at the nadir of his relationship with Venice (the day that gondolier almost beat me) could deny that Venice is the perfect setting for pretty much any story, from romance to comedy, from the high-octane thriller to the horror tale. I myself wrote, and buried, a half dozen Lovecraftian stories set in Venice, turning the city’s climate of secrecy, pride, and hostility toward foreigners into a curse originating in underground fungi, in covenants with fish people.

Literature has given us so many brilliant Venice books. I know people who make a living studying Henry James’s Venetian fiction. Yet it seems to me that so many Venice stories do not do justice to the marvelous mess they exploit. Mann’s Death in Venice, if you allow me the blasphemy, could have been Death in Gatteo a Mare without changing much of its marrow. Donna Leon’s highly popular Venice stories undoubtedly make for excellent page turning, but I have it from native sources that their murdery, incestuous Veneto shares little with the one you and I can get a flight to.

Dowling’s Venice is the real deal.

You can’t portray a mess such as Venice through a single perspective, except when you pull it off. It helps that Ascension’s first-person narrator, just like its creator, is at once a Venetian and an outsider. The son of an Venetian actress, raised and educated in England, our hero Alvise has come back to Venice to work as a cicerone, a guide for wealthy tourists on their obligatory Venetian leg of their Grand Tour around Europe.

Alvise’s love of Venice is not the visceral love of a patriot or proto-nationalist, the type the pressure cooker of history is very good at making fester. It is the nuanced, contradictory, slow-cooked passion of someone who can remember the first time they saw St Mark’s square, and Venice beckoning like an impossibility from the mainland. It is the type of lucid love that allows you to lose yourself into your adored while aware of their manias and horrible flaws.

Alvise’s status as a foresto, a perennial stranger to Venetian eyes, allows Ascension—and even more its sequel, The Four Horsemen—to play with topics and social dynamics that will be familiar to anyone inhabiting this constellation of messes called Europe. Alvise’s Venice is a city whose squares and salotti allow for the intermingling of people from all over the 18th-century world, each one convinced to be carrying the torch of civilization. Dowling’s British noblemen look upon Venice as a place of intrigue and mystery, one best experienced without wandering far from a gondola and a guide. Venetians see these wealthy visitors as opulent, uncivilized barbarians. Wandering poets from the eastern Mediterranean look at the “civilized” Venetians as nothing but thieves and raiders, a pirate empire now facing a well-deserved decadence.

Whenever Dowling stages such a two-paragraph clash of cultures, one is reminded of coffee room discussions about the backstabbing extravaganza of a morning spent in line at an Italian post office; of philosophical tirades against any people barbarous enough to reject the bidet.

This intermingling of people, giving them the chance to bitch about each other, may very well be what made Venice great. It definitely is where the genius of Dowling’s novels lies: in the way they portray, without renouncing the clarity and immediacy of immersive fiction, an almost Cubistic overlap of perspectives on Venice. There are people in Ascension who love the city; there are people in it that hate it. A young Englishman just arrived into town cannot wait to find a casino, maybe a brothel too. He finds the palaces impressive, totally worth casting a glance at, as long as they’re on the way to a place where you can gamble, hopefully fornicate. He is your classmate’s cousin from suburban Massachusetts, ready to swear that seeing Venice has always been his supreme dream in life. He will be turbo-ejecting his kebab+spritz combination from on top of the Rialto Bridge by nine o’clock at the latest, hopefully not on anyone’s gondola. (You do not fuck with gondoliers).

You get the snotty foreigner enjoying the salotti and palaces of the city while carefully maintaining the contemptuous air of someone who’d rather be in a more civilized place.

You get eastern Venetians mistrusting western Venetians, living up to the fullest the animosity between the town’s sestieri, its districts. These people built their bridges keeping clan wars in mind, and to this day you can perceive some of the internal rivalries one finds in any big city. If the Brooklyn-Queens feud seems somewhat pointless today, imagine it translated to a place where you can stroll from one end of town to the next in less than an hour. No one ever said Venice made much sense.

So far I have avoided talking about the plot of Dowling’s novels. That is part of the fun I’ll let you have by yourself. Suffice it to say that some of their charm lies in their generic contamination. They are thrillers alright, but not the type that feels the need to close every chapter with a cliffhanger. Dowling can rely on characterization, humor, sometimes on sheer lyrical prose to carry you from one page to the next. While fast-flowing and action-packed, these books leave enough space for reflection, romance, and for the vicarious satisfaction of the senses. Every fan of Andrea Camilleri or George R.R. Martin knows that part of the fun of it all lies in gormandizing the verbal banquets these masters set up for you, in rustic Sicilian restaurants or toasty wilderness outposts. So one reads Dowling to take in the palaces and monuments, to talk crap about the last failure or success in Venetian theater, to take in the smell of a cheese shop in Dorsoduro, taste the coffee and discuss poetry in a noblewoman’s salotto.

One can use Ascension and The Four Horsemen as a sort of guide to Venice, I imagine, either to prepare for a vacation or to whet the appetite before the next visit. Indeed, one can cook and enjoy an outlandish, opulent fantasy feast: I hear they offer this type of thing these days. It would be a mistake, though, to believe that such literary pleasures exhaust themselves as props for the real thing. Dowling’s Venetian novels are not to be mistaken for guidebooks any more than Camilleri’s Montalbano series is a recipe book in disguise. Their beauties and flavors are there to be enjoyed, first and foremost, for their own sake: they are there to lull you into a stupor and get your feet up on the ottoman, so that when you put them down again they’ll be touching 1749 Venice, rather than your ugly carpet.

Again I have dodged the question of the plot, so here it is—very simply put, after a series of fateful encounters our hero, Alvise, is vividly encouraged to work for the Venetian government in order to collect information about those who would put the safety of the Most Serene Republic in jeopardy.

With its thick web of spies and summary justice, 18th-century Venice is paralleled in The Four Horsemen to Stasi-ruled East Germany. Indeed, never at any moment do either Alvise or Dowling try to disguise the ugliness of the city they’re so in love with. All successful urban fiction—all honest urban fiction at least—has to find a way to tackle the contradiction at the heart of New York, Vigata, and everything in between: the fact that any city worth talking about is going to be an example of the best and the worst its people are capable of.

Dreamy as it is—I’ll get to the dreamy part soon enough—Venice has a messed-up history of segregation, injustice, terror. Think of the Jewish ghetto. Think of the opulence of its palaces and upper classes, side by side with cramped houses packed with people who’d spend their lives confined to their fraction of an already tiny kingdom: a square, a church, a few canals to draw the boundaries of your universe. One cannot fully love a town without facing all this madness. Alvise faces the madness of Venice time and again in Ascension, time and again in The Four Horsemen.

It makes all the more sense that the people he works against are often Venetian patriots whose love has grown cancerous. There are traces of the occult in Dowling’s novels, bizarre acquatic contraptions, half-assed plans to take Venice back to its past glory or avenge some long-forgotten crime. Hidden behind all this like a barge behind a bush is the sneaky suspicion—which titillates my Milanese smartassery most pleasantly—that people are just full of shit, and use patriotism and history as tools to get what they want, which generally is “more.”

If you think all this talk of weird contraptions does not become a Venetian historical novel, then you have obviously not heard of those people who were arrested in 2014 for planning to invade St Mark’s Square with a tank (!) and proclaim Venice’s independence.

During my last evening in Venice, I took a walk by the Zattere, my favorite place in town and—damn you, you cursed city, you—why couldn’t you just suck.

There was a pink sunset instead. You can see the mainland from the Zattere, the steel arches and chimneys of Marghera. Europe’s largest chemical plant is somewhere over there, both close and worlds away from your dreamy floating city.

The feeling I got that night, and on many others during my time in Venice—when the light is right and there’s people around you, but not too many, speaking all sorts of languages and dialects—is the same feeling I got while lost in Dowling’s novels. The pleasure of inhabiting a dreamy reality, away from the world and its pollution. There is a danger in there, in forgetting how your island of bliss is part of the larger world, with its doom and failures. Dowling’s novels, not even at their most thrilling, allow you to forget for more than a few pages that the issues faced by their characters, while making for excellent entertainment, are the same ones waiting outside your door. The tide keeps rising. The ships keep coming. Those whose love of Venice has grown deformed threaten all sorts of measures to hold the city in their suffocating embrace.

The characters in Dowling’s Venice talk of the city as doomed, a once-great Empire turned into a pleasure house for foreigners. More than two and a half centuries later, Venice has survived much grimmer times than any of them could imagine. The talk around town has not gotten any less bleak. Seeing how the city has come so far, it would be easy to dismiss its problems as the hysteria of any one party. The locals are just crazy, them and their hate of ships; the masses just need to leave, and everything would be fine again.

This seems doubtful. One will have to confide in Venetians—in the wise gondoliers, enlightened storekeepers, down-to-earth noblewomen Dowling sketches and animates. You can be a pessimist all you want, but if you can convince someone from Castello that Western Venetians are people too—and I have seen it happen, in Dowling’s fiction and in real life—than there is hope for the human race.

I am in England at the moment, not too far from Dowling’s Bristol—definitely a place you either love or hate. There’s a canal not far from here that people come from all around the place to see, photograph, take strolls by. They claim it is very pretty.

And I miss Venice, miss its dark silent calli and the quiet you get in November and January, when tourists leave the town be for a while and you can take in its foggy air, saturated with centuries of messy history. This is the real curse: to know that I hated Venice when I was there, and now have to hate myself for the time I spent complaining about pizza. To know that I will keep missing it.

I feel it calling me, like the ancestral urges of a Lovecraftian character waking up one morning and finding gills on his neck. I was in Milano the other day, cycling through the five p.m. traffic and cursing at people who learned to drive on YouTube. Someone honked at me and questioned my grasp of road rules, and my mother’s.

And I found myself thinking, in the most spontaneous of ways: ghe sboro.

The curse is in me alright.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.