If I were fair, Thisby, I were only Stine


R.L. Stine is coming to sign books at R.J. Julia Booksellers next Saturday afternoon. You might be thinking, “Ooh, that’s a whole month before Halloween.” But actually his timing’s off in the other direction, since he’s now writing about midsummer.

Still best known for his Goosebumps series (which in its original incarnation ran to over 60 volumes, with at least another 40-something from various spin-offs), Stine has signed his name to literally hundreds of other books as well. Some of his other series include Fear Street, Point Horror and Rotten School. When not scaring the short pants off children, Stine compiles joke books under the moniker Jovial Bob Stine.

Stine’s newest book uses his accustomed scare tactics, but also has a theatrical edge. A Midsummer Night’s Scream, which was released in July, is being promoted as “a modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When I noticed that many commenters at GoodReads  were challenging that assessment (not to mention holding the book’s rating down to two or three stars out of five), I found A Midsummer Night’s Scream on Kindle and read it myself. I‘m a sucker for mysteries set in theaters or (like this one) in movie studios. The story: two friends are cast in a “remake” of a horror movie which was never finished in the first place because three actors were killed during filming. Turns out that the remake is plagued with fatal and near-fatal accidents as well.

As with his Goosebumps books, Stine allows for both real-world horrors and supernatural ones. That’s where the bard comes in. There’s an odd short bearded man who claims to have magic potions that really work. His name is Puckerman, a la Puck in Shakespeare’s play, and some of his mixtures conjure up easy comparisons: one that makes you fall in love with animals, for instance. You could also say that, in his chronicling of numerous crushes and short-lived romantic liaisons among the California teens in his tale, Stine is commenting wryly on the forest-based frivolities of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Outside of the main terrifying filmmaking plotline, the characters decide to throw an Elizabethan-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream party:

Sure, there were more security guards at the gate than usual. But once you drove inside, you were overcome by dancing lights and sparkly fairy wings on all the trees and people walking around in weird Shakespeare-type costumes.

The studio had been transformed into a dream of fairies in the woods, and people floating by in glittery robes and crowns, a fantasy world of music and mist and fun.

See? He’s trying. Stine also posits upper class against servant class, and gives power to those who use it recklessly. Shakespearean enough for me. Plus Stine’s book concludes, as does the play, with the “If we shadows have offended” quote.

I think the critics are being a bit hard on a book which provides the requisite thrills and chills while mixing in a smattering of Shakespeare. It’s understood that R.L.’s mind is in a different, horrific, place than Will’s. Given that there’s no real opportunity for deep romance here—while this is a Young Adult novel intended for a slightly older audience than Stine’s main Scholastic Books following, it still strenuously avoids getting too mushy or dirty—it’s fascinating where Stine ends up finding his Midsummer’s parallels.

So,  R.L. Stine digs the stage. Some of his works have even been staged. In 1998, no less a theater mystery master than Rupert Holmes (whose shows include Drood, Curtains, Accomplice, and the impending Broadway adaptation of John Grishams’ A Time to Kill) turned Goosebumps into a multi-story stage spectacle that toured large theaters and stadiums throughout the country. Goosebumps Live on Stage was produced by circus and ice show impresario Kenneth Feld.

(In Connecticut, the Goosebumps tour stopped at the Oakdale in Wallingford. I used this opportunity to get a chance to interview one of the show’s stars, the great Paul Benedict, whose career  had ranged from small theater in Boston to Sesame Street and The Jeffersons to playing the nightdesk clerk opposite Al Pacino in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie to this kiddie creepshow.  I seem to recall that Benedict left the Goosebumps show before the tour finished, due to changes in the script.)

I spoke to Rupert Holmes about the Goosebumps show once and he laughed at the memory. He said the tour was a victim of bad timing; it was put together just as the publisher of the Goosebumps books had stopped promoting them, so there was so synergy to be had there.

In any case, here comes Stine again. He’s passed through Connecticut before, including a rousing “Master’s Tea” event at Yale a few years back. Don’t be scared of reading A Midsummer Night’s Scream. Embrace this teen-friendly spinechiller’s odd attachment to Shakespeare.

R.L. Stine reads and speaks and signs at 4 p.m. September 28 in the R.J. Julia store at 768 Boston Post Rd., Madison. (203) 245-3959, http://www.rjjulia.com. There’s an admission fee of five dollars.