Image by Sam Taylor
I'd just learned about sex from my great-aunt when I bought my copy of RL Stine's Point Horror: Beach House. Having already broken the news about Father Christmas to me a few years earlier, it seemed her senility was confined to a campaign of eradicating my childhood innocence, and I couldn't think about much else that summer.
Thanks to her, I got more miles out of that one book than the rest of the Point Horror series put together. Maria and the gang gambolled on beaches in bikinis and propped their flimsy, tanned legs on car dashboards and whispered comments to boys at house parties. The whole thing stank of pure, unadulterated light petting. I read the book on the sofa next to my nan, who was blissfully unaware of the filth I was consuming.
The slick cover, with palm trees and Tom Cruise wayfarers, and the words I didn't understand ("sidewalk", "mall", "bangs") created an exotic backdrop, against which the ensuing murders were all the more mysterious and unsettling. Each death made the prospect of becoming a teenager myself more exciting: making out, drinking beer, escaping death.
Because nan's South Birmingham home was an oppressive Elysium of soapy flannels, party rings and Pepsi Max, my fascination with breaking out became more exaggerated. With two working parents I'd spent most school holidays there, working my way through the earlier Mortal Combat games and the first two Goosebumps series.
The Girl Who Cried Monster; Let's Get Invisible; The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb - all seminal texts in the life of a young girl whose school seemed to have an unnecessary fixation on the Egyptians. Say Cheese and Die! was a revelation - a terrifying thesis on technology's potential to harm. Our protagonist Greg's initial jubilance after discovering a camera in the abandoned house of a mad scientist is swiftly replaced by confusion and anger as he finds that it can only generate scenes foretelling imminent disasters.
With a complete lack of urgency, Greg eventually concludes that the camera isn't just predicting, but precipitating these atrocities - but only after his dad's been subject to a car accident and his best friend has broken his thoracic column. Greg feels awful and decides to return the camera to its rightful owner, but mad professor Spider is not the forgiving kind and kidnaps Greg, keeping him tied up at his god-awful house with a vow to never release him. The ensuing scuffle culminates in Spider becoming the subject of a fatal selfie, neatly terminating Greg's long run of bad luck.
Then there was Stay Out of the Basement, in which Margaret and Casey begin to worry that their dad is up to no good as he spends an unhealthy amount of time lurking in the his subterranean laboratory. Through a series of incremental revelations, artfully delivered by Stine, it's revealed that he's transforming into a plant with intentions of taking over the world.
None, however, compares to the magnum opus of the Goosebumps series, Welcome to Deadhouse, a more conventional horror story playing on the anxiety of moving house and making friends. That my parents' marriage was breaking down at the time seems almost incidental to the succession of stories I was reading about paranoia, warring worlds, death and deceit. Did these experiences heighten my reading of the books? Who cares. The important thing was they distracted me.
That final summer at my grandparents' house I read more of RL Stine's standalone and Point Horror books over countless servings of salad, pork-pies, pink wafers and whatever variation on the marshmallow / biscuit / desiccated coconut equation was on sale that day at the market. These included the whole Babysitter collection and The Prom Queen, with their promise of the kind of high school social hierarchies I'd aspired to since watching the phenomenon portrayed by Janine, Sonia and Clare in Albert Square.
Education wise, none of this stood up to the full-frontal accounts in novels that came free with More! that Lumi would steal from her older sister and read to us in the trees behind the science department. Still, I was on the edge of a world that fascinated and frightened me, between being a kid and being a teenager with small freedoms, like taking the bus alone and being able to walk around town and watch my friend Tom skate for an hour on a Saturday morning. The Point Horror series, and those written by Stine, seemed to understand this stage in a young person's life and played on all the excitement and fear that comes with it.
That era might seem trivial when compared to the subsequent blockbuster issues of love and heartbreak, success and failure, money, children and ill health. But they are some of the most powerful and sensory memories we will ever make. Finally being unleashed from the protective swaddling of childhood, we begin to discover the real forces governing the world. It's a horrifying overload of information and hormones. Stine's brilliance comes from his ability to understand these fears, to make us laugh, scream and ultimately provide some escapism from the madness of it all.
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