I asked my mother where my stash of old Goosebumps books was and she told me that it was in storage in a box out in the shed. I had to climb onto the roof of the makeshift room they had built inside it, a dull torch my only light. I could hear the scampering of mice as I crawled between boxes filled with my childhood. I came to the box with books in it and peeled open the plastic lid, dust kicking up in a cloud around me. Sitting at the top of the pile was Slappy’s face, his maddening wooden grin and wide, pale green eyes. I had to go outside for a cigarette before I could touch it.
My siblings and I were a nervous bunch of kids. We came from an unstable home and all inherited some kind of anxiety disorder from our mother. When the Goosebumps television series first aired at 6pm on a Friday we sat down as a family and watched it. It completely scared our collective shit out. We were so affected by the first episode, which was Night of the Living Dummy, that our mother banned the show. So, naturally, our father made us watch it every time he had us for the weekend.
One Christmas I asked my mother for books. We were very poor and reading material was a luxury. I woke up Christmas morning to find a large box filled to the brim with Goosebumps books, Slappy’s terrible face right at the top.
The book has some pretty horrifying stuff in it. There is a scene where the dummy vomits pus over a crowd. He threatens to kill the characters’ parents and nearly throttles the family dog to death. While all of this goes on the parents pretty much ignore the children, who are main characters. The thing that really got me though was the dummy’s voice. It alternates between a low rasp and high pitched laughter; the devil’s voice that I battled with every night in an effort to get to sleep.
This novel hits a phobic pressure point with me. At first it seems like a pretty basic idea; look it is an evil dummy! Spooky! But what it is actually about is a fear that all children share. It is the fear of being a dummy, of not being heard or understood by the people supposed to protect you.
In the novel, the children are on their own; their parents do not even want to hear dummies mentioned. They have no one to turn to because child fear does not translate to adult fear. R.L. Stine is a cruel genius when it comes to connecting with children.
When I was a kid I always wanted to be a horror writer, despite being constantly afraid. Maybe I wanted to find ways to fight the things that scared me, or make the fears my own. Maybe fear was all I knew and I was resigned to being a character in my own personal horror story.
This September, we’ve asked eight writers to revisit their favourite books from childhood for our new series, When I was young.