Calling R.L. Stine: I think I terrified the writer who terrifies kids
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I was always fascinated with locating a new Navedo when the updated white pages arrived in my apartment building lobby. I’d ask my mother if she was familiar with a first name or address. Was it possible that I was distantly related to one of these strangers? If so, was there any chance they knew I even existed? Sometimes my last name feels like a special club when it’s not an enormous burden.
Truthfully, it didn’t really matter, because I was never going to call any one of them. Curiosity was my only motivation. I was 10 years old, using my chubby little fingers to thumb through and scan the fine pages of a New York phone bible. This was an analog Facebook without the actual faces.
Still, I’d examine those columns for names and numbers I might recognize like I was deciphering a code on an ancient scroll. For a little while, I even tried to identify patterns between phone numbers and neighborhoods. Absolutely strange, I know. This was being done by a kid who had a Sega Genesis to play when he was bored.
My objective became a little less foggy once I browsed through the last names starting with “S” in the overwhelming collection. I was going to find R.L. Stine. And I was going to call him.
When I wasn’t busy being an existential 10-year-old kid mystified with the sheer volume of New York City residents, I was busy being an annoying 10-year-old kid prank calling some of those New Yorkers with my friends. We entertained the idea of finding a popular rapper or athlete in the phone book and getting them good — if we could hold our laughter long enough to actually say something funny.
My decision to find R.L. Stine was my secret, though.
His “Goosebumps” and “Fear Street” books were too significant in my life to even consider bothering him with bad jokes from snickering kids. So, I made myself mature about the plan. Besides, I needed to be absolutely certain that the Robert Stine in the white pages was the same R.L. Stine whose pages I read feverishly.
Now that I really think of it, I was sleuthing long before ever embracing a journalism career. Thanks to a detailed ‘About the Author’ page in the back of each book, I knew that R.L Stine lived near Central Park, and my mother confirmed that one of the addresses in the white pages was close enough. And that was close enough for me.
I thought about writing him a letter, but I was too insecure about my handwriting. I still am today, actually, so my sincerest thanks to technology for all its wonderful advancements. Typing wasn’t really an option, anyway. Remember: this was around 1993 or 1994, so even if you were lucky enough to have a computer, you probably didn’t have a printer.
Calling R.L. Stine was the move. Definitely.
I jotted down some talking points, because if it was really him, and if he really answered, I was going to be really nervous. There was no actual endgame with this plan. All I wanted to do was express how much I enjoyed his books, let him know that I was a fan, and thank him for his work. Should be easy enough without sounding psychotic, right?
After cracking as many of my knuckles as possible and puffing from my asthma inhaler, I grabbed the phone. It was go time. And then I was talking to R.L. Stine’s answering machine.
I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure there was a lot of nervous stammering and inaudible mumbling. I was thisclose to speaking with a personal hero, and made a fool of myself on his machine — I was sure of it.
The phone rang, but my mother was home so I didn’t need to answer it. That wasn’t a house rule, just some self-imposed etiquette to which I adhered. Her home, her phone, she answers. No one ever calls to speak with a 10-year-old kid, anyway, so I never paid attention when she spoke. In fact, she insisted that adult conversations were none of my business, and I listened.
When she handed the phone to me, I assumed it was just a family member wanting to ask how school was going and when I’d visit — as if the decision was mine. Boring stuff.
“Hi, Angel. This is R.L. Stine returning your call.”
I still remember my smile, one of those wide ones you feel in your eyes. My happiness was stronger than my shock. With split-second reasoning, I decided that this made enough sense to really be happening. Well, why wouldn’t R.L. Stine call me back? I left a message on his answering machine and knowing who called so you can call that person back is why answering machines were made, right? (It’s not like voicemail today, reserved for those calls you intentionally ignore.)
R.L Stine didn’t sound how I expected. He wrote horror novels, so of course I imagined a raspy whisper. But this voice was affable, if not a little hesitant. I can’t recall the conversation verbatim, but I do remember when he asked how I found his number. Back in the 90s, people forgot that they had to opt out of the white pages to be unlisted.
We spoke for a few minutes, and I think I kept my cool well enough to stabilize the turbulence within. The talking points I prepared were nowhere to be found, but I don’t think my vision would have worked well enough for me in the moment anyway.
“Do you think you could come to my school and speak to my class?”
Do you think you could come to my school and speak to my class?!?!
The question stunned me as it much as it probably stunned him. A 10-year-old kid doesn’t have the right compass to navigate the murky waters between agents, publishers, and school administration to bring the most prominent children’s horror author EVER to a small fifth grade class in a Catholic school somewhere in Spanish Harlem. I didn’t have anyone’s permission; R.L. Stine probably didn’t have the time. But there was my question, floating across a phone line somewhere between my Spanish Harlem apartment and his Central Park home.
R.L. Stine played it cool, though. He thanked me for reading his books and for calling. I thanked him for calling back. I let him hang up first.
Unfortunately, he never made it to my school. I informed my teacher about the conversation with R.L. Stine, hoping that she’d get the ball rolling. I mean, I did all the legwork already, right? All she had to do was get someone to make it official. No one did anything.
I like to think he would have shown up.
I did not save R.L. Stine’s phone number, especially since I never planned to actually call him again. When the updated stack of white pages arrived in my building lobby once more, I noticed that Robert Stine was no longer listed.
That’s cool. I respect his privacy. But I’m totally tweeting this to him.