More than 350 million copies later, it’s hard to imagine a world without “Goosebumps.” Years before anybody was spellbound by the boy wizard at Hogwarts, kids were shrieking (and giggling) over horror books by R.L. Stine. Fussy parents fretted about the macabre subjects, and some teachers shook their heads at the quality, but children couldn’t get enough. Now, Stine has turned his attention to older readers and published one of his rare novels for adults.
“Red Rain” begins with a hurricane that leaves two young brothers orphaned on a small island off the South Carolina coast. “The twin angels emerged from the red rain,” Stine writes. “Two identical blond boys, so frail and thin, with glowing blue eyes, sad eyes.” They’re reminiscent of the children in “Village of the Damned” and other classic films that Stine mentions in the acknowledgments.
A travel writer named Lea Sutter was writing about Cape Le Chat Noir when the hurricane hit. In the aftermath of the storm, she discovers the boys and feels instantly drawn to protect them. But Lea’s husband, Mark, is rightfully cautious when she brings the twins home to Long Island to adopt them. The Sutters already have two children of their own — Ira and Elena. Mark, a child psychologist, is promoting his first publication, “Kids Will Be Kids.” With that important project, a family to raise and his assistant coming on to him, Mark’s plate is already full.
It isn’t long before the Sutter household is plunged into turmoil. Ira becomes more unlike himself day by day under the influence of the twins, who want to rule the Sag Harbor middle school. They’re brutal to other children, but Ira still idolizes them. And Lea gradually grows unhinged from the memory of what she witnessed on the island. Soon, a series of gruesome murders shocks the community and confuses the police.
After writing 200 books for kids, Stine seems to have trouble adjusting to a more mature and savvy audience. The sex scene feels cliched and out of place in “Red Rain.” And he sometimes foreshadows what’s going to happen with heavy sarcasm that saps the story of suspense. He tells us, for instance, that Derek, a school bully, “has a good head on his shoulders. A good head. Really. Of course, neither Andy or Elaine Saltzman, nor anyone on the pier that night, had any idea of what would happen to Derek’s head a few weeks later.” Why not let this kid’s comeuppance take us off guard?
Writing horror for children and young adults is hard, but frightening adults poses its own challenges. If Stine wants to dig in this graveyard, he’ll have to go deeper.
Bird won the Bram Stoker Award for her first novel, “Isis Unbound.”