Glandular Reading

He's the best-selling author in America, and his stories are filled with vampires, torture chambers, and ventriloquists' dummies that attack children. No, I don't mean horror-meister Stephen King. I'm talking about R. L. Stine, the children's author who pens the mega-selling Goosebumps books. Kids love Stine's creepy creations—but is it really good for them to be reading these books? Stine has written more than 50 Goosebumps books with titles like "Monster Blood" and "It Came From Beneath the Sink." Children have bought nearly 200 million copies of Goosebumps books, making them the best-selling series in history. But the parents of Goosebumps fans ought to ask themselves why their kids have become addicted to these books. Fiction writer Diana West, writing in the Weekly Standard, says shock fiction launches kids into a quest for "physical gratification, a bodily experience of accelerated pulse rates and queasy stomachs." The goal, West says, is to induce a repeated "fight or flight" reaction, which can be an exciting sensation." Of course, a good many classics induce a physical reaction as well. Think of the horror fiction of Edgar Allen Poe or Bram Stoker. The difference, West says, is that the act of reading these stories "requires a mental engagement with language, with character, with the author's interpretation of events." The great children's author C. S. Lewis wrote that most young readers enjoy being "a little frightened." But in good literature, that fright is set within a context of a good plot and good characterization. By contrast, in shock fiction, both the characters and narrative exist solely to support a series of shocks. The result is what West describes as "a raw catalogue of horrors." This is reading reduced to glandular activity—"a crude tool of physical stimulation, wholly devoid of mental, emotional or spiritual engagement." Whether sexual, deviant, or just plain violent, West concludes, "the aim of all shock fiction is the same: to set off a bodily response which debases the act of reading—and . . . the reader himself." In its attempt to evoke physical reactions, shock fiction is not unlike pornography. That physical response is one reason that Goosebumps books are so addictive. Many parents report that even kids who never read before can't get enough of Goosebumps. One mother told a journalist that her nine-year-old son has become "fixated on horror." Well, fixating our kids on horror is the last thing Christians want to do. Scripture tells us to focus on that which is pure, lovely, and excellent. That rules out giving our kids books that manipulate their glands while shutting down their minds. If your own kids enjoy a good literary scare now and then, let them have it. Just make sure it's the right kind of scare. Try giving them the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Older kids might enjoy Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They'll enjoy the clever plotting and rich characterization. Even better, they'll learn that great literature is not something that crawls out from beneath the sink. It comes from writers who know how to send a chill down readers' backs—and engage their hearts and minds as well.


Chuck Colson


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