In Jason Segel’s latest project, the Apple TV+ comedy Shrinking, the actor, screenwriter, and series co-creator plays a messed-up therapist named Jimmy Laird. Most critics (including me) have received Shrinking warmly as part of a welcome comeback from what, in coverage of the show, is often framed as a hiatus from comedy or show business. But the fact is that since his debut in the small role of Watermelon Guy in the 1998 teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, Segel has rarely gone a full year without working in either film, television, or both, often with a writing credit thrown in. During his nine-year run on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, he used the breaks between seasons to co-write and star in comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, and The Five-Year Engagement.
Around the time How I Met Your Mother came to an end in 2014, Segel went through something of a personal metamorphosis: He got sober, moved from Los Angeles to a small farm with an orange grove an hour outside the city, and took his first role as a straight dramatic lead in the acclaimed David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour.
But in another, less widely publicized facet of this period of self-reinvention, Segel also became a writer of fiction for children, co-authoring the bestselling Nightmares! series for middle-grade readers in collaboration with the established YA author Kirsten Miller. Unlike many celebrity experiments with authorship, this appears not to be a case of a big name outsourcing literary labor to a ghostwriter. Rather, Miller and Segel traded the draft back and forth, with her contributing expertise in world-building and story structure while he supplied the dialogue and the richly silly (and persuasively kidlike) sense of humor.
Curiously, even profiles that otherwise focus on Segel’s history as the co-writer of his own material seem to ignore or downplay his time as an author of hit novels. But it’s as the loopily inventive mind behind the Nightmares! stories—and just as importantly, as the narrator who reads them aloud in audiobook form—that Segel has been a constant and beloved presence in my household for the past seven years. My daughter, now a junior in high school, has been listening to the Nightmares! books since she was 10, toting around a succession of iPads and laptops and phones from which the actor’s shapeshifting voice alternately thunders like a stern middle-school principal, screeches and croaks like all manner of monstrous and mythical creatures, or quavers like a terrified kid.
For me, a fan who has followed Segel’s career with interest since his run on the too-good-to-live one-season comedy Freaks and Geeks, the first striking fact about his character in Shrinking was his last name: Laird. As it happens, this is also the surname of the 12-year-old hero of Nightmares!: Charlie Laird, a seventh-grader who, as the first book begins, is, like his older television namesake, trapped in a bad cycle of grief and familial dysfunction. Also like Jimmy Laird (a character whom I have trouble not thinking of as a part of the extended Nightmares! universe), Charlie begins his narrative arc as a person who’s far from pleasant to be around. He may not be getting high with sex workers in his backyard while his high school–age daughter tries to get to sleep, but Charlie himself is sleep-deprived and cranky, rude to his father and stepmother, and borderline cruel to his unflinchingly devoted little brother.
Three years before the book begins, Charlie and 9-year-old Jack have lost their mother to an unnamed illness. Their widowed father has recently married an eccentric woman named Charlotte DeChant, who runs an herbalist’s shop in their small community of Cypress Creek, and the Laird family has moved into her ancestral home, a purple-painted Victorian mansion depicted in Edward Gorey–esque silhouette on the book’s cover. Since taking up residence in the spooky violet dwelling, Charlie has been tormented by recurring nightmares about a child-eating witch who bears an uncanny resemblance to his potion-brewing stepmother.
Over the course of the first book, the secret of the purple mansion emerges. In an octagonal tower room at the top of the house lies a secret portal to an alternate realm called the Netherworld, inhabited by the personifications of humanity’s worst nightmares: clowns, giant cockroaches, gooey-tentacled aliens, even the legendary Medusa (along with her suave son Meduso, whose hair-snakes peep out from beneath a jaunty fedora). The Netherworld, though initially scary, is a place with a history, a moral system, and an internal logic of its own. The monsters that populate the place exist along an ethical spectrum, from those who seek only to scare the humans whose dreams they haunt to the truly bad ones who want to blur the distinction between realms and turn the waking world into one endless nightmare.
The first three Nightmares! books (the fourth is a reference-style guide to the previous books’ taxonomy of monsters) trace the changing relationship of Charlie, Jack, and their pack of middle school pals to this forbidding oneiric realm. As the kids become more adept at traversing the portal and understanding the connections between the Netherworld and the waking world, they also learn how to face up to what frightens each of them most—not really, as it turns out, witches, the dark, or hungry lions in a gladiator ring, but rather the real-world counterparts of these symbolic boogeymen. For Charlie, that means confronting the finality of his mother’s death. For his friend Paige, it involves accepting the scary reality of her own mother’s chronic clinical depression. For other characters, it will entail dealing with their anxiety about being bullied or flunking out of school. The journey of the main characters in Nightmares!, suspenseful as it is on the sheer plot level, is ultimately more psychological than physical. As Segel told the author Lev Grossman in a 2015 interview about the second book—and as his character Jimmy Laird is now discovering over the course of Shrinking’s first season—“to walk through things you’re afraid of is how you end up achieving stuff.”
The allegorical structure of the Nightmares! books is as easy to map as that of the 17th-century grandfather of English-language allegory, the pedagogical Christian fable The Pilgrim’s Progress. But as tends to be the case when allegory is well done, the clarity of correspondence between metaphorical and literal levels of interpretation is a feature of the books, not a bug. The rules of transition between the nightmare and waking worlds—and, later in the series, between both worlds and a third one known as the Dream Realm—are logical, consistent, and easy to follow, but the books’ moral messages are far from simplistic. Nearly all of the characters who at first appear as villains eventually get backstories, motivations, and sometimes redemptive arcs of their own.
The subject matter tackled via this allegorical method is not for softies. The first book is, at heart, about a child wrestling with grief for his lost parent. The second, The Sleepwalker Tonic, deals with addiction, as a neighboring town falls victim to a stupefying magical beverage. And the third, The Lost Lullaby, takes on intergenerational trauma, with a pair of ghostly twin girls haunting the dreams and waking life of Cypress Creek as they attempt to exorcise the pain of their own neglected childhood. But, especially as read aloud by the indefatigably impassioned Segel, the Nightmares! books are as far from preachy downers as a series of kids’ books can be. They’re packed with mild gross-out humor—nose-picking goblins, flying gargoyles who leave behind deposits of guano, a dilapidated house whose moldy walls appear coated in “furry vomit”—and with fantastical creatures perfectly suspended between the bone-chilling and the adorable, with illustrations (by Karl Kwasny) to match: were-wallabies, bunnies with featureless faces but for gaping maws filled with razor-sharp teeth.
A subplot in The Sleepwalker Tonic has Charlie’s stepmother trying to publish a children’s book based on the true story of her own childhood sojourns in the Netherworld. When her manuscript is rejected on the grounds that it’s “way too creepy for kids,” Charlie protests vigorously: “Most people my age would choose creepy over cuddly any day of the week! Has the guy ever met any kids?” Segel himself, though unmarried and childless, has a secret weapon as an author of kids’ books: a seemingly intact psychic channel to his inner preteen, still as terrified by toe-eating witches (an image Segel sourced from his own childhood nightmares) as he is amused by booger-slurping goblins. The part of Segel that wrote and narrated the Nightmares! books is the same part that made him a natural live-action counterpart to the Muppets, that drove his character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Peter Bretter, who, as it happens, also shares a last name with a major character in the Nightmares!-verse) to write a puppet musical about Dracula, or that turned his villain in the first Despicable Me, the needy know-it-all Vector, into perhaps that movie’s most endearing character, minions very much included.
This kidlike spirit gives the writing in the Nightmares! series a goofy buoyancy. On the page, the story tumbles nicely along. But Segel’s performance on the audiobooks is what elevates the Nightmares! books to the level of timeless children’s entertainment. As much as the storytelling, it’s the precision and variation of Segel’s vocal characterizations that drive my daughter’s listening to the books these days. An aspiring actor herself, she has been known to skip back a few lines to revel in a particularly virtuosic line reading as he leaps among dozens of completely distinct voices: the incongruous boom that bursts forth from a lady skeleton in one group scene; the never-appropriate giggles of Dabney, a far-from-evil clown; the game-show-host slickness of the wolf-turned-greedy-banker Curtis Swanson; or the sultry purr of the vain but ultimately goodhearted Medusa. Child or adult, man or woman, human or supernatural, Segel finds a way to inhabit every character, not only in the funny or scary moments but in the smaller, more personal and sometimes painful ones. The section late in the first book when Charlie starts to recognize the toll his rejection of his stepmother has taken on her and the rest of his family is narrated with a quiet, sorrowful empathy that looks ahead to the character of Jimmy Laird, Charlie’s future grown-up counterpart in the alternate universe known as TV. (In late 2017, Segel and Miller also embarked into another realm, the profitable world of YA, for a trilogy about a surly teenage hero who gets stuck, along with the girl he loves, inside a dystopic video game. But though Segel reads the Last Reality audiobooks in a suitably sullen voice, we remain more of a Nightmares! family.)
The role the Nightmares! books have played in Segel’s own life takes place on a considerably longer timeline than the one experienced by readers and listeners: The books are based on a script he sold at age 21, shortly after the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks. That show’s co-creator, Judd Apatow, encouraged Segel to develop himself as a writer if he wanted to succeed in show business; the screenplay that grew out of Apatow’s advice wound up being acquired by a production company and then sitting on a shelf for seven years. During that time, as his career as an actor and screenwriter took off, Segel decided to wait out the production company’s contract until he could buy the script back for himself. The plan worked, and by his mid-30s, he was finding a way to retell a kids’ story written 13 years before. In a way, the Nightmares! books are juvenilia, written by someone still close in both spiritual and chronological age to the book’s pack of portal-jumping preteens. But as reworked, polished, and expertly read aloud years later by a full-grown man with a decade and a half of both life and acting experience under his belt, they are the most unsung achievement of a multitalented performer, one who’s too seldom celebrated as one of our greatest working children’s entertainers.