The hit Netflix series Stranger Things is rich in period detail—though its appeal goes well beyond just a nostalgia trip. Here’s a reading list for Stranger Things fans while they await season five, with a focus on literary and graphic classics: what those of us who were playing Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s were reading for inspiration at the time.
Who’s excited for the return of Stranger Things? We at Five Books certainly are. There’s little to fault in this hit series, which draws inspiration from 1980s sci fi classics including Alien, The Exorcist, ET and The Terminator. If you’re anything like us, passion for a television show often translates into literary hunger. The Stranger Things franchise has already a number of spin-off books, including a behind-the-scenes companion guide, an omnibus collection of Stranger Things-inspired comics, and a trilogy of novels that function as prequels, beginning with the bookStranger Things: Suspicious Minds.
For those whose appetites have merely been whetted, then we’d recommend looking into the books that may have inspired the writers. The show’s content echoes elements of Stephen King’sCarrie, Firestarter and It; Joyce Carol Oates’ Foxfire; Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart; and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let Me In; plus the dazzling Paper Girls comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. Or simply immerse yourself in the popular culture of the era with the following book recommendations—chosen by those of us who really were playing Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, just like the boys in Stranger Things.
An incantation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the title of Ray Bradbury’s landmark tale of supernatural suspense could be a tagline for Stranger Things. Teens Will and Jim are excited when ‘Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’ comes to town in advance of Halloween. Then things start getting strange. Like the timewarp carousel scene in Stranger Things, this book features Will and Jim witnessing the show’s ringleader Cooger riding backwards on the merry-go-round, and turning into a boy of their own age. Intrigued, they follow him out of the carnival and into a world of increasingly bizarre events and curious characters. Things are never what they seem, in Hawkins or Green Town, Illinois, where Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade find themselves lost in a maze of mirrors, their wishes transformed into nightmares, their dreams invaded by a ‘Dust Witch’. You may find your dreams invaded, too.
The ‘wrinkle in time’ alluded to in this book’s title is a tesseract, a fifth-dimensional folding of the fabric of space and time. It allows the heroes of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, Meg Murry, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe to travel between worlds to save the universe from The Black Thing, a powerful evil appearing as a vast dark cloud. Essentially the personification of evil, one would be forgiven for mistaking it for Stranger Thing’s Mindflayer! And the dark planet of Camazotz? It could be a stand-in for ‘The Upside Down’, a place which has succumbed to the Black Thing and where Meg’s father is trapped in a catatonic state. A Wrinkle in Time is timeless YA science fantasy; it’s a book that will deeply resonate with those who like Stranger Things.
A short story first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928, HP Lovecraft’s deranged tale has become a centrepiece in horror fantasy of the slime-covered, otherworldly kind. Cthulhu, “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body,” is said to be so terrible to behold that it destroys the sanity of those who see it. Lovecraft’s phantasmagorical vision established an entire Cthulhu Mythos and inspired everyone from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore. In the figures of the Demogorgon, the Mindflayer and even Vecna himself, you can see the tentacles of this myth extending into the subconscious of the Duffer Brothers, the creators of Stranger Things. If you liked Stranger Things, you’re going to love the books of HP Lovecraft.
Superhero or Monster? Stranger Things’ Eleven asks herself this veryquestion in season four—and it’s question that’s been asked before by Jean Grey, the telepath and telekinetic wonder known as the X-Men’s Phoenix. This Marvel classic charts the rise and demise of perhaps the most powerful mutant there ever was, as she drifts from heroism to the dark side, betraying her fellow mutants to none other than the Hellfire Club (sound familiar, Stranger Things fans?), and ultimately saving the world (or was it the universe?) from almost certain doom. The saga has been collected into a collectible graphic novel format, and diehard fans will be sure to seek out the alternative ending edition.
Ender’s Game appeared in 1985, around the same time as the action unfolds in Stranger Things. The parallels extend well beyond the publication date, with future humankind in peril after an invasion of insectoid aliens, ‘the buggers’, and kids recruited by the authorities to same the world… by gaming! Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin is trained as an elite officer, learning strategy and military leadership playing ever more difficult war games. It’s in zero gravity that Ender’s tactical genius truly shines. This book paved the way for more recent gaming metaverse renditions like Ready Player One. Like Stranger Things, in this book one is never quite sure whether the US military and the CIA are the good guys or the bad guys. One thing is certain though, the authorities turn to the only power in the universe who can save the earth from destruction by pervasive invasive evil—the kids and the games they play.
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