Essential Horror Reading for Fans of Stranger Things
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Fair warning: If you haven’t yet finished watching season one of Stranger Things, this article may spoil everything from the broadest sweep of its story to the most inconsequential reference. Proceed with caution.
The deeply eighties-inspired Stranger Things has become Netflix’ latest cultural phenomenon, but now that it's been confirmed that we’ll see a season two in 2017, the biggest question for most of us is, “What should I be reading to prepare myself for the next season of Stranger Things?”
The truth is that there’s painfully little quite like Stranger Things. That might seem obvious, given that the show is less of a single idea than a pastiche of different ideas and themes popular in eighties movies, delivered through the narrative frame of childhood fears. Most of those fears are grounded in tried-and-true horror staples, as in case of the children whose friend has been snatched by an creature they know adults won’t believe in, or the fear of a child suddenly disappearing and madness setting in.
Others are fears grounded in tropes that might be more familiar to science fiction readers, as in the case of the child who lives in a lab and is the subject of psychic experimentation, but you’ll notice that there aren’t too many rules given for the science fiction elements. We don’t know the life cycle of the demagorgon in the same way as we do the xenomorph from Alien; we have no idea what the worms it injects into people do, or why they are there.
It’s the fact that Stranger Things so seldom seems to be horror alone that makes its horror so effective. Wearing the trappings of science fiction, we find ourselves waiting for some explanation of how things work, but when the extra-dimensional beast starts tearing through the walls, we don’t really care how it does so, only that it does. After all, horror tends to function best when there is a healthy dose of the unknown to it, while science fiction is at its strongest when there is at least an impression of an underlying structure or set of rules governing the action. As a result, our recommended reading will hover back and forth between horror and science fiction.
If you say that you’re looking for more in the same vein as Stranger Things, the first response will almost certainly be, “Stephen King.” This isn’t just an accident of King’s popularity, the single novel most often mentioned in the same breath as Stranger Things is It. It’s a natural connection; like Stranger Things, Stephen King's It is the story of a group of children who have to fight off a terrible creature that feeds on the unsuspecting populace of a small town. Where the two differ is that It also follows the same group some thirty years later, which we’re unlikely to see connected unless Stranger Things takes a monumental leap for its second season.
The only problem with this is that to only recommend It reduces Stranger Things to its broadest strokes, when a lot of what people have enjoyed about the show lurks in its offhand details. Along with the 80s vibe, those nuances are a huge part of Stranger Things' instant appeal. For those who loved the uncomfortable strangeness of the parallel world from which the alien predator stalks its prey, there are a number of other King novels with concepts that closely mirror “the upside down.”
While The Dark Tower deals heavily with the idea of parallel worlds, it’s also a work that sprawls across multiple genres and decades of King’s back catalog. As a result, you're more likely to enjoy it if you start with something smaller and more self contained, then build up to The Dark Tower later. Fortunately, perhaps the best of King’s novels to deal with parallel worlds is the combination of The Talisman and Black House. Where King’s novels can sometimes suffer towards the end, the addition of Peter Straub means that both The Talisman and Black House feel better planned than much of King’s solo work.
The Talisman follows a young boy, Jack, as he attempts to cross America alone in search of an object that might heal his mother of the cancer eating away at her. Jack's quest is made easier by his ability to “flip” between our world and another that runs parallel to it. The parallel world into which he flips is smaller than ours, which means that he can walk a few miles there and then flip back to earth to find he's walked much further. Unfortunately, it is also a fantastic place, haunted by bestial not-quite-men who hunt him over the course of his journey. While The Talisman isn’t set in a single small town, like Stranger Things, the core of the book takes place as Jack passes through a series of isolated townships. Think back to those early moments in Stranger Things when Eleven hides out in the diner and you won’t be far off.
Whatever there is to recommend The Talisman goes double for it’s in the sequel, Black House, in which a now adult Jack must solve a series of murders in the town of French Landing. While the protagonists are mostly adults in Black House, the almost-too-familiar sense of life in a small town feels closer to the setting of Stranger Things. Both are criminally under-recommended and both should be considered essential reading for anyone looking to round out their Stranger Things wisdom in time for the second season.
For bonus points, Black House also features an incredible parallel to the sense of maternal madness that overcomes Joyce Byers after her son disappears. We won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling things, but keep your eyes peeled.
Because it doesn’t fit anywhere else, we’ll take this opportunity to mention From a Buick 8, which also deals with a parallel world, though sometimes in an almost offhand manner. It has the added advantage of questioning how and why the worlds overlap at least a little, which will doubtless fuel your Stranger Things speculation
For anyone looking for more to do with those climactic scenes in which Eleven is unveiled as a force for raw, telekinetic justice, there’s only one Stephen King book that delivers telekinesis with the same sense of immediacy and energy as the climax scenes of Stranger Things. 1974’s Carrie is laden with religious symbolism, but otherwise has a tremendous amount in common with Stranger Things. Carrie is another story of a high school outsider, another story of childhood abuse, and another story of tormentors dealt with through violent psychic outbursts.
What is too often forgotten about Carrie is that, though the movie adaptation glosses over it a little, Carrie discovers her telekinetic powers in a slow and controlled manner. While we all know roughly how the story of Carrie goes, there is a sense of wonder to those first, tentative steps into the world of moving-objects-with-the-power-of-the-mind-alone that echoes Eleven’s first forays into psychic activity.
Moving away from King a little, if the thing that rubbed you the right way about Stranger Things was the story of how Eleven got her strange powers, then you might be tempted to check out some classic science fiction that comes loaded with horror elements. As we said above, Stranger Things is usually more horror than science fiction, so it’s probably no surprise that the science fiction on any Stranger Things reading list leans in a horror direction too. Indeed, Eleven’s origin seems oddly familiar to you, you may be remembering the 2002 movie adaptation Minority Report.
In both the book and the adaptation, the “Precrime Division” is a special police unit designed around team of “precognitives” who can predict crimes before they happen. In the movie as in Stranger Things, it’s explicitly stated that the precogs have developed their strange gifts as a result of their mothers’ drug use during pregnancy.
This is in contrast with the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report, which simply states that the precogs were a trio of mutants whose brains were (de)formed in such a way as to facilitate their gifts. That shouldn’t be enough to discourage you from checking it out though; the short story gives some serious back story and detail to the ways in which the precognitive mind functions, including some fairly horrifying description of the conditions under which the precogs are kept.
If one of the things that appealed to you about Stranger Things was the eerie experimentation and sense of uncomfortably tight government control around the facility in which Eleven is kept, then you’d do well to check out The Minority Report for more of the same. For bonus points, the Precrime Division itself gives an impression of the kind of future government experimentation on psychic youngsters might yield.
It’s more than a little discomfiting, but if you watched Stranger Things and found yourself asking, “Doesn’t it seem very convenient that these psychic powers manifest without any apparent physical or mental disadvantages?” then The Minority Report is what you should be reading next. The precogs of Philip K. Dick’s future are almost entirely incapable humans. The precognitive lobe, we’re told, takes precedence over other cerebral development. As a result, the precogs are incapable even of interpreting their own visions of the future, the “reports” are instead generated by the computers at the Precrime Division from the precognitives’ babble.
Perhaps the best thing about The Minority Report is that it’s just a short story, meaning that you can read it and see how you feel about the writing and subject matter afterward. If Philip K. Dick’s approach appeals to you, he has a number of other books that deal with telepathy and psychic communication, the best of which are probably Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. If you found yourself intrigued by Eleven’s jaunts into other people’s mindscapes, then both are excellent places to start reading. The two are bundled together with The Man in the High Castle and the excellent Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in the collection Four Novels of the 1960s.
Breaking away from the science fiction elements and circling back toward horror, the one non-King horror novel that should be considered absolutely required reading for anyone who enjoyed Stranger Things is John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. While the book is often mentioned in connection with Stranger Things, it is often in passing and seldom with any examination of the extensive similarities between the two.
Set in a sleepy Stockholm suburb, Let the Right One In is the story of the slow friendship that develops between a young outcast boy named Oskar and an apparently-young girl he meets named Eli.
The relationship that springs up between Oskar and Eli feels similar to the relationship between Mike and Eleven. Both are close friendships, layered with a little extra tension thanks to the ages of the characters involved. Like Mike, Oskar is bullied and finds an unlikely ally in the malnourished-looking young girl he tries to help.
While Let the Right One In features no absolute parallel reality, there is a definite sense of disconnect between the Stockholm suburb at night and during the day. The shifting greys of night and the unbroken snow in the playground where Oskar goes to meet Eli have a similar sense of separation, one reinforced by the fact that Eli holds such a sense of power at night. It’s might seem a strange comparison to make, but Lindqvist’s descriptions of the winter night’s atmosphere bear it out.
Where Eleven is watched over by a surrogate father figure in the form of Dr. Brenner, Eli has a daytime keeper in the form of the overwhelmingly creepy Håkan. If you thought there was an uncomfortable edge to the doting affection Brenner lavishes on Eleven from time to time, steel yourself for the deep and abiding grossness of the relationship between Håkan and Eli. It’s made abundantly clear that Håkan has fallen for the child-like vampire, and that she uses the older man to help maintain the illusion that she is a child living with her father.
The two have more in common than all that, but to go any further would be to wander into potential spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that Let the Right One In should scratch the horror itch that Stranger Things has left you with.
With any luck, there will have been something in the the enormous volume of text above that strikes a chord with you. If the recommendations seem a little disparate, it's only because Stranger Things’ greatest strength is that it ties together such a wide array of different elements. More than that, it does so well enough that it appeals to almost everyone. That means that any recommended reading list runs the risk of seeming scattershot, but we've tried to include something for every kind of fan of the show.